A New Imagination: Sermon by Laura, 9.1.13 Pentecost 15 Acts Sermon Series

Scripture: Acts 17

British author Sir Ken Robinson tells the story of a little girl at a drawing lesson. “She was six and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, ‘What are you drawing?’ And the girl said, ‘I’m drawing a picture of God.’ And the teacher said, ‘But nobody knows what God looks like.’ And the girl said, ‘They will in a minute.’”[i]

Don’t you just love that little girl’s confident creativity? The marvelous, natural creativity of young children is often remarked upon. But alongside her gift of imagination, I want us to notice this child’s relationship with her teacher. Their conversation shows that the teacher made a form in which imagination can flourish, a classroom, where there is space, time, and tools for drawing–in which the child can manifest her freedom.

I’m using the word “freedom” here to signify the barrier-breaking power of creative imagination, inspiring newness and making the unknown known.  By “form,” I mean the structures, choices and commitments which ground imagination in a world of substance, of earth and flesh. Both the freedom to dream and the form to contain it are necessary for the child’s revelation of God, and for ours as well.

Today, we are wrapping up our sermon series on the book of Acts, and one of the greatest insights I’ve received from it is an awareness of the dynamic tension of freedom and form. We see it throughout the book, beginning with Pentecost, when the rag-tag band of Jesus’ disciples receive the amazing gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will free them, again and again, to a new imagination, guiding them to see and hear God’s will in Jesus Christ, gathering and sending out the creative community which becomes known as the church. Luke tells us the story, how God’s imagination, God’s dream, finds form and flesh in this community seeking and struggling to share the good news of new life in Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem and onward to all nations.

As the discipleship community grows, they confront obstacles within and without. There is the challenge of sustaining the community, supporting the ministry of the apostles but also caring justly for the needy in their midst. There is the pain of division, as the believers are rejected by the Jewish communities of their roots. Persecution forces some to flee Jerusalem, and they learned to share the message cross-culturally, welcoming Gentiles as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Time and again, the church bumps up against the brokenness of the world and the limits of previous understanding, but the Holy Spirit imagines a new way and sends them out. The faithfulness of the church is found on a Way fraught with dynamic tension,  as the dream of God marches always onward in forms previously unimagined.

And who could have imagined the way God’s Spirit takes form in Paul, the rabbi known for persecuting Jesus’ followers who becomes the preeminent apostle to the Gentiles? Not even Paul himself. In Chapter 17 we catch up to him when he seems to be bumping up against the limits of his own imagination. He’s been commissioned to the primary task of sharing the good news with Gentiles. But his pattern entering a new city is always to enter the synagogue first, arguing for three successive Sabbath days how the scriptures witness to Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah. But in Thessalonica, his practice angered some Jews so much, they not only incite a riot there, but follow him to Beroea. Sent away for his protection, Paul makes an unexpected visit to Athens. Forced out of his usual patterns in this legendary city, Paul at last finds his voice as apostle to the Gentiles.

Waiting for Silas and Timothy, Paul takes in the sights. Intellectuals, culture-makers and philosophers of the ancient world, no one could fault the Athenians for lacking imagination. Indeed, if the word “imagination” combines the words  “image” and “nation,”[ii] then Athens was exemplary, for it was a “nation” populated by every conceivable image of god. There was even one shrine honoring a god the Athenians could not conceive of, a shrine to “the unknown god.”

Paul’s monotheistic sensibilities are offended by the prolific graven images, and he begins conversations about them in the synagogues and the public forums. Eventually he finds himself sharing the good news of Jesus with philosophers, who bring him to the Areopagus, the preeminent council of Athenian elders, to explain his “strange ideas.” It is Paul’s first opportunity in Acts to speak to a completely Gentile audience of non-believers.

Now we might expect Paul to lambast the Athenians about their idolatry. But as he has wandered Athens and dialogued with its people, he has been learning about them. Paul’s come to recognize that the statues of Athens represent a restless and imaginative searching for the divine. And so he begins, carefully, respectfully, with common ground: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” he says, pointing to their “unknown god” as witness of their seeking.

Then, he begins to share a form to ground their imagination. He tells the story of scripture, as sensitively as he can for those who have never heard it. That unknown god they honor is the Creator of all peoples, who can never be fully captured in any human-conceived shrines or sculptures or ideas. But while God cannot be pinned down to just any form, God can be known by all peoples. This God is “not far from each of us,” Paul says, quoting one of their own philosopher-poets: “in him we live and move and have our being; for we too are his offspring.”

This is the good news of the Spirit, my friends. Imagination is the common heritage of all human beings, created as bearers of God’s image, a powerful gift for seeking God. But God is as near to all of us as the breath of life within us. Therefore we are called, as one author put it, “to rejoice and to discover, to dialogue and to enjoy the common life of the Spirit,” listening for her voice with all those who grope for the divine ground of all being.[iii]

It is good for us to dialogue, as Paul did, with people whose religious imaginations are radically different from ours, attuning ourselves to the Spirit in their midst. For the Spirit is free as the wind is free, to be present wherever and with whomever she chooses. Making use of the imaginative powers she gives us, we will encounter her in places we never expect. The Spirit of creation from chaos, the Spirit of resurrection, is always and everywhere breaking through the barriers to new life.

