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Women with spices. An empty tomb. A white-robed messenger, with a cryptic message. The women fleeing, silent. Afraid.
The Easter story as we heard it last week left us on the edge of our seats, trying to imagine together: What happened next?
Our passage this morning attempts to pick up where we left off, though it’s not an exact fit. Here are some things you need to know about the book we are reading today.
#1. The Acts of the Apostles is actually Part 2 of the gospel of Luke. (That’s why it’s not an exact fit. We’ve been reading Mark since the Sunday after Christmas).
#2. The book is addressed to someone named “Theophilus.” That might be a particular person, or it might not. “Theophilus” means “Lover of God,” so it’s most likely the book is addressed to anyone who loves God.
#3. The Acts of the Apostles is unique, because it is the only biblical book that attempts to tell the story of the early years of the church.
As the story opens, Jesus has been raised from the dead, and he is still present with the disciples: Luke tells us, “he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”
This had to be a strange, strange time for everyone who had been following Jesus. We are asked to imagine a time after the resurrection, when Jesus was still around. The gospels tell all kinds of stories about this period. There’s the story about two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who meet Jesus, but don’t recognize him until he breaks bread with them. There’s the story about Jesus making a breakfast on the beach for the disciples who have gone back to their work of fishing for fish. There’s the story of the one disciple who didn’t get to see Jesus the first time he dropped by, who wanted some kind of proof that this resurrection thing really happened. Guy’s name was Thomas.
But I think it’s important to remember the background noise of all these encounters. This would be the terrible last week, when just about everyone who had been close to Jesus abandoned him. And then Jesus was dead, and everyone felt terrible about that, and now Jesus was alive, and everyone seems to feel, well, pretty awkward about that. Joyfully awkward. Awkwardly joyful. “We are so glad you’re back, Rabbi! So sorry about turning tail and hiding until it was all over. But I do love you, if that counts for anything.”
And it does—it counts for something to love Jesus. Jesus holds none of this against anyone. Not even Peter. Not even Judas Iscariot. Jesus rises breathing forgiveness.
And once the awkwardness is worked through, and people once again have felt their hearts burning within them at the beauty and challenge of Jesus’ presence, he gets to the point of what he wants them to know:
Their work is not done. All that work of preaching, teaching, healing, casting out demons and feeding people? It is not done. The world is still a world in pain. The work does not stop. And it’s easy to imagine that Jesus’ people might very well feel that the wind has been knocked right out of their proverbial sails at this point. I mean, how do you start again after such a spectacular ending as the crucifixion?
Here’s how. A few more things you need to know about the Acts of the Apostles:
#4. The word Apostle means “one who is sent.” And that is what is happening here. Jesus does indeed send his people out. In verse 8 he says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Their work is not done. Jesus sends them out, confident that they will be witnesses to the love of God in the world… which brings me to…
#5. The Holy Spirit. As we read the book of Acts over the next six weeks, be on the lookout for the Holy Spirit. Jesus does not say to his people, “Buck up! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do this thing!” No. Jesus promises the Spirit. The disciples are about to be baptized with the Holy Spirit, a wonderful image that has us imagining them drenched in the very power and love of God. The Spirit broods over this book, as the poet would say, “with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”[i] The Spirit is present throughout the story of the early church, in every moment we see the continuation of that ministry of preaching, and healing, and feeding. The Spirit is there.
#6. Acts provides us with valuable touchstones for our lives together as the church of Jesus Christ, two thousand years on. Jesus is still sending us. The work of the gospel, the work of participating in the kingdom of God, is not done. The world is still a world in pain. The Holy Spirit still broods over God’s church, and Jesus is still confident that we will be his witnesses, in Endicott, and throughout the Southern Tier, and all of New York state… even, to the ends of the earth, wherever that might be.
Just a few weeks ago, this sanctuary was filled with people enjoying an evening of music, comedy, and magic. We did this so that we could share an offering through One Great Hour of Sharing with people all over the world who are hungry, who are the victims of natural or human-made disasters, and who are in need of our denomination’s ministries of justice, empowerment, and economic equity. We are Christ’s witnesses, to the ends of the earth.
Just a few nights ago I had the privilege of participating in a round-table discussion about our Presbytery’s Ethiopian Partnership mission, which this congregation helped to found twenty years ago, and which we still support, through the woman-power of Peg Corwin and our offerings each Christmas. We are Christ’s witnesses, to the ends of the earth.
In the days, weeks, and months to come, we will continue to be in discernment about 202 East Main Street, the building that was our manse, and has been home to the Samaritan Counseling Center, and will be… what? We don’t know yet, but the ideas continue to be birthed, because the people of this congregation are convinced: We are Christ’s witnesses, here in Endicott, just as we are to the ends of the earth.
There’s one more thing you should know about the Acts of the Apostles.
#7 Jesus moves offstage. This conversation with his friends—which, by the way, the Greek makes clear, happens around a table[ii]—these are the last words he speaks to them in the New Testament. He promises to send his Spirit, and through the Spirit, to remain with them in power and love, but it is undeniable: he is gone. His bodily presence is no longer with them.
And yet, they are at table together. Again, just a few nights ago, we gathered in the Fellowship Hall around tables to remember the meal we will celebrate again in just a few minutes. Jesus is gone, and yet he remains with us, still… around the table, and in our witness, here, and to the ends of the earth. That’s what happened next. It’s happening still. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur.”
[ii] Greek συναλιζόμενος (sunalizomenos), “eat (salt) together, share a meal with.”