What Sustains Our Witness

May 28, 2017 – 7th Sunday in Easter
Acts 1.6-14

Introduction: In the first chapter of Acts, we hear that the risen Jesus appeared many times to the apostles and continued to teach them about the realm of God. He also told them to stay in Jerusalem to wait for the promised baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Read: Acts 1.6-14

Recently a friend was telling me about an illness in her family. She described the intentionality in which her family prayed together, giving thanks at the end of each day for the medical staff who were helping them and the many people who they knew were holding them in prayer.

She told me about a time several years ago when another illness struck her family. At that time, she mostly worried about all the worst possible outcomes. She lost sleep and, reflecting now all these years later, she was conscious of how all the energy of worrying didn’t change the outcome one single bit and only made her miserable.

With the current illness, there is no promise it won’t recur but that has not been what she and her family have focused on each day. In their prayer each evening they are conscious of the gift of each day and the blessing of being together. They give thanks for the miracle of medical advancements and for the love and care from others that is sustaining them.

I was thinking about this conversation with my friend as I read the Acts story this week.

In the Christian year we are at the last Sunday of the season of Easter. Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost. So the story in Acts is at this transition where Jesus is about ready to leave and before he leaves, he promises that the Holy Spirit will come to the apostles and they will receive power from the Spirit. That arrival of the Holy Spirit is what we will celebrate next Sunday.

The first question the apostles ask Jesus when they’re all together in Jerusalem is, says Willie James Jennings, a nationalist question.[1] (You might recall Jennings was the 2015 Grawemeyer Award winner in religion for his book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.) The apostles want to know when they will get to rule their land and impose their will on others. They’re still thinking that Jesus the Messiah is going to reassert the political kingdom of Israel and drive out the Romans.

Jesus says they have it all wrong about him. Instead, he says the question to ask is, “What is the work you are to do now and how will you do it?” And the answer to that is the apostles are called to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In other words, they are to tell and demonstrate the good news about Jesus—about his life, and death and resurrection—to the whole world. But they won’t do it on their own. They will have power from the Holy Spirit to do this.

And then Jesus leaves—right up into the sky where he disappears into a cloud. And just like when the women in the gospel of Luke go to look for the body of Jesus at the tomb and are met by two men in dazzling clothes, the apostles now are also met by two men who say, “What are you doing here? Didn’t you hear what Jesus said?” Stop looking up expecting Jesus to return and start looking out into the world and your mission in it.[2]

Hearing that, I would sort of expect the apostles to charge ahead and say, “Okay! What are we going to do? What’s the plan? Who will do what? Who will go where?” and get started on this work Jesus has given them.

Or, I would expect them to freak out. “What? Be witnesses all over the world? How would we ever do that? Won’t we get in trouble in the Roman Empire talking about Jesus all over the place?” There is likely some fear for them because this Greek word “witness” can also mean martyr and I imagine none of the apostles were too keen on that.

But the writer of Acts tells us the apostles neither go full steam ahead nor do they freak out. Instead, they gather together with some of the women disciples and they pray. Not just a quick perfunctory prayer. They constantly devoted themselves to prayer.

This is typical of what happens throughout the book of Acts. The followers of Jesus are devoted to prayer. They aren’t only praying—like a monastic community that is cloistered away committing itself wholly to prayer. For the early followers of Jesus, prayer is an integral part of their action. Again and again, prayer precedes the decisions and directions the disciples take.

What’s so striking to me about this story is this response of prayer. Because the whole book of Acts is uncharted territory. It is the story of the church continuing “the work of Jesus and  [continually] rethinking its own self-understanding as it reinterprets what it means to be disciples of Jesus in new times and places.”[3] The response to this new thing is not worry or anxiety or “we can’t do that!” but a community praying together.

This seems so illustrative for our world right now and the life of the church as so much is changing around us. The first page of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church says, “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world…and for its service to God.”[4] Just like those first followers of Jesus, we too are given everything that is necessary for the work we have been given as disciples. Not so much in a fixed box of rations and supplies but through the power of the Holy Spirit and through prayer. Together. With one another. This is what sustains us.

And this seems true for our own lives as well. As so much changes in our lives—health, relationships, work, family, geography, finances—what can we do? It is natural to worry, to be anxious, and to cry out, “I don’t want it to be this way!” And there is something else we have to sustain us: The power of the Holy Spirit and prayer and being together.

Prayer doesn’t make everything work out the way we want it. But in praying, and in praying together, we are accompanied, we are not alone. Those early disciples didn’t go their own way separate ways to pray. They stuck together and prayed, waiting for the wind of the Spirit to arise, to show them the way to go.

My friend whose family is once again visited with illness doesn’t know what will come next but she and her family have chosen to pray together and to invite others to pray with them. To give thanks for all their blessings, even among this illness they would never choose in a million years, and to open their lives to the healing, sustaining Spirit who arrives in surprising ways.

May we, too, devote our lives to prayer and prayer together that we may find ourselves sustained by the Spirit who promises to accompany us in all the circumstances of our lives.

* * * * *

[1] Willie James Jennings, Acts, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 17.

[2] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 367

[3] Ibid., 363.

[4] Book of Order, F-1.0202.