Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 8, 2016.
Taken from Acts 1:1-11
A few years ago, I came across this quote that was taken from an academic study: “In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things….But we are doing better than we did.”
When I read that, I thought, “Man! Haven’t we all been there?” It’s a rare and honest admission from a person who was not being paid to be confused. I’ll read it again for you in a moment, but let me give you some context.
This quote comes from a book published in 1951 entitled The Workshop Way of Learning. It was written by a professor at Wayne State University named Earl Kelley.
Throughout the 1940’s, Wayne State offered an annual training workshop for high school teachers. After a decade of hosting these workshops, Dr. Kelley was given the job of assessing the worth of these workshops and, then, to recommend how the workshops should proceed. So, Dr. Kelley does his study, then he writes up his findings. In his introduction, Dr. Kelly wrote this:
We have not succeeded in answering all our problems—indeed we sometimes feel we have not completely answered any of them. The answers we have found have only served to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things. So this report does not purport to give final answers, or to claim that we now “know how to do it”…. But we are doing better than we did.1
I somehow feel that Luke might have included such a statement in his first draft of the Book of Acts. Luke offers an introductory summary of what happened in those forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, when Jesus led his remaining eleven disciples in reviewing the sacred Scriptures, as Jesus assessed the meaning of his public ministry, as he invited these Eleven to understand all of it in the light of Easter morning.
Does not Dr. Kelley’s honest introduction so well express the state of these Eleven, as Luke introduces them to us on this first page of the Book of Acts: The answers we have found have only served to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.
But, Luke instead chooses to introduce Acts this way, in verses 1 and 2: ‘In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.’ 2
The first book to which Luke refers, of course, is his Gospel account. If we take a moment to look back over into the last chapter of Luke’s first book, we can read there how Jesus worked with his followers over those critical forty days. Luke concludes in chapter 24, verses 45-46, ‘Then he [that is, Jesus] opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written….”’
This in-depth review and interpretation Jesus does with the Eleven until, as Luke closes out his Gospel account, Jesus ‘led them out as far as Bethany….as was carried up into heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy….’ (vv. 50-52)
Well, Luke knew what he was going to go on into his second book, the Book of Acts, so he sort of glossed over things there right at the end about what happened in that moment that Jesus ascended up into Heaven. He picks it all up again here, for us, in Acts, chapter 1, verses 1-11.
To paraphrase Luke, recalling where I left off in my last book, dear reader, where I described how Jesus opened up the disciples’ minds to understand everything and laid it all out for them, well…you know how you can lead a horse to water? Yeah, that’s pretty much the situation on this Day of Ascension.
Just imagine it! Eleven guys, standing up on top of this hill, hands on hips, looking up in the sky like they just dropped something valuable. But instead of falling down onto the ground, it fell up into the clouds! Now, they’re standing there, staring up. “Dang! Can you see him? I can’t see him.” “Where’d he go? Is that him? No! That’s a buzzard.” “Well, maybe once all these clouds disappear, we can catch sight of him if he hasn’t drifted off too far.”
In Heaven, I can just imagine God the Father and Jesus, also standing there, hands on hips, watching these guys down on earth. God says, “Well, Jesus, what’d ya think? They’re your disciples; are they just gonna keep standing there all day?!” And, Jesus would answer, “Yep, they’re my disciples alright. Better give ‘em a little push!”
(Do you think Jesus, by the time he finished his three year or so ministry, had more grey hairs on his head than when he started? You know, the whole Incarnation idea is that Jesus was fully human. So, maybe by the time he finished he had a few more grey hairs, put there not by the Pharisees or the Sadducees but put there by his own disciples?)
So, poof! These two messengers in white robes, appear. And, yes, I think they are meant to remind us of the two messengers in white robes who appeared on Easter morning in the empty tomb, who had to tell the women, “You’re not going to find him here…go back to Jerusalem!”
They function almost as prompters who have to move folks along, to keep the action going.
