SCRIPTURE STUDY: A Church pre-occupied with neither heaven nor politics
I am convinced in reading the opening passages of the Acts of the Apostles that it is Luke’s primary purpose to make sure the early church is oriented to that which is at the heart of the proclamation and passion of Jesus. The central message of Acts 1:1-14 resonates not only in the time of the apostles and the early Church, but for those who would follow Jesus today and the preaching and practice of our churches as well.
The passage opens with Luke orienting the reader to where we are in the overarching story (it is generally agreed that the author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts is the same person) and confirming the continuity of Jesus’ message, both pre-Resurrection and post-Resurrection. As he did before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus speaks to his followers about that transformative reality called the “kingdom of God” (verse 3). The focus, therefore, of his proclamation has not changed after the Resurrection. The message remains the same: the kingdom of God.
Now we have to imagine that the disciples are in a tricky position, and we get the idea, when Acts opens, that they are contemplating leaving Jerusalem (4). After all, for the followers of Jesus, his arrest, torture and crucifixion must have not only been emotionally and psychologically traumatic for them, but also a warning as to what the authorities might choose to do to them as well should they stick around and “stay the course.” But Jesus “enjoins” them to remain in Jerusalem, despite their fear and despite the danger. He assures them that the promise about which they have heard him speak is imminent—reaffirming again that that promise has to do with the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, the object of the verse just prior.
The disciples, however, continue to mistake the “kingdom of God” with their own less lofty, more immediate ambitions regarding the “kingdom of Israel.” In verse 6, they question Jesus not about his “speaking on the kingdom of God,” but rather want to know whether he is going to “restore the kingdom of Israel.” Jesus’ response to the disciples is curt and to the point—a good paraphrase would be: “That is of no concern to you.” Jesus instead re-orients them to the task that they are going to undertake in the world (Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth)—specifically to be his witnesses, those who will testify as to the truth of what Jesus said and did during his lifetime. And again, the message of Jesus’ actions and words throughout the Gospel of Luke (and now in the Acts of the Apostles) is not the restoration of Israel but the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.
Then, like Elijah before him (another prophet that criticized the religious and political powers of his time), Jesus is “lifted up” and disappears (verse 9). Now the disciples are left in a rather awkward posture, standing (maybe mouths agape, slack-jawed?), looking up at the sky (verse 10). Whereas Jesus had been attempting to re-orient the disciples away both their own worldly ambitions and their belief in a limited and ultimately doomed political reality (the kingdom of Israel), two new emissaries (“dressed in white” clues us in to the fact they were representatives of God) will now re-orient their attention away from “heaven” and back to the world around them, the world in which they will play out their roles as witnesses to Jesus and his proclamation of the kingdom of God (verse 11).
Implicit in Acts 1:1-14 is the call to give our allegiance to that kingdom which Jesus proclaimed—the kingdom of God—and not to give our allegiance to some partial, flawed political reality, be it the kingdom of Israel for the disciples then or the church’s embrace of U.S. empire in our own time. Secondly, the passage also challenges any interest the church may have in an “other-worldly” theology, a pre-occupation with “heaven,” and its parallels, the after-life and a salvation primarily concerned with what happens after we die. Instead, the passage, like the two men dressed in white in verses 10-11, challenges the church to stop looking up to the sky and to start looking around us—to make this world its concern, to understand our mission as being about the here-and-now, and that through how we live our lives—what we say and do—will we give witness to Jesus and the kingdom of God which he proclaimed: a kingdom where the oppressed are set free, the blind see, the poor have the good news of God’s special attention and concern for them preached and practiced by the church, where we love our enemies and do good even to those who would harm us.
Luke insists right off the bat that the church’s mission has nothing to do with aspirations for worldly power nor a pre-occupation with “heaven” and a “pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die” otherworldly theology. Our churches today would do well to remember this.