"Will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?"
What a question! Jesus has been crucified. He has been raised from the dead. He has spent time with the disciples; calming their fears, assuaging their doubts, reconnecting :with them after they've scurried like rats off a sinking ship. And now they are asking a "throwback theology" question about the nature of the Messiah: "are you going to give Israel it's kingdom back?"
Ever since the destruction of the temple and the exile of the Jerusalem elites to Babylon, folks had been looking for the Messiah, the Christ, who would set everything right. Some thought that when Cyrus the Persian sent the exiles home that this would be the beginning of that restoration. But things hadn't quite turned out the way they thought. They were still under oppressive control, most recently that of Rome.
But they had the promises of prophets like Isaiah, who in Isaiah 43 speaks of restoration and protection, of rivers in the desert. And Isaiah says, in essence, "don't focus on what I've done in the past....I'm going to do something new that is going to make even the Exodus (the defining moment in Israel's identity) look like yesterday's news." What else could that be than the restoring of the kingdom to Israel?
Jesus' answer must have rocked them to the core. God was going to do something new, alright, but it wasn't going to look like anything they imagined.
First of all (and we talked about this a few weeks ago), Jesus' answer about "restoring the kingdom" amounts to a flat, "that's none of your business." This in itself must have felt a bit abrupt. But THEN Jesus says in Acts 1:8 something so powerful that we've (meaning you and me) been avoiding it for centuries:
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirt has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Let me stop here and say something in defense of the disciples. They aren't that different that you or me. All of us keep looking back over our shoulder for some "golden age" that we think was back there. It rarely is. It is a fantasy. In fact, the Davidic kingship that was praised so highly was a wealth of dysfunctional family life. An act of incestuous rape that David refused to deal with tore the kingdom apart. When the dust had settled, sons were dead and Solomon was in line for the throne. Solomon....who built the Temple but also worshipped other gods and enslaved and taxed his own people for the building. Solomon who was a ancient arms dealer.
No wonder that Isaiah quotes God as saying, "Look, I'm going to do something new." The first bit of that "newness" is that power is going to come, the Spirit of God is going to come, not on a single person like happened in the past with Moses, and the prophets, and David. The Holy Spirit is going to come on a community. There isn't going to be a "fearless leader" that everyone troops after. There is going to be a community of witnesses. This group that Jesus said to, "I don't call you servants anymore, I call you friends."
Second, "you will be my witnesses." Witnesses to the resurrection....yes. But also witnesses to this new way of being that Jesus has been teaching and living out. This way of living that was responsible for His death.
Third, they will be witnesses "in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." This isn't going to be a "kingdom restored to Israel." It is going to be the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God. It isn't going to be limited to some narrow nationalism. It isn't going to be limited to some racial or religious litmus test. It's going to go everywhere!
It's going to make the Exodus look like small potatoes because Jesus is going to lead all of creation out from it's bondage to Sin and Death. And here is where it gets scary.....
The disciples are told that they are going to be witnesses.....just like Moses was a "witness" to the Glory of God. They were going to face down Sin and Death like Moses confronting Pharaoh. There is a new world, they were to announce. Things are to be lived out differently. And they were to do it in places they hadn't even heard of yet.
The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is the story of how they struggled with what that meant. And the first question, the biggest question of that story what "who is in, and who is out?" And the answer was terrifying. It was so terrifying that by the time Constantine converted, the Church was already backtracking and putting up barriers that the Apostles had spend great energy tearing down. If you want proof, you can see it even in the case of the Canon, where Paul says, "there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile." But by the time you get to the writings of those who wrote in Paul's name (not an unusual practice), there is a back pedaling that would do a politician proud: women are told to shut up in worship (a sure sign that there were women leading successfully in early churches) and slaves were being told that they served God by being obedient to their masters (a dog whistle if I've ever heard one).
The more things change, the more they stay the same. I will not belabor the point of our current political climate. The demeaning of the marginalized whom we are commanded to care for. The selling of racism and violence for political and economic gain.
What I will do is take us back to the scripture that was part of last week's service. John 15 has Jesus describing Himself as the True Vine. God, He says, is the vinekeeper who prunes the branches (that's us). And then Jesus says, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." I'm going to suggest that Jesus is telling us that the final determination for what is, and isn't, pruned away from our lives is love. Not that milksoppy "love" that sounds more like aroma therapy that Jesus. But Love. The kind of love that lays down it's life. The kind of love that covers a loved one with it's own body in the gun fire of Los Vegas. The kind of Love that looks at Dylann Roof and offers forgiveness. The kind of love that will march and act and go to jail and die, if need be, til this country is delivered from it's bondage to violence, racism, Sin and Death.
If you need another image, think of those folks going west in covered wagons. Bogging down in the muddy trails, they dumped everything but the bare necessities. Even good things, like pianos and cookware, were left by the side of the trail. Are we willing to dump everything that is not Love?
It's a wonder that any of the disciples hung around for Pentecost. And yet, they had seen what the Kingdom could look like. They had watched Jesus live it. They had seen Death put it's tail between it's legs and run like hell (literally). So they stayed. And the Spirit blew.
This has been a tragic week. In national ways, Los Vegas was the scene of a horrific shooting, medical care for women is being attacked, Puerto Rico still struggles for basic necessities. Closer to home I buried a young man, not yet 21, killed in a motorcycle accident. I listened to a police officer describe being the first responder at a murder/suicide. Sin and Death still battle for control; and Jesus still sends us out to places we never thought we'd go.
Will we keep looking back over our shoulder for some "golden age" or will we be obedient witnesses to what the Kingdom can look like here and now? Will we allow ourselves to be pruned til all that is left is love?