While I was preparing for this message Peter Jackson, the king of the sequel , was making a very important announcement. He had, to quote a much loved TV commercial, been ‘internalizing a very complicated situation in his head’. You see since he had decided to make the Hobbit book into three movies, there was the question of what to call each movie. Originally the last movie was to be called The Hobbit: There and Back Again’ which is what Tolkien called his whole story. But in “the desolation of Smaug”, Bilbo had already got there. Could they call it simply…and back again”. So as they have been viewing the footage and doing the post production they have come up with a new name for the third movie…Which he announced this week ‘The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies’. However, Tolkien purists will be pleased to know that when the box set comes out it will be called “There and back again: A Hobbit’s tale”.
Today we are starting a series looking at Luke’s sequel to his gospel, the book of Acts. Luke kind of fits very nicely into that great Hollywood tradition of doing a sequel. In fact it’s not really an advent of Hollywood or even comic books or the four book sci -fi trilogy tradition in the ancient world it was common for major works to be in several parts. Partly due to the length of material that you could wind into a scroll, and of course the scope of the story you want to tell. In the Prologue to Luke’s gospel and Acts, Luke tells us that he is writing to Theophilius. WE don’t know who this person is, except that he was probably a prominent Christian in Rome who was wrestling with his faith, and Luke is writing to tell him the facts of the faith. How it started in Jesus and then how it was carried to Rome. Theophilius also means ‘Beloved of God’ as you and I read the gospel and its sequel we too as the ‘beloved of God’ are invited to look at the facts of our faith, its foundation in Jesus and the story of its initial spread to the centre of the Roman world. We are invited to see the initial impact that the resurrection had.
Luke starts his sequel, with a recap, by filling us in with what has gone before, with his account of the ascension echoing closely the last chapter of his gospel, it speaks of the reality of a continual story that you and I are part of, way past the chapter 22 where he leaves it.
But like with Peter Jackson there is a problem about what we should call this sequel. We call it Acts, but what does that mean. I want to start our exploration of acts through the question what’s in a name…Traditionally it’s been seen as the “Acts of the Apostles” , what those who had been with Jesus did after Jesus death and resurrection. It is a very human story, fall of human faults and foibles, disagreements and setbacks, triumphs and tragedies, personalities all that goes into a great and very human drama. It is basically Church History. It’s our history, it’s like the Marvel Studio’s who with the release of the Avengers Movie completed what they called Phase one of their story of the marvel universe, telling the origin stories of all the characters, here is our origin story.
But that does not really do justice to what is happening here, it focuses on the work of human beings but not on what is really going on in the bigger picture. Some have wanted to call this book the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Right from his introduction Luke is telling us that this is about the work of the Promised Holy Spirit. In fact for Luke the Holy Spirit is the one through whom God has been working out his salvation plans all the time. It was it was by the Holy Spirit that Jesus gave instruction to the Apostles. The focal point for the spirits work in the gospel is Jesus, from his conception to his resurrection. The key difference of the new narrative is that the long promised Holy Spirit would come. It is not simply the age of the church but of the Holy Spirit. We are reminded here at the beginning that John the Baptist had identified Jesus as the one who would baptise people not with water but the Holy Spirit. Jesus last words to his apostles are to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes and they will receive power to be his witnesses. Their mission is the work of God’s spirit.
This series is called ‘Fire and Wind: encountering the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts and our lives today.” Fire and wind are symbols of the coming of the spirit on those first believers at Pentecost. Our interest reflects the centrality of the Holy Spirit to what it means to being God’s People, and its importance in empowering and enabling us to proclaim the Kingdom of God. We are God’s Spirited People. WE need to be filled with the promised spirit to witness to the risen Jesus. I’ve tried to capture that in this image by having the wind and the fire but with the impression of being the burning bush the symbol of our Presbyterian Church.
It’s interesting in the passage we had read out today we see the apostles going back to Jerusalem and going about the business of being a community. They act in obedience to Jesus by going back, they pray together, they are unified, they search the scriptures, and they work on the structure of being church: they work out a process for replacing Judas as one of the twelve. They function OK, but it’s not till they receive the Holy Spirit do we see the focus move them from being inwardly focused to being outward looking, to being a church with purpose and mission. One of the ways that difference is often explained is like a car with and without the petrol, or diesel. It can be built and made for what it is intended for, it can cleaned and maintained and shown off, but if it lacks that essential ingredient that powers it for what it was purposed for.it remains stationary and does not go anywhere.
