Q: Archbishop J, why the Upper Room?
The Upper Room holds a central place in our understanding of the early Church. It is central to the dramatic events of the first six weeks after Jesus died. It is where the greatest transformation of the disciples takes place. These men who ran from the cross are transformed into bold proclaimers of the Good News that Jesus is the Christ and that God raised Him from the dead.
One of the greatest mysteries in the New Testament is the claim that God raised from the dead, Jesus Christ as Lord (1 Cor 15:4). This is unprecedented in all of human history, more so in the history of religion.
Some have attempted to contend with the flame of the Resurrection from the very beginning. The scripture says the guards were paid to say the disciples stole the body (Matt 28:11–15). It goes on to say, “And to this day this is the story amongst the Jews”.
There are no witnesses of the Resurrection. No-one actually saw it happening. The closest we have is the violent earthquake the women felt as they went to the tomb early in the morning on the day after the Sabbath (Matt 28:2).
There are lots of claims, however, by disciples that they saw the risen Christ. St Paul chronicles some of the appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:5–8: He appeared to Peter. Then he appeared to the 12 apostles. After that, he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at the same time. Most of them are still living. But some have died. He appeared to James. Then he appeared to all the apostles. Last of all, he also appeared to me. I was like someone who wasn’t born at the right time.
This is why it is an article of faith. No-one can prove it. There was no photograph nor video of the process and no eyewitnesses to the event. What we have are many disciples whose lives were transformed because of the encounter with the risen Christ. This transformation took place for the most part in the Upper Room in Jerusalem.
When Jesus gave instructions to the disciples about the Passover meal, it was cryptic to say the least: Then the day of Unleavened Bread came. That was the time the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John on ahead. “Go,” he told them. “Prepare for us to eat the Passover meal.”
“Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked.
Jesus replied, “When you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house he enters. Then say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, ‘Where is the guest room? Where can I eat the Passover meal with my disciples?’ He will show you a large upstairs room with furniture already in it. Prepare for us to eat there.”
Peter and John left. They found things just as Jesus had told them. So, they prepared the Passover meal (Lk 22:7–13; see also Mk 14:12–16).
It is believed the cryptic nature of the instruction was to create a riddle so Judas could not interrupt the Last Supper with his betrayal. If everyone knew where the preparations were taking place, then there might have been no ordination and no Eucharist.
Here Jesus makes provision for His disciples. First, so He could complete all that was asked of Him. Second, that they would have a place to which they could return and huddle in Jerusalem during the first difficult days. Peter and John, the two closest disciples were entrusted with the message and the preparations.
We know the room was large and well furnished (Lk 22:12). Acts of the Apostles (1:15) speaks about 120 people gathered in the Upper Room at one time. It is also the place where the disciples stayed while in Jerusalem: “The apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives. It is just over half a mile from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying” (Acts 1:12–13).
We learn in the next verse that some of the women joined them including Jesus’ mother Mary. It was a place where they all prayed often.
In those days Peter stood up and reasoned for the selection of another apostle. We are witnessing the early Church as it begins to put together its theology. By their reflection on Jesus’ words they chose Matthias (Acts 1:26) to make up the number 12, recalling the 12 tribes of Israel.
This is an important development. First, Peter has emerged as a wise preacher, knowledgeable in the Scriptures. And it is also clear they are ruminating on Jesus’ words, reflecting and pondering on the inner meaning of what they had heard.
In Matthew 19:28, Jesus had said to them: “What I’m about to tell you is true …When all things are made new, the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne. Then you who have followed me will also sit on 12 thrones. You will judge the 12 tribes of Israel.”
The change in the disciples is subtle but the passages in Acts demonstrate how deeply the young community had been reflecting on the words of Jesus. While Peter is the one speaking, change is evident in the body of followers.
This sudden growth in depth and confidence cannot be explained. The wisdom and fearless preaching cannot be explained, not unless something very profound happened to the apostles.
In John 20:19 and 20:26 we learn that they were gathered but the doors were locked for fear of the Jewish leaders. After the Resurrection, by the beginning of Acts and with the approach of Pentecost they gain courage and depth.
This is my prayer for the Church; that we will move from fear and anxiety to courage and depth as we journey in the Upper Room over these next few weeks.
The most powerful testimony of the Resurrection is not the empty room or the claims, but rather the transformation of the apostles.
Stay in the Upper Room these days and pray, asking God for the same transformation that the apostles experienced, that we too may receive power from on high.
Luke 22:7–13; Acts 1:12–26