2015-01-18 by Jeremy Clarke
Preacher: Geoff Thorington-Hassell
January 18th, 2015
Reading: Acts 1:1-11
1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach
2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.
3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.
5 For John baptized withwater, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.
11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
You might be wondering what the connection is between the reading of the Ascension of Christ and the Specsavers ‘Cheese Sandwich’ commercial.
The Ascension of Christ is recorded in only two places – briefly in Mark 16:19 and then more fully by Luke here in Acts after having referred to this incident as a piece of continuity linking in his first book of Luke in the last chapter in explaining the life of Jesus before moving on to what happens next in Acts.
In the ‘Cheese Sandwich?’ thirty second spot, an elderly couple sit on what they think is a reliably solid park bench only to find to their astonishment and terror that it moves! And moves at tremendous speeds, taking them to places and experiences they were certainly not expecting and (had they known) probably not have chosen. Yet they were here now and along for the ride. The safety bar meant that they were committed, their course of action was set and it was safer out than in. But they couldn’t and didn’t see what they were initially getting into. Yet while the ride may well have been white knuckle they were nonetheless perfectly secure.
The disciples here at Bethany at the Mount of Olives are still fretting and asking the wrong questions. They are told to wait because in a few days they will be “baptised with the Holy Spirit”. Indeed, that is what they were to be doing shortly. Waiting with a hundred and twenty others including many women – among them, perhaps, were the wives of the apostles and those listed as ministering to Jesus (Luke8:2,3) such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza the manager of Herod’s household, Susanne and many others who had supported the public ministry of Jesus out of their own means. It was some of these at least who were the first witnesses to the resurrection forty days previously. Plus also there was Mary the mother of Jesus and (perhaps surprisingly given their previous scepticism while Jesus was alive) the later brothers of Jesus who now joined together constantly in prayer in an upper room out of sight in Jerusalem. This praying and waiting in Jerusalem was also marked by the fact that this now was the first thing they did together where Jesus was neither physically present nor around.
This is Luke’s last incident of Jesus physical presence, albeit as a resurrected body, before his ascension back to heaven. So it is a new era of learning to rely and remain followers of Jesus without his being present as they had previously known and experienced. But they still hark back to the past, making sense of the present and preparing for the future. They have been given a new job but in the midst of the uncertainties of this strange and brave new world where old religious certainties have been ripped away and replaced by new revelations. Moving from a position in Luke 24:22 of the battered remnant of believers being amazed by and incredulous of the reports of the women who went to the tomb early in the morning to find the body of the recently crucified Jesus missing who claimed that they had seen angels who said he was alive. They confirmed the fact of the missing body by “our companions who checked the tomb and found it as the women has said – but him they did not see”
Later, travelling out of Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion are not thrilled by this bit of news of angels and resurrection but are downcast and mulling over the events between themselves and drawing some very different conclusions. They were still on the park bench with the facts and thinking of common sense views. They were stuck with a Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet, powerful in Word and Deed before God and all the people. They knew that the chief priests and their own rulers had handed him over to be sentenced to death and successfully crucified him. Perhaps for once a conspiracy theory which was actually true. The powers that be had won. The legitimate forces of law and order had destroyed the threat of Jesus to the State, a disturber of the peace, a challenge to the common sense views of power and privilege to maintain the status quo.
The pair were hoping for something much better “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” And Jesus meets with them on the road. He is not calmly sympathetic to their plight but exasperated by how slow on the uptake his followers appear to be (and not for the first time). “How foolish you are.” How slow of heart to believe.” “To believe all that the prophets have spoken.” Simply knowing about or reading and being aware of something or immersed in a particular cultural context – however comprehensive and thoughtful that is – is not the same as belief and faith. This was not a moment of yet another dashed hope of political revolution but part of a purposed plan with a long pedigree based on repeated promises.
So with Cleopas and his companion Jesus explains beginning with Moses and al the prophets explaining what was said in all the scriptures concerning Him. Indeed as they suddenly wake up to who it is at the meal table and run back to Jerusalem and find the eleven and those with them assembled together Jesus has already been ahead of them and they are told as they arrive that Jesus has indeed risen and earlier appeared to Peter (Mary’s first-hand experience and word obviously wasn’t convincing enough). We already know, they tell them.
