“The End and the Beginning”
Sunday June 2, 2019
What is often overlooked, if noted at all, is that the Gospel of Luke and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles are parts 1 and 2 of a story, volumes one and two in a series of writings that were meant to be read together. Both are addressed to a character named Theophilus, about which we know very little, and both are written and narrated from a similar narrative perspective. The opening words of today’s reading from Book of Acts which refer to “the first book” that was written to Theophilus are an explicit reference to the Gospel of Luke – which had also opened with a reference to Theophilus.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, by contrast, presents us with the final words in that Gospel account of Jesus’ life. The death and resurrection were past, and Jesus was about to depart, to ascend into the presence of God. The Gospel of Luke, which had offered an account of the life of Jesus – from before his birth — ends as Jesus departs from the world.
Today’s reading from the Book of Acts is, in fact, the next part of the story. The ascension is described, but the followers of Jesus are not encouraged to stay and dwell on that experience for very long. To the contrary, they are told to return to Jerusalem and wait for the gift that Jesus would send. Something new was about to begin.
It might be suggested that we read these passages in the wrong order this morning. That is, both the flow of the story, and the way that they were written, means that we should have read the Gospel of Luke account and kept reading right into Acts. The juxtaposition of these two passages is actually exactly how they are supposed to be read – the end of the Gospel of Luke is meant to be read alongside the beginning of the Book of Acts. And what is truly fascinating – and profoundly relevant for the living of our faith, even today, is that there is a message that can only be discerned when we read them side-by-side.
What is that message?
It is this – Jesus had finished his work in this world. His mission was done, his purpose had been accomplished, he was exiting the scene. But the work of his followers, the work of the church, was only just beginning. The absence of Jesus, because of the ascension, meant that the presence of the Church, as his Body, was the way that his work would continue in this world – and, as the reading from Acts states, how it would spread to the very ends of the earth. He was only one man – but he was sending his followers out. “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
But there was another promise woven into Jesus’ words – and it was a promise that bears a special importance when we keep Luke and Acts together. He was not just sending them, he first asked them to wait, in Jerusalem, until they were “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” And this promise is more important, and more intriguing, than it first appears.
And why? Because one of the most important themes, one of the most significant literary, theological and spiritual emphases in the Gospel of Luke was the way that the Spirit of God had been at work in Jesus’ life. The other Gospel writers would not have disputed that claim, but the writer of the Gospel of Luke emphasizes it, time and again in his account. At so many points throughout the Gospel of Luke, the author had stated that Jesus was guided by, or sometimes even driven by, and in any case empowered by the Spirit. This mysterious Spirit was the animating force, the source of his power, the motivating dynamic that led him, inspired him, gave him the power to do what he did, to go where he went, to accomplish what he accomplished. And this was true even to the point of his death – it was actually only in the Gospel of Luke that it is recorded that some of his last words were “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”. The life of Jesus – from before his birth until his final breath – was entirely and completely guided by the Spirit.
Which takes on an added resonance when we remember that the Book of Acts is simply a continuation of the story – the only difference being that Jesus was no longer physically present. Jesus is no longer the focus of the story. But the Spirit is still present, still the animating force – but now, rather than animating a single individual, the Spirit is at work in the entire community of Jesus’ followers, in the Church.
And the Spirit would be poured out on his followers so that they could continue the work as they spread out all over the earth.
Even to the corner of King and Simcoe in downtown Toronto.
Which, when we think about it, is rather humbling. Because it reminds us that we, as the followers of Jesus, have been given both a challenging mandate – to continue the work of Jesus – but also a tremendous power to accomplish that work. And when we bear in mind that the activities of Jesus’ life — meeting human needs, feeding hungry people, calming troubled spirits, touching and healing the sick, restoring excluded and marginalized individuals, proclaiming God’s reign, demonstrating and teaching the ways of forgiveness and kindness – all of his work was animated by the same Spirit that is now at work in the community of his followers, if we open ourselves to it.
When people speak of being led by the Spirit, or open to the Spirit, there are times when such comments take on some degree of mystical or supernatural resonance, which is fine. But to be open to the work of that Spirit does not mean that we have to adopt some radically new form of practice; rather, being open to the work of the Spirit sometimes means that we simply begin to see what is happening, around us, as signs of the ongoing presence and power of God’s Spirit at work.
Consider, for example, the activities of this congregation over the past week alone — God has been worshipped; hundreds of hungry people have been served and fed a good and nutritious meal on Tuesday morning; a huge number of strangers and newcomers to our country have been welcomed and offered a chance to practice English this past Tuesday night and, in so doing, to start to move from being strangers in this city to becoming friends and members of community; refugees have been helped and cared for; on Friday afternoon, beautiful music was played in this very space, with its wonderful power to elevate the human spirit and soothe the human soul; through the week, sick, sorrowful and isolated people were visited and cared for; people have come and sat in the very pews in which you are sitting in order to pause, in the midst of their busy lives, and find a quiet moment of contemplation; and hopefully, people have experienced grace, hope, peace, compassion and kindness because of the work of this community.
But it is not about us, or what we have done – rather, what good has been done has been evidence that the Spirit is still at work, still inspiring and empowering the work of Christ through this small part of his Body. And we are only one tiny part of this vast global movement that is the community of Jesus’ followers. Yes, the Church, and we as individual is an imperfect community made up of imperfect people – we make mistakes and needs to constantly be open to correction, to reform, to change, to challenge. But there is much good that is done, in so many places, because of the Spirit’s presence at work in the lives of the followers of Christ.
And we should forge ahead, in the humble confidence yet bold conviction that the same Spirit that was at work in the life of Jesus, and the same Spirit that was poured out upon his followers so long ago, continues to be available to us, willing to empower us and wanting to inspire us to accomplish wonderful and beautiful things in this world.
May it be our prayer that we will be open to the Spirit’s guidance, attentive to the Spirit’s direction, and responsive to the Spirit’s call – even as Jesus was until his work in this world was finished, and the work of his followers begun.
And when we open ourselves to the power of that Spirit, we open ourselves to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.