Acts chapter 1 stared 40 days after the resurrection of Jesus. After the disciples had been shocked and heartbroken by the death of their teacher, mentor, and leader, he came back to them through a mighty act of God; a miracle that no one had seen before. Here, in Acts 1, the disciples are reunited with their beloved teacher. Jesus again spends his days with his followers and talks to them about the upcoming Kingdom of God. All is well. They have their leader back, they can go out and do the work again with him leading the way!
Except … after 40 days of being reunited, Jesus says something rather cryptic and then without warning rises up into the heavens right in front of the disciple’s eyes and vanishes. I can only imagine what must have gone through the disciples’ minds. “Where is Jesus going? Is he coming back again? Are we supposed to wait here for him? Is he playing a prank on us?”
Really, can you blame the disciples for standing there, immobile, staring into the heavens with a look of shock and confusion on their faces? What did Jesus mean with the last words he said? “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” How are the disciples supposed to follow these vague instructions? Can this even be called instructions? And how will they be able to keep going if their leader is no longer there guiding the crowd?
As the disciples are standing immobile, staring into nothingness, they must have been questioning whether they would be able to keep the movement going without Jesus there to mentor them. They were prone to making mistakes and misunderstanding what they were supposed to do. Who would correct them now, if Jesus was no longer there to play that role? Did he really just abandon them? Again? Jesus asked them to be witnesses to him, but how can they be a witness to someone who is not with them?
It is likely that fears arose within the disciples. They had left everything behind for Jesus. Some of them literally walked away from their jobs and even their families. Will they have to return to their homes with their heads bowed low, asking to have their old jobs back? They were still facing the chance of persecution for being disciples of Jesus. Their lives were in real danger for following Christ. As the apostles are standing there with their mouths a little open, staring into the empty space where they last saw their leader, mentor, and friend who just left them without warning, they must have realized that they were truly in a pickle.
The situation the disciples were in at this moment in Acts is actually quite relatable to being a Christian in our time and place. Admitting to being a Christian is not always met with positive reactions in this world we live in. In fact, there are many reasons why Christians these days try to hide their faith from other areas of life. Outside this faith community and others like it, the term “Christian” is often equated to hurtful and negative images, such as homophobic, misogynistic, or racist.
You all know this. Maybe you have felt the tension at your workplace. The fact that we request Sundays off has enraged bosses as well as co-workers alike. Have you ever felt the need to hide your Christian faith during a job interview? I know I have. There have definitely been times when I feared that I would not be given the position simply because I would need Sundays off. It’s not always easy being a Christian in this world.
I would bet on the fact that most of you, if not all of you, have had to defend your Christian belief at some point in your life. You have had to explain that you are not “like them”, those who cast a negative image of Christians in general, those who exclude and hate. And other times, surely, you weren’t even given the chance to explain or defend your faith in Jesus. You were immediately written off. These times can feel almost like a modern day persecution. Granted, we might not fear for our lives here and now as the disciples did, but we do at times fear for our jobs or our social network. And in other places of the world, Christians are in fact facing real persecution, danger to their lives, simply because they are following Jesus.
So no, we are not that different from the apostles. At times we, too, are standing immobile, staring into the empty sky, wondering where the heck Jesus went and whether he is going to show back up again. We face not only pushback from society for being Christians, but we are also facing the fact that this world is broken. There is so much suffering, violence, and injustice happening. All we have to do, is turn on the news or read the front page of any given newspaper to realize this fact. We need to be a witness here and now. But what does that mean? Where is Jesus now? Who will lead us in this difficult time if Jesus is still absent? And so we continue to stare into the heavens just as the disciples did, eyes wide open, full of questions, looking for Jesus to come back and help us.
But the disciples did not stand there staring into the heavens for too long. As they were gazing, wondering about what just happened and what this means for the future, two messengers of God appeared to them. And they shooed the disciples along. “Why do you stand looking into the sky?” they ask the disciples. ‘Move! Go along and do what Jesus told you to do!’ is basically what they are telling the wide eyed and confused disciples. They are not to just stand there confused and feeling sorry for themselves. They have got work to do.
Although the disciples might not have realized this right away, the truth is that Jesus did not abandon them. He had brought them this far and now they were ready to go out there together as one force. Jesus had spent so much time with the disciples; intimate, quality time where they ate, walked, prayed, and learned together. He taught them about love so wide that no one would be excluded. He showed them an acceptance that no one had ever experienced before. An acceptance that included the social outcasts, the poor, and the sick. Jesus had built a community, a family with his disciples and now they were to continue the work together.
The disciples were not abandoned. Nor were they alone. They were instructed to do the work together. They, plural, were to be witnesses to Jesus. And once they managed to move past the shock of the moment, close their mouths, break their stare and snap out of it, the disciples went back to Jerusalem so that all of the core followers of Christ could be together again … and they prayed. Together, over time, and through prayer, they figured out what it means to be witnesses to Jesus.
They realized the importance of Jesus asking them to be witnesses together. This was not going to be a one-man show. This was about being a community of faith. This was about continuing Christ’s work together as one. And so, together, they went out and lived the way Jesus had taught them to. Together they preached the Good News, fed the hungry, loved the outcast and tried to make Jesus proud one day at a time.
Together, they lived lives in ways so counter-cultural and amazing that we still read their stories almost 2000 years later! The disciples became witnesses to Jesus in such an effective way, that we still look to them for guidance. And they did all of this, because they realized that Jesus would never be gone from the community of believers as long as they stayed together.
And that is precisely what Jesus calls us to do as well. We too are to work together and follow Christ’s way of life. No, we will not be able to undo all the injustice and pain in our world. We would be mistaken to think so. Jesus never ask us to bring forth the Kingdom of God. But he did ask us to be witnesses to that Kingdom in his name. And that, we can certainly do. Together, we can make a difference. Together, we can touch lives. We can be witnesses to Jesus for the world to see.
Together, we can teach the people and the world around us, what it truly means to be a Christian. We can show them the kindness and patience that God grants us. We can work to undo the negative connotations people have around the term “Christian”.
Together, we can embody the amazing love that Jesus lived, we can continue on the path the disciples went. Although we cannot feed all the hungry people in Boston, we can certainly learn the name of the homeless person we see on our way to work every day and carry an extra apple for her. We can ensure that no one needs to sit through a worship service on an empty stomach. And moreover, together, we can make sure that food stamps continue for those who need it most. We can be witnesses to Jesus.
Although we cannot clothe all the naked, we can certainly make sure that no one in our congregation or work place spends the winter without a proper jacket. We can support organizations that distribute gently used clothes to those who cannot afford to buy them. We can be witnesses to Jesus.
Although we cannot single handedly stop global warming, we can be good stewards to this earth, educate others and fight for environmental protection programs. We can be witnesses to Jesus. Although we cannot solve all the problems we face, we can certainly pray about them together and encourage one another to continue on and not lose hope. We can be witnesses to Jesus.
We are witnesses to Christ when we come together to work as a community of faith, together as one. And when we do that, we can see Jesus right here in the midst of us. Together we can manage to do what Jesus had envisioned for us. When we pray and work together alongside one another, then we realize that Jesus never actually left his disciples. Jesus never left us either. Jesus is in our community. Jesus is the community of faith. And together, we can be witnesses to Jesus, the one who ascended into heaven, but never actually left us. Now, we can stop staring into the sky, and instead look and find Jesus inside our very own community and the work that we do. Together, we are witnesses to Jesus.