Then as they share the stories and the testimony Jesus himself stands among them. Having reassured and demonstrated that he was not a ghost he gave again a careful explanation from the Jewish scriptures. By the same token today these scriptures can be relied upon as authoritative and revealing of how God worked and revealed himself to human beings in the past to explain what was happening now in the present – pointing to culmination and fulfilment. “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me (Jesus) in the law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms.”
Thus it remains vitally important that we know and have read and undertaken the discipline of reading and being able to draw upon the Old Covenant as a means of explanation and even more important we extend the same courtesy to the New Covenant. But it is God, the Spirit of Jesus, that opens our minds to understand. Hermeneutics has its part, but it is the Holy Spirit that enables us to be lead into truth. They had Jesus present to open their minds to explain the scriptures (which they knew) so that they could understand them. “That the Christ will suffer, and rise from the dead on the third day and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nation beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things “ (Luke 24:46-48).
In this subsequent period of forty days, Jesus continued to meet and speak about the Kingdom of God and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. It is from this grasping of reality based on conviction via the experience of having spent time together with Jesus that helps provide the framework for God to work further through the gift He has promised. It is not in their ability to plot, plan, prioritise, perform and create what is reasonably possible; creating the machinery of God’s good government on earth is based on the life and creativity of God, revealed in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit based on grace.
Yet it is hard to step outside the politics of the old into the life of the realities of what is now possible in the new. This new adventurous life is frighteningly large. Taking on an already difficult and contested reality and expanding it into a global scale seems impossible. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” ( Acts 1:8b).
However they are still stuck on the park bench with their fixed expectations. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?”(Acts 1:6) It’s as if all this teaching , explanation and encounter is fairly irrelevant. All very well and good, but when you get down to brass tacks, to the things that really matter, how is this actually going to improve our current situation and predicament?
This bubble of incomprehension is illustrated further in the praying room in Jerusalem when, while they are waiting, Peter has the bright idea that following the suicide of Judas their numbers need to be made up again to full strength. So they conduct an election amongst two candidates. A man known by three names. Joseph. Barsabbas or Justus and a man known boringly by just one name – Matthias. But it is Matthias that wins it by their drawing lots – an Old Testament practice (not repeated again in the New Testament).
Proverbs 16:33 advises ”The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Several pebbles were held in the fold of a garment and then drawn out or shaken to the ground as a common means of making a decision. This method had been used previously in the running and staffing for the Temple of Solomon’s era (later destroyed by the Babylonians) and was still being used for Herod’s rebuilt version (until destroyed by the Romans).
The process included the appointing of the divisions of priests and temple gate keepers (there were lots of them to choose from) (1 Chronicles 24:7). The origin of the word “clergy” is for the Greek word for “ a lot“: kieros i.e. that which is assigned by lot. This word carries with it the baggage from some of the Old Testament treatment of appointment, privilege and responsibility being allotted within human institutions. Yet we hear no more of Matthias after this.
What we do hear an awful lot about, however, after the initial focus on Peter in Acts, is a very unlikely candidate indeed to be tasked with helping carrying out these new roles and responsibilities. A blinded man who is sought out and approached by a frightened and fearful disciple Ananias who has taken courage in both hands to ignore this candidate’s terrible and violent reputation to visit a house in Straight Street – not in Jerusalem, but in Syria in Damascus – to tell him of his appointment. That “this man (Saul of Tarsus) is to be his chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentile and their Kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15). Strange times.
The need to remain wedded to past practice that makes good sense to us amidst the shock of the new may completely miss the point. That what makes good sense within our inherited and cultural norms and practices can miss the reality of what is happening and what God is doing around us.
That is not surprising. It is to be expected. The disciples (even with Jesus present) were consistently behind the curve. And in this incident of the ascension they remain true to form by fretting over and asking the wrong question: ”Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1:6). They were far more interested in seeing a past golden age reconstituted than being empowered and equipped to a new and ( as it would turn out) disturbing, dangerous and perilous task. To see the kingdom of God as simply the restoration of Israel’s national independence.
