Sermon prepared for South Lake Presbyterian Church, Clermont, Florida
I have to confess that for a long time, I had a hard time with parts of the book of Acts.
With all those miracles and signs and wonders… It just didn’t make any sense to me after Jesus left. How could those apostles who were so clearly useless while Jesus was with them possibly be capable of pulling off their own miracles? And if they couldn’t do it, how could you or I- two millennia later- be any more successful? It’s funny how time changes your perspective. And experience.
I’ve never spoken in tongues, but I’ve worshiped in a room that was so thick with the presence of God that I felt a physical change in the air as I walked out the door.
I’ve heard God speak in the silence– so loudly I was sure that others in the sanctuary must have also heard, but it was a word specifically for me and to me.
I’ve seen lives transformed, physical healings, answered prayers- miracles great and small. Among people who are no more holy nor any less faithful than I am. Among those who struggle and those who are steadfast.
Yes, over the past 10 years, God has taken me from a person who dreaded the annual reading of the Pentecost story to a red-wearing, Spirit-seeking Presbyterian. I have even been known on occasion to close my eyes and raise my hands during worship from time to time.
If there is one passage in all of Acts that I still struggle with. It’s that portrait of the early days in the church… those days just after Peter’s great Pentecost sermon that brought 3000 people to repentance and belief.
Peter preaches in the power of the Holy Spirit and is witness to the birth of the first mega-church. Somehow Peter and the other apostles – the same ones who couldn’t get much right when Jesus was right there, coaching them through how to feed a crowd, how to pray, and how to live- they are suddenly leaders. The most miraculous thing is, it’s not just leading a lot of people. They are in the midst of a community that is really doing church well.
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
While I have been blessed to be part of some pretty solid congregations, I have to say that this description goes beyond anything I’ve experienced or heard about. Perhaps that is why church reformers, church renewal groups and even passionate session members have returned to this passage time and again as a model for what life together could be. If you’ve been in organized religion long enough chances are good that you’ve been in a meeting or parking lot conversation that has come to an “If Only…” statement.
If only… we could get back to the basics… like the early church.
If only… we were more generous… the first believers had EVERYTHING in common, they made sure no one did without.
If only… we were more hospitable… back in Acts, everyone ate in each others’ homes with glad and sincere hearts.
If only… we were more faithful… Or Prayed more… Or worshipped differently…
I think the unspoken statement behind all of these is something like this:
If only we could do those things like they did back then, God would bless us with the same boundless extravagance that seems – well miraculous. And behind that statement is the idea that we must be doing something wrong!
It dawns on me that maybe the problem isn’t what that passage in Acts says. Maybe the problem is that we tend to disconnect it from what comes before and after. As I was considering what texts to preach this week, I emailed my pastor and asked for some guidance. With it being Trinity Sunday, the week after Pentecost and Memorial Day, we agreed that there were plenty of good options. One of the things he said stuck with me. He said, “You know, Luke was a very deliberate writer. Maybe you should go with what comes next.”
So I looked and saw that Luke sandwiched this little “slice of church life” passage between some pretty flashy miracles and a couple of very passionate sermons. Why? What was he up to? I think perhaps this little slice of church life passage is meant to point out how the church was a miracle in and of itself.
Luke wasn’t writing a prescription. Luke was documenting the birth of the church just as surely as he documented the birth of the Messiah we follow. For a brief moment in time, while the Spirit was still thick and the disciples were still on fire for God, the community was living and breathing as the Body of Christ was intended. The Kingdom of God was on display, on earth as it is in heaven. It was beautiful.
That’s why we tend to romanticize it… It’s like those stories of Camelot and the mystical island of Avalon. But it wasn’t just a vapor or a myth. And in this broken and sinful world, it doesn’t take long for things to go sideways. Not long after this account, we start to see the arguments, splits, frustrations, reconciliations… all of things we still deal with today, not to mention persecution.
But not in those first days that Luke described. Why? For the same reason that a glove is just some oddly shaped fabric until someone’s hand slides into it. The Holy Spirit remained in them and with them. This church was not a bunch of individuals, but a body of believers. They are one- one body, just as each of the cells in our bodies come together to create organs and energy and oxygen-carrying bloodcells or neurons that interpret smells and colors, pain and pleasure. These Christians depend on one another to survive, but not just to survive. They depend on one another to glorify God. They depend on one another to share the story with those who have not yet heard.
The church in its infancy embodied the kind of dizzying community that Jesus prayed for in our passage from John’s gospel this morning. The kind of interconnectedness and oneness that our Western culture of Lone Rangers and Rugged Individualists makes almost impossible to grasp. We prize independence and self-reliance, sometimes to a fault.
Jesus understood the human tendency to turn inward. As he faced his own death, Jesus prayed for his disciples and for generations of believers to come… he prayed for that first 3000 or so at Pentecost, right on down to you and me, and for the generations of believers still yet to come. 20“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,
Jesus prayed that we would know deep, abiding community–
21that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.
He prayed that our sense of community with God and one another would draw others to faith–
May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Jesus is praying for all of us to come to know God as closely as he did… so intimately that we are in God and God is in us. AND Jesus prays for all of us to become equally connected to one another… that we would be ONE with one another, even as we are ONE with God. Jesus didn’t just pray this for us, he modeled it for us.
In the very beginning we see the Word and the Spirit creating in concert with the Father, speaking and breathing life into the world and all that is in it. When the Word became flesh for our sakes, it was at the will of the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The love and obedience and unity shared between the Father, Son and Spirit would be a beautiful thing, even if God never had chosen to pour out that love for us. But the power of God’s love is in its outward focus.
Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection mediated the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of God the Father to all humanity. His ascension and presence with God in Heaven made the way for God to be in us and us to be in God- and for the Holy Spirit to give us the gifts we need to continue Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in the world.
When the Spirit poured out like fire, Peter and the others knew what was happening… maybe not immediately, but you can bet they soon remembered what Jesus told them… you will receive power and you will be my witnesses. It was time to go out and get started being witnesses. Making disciples. Living in the image of God.
While all of that makes sense in the light of the story Luke tells, the challenge for me is, what does that look like here and now? In Central Florida in the summer of 2010?
After all, we don’t meet in the temple courts daily… don’t even really have a court to meet in…
Most times, we eat in our own homes… if we’re not at restaurants or in our cars on the way someplace…
And of course, property values are so low that it would be hard to make enough profit off the sale of any land to help out someone in need…
According to the letters Paul wrote to the churches he was helping lead, the church is meant to look like Christ… only instead of a single person, being church requires many people to bring together their parts of Jesus’ ministry. Teaching, preaching, offering hospitality, giving generously, encouraging, healing, maybe even sharing prophecies or speaking in tongues, all in the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God.
And if you look in the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul follows one of his discussions about the how these gifts prepare the church for ministry with a reminder than not one of them is of value without love…
Love that is patient and kind. Love that leaves no space for envy or pride. Love that drowns out rudeness and soothes quick tempers. Love that keeps track of the good deeds and forgets the bad. Love that protects, trusts, hopes and always perseveres.
That is the sort of love that wins hearts, changes minds, and transforms lives and binds us together.
God uses Paul’s letters to those less than perfect churches led by less than perfect people to remind us that we- too- have everything we need… No if only’s required.
God has been, is, and will continue to be faithful to pour out blessings on us… abundantly more than we could ever ask or imagine…. not because of how we are the church, but so that we can be the church.
We carry within us the Grace of God, the Gifts of the Spirit, and the Love of Christ
All so that we might live in unity with one another and God so that the world will know God’s love.