By Peter Robinson
Over a thousand years ago the prophet Isaiah offered a prayer that seems very pertinent today:
Oh that you would rend [or tear open] the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence!
I love Isaiah’s prayer because it is exactly what I want to pray when I see some of the things that happen around the world: “Oh that would tear open the heavens and come down.”
And yet we are in a different place than Isaiah because God has indeed torn open the heavens and come down in the person of Jesus Christ. So our prayer is different: what exactly are you doing, God? Why is everything, including the church, such a mess?
And right there we find ourselves standing with the first followers of Jesus gathered together in Jerusalem after the crucifixion. They don’t know what is going on. They are confused, uncertain, frustrated. Learning to follow Jesus, they find themselves again and again struggling to understand him and what he is doing. Jesus is God come down. In Jesus Christ, God has torn open the heavens and come down. He has answered Isaiah’s prayer, but he doesn’t do what they expected him to do.
Luke 24:45 recounts some of the last moments Jesus has with his closest followers before he leaves them. We’re told that Jesus has opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, to understand the Bible. He has been trying to show them that long before Isaiah’s time, right up until the present, God has been working consistently and faithfully toward the fulfillment of his purposes. Indeed, in Jesus the story finally comes to its climax. The pieces fit together, or at least they are supposed to, but for Jesus’ followers it is still a puzzle.
One of the phrases Jesus uses to speak of the work of God is “the kingdom of God.” A promise that God made over and over again to his people was the promise of the kingdom — a time when God would reign or rule over the whole earth, when everything would find its rightful place in relationship with God.
Jesus’ followers, like most of the people of Israel, have been expecting the kingdom. They have imagined what it will look like, they have anticipated that it will make their lives a whole lot better. And so they ask Jesus for the umpteenth time: Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Is this the time when you will make Israel powerful again, when you will give prosperity back to your people? Are our lives about to get a whole lot better, Jesus?
Of course we know things don’t work out the way his followers were expecting. Jesus did not destroy Roman rule and overthrow the corrupt leaders. Instead, Jesus left, his followers are scattered, the temple is destroyed, and it isn’t long before the heavy hand of Rome descends on Jerusalem, crushing all opposition.
But this is the thing: Jesus’ first followers didn’t go home disillusioned and despairing because Jesus failed to do what they expected him to do. No, Luke tells us that they went on their way rejoicing. In fact they were in the temple every day praising God. And in Acts we read that their lives were turned upside down — in a good way.
What is going on? It seems clear that these first few followers had learned enough about who Jesus is and what Jesus is about that they were willing to trust him, even when he didn’t do what they expected him to do and even when he doesn’t answer their questions. After the disciples ask Jesus “Is this is the time?,” Jesus says, “That is not yours to know.” Instead he answers their question by telling them that the gift of the Holy Spirit is going to come and lead them.
His followers are learning to trust Jesus because they have begun to see his heart for them and they have begun to understand God’s heart for the world. And it is their understanding of his heart that gives them something to hold on to when his plans are puzzling to them. They still have a lot they don’t understand. But because they have begun to trust Jesus, they are willing to learn, they are willing to be led.
To be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is to be enrolled in the school of Jesus. Of course, Jesus is not your typical teacher, and the school Jesus invites us into isn’t your typical school. The kind of learning we are invited into is not just about getting new information or even a new set of skills. No, the school of Jesus is meant to teach us a new way of living in the world and a new way of seeing the world and understanding what goes on in the world. This isn’t the kind of teaching that happens in the classroom. Jesus taught his followers in the midst of everyday life. They were learning what it meant to follow Jesus in the midst of life, with all its chaos and confusion.
The Book of Acts makes it clear that their learning didn’t end when Jesus ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father. In fact, they were just getting started. This is what Jesus said was going to happen in John16:13: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. … he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Their schooling didn’t end with Jesus leaving. If anything, it was just getting off the ground. In some ways, I think we could say that the Book of Acts tells the story of the first class in the school of Jesus. We may not have a class photograph to mark the occasion, but we have a very descriptive story.
