The great novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives.” But Fitzgerald was wrong. There are plenty of them.
Take Ken, for example. Growing up, all he ever wanted to be was a doctor.
He did pre-med at Duke University, and then went to medical school at the University of North Carolina. After completing his residency in New Orleans, he moved to Los Angeles and practiced medicine for Kaiser Permanente.
Along the way, he got bit by the acting bug. He started doing stand-up comedy and began to audition for acting parts. This was a surprise to everyone, he says, since “I never even did theater in high school.”
He got his break in a series of movies, and then starred in a sit-com called Dr. Ken. His name is Ken Jeong, and he is now a full-time comedian and actor.
Entertainment was his second act.
But still, Dr. Ken renews his medical license every year, and occasionally has to use it. He once jumped offstage during a stand-up routine to help a woman in the audience having a seizure. “You just can’t take the doctor out of you,” he admits.
Another example comes from American history. Teddy Roosevelt was a big star in the New York legislature, having a wildly successful first act in his life and career. Then he lost his wife and his mother on the same day when he was 25 years old. He was devastated.
According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “he went to the Badlands to escape his depression by riding his horse 15 hours a day.” In time, he felt ready to work again and decided to take whatever job came his way.
He started working as head of the U.S. Civil Service Commission.
Then, New York City police commissioner.
Next, he joined the U.S. Army, where his leadership qualities developed.
He became New York governor.
Then vice president of the United States.
And finally, he was elected president, and his image was later chiseled into the cliffs of Mount Rushmore.
No second acts? Ridiculous. Teddy Roosevelt had second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh acts.
“It was a winding path to leadership,” says Goodwin to Fast Company magazine (September 2018), “and it made him better because he had all these different horizontal experiences.” He would not have become an excellent president unless he had a number of different jobs, some of which were horizontal but still extremely valuable.
Of course, second acts are nothing new. In the garden of Eden, Eve asked God to tell her what Adam was doing behind a bush.
God’s answer: Turning over a new leaf.
On Easter evening, the disciples were traumatized. Yes, they had heard Mary tell them, “I have seen the Lord” (John v. 18), but they had not spotted the risen Jesus with their own eyes. With the trial and crucifixion of Jesus fresh in their minds, they were probably suffering from serious PTSD.
They were also scared. John tells us that “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews” (v. 19). After Jesus was killed in such brutal fashion, no one knew what kind of violence might come their way. Their first act as disciples was over, and their second act did not look promising.
Then Jesus came and said, “Peace be with you” (v. 19). He passed through locked doors and was suddenly standing in their midst. Then He showed them the marks on His hands and side, demonstrating that it was truly Him.
For the disciples, this was the beginning of their second act. Grief was suddenly replaced by joy; despair was quickly transformed into hope. Jesus had promised them that their “pain will turn into joy” (16:20), and His appearance proved that this promise was coming true. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (v. 21). Before they could completely process the good news of the resurrection, Jesus sent them on a mission.
Action. Notice what happens at the beginning of a second act: Action. Ken Jeong did not quit medicine to sit by a pool in L.A. Teddy Roosevelt did not hang out in the Badlands forever. No, they both jumped into action, pursuing new passions. They both took a leap of faith, fully aware that comedy offered less job security than medicine, and that working for the Civil Service Commission was no clear path to success.
Jesus ordered His disciples to jump, even while they were cowering behind locked doors. “I send you,” he said, right before pushing them back into the world.
Second acts can be uncertain. Second acts can be scary. The skills that come from “horizontal experiences,” as Doris Kearns Goodwin would say, are valuable. But they are no guarantee of success.
Still, Jesus calls His followers to act.
Power. After saying that He would send them out, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 22). Jesus did not want his disciples to begin their second act without power. He knew that it would be unfair of Him to push them into action without giving them the gifts they needed to be effective. And so He breathed on them and filled them with the Holy Spirit. He inspired them on Easter Day with the very same Holy Spirit that would descend on the apostles in the rush of a mighty wind on the day of Pentecost.
Notice the echoes of Scripture in this verse. When Jesus breathed on the disciples, they were reminded that God breathed life into Adam in Genesis (2:7). This breathing also recalled the book of Ezekiel, in which God said, “breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (37:9). “Jesus’ breathing the Holy Spirit on his disciples thus is described as a new, second creation,” writes preaching professor Gail O’Day. “Those who believe in Jesus receive new life as children of God.”
Second act. Second creation. New life. New inspiration. That’s the power that the risen Jesus breathed into His followers.
Forgive. Jesus also empowered His disciples to forgive. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them,” said Jesus (v. 23). In this verse, Jesus was empowering His followers to continue His mission in the world. Since the work of Jesus was all about the work of forgiveness and helping people to be right with God, then the work of His followers should be all about forgiveness and helping people to be right with God.
But what about the phrase, “If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (v. 23)? What does that mean? Hard to say. One possibility might be that others cannot be forgiven if we do not offer it – that is, by sharing the truth that forgiveness is found only in Jesus Christ. Another, connected possibility is that you can offer people forgiveness, but you cannot force them to accept it. If they reject forgiveness, then they continue to deal with the consequences of their sins, and they struggle to be right with God.
In any case, the disciples have now entered their second act, one that involved action, power and forgiveness. The risen Jesus sent them on a mission, filled them with the power of the Holy Spirit, and gave them the ability to forgive sins and help people become right with God.
The very same is true for us. Whether medical doctors contemplating comedy or elected officials struggling with grief, our first act is not our last act. Through the coming of Jesus, we are being called into action, filled with the Spirit and being given the power to forgive people and restore them to right relationships.
When Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove was a student at Eastern College, he was trying to figure out what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. He met over breakfast every two weeks with the president of the college, a man named David Black. Jonathan was impressed by this, since it was unusual for presidents to meet regularly with individual undergraduates. Whenever they would get together, the president would remind Jonathan that Jesus was a person of “no reputation” (Philippians 2:7, KJV).
Jonathan thought a great deal about this, because he knew that we live in a world that is obsessed with people and their reputations. Competition is constant, and people are always trying to get ahead — in their educations, their careers and their personal lives. Parents even compete with one another through their children. The first act of life seems to be focused on establishing a reputation and getting ahead of the competition.
But perhaps Jesus is calling us into a second act, one that includes a different kind of action and helps us get right with God. Perhaps this second act can be powered by the Holy Spirit and focused on service to others. Jonathan caught a glimpse of this possibility while he was still a student.
One summer in college, he writes, “I volunteered to help students into the dorms. Lugging boxes up the stairs for the 50th time, I bumped into a middle-aged man in shorts and a dirty T-shirt. He was breathing heavily and let out a grunt. I peered over my boxes to apologize and saw the man’s face. It was [President] David Black.
“When I wonder what it means to be a man of no reputation, the image that comes to mind is my college president carrying boxes in a soaked T-shirt, meeting new students as their servant before he was introduced to them as their president.”
Wherever we are in life, we can have a second act. We can follow Jesus in a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit and focused on action, power, forgiveness and service.