But Paul’s speech does not stop there, because even as we embrace creative freedom of the Spirit, we must also recognize how subject we are to confusion. The Spirit’s restlessness does not feel comfortable or secure, and we are always tempted to tie her down, fixing for ourselves objects of worship, centering our lives on the images, shrines, dogmas, and ideologies we ourselves create.

That’s why Paul calls the Athenians to repentance, boldly proclaiming the even better news, that God does not leave us restlessly searching, but has revealed the form of divine grace. The pattern of God’s gracious loving ways has been written and can be known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All our human longings to touch, to know, to experience divinity, all restless imaginings of God’s goodness, beauty and truth, find form in the man God raised from the dead and appointed to judge the world in righteousness. As Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

“No one knows what God looks like;” “They will in a minute.”

I’m curious to know what that little girl unveiled to her teacher that day. But there’s something I’d like to know even more.  How would you draw the image of God? For here’s the thing: we are each and all, like that little girl, called to use all our imagination and all our creativity, to reveal the image of God we are uniquely created to bear. The Spirit longs to reveal God’s goodness, beauty, and truth in us. Sometimes a fresh wind of the Spirit must first blow through and blow away the faulty imagery cluttering the landscape of our imagination, so that we may discern the true outlines of God’s image by looking to Jesus Christ, self-giving love incarnate, God’s dream in human form.

I believe we are in just such a time, when the winds of change are inviting us to a new freedom of imagination. We must pray for the discernment to shape forms of the faithful life which can reveal Christ to a new generation. Like Paul, our first task is to get to know the world we find ourselves in, to look deeply beneath its obvious idolatries and recognize the common life of the Spirit. And then we are called to hold onto the form of God’s dream with a conviction that is always ready for repentance, a faith always seeking new understanding.[iv]

Our country has been honoring the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which gave us the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream,” King declared, tracing the outlines of a world that had not yet come into being, a world where the idolatries of racial prejudice and discrimination had been cleared away to make room for the rights and dignity of all people. Let us remember that the nonviolent demonstration of that day, and the words of King’s speech were grounded in the form of a dream much older than 50 years.

It was the dream of the free and restless Spirit, spoken first through the prophets King quoted, saying, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”[v]

It is the same dream which called the church into being forming a people for powerful witness, the same dream which sent Paul to Athens, across the barriers between Jew and Gentile, to proclaim the nearness of God’s presence, the dream which still sends you and me, out from all our tiny, comfortable shrines to carry the reconciling love of Jesus Christ starting right here and marching onward to all the nations of the world until that appointed day when Christ comes again. Amen

[i] Sir Ken Robinson speaking in 2006 at TED (Technology-Entertainment-Design) on  the topic of creativity and schools. Speech can be found here: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html#205000

[ii] I think I got this idea from Julia Cameron, but I can’t find the location in her books.

[iv] “faith seeking understanding” was the “motto” of St. Anselm of Canterbury

Antioch Christians: Sermon by Laura, 8.4.13, Acts Sermon Series

Texts: Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-5

How many of you know this finger-rhyme? If you do, join in with me:

“Here is the church, here is the steeple; Open the doors and see all the people.”

That’s what I learned as a child; Lucas recently showed me a second part:

“Close the doors and hear them pray; Open the doors and they all go away.”

I enjoyed that finger-rhyme as a child, but now that I’m an adult and a pastor, it raises questions for me. For one thing, what does it teach us about the church? Is the church a building with a steeple? A place with doors, where people gather inside? Well, yes—that’s often how we use the word “church” in our culture. But these days, steepled buildings like ours, constructed in an era quite different from the present, can seem antiquated to younger generations, who seldom walk through the doors, let alone check out what might be happening inside.  If the church is a building, it’s much too easy to go away and leave it behind when a different kind of building seems more relevant or fashionable.

But is the church a building? Not in the book of Acts. Actuallly, this finger-rhyme can only have come to us after the beginning of Christendom, when Christianity became an official state religion, and the church began to own property and establish buildings reserved for their gatherings. There’s no talk of buildings at all in Acts. The “church” in Acts is always the people.

But I like the second part of the finger rhyme. Reading Acts, two vital things the church does are praying and going-away. In fact, going away turns out to be one of the most essential things the church does to be church.

But let’s be clear: when church people go away in Acts, they never just leave a building to go back to their regular, week-a-day lives. They aren’t leaving one building to enter another.There’s no building, so they take the church with them wherever they go. They proclaim Jesus wherever they go.

That’s what happens in today’s reading. We finally hear what happened to some disciples who went away from the “mother church” in Jerusalem during the persecution following the stoning of Stephen. Some of them traveled north along the Mediterranean, to Phoenicia (what is now Lebanon) and the island of Cyprus. Others went to the third largest city in the Roman Empire, the city of Antioch, located in what is today Turkey.

Of course, there is “going away” and there is going away. Most of these folks “went away” from Jerusalem, but wherever they traveled, they remained among Jews. They stayed within their own culture, and spoke only to people like themselves. But some disciples who arrived in Antioch went much further: they made the leap across an ancient and hostile divide and began telling Gentiles about Jesus.

And don’t you just love how nonchalant the Bible is sometimes? Luke, the author of Acts, is marvelously low-key in narrating what is truly quite an enormous event for Christian faith.

