I’m pretty excited today because we are beginning a brand-new series in which we study the book of Acts. Acts is a book that picks up right at the end of Jesus’ life and work on this earth. It chronicles the Early Christian Church and their struggles to maintain faith in Jesus and share Jesus in a society that was very much against Jesus. I’m particularly excited because I think we can learn a lot from this group and its early escapades.
Still – you might say:
Why are we studying the Early Church? That was over 2000 years ago. A lot has changed. We have iPhones. We have self-driving cars. We have Starbucks Coffee. We have the ability to order something at Walmart online and pick up curbside.
How, in the world, are we similar to the Early Church?
A lot of ways:
The Early Church was a relatively small group of people
We are a relatively small group of people.
The early church was trying to share Jesus with their community.
We are trying to share Jesus with our community.
The Early Church faced a society that was hostile to Christianity.
We face an American society increasingly hostile to Christianity.
The Early church was led by God.
We too are led by God.
We are very similar to the early Church. In a lot of ways, they underwent the same challenges that we are going through. Study their values, their goals, and their errors – will teach us some very important lessons.
Today we are beginning that journey in Acts 1. It’s the last interaction with Jesus and his disciples before he leaves them. Our goal is to listen to Jesus words, analyze them and take to heart a few valuable words about mission work here in North Raleigh. Before we do that, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The End of One Mission
Acts 1 is where we are going to be to start. “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.”
A couple of notes:
The book of Acts was written by a guy named Luke. When he talked about his “former book”, it’s a reference to a book in the Bible called – “Luke.” That book is all about Jesus’ life, ministry and death.
Interesting to note that Luke, as a character in his own historical account, doesn’t appear in the Gospel of Luke. In fact, he doesn’t appear in the book of Acts until about 2/3 of the way through the story. That’s important because it means Luke was not an eyewitness of most of his accounts. However, Luke was a journalist. A scholarly journalist. He investigated thoroughly the accounts of Jesus and the Early Church in order to write down first-and accounts of what happened.
His first book focused on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
His second – on what takes place next.
Acts is the sequel. It’s the part two. It’s the Empire Strikes Back to Star Wars. It’s Weekend at Bernie’s II to Weekend at Bernie’s.
That’s why these first couple of verses require some knowledge of the first book. Because in the climax of the book of Luke, Jesus dies. He is killed on the cross. But then, three days later (spoiler alert) he comes back to life. After he comes back to life he presented himself to his disciples and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
That’s because Jesus had died. The disciples had seen him die. Most dead people stayed dead.
It was hard to believe he had come back to life. And when the disciples first saw him – they were frightened and figured that they had seen a ghost or a vision or some kind of illusion.
If you read Luke’s book, you can read about those convincing proofs.
He appears to some women at the tomb.
He appears to two disciples on the road.
He appears to his disciples in a locked room.
He appears again and again to remove the disciples fears and convince them – HE IS ALIVE!
Fast Forward to the book of Acts. It’s the end of the 40 days. Jesus has appeared to them throughout those 40 days. The disciples are no longer frightened, and their doubts have dissipated.
So…they ask Jesus a question:
Lord, are you at this time going to restore your kingdom to Israel? (v.6)
Are you finally going to put the Roman government in its place?
Are you finally going to take your place as ruler on earth?
Are you going to set up a Christian Utopia here in Jerusalem?
Are you going to give us spots as princes and judges and cabinet members?
Are you going to get a palace where we can each lay down in a hammock, while someone waves a palm branch to cool us and someone else feeds us grapes?
Are you at this time going to restore your kingdom to Israel?
We could get into the inaccurate soteriology of the disciples.
We could discuss their incomplete understanding of God’s Will.
We could talk about their complete failure to correctly apply Messianic prophecy.
But for our purposes, it might be best to simply paraphrase Jesus’ response to their question.
The disciples ask: Lord, are you at this time going to restore your kingdom to Israel?
Jesus replies, “No.”
II. The Beginning of Another
But Jesus doesn’t dwell there. Look at his comments in verse 8. Because in verse 8, Jesus completely reverses the disciples’ concept of what comes next. Look at Jesus’ words:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (v.8)
(1) Spiritual, not Structural
The disciples had this concept of Jerusalem being actually, physically rebranded. They pictured the population sign being changed from “Jerusalem” to “Christ-a-topia.” They thought the Roman flagged being dropped and replaced by a flag with a giant cross. They figured that the “Knights of Columbus – Jerusalem Chapter;” would soon become the “Knights of Columbus – Jesus City Chapter.”
But they were wrong.
Jesus was never interested in setting up a physical kingdom of earth.
It didn’t ask for a throne.
He didn’t ask for political power.
He didn’t want the title of President.
