Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 21, 2023
Acts 1:6-14 Commentary
When it comes to what’s up and what’s down in this passage, there is a lot of back-and-forth when you think about it.
First off, as we begin Acts, Jesus is where he has been for about the last six weeks: he is mostly here on this earth walking around with, eating dinner with, and conversing with the disciples. What’s more, he is doing all of that in his new resurrection body. So Jesus is still “down here” with us on earth. And the disciples’ minds are still focused on this earth too.
“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Forty days post-Easter and they are still focused on the same old political, earthly kingdom that kept them from really understanding Jesus’ mission for years in the first place.
Jesus deflects that, of course, but still tells them that something of the main “action” of what is to come will indeed be right here on this earth. Power is coming but it will come to the disciples down here and it will empower witness and work down here, too (which is why Jesus goes on to detail some geographical place names as the target of the work).
But no sooner does Jesus say this and he is taken up into the skies and clean out of the sight of the disciples. The text does not record this for us but you just have to assume that despite how often Jesus had mentioned going to be with his Father again and leaving the world and all that, there was no way the disciples were ready for this disappearing act. We are told they kept intently looking up to where Jesus had gone but I assume they did this with mouths hanging open. Yes, Jesus had been known to come and go—to pop into and out of rooms—rather suddenly and mysteriously ever since he came back from the dead but this time looked different, this time looked, well, final.
However, as an instant sign that Jesus’ having gone up was not an indication that the work was leaving with him, the next thing you know, there are angels standing with them. And please notice: Angels standing with them down here on earth. Mostly if you want to see an angel, you’d guess you have to look up, not down; up, not beside you; up, not at your back. But not this time. As a further sign that the work of witness to Jesus was going to be a decidedly earthly affair, the angels are down here too. They tell the disciples that Jesus will indeed come back one day via this route (in reverse) but it won’t be on account of the disciples’ staring uselessly into the clouds.
So, having had their orientation returned to terra firma, the disciples hoof it back to Jerusalem where they do the eminently practical and down-to-earth thing of replacing Judas with Matthias (that is just beyond the boundary of this lection). But before they do that they do something else: they pray. A lot.
We are not told directly that they prayed to Jesus or to the Father through Jesus. Either would be a new way to pray for these Jewish people raised on the Shema of Deuteronomy 6 and being the fierce monotheists that they were. But you get the sense they did pray to Jesus (here is one of the building blocks of the Doctrine of the Trinity as it would later be developed) and/or to the “Father” whom Jesus had referred to in verse 7 but perhaps they prayed to this Father in the name of the Jesus who had revealed the Father to them in the first place.
And although we are likewise not told what they prayed about or for, you sense it is for guidance, for direction, and for the very power to do the work here on earth that Jesus had promised them. If it had not been clear before that the work was going to take place here on earth, it was very clear now and so the first order of business was to ask for the guidance and the energy to do it well.
This all happened a week-and-a-half before Pentecost, of course, but really the church’s posture has not changed that much in 2,000 years. We’re still down here, Jesus is still at the right hand of the Father, and we still have more work to do than we could possibly do alone and/or without the very power of God flowing into us. So very much of everything the church is about centers on and flows from prayer. The angels may have as much as told the disciples to take their eyes off the heavens for now but our hearts through prayer are still very much stayed upon Jesus as the sole source of all the power we need to witness to his Gospel.
One last note: I believe Acts 1:14 is the last reference in the Bible to Jesus’ mother Mary. At the beginning of his Gospel, Luke lavished more attention on Mary than any other New Testament writer. Now here in Acts Luke rounds all of that out by depicting for us readers the mother of Jesus praying right alongside everyone else.
Mary prayed. She prayed to her boy. There is something so very poignant about that.
As the angel Gabriel predicted, future generations have indeed risen up to call Mary “Blessed” among all people as being the chosen bearer of the Messiah. Protestants don’t have much truck with all that has been put on Mary in the Roman Catholic tradition but that Mary deserves a place of honor among the saints is undeniable.
Still, this last portrait of Mary in prayer and joining the other disciples to pray for the power needed to do the work Jesus needs his Church to do is a fine reminder that in the end it’s not about Mary or Peter or James or John or any other human or leader of the Church you could name from across the past two millennia.
It’s about Jesus. It’s about the power of his Holy Spirit. It’s about the Gospel and the Good News that the world needs to hear about loud and clear no less today than on that long ago day in Jerusalem.
Years ago a fellow German major at Calvin College was delighted to purchase an old German fairy tale book at a local garage sale. We enjoyed putting our German to use by reading these children’s stories, although we were surprised at how horrifying some of them were. Because unlike the American versions of these stories, which seem to have been sanitized and tidied up, the original German tales are brutal. The stories are designed to teach children lessons, and the authors obviously believed that scaring the wits out of kids was the best way to get the point across.
One story I remember was titled “Hans Guck-in-die-Luft,” which I would roughly translate, “Hans Head in-the-Clouds” (literally: “Hans Look-in-the-Air”). The story is meant to teach children to pay attention to what they are doing and where they are going. To make the point the title character of Hans is a little boy who is forever daydreaming, forever walking around with his eyes fixed on birds, butterflies, treetops. The result is that he keeps bumping into lampposts, tripping over uneven sidewalks, running into old ladies. Throughout the story adults chide Hans for his dreaminess and they warn him to pay attention, to get his head out of the clouds. But Hans does not listen and so at the end of the story he walks straight off a cliff and is smashed to death on the rocks below. Sweet dreams, boys and girls!
Somehow the words of the angels telling the disciples to get their own heads out of the clouds to focus on what was at hand here on the earth reminded me of this story!
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