This expectation was common currency as Cleopas had previously lamented in yet a further disappointment to hope for freedom and deliverance: “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21) This promise of Jesus regarding a New Age in the coming gift of the Spirit would rekindle that hope and expectation and finally, inevitably, make it possible. Jesus did not say no directly; as on other occasions when asked loaded questions he didn’t answer at all, but pointed those who asked beyond where their question pointed.
Firstly it is up to God to put in place times and dates, he has the authority to do this. A phrase my father used to quote to me that troubled him about the idea and difficulty of faith was “man supposes but God disposes.” So Jesus is weaning them off their last echo of the desire for political power and granted privileges and their competitive burning ambition to being chief executives within God’s imminent political theocracy on earth (think: the early Anabaptists’ Munster, Calvin’s Geneva, and Cromwell’s England) but as Jesus himself had been anointed at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and power, so his followers were now similarly to be anointed and enabled to carry on his work and particularly around witness bearing. The word “witness “ is derived from the Greek word ‘martyr’ i.e. one who suffers persecution or death rather than one possessing the power to direct this and subject others to it.
Over the last few months I have been reading around Anabaptist history and theology trying to make sense of it and see how it relates now in our 21st century world. to deepen the journey as to what it means to be disciple in community as “ nach folge “(from the German) of one who “follows after” Jesus. As part of that, I bring you a story from the 17th century from Holland in the ferment of often being on the wrong side of the rollercoaster of the reformers in both the Reformation and the subsequent Counter-Reformation.
The new Mennonite movement produced a great number of confessions – as many as Calvin and far more than Luther – and at its heart was affirming the radical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The Short Confession of Faith by Hans de Ries in 1618 is unique in being the only one written for the express purpose of exploring common ground with non-Mennonites and the first to seek to treat all the major doctrines of faith. About the Ascension and their understanding of it, it says:
Following this he walked among his disciples forty days, showing himself to them in order that no doubt should remain concerning his resurrection. Then, surrounded by a cloud, he ascended to heaven and entered into his glory. Thus he led captivity captive, establishing a glorious triumph over his enemies. Seated at the right hand of the majesty of God he has been made both Lord and Christ, glorified in his body, exalted, crowned with praise and honour, remaining priest and king over Mount Zion in all eternity.
These were hammered out in the midst of great turmoil and persecution, one of the most severe persecutions in church history in fact . Harassment, imprisonment, executions and grotesque violence exercised commonly on the charge of Atheism because the Anabaptists refused to accept the authority of the socially accepted ordained ministries, the clergy of the day. Charged with apostasy, blasphemy, sectarianism, compelled as deviants who were a threat to public order, they were forced to return to the “true church.”
So in closing, what is the link or links between the couple and the cheese sandwich, the question of the restoration of Israel via the appointment of replacement leaders and the in-between time of the commissioning of the witness to Jesus and the new age ushered in via the gift and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit?
Here is one link that occurs to me. The disciples often got it wrong. They made mistakes working on out of date assumptions and short-sighted ways of working. But despite this they kept at it and they showed evidence of the ability to change, learn and adapt. And they did get it right some of the time. They were soon to be catapulted and projected into situations and circumstances that would force them to rethink, work out and explain how and what it meant to be disciples in unsettling and disturbing new circumstances for which they had little preparation.
Samaria was bad enough. Phillip led the charge here. The Gentiles were even worse. It took ten years, persecution and the same vision repeated three times for Peter to take the leap of faith and cross the door way into a Gentile’s house at the home of a senior army officer of a foreign occupying power. But when he did? First came the (belated) realisation (Acts 10:34) that, “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men for every nation who fear him and do what is right” and then for them to be astonished that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the gathered Gentiles as they saw and heard them speaking in tongues and praising God just as at Pentecost.
But it lead to major headache only partly resolved years later at the council of Jerusalem (and as Paul’s letters continued to show) that it was fractious and divisive for what was required for Jew and Gentile to confess together what it meant to follow Christ ? It was not easy and not everyone was happy but in spite of that they sought to come to a common mind.
There are perhaps times when we too should have gone to Specsavers.
Over to you as to what do you think. What occurs to you about this incident at the beginning of Acts?