“But some men of Cyprus and Cyrene, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.” That word “Hellenists” is a little unclear to us today—it refers to people who spoke Greek and followed Greek cultural norms. Sometimes Luke uses it to talk about Jews who natively spoke Greek, but in this case, most scholars agree that Luke is talking about Greek Greeks—full-on Gentiles—considered ritually impure by strict Jews, who would not socialize with them to avoid contamination.

But some of the disciples in Antioch found the courage to make the great leap over this cultural norm, sharing the gospel with Gentiles, and we will never know their names. I think that’s telling. They were probably not charismatic leaders, just regular people who were naturally sharing news, like sharing gossip with next-door neighbors. And there’s no plotting and planning from the mother church’s centralized evangelism committee, just little conversations here and there on the margins. Yet “the hand of the Lord was with them and a great number turned to the Lord.” And that’s how a church comes into being.

If we want to know what “church” is, we could do little better than to peer through the window Luke has given us to Antioch, the church which will eventually take Jerusalem’s place as the “center of gravity” for Christianity.[i] Indeed, Antioch is the place Jesus’ disciples are first given the name “Christians,” the first place where Jews and Gentiles together are called by the same name, identified not by their differences, but by the crucified and resurrected Messiah they together believe in and follow.

So what do we see happening at Antioch? We see that God gathers this church as the Holy Spirit moves people across social divides, sharing the good news that any and all who had been deemed “unclean” could now be “redeemed;” the good news that in Jesus Christ, forgiveness of sin is available to everyone, and people are empowered to turn from old, destructive ways to a new life of peace.

Then, as people respond to this message in great numbers, we see God working through the connectional church, as Barnabas, the “son of encouragement,” is sent up from Jerusalem. What a gift, for Barnabas is a man who knows the Holy Spirit well. Rejoicing in the new church, and recognizing the need for differently-gifted leaders, he brings Paul to Antioch. Thus we see God calling teachers, who dedicate themselves to forming others in the ways of faith and life in Christ.

A year of intensive study and learning passes, and then we see the Antioch church welcoming traveling prophets. Now, prophets always tend to bring disturbing news, but the Antioch church responds immediately to the news of famine, sending aid to people in need. Later we see the church worshipping, fasting, and praying; and then they are sending people out, laying hands on Paul and Barnabas, commissioning them to their Spirit-given task. Ultimately we see another “going away,” as Paul and Barnabas leave Antioch to preach and teach in Jesus’ name wherever God might lead them.

To sum up, at Antioch, we see the Holy Spirit calling out people from all walks of life to form a community, in which they learn and practice ways which cultivate them in being awake, open, and responsive to the purpose, presence and power of God. This is what it means to be “church.”

Did you know that the Greek word for “church,” ekklesia, literally means “called out?” Theologian Shirley Guthrie writes, “The church is a community of people who (along with the community of Israel) are called out of the world to be God’s people. The purpose of their coming together is twofold. First, it is to receive God’s judging, forgiving, renewing grace. Second, it is to be sent out again to be agents of God’s judgment, forgiveness, reconciliation, and renewal in the world.” [ii]

So I wonder, if at Antioch we see a Spirit-filled church of that time and place, how does our church, here and now in La Grande, Oregon, compare? Where do we see the Holy Spirit’s gifts and power in our midst?  Where do we long for the Spirit’s renewing graces? How do we go about the practices and disciplines which cultivate our availability to the calling of the Holy Spirit? Are we teaching and learning, worshipping, praying and fasting, and ultimately sending disciples of Jesus Christ into the world as agents of God’s amazing grace?

Rereading this passage, we are immediately faced with something I’d honestly rather skip over. It’s this little word that I believe in our time draws the focus of Christians in disproportionate ways. It’s the word “numbers,” as in: “great numbers of people became believers and turned to the Lord.” In this passage, that a great number of people are responsive to the message of Jesus is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s movement.

But we live in a culture in which numbers become the bedrock measure of success or failure. Churches in our time are constantly assessing our numbers, numbers of “members” and “pledging units” as well as our budget. And frankly, these numbers are critical for keeping our institutions viable as well as measuring the impact of our ministry. I’m not suggesting we ditch the numbers.

But the church is not numbers any more than it is just a building. The church is people. That’s why quantitative measurements of Christian ministry go awry if they are not also accompanied by qualitative awareness. What I mean is, what kind of numbers are we looking at? Are we looking at event attendance and becoming discouraged because we don’t see what we consider enough of some kind of demographic? That might be important, but only if we are also looking around naming and knowing the persons with whom each of us here is involved in vital relationships, relationships in which we share communion in the ways and name of Jesus Christ.

Further, Acts tells us that great numbers of people were entering into relationship with Jesus Christ because people were sharing Jesus with others, outside their normal social groups. The numbers were not a measure of how the church was bringing people “in here” so much as they tell us about people being reached “out there,” though those connections certainly brought together a community in which disciples could be more deeply formed. So, are we measuring numbers and telling stories of the people we are collectively touching with Jesus’ love out in our community and the world?