OK, but even that name the 'Acts of the Holy Spirit', does not give due consideration to what the book is about. Again we need to go and look at Luke’s introduction to get the big picture. Because again I wonder if the title the Acts of the Holy Spirit is not even big enough, it does not cover the scope of the narrative and our part in the story as a church. First and foremost it is the Acts of the sovereign God. It is the kingdom of God, the rule and the reign of God that Jesus is teaching and enacting. It is the father who promised and who sends the Spirit… we used the prophecy in Joel 2 that is part of peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts, as our call to worship today, in which God promises to pour his Spirit out over all humanity regardless of gender or socio-economic standing, that We may be able to have vision and imagine what the Kingdom will look like in our world today and speak God’s words, to be Jesus witnesses.
It is the action of God through Jesus Christ. Luke tells us what Jesus had begun to do and here there is the sense that through his presence with his people in the Holy Spirit that action continues. We could call it the continuing 'Acts of The risen Jesus Christ'...What will happen in Acts and what is happening in the church today is the continuation of the ministry of Jesus Christ. The purpose of the sending of the Holy Spirit was that we would witness to Jesus Christ to the end of the earth. It is the story of what Jesus continues to do through us until he returns in a cloud just as he was taken for their sight.
Well that may seem a bit of a long drawn out look at what’s in a name, but I think it’s important for us as we find ourselves in this ongoing story, for us to understand the place and purpose of the of the Holy Spirit. To again await and seek the power of the spirit to enable us, and to witness to the resurrection of Jesus.
And it’s with that last idea of what the resurrection of Jesus means for the church that I want to finish off today. Luke is very quick to tell us this is central to his message, he tells us that Jesus had performed very many convincing proofs that he was alive and that dovetails with the idea of a witness as one who can testify to the observable and objective truth of a situation. What that means for us as a church comes as we move from Luke’s introduction into his account of the ascension.
Luke does that in verse 6. It’s like stepping out of a voice over into live action, in a movie. And he does it with a question. Luke tells us that Jesus had given his disciples his commission to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit and they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. And the question captures what the disciples are thinking, is it now Jesus that you will restore the kingdom to Israel? The burning question for the people in Jesus day about the messiah was that his coming would mean Israel’s restoration as a nation, throwing off roman rule, was that going to be now? More than that, and Jesus picks this up in his answer, it may sum up some of the things that Theopilius and Luke’s readers were wrestling with. Because the question has a longer range understanding, is it now that it will be the end of all things. Is it now that Jesus would reign in person. There is a lot of talk in scholarly circles about the fact that the early church had an expectation that Christ’s return and the end was immanent and a lot of them were wrestling with their faith as the time seemed to stretch further and further into the distance.
And Jesus answer is to tell us that those things are the preserve of God, they are held in the sovereignty of God. The meaning of the resurrection was not that we should idly speculate about those things or that we should associate the Kingdom of God any longer simply with the physical nation of Israel, but that the resurrection was a call to us for mission: To bare witness to Jesus. It was a call to a mission that would start at the centre of Judaism in Jerusalem but would spread out to the ends of the world.
Luke often quotes the book of Isaiah and the term ‘ends of the earth’ comes from Isaiah 49:6 and while we may think of it terms of geography it has a wider connotation and promise. For Theopilius that would have been defined by the Roman Empire, for the Jews they may have seen it as meaning to Jews in the extent of the diaspora, how far they had been scattered, but in Isaiah it is used both geographically and also to talk of God’s promise and favour spreading to gentile as well as Jew. Here as we’ve seen in John is the saviour of the world that God so loves sending out his people to the world.
This seems to be reinforced by the men in white who come and stand with the apostles after Jesus is taken up into heaven. They are gazing up in the sky and the men have to remind them that believing in Jesus is not about staring up into the sky waiting for his return. It’s not about all heavenly minded and no earthly use it’s about in obedience to Jesus the Mission of God. Witnessing to what we know of the Risen Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I wonder if we are not a bit like the church between the ascension and Pentecost, we are good at doing church, keeping it going, in obedience to God caring for each other and worshipping and praying and responding to the scripture. We even wrestle with getting the structure right, but I find myself wondering if we are still kind of waiting, still kind of looking up at the sky our hands half raised in worship and half in “ well what do we do now”. As we work through the book of Acts I hope we encounter afresh the spirit of God , in power, the spirit that enables us to witness to the hope we have found in the risen Jesus and enable us to bear witness in our homes, neighbourhoods, workplaces, city nation and just maybe to the ends of the earth.