As we move toward the Ascension and Pentecost, we turn to Acts 1:1-5 and Ephesians 1:8b-14.

Where are we?

In Ephesians, the thanksgiving section continues, praising God for everything that has been done in the lives of the letter’s recipients. This section serves as a theological (more properly doxological) preparation for the topics covered in the body of the letter. For these weeks, we’re taking this section out of context of the rest of Ephesians, as a harmony with the Luke-Acts progression. It lines up nicely, I think.

We’re at the beginning of Acts, which is essentially the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. As you presumably gathered from verse 1, the Gospel was about Jesus. This book will be about the church. Presuming Luke wrote it, this book should have the same sense of being an “orderly account” as the Gospel (Luke 1:3). To be sure, it has similar emphases: a focus on preaching and the Holy Spirit, a geography that centers on Jerusalem but reaches to the ends of the earth, divine guidance, ever-expanding inclusiveness among Jesus’ followers.

What’s going on here?

Ephesians: God has been at work from the get-go to bring everything into union in Christ. That’s pretty much what there is to know about the whole letter. God’s plan is the assumed theological narrative (compare to Romans where it’s made explicit), and the unity of the church in Christ is the point of the chapters that follow.

The Holy Spirit is Christ’s “stamp of ownership” on us, literally like the signet mark on the wax that seals a letter shut. It hides the contents until the letter is opened (a curious layer of meaning in Ephesians), protects the document from forgery, and indicates that what is presented is authentic. It’s the embossed seal on a certified legal document. The author goes on to say that this Spirit is a kind of guarantee (a down-payment) on our salvation. Luke-Acts and Ephesians have different authors, so compare this way of thinking about the Spirit with Luke’s.

“Theophilus” may have been the name of a particular person, such as the patron who financed Luke’s research. More likely, it’s a generic name for the reader; the word means “God-lover.”

Acts describes the post-Easter resurrection appearances as occupying 40 days, whereas the Gospel of Luke set them all on the same day. I’ve seen the suggestion that this discrepancy in the works of one author is meant to imply that the resurrection appearances don’t hinge on our taking them literally. Liturgically, the Ascension is set 40 days after Easter (always landing on a Thursday) and usually celebrated the Sunday between the Ascension itself and Pentecost. We’re not letting Jesus ascend until next week, which will be the Sunday before the Ascension, not the Sunday after.

Jesus gathers the disciples together and urges them to wait (literally “stay around”) until the Holy Spirit comes upon them. (According to the Acts chronology, this will mean ten days without either Jesus or the Holy Spirit.) Depending on how you translate v. 4, this gathering together might have included a meal (a big deal in Acts). The gathering of the church is very important in the Acts story. We don’t have to be together for the Spirit to show up, but it sure helps.

Acts 1:5 directly echoes John’s proclamation of Jesus in Luke 1:16.

So what?

I was listening to On Being, with Congressman John Lewis, and Krista Tippett read a phrase from Lewis’ book that related to the tension between patience and urgency in the nonviolent civil rights movement: “We perceived that waiting was an elegant way to prove a point.” That is, the protesters’ refusal to act, at least according to the terms of the violent confrontation on which their adversaries relied, demonstrated the shamefulness of the opposing viewpoint. This is waiting with a purpose.

Contrast that kind of waiting with the (decidedly unwholesome and not-family-recommended) movie Waiting… The premise of the movie, reflected in the elliptical title, is that the restaurant staff are not just waiting tables, they’re also waiting for… something else. Nobody has any initiative or any sense of where this job might take them, and there’s not much progress between opening and closing credits. It’s waiting without a purpose. Or, since I want to maintain the value of the word “waiting,” it’s not waiting at all; it’s boredom.

The difference between waiting and boredom is whether you anticipate that something is going to happen. The disciples are not told that they should just sit around forever, they’re sent off in anticipation that the Holy Spirit will come. God has a plan, something is going to happen, and we’re going to be a part of it.

So why wait? Why doesn’t Jesus just give them the Holy Spirit then and there, like he does in John’s gospel? I suspect it has to do with what happens to us when we wait: we pay more attention to the thing we’re anticipating. Waiting for food after a fasting blood draw (or an all-day religious fast), we’re primed to enjoy our meal. Waiting for a lover to return after an absence, we’re rehearsing the greeting in our minds. When my dog waits for me to release him to go eat his dinner, he’s savoring the food he hasn’t even tasted yet. Waiting cultivates attentiveness.

Most of us don’t particularly like to wait. There’s a strong cultural bias against waiting for anything, now that we’ve gotten over those Heinz ketchup commercials. If something is worth having, it’s worth having yesterday. It would do us all some good to build a regular period of waiting – call it fasting, sabbath, or whatever – into our lives so we can actually enjoy the things we have.

In the church, especially for us socially committed progressives, the emphasis is so often on doing good work in the world. We’re activists, sometimes politically and usually in the sense that we find our primary identity through the things that we do. We serve at the soup kitchen, we give money to people in need, we reach out to people who don’t have family in town. We’re busy people, as if that’s what life is for.

We do great stuff, but where does it come from? What is the source of all this doing? Well, the right answer is, “the love of God.” We do what we do because it’s how God’s love lives in us. But we could just as easily do it all because someone told us we had to, or because it seems like a way to get “those people” off our backs for a while. Lord knows I’ve done my share of charity, individually and on behalf of the church, for that kind of reason. I’m convinced that good work is qualitatively different when it flows from waiting, when it has its source in the anticipation of what God is up to. More focused, more generous, more good.

Do you buy that?