The Book of Acts is sometimes called the Acts of the Apostles, because it records what Jesus’ followers did after Jesus ascended into heaven. But a more suitable title for the book would be the Acts of the Holy Spirit, because the person and work of the Holy Spirit is what holds the story together. Standing right at the center of the class picture, the Spirit is continuing Jesus’ work of forming the hearts and minds of his followers.
That the Spirit is the one continuing Jesus’ work is underscored in the overlap between Luke and Acts. Luke 24:49 says: “And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
And then in Acts 1:5, Jesus tells his followers not to depart from Jerusalem but to wait for the promise from the Father: “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
In both Luke and Acts, Jesus tells his followers they are to wait for the Holy Spirit. But why? Or to ask that question in another way: If we are in the school of Jesus, who is the Holy Spirit, and what role does the Spirit play? A personal trainer, perhaps? A mentor helping us to know what to do? A tutor helping us to make sense out of what we are learning? Yes and yet more than that. The Holy Spirit is all of those things, but first and foremost the Spirit helps us to see and know God’s heart for the world.
The power which Jesus said the Holy Spirit was going to give to us is the power of love, God’s love for the world. And God’s love for the world is not a warm, cozy, or comfortable love. It is a demanding and costly love, a love that we see most clearly as it is poured out for the world in the cross of Jesus. It is a love that allows us to begin to see the world, to see other people, in the way that God sees them, as extraordinarily precious to him. And because it is God’s love, it continues to give hope even in the midst of situations that don’t make sense. As Paul tells us, the gifts of the Spirit include faith, hope, and love — the greatest of which is love, God’s love for the world.
So how does the Spirit teach us to know God and his love for the world? We can’t learn about God’s love in a classroom. In Acts 1:8, after Jesus has told his followers that he is not going to answer their question, he tells them to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit. Then he says, “You will be my witnesses, first in Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria and then on to the ends of the earth.”
It is the last thing he says to them before he ascends to the right hand of the Father. The Book of Acts follows this movement. In chapters 1 to7, Jesus’ followers begin in Jerusalem. In chapters 8 to 11, they go on to Judea and Samaria, and from chapter 11 on we see them going out to the rest of the known world. The school of Jesus happens as we live out our faith and learn how to share our faith in the world. We come to know the love of God as we share it with the world.
And that brings us to one of the primary reasons why, far too often, in far too many churches, people don’t grow up, or grow into, the life God has for them. It isn’t because God no longer works in the world and it isn’t because we need more information about the Christian faith or because we don’t know how to answer difficult questions. It is because we are not learning in the school of Jesus.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, doing mission meant certain individuals going to the farthest parts of the world to share the good news of God with those who had never heard it before. The people who did missions were missionaries. Churches supported them and they made great sacrifices to share the good news around the world. The problem was that we began to think of missions as something full-time missionaries did in other parts of the world. After all, we live in a Christian country, don’t we? In fact, by seeing mission primarily as something that happened over there or something done by other people, we stopped growing up in our faith.
And now, no surprise, we live in a mission field. So here is the question: Have we found ourselves in this place and time because people here believe, as Richard Dawkins would suggest, that Christianity simply isn’t rational, that it doesn’t make sense in our world anymore? Or are we in this place because in the church we stopped growing up in our faith? And did we stop growing in our faith because we lost sight of God’s heart for the world? The only real way to get to know God’s heart is to be involved in what God is doing. This doesn’t mean that we all need to become full-time missionaries or ministers. It means that we need to start asking, or keep asking, how we can be involved in what the Holy Spirit is doing in our homes, in our workplaces, and in our neighborhoods.
In Acts, from the picture of the first class in the school of Jesus, we see that they had many of the same questions we have today. They didn’t always understand what God was doing in the world, and they certainly did not have God all figured out. But they had begun to know God’s heart, shown to them in Jesus, and ultimately that was enough for them to step out into their world to share the good news of God in Jesus Christ with friends, with family. That not only transformed their lives; it also transformed the world.
The Rev. Dr. Peter Robinson is academic dean and professor of proclamation at Wycliffe College, Toronto.