Remain in the city…and breathe

by Edrin Williams

Text: Acts 1:1-11

The book of Acts gives us a look at the identity of the early church and the work of the Spirit in the life of the church. This book is Luke’s important historical account of the expansion of the church from a relatively small group in Jerusalem to a movement that reached the entire Roman world and then kept going! Jesus took a small group of average disciples and empowered them with his Spirit for radical mission.

Just like those first Christians, Jesus has called us to himself as his witnesses. God’s mission moves forward in full cooperation with God’s people. Though God has all power, God chooses to work in partnership with God’s people, which we see in the lives of ordinary people doing extraordinary things through the power of God. Think about Peter, Paul, Stephen, Priscilla, Aquila, Barnabas, Lydia, and others. In studying Acts, we can catch a clear vision for what it means for us to play our role in the mission of God.

I don’t know what your story is, how people have treated you in your past, but regardless of who you are, regardless of what people may have said you could not do and what you could not accomplish, God is calling you now to step forward. Willie James Jennings of Yale Divinity School, in his commentary on Acts, says we are not just looking at the birth of the church here, we are looking at the fact that the revolution has begun. The story of the church begins with newness, with the newness of a resurrected Jesus—not with an idea or a memory or a doctrine or a principle. This revolution, this story begins with the resurrected Jesus, an otherwise impossible reality. Jesus, who was flesh and blood, had been killed, had been crushed by a religious system on the one hand and a political system with seemingly unlimited military might on the other. At Calvary, an unholy alliance between the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman political leaders came together and took the life of Jesus in a most inhumane way. Yet, after being crushed by a system, Jesus is resurrected!

Jesus is now here standing with his disciples. He has been appearing with them over forty days, still teaching them about the kingdom of Heaven, still giving instructions, still pointing them towards something far greater than anything their minds could make sense of at the time. Death could not stop the birth of the church and the beginning of this revolution. The religious and political authorities misunderstood Jesus’s teaching and mission. When they killed him, they thought they were ending this movement, but they were actually helping give birth to a revolution, a global, eternal church that would impact humanity forever. Jesus has called us together as church and calls us to be God’s witnesses in the world, not so we can simply “hold things together,” but so that we might live and work and serve with the resurrection and eternity in mind.

When you think about your faith, when you think about your participation in the life of the church, do you have eternity and the resurrection of Jesus in mind? When you worship in song, and serve in the congregation, do you do this with eternity and resurrection in mind?

I grew up in the countryside in South Carolina, in the most rural part. When I was a kid, there were many days when there was not a lot to do and so I would often find myself outdoors laying in the grass somewhere staring up at the clouds—no, this not some Huckleberry Finn movie, this is my life! I had this activity of trying to imagine how long eternity was. If eternity is real, I would ponder, how long is that period that I will be with Jesus, being kept by his grace? How long will that be? Over my life I have kept up that practice, that is to say, to remind myself to always keep eternity in mind. Because if I lose sight of eternity, I begin to lose sight of the hope that I have in Jesus.

These first verses in the book of Acts remind us of who we are, who our Lord is, what we have been called to be and do as the church, and what we have been given to accomplish it all.

In verses 4 and 5, Jesus has gathered his disciples for a final meal—the real “last supper.” I imagine the disciples gathered around Jesus, listening even more intently than normal. I can imagine Jesus taking his time, and though they are sharing a meal, he is still teaching. He is handing off a huge responsibility to them, and in that moment, he tells them to remain in the city and wait on the gift of the Spirit. Jesus tells his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit, the Breath of God.

Where the Spirit of God is, there is life. There is no life without breath. There is no breath without the Spirit. Where there is life there is breath, and where there is no breath there is no life. Jesus is helping his disciples to understand what police in many cities sometimes seem to have forgotten—that the body needs breath. Jesus teaches us here with these closing words what it takes (protests and demonstrations and all forms of civil unrest) for authorities to understand. The body is no good when you restrict its breath. If you love the body, if you respect the body, if you see value in the body, you don’t deprive the body of breath. As so many people have filled our streets over these last few weeks, this is why we hear this cry in the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul: I can’t breathe!

