Telling stories is an art. The writer works to craft a story, yet there are a number of challenges ahead of the writer, not least among them being writer’s block. If you are stuck, the story will sit idle waiting whatever conceptual block prevents the writer from moving onward. As I have found with writing, often it is best to leave the story alone for a spell, then while doing something often totally unrelated to one’s obsession about getting the plot back on track, the “solution” to the writer’s block problems comes to an end. (For me, I find myself best “sleeping on it”, giving up and coming back to my writing the next day. For others, it might involve doing chores, taking a walk, and on occasion, praying for inspiration when a deadline is hanging over your head. Once properly distracted from what has been bedeviling you, Viola! The “plot twist” appears!)
The story of Acts starts off with a rather intriguing plot twist. The story begins with the resurrected Christ teaching his followers, and after a season of instructing and living with them, one day he ascends into the sky. The star of the story called “gospel” appears, yet after a few words, he disappears from the narrative—exit, stage UP!
The story of Acts is about Jesus and his gospel, though his appearances are limited to “cameo” at best in this book. Instead, the narrative traces the adventure of those who would receive the Spirit’s empowering and heed Jesus’ call “to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” What began as a bunch of yokels from backwater Galilee staring off into the sky as Jesus departed takes on a wonderful complexity, a creative renewal of a story that most readers thought had finished. As the early Church theologian John Chrysotom said, “In the resurrection, [the disciples] saw the end but not the beginning, and in the Ascension they saw the beginning but not the end.”
A good story needs the complexity of development, otherwise the story goes a bit stale or set in its ways. In writing for television, you try your best to avoid the dreadful effect called “jumping the shark” (the term is used in popular culture for a show that has gotten so stale or far-fetched. The origins of the term comes from the old sitcom Happy Days, which reached a series writing low when one episode has a plot that involves the Fonz waterskiing and jumping over a shark. Yes, it’s remarkably bad writing, and hence a phrase to refer to “industry gold standard” bad narratives was born.
The television show LOST will come to an end later this month, and the internet will be abuzz with whether or not the series’ finale worked. I chuckle at the flurry of comments online already, as people ponder whether or not they can handle the potential outcomes. (How do I think LOST will end? My money’s on the show ending with Hurley finding Bobby Ewing taking a shower. Sorry, 80s pop culture joke….)
The book of Acts demonstrates a remarkable development upon the gospel Jesus offered. The book opens with referencing all of the good that Jesus said and did. The disciples have been through the journey of belief, finally seeing the fullness of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, testifying to his role as Messiah, the long-awaited Christ. In his glory, Jesus sends forth these followers to go to the ends of the earth, to go to places familiar and unfamiliar, places near and far. Unfortunately, the audacious call “to go” is heard yet not readily embraced. These disciples will be on an adventure that one cannot really believe is all within one book.
Edgar Johnson Goodspeed, a leading American Baptist biblical scholar decades ago, observed that the Book of Acts serves as a most remarkable story. Where else, he asks,
within eighty pages, will be found such a varied series of exciting events—trials, riots, persecutions, escapes, martyrdoms, voyages, shipwrecks, rescues—set in that amazing panorama of the ancient world—Jerusalem, Antioch, Philippi, Corinth, Athens, Ephesus, Rome? And such scenery and settings—temples, courts, prisons, deserts, ships, barracks, theaters? Has any opera [and today we would add in “film”, “graphic novel”, TV drama] such variety? A bewildering range of scenes and actions (and of speeches) passes before the eye of the historian. And in all of them he sees the providential hand that has made and guided this great movement for the salvation of [human]kind.”
The Ascension might seem like “the end” to the disciples, who expected Jesus to remain with them, yet this “ending” was the start of a “beginning”. The disciples dwell on the type of questions that miss the point of that which Jesus has been preparing them. They ask Jesus if he is about to restore the fortunes of Israel. They have been learning from Jesus throughout his ministry and now after his resurrection. They have seen his rejection of the powers of Empire and Temple alike, yet they still wonder if “the kingdom” he is heralding is like the kingdoms of the world. As for himself, Jesus resists even at the heights of glory as the Resurrected Son of God preparing now to ascend to the right hand of God, or as the later Apostles Creed would put confess as part of “the” faith:
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
Jesus has the power to do as he pleases, yet instead of setting up a powerbase, he sends out his followers to live a contrary way through this world. A little further into the narrative, after the day of Pentecost, the increasing band of believers celebrate their rapid growth as thousands are said to come to belief and are baptized. While the faith spreads across the Roman Empire, the disciples live out an ethic that is often called the definitive New Testament definition of the people called “Church”:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Upon this way of life, the followers of Jesus have been learning how to live in this world while waiting for the day of Jesus’ return. Instead of a “narrative dead end”, the continuation of the story of Jesus and the gospel takes on a new form, with people breaking bread, teaching the faith, and living the gospel in places so far flung that another New Testament writer would call it going “to the ends of the earth” with the gospel.
The book of Acts is the best sort of “sequel” to the story of Jesus. Acts is indeed “a sequel”, the second part of a two-part narrative began by the author of the gospel of Luke. Unlike most Hollywood film sequels, this one actually works and is pretty good. (Watch Star Trek V and you’ll understand what a bad sequel looks like.) The story of Acts asks the ongoing question that Jesus plants in his follower’s minds before he ascends: will you be my witnesses? The book of Acts tells of the witnessing Church, those who live out the faith, share the faith, and in some cases, suffer for the faith. (It is a perennially sobering note for the reader to learn that the Greek word for “witness” is also the same word for “martyr”.)
The Ascension is a great story for the church to tell. Sometimes it might even be a story that the church tells to “tell on itself”. We can be just like those disciples at the outset of the narrative, thinking that the end is at hand, when the beginning is just starting up. We might cast ourselves in the role of the disciples who err on the side of looking up, waiting and wondering, who need the “two men in white” (aka angels) to turn up and prompt us to get with the work Jesus entrusted us to do.
Truthfully, the story of Acts, the narrative of “what happened after Jesus ascended”, is a story with some room for expansion and further development. In fact, the last word of the book of Acts is delightfully challenging. The last word is “unhindered”, or “hindered not” to keep with the Greek text. Paul, once a persecutor of the Church, has become one of the faith’s most notable advocates. He is now traveling across the world, preaching the word and witnessing to the gospel. Acts finishes the narrative with Paul in the full swing of his work, despite the threats and hardship. Paul proclaims “the kingdom of God and [is] teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”
“Hindered not” is a remarkable word to round out a narrative that began with a group of folks confused and staring up into the sky thinking that there was not much left to say now that Jesus has ascended. The story is not over--it’s just gotten underway! The faith we confess in Christ is not remembering a story long past. We are invited to continue the narrative as the Church that awaits and proclaims the One who is surely coming again.