Some years ago, I used to watch an Irish television series that aired on American public television. Set in a beautiful village, the show featured a strong ensemble cast, led by a handsome actor around whose role most of the plot centered. Whatever problem arose, whatever challenge the town faced, the main character always found a practical solution, or at least offered wisdom and guidance.
Tired of depressing crime stories, I ditched “Dateline” for the Irish series, and every Tuesday night, I settled onto the couch for my study break from the world. Work and worry melted away for that hour; lost in my virtual escape to the Emerald Isle, I was relaxed.
That is, until the main character left the show.
In two back-to-back episodes, the writers managed to kill off a supporting actor, prompting the lead to pack up his bags and march away from the village. I was furious. The series had only begun about two years earlier, and the star was my main reason for watching it. Surely the remaining cast couldn’t pull off the rest of the season without him. They were fine actors playing interesting characters, but I doubted the show would run much longer.
A few thousand years before television, another ensemble cast faced a similar crisis. Forty days after his glorious resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven. The star had apparently left the show, and the remaining players seemed to flounder. Two angels had to nudge the apostles to stop staring upwards and to move forward with the plot: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
Given their earlier performances during Jesus’ earthly ministry, you might think that the apostles were headed for cancellation. After all, they had a tendency to forget the Lord’s many miracles, to squabble over who would be the greatest (even arguing the matter at the Last Supper; cf. Luke 22:24), and to run from the action scenes. They often missed their cues, prompting Jesus to ask, “Do you not yet understand?” (Matthew 16:9; see also Matthew 15:16, 16:11; Mark 8:17-21).
Fortunately, this troupe was about to experience a creative breakthrough.
Before ascending into heaven, Jesus had instructed the apostles to remain in Jerusalem and await “the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4) — the Holy Spirit, the very Breath of God. While they were gathered together in prayerful expectation, the Spirit made a dramatic entrance on the Jewish feast of Pentecost (Shavuot), descending in a rush of wind and flame (Acts 2:1-4).
Bathed in tongues of fire, the apostles began to proclaim the good news of salvation in Christ, speaking in different languages and astonishing the crowds, who hailed “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:3-12). Peter, who had flubbed his lines rather badly by denying the Lord, recovered his role magnificently, delivering a barn burner of a sermon that led “about three thousand” to be baptized (Acts 2:14-41).
The Spirit radically and permanently transformed the apostles. No longer vying with each other for top billing, they began to live in a new harmony, holding “all things in common” and “meeting together in the temple area and breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:44,46; 4:32-35). Persecution from the authorities, which had caused them to flee from Christ at his crucifixion, now strengthened their resolve to witness to the risen Lord (Acts 4:1-31, 5:17-42).
The apostles had (as screenwriters would put it) “taken up the fallen hero’s sword,” filling the void left by the departed lead character so that the story could go on. In television and film, sometimes the remaining cast succeeds; sometimes the production folds despite all efforts (as it did in the case of my Irish series).
Infused by the Spirit, the apostles and all those who follow them in faith don’t need to worry about making up for a lost star. Although unseen, he remains with us always, “until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
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