These two call out, in verse 11, “Excuse us, Men of Galilee! But, what are you doing? He’s gonna come back, but not just right now, o.k.?” So, the Eleven pack it in; they go back to Jerusalem where they’ve been staying these past forty days or so. Perhaps, as they walk, they say among themselves, in the words of Dr. Kelley, “In some ways, we feel that we are as confused as ever, but at least now we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things, whatever those things may be. We just don’t know.”
They don’t know. In fact, “we just don’t know” could have been their motto. At every twist and turn on their three-year walk with Jesus, these Eleven plus one—Judas Iscariot—consistently were confused and confounded over what Jesus told them and showed them. They lived pretty much in a constant state of discombobulation.
That’s a wonderful word to put on their predicament…they are discombobulated. It means “to throw into a state of confusion…to cause to be unclear in mind or intent.” These Twelve demonstrated their discombobulation over and over, sometimes in very embarrassing ways.
Such as in Luke, chapter 9, when Jesus catches them arguing with each other over who among them is the greatest (Lk 9:46). As in, “Yeah, I know Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite!” (That was on a bumper sticker Karen once saw.) Something along those lines.
Sometimes their confusion was tragic, as in John chapter 9, when they walk right up to a blind beggar sitting there on the curb and in a pathetic attempt to impress Jesus, they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” This guy was blind, but he wasn’t deaf! How did that make him feel, hearing them say that?
Other times, their discombobulation was just comical. As in that time that Matthew 16 records for us. You recall that day: Jesus has been arguing with the Pharisees and the Sadducees over some point of law. Then, Jesus and the Twelve got into a boat to sail across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus tells his disciples, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
So, Matthew tells us, the disciples start whispering among themselves, “What do you think he meant by that, scolding us about leaven?” Finally, they conclude, Jesus was rebuking them for forgetting to bring bread along for the trip. So, Jesus had to spell it out for them. “I’m talking about the teaching…Beware the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, not actual bread!” “Oh,” say the disciples, “now we get it.”
Finally, they have suffered through the horror of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. They have reveled in his resurrection. They have enjoyed these forty days of his presence among them. Jesus has comforted them, restored them, taught even more about the meaning of his mission.
Now, Jesus meets with the Eleven once more on this significant place called the Mount of Olives. He tells them, go back to Jerusalem. Stay there until you receive this baptism, this gift, of God’s Holy Spirit. “Finally!” the Eleven must have thought to themselves, “this is it! It’s all finished, over and done with!” They ask, “Lord, so at this time are you restoring the kingdom to Israel?”
Now, that is a reasonable question for them to ask Jesus. They have about 2,000 years of sacred history backing them up; they have their Sacred Scriptures, they have the collected teachings of their best scribes and rabbis. Now, they have the Resurrected One, the Messiah. They have every reason to think they’ve got the all the pieces of the puzzle laid out before them, and now, God is going to put it all together in this one, grand picture: the restored Kingdom of God on earth, headquartered there, in Israel, in Jerusalem.
How truly disorienting it had to be for them, when Jesus responds, “I can’t really say. But, I’m leaving now. God will send God’s own Holy Spirit upon you. And, then, you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” That was a total disconnect from what they were expecting. It’s been that way since the day they took up with Jesus by the shores of the Sea of Galilee; it ends that way here on the Mount of Olives (v. 12), this last time they ever see Jesus on earth. They are discombobulated.
If we were to work our way right on through this Book of Acts, we would see that it just keeps on happening…they receive this promised gift of God’s own Spirit among them. But, they discover, this is not the end point in God’s creative movement among humanity. Instead, they discover God launching them out in some totally unexpected directions, always unfolding before them a path they never expected to be traveling.
This Way of the Nazarene, this is a spiritual movement birthed out of the womb of Judaism. Why wouldn’t they expect, then, that they would continue as a new form, a new practice, within Judaism? I’m pretty sure if we were in their shoes back then, that’s exactly what we’d expect, too?
Well, in way, we are sort of in their shoes. As I mentioned a moment ago, they had roughly 2,000 years of sacred history under their belts. Well, we sitting here this morning, we have about 2,000 years of sacred Christian history under our collective belts, don’t we?
