Being the Church Then and Now: Issues from the Acts of the Apostles

William Loader

1  "Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6)

When the vision fails to materialise, what do we do?


In these studies we shall be looking at the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles and I have called the series of five studies: “Being the Church Then and Now: Issues from the Acts of the Apostles”. There are issues which have been with the Church from the beginning and which every generation must face afresh. Luke, the writer of the Book of Acts, helped the people of his generation to face the issues by telling the story of Jesus in the gospel of Luke and the story of the earliest years of the Church in the book of Acts. He was writing only a couple of generations down the journey. He has collected together memories and traditions which had come down to his generation and put them together in a way which highlights the concerns of his own day. We are indebted to him not only for the information he gives us in the process, but above all for the issues he points up. He will be our guide and at the same time we shall take into account wider resources of the New Testament as they cast light on the events and the issues he records.

1. The Hope of the Kingdom

Right at the beginning of Acts, Luke identifies the first major issue. The disciples ask the risen Jesus: “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Here they identify the very heart of their concern. “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” We frequently skip over their question and hurry over to Acts 1:8 where Jesus declares that they shall be witnesses to the uttermost ends of the earth. But let us hear their question:

“Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” It is not a stupid question or an irrelevant one. Jesus’ answer, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father has laid down on his own authority”, in no way detracts from the validity or seriousness of the question. It is merely about the issue of timing. The central issue for the disciples is the restoring of the kingdom to Israel. Why? Because this was also the central issue for Jesus, which he proclaimed and promised and for which he died.

Jesus had proclaimed, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” The promised reign of God is about to break into human history. Already in Jesus’ ministry there were signs of that breaking in of God’s reign. Jesus said, “If I by the finger of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Already where men and women were being set free from the powers that enslaved them, God’s reign was being established. But primarily the coming kingdom of God, God’s reign, was a vision. Luke tells us that when Jesus stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth, he took up the scroll of Isaiah and read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, he has sent me to preach liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to preach the year of the Lord’s favour.” He declared, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God; blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied; blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.”

Over 500 hundred years earlier the prophet had spoken of God’s people Israel, broken in spirit, living in poverty and hunger, captive in a foreign land, in exile, and had promised liberation. They would return home to their own land, to worship God in freedom and peace, and all the nations would rejoice in Jerusalem as a centre of peace and justice. They would beat their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning hooks. The human community would feast and drink wine together. God’s reign would be restored to Israel.

Now in his time, Jesus looked upon the dejected, broken spirit of the people of his day. He saw their poverty and hunger, their slavery and oppression at the hands of the Romans and local authorities, their yearning for the promised redemption and deliverance, and he used these words of Isaiah to declare that God had heard the cries of his people. God had looked upon the pain of his people and their sin; God had not abandoned or forgotten his people. He would establish his reign. The kingdom of God is at hand! When Jesus declared the promise of God’s reign, he also used other familiar images from Isaiah. “Many shall come from east and west and shall sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God.” The birds, familiar symbols of the Gentile nations, would find shelter in the branches of the great mustard bush of the kingdom; and in one of his most provocative acts, Jesus clears room in the Gentile court of the temple to symbolise the great promise that the nations would come to God’s kingdom and find there a place for themselves.

The vision of the kingdom was both something which Jesus proclaimed and something which he lived out during his ministry. He looks forward to eating bread and drinking wine in the kingdom with his own; but already during his ministry he celebrates the coming reign of God in advance. For it was this great vision of justice and peace for all peoples, of redemption and liberation, which he proclaimed and which he lived in word and deed. In the celebration of Holy Communion we continue to enact that great vision, when men and women, when all peoples shall come together at peace, enjoying the presence of God, sharing bread and wine, in a great communion of love. It remains the great vision of the kingdom, the passion of Jesus in all his ministry, the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Your kingdom come!’

When, therefore, the disciples turned to Jesus and asked, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel’, they were giving voice to this passion. Their expectations had been raised. Jesus had declared God’s promised kingdom was at hand. He had been rejected and brutally put to death on the cross. But God had raised him from the dead. He was vindicated. He was right. The kingdom is at hand. But when?

2. The Disappointment

Luke tells this story because it was an issue in his day and it is an issue we must face in ours. Jesus had proclaimed the coming reign of God, good news for the poor, liberty for the captives, but the poor of Galilee remained poor. The people were not liberated. The hungry were still hungry. The broken hearted were still broken hearted. The weeping still wept. And over 2000 years later the problem is no less acute: the poor are still poor, the hungry are still hungry, the weeping still weep, the humble have not been exalted, the exalted have not been brought low, the rich have not been turned empty away.

