Waiting and Praying for Restoration
“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6; Luke 9:11). That was the question on everyone’s mind. The disciples were instructed by Christ for forty days (1:3), like Moses on the mountain (Exod. 24:12–18), but they still had questions. Now, they must wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (1:5). The risen Christ makes two responses to the disciples’ question about the restoration of the kingdom: (1) “It is not for you to know the times or seasons . . .” (1:7), and (2) “But you shall receive power . . . [to be] my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (1:8).
A number of years ago the scholar Ernst Käsemann felt that passages like Acts 1:6 explained the purpose of Luke-Acts. One does not write church history if one expects the world to end tomorrow. The writing of Acts signals that the once taut expectation for the imminent return of Christ has now been relaxed. The eschatological hope no longer motivates the church of Theophilus. But this overlooks the complex nature of apocalyptic hope. For Luke, as for Paul, “the form of this world is passing away” (I Cor. 7:31). Since Christ, all previously existing relationships of power are being transformed. It is not simply that the world is expected to end soon but that the world view as it had been, the methods and values for determining worth and significance in the world, has ended. There is now a new reality.
For Luke, that new reality involved the vision of a Jesus who is raised to rule with the Creator of the universe. Death, the ultimate “ending”—the master fact which determines most of our horizons, our values, our projects—has been ended in the resurrection of Christ. Luke’s “history” is the story of that new reality which has turned the world upside down, relativized all existing relationships, and enabled believers to live as people “between the times”—between the end of an old age held by the powers of death and evil and a new age where the future is still to be fully realized, still open-ended to the movements of the Spirit.
When the disciples gather after Easter, they do so as those who wait and question. What they know of what has happened in the resurrection is the source of their hope but also of their yearning. They want Christ to fulfill his promise of restoration, to finish the work begun. When? they ask. As the recipients of their Lord’s instruction and as witnesses to his death and resurrection, they know that the decisive battle has been fought and won—but not yet. Now, in the meantime, they wait as those who are still dependent upon the Father’s faithfulness, those who have no control over the timetable of a beneficent God who graciously allows enough time to accomplish the work begun in Jesus. This time between ascension and Pentecost was once designated by Karl Barth as a “significant pause” between the mighty acts of God, a pause in which the church’s task is to wait and to pray, Veni, Creator Spiritus. This text therefore appears in the Common Lectionary on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, between Easter and Pentecost, in a time of expectant waiting for the Spirit.
But their waiting is not empty-handed. They wait in hope, as those who know that their Master has been “taken up” (1:2) where he is “exalted at the right hand of God” (2:33). After the ascension, when Christians speak of God they must also speak of Christ, for Christ now reigns with God. The followers of Christ know that the one who served, taught, and loved them now rules for them. But this knowledge is no smug gnosis of the privileged first few. It is a knowledge which demands a witness. Thus, in the meantime, they are given a job to do and will have power with which to do it. The time between Easter and the restoration of the kingdom is the gracious interim for witness. The opening episode ends with the angelic reproof, “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” There is work to be done; let the church be about that work in the meantime, secure in the promise that Jesus who was so dramatically taken from his disciples shall return to them in the same way.
In a few opening verses Luke manages to reprove both the enthusiasm and speculation of uninformed apocalypticism, as well as the despair and stodginess of a church without apocalyptic hope. There is also reproof for any church which wistfully longs for some departed leader, as if the church were a mere memorial society for a dead Jesus. In the meantime there is the promise that the same force which empowered Jesus shall be present with the church.
The response of the disciples to the instruction, reproof, and the promise is exemplary. They gather to pray (1:12–14). In an activist age one might expect the disciples to undertake some more “useful” activity. They are told to be witnesses “to the end of the earth” (1:8), and their first response is prayer. The action demanded of the church is more than busyness and strenuous human effort. Disciples have been told that the promised kingdom is a gift to be given in God’s own time and that the promised Spirit is also by God’s grace. Their mission requires more than even their earnest striving.
They pray therefore for empowerment to be obedient, responding to Jesus’ promise in Luke 11:9–13 to, “Ask, and it will be given you . . . the heavenly Father [will] give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” They pray for the promised kingdom, knowing that “they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Gathering to wait and to pray are depicted as two primary activities of a faithful church (Isa. 40:31). Waiting, an onerous burden for us computerized and technically impatient moderns who live in an age of instant everything, is one of the tough tasks of the church. Our waiting implies that the things which need doing in the world are beyond our ability to accomplish solely by our own effort, our programs and crusades. Some other empowerment is needed, therefore the church waits and prays. Our waiting and praying also indicate that the gift of the Spirit is never an assured possession of the church. It is a gift, a gift which must be constantly sought anew in prayer.
Even to know all about Jesus, even to have received instruction from Jesus himself for forty days is not enough to accomplish the church’s mission. The challenge is not the intellectual one of knowing enough to tell about Jesus but rather the challenge is to have the authorization and empowerment which enable succeeding witnesses to be doing the work of Jesus. Until those who know the facts also experience the power, they do well first to wait in Jerusalem and to pray.
Should we be disturbed that Luke appears to report the ascension in two different ways? Did the ascension occur on Easter evening (Luke 24:51) or forty days later (Acts 1:3)? Many reasons have been devised to explain the contradiction—from assertions of Lukan carelessness to speculations that Luke wrote Acts so much later than his Gospel that he forgot when the ascension occurred!
Luke was an artist, not a newspaper reporter. The contradiction in the accounts of the ascension are clues to the author’s intentions. In Luke 24 the ascension is a conclusion, a dramatic finale to Jesus’ earthly ministry. The one whom Pilate and Caiphas sought to entomb is taken up in glory. In Acts 1 the ascension is the beginning presupposition on which the church is based. The end becomes the beginning as the story continues. Luke is looking at the same ascension from different points of view, drawing from it different implications for the community.
In Acts two languages are used to describe what has happened in Christ—one, the language of resurrection victory over death; the other, the language of ascension, sitting at the right hand of God and empowerment. These two motifs shall meet in Acts 2 at Pentecost when the life and power of Christ shall be given to disciples through the Spirit. When things go poorly for Theophilus and his kin in the church, when the world falls apart, things come loose, and chaos threatens, it is good to know who is in charge, who rules. In the words of the ancient Ascension Day anthem, Deus Ascendit, “God Has Gone Up,” not gone away from the church but gone up to be the empowerment for the church, as we shall learn vividly in the next chapter of Acts.