We aren’t learning lessons from the past. In fact, we are repeating the same tragedies.
History speaks volumes of racial and ethnic discrimination. These are the common stuff of life across the minutia of human civilization. For believers alone, we need to look no further than the first family in Genesis to find hatred, envy, and murder.
Yet human civilization has always resorted to bootstrap methods to end such discrimination, particularly in modern times. With further regulations and laws, humanity has attempted to modify human behavior, enforcing tolerance even if the heart would betray itself.
And yet, in spite of such forced behavior, discrimination and division still exist. And many among us continue to demand more regulations for forced behavior, ignoring that, for the greater part of world history, forced behavior has proved unsuccessful.
We have reached what many to believe to be the pinnacle of world civilization, and the best we can still offer is forcing behavior, that still won’t stop hatred, terrorism, discrimination, war, and genocide.
There is a radical way to heal division, though — radical, because it doesn’t force people to behave. An itinerant preacher in Palestine, named Jesus, over two millennia ago, shared his life with a group of people who actually believed him. His radical claim was that to deny your own wants and needs, would bring a different kind of reconciliation to the world. He had credibility, because he denied his own needs and wants for the sake of peace.
And we find, after his own death, his resurrection, and his ascension, that his early followers actually believed him, because we find them building a community of very different people, in a world of forced discrimination.
There are many legacies from Acts 1. This, though, may be the most profound, and the one that will carry us today — unity is not out of our reach.
Keep reading, to see how this happened.
Acts 1:1-26 is what a shocked group of disciples looks like, who, at least at the beginning, still didn’t “get it.”
In these first few verses, Jesus, even after his resurrection, after showing himself as living and breathing and eating, had to still explain what the kingdom of God was, even though he had spent his entire life sharing this kingdom with them (Luke 4:43; 6:20; 7:28; 8:1, 10: 9:2, 11, 27, 60, 62; 10:9, 11; 11:2, 20; 12:31, 32; etc.).
This kingdom — one kingdom — that Jesus proclaimed (Luke 4:43) was a kingdom of real-time unity, not a future event, with God as king over all of humanity right now. It was a direct response, and remedy, to the kingdoms (plural) of the world controlled by the devil (Luke 4:5, 6). The kingdom of God, as shared by Jesus, destroys any kingdoms — big or small, governments or individuals — that divide people from each other and from God. These kingdoms, given to the devil, are every single act of division on this planet.
But in Jesus, the divisions have been erased. Destroyed. (Paul and Timothy wrote that the cross was God’s weapon of destruction against all of this division. See Colossians 1:19, 20.)
Even so, Jesus’ closest group of people still seemed very, very confused in the few days after Jesus’ resurrection. They had watched him erase the power of death — the ultimate and assumed final division in humanity — and they watched him offer his own body, his own life, as proof that God had destroyed even the very last division. He stood before them, alive again, telling them that the kingdom of God had arrived (Acts 1:3), and the apostles actually asked Jesus if he was going to restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6).
Jesus had said nothing about Israel (Acts 1:3)!
Their question betrayed their thoughts. In spite of the explosive miracle of resurrection, they were still disappointed with Jesus.
They wanted Israel to be free of Rome. They wanted an Israel with a temple. They wanted Israel to be the first, and the supreme, of all the nations in the world. They wanted to continue their very temporal — and divisive — heritage.
If those things were happen — if the kingdom of Israel would be restored — then, first, Rome would need to be overthrown. And that hadn’t happened after Jesus’ resurrection.
So, yes, they were disappointed.
Jesus’ answer was poignant. He told them that they have no need to know such timing. And then he said something surprising. He told his apostles they would soon receive the Holy Spirit from God, which would make their witness to him and his resurrection mobile.
They had heard of this promise, prior to Jesus ascension (Luke 24:49). And they heard it again, as Jesus stood before them.
And it was probably at this moment, then, that the apostles fully understood Jesus.
They knew his words to them, earlier, that the Holy Spirit would be given to them at, and for, a time of great testing (Luke 12:11, 12).
And they had asked for the arrival of the kingdom of Israel.
If they could just skip to the end, they wouldn’t have to feel the pain.
But they would also miss this gift.
So Jesus’ reply reminded them that testing was actually required.
Because the kingdom of God will ultimately feel great tension from the divisions — the kingdoms — of the devil.
It was God’s will that the divisions of the world would be healed in the name of Jesus — that God had, indeed, reconciled himself to all things.
There was no great wait, though, to see this plan in action.
As soon as Jesus ascended, and as soon as the apostles met with the other believers, we find divisions have been erased.
The apostles, women, Jesus’ mother, and Jesus’ brothers met together, to pray.
They met together. And prayed together (literally, unanimously).
Women, mostly overlooked in Jewish religious rituals, were now an active part of this first group. Women and men prayed together, and not divided into separate courts and spaces, as the temple cult would have not only preferred, but also enforced.
And Jesus’ family, not originally part of Jesus’ discipleship community (Luke 8:19-21), have returned.
In fact, in just two verses, the amount of people in this community of believers actually grew (Acts 1:14-15). This kind of unity was contagious.
And all they had done, so far as we know, was pray together, in the name of Jesus.
Divisions were erased. They can still be erased today.
But not with forced behavior. Notice that nothing in the above story spoke of anything being forced. Instead, it was a clear picture of who Jesus was — and what he did — that compelled people to live differently.
Unity can’t be maintained with laws and regulations.
It can only be maintained with the power and presence of God. And God is not out of our reach.
A Few Discussion Questions:
- Read Acts 1:1-11.
- What was the promise of the Father? Why does that matter? Read Luke 12:11, 12. So what does Jesus imply here with this promise? How is that realization apparent in the next question they asked?
- The apostles seemed to want the end to begin immediately, when they asked about the restoration of Israel. Why didn’t they want to suffer? Are we guilty of the same thing? Explain.
- Are we guilty of accusing God of not meeting our expectations? Explain.
- Define kingdoms, according to Luke 4:5-8. Does the devil still control kingdoms? Why is division so important to the devil, and so offensive to God? Jesus preached the kingdom of God in Luke 4:43, and spoke to the disciples, here in Acts 1, about the same kingdom. What is the kingdom of God, and why is it good news — especially compared to what the devil actually controls? Is it still good news? Explain
- How far were the apostles required to be Jesus’ witnesses? Is this still required of us today? Explain. Can we extend our witness to the “ends of the earth” without first extending our witness locally? Do we try? Explain.
- Read Acts 1:12-14.
- Describe the diversity of this group. Why does this matter? Is this a snapshot of the kingdom of God? Explain.
- What was the first thing they did together, after Jesus’ ascension? Why is this significant?
- Are we guilty of planning first, then praying later? Explain.
- The gift of the Holy Spirit brings with it an implication of suffering while we witness.
- Is suffering necessary for a witness of Jesus? If so, why? If not, then what’s the point of the gift of the Holy Spirit?
A Final Prayer:
Father, heal out wounds, and our divisions, in your name. And use those of us who believe in you to demonstrate this healing, regardless of the cost. Give us your Holy Spirit, and enable us to endure whatever trials we face for living such reconciliation in a divided world.