May 12, 2024 - Seventh Sunday of Easter

"Times of Transition"

Rev. Gary Percesepe

Acts 1: 1-11

Look carefully at the opening sentence of Acts. Notice the writerly art of compression, as the writer summarizes what Jesus said and did over the forty days between his resurrection and ascension. At the heart of the narrative is the Holy Spirit. In our journey through Acts we have witnessed the Holy Spirit as the main character, driving the plot, pushing the disciples forward from fear to faith. The disciples will soon be given a new name: no longer disciples, or student learners, but apostles. The word derives from the verb “to send,” signifying someone who is sent out with something important to proclaim and a mighty work to perform in Jesus’s name.

Jesus tells his friends that the Holy Spirit’s arrival in Jerusalem forecasts the hope of Israel’s restoration and the creation of the church. The age of the church signals the last days of salvation history. The church is born on the Day of Pentecost, which we will celebrate next week. Remember to wear red, symbolic of the Holy Spirit coming in flames and fire and rushing wind.

“Don’t leave Jerusalem,” Jesus tells the eleven. The story of the twelfth disciple is well known to us. Judas the betrayer is remembered by history as a villain who betrayed his master with a kiss, but things are more complicated. Walter Wink refers to the “Judas Principle,” which he described as someone who holds to the very highest ideals and is using them against you. In truth, we have all known Judas’s, and perhaps been one, haven’t we?

Jesus’s teaching provokes an honest question: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” The resurrection of Jesus has convinced his followers of his Messiah-ship, but Jesus has not yet engaged in those purifying actions that would make Israel ready for God’s reign.

Jesus deflects their question, which must have been frustrating. Perhaps they felt more like children than friends when Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times and the seasons.” Jesus then reframes the question, taking them out of the speculative future and placing them squarely in the present. “You shall receive power—the Greek word is dynamis—and this power will reside in you, enabling you to be sent as my witnesses, not only locally in Jerusalem, but to all of Judea and Samaria, and even—gulp!—to the ends of the earth!

And then—poof! Jesus is gone. The account of Jesus’ ascension is dramatic, and hugely significant. Two “men in white robes” arrive, confirming the absence of the physical Jesus, the haunting awareness of his bodily absence from his followers.

How would you feel?

Abandoned? Lost? Adrift? Bereft? Confused? Disappointed?

Acts chapter 1 is known as a “succession narrative,” which is a fancy way of saying a change in leadership. Changing leadership is a time fraught with both danger and opportunity. Whether it is a family business that passes into the hands of a new generation, a city council turning over, a university welcoming a new president, or a congregation making a change in pastoral leadership—these changes and transitions are always important, often difficult, and frequently challenging.

Here we have a change in leadership from Jesus to the apostles. The apostles, of course, are not new messiahs, nor are they substitute messiahs or interim messiahs. The job of messiah has already been filled, something that pastors who labor under a “messiah complex” may do well to note. Nevertheless, the apostles are Jesus’ successors in providing leadership to the new community of believers, and they will carry on the ministry God has begun in Christ. They will guide the church as it grows and encounters new realities and challenges.

We’re given insights into how a successful succession unfolds. Those of you who watched the TV series “Succession” will note that the Rupert Murdoch-like patriarch on TV failed miserably at passing leadership on the next generation, whereas the church succeeded brilliantly! How did the church pull it off?

Tony Robinson identifies five crucial elements of the early church's transition (1). Today, I’d like to focus on the first: Remembering the story.

Leadership transitions are important times to get in touch with the primal narrative or story of the organization going through change. Remembering the story reminds us of who we are and whose we are; it reminds us of our purpose by telling and re-telling the formative events and experiences in our history. This is why I have been meeting with Kahu Alika every Friday since I arrived on island in February, and it is why today I am announcing my intention to meet with every one of you that I can for a one-to-one that will give us an opportunity to talk story. I want to know who you are, how you came to be here, and the formative events and experiences in your personal history, as well as the history of your association with this church. We can meet anywhere you want! You can invite me into your home, as Kahu Bob did yesterday, or we can meet in my office, or at a coffee shop, or just take a walk along the beach somewhere. This week you’ll be getting an email from Andrea and you can choose which time and place works best for you. Or you can just see me after worship today and we can set up a one to one.

"Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" It’s not an unreasonable question, but Jesus "hedges" his answer. Why?

In his book on Acts, Tony Robinson states that Jesus does something characteristic of all good leaders: he gave responsibility back to the people who made up the body/organization. He did not play the role of an all-knowing expert or authority, the one who has the answer for every question, the solution to every problem. As Tony says, "Here… we see that even Jesus, who could walk on water, does in a sense "disappoint people"--but at a rate they can stand.”

Jesus gives the responsibility for the work of restoration and the carrying out of his great mission back to them, back to the people. “It is not for you to know… But you will receive power… and you will be my witnesses.”

So, here we are, one week from Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the empowerment of God’s people to go out from this place and transform the world. No longer simply “disciples”—followers and students—we are now to be apostles—teachers and witnesses of God’s grace who are sent out to proclaim the good news of the gospel.

The best way to learn something is to teach it; all students in the church must be transformed from disciples to apostles. If we do this at Keawala’i Congregational Church we will fulfill God’s dream for us, the dream that was present at the formation of this church, that we be an outpost, a sign and a beacon of the new creation in the midst of the Pacific; in a culture that is increasingly secular, materialist, and adrift-- a tranquil harbor in a turbulent world. Amene.

(1) This message borrows extensively from Tony’s book, Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts For A New Day. Tony Robinson is my pastoral “coach,” and has given his permission to quote from his work.

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