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

William Loader

2. "Why do you stand looking up into heaven?" (Acts 1:11)

Telling the Story and Securing its authenticity: ministry and responsibility


In the first study we considered the vision of Jesus, the kingdom of God. He promised it. The disciples expected it. It failed to come as expected. There was no sudden divine intervention to overthrow the oppressors, to set the people free, to restore the kingdom to Israel. Instead, Jesus turned to them and said: “It is not for you to know the times and the seasons which the Father has set by 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 parts of the world.” They were to proclaim the coming kingdom and they were to be the kingdom. They were to pray “your kingdom come” and they were to let the vision of the kingdom set their agenda. They were not to be waiting around for the kingdom, qualifying themselves for future entry and busying themselves with recruiting drives so that others might one day enter, too. They were to live out the life of the kingdom, to let God reign, now and to allow that life and love to extend to the ends of the earth, to all people now.

We are that community of disciples. We are the life of the kingdom. We are the people of the vision. We are, for here and now, the fulfilment of the promise yet to reach its completion. That is the declaration of the Acts of the Apostles. That is its answer to the cry: but when will you restore the kingdom?

History seems sometimes to be brutally unrealistic. For many it is a cruel thought, a bitter disappointment, that all that has become of Jesus’ vision is the Church. What good news for the poor is that? What right have we to masquerade as the kingdom of God in a world where the people of Galilee on every continent still cry out?

1. The Kingdom for Now: Human Beings

There were eleven of them. One of them, a leader amongst them, had denied his Lord, when he needed him most. The others had all abandoned Jesus at his arrest. Now they were to be witnesses, to bear the message and the life of the kingdom to the world. That was who they were, very ordinary human beings, but the kingdom of God for here and now. That is who we are.

In the narrative Luke now goes on to recount the ascension of Jesus. These disciples need to see who Jesus is. Luke uses drama and colourful detail with a dash of humour to portray the deeper meaning of the event. We see Jesus talking with his disciples. Suddenly, as they look on, he is taken up like Elijah of old into heaven, up into the sky, though without a fiery chariot, just a cloud to receive him and two angelic announcers to give a commentary. To speculate about where the journey into outer space ended or whether Jesus would have shown up on radar as an unidentified flying object would be to miss the point. This was a vision and it is Luke’s colourful version of the meaning of Easter. In the deeper spiritual sense it is this Jesus who has been raised from the dead and been taken into the presence of God. In the words of the creed, he sat down at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. In the Pentecost sermon Peter will say: God has made him Lord and Christ, this Jesus who you crucified. The disciples need to see and know what this means if they are to make any sense of their mission and of themselves as witnesses of the kingdom.

Jesus who went about doing good, proclaiming the kingdom, healing the sick, giving himself in love; Jesus, who did not stand gloriously astride the universe, but trod the weary paths of Galilee, not much more than the area of greater Melbourne, but with only a fraction of its population; Jesus, who for one, possibly three years, spoke and lived love, mostly in anonymity; Jesus, who was easily erased as inconvenient, unauthorised, controversial, socially destabilising, wandering preacher; Jesus, whose life was poured out in love and whose love bled down a wooden cross...this Jesus God has crowned Lord. This Jesus God has elevated to his presence. This loving, but vulnerable, humanly limited, wonderful yet ordinary human being, God has declared to have been his own personal appearance and presence. This Jesus is the model, the paradigm, the person, the power of the kingdom. That is the meaning of the ascension.

In Luke’s drama the two angels, who had already been on stage at the empty tomb, reassure the disciples: “This Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven will come in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” In other words: you can be as sure of his return as you are of his resurrection. Or to put it more simply still, you may be confident of the coming of the kingdom and the coming of Jesus, because God has vindicated him. God has identified himself with him. Jesus is Lord.

With their “Why do you stand looking up into heaven?” the angels are directing the disciples back to present earthly reality with a smile. Now they know who Jesus is. Now they know who they themselves are. They are still the eleven with a very bad track record, still eleven very human beings. Being the kingdom for now did not make them super people; they had no wings; the angels had made sure they had their feet and their faces to the ground. They were only human, limited by time and space, vulnerable to prejudice and misunderstanding, exposed to people’s whims of love and hatred; just like Jesus. But this was the pattern of God’s presence, the pathway of love and grace which they were to follow. Rejoicing and groaning humanity, leaping and prostrate, joyous and sad, anointed with oil and crowned with thorns — nothing has changed. God has chosen real humanity as the vehicle of divine presence, the promise for now of the kingdom, just as God had chosen Jesus and vindicated him by raising him from the dead.

Of course there was a difference. Where he had loved to the end, they had failed. How could they ever stand up again? How could they be the kingdom for now? Luke doesn’t tell us of their Aldersgate experience. No words of salvation from the law of sin and death. But the events of John Wesley’s Aldersgate, which we remember today, and the disciples’ renewal are fundamentally the same. Love burst through the grave. Guilt and sin and shame and fear became powerless before everlasting love. Self justification and morbid recrimination ceased their busy routines. There was new business; love’s business, a world parish, a new charge to keep, a God to glorify.

These are the ones who are to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. We are their successors. You shall be witnesses to me. We are witnesses to Christ’s vision. We have sighted the agenda that calls all human agenda into question. We have glimpsed the promised blessing for Galilee. We have seen the nations at peace, the swords and the spears forged into instruments of agriculture. We have tasted in the eucharist the meal that promises a place at the table for all peoples. We have been born again. We see the kingdom of God.