Was Jesus wrong? Had he miscalculated? Was the vision too idealistic? too all encompassing? The belief that the great reversal would happen very soon lived on in the early decades of the Church. The coming of the kingdom and, with it, the second coming of Jesus, was at hand. Paul could still believe for a long time that it would happen while he was alive. But it did not come, as many expected it; it had not come by Luke’s day; it has not come in ours. It might be easy for some to collapse into atheism and declare Jesus just another fanatical visionary of the time. We might want to gain comfort in the good that has happened. But the pain remains, when we look into the world without rose tinted spectacles. The poor are by and large still poor, the hungry still hungry, the weeping still weeping, the life and love of God still spurned and rejected.

We rarely pause to face this reality. And yet facing the reality of such pain is a creative moment. It enables us to listen, to listen to what is happening in the world around us, and to listen to what is happening inside ourselves. Our temptation will always be to avoid pain, to deny that it is there, to explain it, to compensate for it. I believe it to be one of the most important events in the Christian pilgrimage. Because it is a point of pain it is a centre of enormous energy. For individuals and for churches that energy can be self destructive; it can be what drives people into religious ghettos; it can also be a major step together on Christ’s way.

3. Reaction to the Pain of Disappointment

In the second part of this study I want to identify some common reactions to facing the pain of realising that the vision has failed to materialise. One is to postpone the vision. It is entirely future. It is utopia. Usually this is allied to a shift in location. The vision becomes a vision about heaven. One day at the end of the world, when Jesus comes again, or one day in heaven, these things will all be true, these hopes fulfilled. This solves the problem, because we now say that Jesus was not talking about life on earth, but about life in heaven. The fact that nothing much has changed on earth is not a problem. Jesus was not talking about change on earth, only the change which there will be for us in heaven. Unfortunately the fact that kingdom of God often appears as kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s gospel has encouraged this tendency. Accordingly Jesus came to tell us about heaven. In fact, however, “heaven” in the phrase, “kingdom of heaven’, was just Matthew’s preferred way of speaking of “God” and never meant “kingdom is heaven’. Heaven’s reign, means when God who is in heaven establishes his reign in heaven and on earth.

If you postpone the reality of the vision to the future or elevate it into heaven, serious consequences result for the way we understand the Christian message. The main task becomes to tell people about the heavenly kingdom and how Jesus told us it was there and made it possible for us to enter. We don’t have to concern ourselves with any change for the poor and hungry, the humbled and broken spirited. What we offer is hope beyond, not hope or change within the world. The vision of the kingdom is a promise; it is not an agenda. The job of the church is to persuade people of the promise and the way of receiving it. “Your kingdom come” refers to the future promise. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” might lead us beyond this and often has. But then, where this has happened, it has depended upon how we define God’s will. This has often been limited to the commandments about doing good and the commission to tell others about heaven.

Postponing the vision to the future or relocating it from earth to heaven fails to take seriously the down to earth character of Jesus’ promise. It doesn’t make sense of Jesus’ claims that the kingdom could break in in the acts of his ministry amongst people. It is not wrong in emphasising the future, or even in emphasising heaven, for the promise is of a new heaven as well as of a new earth. It is wrong in denying that the promise applies to the here and now realities of earthly life.

A second response I want to highlight is related to the first. It does not limit the kingdom to a future event or a heavenly place which we enter after death. It identifies the hope of the kingdom as referring primarily to the spiritual dimension in people. It internalises and spiritualises the vision. Jesus’ promises to the poor and the hungry become promises to the spiritually poor and spiritually hungry. New creation refers now only to salvation of the soul. There is no pain in the vision of Jesus not being fulfilled, because the vision has been narrowed to the spiritual life of the individual. There are many variants of this response. Sometimes it takes the form of an exuberant emotional spirituality, busyness with the soul’s inner peace and joy, buoyed up by enthusiastic fellowship. This can happen in the charismatic or so called “renewal” movement, though it needn’t. But it is found equally in other forms of spirituality, for instance, in some of the new forms of Christian mysticism, and in those more traditional forms of Christianity where individual ethical behaviour, being good, is at the heart of things. These are often linked with a strong belief in the future or the heavenly kingdom. There is a little bit of this heaven, the kingdom of God, in each of us or in our spiritual fellowship, but the world we live in is something to be survived, lived through, like Pilgrim on his progress to the celestial city.