So numbers are important, but we need good numbers. And we need the depth of stories to help us understand what we measure in numbers. We will be working on developing a deeper awareness of our congregation as “church” over the next year. Our Session has initiated a process of Missional Discernment and is in the process of gathering a Guiding Team. The Guiding Team will be comprised of 8 or so folks not already serving as elders or deacons, who will gather for study and conversation, and eventually they will engage in a series of interviews with other congregants. The purpose of their work will be to help us all become more aware of what the Holy Spirit has done in this church, what the Spirit is continuing to do, and what the Spirit might be calling us out to do in the future. How is the Holy Spirit calling us to share Christ in the world?

Ultimately, Missional Discernment is about our congregation gaining a renewed vision of what it means to be a Spirit-filled people, open and responsive to the Spirit’s sending. I ask you to join your prayers to this purpose, that First Presbyterian Church, like that church so many years ago at Antioch, might continue for many generations onward in the Spirit-filled history of faithful people sent out to share the good news of new life in Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

[i] The Interpreter’s Bible, p. 146.

[ii] Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994, 351-352.

“Is There a Picture of It in the Cookbook?”: Sermon by Keith, 7.28.13 Acts Sermon Series

Text: Acts 10

How many of you have read, “Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal”?  Laura brought the book back from Indiana, taken from her dad’s bookshelf.  I haven’t finished the book, but only read the opening lines.  And boy, do those opening lines speak  to this morning’s passage from Acts.  Here is Biff, sharing his first encounter with Jesus:

“The first time I saw the man who would save the world he was sitting near the central wall in Nazareth with a lizard hanging out of his mouth.  Just the tail end and hind legs were visible on the outside; the head and forelegs were halfway down the hatch.  He was six, like me, and his beard had not come in fully, so he didn’t look much like the pictures you’ve seen of him.  His eyes were like dark honey, and they smiled at me out of a mop of blue-black cures that framed his face.  There was a light older than Moses in those eyes

‘Unclean!  Unclean!’ I screamed, pointing at the boy, so my mother would see that I knew the Law, but she ignored me, as did all the other mothers who were filling their jars at the well.”

“Unclean!  Unclean!”  Peter’s mind must have screamed as he woke up on that roof top after having the visions of the creatures, reptiles, and birds that he had grown up being told a good Jewish boy should never touch, let alone eat.  They were only allowed to eat animals which chewed their cuds and whose hoofs were cloven.  But in his vision lizards and pigs and other creepy-crawlies paraded around him and God then ordered him to eat them.  Peter was shocked and protested that he had never eaten anything that was unclean.  But three times God told him to kill and eat.  Why would God tell him that he should eat these things that God had told Moses were unfit for His people?

“Unclean!  Unclean!”  were the first thoughts that went though his mind as he looked down from the roof and saw the men at the gate calling out for him.  He could tell these men were not Jewish by the way there were dressed.  One of them even had the uniform of a Roman soldier!  He was not supposed to even associate with men like this and if he did, he had an entire purification rite he had to go through.  But speak to them he did, and he learned they were sent from Cornelius in Caesarea, that pagan, Roman, unclean city built in the midst of the Jewish heartland to keep the locals under control.  It was even named after the Roman Emperor, who expected his subjects to bow down to him as though he was a god.

And every pore of his body screamed, “unclean!  unclean!” as he entered Cornelius’ home.  He had been told from the men he traveled with that Cornelius was a God-fearer, a Gentile who had attached himself to the Jewish religion and attended the synagogue, but did not go as far to be circumcised or fully embrace the Law.  When Cornelius met him at the door, he had to wonder if Peter would cross the threshold, because even with all the Jews he knew from the synagogue, none had entered his home.  The house smelled of foods that Peter had never smelled before, there were sights there he had never seen before.  This was the first time in his life that Peter had stepped foot into a Gentile home and every Jewish bone in his body wanted him to run away from what he was encountering.

But all this time, someone was whispering to Peter.  All this time, someone was pushing him, preparing him.  His mind and body were crying out, “Unclean!  Unclean!” but his heart was hearing, “Redeemed!  Redeemed!”  During his vision on the roof top, Peter was being prepared for the visitors who would come.  In that trance, the Holy Spirit began working on Peter to unlearn the habits and traditions of a lifetime.  If this vision was really from God, then neither Peter nor Cornelius could ever live their lives the same.  Cornelius was no longer an outsider.  Peter had to make sense of things again, but he was in the midst of a wonderful new thing that God had begun in his midst.

And Peter shared the simple message that he was learning about God:  God shows no partiality and God’s peace is found in the one he sent, Jesus Christ.  Jesus lived his life in the light of the Holy Spirit, reaching out and sharing God’s peace and grace with others.  Though innocent, he was put to death and on that first Easter morning, God raised him from the dead and made him Lord of heaven and earth.  That was all Cornelius needed to know.  Without any fanfare or special ceremony, he and his family and friends were filled with the Holy Spirit and were baptized.

And it was in this moment with Cornelius and his family that Peter was continuing to learn how vast the power of the resurrection was and is.  In the beginning, God created, he created the beasts of the air, sea, and land, he created man and woman in his image, and he declared them all very good.  But they fell, spinning out of control until death had the final say in life.  On Easter, death no longer had final say and in the resurrection, God re-created his creation.  All creation was redeemed and made new in Christ.  The deeper that Peter plunged into the truth that is found in Christ, the more he realized the boundaries humanity had created, God had erased and the brokenness found in humanity and in creation was healed and made whole.