We are to remain in the city and wait for that breath.

I want to encourage those who are in the streets, serving the community, chanting and living out that protest, that Jesus knows your suffering and pain. Jesus knows the weight of a society’s knee on your neck. And Jesus says, I will give you my Spirit.

In verse 6, the disciples become concerned with things that were outside the scope of their authority, asking about the timetable for restoring Israel to power, what the strategy will be and what their roles will be in the new kingdom. Perhaps they imagine they will be lieutenants or vice presidents? Jesus replies by refocusing the disciples’ attention on the mission. It is not for them to know the dates and times. The Father has set those things by his authority.

Instead of focusing on that, in verse 8 Jesus tells them to remember that they will be given power—Spirit, Breath—and that they are receiving this power so that they can be Jesus’s witnesses here in Jerusalem, to Samaria, and reaching to the ends of the earth.

We are reminded today not to get caught up in fixating on matters that have not been given us to worry about. Instead by the power of the Spirit, we are called to be his witnesses here, there, and everywhere. That is what we should be focused on, being witnesses. And that doesn’t simply mean sharing “four spiritual laws.” When we talk about being witnesses here at Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, we are talking about sharing the good news of Jesus in word and deed.

Jesus offers us a great lesson. When we are feeling distracted and not quite sure what we should be doing as followers of Jesus, we’ve got to return to the basics, return to the mission. When we’re lacking motivation and inspiration, or feeling ineffective and unable to muster up any strength to keep going—return to the mission. Rest in the power of the Holy Spirit. The mission of the church matters because it focuses, inspires, and empowers us. In the midst of all the things swirling around us, let us not forget to be the church.

Lately our church lobby and parking lot have been filled with people serving the community. We started out serving hot dogs and water in the midst of the chaos that followed the death of our brother George Floyd, and that has grown into something that is far more substantial than anything any of us could have imagined. Brothers and sisters from all over the Twin Cities have been coming to our church to receive much needed supplies and food. Outside these doors we are being the church. This all started when we posted a few pictures of what we were doing on social media, and then a brother from our community also posted a video. This video showed cars continually driving up and dropping off supplies, and long lines of people waiting to receive those items. The message this brother posted was: “this is actually happening; this is the church.” He reminded us that we are being the church. How can we be witnesses in the world if the world never sees us? In the midst of pain and suffering, in the midst of food insecurity, God has not forgotten us.

In verse 9, after Jesus is taken up into heaven, the disciples are left standing there looking up at the clouds. Two messengers appear to them and ask them this question, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?” Jesus has gone, and Jesus will come again. These messengers offer a word of comfort, but I also see a word of challenge to the disciples here. They must pay attention to the in-between.

“Why do you stand here?” What will you do with the in-between time? We can understand this time in terms of seconds and minutes and hours. Yes, there is a day when Jesus will return. There is certainly chronological time (Chronos) indicated in this passage. But there is also a different sense of time, the Kairos meaning of time, that is the “fullness of time.” These are special moments when we have the opportunity to especially be the church. I believe that right now, right here in the city of Minneapolis, our church is in Kairos time. We are in a moment when God is calling us to our mission. None of us knew this was coming, that we would be here in this moment in this year, 2020. But God has been preparing us.

I believe those messengers who appeared to the disciples were saying, “don’t waste this moment.” Let us not waste this moment, this opportunity that we have to be the church. There has perhaps never been a moment when the city of Minneapolis needed to see the church show up more than this one. The city needs to hear that God has not forgotten about them. Minneapolis needs to see all of the churches of the city serving people in real and tangible ways.

I want to encourage us, don’t just stand there looking up into heaven. Let us use this time to serve the city, let us give ourselves on behalf of others. God will honor our faithfulness, and our faithfulness honors God. God has given us a moment—let us use this time!

Father, thank you that you have called us to this time and space. Thank you that you have not forgotten about us. God, I pray that you would use your church to heal this land. Be with us today, Jesus. Amen.