Is This the Time?

Acts 1:1–11, preached by Chris Bohnoff on May 12, 2024

Pop quiz: who can tell me what this Sunday is called in the Christian church calendar? The answer is Ascension Sunday! It’s the end of the church season of Easter, seven weeks of digging into the theological concept of resurrection. Whether you believe in Jesus’ resurrection in literal terms or in symbolic ones, Easter gives us a lot to unpack. After Lent helped us go deep into pain and trauma and disconnection from God, Eastertide brought us into the hope and grace of the new life that emerges from pain and trauma and death. Ascension Sunday is the spot where the text tells Jesus ascended to heaven and we ask, how the heck do we go back to our day-to-day lives after the roller coaster of death and resurrection?

Our passage today is where the Biblical text makes a big pivot: from the story of Jesus to the sequel co-starring the disciples and God’s Spirit. We hear the author’s recap of their first book, the Gospel of Luke, then introduce the action in the sequel, the Book of Acts. It’s kind of like the season recap that begins the first episode of a show’s new season.

            As we catch up with the story, the disciples had been with Jesus for three years of ministry, with a quick break to huddle together fearing for their lives after Jesus was killed, then coming back together for the next 40 days as described in this passage. But even after all this time with their teacher, somehow, they’re still not in sync with what Jesus is telling them. His message to them is, I want you to hang tight in Jerusalem, because God has something big for you. Stay here, wait, and God’s promise will come to you.

The disciples hear this and they respond with a big question. “Lord,” they ask, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

One of the ever-present questions in the four gospels is whether Jesus is the Messiah, the one in the traditional Jewish belief system of first Century Jerusalem who would restore Israel’s collective freedom by vanquishing an oppressive external force. The disciples would have been steeped in the Torah and would have held out the hope that what Jesus refers to as God’s promise would be their political liberation and a return to self-determination. After all, it had happened multiple times in the past with God’s help: in the Exodus story, when Israel escaped slavery and settled the “promised land” after conquering the folks who had been living there; and again, after Israel was conquered and exiled by the Assyrians and later by the Persians when they made their way back to the promised land. Deep in the cultural and spiritual identity established by the Hebrew Bible is the idea that God intercedes politically for Israel. The disciples’ question makes sense in the context of the Hebrew scriptures.

But throughout the gospels, Jesus makes it clear that he is not a Messiah in the conquering mold of his ancestor, David. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, John the Baptist sent his followers to ask Jesus, are you the Messiah? Are you going to spring those of us in jail free as a sign of how you will save Israel? (Matthew 11:2–6) Instead, Jesus pointed to his work healing the sick and bringing good news to the poor and said, This is the kind of Messiah I am. Some theologians have written that the famous story of the feeding of the 5,000 was Jesus’ response to a group who assembled because they were ready for him to lead them into battle against the Romans. Instead of starting a war, he fed them dinner. When the leaders turned Jesus over to Herod for execution, Herod asked Jesus if he was king of the Jews and Jesus refused to use that language himself. In the biblical text, Jesus had plenty of opportunities to reveal himself, to accept the mantle of Messiah, savior of Israel.

And again, here at the opening of Acts, just before he takes his final leave from the disciples, they ask him one last time, Are you going to save us from the Romans? I hear the disciples saying, our cultural narrative, our deeply ingrained understanding of the trajectory of our collective future, is that we will be saved, transported upward, putting our oppressors under our feet, into a state of freedom. Jesus, you have returned to us from death, you have convinced us that you have special insight, a unique understanding of God’s presence and power in the world, we’ve seen you embody divinity in unexplainable ways. Surely, if you can’t liberate us, what’s left?

Jesus answers them, What you want to know about Israel’s path, you cannot know. It just doesn’t work that way. Only God knows.

I can imagine the disappointment that this passage illustrates: when it seems like someone or something is about to deliver the happy ending you’ve always dreamt of, only to have it disappear. Like that project that was going to put you on the map but failed, or that event that was going to bring in big crowds and new supporters and erase that budget deficit, or that treatment that was going to put a loved one on a new path to health—when they don’t bring the results we’ve already lived out in our minds, it’s so hard not to get pessimistic and cope with our disappointment by numbing ourselves, tuning out, or blaming the thing that was supposed to save us.

Jesus tells the disciples that he cannot bring about the disciples’ dreamed-of happy ending of liberation or even say if or when it will come to pass. But. But. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” Jesus tells them, “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus puts the disciples on a spiritual path, but not the one they’re hoping for, not one defined by a fixed destination, or even one that’s part of a familiar narrative arc. You’re missing the point, he tells them. I’m not going to tell you that political liberation is where you’re going, and freedom and security isn’t your motivation. What you’ve witnessed in me is to be your guide—the care and love I give to the sick and the poor; the way I bring together the lepers and the tax collectors and the prostitutes along with the Pharisees and Saducees and you all. You’re going to go past the confines of the geography that you know to tell folks about this way of being. Your path won’t be defined by a destination; it will be revealed by God’s Spirit that simultaneously puts hurting folks in your path and gifts in your soul specially designed to bring comfort to those hurting folks. Your path will be revealed through knowing yourself and listening to the world’s deep needs.

Traditionally, this passage is interpreted as Jesus’ call for the disciples, and by extension the church, to go out and do service. A call to action. I agree, but I would bring us back to the beginning of this passage where Jesus tells the disciples not to leave Jerusalem until God’s Spirit has come to them. I think this passage isn’t just a call to action; for me, it’s a call to openness, to listening, to discernment, to contemplation, and then to action. 

It’s a subtle difference but a foundational one, because it opens the door to co-creating the action we undertake with God. If we just spring to action, especially in our culture, we act as lone rangers, or activists who outsource the action to someone else. But when we wait for God’s Spirit to speak through the fears and the needs of the people around us, then not only are we acting; we are more likely to form the relationships that are the kin-dom of God. Instead of acting from afar by writing up a Facebook posts supporting voting rights, we’re having hard conversations with folks who don’t think the way we do to feel out what pain, what truth, lies underneath their beliefs. Instead of sending a check to a big environmental justice nonprofit to act for us, we’re looking at the decisions we make, large and small, to make sure that we’re doing what we can in our own lives and in our own circles to make the difference we hear God calling us to make.

Friends, whether or not God’s Spirit will fall upon you can never be in doubt, because God is within us, as close as our breath, always. The question is, will you hear the Spirit’s message, or will you be too preoccupied running head down towards a fixed destination to hear it?

I wonder, in this liminal, in between time in the life of the church, what cultural narratives about where we “should” be moving as a church are getting in the way of listening for God’s Spirit? I wonder whether we’re cultivating our ability to listen together before springing to action?

Siblings in Christ, may we wait for the promise of our God. May the call of God’s Spirit ring in our ears, flash in our eyes, tingle in our fingers, fill our noses, and dazzle our tongues. May our stories be changed, and may those new stories transform us. May it be so. Amen.