Several years ago, when the Berlin Wall began coming down, not too many people expected it to happen as it did. Most of us on the planet thought it would take a military or diplomatic effort to bring down that wall. But what happened, quite simply, is one day citizens of the two Germany's and residents of the city walked over to the wall and began to destroy it. No politicians, no armies, just ordinary people, moved to act. Something we didn't expect.
In the Old Testament, when God told Samuel to anoint a new king of Israel to succeed Saul, both Samuel and Jesse (the new king's father) kept looking for someone other than David. They looked at the tallest, the strongest, the most imperial -- they looked at seven of Jesse's sons, before considering David, the person whom God had chosen.
I know that it probably never happens to you, but sometimes I can get stuck doing the same thing. My spouse would probably testify to this, that sometimes I can get fixed on an idea (or more likely a portion of an idea), or on one way of seeing things and miss the main point of what is really there. Believe it or not, there are some other people like me who can see the forest, but miss the trees. My mother used to say to us when we were children and overlooked something right in front of us, if it had been a snake it would have bitten you.
Sometimes we are not able to see what is right in front of us. Sometimes we need to be re-oriented about what to look for. Sometimes we are so busy looking for one thing, that we miss what is there, because we are not expecting to see it. Has that ever happened to you?
This is some of what is going on in the Acts passage we are examining today.
I. The story/context
After the crucifixion the disciples had been waiting, as Jesus told the women to tell them. Jesus had risen and had shown himself to several followers, including the two on the Emmaus Road, the disciples in the upper room, and some of the disciples when they were out fishing. When this passage begins, Jesus has been risen for 40 days. We have just been reminded, in verses four and five, that Jesus told the eleven to wait at Jerusalem, and not to leave until they received the Holy Spirit which God had promised.
As verse six opens, it is the 40th day of Jesus' resurrection. He is gathered with his disciples just outside Jerusalem on Mount Olivet. Although, it is not clear that the disciples know it, this gathering is the final meeting of Jesus with his followers before the ascension. Since Jesus is probably the one who called them to this place, and since the disciples are reminded of the command to wait for the promise, one of them asks what is about to happen.
Jesus replies, without rebuke, telling the inquirer, not to focus solely on
the physical realm. After this Jesus ascends, and the disciples are joined
by two men in white robes. In verse 12, they return to the waiting room in
Jerusalem. The disciples pray together, and just after verse 14, they choose
a 12th person to
replace Judas Iscariot.
This is a quick version of the story we have before us. But when we look at it more closely, we see that there is much more there. In fact, the story contains three places of tension, three turning points where followers of Jesus are told to look at something else, to turn attention in another direction, to reconsider the ideas they have about what is really going on, to re-orient their thinking.
II. Turning points
1. Look for Holy Spirit
The first turning point is at the very beginning of this passage. It occurs when Jesus reminds the disciples to look to the power of the Holy Spirit to understand the work that He is doing. "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" they ask. "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set," Jesus replies. "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you." The disciples were looking for Jesus to bring about a political victory. But Jesus tells them to look for power from the Holy Spirit instead of for a political victory.
Some scholars, and some everyday church people like you and me, criticize the disciples for wanting a political victory. Now it is true that they missed the point of Jesus' message. But I don't know. I don't know anymore if I can be so quick to chide these disciples when I think of what they were experiencing.
At that time Jerusalem was under Roman occupation. Their homeland was colonized. And at the time of the ascension, there were only a few challenges to Roman occupation. One group that became known as the Zealots openly opposed the Romans, and, some scholars say, periodically confronted Roman officials physically. In fact, in verse 13 of our present text, one of the disciples, Simon, is identified as a Zealot. A few scholars even wonder if Jesus himself was not a Zealot.
We have no certainty about this, but what we do know is that at the time of the ascension the Jewish homeland was occupied and ruled by outsiders. Many Jews were tired of the occupation. They were looking for a political leader to take power away from the Romans and return it to the Jews. So we can understand the people wanting political change. Ironically, the Jews of Jesus' time wanted what some Palestinians in the Holy Land are calling for right now: They want the occupiers and the outside military powers to leave their land. And while I was preparing this sermon I was reminded and convicted of the devastating occupation of these very shores that we live on that took these lands away from Native Americans. When I think of people being occupied and oppressed, I am not so quick to judge the disciples when they ask Jesus "Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" That question makes sense, to me.
BUT, what is also true, as Jesus tells the disciples, is that this question
misses the point of the kind of power Jesus came to bring. So what about the
occupation? Jesus replies to the disciples: "You will receive power when
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."
The disciples needed, and we need the Holy Spirit to do the work that God is calling believers to do. This is a word of re-orientation. In response to the struggles against racism; in response to the bombing of the World Trade Centers; in response to war and occupation in Iraq......, Jesus says "You will receive power of the Holy Spirit."
2. Looking to the work that there is to be done.
The second turning point, follows right behind the first. After Jesus said this, while the disciples were looking and listening, he was taken up. And the disciples kept looking as he was being taken up. Again, what the disciples do makes perfect sense to me. Imagine it, if you can, while Jesus is talking to them, in the middle of a conversation, a cloud comes and takes him away. Surely they must have, someone must have had a question he wanted to ask. But there was no time. "When he had said this," the text says, "as they were watching, he was lifted up." And the disciples kept looking up, while Jesus was being lifted up.
