At the beginning of Acts St Luke sets out his stall: the Church is beginning to emerge from the chrysalis of the Gospel.
Scene-Setting (Acts 1.1-5): From followers to bearers of the promise
1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
Acts does not come on its own. It comes as the second part of Luke’s presentation of the Gospel, often referred to as Luke-Acts. Luke is the only one of the four evangelists who gives us a sequel that has made its way into the canon of Scripture. And so Acts functions in a sense as a bridge between the Gospels and the rest of the Old Testament. In a way, it gives us a clearer picture of how the Christian life in the Gospels, following the historical Jesus, becomes the Christian life of the Church. And Luke does this in a clearer, more narrative, way than does the Apostle Paul. Acts is perfect for those of us who don’t get our kicks from wrestling through knotty passages of Romans or the mystical theology of John.
And like any good sequel, Acts dives right in. “In the first book” (v.1), Luke writes to his sponsor Theophilus, I wrote about Jesus’ life up until the Ascension. And he alludes to the resurrection appearances which make up the last chapter of his Gospel – to the women in the garden (Luke 24.1-12); on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35); and eating a piece of fish amongst the disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 24.36-43) – these are the “convincing proofs” (v.3) in the forty days after the resurrection.
But now Luke rewinds, to take the Ascension more slowly, to focus in on it and perhaps to provide a clear join between the two volumes of Luke-Acts. And this is all leading up to Pentecost.
The first five chapters of Acts are odd, because they are fixed in one particular place. The stage is narrowed, unlike the travelling Jesus of Luke’s Gospel, to the city of Jerusalem. It is claustrophobic. And the wonder of the events narrated are boiling over, the pressure building up as the Gospel threatens to burst out over the entire world.
The particularity of the beginning of Acts is special, because it is commanded by Jesus: “While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem” (v.4). The people of God are beginning to make the transition from those who follow Jesus on his journey to becoming a people who live lives in many different places and “wait there for the promise of the Father” (v.4). The disciples have only ever received the baptism of John, if they have been baptised at all (v.4). But now, for the disciples as for all baptised Christians, the Father’s promise of eternal life through Christ will be partially fulfilled as they “will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (v.5).
The Ascension (Acts 1.6-11): From disciples to waiters
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the 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.’ 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
Throughout the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the disciples fail to grasp what God is doing in Christ. And this moment is no exception. The disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v.6). This question is cryptic. Either the disciples are being incredibly theologically astute and are asking whether it is time for God’s final reign of glory to be consummated; or, more likely, they are being rather as they have been throughout the Gospels and still think that Jesus’ kingdom might in some sense be linked to the political and religious kingdom of Israel. Jesus’ response is direct: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (v.8). This must have brought the disciples up short. And it should do the same to us, also.
For queer people – as for all those who experience marginalisation, misunderstanding, maltreatment and oppression – it is tempting to reduce the Gospel of the Glory of God to the good news of our own liberation. Jesus says to the disciples, ‘Yes, that is included, but not in the way you might plan it, and not in the time-scales you decree. The Father has other priorities.’
This is difficult. God at times feels distant, and not a little heartless. Why does he wait to deliver his people? More than others, those who know oppression and injustice cry, ‘How long, Lord? How long?’
But God does not leave the disciples with nothing. Or, rather, he does not leave humanity with nothing. He leaves us all with the disciples to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v.8). When Jesus’ feet leave the surface of the earth, we shall not be forsaken. For we have the disciples to witness to him. And that is not all the comfort Christ offers at this stage, for those disciples will not be working on their own. The effectiveness of Christ’s presence among us will not be left to this rather unimpressive bunch of misfits, for he promises them that: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (v.8).
This is important because, however far off God may feel at times – and for each of us he does – it is our fellow believers (and often our fellow queer believers) whom Christ gives us as his gift. I have often been told by people that they feel abandoned by the Church, and I ask them how it is that they have sustained their faith through that. And they reply, ‘It wasn’t me. I had friends who were really supportive.’ At times, distracted and frustrated by our struggles with the institutional Church, we underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to anoint others to minister to us.
And Jesus ascends, leaving the earth until his coming at the last day (v.9). How interesting that Luke emphasises that “a cloud took him out of their sight” (v.9). Jesus is now forever veiled to the eyes of the flesh and can only be seen by the eyes of the spirit. In eastern icons, that truth is represented by a mandorla, an almond shaped barrier, separating Christ from earthly view, sometimes several layers representing the depth into which Christ’s human life is taken into the inner life of the Godhead.
