I delivered this sermon on Acts 1:12-26 to LaSalle Street Church on 4/18/21. The manuscript is edited below for reading, the full service is here, and the sermon is embedded below.
Last week, Pastor Laura introduced our new series tracing the movement of the Holy Spirit through the book of Acts—how the Holy Spirit moved through the veins of the earliest Christians like sap through a tree in spring, and how the Holy Spirit is still moving among us. This week we’re continuing our journey with the early church in Acts.
Today our story starts with movement: “Then, [the disciples] returned to Jerusalem.”
If you ask me, Acts 1:12-26 is one of the most tender and poignant moments in all of Scripture. To understand what’s happening here, we need to zoom out a little. So, stay with me for a minute: I want us to try and imagine what it might have been like to be part of this fledgling community of Jesus-followers in their specific moment in time.
Like Laura mentioned, usually we think of Acts as the second volume of the story that begins with the ministry of Jesus in the gospel of Luke. The gospels are set in a time in which the Jewish people—the nation of Israel—is an occupied nation, occupied by the Roman empire. What that means practically is that Jews have some freedom to practice their faith and structure their lives according to their traditions, but they’re always aware that this freedom is fragile. They’re aware that any freedom they have is freedom that the Roman empire is extending to them, and they know that at any moment the Roman empire could take their freedom away. They’re taxed heavily, and they’re constantly reminded that as far as the empire is concerned, the true object of worship is the emperor.
Jesus comes onto the scene, and over a few years of ministry, a ragtag community of disciples forms around Jesus. They see him perform miracles and challenge their religious leaders with authority. They start to believe that he is the messiah they have been waiting for—the one who could restore Israel to power and free them from this oppression. Many of them leave their jobs and homes to travel with Jesus and sustain his ministry.
Jesus talks about a new kingdom, but he continually tries to warn the disciples that things aren’t going to go the way they expect—that, in fact, he is going to die and then be raised. The disciples don’t understand, and this teaching makes them afraid—it becomes the kind of thing they talk around and try to ignore.
Even up to the week of Jesus’ death, the disciples still seem to hold out hope that a political revolution is just around the corner. And then, in Jerusalem, everything changes. Over the course of a week, one week, everything that’s been building suddenly falls apart: Jesus is arrested, and his trial is a sham, and then he’s crucified. Imagine the trauma—this man they believed in isn’t just killed. He hangs, suffering, in the public square for hours and hours. It’s a humiliating defeat. Many of the disciples deflect, and some remain loyal. This isn’t how they thought it would end. Jesus is dead and buried. Now what?
And then: Just a few days later, everything changes again! Jesus returns to life. The resurrection isn’t spectacular or victorious—it’s quiet and secret. It starts as a rumor, and gradually more and more of the disciples bump into the resurrected Jesus, almost like they’re being called to follow him a second time. Can you imagine? Many of them had probably given up hope, and now, here’s Jesus again, in the flesh. What does this mean for Israel and the Roman empire? Now what?
Jesus spends a few more weeks with them on earth, and then we reach the part of the story we studied last week: After a few final words, Jesus departs. He ascends into heaven before their eyes. This charismatic and compassionate man has captured their hearts and consumed their lives for the last three years, and he leaves. So the community of disciples that has been drawn together by their passion for Jesus takes a short walk from the place where Jesus left them, called Olivet, back to Jerusalem. It’s only a mile away.
I imagine each of them on this walk with their heads spinning. Two months ago they thought they were on a victory march with Jesus to restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory. And then Holy Week happened. Maybe they’re each thinking about the specific memories they have with Jesus. So many of their basic assumptions about life no longer hold. The disciples gather together in the room where they’re staying, and then they enter into a tender, holy space: Now what? Now what?
“Now what?” is a space each of us know well, one way or another. It’s the space between letting go of one thing and starting a new thing.
For me, I’ve often entered that space on moving day. You move to a new city, a new apartment or house, and after all the stress of moving and packing and navigating unfamiliar roads, you’re sitting in a room exhausted, eating pizza on the floor, surrounded by boxes, thinking about the people you left, thinking about this new chapter: Who will your friends be? Where will you buy groceries? Where will we put the TV? Now what?
Or maybe for some of us, it’s the day we make the long drive to deliver the youngest child and their meager possessions to the dormitory where they’ll start college. You drive back to your house, and you open the door: The house sounds different now—it’s quieter. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something new. Now what?
Or maybe it’s that evening after the funeral is over, your fridge is full of leftovers from the potluck, and all the guests have traveled back to their homes. Finally you go back to the house, and it feels like a completely different world. What will life be like without them? What are we going to do for Thanksgiving and Christmas? Now what?
This space—the space of “Now what?”—is a holy space. It is the space in between who we were and who we are going to be.
It’s the space in between an old direction that no longer works and a new direction that is urging us forward. It’s the space between putting our old allegiances to death, and the resurrected life of new allegiance. And it’s an especially holy space for the new church in Acts. Remember: They don’t know what’s coming. They don’t have the book of Acts to read! They don’t even have the written gospels yet. Right now what they have is stories and the Spirit of God, and that’s enough.