Jesus himself makes this known after the resurrection.  Jesus appeared on Easter morning first to women and then to those who had betrayed and denied him.  It wasn’t long until he appeared to one who was persecuting his followers and through the centuries he has appeared to every sort of person, from redneck uneducated yahoo to those sitting in the thrones of power.  And to each he says, “I died for you.” To each he offers God’s love, grace, and peace.  And on Easter, the good news of God’s grace flowed out of the tomb to everyone and everything.  No one is separated from God’s love by anything at all.  As the one who persecuted the church, Paul, later wrote, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Now the church was given this wonderful gift of unity in Christ and equality before God, but we don’t always get it right.  One of our pastor friends said he was at a meeting with a group of pastors and the invitation that was given by the host was easy enough:  Pray for the pastor on your right.  Well, one pastor couldn’t do it because the man on his right wasn’t part of his church, not the right kind of Christian.  For some it is natural to believe that unless a person is baptized in a certain way, he is not baptized at all; or that unless she receives communion in the right form, she hasn’t received communion.  We end up using the very means of grace that God gave us to bring people together as tools to separate others out of fellowship.  The Holy Spirit must sigh deeply when her name is used to separate people when she was given to bring them together.  We must pray that every time that we hear that little voice, “Unclean!” we invite the Holy Spirit to whisper to our hearts, “Redeemed!”

Friends, God in Christ redeemed all of his creation.  God did it in love and he did it for everyone.  He did it for you, for me, and for us.  Therein lies the power.  It is a power that never stops bringing things and people together that no one would ever image together.  And we are called to share in that power and we only have it because of the unity we are given in Christ Jesus.  And He is Lord of all; no boundaries, no distinctions, no differences.  May it be so.  Amen.

Son-Burned and Spirit-Drenched: Sermon by Keith, Acts Sermon Series

Texts: Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-19

This was one of those weeks that in the middle of sermon writing, I came across something that said what I was trying to say much better than what I was cobling together. As I read Frederick Buechner’s entry on Paul in his book “Beyond Words,” I knew I had to share it with you. Now, I don’t think it is totally the fact that Laura is gone and I was squeezing in sermon writing during naps and after bed time, because I did have most of a sermon written by Thursday. But when I read these words, I deleted most of what I had down and started over. I’m also not going to read Buechner’s entire entry on Paul, just the first portion about who he was and his Damascus Road experience. And if you want to see his entire write up on Paul, I’d be happy to get you a copy. Now, let me share with you what Buechner had to say about Paul…

So, what does Paul’s conversion story say to us today? First and foremost, when we have an encounter with the Living God as found in Christ, and that encounter can take place anywhere and anyplace, we come face to face with who we are and who we are not. We realize that we are not God and that we have failed miserably in the eyes of the living God. Paul laid there in the dirt waiting for the ax to fall. Paul knew what he had done. In persecuting his followers, Paul was persecuting Jesus.

But the ax never fell that he deserved for what he had done to Stephen and to Jesus. The hand that reached out of that bright light at Paul wasn’t a hand of condemnation, but a hand reaching out in love. God reaches out to us in Christ not to condemn us, but to embrace us, to make us his own. As Buechner says it, Jesus was saying to Paul, “I want you on my side.”

The other thing we learn from Paul’s conversion is that it was noteworthy. But it was noteworthy not because it is something that we expect our conversion and walk with Christ to look like. It is striking precisely because it was not typical of the way most people become converts. It was how Christ got Paul’s attention. Flannery O’Conner says, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.”

No horse is mentioned, but O’Conner’s comment points to the main character in this and every conversion story: God. Whether your story is, “I grew up in the church and lived my entire life as a Christian” or you had some major epiphany about Christ over a bowl of cereal one morning, it is God who has changed your life, it is Christ who has been molding you, and it is the Holy Spirit who will continually form you into a child of God. The change either happens slowly and incrementally or with huge mountain top experiences, but the main thing to know is there is no one religious experience that fits all. Just like you have a different relationship with those sitting on your left and right, God in Christ has a unique relationship with each of you. Jesus wasn’t done with Paul on the Damascus Road, and he isn’t done with you either.

And know that your story isn’t only your story. Your faith journey isn’t just for you. It is for those sitting on your left and right. Did you hear how Buechner’s reading ended? Christ reaches out to Paul and says, “Join me” and Paul turns to all those towns and churches and to us today and says, “Join him.” Paul’s faith story and conversion are for you. And your story, your walk with Christ, is for all those who are here and not here today, for your children and grandchildren and generations still to come. Your story and experiences enrich the community of faith and they matter. The church wouldn’t be complete without you and your story. Friends, may God open our eyes as Christ opened Paul’s to the new reality created in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a vision that he shares and we are called to share to bring others into the light of God’s love. And however the Spirit reveals that vision to you, it is not meant to be private affair, but is meant for sharing the love of Christ with a broken world and for building up his church. Amen.

Where Does God Dwell? Sermon by Laura, 7.14.13 Acts Sermon Series

Text: Acts 6-7:60

This past week at Vacation Bible School, we studied the life of the apostle Paul. In Acts, his story begins as Stephen’s story ends, killed by an angry mob of religious leaders. Luke tells us those leaders prepare themselves by laying their coats at Paul’s feet, and Paul approves of their actions. So, to introduce Paul, the teen drama team acted out the stoning of Stephen, trying to keep it appropriate for younger children.

