By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, April 25, 2021
Reading: Acts 1:1-8
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. These are the words of William Shakespeare in Hamlet and they are often misquoted, which I might have done. They are abused and used many times over to suggest that there is more beyond our ability to comprehend – that our ability to know things philosophically has its limits. Now, there have been those who have used that passage to suggest that this is a vindication of the notion of mystery in religion. While others have been somewhat cynical about it and don’t think it should be used that way. A writer, Jack Smith in the LA Times some years ago, wrote a piece criticizing the way that that notion of unknowability was used. He is an avowed skeptic; cynical about religion and religious truths, and I love to read what people like Jack Smith write because in pointing to some of the abuses of phrases there is some wisdom for us to think long and hard about the truth.
He points out that in this case Shakespeare was using Hamlet to talk about an experience with the ghost of his father only to learn about the perfidy of his uncle. Therefore, we should not be taking more of that than that phrase suggests. I disagree because I think there are a lot of things in life that are hard to explain with our philosophy, with our worldview, even with our empirical view. There are deeply meaningful things that motivate us and empower us in our lives that cannot be explained by words alone.
Take, for example, love. I know that this is an illustration that’s used a lot, but I was thinking about it particularly as I was driving along this week and turned on XM Satellite radio and listened to some oldies from the 1970s. Jim Croce came on and he was one of my heroes back then. He said: “I had to say I love you in a song.” In a song. I had to do it in a song. I couldn’t do it in person. Words had failed to describe the power of love.
I’ve been thinking about that. As some of you know, I have a new puppy. Well, this puppy is becoming incredibly affectionate – bonding – to my wife and I in a way that you could never explain. You could say it’s because we put down the food; and we take him out for walks, but there’s something more. Can I describe that in words? No. Can I describe in words the beauty of the world that is around? It’s hard to do. Wordsworth certainly tried to do it. Emerson tried to do it. Blake tried to do it. Angela Morgan, the very well-known American poet tried to do it. I was reading one of her poems – a very powerful one called God the Artist, I hope you’ll look it up.
She is trying to capture the beauty, the wonder, and the awe of the world and how God made it. There are two stanzas, the first and the last, that really struck me.
God, when you thought of a pine tree,
How did you think of a star?
How did you dream of the Milky Way
To guide us from afar.
How did you think of a clean brown pool
Where flecks of shadows are?
Why did you mate the moonlit night
With the honeysuckle vines?
How did you know Madeira bloom
Distilled ecstatic wines?
How did you weave the velvet disk
Where tangled perfumes are?
God, when you thought of a pine tree,
How did you think of a star?
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? There’s a sense of unknowing, a sense of mystery; you cannot put your finger on the reason some things connect with others. Therefore: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”– far more.
We find that in our New Testament passage today – a powerful one where Luke is writing to Theophilus, a Roman – a God-loved person, trying to explain how the Christian faith has emerged and grown. How it has moved from its earliest roots in Jerusalem to becoming a force for good and truth and the kingdom in the world. He talks at the very beginning of the Book of Acts, which is the second book of Luke, and he tries to say that Jesus, who had been crucified made many appearances in different forms over a 40-day period and gave convincing proof to his existence. He tries to set out for Theophilus that God in Jesus Christ is continuing to do things even after his death because of his resurrection.
Now, I must admit, there is a bit of confusion in both Luke and Acts as to the timing of the ascension. That time where Jesus ascended after he had these experiences with the disciples. The timing doesn’t really matter; what matters is that Jesus comes to those disciples to whom he appeared, and in his parting words gives them some very clear instructions. He says, “First you must wait. You must be patient.” He knew that the disciples would be eager to go out into the streets and tell people that they had seen and witnessed the risen lord. They wanted to talk about the kingdom of God as Jesus had instructed them. But he says, “First you must wait.” The reason being they cannot do this on their own. Jesus knew that they did not have sufficient power or wisdom or insight to share the good news with the world. Not yet. He also tells them to stay in Jerusalem.
Now, to the earliest disciples, this must have seemed like a very strange thing to do. After all, Jerusalem was the place where Jesus had been crucified, where they’d been identified with him, where their power had been taken away and they had been humiliated. Why would you stay in Jerusalem of all places? It’s a dangerous place for them.
A good friend of mine who is a New Yorker, a big fan of the Yankees, and a preacher tells a story of an encounter at Yankee Stadium a few years ago. He was in the crowd, and they’d selected a very well-known New York judge to throw the first ceremonial pitch. This judge was so well known that most of the crowd would have recognized his name. But unbeknownst to the organizers, this judge who was born in New York, and practiced his law there, had nevertheless gone to Harvard Law School and when at Harvard Law School he became a fan of the Boston Red Sox. When he threw out this pitch at Yankee Stadium, he decided to wear his Boston Red Sox cap. He was booed by 40,000 people. Explaining afterwards why he did it, he said, “No one ever pays attention to these ceremonial pitches. They will from now on.” Then he said, “I had a conversion and I wanted everyone to know about it.”
He went to Jerusalem like the disciples were in Jerusalem, and that is what Jesus is asking them to do. They have a conversion of sorts but there is more to come. Even in Jerusalem you can make the big point of Christ’s ministry. He also says to them, “you will receive power and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” You see, they not only waited; they not only stayed in Jerusalem, but they were empowered, and he asks them to wait on the coming of the Holy Spirit. To really understand the importance of this, we’ve got to get the chronology straight here, so you get a sense of how things progressed. We have a record of the life of Jesus, his ministry, his miracles, his teachings, and his crucifixion. We then get an account of an empty tomb and his resurrection, his appearances to the disciples, and his ascension into heaven.