He was interested in people’s hearts. He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
The Holy Spirit works through God’s Word.
The Holy Spirit brings people to faith.
The Holy Spirit builds people in faith.
The Holy Spirit builds people into God’s kingdom.
The Holy Spirit builds people as God’s kingdom.
Do you see the twist? The disciples thought that God’s kingdom would be a physical, geographical location.
Jesus taught that God’s kingdom would be spiritual.
That’s important for us to remember.
Precious Lambs’ expansion is getting closer and closer to completion. Trees are planted; the building is painted; inspections are done to start getting drywall hung in the building. Soon it’ll be complete. Soon it’ll be filled with children. Soon it’ll be a fixture of North Raleigh.
But that’s not the end game.
Our goal is not to simply cut the red ribbon.
Our goal is to use that building to build connections to the community.
Our goal is to use that building to build souls into Christ.
Our goal is to use that building to build God’s kingdom.
Remember – God’s kingdom is spiritual, not structural.
That (school) building is not the end.
This (church) building is not the end.
Jesus in people’s hearts is the end.
(2) Not on the Sidelines Anymore
The disciples had asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore...” They had this picture of Jesus heading out and giving speeches. Of Jesus physically leading the charge against the Romans and knocking out entire armies simply by calling down fire from heaven.
But that’s not how Jesus says it will work. Check out verse 8b. Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses.”
For years, the disciples had been on the sideline.
They had cheered Jesus on.
They had watched safely on the sidelines.
It was time to get in the game.
And that’s even more shocking when you consider who the disciples were:
“You” as in the disciples.
“You” as in Doubting Thomas.
“You” as in too nervous to say anything at my trial John.
“You” as in unknown, unimportant seeming Simon the Zealot.
“You” as in racist Nathanael.
“You” as in greedy Philip.
“You” as in loud mouthed, thinking without talking, denial of Jesus, Peter.
Since it is recorded for us to read…
“You” as in “you.”
Sinful, imperfect you.
That’s so important to remember. Because it is so easy to feel like “God could never work through me.”
I’m too old.
I’m too young.
I’m too quiet.
I’m too loud.
I’m too sinful.
But if you believe in Jesus, you have the Holy Spirit.
If you have the Holy Spirit, God has chosen you to be a part of his kingdom.
If you are a part of his kingdom, you aren’t just a brick. You’re a builder: God has tasked you with building his kingdom.
And God will build his kingdom through you.
He just might not build it where you expect.
(3) Not Local, but Global
Because again - final twist - the disciples asked Jesus if he was going to rebuild the kingdom “in Jerusalem.” With Jewish people, who spoke the Jewish language and celebrated Jewish holidays and got together to talk about how great the Jewish people were.
But look at Jesus’ response: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (v.8b)
Jesus didn’t want the message to stay with the Jews.
Jesus wanted all places.
You know – places like Raleigh.
Places like Durham.
Places like Chapel Hill.
Places like Morrisville, Zebulon and Fuquay-Varina.
Do you understand?
And that’s our goal. Our goal is to #GatherToTheGarden. It is to Plant the Message of Jesus in the Hearts of North Raleigh.
Notice it doesn’t say, “To plant the message of Jesus in the Hearts of People who look like us…in North Raleigh.”
It doesn’t say, “Plant the message of Jesus in the Hearts of People who talk like us…in North Raleigh.”
It doesn’t even say, “Plant the message of Jesus in the Hearts of people who think like us…in North Raleigh.”
Plant the message of Jesus –everywhere.
Which is a bit intimidating.
Intimidating for us…and we’ve got over 100 gathered today.
The disciples. There were less than 12.
And they were supposed to bring the message to the ends of the earth?
And then, Jesus does something that makes the situation even more intimidating.
Because as he is talking…
As he is finishing his speech…
As he is smiling in their direction…
His feet lift off.
There’s about 6 inches of space between him and the ground – and the space keeps increasing.
Suddenly, Jesus is going up and up and up…
…like he’s a balloon without a balloon.
…Like he’s a kite only there’s not a kite.
…Like he’s being lifted by a drone, only drones are about 2000 years away from being invented.
He ascends past the trees.
He ascends past the birds.
He ascends past the clouds.
And the disciples – are stupefied.
In part, because that was incredible.
In part, because “HE LEFT THEM!?!” How can they ever continue his mission?
As the disciples are staring up into the sky…
They don’t notice two men join them.
“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come bac kin the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (v.11)
In other words, stop looking up.
Start looking around.
That’s what Jesus has called us to do.
Stop looking up.
He’s up there watching over you.
Stop waiting for Jesus to come back.
Stop waiting for Jesus to do the work.
He works through you.
Stop looking up.
Start looking around.
Start building his kingdom. Amen.