Last Sunday evening Meghan and went to Clemson to see one of her cousins get married. It was a very nice venue, beautiful decorations and all that. The original plan was for the ceremony to be outside and the reception inside, the rain messed that plan up so the entire thing had to be indoors. There wasn’t enough space to have a “ceremony” area and a “reception” area, so we all sat at the tables we had been assigned to for the reception during the ceremony as well. It was fun, we were with all Meghan’s cousins, we were also at the closest table to the cake because whoever put the seating chart together knew who they dealing with (the farther away I am the more people I have to shove out of the way when they get between me and cake). So like five minutes before the ceremony I see the mother of the bride, Meghan’s aunt, and Meghan’s mom talking and looking in my direction. And then my mother in law starts coming my way and I begin to get excited. Cause there are only a couple of reasons I can think of for them to be talking about me that close to the start of the event, and the one that, to me, makes the most sense or is the most likely is that they need someone to sign the license. I don’t know who they’ve got performing the ceremony, but for all I know he is a friend who couldn’t get a notary certification in time and coach is making the call to the bullpen. And I’m excited, because I haven’t gotten to do that before. And it’s a big deal, to sign off on someone’s nuptials. So Meghan’s mom comes up and says “Kelly (mother of the bride) wanted me to start by saying how much she loves you,” which in my mind is laying it on a little thick but I appreciate the gesture. At that point I can’t contain myself anymore and I say “they need me to sign the license!” I didn’t even pretend to play it cool. And there was an awkward pause, because no, they did not need me to sign the license. My seat was in the path of the party as they came in and they needed me to move so I wouldn’t block the path. Kind of a let down, not going to lie.
I shouldn’t have gotten that excited. There was no reason to assume that five minutes before the ceremony they were going to magically realize they needed a signature and pick me. That’s a very important thing, picking your witnesses and all that. It’s a symbolic thing as well, in asking people to sign something like a marriage license I think you’re telling them that you respect them, that their opinion and blessing of your marriage is important. There’s a significance to who does that kind of thing. I should have known it wasn’t going to be me but for a minute the excitement took over.
Luke tells us that after the resurrection Jesus appeared to the disciples for forty days. It doesn’t take too much knowledge of the Bible to realize that forty is significant. During the flood it rained for 40 days and forty nights. When Moses fled Egypt he was a shepherd in Midian for 40 years. He spent 40 days with God on Mount Sinai. The people wandered the desert for 40 years before entering the Holy Land. The law, in Deuteronomy, limits the number of lashes a person could receive as punishment for a crime to 40. Goliath taunted the army of Israel for 40 days before David showed up and rose to face the challenge. Jonah prophesized that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry. The number shows up a lot. Big things tend to happen in increments of 40. And sure enough, we see again here in Acts that 40 days after being resurrected Jesus ascends, he goes back up into heaven.
I wonder if any of the disciples were counting. That’s the kind of thing that strikes me as interesting, the kind of question I wish could be answered: did that 40th day catch them by surprise? How long did they think Jesus was going to be with them, did they assume after the resurrection that since he had come back he was back for good only to be shocked when the day came that he was leaving? Just an aside, I think there’s a good reminder in that to value our days as we have them. Value the moments that seem ordinary because we never know how many of them we’ll have. Value the seasons in life, because we never know when those seasons will end. We’re here on Memorial Day weekend, the “unofficial start to summer,” and I keep forgetting summer is coming. My parents are both teachers, summer was a big deal to us! I was in school from 5 to 25, summer was a big deal! And now I’m an “adult” with a “real job” and I keep forgetting that summer is coming. A season has ended in my life while I wasn’t looking. Not a really significant one in the grand scheme of things but a season none the less, and we need to be mindful of the seasons of our lives or we’ll be shocked that they’re over without realizing what they were.
I wonder if any of the disciples were counting the days. If on day 39 they marked off a calendar or made a tally and thought to themselves or said to their friends, “hey, tomorrow is day 40, I wonder what’s going to happen.” I wonder if they valued what they were experiencing while it was happening of if they missed it, failing to value their time because they assumed they’d have more of it.
It’s the latter that I sense when I read this text. They gather with Jesus on day 40 and say “is this it? Are you going to restore the kingdom now?” You may hear that differently from me, you may hear anticipation in that, I hear frustration. I don’t know what that says about me but I sense a nag in the voice as they speak in the moment. Almost a challenge, “are you finally going to bring the kingdom? You’ve been back for 40 days and you haven’t let anyone see you other than us, we’ve had some nice chats but you haven’t really done anything, is this finally the time, are you going to do something already.” And so I picture a little bit of smugness maybe, a kind “oh just wait” look on Jesus’ face when he says, basically, “no, you are.”
The kingdom is coming, but not in the way they thought. Big things are happening, but not how they assumed. This kingdom isn’t going to come through something Jesus still has to do, his part is over for a while. It’s the disciples who will take the next step in making the kingdom happen by being witnesses, in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and eventually all over the earth.
When we think about witnesses we tend to think about it in terms of obligation. A witness saw something and they are required to go before a court and share it. But that’s not all the there is in the world of witnessing. Some people are witnesses because of their expertise, they know a lot about a subject and choose to testify about that thing when it comes up or they know the parties involved in a legal issue and get brought in to speak about the people. But then there’s another kind of witness. There’s the person who is chosen to be a witness for something. The people chosen to sign a marriage certificate or even to attend a wedding. The people who get invited to things like graduations or important ceremonies. For big events, for things that are a big deal in our lives we put thought into who we want to be there. Jesus chooses the disciples, a bunch of nobodies from Galilee, and tells them that they are going to be the ones to represent him. That he’s not going bring the kingdom now, that he’s not going to show up in the middle of Jerusalem and show folks what a bad decision they made, that instead he’s going to trust that job to them.
Does that seem like a bad plan to anybody else? It is definitely not the most effective way to go about things. The easiest way to make this kingdom happen would have been for Jesus to march into the temple, start calling down angel armies, take out Roman soldiers left and right, and let folks know that a new era is dawned. But that’s not the way things go. Because that’s not the kind of kingdom that is being established. This is not a kingdom that’s coming from the top down, this kingdom is going to get established from the ground up. And its up to the people who make up that kingdom to be the ones to make it happen.
A witness is someone who, because of their experience or something they observed, is in a unique position to tell the truth on important matters. The disciples were tasked with remembering what they had seen and sharing it, making sure that people both near and far would come to know who Jesus was and what God had done through him.
The command to bear witness went on through the ages. The task to tell who Jesus was and what God did in him didn’t stop with the second or third generation disciples and it doesn’t stop today. We may not have felt Jesus’ touch, but we know him. As we try to follow his teachings and as we build relationships with others we see him at work. And we can take the stories we have to tell, of hope for the hopeless and justice to the mistreated and healing to the broken, and we can share those stories. And in doing that we become witnesses, we become part of the kingdom that is not yet here but is coming and can come in all our lives right now.
Its interesting to me that Jesus doesn’t give the disciples a whole lot of instruction about where, when, and how they should go about their witnessing. He simply tells them to go to Jerusalem, and that when the time comes they’ll have what they need. It is in their acts of witnessing that the Spirit will move. The Spirit doesn’t grab hold of them and force them to bear witness, they bear witness and the spirit is able to move. The spirit meets us where we are and enables us through the witness we already have. So as we celebrate the start of summer and look ahead to school getting out and vacations coming and all the things that take us so many different directions we should remember that the Spirit goes with us. The call to bear witness doesn’t take summers off, and wherever we go God remains with us, empowering us to show the Kingdom in all the places we go.