Now, this year’s VBS was the first that our five-year-old Lucas watched the dramas, so we had instant feedback on each day’s happenings. We soon discovered that Lucas has a knack for choosing unexpected moments to ask us the really tough theological questions each story raised. Tuesday morning, as I was handing him a glass of orange juice, he asks, “Why did Stephen die?”

I blinked at him a couple of times, half-awake and still needing another cup of coffee, privately thinking that this is the deeper reason we adults sometimes shy away from really reading the Bible with children, candy-coating or glossing over the hard stuff. They always seem to go straight to the hard questions we’d just like to avoid! It would be much more comfortable to focus on the goodness of Stephen, all the wonderful things which led the church to declare him a saint.

For instance, the first thing we hear about Stephen is that he “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” when he is chosen as one of the first seven deacons to “wait on tables,” helping to feed the early church’s poor. Stephen lives his faith with concrete acts of care for others. And, as Stephen carried out this ministry, things started happening around him, beautiful, astonishing signs and wonders which turned people to God.[i] At VBS this week, we would have said that people could see the fruits of the Spirit in Stephen’s life:(sing) love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Stephen also displays the Spirit’s wisdom and power as he faces opposition. It seems he’s personally demonstrating what Jesus told the disciples in Matthew 10: “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” There is much we’d be happy to tell our children about here.

But the question, “Why did Stephen die?” forces us to look at the ugliness of broken humanity that his story also reveals. It is always there, side by side with the beauty of the Spirit, within and without the church, then and now.

The ugliness of superior attitudes toward people who are different was in evidence when Stephen was called to serve. The community of the first Christians was made up of Palestinian and Jerusalem Jews who spoke Aramaic, as well as Hellenists, Jews who grew up outside of Palestine and whose primary language was Greek. The seven deacons were ordained to make sure the food distribution was equitable, because there had been accusations that the Greek-speakers were being neglected in favor of the Aramaic-speakers.

Stephen’s story also makes us aware how tensions between the Christians and Jerusalem’s larger Jewish community had escalated. Remember that when Christianity began, it was not a separate religion but a movement within Judaism. The apostles and other believers still prayed at synagogues, and there they would often discuss their faith with others. When Stephen argues powerfully on behalf of Jesus at a synagogue whose members are former Roman slaves, it is like touching flame to kindling. He is seized and brought before a judging council. “We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us,” the false witnesses say, but they are speaking the truth of their deepest fears about Jesus.

Their deepest fears are also our deepest fears. I think that’s what I attempted to tell Lucas that morning: People don’t like change. We vastly prefer stability and security over the risky unknown, and we have a tendency to get so fixed on the means of accessing our desires that we often lose track of the intended end.

The temple was understood to be the home of God on earth and the only proper location of sacrifice; and the customs of Moses were an elaborate system of practices developed to guide the people in keeping and honoring God’s greatest gift, the commandments. The temple and the customs were meant to be tools for turning toward God, who is our deepest and truest desire; they were meant to be tools for placing oneself near to God and daily opening oneself to God’s purpose, presence, and power.

But over time, we human beings get awfully attached to our tools and rituals, don’t we? And on a certain level, we begin to believe more in the tools and rituals than in the God whom they are meant to open us. We get pretty uneasy when someone or something seems to threaten our access to those tools and rituals. In the book Addiction and Grace, author Gerald May writes,

“When we become addicted to such comfortable self-serving images of faith, we are likely to defend and promote them with a desperate aggressiveness. We are threatened by people who believe differently, and we are compelled to convert them, or to isolate ourselves from them, or, as a last resort, to silence them.”[ii]

Yet, the truth is that the whole enterprise of faith is a voyage into the unknown; and the Holy Spirit seems to be constantly nudging us toward risk and change. Characterized as a restless wind, the Holy Spirit is always on the move, moving us away from the security of our attachments toward the freedom of God in Jesus Christ. But such freedom can be unnervingly uncertain! As Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.”

Blazing with the Spirit, Stephen represents that uncertain and unwelcome change to people who are deeply attached to their religion as it has “always” been done. And, unfortunately, his long-winded speech only feeds the flames of their fears. He had the opportunity, perhaps, to bring the good news to his nation’s highest leaders. But after highlighting Israel’s repeated rejections of great leaders, Stephen calls the council “stiff-necked,” and charges them with opposing the Holy Spirit. Not surprisingly, the council is infuriated.

Now, I imagine Stephen gave this speech both angry with and sorrowful for his people. Maybe he saw it as a form of “tough love.” But, another thing Stephen’s story shows us is that there are more and less effective ways of witnessing to Jesus Christ.  People rarely respond to lectures or insults with deepened faith, and as one commentator notes, “…Stephen gave a summary lecture on biblical history to the learned assembly, ending it with insults and rebukes. He never named Jesus, but he accused them of his murder…one must admit there are problems in his rhetorical strategy” [iii]

Simply and vulnerably sharing stories of how we have experienced Jesus usually has a greater impact than any intellectual arguments we can produce, especially when paired with our loving actions. Can we tell and show others how faith in Jesus has transformed our lives, given us hope, and made us better and braver people?

