Seventh Sunday of Easter

Rather than focus on authority outside of your control, why not focus on the power in your hands?

a look into the
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May 21, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Acts 1:6-14

What question would you pose to the recently resurrected Jesus? In the passage, we find one that the apostles raised: “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom (basileian) to Israel?”  The resurrected Jesus does not directly answer that question but redirects them both rhetorically and literally as he is lifted into heaven. The apostles then become the interviewees as men dressed in white ask them why they are standing confused. I submit that it is worth considering Jesus’ redirection as not only instructive for the ancient apostles but also for those with contemporary inquisitive minds.

Jesus redirects the apostles’ question, because it is pointed in the wrong direction. Behind this enquiry is a concern about Israel resuming geopolitical autonomy rivaling the glory days of David’s biblical reign. This concern could have multiple implications, two of which are worth engaging here. The first implication could be that the apostles expected Jesus to align with a nationalist cause that limited God’s favor and relationship to one nation. Remember that in the historical moment that Acts portrays there is no place called Israel. The official names of the area are in Acts 1:8: Judaea and Samaria. “Israel” for certain groups could function as a unifying nationalist cause. This is not to suggest that most or even many first and second-century Jewish people understood the term as such, but this type of use would have certainly been in the mind of some of the first readers of Acts. Jesus’ response to the apostles forecloses such an engagement though, because he explains that such activity falls solely in God’s authority, way outside of human hands that would indubitably use such authority for harm.

The harm that stems from humans negatively wielding authority over others was epitomized in the rule of the Romans, which could have been another implication of the apostles’ question concerning the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. In this way, the question of restoring the kingdom to Israel is less about keeping all others out and is more acutely aimed at keeping oppressors out. This question could be understood as a request for liberation from the Roman Empire’s domination, exploitation, and taxation. Still, Jesus’ response is that the timetable for that liberation is within God’s authority, but they are not to wait idly until God topples the empire.

Although the apostles did not have authority (exousia), Jesus redirects them to realize that they would have power (dynamis). The power that they would receive would come from the very Holy Spirit through whom Jesus had already been giving them instructions (Acts 1:2). They would be empowered to be witnesses (martyres). The term “witness” has become overladen with Christian tradition as is the Greek term behind it—martys—which became a very technical term later in Christian history. Such overinterpretation has ignored the plainer meaning of the term, which is to be a truth-teller, especially one who testifies in a court scenario. This reading of the term aligns with its use throughout the text as the apostles frequently find themselves on trial.

After Jesus had been violently executed by the Romans and sentenced to a criminal’s death, the apostles are recruited to testify and set the record straight about what Jesus was all about. The resurrected Jesus redirects the apostles from questions that were in God’s authority, in order to lead them to see their own power that would transform the world and bring them into direct confrontation with both Roman and Jerusalem officials. Their power to tell the truth would directly challenge those who preferred to advance a lie for their own agenda. Their power to set the record straight would complicate the narrative of an empire that proclaimed peace and security while wielding lethal violence especially against low status people. Jesus redirects them from getting overwhelmed by what was outside of their control, and he leads them to anticipate the power that would be in their control for turning Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria, and the world into what it should be.

The apostles were not only redirected by Jesus’ words but they were also physically redirected as they watched him ascend out of their sight. Jesus’ ascension redirects them to look up. They look up above anything the Roman Empire could ever claim to dominate. They look up above any individual group or set of people. But before they could get lost in the heavenly vision, the men in white brought them back to earth with a crash, saying, “You men of Galilee” (Acts 1:11). They were not called apostles, they were not called Israelites, they were not called Jews or Judeans, but they were reminded that they are Galileans from an insignificant, concrete place, and they were outsiders in Jerusalem. Also, they were criminal co-conspirators with a leader who had been sentenced to capital punishment less than two months ago and that leader had left them with only a promise of power.

The men in white asked the apostles a question to redirect them from getting lost in the clouds. They asked them, “why do you stand here gazing at the sky?” Implicit in that question is an instruction: move forward with what you have seen. The portfolio for what they had witnessed had just increased. They had already been witnesses to their own callings by Jesus and of course they were witnesses of his teaching, miracles, exorcisms, healings, execution, and resurrection. Now they were witnesses of him being lifted beyond the clouds. With all they had seen, time was out for looking and time was in for speaking and testifying. Their question to Jesus about when the kingdom would be restored to Israel ultimately became a question answered with a question when the men in white asked “why do you stand here gazing?” Rather than focus on authority outside of your control, why not focus on the power in your hands?