Scene 1: Alive, Well, and Working
This is the first in a series of four posts based on the first chapter of the book of Acts.
The book of Acts is highly revered among God's Bible-believing people. We are, after all, restorationists, committed to restoring the purity and simplicity of the New Testament gospel and the presence of Jesus to the world. And so we turn to Acts frequently as the authoritative manual for putting things back the way they were intended to be.
We need to remember that Acts is the second of a two-volume set which began with the book of Luke. Reading Acts apart from Luke is like watching a movie sequel when you haven't seen the original. It might make sense, but there's so much you miss. When we turn to Acts, we find that it picks up right where Luke left off, with the resurrection of Jesus. We can only conclude that the resurrection is the central event in this two-volume set.
Both books stress that Jesus' resurrection was a bodily one: the dead, lifeless body that hung on the cross became fully alive again. Sometimes we talk about Jesus being alive today in the same way we might talk about Aunt Sally at her funeral:
As long as there are warm chocolate chip cookies on a cold winter's day, as long as there are school girls with pink ribbons in their braids, as long as we can remember the trip to Yellowstone, Aunt Sally will be alive.
However, Luke-Acts will permit no such maudlin sentimentality. Its author does not say that Jesus' memory lives on, or that his example continues to inspire us, or that we find reminders of him all around. Luke-Acts clearly states that Jesus came back to life in a body that was recognized by those who knew him best. His voice, his face, and his mannerisms were all familiar. He invited his disciples to touch him, and he ate meals with them (Luke 24:39-43). And in in that body, over a period of forty days, he offered many convincing proofs that he was alive (Acts 1:3).
After such a strong emphasis on the bodily resurrection, doesn't it seem strange that the very next event recorded in Acts is the removal of Jesus' body from earth through the ascension? But our consternation over this is removed in chapter 2 as Jesus, from heaven, pours out the gift of the Holy Spirit on his followers. In this way, he fulfilled his promise, "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you" (John 14:18). Jesus became physically present with his disciples by means of the Holy Spirit living within them. The remainder of Acts is a witness to the body in which Jesus now lives on earth, the church. Indeed, the dominant metaphor for the church in the rest of the New Testament is "the body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:4-5; Ephesians 4:1-16).
The implications of this are vast for our mission as a church. Our primary purpose is to embody Jesus. God wants Jesus to be seen and experienced on earth in bodily form, and it is his will for that to happen through Jesus' presence in the church. To do that, the church must embrace Jesus' own statement of mission: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).
A second implication of the church as the body of Jesus involves organizing the church according to spiritual gifts. In Ephesians, Paul states that the purpose for which God gave spiritual gifts to the church was so that we might "become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13). Church leaders too often organize the church by setting up programs and activities that are familiar and expected. A better starting point would be to examine the spiritual gifts that exist in the congregation, seeking to discern the ways in which Jesus longs to minister to the world through that local body.
Seeing ourselves as the living body of Jesus forces us to think of "church" in a radically different way. This new perspective was best illustrated by Richard Halverson, who at one time served as chaplain to the United States Senate. A seminary student once asked him, "Dr. Halverson, where is your church?"
Halverson looked at his watch, then replied, "Well, it's currently three o'clock here in Washington, D.C. The church I minister to is all over the city right now. It's driving buses, serving meals in restaurants, sitting in board meetings, having discussions in the Pentagon, deliberating in Congress." He proceeded with a long list of roles and responsibilities where his church was functioning that day. "And once a week on Sundays we get together at a building on Fourth Street," he added, "but we don't spend a lot of our time there."
Simply put, we must never think of "church" as a place or an activity, but as a living, breathing outworking of the Spirit of Christ as he moves 24/7 through the life of many individual believers.
In conclusion, we see in Scene 1 of Act(s) 1 that Jesus walks the earth today in bodily form through the church. In Scene 2, we'll begin to explore the concept of the kingdom of God and how it informs our understanding of the church's mission.