So, what do they do? Two things. First, they pray, a lot. If you spend any time studying church history, you notice something—whenever something big happens in the history of the church, something revolutionary and world-changing, without fail, that big development emerges out of a community who is spending a lot of time in prayer. Here the disciples don’t know what’s going to happen next, but what they do know is that what they’re building is only going to last if they put themselves into a posture of welcoming God’s leading and direction. So they pray, a lot.
Second, they take care of some housekeeping. Jesus called twelve specific disciples, and one of them betrayed Jesus. So they meet to replace him. Again, don’t lose track of the timeline here: For the disciples, Judas’s betrayal is fresh—like, less than two months fresh. I don’t think this is about shoring up their own authority. I don’t really think it’s about sweeping what happened under the rug. I think the disciples know that they’re on the verge of something new, but it’s not separate from what they already experienced. It’s all part of the same story.
When Peter gives a short speech, he helps the small community of disciples understand that what happened with Judas wasn’t a crisis that threatened God’s will. On the contrary, it was all part of God’s will, God’s will plainly revealed for them in Scripture. So they pray, and they select a new disciple to replace Judas. They want to honor what Jesus set up. And they want to honor the larger meaning and context of what Jesus set up: Twelve disciples. Twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve sons of Jacob. Something new is happening, but it is not separate from what God has already done.
But there’s other work that needs to be done, too. Often when we enter that space of “Now what?” it becomes apparent to us that there are attitudes or relationships or allegiances we need to let go of. Even things that may feel precious or vital to us.
At this crucial moment in the life of the early church, the disciples are still struggling to let go of a particularly dangerous and threatening impulse. It’s an impulse that’s easy for us to recognize because it’s an impulse Christians today still struggle to let go of. I’m talking about the toxic idea that the power of God exists to serve our own programs for happiness to serve the needs only of our specific community and maybe most dangerously, that the power of God exists to serve only the goals of our nation.
Do you remember what the disciples asked Jesus just before he ascended into heaven, from our Scripture reading last week? Let’s look back at Acts 1:6, just a few verses earlier: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” After everything they’ve been through, they’re still waiting for that moment: The moment when the nation of Israel will be restored.
Don’t miss this: The disciples love the nation of Israel! They love and cherish their heritage. The disciples are patriotic. And Jesus looks at them with compassion and says: “It’s not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In other words, Jesus says: The story you’re living in is not the story of the restoration of the kingdom of Israel, at least not in the way you’re imagining it. The story you’re living in is the story of how the Holy Spirit starts a fire that spreads across the world. The Holy Spirit is the protagonist.
For these disciples, their identity in God has always been intricately tied to their national identity in Israel. And now Jesus is decoupling those identities. They are still part of God’s family; they are still God’s chosen people. But increasingly, in the weeks and years to come, they will learn that the family of God is not limited to the political nation-state of Israel. They will learn that people who are not part of the nation of Israel can be chosen by God—can even be vessels of the Holy Spirit of God.
This is going to be true even for people who live in nations that the Israelites thought of as enemies. This is going to be true even for people who live in Rome. Rome! Rome is the heart of the empire that the disciples thought Jesus had come to overthrow. But if Jesus is right, then it’s where the Holy Spirit is taking them.
So in Acts, we see this again and again: The power of God does not exist for the purpose of propping up any one disciple’s specific ambitions. In fact, God’s Spirit often surprises and undermines those ambitions. The power of God does not exist only for the needs of this fledgling Christian community. In fact, God’s Spirit often draws the people outside of that community, identifying and providing for the needs of others, and collapsing the boundaries of who is in and who is out. And the power of God does not exist to maintain the goals of any particular nation-state. In fact, God’s Spirit often drags the disciples across borders and says: Look at the ways I am already at work in this other place!
Let’s spend a minute here. What we’re talking about is a fundamental shift in allegiance. It’s a massive shift in priorities and identity. My own national identity as an American shapes the kinds of questions I ask. It shapes the kinds of solutions I tend to imagine for the problems that we face. It shapes my concept of what constitutes a good life, a life well lived. It shapes my longings and my desires.
What we see in Acts is the Holy Spirit expanding people’s imaginations beyond the borders of their own nations. There’s almost a playfulness to it. The Holy Spirit is pouncing between languages and nations and people-groups. It’s almost as if the boundaries that separate nations from nations matter a lot more to us than they do to God.
We celebrated Easter two weeks ago. We remembered that we are people of the resurrection—that in our baptism, we die to ourselves and are resurrected in Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.
But some of us—I suspect that some of us might be holding onto our national identities a little too tightly. And when we hold them too tightly, they start to rot. They start to get brittle. And they keep us small. If our primary allegiance is to the state, then we might be tempted to believe that every act of violence committed in the interests of the state is automatically justified. If our primary allegiance is to the state, then we might not be able to see past the needs of our own tribe, our own community, our own family—to see how deeply, intricately connected we are to all our neighbors around the world. Even just our neighbors around the country.