These followers of Jesus had their sacred Scriptures of the Law and the Prophets and the Writings, the Hebrew Bible. Well, we have all that plus our own 26 books we call our New Testament.
They had their collected teachings of the scribes and rabbis interpreting the Hebrew Canon; it’s called the Talmud. My goodness, do we ever have our own Christian Talmud! Libraries full of commentary on top of commentary, we’ve got. Throw on top of that all the stuff coming from every Christian pastor with an opinion, a computer and an internet connection.
In the minds of so many today, as was true for these Eleven on that day on the Mount of Olives, it’s as if Jesus has finished up all there is to know, do or say about the Kingdom! But, Jesus seems to keep on telling us what Jesus told these poor folks back there on that hilltop: “I can’t really tell you that. I’m leaving. God will send God’s own Holy Spirit upon you. And, then, you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth until God says it’s done.”
Translated, Jesus was telling them and us don’t plan to stay put…you can’t be going and staying all at the same time. Geographically, psychologically, theologically, methodologically, spiritually…you have got to keep your walking shoes on because the journey’s not over.
So, the story of God’s work among the human family keeps on unfolding in unexpected ways. The kingdom of God is like trying to nail Jello to the wall—it won’t stay put where we want it. I don’t like that. I like order and predictability.
I could stand here and tell you in great detail exactly where my bedroom slippers are at this very moment sitting in the bedroom. I could draw you a map, detailing in our walk-in closet where you would find hanging my dress clothes and my blue jeans.
The blue jeans, of course, I subdivide into three categories. Working from front of the closet to the back, you would find my dress blue jeans (2 pairs), then my casual around-the-house jeans (2 pairs) and then, finally, my lawn-mowing grungy work jeans (approximately 1 and ¾ pairs). I love Jesus, I love my wife, but by golly, they best not mess with my closet ‘cause I love that, too.
But, if I bring all that expectation of order and predictability to Jesus, you know what Jesus is going to do? Jesus is going to look me in the eye and go, “Really?” Here, he would say to me, “Let Dr. Jesus write you a prescription; there’s medication available for people like you, ‘cause you’re gonna need it if you follow me!” So, I take my pills and hang on for wherever the Spirit of the Living Christ is leading.
So must we all, hang on and follow where the Living Christ leads, here in University Baptist Church and every other Christian church here in this year of our Lord, 2016. Of course, the prescription Dr. Jesus writes for us is not available at our pharmacy. It is, instead, what Dr. Jesus dispenses from waters of the baptistery and from the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper table.
We enter those waters to die with Christ, so that we may rise and live in the new life which Christ himself died and rose to give us. We eat of his body and drink of his blood to remind ourselves that this business of following Jesus is not an easy outing to be taken lightly. It’s life, it’s death, it’s the cross. And, thank God, it is resurrection.
The same Spirit of God who resurrected the crucified Jesus, stands ready to resurrect this part of the body of Christ called University Baptist Church, along with every other gathering of every other person, who follow the Way of Jesus in this world.
The same Spirit who transformed Jesus’ sacrificed life into a transcendent life that could not be contained, seeks to transform this congregation’s life into a transcendent life that will not be contained. It’s a risky thing we do. It is a seriously discombobulating thing we do. But how dare we do anything other than follow the One we know as Savior and Lord?
We may take this comfort, at least: Jesus invites us to tolerate that disquieting experience of discipleship, so may we pursue matters higher and to do things more important and better than what we would do if left to our own devices. It is true for you and me, personally, and it is true for us together as a church on the Way with Christ Jesus, who will day one come again in that glorious community of love we call, the Kingdom of God.
1 from blog, The Quote Investigator: Exploring the Origins of Quotations, July 11, 2010; http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/07/11/confused/
2 exegetical resources taken from F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979) pp. 30-42; and Frank Stagg, The Book of Acts: The Early Struggle for an Unhindered Gospel, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1955), pp. 28-40.