Suddenly, look at the text, that is what my version says, "suddenly" two men in white robes stood by them while they were gazing up toward heaven. The two men asked: "Why are you standing around gazing up?" This word "gaze" that is used here is important. Gaze suggests that their attention was fixed on Jesus moving up leaving them. They weren't really aware of what was going on around them. They were looking up, perhaps with their mouths gaping open, perhaps sentimentally.
It's almost comedic, you know. If you or I walk upon someone who is looking up like this, our first question would be similar to the question the two men in white ask: What are you looking up for? And the question is particularly poignant when people are standing around gazing up at the sky when there is work to be done. We cannot be witnesses to the ends of the earth if we are standing and looking up at the sky.
So the two men in white re-orient the disciples. They tell them that there is work to be done. This reminds me of an old saying, "some of us can be so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly good." The power that we receive from the Holy Spirit is power to be used here on earth. Jesus is not calling Christians to stand around with our heads, or our noses, fixed toward the sky. We are called to work, to be witnesses, to do and to be the good news.
3. Look at the ones around you who often are taken for granted.
This brings me to the third and final turning point in this text. And this one is about readers of scripture, not just the disciples. This one is for you and for me and for all the followers of Jesus who miss something in scripture because it seems too small and to insignificant to notice. After they recover from gazing, the disciples return to Jerusalem where Jesus has told them to wait. While they waited they prayed constantly. It is interesting what the passage tells us about those who waited.
According to verse 15, they were about 120 persons in a room upstairs. We do not know all of who were among the 120, but we do get names of the eleven disciples -- Peter and John and James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; the other James, Simon the Zealot, and the other Judas.
THEN, after we are told that they were praying together, verse 14 slips in that among the 120 were "certain" women. That's what my Bible, the New Revised Standard Version says, "certain" women. The King James Version says "the" women. The New American Bible says "some" women. Among the 120 were certain" women, INCLUDING MARY THE MOTHER, AND HIS BROTHERS. This observation is slipped in, in verse 14.
We have to watch out when we're reading it, because if we don't pay attention we might miss it. It's tucked in after a roll call -- and you and I know that that's a dangerous place to be placed in the Bible. Some of those roll calls, those genealogies of who begat who can get so long, that you can take a nap while reading it. And it's just possible to wake up and completely miss what comes behind the list, looking for something else -- important. So if we're not careful we can completely miss the second part of verse 14: "All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together WITH CERTAIN WOMEN, INCLUDING MARY THE MOTHER OF JESUS, AS WELL AS HIS BROTHERS."
Now when I see something like this in scripture, when I am paying attention enough to notice it, I have to ask the question, "Why is that part of the verse here?" There were about 120 persons whom we cannot identify. Of course, we expect to get the names of the eleven disciples. But none of us expect the text to specify, "THERE WERE CERTAIN WOMEN THERE, INCLUDING THE MOTHER OF JESUS." Why?
Some scholars say Mary's presence as mother of Jesus is appropriate since
this is the time of the birth of the Church. Yeah, maybe. Some persons remind
us that the women were present when a successor was chosen for Judas Iscariot,
so women helped chose one who would a be a leader of the Church.
But you know what, when I really pay attention to verse 14, I think of my mother, I think of my grandmother, I think of those mothers of the church, I think of those women Sunday School teachers, I think of the pastor's aid societies, I think of the usher boards, I think of chicken dinners, I think of the kitchen getting cleaned, I think of choirs, I think of communion stewardesses, I think of meals after funerals, I think of the first ladies, I think of the church nurseries, I think of the prayer bands, I think of the missionary societies, I think of the children's Easter programs, I think of children's choirs, I think of Church school superintendents, I think of Marian Wright Edelman’s greasy and wrinkled dollar bills. Sometimes the meals, and the dishes, and the children's programs seem like the small stuff. But the small stuff, often are the details that have to be taken care of.
Now I don't mean to suggest that women are the only ones who perform these tasks. And I certainly don’t mean that women ought to be stuck performing only these tasks, but when I hear this part of the verse: "These were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus," when I really pay attention to this, I think of all the work of all those "certain" women whom we honor today. And I'm reminded how easily we can overlook these people and this work, focusing on the eleven who are named ... unless we are re-oriented.
God is always calling us to see what God has placed right at our disposal: the power and help of the Holy Spirit, the work of being witnesses everyday, the opportunity to share in taking care of the details, the ones we don’t pay particular attention to.
III. The lessons
If we do not pay attention, if we focus on unimportant things, the work that God has for us to do will go undone. The blessings that God has for us will go unreceived.
Sometimes it’s difficult for us to focus on the task at hand. Sometimes more exciting things capture our attention.
Sometimes it seems that what we are focusing on must be what we should focus on.
But if we allow ourselves to be re-oriented, by God’s Spirit, by God’s
word, by God working in the world, we may find grace beyond measure in what
right before us.
Rosetta E. Ross is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and is Chair and Associate Professor of Relgion at Spelman College in Atlanta, George. Ross is the author of the March 2003 BlackandChristian.com featured book, Witnessing & Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights.
This article is used by permission. © 2003 BlackandChristian.com. All Rights Reserved.