Easter Sunday and the Birth of the Church

When Britain first, at Heaven’s command,
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves.

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves.

Sung with gusto at the Last Night of the Proms, “Rule Britannia” was composed by James Thomson and set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740 to commemorate the accession of George II.  How do you feel when you hear those words sung? Do you join in, or do you keep your lips tightly sealed? Patriotic or jingoistic? It depends on your nationality doesn’t it? We all identify with a nationality, a country or a kingdom.

History is the history of empire, and to use the phrase popularized by Samuel Huntington, history is also the history of “the clash of civilisations”. The Acts of the Apostles, describes the clash of two kingdoms.  A cosmic clash between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan.  Unlike the Caliphate being imposed by the Islamic State, this kingdom is not imposed by coercion but grows by conversion. It is not extended by force but energized by faith.

You see the greatest evidence for the resurrection of Jesus was not the empty tomb, or the eyewitness accounts of meeting the risen Jesus. What is the greatest, most visible, most convincing evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? It is the presence of Jesus on earth today. The Acts of the Apostles is an unfinished record of how the Spirit of Jesus energized and empowered the disciples of Jesus to proclaim the good news of his kingly presence and rule. More and more people met the risen Jesus, indwelling his disciples, and entered his kingdom too. Because every single person on earth is either in his kingdom or the kingdom of Satan. Every soul is contested territory. It is an unfinished story because king Jesus has not yet returned in person to rule as Lord.

Please turn with me to Acts 1 and lets observe the founding of the kingdom, the nature of the kingdom and the spread of the kingdom.

  1. The Founding of the Kingdom

Acts of the Apostles could just as easily be titled ‘The Acts of the Lord Jesus’ or more accurately ‘The Continuing Acts of the Lord Jesus’ for Acts 1:1 reads,

“In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven…” (Acts 1:1-2)

There is clearly continuity with the Gospel of Luke. Both begin with a greeting to Theophilus, (which means ‘friend of God’). The Acts of the Apostles is therefore the second part of Dr Luke’s account of the life of Jesus. Between Easter Sunday and the bodily ascension of the Lord Jesus to heaven,

“He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:4).

When did Jesus found his kingdom? Jesus had spoken of the Kingdom of God long before his crucifixion. But as he predicted, they had all deserted him, denied him, or disowned him.

At his arrest in Gethsemane, Matthew tells us “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.” (Matthew 26:56) Even Peter disowns Jesus when challenged (Luke 22:54-62). In his death, it may be said that the Kingdom of God on earth had been reduced to one man. As Isaiah anticipates,

“We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6).

When Jesus died on the cross he was the faithful remnant. Easter Sunday was the birthday of the Church. Pentecost was not its birth. Pentecost was the baptism of the church. During those 40 days from Easter Sunday to his ascension, Jesus restored, recommissioned and empowered his disciples to be the foundation for his Church, his kingdom on earth (Ephesians 2:20). The Founding of the Kingdom.

  1. The Nature of the Kingdom

“Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8)

The disciples were expecting Jesus to rebuild the Jewish empire of King David and Solomon. In his commentary, John Calvin writes, ‘There are as many mistakes in this question as there are words.’ John Stott, in his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, succinctly appraises errors made:

“The mistake they made was to misunderstand both the nature of the kingdom and the relation between the kingdom and the Spirit. Their question must have filled Jesus with dismay. Were they still so lacking in perception?… The verb, the noun and the adverb of their sentence all betray doctrinal confusion about the kingdom. For the verb restore shows they were expecting a political and territorial kingdom; the noun Israel that they were expecting a national kingdom; and the adverbial clause at this time that they were expecting its immediate establishment. In his reply (7-8) Jesus corrected their mistaken notions of the kingdom’s nature, extent and arrival.”

The disciples were expecting Jesus to liberate them from the brutal Empire of Rome. Had they been present at Jesus’ trial they might have understood things differently. Jesus told Pilate,
‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place’ (John 18:36).

Jesus repudiated the notion of an earthly and nationalistic kingdom on more than one occasion (see John 6:15). This is why, in reply to the disciples, Jesus says that he has another agenda for the Apostles:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

The kingdom which Jesus inaugurated would be, in contrast to their narrow nationalistic expectations, spiritual in character, international in membership and gradual in expansion. The founding of the kingdom. The nature of the kingdom.

  1. The Spread of the Kingdom

“you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:8-11)

Acts 1:8 delineates the way in which the good news of Jesus and his Kingdom would spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. As his disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit they introduced other people to Jesus.  A careful reading of Acts makes it clear that Jesus is alive and present in the Church. He is not absent but remains the active, living, focus.
In Acts 9:4, for example, Jesus speaks directly to Saul, “Why do you persecute me?”  Later, in the same chapter, Peter says directly to Aeneas, “Jesus Christ heals you” (9:34). In Acts 10, Jesus makes His will known to Peter concerning a ministry to the Gentiles. Just three examples of Jesus’ vital involvement in the spread of the gospel in Acts. Although Acts begins with the resurrection of Jesus, there is no evidence anyone perceived Him as “gone” from their midst.
He heals, speaks, and directs the work of His disciples.

Even when they preached, the disciples thought of Jesus as literally present. They asked their listeners, not merely to believe facts about Jesus, but to receive Jesus who died, rose again, and lives forever. The ascension marked not Christ’s departure, but a change in the way he performs His acts of saving grace, now unlimited by time and space. And that is why, as the angels insisted, until the day Jesus returns “in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” So, Acts is an unfinished book.  In the communion service, before the bread and wine, the minister says “The Lord is here” and the people respond… “His Spirit is with us”. We have the awesome privilege of sharing in the continuing Acts of the Lord Jesus. Building his kingdom today in Virginia Water, in Surrey, in England, and to the ends of the earth.

To win, build and send in order to win, build and send.  Every new day is an opportunity to help bring more people into His kingdom, every new day, like the first Easter Day, is an opportunity to be the answer to our prayer, “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

For Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed, Hallelujah! No, the guardian angels did not sing ‘Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves’ and more than about any other earthly empire.  What do the angels sing about? Revelation 5 tells us:

“You are worthy … because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth… Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:9-10, 12)

They sing about the Kingdom of Jesus.

“Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying (so lets say together):

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13)

And ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever, Amen.