You Shall Be My Witnesses

Historically, Acts has been read by the church in worship during the Season of Easter.

April 3, 2016

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Commentary on Acts 1:1-14

Historically, Acts has been read by the church in worship during the Season of Easter.

This is because it is the only narrative in the New Testament that tells the story of the community that formed in the wake of — that is, was formed by — Christ’s resurrection. As the second work in Luke’s two-volume narrative, Acts carries forward many of the theological themes and plot developments introduced in the Gospel of Luke. Thus, even though the liturgical year may have developed so that Acts 1:1-14 is read forty days after Easter Sunday, due to Luke’s timeline of the Ascension occurring forty days after the resurrection, it is quite appropriate to turn to the beginning of Acts on the Second Sunday of Easter.

In this passage, Luke does three main things to initiate the storyline of Acts. First, he connects the second volume to the first (Acts 1:1-3). Second, he foreshadows the narrative structure and purpose of the whole of Acts (Acts 1:4-8). Finally, he tells the story of the ascension in order to get Jesus off stage in order to make room for the age of the apostles to begin (Acts 1:9-11). While the first element mentions resurrection appearances and thus has some interest for Eastertide, the preacher will likely want to turn to one of the last two elements the text as the focus for the sermon.

Witnesses to the ends of the earth

In Acts 1:4-8, Jesus and the disciples engage in a dialogue. These are the only words Jesus speaks in Acts so they are of special significance. Jesus begins the dialogue by instructing the disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they receive the promise from God, that is the gift of the Holy Spirit foreshadowed early in the Gospel of Luke when John the Baptist prophesied that one was coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16). While Luke will narrate this promise as fulfilled in the story of Pentecost in chapter 2, the disciples infer that Jesus is speaking apocalyptically and ask whether this will also be the time in which Christ restores the kingdom of Israel. Jesus, however, focuses their attention back on the gift of the Holy Spirit and its results: “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).

Notice that this conclusion of the dialogue is not stated in the imperative as instructive material — for example, you must be my witnesses. Instead, it is a declarative sentence. Jesus declares a fact in the future tense. And, indeed, the narrative of Acts unfolds geographically in exactly the way Jesus prophesies. The Apostles minister first in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7). Then due to persecution there following the martyrdom of Stephen, the Way is carried outward to surrounding areas and Samaria (Acts 8-12). And finally, through Paul, Barnabas, and others the Word is taken to other parts of the Roman Empire until finally Paul is awaiting trial before the Emperor in Rome, the end of the earth (Acts 12-28).

This section of the opening passage of Luke offers preachers the opportunity to celebrate the church’s witnesses to the ends of the earth today. Notice I spoke of celebration not exhortation. Preachers too often take texts that are not instruction and “apply” them in the contemporary context in the form of instruction. As Jesus simply defines the church in terms of a world-wide witness, so should the preacher.

This world-wide witness, however, should not be celebrated in victorious terms. While Luke repeatedly celebrates the growth of the church (Acts 2:41, 47; 6:7, 9:31; 12:24; 16:5), he is quite honest about the many ways people reject the message and persecute those who carry that message. After all, the narrative ends with Paul under house arrest, and the original readers would have known of Paul’s fate as a martyr. It should be celebrated in spite of its lack of being victorious. The preacher can note the many ways the church is empowered by the Holy Spirit to offer God’s love and the story of the resurrected Christ throughout the world even in the face of hurdles and rejection. These ways can include worldwide ecumenical, denominational, and local congregational efforts. One can use a refrain from the text to tie these different levels of fulfilling the mission of God together cumulatively — something like, “Christ said we would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.” By ending the cumulative celebration with the work of those actually sitting in the particular pews in front of this particular pulpit the worshipers will get a sense of the universal scope of God’s work in which they participate.

The Ascension

In Acts 1:9-11, Luke tells of Jesus’ departure into the clouds, the clouds from which Jesus promised he would return in the eschatological discourse (Luke 21:27). In the early church the celebration of Christ ascending to the right hand of God to judge the living and the dead was one of giving praise for the eschatological granting to Christ’s rule over the powers and principalities of the world (e.g., Ephesians 1:19-20). In addition to celebration, this passage in Acts offers a different theological perspective on the Ascension. The stories of the Incarnation and the Resurrection emphasize Christ’s immanence. The story of the Ascension emphasizes Christ’s transcendence.

Although the story of Pentecost — with the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church — gives an answer to the question Christ’s absence, it is a partial answer only. The Christ who was physically raised from the dead is no longer physically present with Christ’s followers. All Christians struggle with the experiences of divine presence and absence, between divine revelation on the one hand and divine silence on the other. To preach the Ascension in the week following the celebration of the Empty Tomb is to have the same kind of theological and existential honesty as preaching on the slaughter of the Innocents at the hand of Herod (Matthew 2:16-18) on the week following Christmas. Preachers must resist the temptation to quantify God’s presence and absence (present in this situation and absent in that) or blame the hearer for failing to recognize God’s presence at all times. The experience and theology of God as presence and absent is a paradox that must be kept in tension.

Lord Jesus, after your death and resurrection you sent your followers into the world to proclaim your resurrection to the entire world. Send us into the world to bear witness to all you have done in our lives. Amen.

Alleluia, sing to Jesus   ELW 392, H82 460/461, NCH 257
Hail thee, festival day   ELW 394, H82 175, UMH 324

Anthem of Dedication, Warren Martin