Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?
Disciples Become Apostles
“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
So, as we saw in last month’s Bible study, the Risen Christ doesn’t hang around the place of his temporary burial following Good Friday. Jesus the Living One has places to go, people to see, a world to capture with the astonishing news of God’s victory at the Cross.
But in the first chapter of the Book of Acts the disciples encounter a sharp curve in the road. Having broken free from the grave, having returned to Galilee—the place of mission—the Risen Christ takes his followers by surprise. While he was speaking with them “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9)
Jesus’ Ascension stops his followers dead in their tracks—mouths agape, staring off into the stratosphere. What now?
The disciples might have stood there forever, dumbfounded by the Ascended Jesus’s unexpected departure. But fortunately two men in white appeared, snapping them out of their momentary stupor: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)
So Jesus was still alive, still out ahead of his followers, but no longer with his feet planted on the earth, at least for a time. Ascension would not be the end of it all. Jesus would return one final time, to complete all things and make the whole creation new.
But what were Jesus’ followers to do in the meantime?
No Time for Distractions!
One thing the disciples were not to do was to get lost in speculation about the whys and wherefores of Jesus’ subsequent return. Jesus himself called that a dead end. “It is not (emphasis added) for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7)
Despite the crystal clarity of the Risen Christ on this subject, generations of his followers have ignored his teaching. As recently as last year, a radio “evangelist” Harold Camping predicted Christ’s final coming on May 21, 2011 at 6 p.m. sharp. All over the world billboards were put up, possessions were sold, “Rapture” sermons were delivered and “Left Behind” parties were planned. And, of course, our Lord didn’t return on Mr. Camping’s timetable.
There is a genuine issue at stake here, though. We long for God’s final purposes to be achieved. We ache for God to consummate all of God’s saving work. All Christians affirm the final word about Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed, that “he will come again, to judge the living and the dead.”
But how and where and when exactly will that happen? Jesus’ clearest answer is: “No one knows. Not the angels in heaven. Not even the Son. Only the Father knows….and he isn’t telling!” (Matthew 24:36) Speculating about matters that are “beyond us” will only distract us from what matters most to God.
Truth be told, we 21st century disciples still get distracted by other things---end of the world speculating, moralizing about other people’s behaviors, arguing over church politics. We can become so distracted by other, lesser things that we miss the Main Thing, which is sharing Christ.
How does your community in Christ sometimes become distracted from what matters most to God?
The Way Ahead
It is way above our pay grade to know all the details of Christ’s final coming. So we would be wise to focus on other things. And fortunately here in Acts 1 Jesus tells us what those other things happen to be.
“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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 1:6-8)
It’s not for us to peer into God’s heavenly timetable. But what we can do is bear witness here and now in this world.
Jesus paints a picture of how that would play out for his first disciples. Picture it as a series of concentric circles. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” Jesus declares, “and you will be my witnesses
· in Jerusalem,
· in all Judea and Samaria, and
· to the ends of the earth.”
It all starts where it all started for Jesus, in Jerusalem, where the Cross was raised up on the city’s garbage heap and where the crucified Jesus was raised up three days later. Jesus says: “start here, in Jerusalem, then move on out to the first ring of witness, Judea and Samaria. Walk where I walked, and then keep on moving out to the ends of the earth.”
This is, in fact, exactly what unfolds in the Book of Acts. With the ascended Jesus no longer bound to a single spot on earth, he now lives and moves in and through the community of disciples that bears his name. Their communal life mirrors remarkably the life of the earthly Jesus:
· By calling Matthias to replace the traitor Judas, they reconstitute the Twelve followers whom Jesus first called (Acts 1:12-26)
· They are “baptized” by the fire and wind of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus was baptized at the Jordan River, claiming his identity as God’s beloved, chosen one (Acts 2:1-21)
· The disciples proclaim God’s in-breaking Rule, as boldly as Jesus did, drawing thousands into the community of Christ (Acts 2:22-47).
· They continue Jesus’ redemptive ministry of healing (Acts 3).
· They stand up before opponents—the same Council that condemned Jesus—and testify fearlessly to Christ (Acts 4).
· They shape a radical new life, along the contours of Jesus’ way of praise, service and generosity—even in the face of persecution “push-back” (Acts 5).
· They enter into their own Holy Week “passion,” exemplified in the arrest, trial and martyrdom of the deacon Stephen (Acts 6-7).
Slowly it must have become apparent to the disciples that Jesus did not leave them at his Ascension. Jesus did not become absent from them—but rather, he became powerfully present to them and in them, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Their new life as the community of Christ replicated and re-presented the life of Christ in the world.
Is this not true for Christ’s disciples, his followers in every time and place? How does your congregation, your community of Christ, reflect and re-present the life of Christ today?
To the Ends of the Earth
Jesus’ pre-Ascension commissioning of his disciples in Acts 1:8 plays itself out in the first seven chapters of the Book of Acts. There’s just one problem, though: the disciples don’t get any farther than Jerusalem.
This reminds me of what a Christian leader from Africa once said: “Oh, you Americans! You’re always trying to fish INSIDE the boat.”
But Jesus, in Acts 1:8, is crystal clear. His followers’ place to fish is OUTSIDE the boat, in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth. “Move on out,” Jesus commands.
Follow the narrative in the Book of Acts carefully, and you’ll notice that Jesus’ first followers didn’t actually DO all that Jesus commissioned them to do until Acts 8. The disciples got “stuck” in Jerusalem until the horrific martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7). THEN, “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” (Acts 8:1)
God uses whatever’s at his disposal—even the horror of persecution—to pursue God’s purposes, through God’s people.
God doesn’t call us to stay stuck in one place or to try “fishing inside the boat.” God in Jesus Christ calls us to move out, to advance into the world, bearing the Good News about Jesus, wherever we are sent. God calls and energizes disciples (“followers”) to become apostles (“sent ones”).
When we get stuck, God gets us unstuck. In her book, The Great Emergence, author Phyllis Tickle quotes an Anglican bishop who believes that about every 500 years the Christian church holds a big rummage sale.[i] Every five centuries, give or take, God turns the church upside down, in order to get us off our duffs and move us out once again, to recapture for a new generation the freshness and alluring aroma of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Do you think we might be in such a “rummage sale” moment in today’s church? How do you perceive God getting us “unstuck” so that God can get us all sent out once again?
QUESTION: How is God transforming disciples into apostles today? Where is God sending you?
ANSWER: Out of the boat. Into the world. Bearing witness to Jesus.
Bishop Larry WohlrabeNorthwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.
For reflection and discussion: Please use the questions printed in red throughout the Bible study.This is the ninth in a series of monthly Bible studies during 2012 focused on the question: “Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?” These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry. Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.