This week we learned the news of Daunte Wright’s death at the hands of police. A few days later, here in Chicago, the body cam footage of the killing of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old boy, was released. As I was putting the finishing touches on this sermon, we had just started hearing reports of the mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis that left multiple people dead. It can almost start to feel like clockwork: It’s like we can predict how different parties and people are gonna react, the kinds of legislature that will or won’t get passed in the days ahead. It’s like we’re stuck in this pattern of violence and grief and lament, a pattern that is making us all sick.
When we welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives, the Spirit starts to make us bigger than the borders and national identities that have defined our priorities. Without us even noticing, the Spirit gently snatches away our attitude of scarcity and replaces it with an attitude of abundance and generosity.
The truth is, that can feel pretty uncomfortable. Because just when we think the Spirit is done expanding us, just when we think we can finally relax, here comes the Spirit again: To expand us even further. To give us even greater imagination for the reaches of God’s love. To give us even greater empathy for the people we might have thought were impossible to empathize with. Yes: They get included, too. Yes: The Spirit still has more to teach you about them. Yes: God is already at work in places you can’t imagine going.
Is there someone in your life, or maybe a whole category of people, that you feel more compassion toward now than you did five years ago? Good! That is the Spirit of God at work in you! Just imagine how much bigger you can become. Just imagine how much more room there is to expand.
When that happens, I think we find ourselves holding our national identities a little more loosely, even playfully. A deeper allegiance emerges, an allegiance to the very Spirit of God. It means there’s a different protagonist to the story we’re living in. It means the history that’s most important to us is not the history of what happened on our shores.
And so rather than asking how our primary allegiance to a nation might lead us to perform our faith in God, the question is flipped: We start to wonder how our primary allegiance to God might lead us to perform our citizenship. Rather than believing that the Spirit of God provides power to carry out the goals and needs of our nation, we start to wonder how the powers and privileges of our national identity might be used for the purposes of God.
That’s a dangerous question. Because a whole lot of human history consists of people wielding violence against others, believing they were doing so for the purposes of God. So it’s probably worth reminding ourselves, again and again and again, what it looked like when God walked on the earth and exercised authority. The disciples were right that Jesus was the living manifestation of God walking and eating with them. But they were wrong about how God exercises authority, no matter how many times Jesus told them: I am going to die, and then be raised. I am going to die, and then be raised. I am going to die, and then be raised. In other words: There will be violence, and I won’t be the source of it, and I will not be overcome by it.
So, the question remains: Now what? For the early Christian community in Acts, the answer to that question started coming quickly after they left the holy space of “Now what.” In the second chapter of Acts, we read the story of Pentecost, where it becomes abundantly and miraculously clear that the Spirit of God is crossing borders, that God speaks every language, that nobody is outside the reach of God.
And later in Acts, the church faces an even bigger surprise: Suddenly Gentiles—that is, non-Israelites—start to receive the Holy Spirit. Suddenly this work that God has been doing in the church—this work of decoupling their national identity from their identity in Christ—turns into an urgent question: Can Gentiles be part of the church, too? Do the men have to be circumcised, effectively becoming Jewish, before they can follow Jesus?
It’s not surprising that it took the early church some time to figure this out: For centuries, the nation of Israel believed that their separation from others, marked by circumcision, was an essential part of what it meant for them to be God’s chosen people. What’s so surprising in Acts is how effortlessly the church is able to recognize and welcome Gentiles into the church AS Gentiles. It speaks to how powerfully the Holy Spirit is transforming this community: No longer do they see God’s power as something that belongs to them, for the purposes of their nation. No longer do they define themselves by what they exclude, by who is in and who is out.
Their senses are attuned to the Spirit of God. They know that God’s Spirit is the protagonist. So when they see that the Holy Spirit has taken residence among Gentiles, they recognize those Gentiles as part of their own community. Their shared identity in the family of God runs deeper than their competing national identities. After everything they’ve been through—three years of following Jesus, the trauma of his death, the delight of his resurrection, the grief of his departure—after all this, they’re capable of welcoming this new thing that God is doing.
Again and again, life gives us opportunities to die to ourselves and to be raised in Christ. Opportunities to hold our allegiances a little more loosely. Moments that surprise us and stagger us. When that happens, we can choose to hunker down, to shore up our allegiances, to tighten up our borders. Or we can welcome the question: “Now what?”
The truth is, we don’t know exactly what happens next. That’s how it works! So, let’s do what the disciples did in Acts: Let’s hold up our current circumstances, our challenges, our defeats. Let’s hold them up and ask God: What do you want to do next?
And then keep your hands open. Welcome whatever it is that God might be telling you—don’t immediately jump to analyzing what’s realistic or reasonable. Just pay attention and listen. And then tell someone else what you’re hearing: Invite someone else, invite the rest of us, into the adventure. Tell us how God is surprising and enlarging you. Church, the Spirit of God is on the move. Now what?