Today we begin reading the book of Acts. The book of Acts tells the story of what happens after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was written by a Jewish Christian writer for a primarily Jewish-Christian audience—four generations after Jesus’ death around 80-90 C.E. There are two stories happening in Acts. The first has to do with Jesus appearing to the remaining eleven disciples and sending them on a mission. That’s what we heard this morning. The second story line has to do with Paul and his missionary work. As all these people tell the story of Jesus they come into conflict with the communities they are working in as the new Christian communities try to make sense of who Jesus is for them and what they are to do now that Jesus is gone.
Acts is written as the sequel to the Gospel of Luke – possibly by the same writer. Both are written for Theophilus. Theophilus seems to be the patron of the writer. If that’s the case Theophilus may have been someone wealthy and important and the writer of Luke-Acts may have been seeking financial support for this new ministry.
The disciples are hanging out in Jerusalem. They have seen the risen Jesus at the end of the book of Luke and then Jesus returned to God. In these conversations, Jesus had told the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for instructions. The disciples are still waiting for Jesus and God to send the Romans packing. They are waiting for Jesus to become the new king.
Instead Jesus disappears from them and is taken to heaven. This needs a bit of explanation. In the ancient world there was no concept of space. What they could see in the sky was all that existed. The flat earth was enclosed in a dome (sky) and the stars and moon were attached to that dome. When you passed through the dome you would reach God’s realm. There was a belief that was an opening in the dome above the temple in Jerusalem. It is through this opening that Jesus disappeared.
In this passage (Acts 1:1-11), the disciples experience an Alternate State of Consciousness. These experiences can include things like dreams, daydreams, nightmares, hallucinations, fugue states, prayerfulness, a hypnotic trance, near death experiences, and drug induced experiences. There are at least 30 different states of consciousness that people might experience.
The book of Acts and the whole Bible contains many episodes of these alternate states of consciousness. In order to fully understand the stories we find in scripture we need to understand that for the people having these experiences, they are real experiences—even if no one else shares the experience. In our own culture, someone may have had a death of someone close to them. They might experience that person sitting in their favorite chair. No one else might be aware of the presence. When they tell others about what they experienced they might be met with scepticism and others may try to dissuade them from believing their own experience.
Think about the Easter story for a minute. His friends have watched Jesus die. They saw his body being placed into the tomb and yet on Easter morning, there is no body. Something happened. For the disciples who first saw the risen Christ, the experience was real. They couldn’t explain it but for them it happened and was real. I’m sure the people around them were sceptical and tried to tell them it wasn’t possible.
In this passage, the disciples have been continuing to learn from the risen Christ and have conversations with him in this altered state. And now that risen Christ tells them that they will be his witnesses—that they will tell everyone about him through all the earth. And then they see Jesus being taken to the sky, into God’s presence. None of this has a logical, rational explanation but that doesn’t mean the disciples didn’t experience it. It is a bit like trying to explain a dream to someone. Sometimes what we experience in these altered states of consciousness can help to make sense of the world and help us figure out what to do next. Sometimes what we experience in those moments is simply comfort.
Also important for understanding the book of Acts is the concept of being a witness. The first type of witness Acts talks about are the ones who were with Jesus. These are the ones who followed him around the countryside and experienced him in life. These are the people who were present at his death and then later experienced the risen Christ. But also in Acts we find witnesses who didn’t experience Jesus in life. They experienced Jesus only through an alternate state of consciousness. Paul (who we will come to in a few weeks) and Stephen are examples of these types of witnesses. They didn’t know Jesus before death but they had mystical experiences that made Jesus real in their lives. The writer of Acts makes a distinction between witnesses—those who have had an experience of Jesus (whether grounded in physical reality or an alternate state) and those who confess their beliefs about Jesus based on second or third hand knowledge.
So when we say our creeds and tell the stories of Jesus we are confessing what we believe to be true based on what we have learned from others. When we talk about experiences in our own lives—moments when the Jesus story comes alive to us, when Jesus comes to us in a dream or a prayer or we know with certainty that Jesus is with us in some way—we become witnesses. The Acts story is all about the first witnesses. It is the story of the early church, re-told so that another generation will know the stories and be able to experience the risen Christ for themselves.
We are invited to enter the story of the early church and to hear the witness of the first Jesus followers. It isn’t enough for us to simply hear the witness. We are also invited to experience the risen Christ in our own lives so we also can become first hand witnesses of Jesus at work in our lives and in the world.
. Malina, Bruce J., and John J. Pilch. Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008, Alternate States of Consciousness.