Summary: As with the Apostles, today’s Church is called to be the Church in mission. This short sermon also emphasises that we must not ’star gaze’. We are simply to be involved in God’s mission.
Sadly as I preach this morning there will be ‘preachers’ stating that Jesus did not ascend vertically into heaven; and whilst I will not today have the opportunity to challenge such false teachers let’s remind ourselves of this: After appearing to the disciples “many times in ways that proved beyond doubt that he was alive” (GNB Acts 1:3) Jesus could not simply disappear never to return. True, Jesus had told them he was going to return to his Father (John 14:3 & 14:28); but after being raised from the dead (Luke 24:6) and appearing to his disciples several times (Luke 24:15 & 24:36) they had to know he really had gone! It makes complete sense to believe in a vertical ascension because it told the disciples that Jesus was now gone and it marked the start of the period of waiting which Jesus commanded: He said, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about” (Acts 1:4); the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The book of Acts is written by the same author as the gospel of Luke. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Dr Luke is therefore responsible for a sizeable chunk of the New Testament and in this, his second volume, it’s neither fair nor accurate to refer simply to The Acts of the Apostles, even though the book is often known by that name! Some Bible commentators call it The Acts of the Holy Spirit since the book contains the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled the believers (Acts 2:4) and the book is full of works inspired by the same Holy Spirit of Jesus. However, I am indebted to John Stott’s careful analysis in his commentary on Acts. He points out that a much more accurate, albeit cumbersome title would be: The continuing words and deeds of Jesus by his Spirit through his Apostles. Such a phrase truly does justice to Acts 1:1-2 where Luke states that Jesus gave instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. Friends, the Christ of glory is at work through his Church today and will be so to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20)!
Turning to lessons for us from this opening portion of Acts I want to draw out two points on this occasion:
1: Jesus’ commission to his disciples to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8) is ongoing. It was not simply a command to those first apostles. It is also for us. At the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus puts it like this: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Since Jesus had been crucified and was raised in Jerusalem, and since Jerusalem was the place where the disciples were told to wait, that was where the mission was to begin. It was then to spread to Judea (the rest of the country), and to Samaria (the place where the despised, heretical, not really proper Jews lived) and then to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Whilst our home is Billericay and not Jerusalem the principle is the same. Mission begins at home, and it must include the rest of our locality, our country and the ends of the earth. Therefore, we must stop thinking of mission as something which we go and do to people in foreign lands! Mission is also being done to us by missionaries from other lands, and we are also missionaries to our own town. Our Youth Outreach Worker Mark is a missionary to the young people of Billericay. Sylvia Knightbridge and others are missionaries to the bereaved in our town. Jane Tolaini and here team are missionaries especially to young Mums and their children. Richard Dresner and the Dambusters team on a Saturday morning are missionaries to Dads and their children.
2: We must not be sky gazers like the disciples were after Jesus had disappeared from their sight (1:11). Two men dressed in white appear beside them – probably the same angels in Luke 24:4 at the tomb.
“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 back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (1:11).
Jesus told them their mission will be both local and global and yet here they are gazing into the sky! It’s no different for us. Spiritual star-gazing or even institutional naval-gazing serve only to distract us from the mission into which Jesus calls us. Preoccupation with prophecy or with the date of the return of Jesus can result in a Church which fails to be missionary and therefore fails to be Church. As Jesus himself said, it is not for us “to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (1:7). We are called to be the Church in mission until either he returns or until he calls us home; and for most of us that means being an ambassador for Jesus in the street we live in, amongst the people we meet, and in the clubs and societies we belong to.