I want to continue my use of the narrative lectionary for a time, since it helps me to see the story of the Bible more continuously, a reality that I think more of our congregations need to hear. Today’s text will closely match the Revised Common Lectionary, since each year after Easter that series of readings shifts to the book of the Acts to trace the growth of the early Christian communities as recorded in that second volume of Luke’s work. At the beginning of the Acts, Luke first looks backward to his first volume, recapitulating very briefly the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but quickly turns toward the future of the community’s witness as it is empowered by the Holy Spirit, now available to them after the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of power with God.
I find this transition passage from resurrection to witness crucial for a clearer understanding of what the church then and now is called to do. In too many instances, both the ancient and the modern church have missed just what it is they are called to be about. They, and we, have focused our attention on extraneous concerns rather than on the central demand for spirit-empowered witness to the world, for the ancient church finally to Rome, the center of the known world then, and for the modern church, literally the entire globe. But the content of that required witness has, both then and now, been ill-conceived, not contiguous with the call described so carefully here in the first chapter of Acts.
It is important first to note that Acts 1:1-11 is in effect a rich elaboration of the story found in Luke 24:36-53. It is not a complete repetition of that tale, but surely a variation based squarely on it. What makes it an important variation of the end of Luke’s Gospel may be found in the question and actions of the disciples and the answers given, by Jesus and by the two men robed in white. We need to focus our attention there.
As context, Jesus lingers with disciples for 40 days, “and spoke of things concerning the rule of God” (Acts 1:3). Here is the basic and significant center of the work of the witnesses that the disciples will quickly be called to become. The content of the gospel of Jesus Christ is primarily talk of the rule or reign of God in the present age. The gospel of Jesus does not center on my individual salvation, leading inexorably to an eternity in heaven. Nor does it center on a new political structure, removing the Romans, or the modern day equivalent, from power, and installing some Christian structure in its place. The gospel calls for witnesses to the rule of God over each heart and thus over all human thought and deed. All of us who would follow Jesus are called first to discover and reflect upon what the reign of God can be for us and our world, and in that light receive power from on high, from God manifested in Jesus, to witness to that reign in every way we can. Or as the founder of my denomination, United Methodism, John Wesley, said it, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” The focus is always on the doing of good, not on particular beliefs, or on acceptable liturgical actions. How we act with one another either reflects the rule of God or it does not. Of course, there can always be discussion about the meaning of “the doing of good,” but Luke focuses on actions for God’s rule, not on arguable structures of belief or churchly practices.
I write while the world is in the grip of a pandemic, caused by the novel coronavirus, known as Covid-19. We have faced other corona viruses, but this one is indeed “novel” in that it is brand new, with no immunity for humans, as far as we know, and no medicines yet in sight to staunch its spread. As of today, well over 100,000 cases have been identified in the USA alone, and approaching 3,000 deaths. The former figure is certainly too low, as testing is not yet widespread, and the latter will certainly climb as we battle this microbial menace. I live in California, whose 40,000,000 residents have been enjoined to “shelter in place,” to avoid interactions with each other, to remain in our homes as much as we can, venturing out only on essential trips for food and other absolute necessities. This demand from our Governor has been operative for about two weeks. Such behavior is the only known way to slow the rapid advance of the virus that has surely not yet reached its apex. All of us here in California, and all of the US, and all the world, await in fear, and also in hope, as the bug continues apace.
Those people who are not accepting this demand that isolation is the way to aid our fellow humans have not heard the call of the gospel to witness to the rule of God. That church in Louisiana that refuses to close its doors, and continues to bus members from five parishes of the state to its large worship experiences, may think it is witnessing to the Gospel, but it is in fact aiding the defeat of the realm and rule of God. By assembling in large groups to “worship God,” they are in fact not worshipping God but are instead worshipping their own individual claims for freedom to do what they want. But for this season of the corona virus, to follow God in Jesus is to isolate oneself, not to join others in dangerous corporate activity, however that activity may resemble worship of God.
Also, the LT. Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, suggested that it may be time for us to “get back to work,” and if it causes the death of some elders as a result, that may not be too high a price to pay for reenergizing our dormant economy. Patrick is 71 with several grandchildren. He imagines that he is doing those grandchildren a favor by starting to reopen various elements of the American society, risking his own life (the percentage of those over 70 who contract the virus, grow very sick, and die is near 30%) for the “greater good” of American economic production. He is wrong if he imagines this is what God would have him do; a witness to the rule of God in this time does not suggest sacrificing any one of us for the production of money, no matter how difficult many lives among us may be now. Even President Trump suggested that we should “fill our churches on Easter,” thus celebrating the resurrection of Jesus along with the “resurrection” of the American economic engines at the same time. Since then, he has fortunately changed his mind, and has urged social distancing for all Americans until the end of April and almost certainly beyond. Our guide in this and every time is our witness to the reign of God, a rule that includes all of us in its sway.
In Acts 1:6, the disciples ask a question that could have been asked by any of us who seek individual power, who long for the economy to open, who yearn for the days of restaurant choices, and beach walks, and unlimited travel to exotic world spots. “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” In their question lies the desire to return to a time, though such a time never in fact existed, when Israel was the center of the universe, when its kingdom was contiguous with God’s desired kingdom. Jesus’s answer includes a redefinition of “kingdom,” and also the redefinition of who Jesus is as the Messiah of God. “The times and the seasons that the father has reserved to his own authority are not yours to know” (Acts 1:7). In other words, your question, as you have posed it, has no answer from anyone save God; restoration of earthly kingdoms are not what we can know and what we should not be striving for in the first place. The kingdom of God, the reign of God, is not a place nor is it a realm of politics. When we witness to the rule of God, we witness to God’s rule over every human heart. And that can only happen when the people of God are open to the reception of the Holy Spirit.
As Jesus ascends away from the disciples into the heaven of God in a cloud, like Moses (Deut. 34:6) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11-12) before him, the disciples gaze longingly at the place as long as they can still see him. Suddenly, two men in white (remember the tale of the empty tomb at Luke 24:4) appear near them, and admonish them to stop their fond gaze into the skies. “Men of Galilee! Why do you stand looking into heaven. (Acts 1:11)? In other words, you are wasting your time! What they need to be doing is what we need to be doing, namely heading to our “Jerusalems” to “receive power from the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:8), with which you will be strengthened to become “my witnesses” (the Greek may mean either “witnesses for me” or “witnesses to me”) to the whole world. That is, you will be witnesses to the rule and realm of God, to a world that God urges on us, a world of justice and righteousness for all God’s creatures, to the salvation, the unity, of the entire cosmos.
And right now, today at the end of March, 2020, that witness means isolation when possible, along with witness to the saving actions of doctors and nurses, cleansing actions of countless nameless workers who strive to make their part of the world safe for others, grocery store clerks and stockers who make our brief and necessary visits as safe as possible, garbage and recycling workers who help clean and restore our streets, delivery people who bring us food and items we need to keep ourselves clean and safe and fed in our homes. It sounds decidedly odd, but keeping away from one another is what the gospel calls us to do now. We are today witnesses to the gospel if we stay home. And if we are such witnesses, this global scourge may end sooner, and lives will be spared, and the gospel will be fulfilled in our time.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)