Whatever the failings of his speech, the decisive moment of Stephen’s witness actually takes place when he sees and speaks a vision of God’s glory, naming Jesus and fully confessing his faith. “Look,” he says, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” These words seem utmost blasphemy to men who reject the idea of God incarnate in Jesus the Christ, crucified, risen, and ascended to the place of highest honor.  These words seem to go too far.

But this is the moment when Stephen’s testimony becomes truly worth celebrating. Here Stephen communicates most powerfully his faith in Christ. As the enraged council seeks to silence him, first by covering their ears, then by dragging him out and stoning him, we see, in the parallels between Jesus’ and Stephen’s last moments, how deeply Christ’s life has transformed his.  “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” Jesus says in Luke 23, and Stephen likewise prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then, kneeling just before he dies, Stephen forgives his killers, praying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” just as Jesus cried out from the cross, “Father forgive them; for they do no know what they are doing.”

“The story of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus,” writes Eugene Petersen. “It continues in the lives of those who believe in him…Luke makes it clear that these Christians he wrote about were no more spectators of Jesus than Jesus was a spectator of God—they are in on the action of God, God acting in them, God living in them. Which also means, of course, in us.[iv]

Friends, this is why Stephen died, and also how he continues to live. The good news for us is that God does not dwell in temples or traditions, in houses built by human hands, but by an incredible grace, God chooses to live and dwell with and within us. We are no mere spectators but integral actors in the universe’s ongoing story. And we would do well to admit how much this grace actually frightens us, as we become aware that the Holy Spirit within us will continually urge us to move beyond our handmade walls of comfort and security.

But every time we take a risk beyond those walls, we learn to trust that God is always moving us deeper into God’s grace and mercy, and that the Spirit will gives us the words and the power to share that grace and mercy with others, people near to us, but also people we might have deemed too far away in distance, class, or culture. We learn to trust that risks taken in the Spirit are never wasted.

Stephen was a bright light of the early church, and his death by stoning was a terrible loss. What good could possibly have come of it? There was one man present at Stephen’s death who never forgot it, who later became the greatest of Christ’s apostles, taking the gospel across all kinds of barriers of culture, distance–and even time. For, by grace, the church continues to receive his letters, and lives are still transformed by his testimony. “The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen,” said Augustine.[v]

Stephen is hailed as the church’s first martyr; but “martyr,” my friends, is simply the Greek word for “witness.” We are also called to be witnesses to Jesus Christ in our words and deeds. We too can trust that the Holy Spirit will fill us with power and grace as we step out of our comfort zones, into the far reaches the world—or our local neighborhoods—to speak and enact Christ’s love.

Finally, we can trust that nothing we say or do in the name of Jesus will ever be wasted, for God dwells with and within us, transforming our brokenness, that the world might know the beautiful fruits of (singing together) love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

All glory to God the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

[ii] Gerald G. May, Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions. HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, 130.

[iii] Gary Neal Hansen, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 200?, 448-450.

[iv] Eugene Petersen, Introduction to Acts in The Message, Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002, p.1966.

[v] quoted in William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles,Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955, 63.

“The Lord Has Been Gracious”: Sermon by Keith, 7.7.13 Acts Sermon Series

I stand before you today with fear and anxiety about this morning’s text about Ananias and Sapphira.  This text has been called a “Text of Terror.”  The three-year lectionary from which we usually preach from skips over it.  Up to this point in the book of Acts, everything has been about building up the community; from the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the teaching and fellowship and miracles of the apostles to Barnabas selling a field and giving the money to the community.  Up until now, things looked pretty good.  But now, we find the first serious problem, and it comes from within the community.   Let us hear these words of our Lord.  (Read text: Acts 5:1-11).

It starts with the sale of property.  Tradition tells us that Barnabas unselfishly held nothing back.  His generosity was huge, with the giving of the all the money from the sale of his property to the community.  And the apostles praised Barnabas’ action, lifting up his gift and how it would help all those in need and this early church community thrive.  But there were those who were jealous of the notoriety that Barnabas received and wanted to be lifted up in the eyes of the community.  Ananias and Sapphira had land they could sell, too, and they sold it of their own free will.  There was nothing that said to be part of this band of people who declared Jesus as their Lord and Savior that they had to sell anything, or that if they did, they had to give it all to the community.  There existed only the desire of one’s own heart to share the property they owned to help others who were in need.

Now, it not exactly clear what Ananias and Sapphira actually did.  From the Greek, they either said they were going to give the proceeds of the entire sale of their land to the church, kept a portion, and gave the rest to church with the understanding that that was all of it.  Or, they gave it all and then took a portion back.  Either way, in the eyes of the public, they were generous givers like Barnabas, but in the eyes of God, they were hypocrites.

As you go through the gospels, especially Luke’s gospel, one of the sins that Jesus stressed over and over was the sin of appearing to be something that you are not.  It’s like keeping the front yard immaculate for the world to see, but the back yard is filled with old broken down cars and rubble and the grass has grown three feet tall.  This couple wanted to appear to be ardent supports of the community.  But they were truly supporters of themselves.   And this was their undoing.  When confronted with their sin, the undeniable truth of the charge against them mixed with the unbearable shame of what they had done, they dropped dead.  There is nothing in the story to indicate that Peter intended that either of them die.  The sense of their own guilt, coming upon them with the force of a shock that was fatal is enough to explain how they die.