But we are also witnesses to the Jesus in whose ministry God’s reign already revealed itself. We join hands across the generations with those who saw at the very beginning, whose hands handled the word of life, who saw and heard Jesus in the towns of Galilee and in Jerusalem. Through them we know the story, that tells of love which sets people free. We learned of the compassion of God, as great and greater than the most compassionate parent, opening the door again to the outcast, embracing the lost son, listening to the women’s cries, taking the children and blessing them. The God who did not withdraw, the God who did not say enough, the God who offered forgiveness and reconciliation to the least loved and least loveable. We are the witnesses of the love that did not bend to the social and political pressures of rulers impatient to preserve stability and security, the love that persevered in love despite the controversies over the prescriptions of scripture and tradition. We are witnesses of the love which was tortured and beaten, strung up and crucified, taken away and buried. We are witnesses of a terrible story that tells itself again in every generation, wherever love and innocence and life is crushed and broken and swept aside. And we are witnesses of a love which refuses to be congealed in the dry blood of defeat and hopelessness but bursts out again towards the vision. We are witnesses of his resurrection.

We are witnesses of that vision. We are witnesses of love’s life cycle set forth in Christ. We also have our own story to tell, our own meetings with sin and death, our own on going conversions and renewal, our own Aldersgates. We are like the eleven and those with them, human beings, with all the gifts and all the limitations that belong to our humanness. And like them, we know our denials and our fearful abandonment of divine love. Like them, we have nothing to boast of. Our busy self justification is just our own delusion. Yet he comes to you and me, he comes to his Church, lifts us up, loves us without limit, and invites us to tell the story of love over and over again to tell the story of love over and over again. You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the world.

2. The Kingdom of God for Now: A Human Community

They leave the Mount of Olives and hurry across to Jerusalem itself. In verses 13—14 Luke names them: Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Jude brother of James. With them were also their wives, perhaps other women, Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers. Things are becoming very practical and down to earth now. This is the first membership roll. And then they form themselves into the first PRC, Pastoral Relations Committee. The first Agenda item: the suicide of Judas.

They were not only human beings. They were a human community. They had to face the shock and the pain of that community, the scandal of Judas. It had to come out in the open. Luke even has Peter say that Judas had his lot or portion in this ministry they all shared. Luke is not writing an Elders’ Handbook here and it would be wrong to twist the text around to fit the latest community therapy theories. Basically he has Peter speak without malice and make sense of what has happened by pointing to conflict imagery of the Psalms. It is not swept under the carpet. The dishonesty and denial which too easily characterises many Christian communities faced with pain and failure has not taken hold here.

The earthly practical nature continues as Peter tells the meeting that it must elect a replacement for Judas. Out come the ballot papers and the scrutineers. It’s all very familiar. Here is the kingdom of God for now: human community, human committee! God really has got himself involved in human flesh. But if only we would believe it, we would rejoice and value also these aspects of our humanity. Some people close off the committee from spirituality as people used to shut away the kitchen and the loo. God enters the kitchen and the loo of our humanity.

The issue at stake, as Luke sees it, in replacing Judas is twofold. A group needs to be set apart and recognised within the Christian community. They must have been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry. They will clearly function as guarantors of continuity, to make sure what Jesus taught is well remembered. Theirs is the ministry of the Word in the strict sense. They serve as important link people with the past. All members are called to be bearers of the kingdom, to minister the gospel to all men and women. These serve to enable them to keep the connections. They maintain the authenticity of the story so that it will carry authority and they are called on to expound it. Their successors in every age will be those set apart and ordained for that specific task. The further history progresses the more important will be their function in serving and maintaining the authenticity of the story of Jesus. Where the connection becomes weak, they will lose their authority and identity and either become generals of each local troop of believers or paid fulltime, jack-of-all-trades, paid Christians. Both fail the purpose of the order.

It was not only a concern for the establishment of the order of ministry. The elected Matthias made up the full number of 12 apostles. This would be a short-lived symbol, but it was an important one. It seems Jesus deliberately chose 12 disciples as a symbol of all Israel with its 12 tribes. What he was starting was a movement that lived by the vision of the kingdom promised to all Israel and the world. The 12 marked the community out as the group that lived from this vision. Had they not asked: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’?

We began by noting the absurdity, almost the offensiveness, that we should declare that Jesus’ promise of the kingdom of justice and peace and holiness is fulfilled in the Church. It is simply not so and was never meant to be. Yet the astounding thing is that it is partly true. Jesus promised the kingdom as near at hand and through the events of Easter the Church was born. The Church still longs for fulfilment of the promise, but it is not just a waiting praying church, nor just a promising preaching one. Already in the Church the hope is to begin to find fulfilment. The absurdity is that we are but human. But it is this fully humanness which bore the presence of God in Jesus. God chooses the vulnerable, limited, foolishness of humanity still, theirs and yours and mine and real as his. This is the way of God’s kingdom. The offensiveness is that we are no better than the disciples or the Church of any age. The track record is far from proud. Yet it is this rabble whom grace has seized upon and it is by this grace alone that we can stand.

This is true for us as individuals. It is also true for us as a church. For as we saw, the angels with their wry humour told the disciples to stop gazing into heaven and the disciples in obedience spiralled down into the practicalities, the realities as holy as any heavenly vision: dealing with distress and failed ministry, securing the order of ministry of the word, and making sure the Church’s structure reflected its vision.

In this community enormous power will be found, but that is the story for study 3. “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” Let us cross over to Jerusalem with the joy of grace and the assurance that the vision of the kingdom sets us to an agenda also of structure and sound planning for ministry.

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Being the Church 3