Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Last Sunday we talked about comforting words from angels: “Fear not.” “Do not be afraid.”
I’ve got to say I love the questions biblical angels ask, too.
Back in Luke’s resurrection account, in chapter 24 of his gospel, angels say to the women arriving at Jesus’ tomb: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
To which their unvoiced answer must have been: “Um, living? We’re just here to anoint our friend’s body for burial.”
And here, the same author in the first chapter of Acts has the angels asking: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
“Well, because Jesus… I mean, there was this cloud, and then all of a sudden… Wait. What do you mean ‘why are we looking up toward heaven?’ Didn’t you see that?!”
Seems to me those disciples had good reason to be dumbfounded, and to keep their gaze focused heavenward awhile.
In fact, in addition to the rather surprising logistics of his exit strategy, Jesus’ ascension into heaven also begs the question: Why did he leave?
He’d risen from the dead. He was actually alive again! He spent 40 days with his disciples after Easter morning. Why leave them now? Why didn’t they get 40 more years with their friend and teacher instead of a measly 40 days?
Perhaps Jesus knew that through the power of the Holy Spirit, and their ever-increasing numbers, they could, in fact, reach the whole world with his message in a way he could not if it remained up to him alone, in bodily form.
Perhaps Jesus tagged out, because it was time for his followers to tag in. He was ready to entrust them with great responsibility, because he knew there was important work they could accomplish in his name.
That work would involve building up the kingdom of God on earth.
That work would involve teaching folks a whole new way to live, one that turned the world’s values on their head.
That work would become the work of the Church, in the weeks and months and years that followed.
A Church that was quite small at first, but would begin to grow quickly as soon as the very next chapter of Acts, on the day of Pentecost.
In other words, the angels didn’t ask the disciples why they were standing there looking up, because the angels didn’t realize what had just happened.
They asked the question to remind the disciples that it was time to redirect their focus now, time to regroup, and start in on the work Jesus had asked them to do.
Our sermon series over these next several weeks will have us looking at texts from the book of Acts that can help us better understand our own calling as the Church.
Granted, there some significant cross-cultural gaps between what was going on in the first century world and what’s happening around us today.
But there is still much we can learn from the work and witness of the earliest Christians. After all, as Tony Robinson says, in Acts we find “the church advancing the ministry of Jesus, doing what he did, saying what he said, [and in the process] disturbing and delighting a world that is both sorely in need of the gospel and yet resistant to it.” (Anthony Robinson and Robert Wall, Called to be Church, p. 5)
The good news of God’s kingdom “disturbing and delighting a world that is both sorely in need of the gospel and yet resistant to it” - sounds rather like the world in which we live, doesn’t it?
And the first lesson the early church can teach us comes right here in Acts chapter 1.
Because for all of the urgency of their assignment from Jesus – spreading the gospel to Jerusalem, and to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – did you happen to notice how they actually begin their work?
They head back to that “upper room” where they were wont to gather, and collect all the major players – the remaining 11 apostles in Judas’ absence, and the women who’d followed Jesus, and Mary, Jesus’ mom, who appears to have been an important figure in the early church as well.
They all get together and what do they do first?
Verse 14 says they devote themselves to prayer. And it’s clear this wasn’t just a perfunctory opening prayer to launch into a bunch of committee work.
The text says “they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.”
My maternal grandmother had a number of well-known sayings in our family. One of the funniest – yet most pragmatic – was the simple reminder: “always stop before you go!”
(If you picture yourself gathering a group of kids for a road trip, loading up the car, and preparing for a few hours’ drive, the saying will instantly make sense to you: “always stop before you go” and then you’ll need fewer pit stops along the way!)
I was thinking, though, that it’s good advice for us in a variety of contexts, isn’t it?
Always stop, before you go.
It certainly works in a more general sense. Pause and reflect, before you jump in. Look before you leap. Measure twice; cut once, and all that. (Jesus was a carpenter, after all.)
But more importantly, in the context of our friends the first disciples, stop first to pray. Stop to remember who called you to this task in the first place. Stop to offer worship and praise to the God who both created and called you. Stop to ask for God’s help. Stop to listen for God’s direction. Stop to remember God’s gracious promises, like the ones we heard last week: that God is always with you, so you need not fear.
Always stop, before you go.
Every time the Church actually remembers to wait and pray before launching a new effort, we remind ourselves that the Church is God’s church.
And that the Church didn’t and doesn’t invent itself. It is always called and formed by God.
William Willimon observes that waiting is a real “burden for us… impatient moderns who live in an age of instant everything,” but “our waiting implies that the things which need doing in our world are beyond our ability to accomplish solely by our own effort… Some other empowerment is needed, therefore the church waits and prays.” (Acts, p. 21)
The disciples had been “given a job to do and [promised] the power with which to do it.” (Willimon, Acts, p. 20)
But first, they had to stop.
To remember who was in charge.
And to wait on power, direction, and guidance from the Holy Spirit.
Because sometimes the most important question isn’t: what should we do next? But what is God already doing? Where is God’s Spirit moving?
Once that becomes a bit clearer, we’ll often find an answer to the question of what we should be doing, as participants in God’s work.
The book of Acts begins with the Church being formed. And it turns out the Church is formed by waiting and prayer, by power from the Holy Spirit, and guidance from God.
By the very next chapter, the Church will find opportunities to speak itself into being, you might say, as Peter and the others give words to their experience of Jesus’ resurrection and identify themselves publicly as his followers. They’ve got a lot to say, and we’ll find they’re about to start preaching up a storm!
Thank God they knew enough to stop, before they got going.