But this does not mean that we are left alone. Remember the promise of the Spirit. The disciples of course have failed to grasp the full meaning of that promise, and are standing, waiting, “gazing up towards heaven” when “suddenly two men in white robes stood by them” (v.10). Some commentators say that these are Moses and Elijah, who stood either side of Jesus at the Transfiguration. But we don’t really know. What we do know is that their task was to send the disciples on their way: “Men of Galilee, why do you stan looking up towards heaven?” (v.11). They are not meant to squander their life, gawping into the sky, but are to wait for a day when he “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (v.11). The chapter closes for the disciples on the days of their talking with Jesus as friend. They are no longer disciples, but waiters, beginning the Church’s long wait for the kingdom of God to be established on earth. Even now, we stand and wait with them.
The Ascension’s Aftermath (Acts 1.12-14): Fellowship from loss to prayer
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
After the Ascension, Luke reflects on two aspects of life in the Church: journey and place. The disciples return to Jerusalem (v.12) – they travel from the place where they last knew Christ in the flesh to the place of the Jewish Church, the holy city which was the home of the temple, the house of the presence of God – from the Mount of Olives, where Jesus had prayed to the Father on the night before His Passion. Time and place is being collapsed in the journeying of the fledgeling Church, as the events of the Gospel are being wrapped up into one package: this new community. They carry within them the life, passion, resurrection and ascension of the Lord. Galilee, Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, they embody them all.
And now they come to an upper room (v.13), like the “large room upstairs” in Luke 22.12 in which the Last Supper takes place. The upper room, with its table fellowship and prayer, sandwiches the events of the passion, resurrection and ascension. Table fellowship and prayer are the key for the Church: they are the essence of the Church. For those of us who are members of the Church, they are the most important thing with offer to the Lord, and they are the most wonderful thing we receive from Him in the Church.
But many of us who are queer find this difficult. Whether we find it hard to be ourselves in Church, or whether we are explicitly or implicitly excluded from the congregation, simply saying that table fellowship and joining the faithful in prayer are important is not sufficient. But Luke throws something interesting into the mix for those of us who experience exclusion in the public life of the Church. “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (v.14) – that is the disciples, the people who might be considered most legit. and most appropriate to be present at the worship of the Church. But Luke goes on: “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (v.14). Luke explicitly opens up the community of the Church beyond the male and approved disciples. The Church in its prayer is developing beyond the narrow bounds of a particular group (not that, when you really read the Gospels, the disciples were the only ones who followed Jesus and spread the Word – lots of people did!). But in Luke’s explicit inclusion of people other than the disciples in the community of the early Church we see a powerful challenge to the modern Church to explicitly include ALL the members of Christ’s body in the prayer and table fellowship.
But there is a challenge to queer people, too. In the upper room of the Last Supper, all the disciples were gathered, including Judas. In the upper room of the early Church too, all the disciples were gathered. Scripture does not give us much to go on if we want to know about their relationships with one another: the internal politics of the first Church. But this much is clear: it isn’t up to us to choose who is in the Church either. This challenge is particularly difficult for us if we find a home in an explicitly LGBT-inclusion focussed denomination. It is incumbent on us in those situations, just as in any case where we are in a small or secluded congregation, to remember that Christ calls us to welcome ALL into His prayer and table fellowship. This begs the question: How do we make Church safe and nurturing for queer people, whilst making explicit our welcome to all, even those who are not queer, or who can at times be antagonistic? And if it is not possible for us to physically welcome such people into our congregations, out of a desire to protect our weaker members, how do we make explicit our connection and fellowship with them around the one table, in one prayer to one Father, and in one upper room, the body of Christ?
And there is another dimension too which is cause for encouragement. The disciples have been locked in the psychology of loss. Jesus, the tangible friend and teacher, has been taken from them, tried, executed, and then raised up into glory. But here they move into a new psychology: of prayer. Prayer is vital for all of us who know loss, and all f us, not just queer people, are in that category. But mourning at stages in our family relationships, in our personal growth and in our journey of faith will weigh us down unless it can be harnessed to bear the fruit of prayer. Christ gives the vocation to prayer as his good gift, that though in our loss we are separated from things we desire and love, in prayer we are joined to Him whom we need. The injunction in 1 Thessalonians 5.16-17 comes to my mind: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing…”. Prayer is the means by which Christ turns our mourning into joy.
If you have feedback on the Queer Acts project, or would like to contribute a guest post (in any format appropriate for you, and which can be anonymised), please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org