I suspect that Acts chapter One may be one of the most neglected chapters in the whole of the Bible. Most of us naturally want to get stuck into Acts 2 as its full of the action, the important, controversial stuff, the Holy Spirit falling, the burning tongues of fire, the speaking in tongues, the first christians sermon, people getting saved. Yet chapter 2 couldn’t have happened without chapter 1 and when I say that I am not just talking chronologically but theologically. There are things that happened in chapter 1 of the book of Acts which prepared the church for what God did in Acts 2. I would even go as far as to say if the attitudes and actions we can so clearly see among God’s people in Acts 1 had been absent, Acts 2 could never have been written.
So essentially what I am suggesting is that there are attitudes and actions in Acts 1 which created the conditions among God’s people for the Holy Spirit to fill them and launch them into the world in mission so powerfully. Which means Acts chapter 1 could and should be one of the most important passages of Scripture for us for those of us who seek the Holy Spirit’s empowering in order to see our communities become more authentic expressions of missional church.
Specifically I think I can see 4 things which characterised this first church in Jerusalem which need to be found in communities that are really serious about being the Church the Holy Spirit wants to make us.
Its easy to overlook this but the actions of these first disciples are characterised by obedience to Jesus. Just think about it for a moment, in verse 4 Jesus says “Do not leave Jerusalem, …” …. in verse 12 we get their response “Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem …” Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem, so they didn’t go home to Galilee, they waited in Jerusalem. There was no hesitation, no prevarication, what Jesus told them to do, they did. I have a quote from a Victorian preacher which says “The way of obedience is the pathway to usefulness” The language may be a bit out of date but the principle certainly isn’t. As far as I can see it, we cannot be a missional church unless we are committed to being an obedient church. I believe that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t have come to this church if they hadn’t got right with Jesus in terms of doing what he commanded and stayed right with him. If you read through the book of Acts you see this principle at work time and time again. Its the church which obeys Christ whom Christ can use.
The application is simple isn’t it? holiness matters in mission, simple to understand perhaps not so simple to live. Unless we are obedient to God, how can we be a community that embodies and expresses the Kingdom of God which is the fundamental necessity for being a missional church? If we are serious about joining Christ in his mission, in being an authentic form of church, then we need to be willing to commit ourselves to doing what God clearly says in His Word and what we come to believe His Spirit is saying to us individually and collectively. This means among other things being obedient to Jesus in our marriage, in our working life, our business, in our attitude to wealth and property, in the way we express our sexuality and in the way we treat other people. What we do in private has a deep impact on the public impact of our church.
The next characteristic which created a community which could be filled with the Spirit is a no brainer its so clear. Luke says they “…. devoted themselves to prayer” In other words it wasn’t an occasional activity, it wasn’t once in a while, these people were devoted to prayer. The only conclusion we can draw is that it is the community which is devoted to prayer that is empowered by the Spirit and sent on mission with Christ. Prayer was their priority, I am sure they prayed together as a whole and at the Temple, they prayed individually and probably prayed in groups. How they prayed is probably not as important as the fact that it was woven into the fabric of their community. We need to think about what it means in practical terms to be people who are devoted to prayer. How do we make prayer such a defining feature of our churches so if someone like Luke was to look at us and try and describe us, they too would say “they are devoted to prayer.”
I was struck reading Acts 1 by the potential for conflict that existed among this group of people. Given the background of the people in the Upper Room, this community could have been like a powder keg just waiting for a spark that would make someone explode. The disciples and Jesus family had never really gotten on that well during Jesus ministry. Matthew had been a Roman collaborator, Simon was a Zealot, a sort of anti-Roman terrorist, that must have made for interesting dynamics when it came to conversations on politics. James and John had tried to do a behind the scenes deal with Jesus to give them special positions of power in the Kingdom of God above the other disciples, the other disciples had been more than a wee bit annoyed when they found out. Yet we are told “They all joined together constantly” the phrase “joined together” means more than just being physically together in the same place, its a far more significant unity. Its a word that describes a unity that stems from sharing the same passion and purpose. They were willing to give up their own preferences, work through their differences and treat each other with grace because the most important thing to them was the Kingdom of God.
Can I be frank? If we want to be empowered by the Spirit and sent in mission then one thing we are going to have work hard at is unity. I am part of a community in which we come from different cultures and backgrounds so there is the potential for us to badly misunderstand one another and for that to lead to conflict and disunity. In addition becoming a missional church necessitates change and any human group which is growing and changing will inevitably be faced by tension. Communities desiring to be missional churches will have to actively and sacrificially choose unity over conflict and tension. This will mean treating each other with grace, interpreting what each other say in the best possible way and working hard at keeping our unity. Most of all it will mean keeping the main thing, the main thing, the Kingdom of God because only by sharing the same passion and purpose will any unity threatening differences become secondary.
I am in almost equal measure captivated and challenged by what Michael Green says about this passage and these first believers attitude to the Holy Spirit “”Unless we are in vibrant touch with the Holy Spirit, little of his character will be seen in us, and our impact will be negligible. I do not imagine the disciples waiting for the Holy Spirit before Pentecost knew quite what they were waiting for. …. They had seen one outstanding life which seemed to them full of the that great Spirit of God, the life of Jesus. They had his promise that the Spirit would be passed on to them. They did not fully know what that meant but they were open. They didn’t deny the possibility of some of the ways of the Spirit becoming real to them, while welcoming others.”
Gathered in the Upper Room this group didn’t allow their past experiences of the Spirit to dictate his future activities among them. They didn’t put the Spirit in a box by setting out how they would allow him to minister in and through them. They were community which was open to the Spirit. As far as I can see it, they didn’t try and whip up or manufacture some preconceived experience they wanted the Spirit to be involved in and they didn’t resist His new ways of inspiring, guiding and using them either. They didn’t allow fear to make them resist Him either.
One thing is for certain, no church can be involved in effective mission without the missionary Spirit of God being in control and that requires us to be open to Him not putting a straight jacket on Him. I am pretty convinced the Holy Spirit cannot do all he wishes to do if he is constantly held back by our predetermined prejudices and expectations about what He can and can’t do, and how He should and shouldn’t express His presence. We should be open to the Holy Spirit doing in and through us what He wants to do, not what we want or what we are comfortable with doing. Openness in practical terms means as far as I can see not trying to manufacture experiences of the Spirit nor resisting moves of the Spirit. Let’s be open and hungry for the Spirit and leave what He does and how He does it up to Him.
So these are the four characteristic which I believe created the conditions which allowed Jesus to unleash the Spirit on this community and the characteristics that I think all communities seeking to be missional expressions of GOD’S people need to be committed to and cultivate if they want to see the Holy Spirit unleashed in and through the church.
We desperately need the Missionary Spirit in order to live as the Missional Church perhaps here in
Acts we have some signposts as to how we can experience His empowering presence in and through our communities