There’s one key ingredient, which is what I want to look at today, and that is that after that he sends the power of the Holy Spirit along with the father. The Holy Spirit, then, comes upon the believers. What is essentially happening is that the Holy Spirit is continuing the life and the ministry of Jesus Christ. He was telling the disciples to wait in Jerusalem, get the power of the spirit and keep going. Keep going! Don’t stop now and don’t worry about what you should say or what you should do. “You will be my witnesses when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” What is essentially being said here is that the church of Jesus Christ, this gathered community of people, as rough and as unreliable as they were in the beginning, would form the basis of the continuing ministry of Jesus.
In his beautiful book, Mere Christianity, CS Lewis has this glorious phrase that have influenced me when I’ve wondered, as I’m sure we all have, what the purpose of the church in the world is. This is what CS Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity.
God can show himself as he really is only to real people, and that means not simply to people who are individually good but to people who are united together in a body, loving one another, helping one another, showing him to one another, for that is what God meant humanity to be like – like players in one band or organs in one body. Consequently, the one really adequate instrument for learning about God is the whole Christian community – waiting for him together.
For Lewis the church of Jesus Christ is a form of continuity for the life and the ministry of Jesus. It is the body of believers empowered by the Holy Spirit who continue that work. I believe that Jesus Christ is saying to us today that we’ve got to keep going. Keep going, both in your faith and your witness and in living out the kingdom of God. It’s vital, and I think it is one of the great challenges that we face in our time.
You see, the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples was a continuation of the very presence of the risen Christ. The great liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, a person who’s had a great influence on my life, once said this: “The Holy Spirit is in fact the very power of the risen Christ, who might come in order that testimony might be given as to who Jesus really is.”
The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples was the “keep going” of the ministry of Jesus Christ. I love what the great Scottish preacher, James Stewart said. “Without the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of Christ would have died.” It would have ended with his appearances and his ascension. Had it not been for the power of the spirit it would have died. In John chapter 16, Jesus promised, “I must go in order that the spirit might come.” There is a reason why, in his earthly, bodily form and in his risen body he had to end things. He had to end those things in order that the Holy Spirit would come and continue his work.
Now, I know that these are tough times and the notion of keeping going is getting harder, I think we’re kind of running out of gas here, yet the needs are still so great. The needs in our society, the need for health care, the need for us maintaining our rigour and our discipline, but also it applies to our faith. Keep going and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit in your life to maintain your faith so that in the world you can be a witness.
There’s one final thing that Jesus does with all of this, and that is he establishes new boundaries for his ministry. Think of it for a moment. Jesus was a Palestinian. He exercised his ministry within small borders in terms of the world. Samaria, Judea; maybe he went to the south and maybe he went a bit further to the north. He certainly went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee to Gennesaret, as we looked at a few weeks ago, but basically, he was confined to a very limited geographical area. Jesus talks to the disciples and says, “I want you to start in Jerusalem (the place where they were) and then to go to Judea, the broader nation, then Samaria, to the foreign parts often rejected and then to (and I love this phrase) the uttermost parts of the world.
The Book of Acts is an expression of all of this. We get to the apostle Paul after his experience, the disciples and the outpouring of the spirit, then the gentile world begins to be reached by the gospel. But in this very earliest moment, Jesus is saying, “If you wait in Jerusalem, I will empower you to go to the uttermost parts of the earth. The boundaries that you might feel now are going to be expanded.”
I thought of something that I read a long time ago in an African journal, and I must say today my heart is broken because, as many of you know, my alma matter, the University of Cape Town, has had a very bad fire and a lot of the African studies materials that I and many others over the years used, have been destroyed. I’m wearing my Cape Town hood today in solidarity with other alumni from the university. I have thought about the African story that goes like this: In the rural area of the Eastern Cape were often two burial places, places for whites and non-whites. They weren’t buried together. Oftentimes these cemeteries would be very close to one another; maybe just a fence dividing them, but there was segregation, and in smaller communities this was a manifestation of the way that they lived during apartheid and even before.
A local church, deeply moved by the power of the spirit decided that this was not right, but you can’t exhume bodies and move them, so what they did was move the fence so there was no longer a barrier. They extended the fence all the way around to include both black and white, and in so doing made no distinction on earth to reflect that there was no distinction in heaven. They moved the fence and the boundaries. What Jesus wanted the apostles to do was to bring that world into his kingdom and by the power of the Holy Spirit, not to limit their vision of where they can do things.
I talked last week about John Wesley’s powerful ministry and his Aldersgate experience. That experience took him to preach at the mine heads to the workers, to go into the streets of London and elsewhere to proclaim the good news. He wasn’t frightened or concerned about doing that. He felt the impetus, the power of the spirit, to break the boundaries and to take the message to the world. He did this out of a love and a passion not only for his Lord but also for people. He did it out of love and concern. Don’t let the boundaries get in your way; don’t let them stop you from reaching the world.
I’ve been thinking about that here at Eaton Memorial over the last few weeks, and it’s very evident that we are taking the message of the faith to the streets through cyberspace. There are those of you watching who had otherwise never entered Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, and we hope we give a ministry of Christ to you, and that you feel that you are part of us. We’re all surrounded right now by boundaries that make our lives very small. Our living rooms, our bedrooms, our dining rooms, have become our life and our world. But somehow in the wonder of this cyberspace, in the wonder, the almost inexplicable power of the mediums that we have, we’re able to share the good news with you.
Maybe this is something that during a plague, the devastation, a war against something – that’s what this is – we still have something that God has given us. May we take this time of waiting, this time of renewal, to open ourselves to the power of the spirit. Believe me when I tell you there will be opportunities for us both to reach people with the good news and to show the love and the justice and the righteousness of God in the world. Right now we need to wait, at the same time, we must keep going, for the spirit is still prompting us. Amen.