So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1.6)
Hung Up on Politics
It’s true. The older we get the faster time flies. Summers that lasted a lifetime in childhood now whiz by like a long weekend. The interminable wait between Thanksgiving and Christmas is now a flash in the pan. At the tender of age of 50, three years—the approximate time Jesus spends with His disciples—seems to me like no time at all. Yet given how much gets crammed into 36 months, it probably feels like decades to them. The eventfulness of their daily lives may be why Jesus sticks to core doctrine without branching into more esoteric aspects of Jewish dogma, the weeds where lawyers and teachers keep trying to lure Him. There’s too much going on and too little time to get bogged down in minutiae. So Jesus keeps drumming the majors: God’s plan, His purpose, and our duty. To the end, He refuses to let politics adulterate His message. Repeatedly, He urges His listeners to lift their minds above earthly affairs. Even when He’s reduced to a pawn shuttled between Pilate and Herod, He won’t be politically pegged. In John 18, Pilate pushes Him to confirm He is the King of the Jews. Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (v36)
Jesus sounds this note from the start—clearly and emphatically, over and over. Despite three years of frenetic activity, the disciples should have it by now. Yet their closing conversation with Jesus reveals they’re still hung up on politics. He’s told them to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit manifests Itself in their midst. He meets with them again (though they don’t know it’s their final time) to provide ample opportunity to ask Him anything they’re unsure of before He goes. Do they ask for more details on the Holy Spirit? No. Do they question how to proceed in His absence? No. Do they seek reassurance they can proceed? No. Here’s what they want to know: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1.6) Luke doesn’t describe Christ’s reaction; he jumps into His answer. But if I were He, I’d be hard-pressed to conceal my shock. I hear myself groaning, “Ai-yi-yi! Where have you guys been these past three years?” (A friend of mine would say, “Jesus called and wants His disciples back.”)
Although their question reads like a ludicrous non sequitur, we can all empathize with how difficult it is for the disciples to let go of deeply ingrained ideologies. Prior to joining Jesus, they’ve been raised on certain expectations. As a people, the Jews have endured numerous repressive regimes by fixing their hope on a promised Deliverer. As keepers of their faith, they’ve placed full confidence in prophecies they interpret to mean when the Messiah comes, He’ll overthrow Israel’s oppressors and restore the nation’s theocracy. Every disciple brings an earthbound knowledge of Messianic doctrine with him/her when answering Jesus’s call. Old habits die hard, they say, and that’s what we see here. Christ’s teaching of an unworldly kingdom—a virtual reign of love, peace, and justice, if you will—doesn’t compute.
To be sure, what they observe over three years doesn’t square with what they’ve been taught to anticipate. To varying degrees, they struggle with this; one of them—Judas Iscariot—loses the fight completely. It’s been hard to watch their King live in poverty, wrangle with the Jewish establishment, and submit to unjust execution before establishing His kingdom on Earth. Jesus’s talk of “another kingdom” mystifies them. None of this works with their literal reading of Scripture. It doesn’t make sense. Then Easter comes. Physical impediments to Christ’s seizing rule of Israel—and, hence, ousting Roman oppressors—evaporate. And with them go all His perplexing statements about “the kingdom of heaven” (life to come) and “the kingdom of God” (divine Presence existent in all Creation). The Risen Christ has complete command over life and death. Why wouldn’t the disciples revert to old notions of Messianic supremacy? From all appearances, Jesus is now poised to fulfill the Scripture exactly as they’ve always heard it. This business about the Holy Spirit and being witnesses and returning to His Father is confusing, while what seems so obvious makes total sense.
It would be hard to imagine a better time or situation for Jesus to assert His God-given power and position. That’s why the disciples focus on this. But now it’s their turn to be shocked and frustrated, as Jesus glosses over their question to defer to God and—once again—tell them the Holy Spirit will enable them to witness His Lordship. (The disciples called and want their Messiah back.) In Acts 1.7-8, Jesus answers: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” These are His final words to them. It's not what they asked and apparently not what they want to hear.
Tomorrow marks the Feast of the Ascension, with this Sunday’s liturgies in most churches likewise celebrating the marvelous event. Thus today presents a prime moment to reflect on where we are as Christ’s disciples. What did we bring with us when we answered His call? Are we holding on to ideologies that don’t square with His doctrine? Have our struggles with certain expectations deafened us to what He says? Are we misappropriating the power of the Cross and Empty Tomb for political and religious purposes? Are we ignoring our duty to wait on the Spirit and witness Christ’s love and acceptance because we’re trying to force-fit Jesus into an obsolete paradigm? Discipleship is a “drop everything” proposition, including everything we’ve been taught or presume to know about Jesus, His mission, and His message. When Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ, John 20.16 says she cries out, “Rabboni!”—Teacher! Expecting Jesus to conform to earthbound constructs inevitably ends in earthbound questions. Instead of discussing what we expect of Him, like Mary, we drop everything we know to learn what He expects of us.
As sensible as many old-school ideas and literal thinking may seem, they’re earthbound. We drop them when we follow Jesus, so we can learn what He expects of us.