Another quite different approach is to assert that the Church itself is the kingdom of God. The Church is the promise. This is a way of institutionalising the kingdom of God. But this can only be done by naively imagining that the institution of the Church is a little bit of perfection on earth. To suggest this is to kid ourselves. Another approach which focuses only on the present is the one which takes the kingdom vision as a reform programme. The vision’s reality is then something for us to achieve by our own informed efforts and strategies. Within this approach there is usually a heavy emphasis on social and political realities and the vicious nature of oppression may even lead its adherents to the use of violence to achieve change, such as among freedom fighters or earlier in the war against Hitler. But too often such approaches fail to recognise individual dimensions of change and the future quality of the kingdom as God’s gift. The result can easily be a quasi atheistic legalism, a string of well informed oughts bound like a heavy guilt inducing burden on the backs of believers. Here there is no transcendent hope.

These approaches may not be wrong in what they affirm. But they are wrong in what they deny. When we think in these ways, we are massively truncating the vision of Jesus. Jesus’ vision of God’s reign was not an invitation to withdraw from the world into a religious ghetto community or into pious and moral individualism. It cannot be reduced to a reform manifesto of ideals to be achieved by human effort. To seek the kingdom of God was never to pick out a part of reality where God might reign or a time in reality when he might reign. To seek the kingdom of God never meant anything less than to seek God’s promised rule in the whole of reality, in space and time. Everything is included. Everyone is included. This is the promise Jesus proclaimed. The vision is all encompassing. It is this all encompassing character of the hope of the kingdom that creates the pain when we see the kingdom unfulfilled. But this hope of the total reign of God must not be watered down for the sake of our not having to face the pain. Otherwise God is not god of all, but a god with a limited domain. People make gods in order to run away from the pain Much religion is driven by the energy of that pain. It drives people into the comfort of closed systems, preoccupation with partial reality, pious flight which is practical atheism in relation to the world in which we live.

4. The Reality and the Agenda

Jesus proclaimed good news to a people living in poverty and oppression, broken in spirit, both spiritually and materially, both individually and corporately deprived. This was not just a heavenly hope. It was not just hope for the end of the age. It was not just hope for spiritual renewal for individuals and communities. It was not just hope for material well being and social justice for individuals and communities. It was all of these in enjoyment of the reign and presence of God. This was real hope. That is why the disciples’ question makes sense. Had it been fulfilled, they would have seen it. And it was this real hope that Jesus proclaimed as near at hand and for which he asked his disciples to pray.

The impact of the promise was so strong that for generations people were proclaiming it was just around the corner. Jesus had said it was at hand. But he had not said how it would come. Luke writes Acts to tell us not only that Jesus announced the kingdom, but also that the promise is being fulfilled. The Church is part of that promise. To that extent it is true: Jesus promised the kingdom and God sent the Church. The promise is not being fulfilled by a single stroke, as it were, but in two steps. First the Church and then the total fulfilment of the vision. The Church is nothing other than the place within which and through which the kingdom is coming into being. It is not itself the kingdom as if it, itself, incorporated God and were a little bit of perfection on earth. We know this is not true. But it witnesses to the vision and lives by it. The vision is the Church’s true agenda as well as its hope. The Spirit is the gift which enables the Church to fulfil that agenda. You and I are the place of the promise of the kingdom now. Yet ultimately the kingdom is God’s reign, God’s effort, God’s gift. We are not asked to usurp God, but to share his purpose and by his Spirit become his action in the world.

The two step fulfilment of the promise of the kingdom means we do not run away from the pain. We weep with those who weep. We mourn with those who mourn. We join Jesus as he weeps over Jerusalem. We refuse to take popular religious options which pretend Jesus never promised such a kingdom and pretend God is not god. The pain remains as long as the vision is not fulfilled. Each time we approach the Lord’s table the brokenness is set before us and the vision is re-enacted. Because it is the Lord’s table and the Lord’s world we receive nourishment to face the pain. Nourished by the pain and by the promise, we look at the world around us and within us and we ask with the disciples, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And we hear Jesus answer: “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons God has set on his own authority. But you shall receive power after the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria and to the furthermost ends of the earth.” In the ensuing studies we shall explore what this means. The vision remains; the pain is real; the agenda is clear: the Spirit is with us; and God is Lord.

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