Now, the death of Ananias and Sapphira may seem cruel and violate the love and goodness that Jesus himself displayed.  But we can’t forget that from the beginning, seriousness of discipline is expressed at the heart of the Gospel.  In our baptismal vows are the questions of renouncing the ways of the world and turning with our entire being, heart, mind, soul and spirit, towards God in Christ.  When we attempt to live with one foot in world and one foot in the Kingdom of God, we can be torn apart.  And that is what happened to this couple.  They brought their undoing upon themselves by cutting themselves off from the group and from God by attempting to be something they were not.

But something else happens in this passage that we can miss if we get stuck on Ananias and Sapphira’s demise.  This is the first time that the author of the book of Acts uses the word ‘ekklesia,’ or church.  “And fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.”  From the birth of this community of believers who professed Jesus Christ as Lord at Pentecost to Barnabas selling his field for the sake of the community, we have this view that everything was perfect.  Maybe Ananias and Sapphira help us understand that things weren’t that perfect.  Maybe it takes having them on the pages of scripture to get all the pieces of the puzzle together and get a compete picture of what the church is, a community of the followers of Christ made up of real people who are subject to sins and temptations while at the same time attempting to be guided by the Holy Spirit moving in their midst.

We want a church where we have the Holy Spirit, the powerful worship, the fellowship and the teaching.  But to have those things, we also have to have the understanding of who we are.  The church is a community of people who know they are sinners.  It is here we do not try to cover up our sins and shortcomings.  God knows what we have done and it is here that we freely admit that we are not superior to the person sitting next to us nor better than the person who will never step foot in the church.  It is here we take responsibility for our sinfulness; it is here that we invite people to come into our backyards and see the piles of trash, and we don’t blame anyone else for creating those piles.  The theologian Charles Morrison says, “The church is the not a society of good people; it is a society of sinners.  It is the only organization in human society that takes sinners into its membership just because they are sinners.  It is the only organization that keeps on saying week after week, year after year, age after age: ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.’”

But it doesn’t stop with just the recognition that we are sinners.  We are a community of dissatisfied sinners.  We don’t like the fact that we have trash piled up in the backyard, we want to see it gone!  We are not happy with what our sin has done in our lives and the way things are in the world.  We look out and see that brokenness is real, and we don’t like it.  We take the brokenness of the world and our own sin seriously.  We do not come together to justify our present way of life or advertise our piety by just saying we are sinners.  We publically profess that we need to be forgiven for what we are, that we want to change, and need help in making the changes in our life.  Shirley Guthrie words it this way, “The people of God…are holy not because of what they have or what they are but because of what they are seeking to receive and become.”

But also, the church is gathered in the name of Jesus Christ.  We have this idolized view that the early church was perfect and that we can strive for that perfection, too.  Ananias and Sapphira give us a more accurate picture of what is really in the midst of the church, then and now.  And when we admit that, we stop pointing to ourselves but point to the one who is perfect.  Holiness, purity, and goodness are not found in the church and its members as such but in him whom they seek forgiveness, change, help, and new direction.  We can only point to Christ’s goodness, strength, purity, and wisdom.

And that means we are not a passively receiving community.  Christ forgives his church, but he also directs his church by the Holy Spirit.  We cannot be comfortable with only a confession of sin.   It is in and with him that we respond to our dissatisfaction we find in our own lives and in the world.  We start cleaning up the backyard.  But we do not do it alone.  God has given us each other and he has given us Christ.   If we are serious about wanting to change, we go out into the backyard with a shovel and start cleaning things up.  We go with Christ’s community for help and support.  But we also find that Christ is there, leading us, directing us, but most importantly, he’s already done the heavy lifting.

So, I still struggle with what to do Ananias and Sapphira, especially since I see so much of myself in them.  Earlier I said everything up to this reading that happened was for the building up of the community.  In the verses that immediately follow their story, we find that many dared not join the church, probably out of fear of what happened to this couple.  But the church still grew!  I wonder if I would have joined the church.  There are days I find myself at a deep level of shame for the things I’ve done and the things I’ve left undone.  And then I remember what Ananias’ name literally means.  It means, ‘the Lord has been gracious.’  And I know that I am dependent on his grace and mercy.  We all are.  And that dependence begins with the confession that the people of God are sinful and he only is holy.  But it also means that we get up and start moving, set out on the way that leaves our sinfulness behind and move toward his holiness with him.

In the name of the one who convicts us of our sin,

and in the name of the one who frees us of our sin,

and in the name of the one who moves us beyond our sin, Amen.

Bold Prayer: Sermon by Laura, 6.23.13 Acts Sermon Series

Text: Acts 4:23-31; Psalm 2

I first encountered Scott and Gabby Dannemiller through their website. They were serving as Young Adult Volunteers in Guatemala, where I had served myself a few years before.  Scott and Gabby knew how to put together a great website, with compelling, funny stories and beautiful photography, testifying to the joys and challenges of living out God’s call. Scott was also a songwriter and singer, and when they returned from Guatemala, he recorded a CD of original songs, and the two of the traveled all over the country performing at churches and raising money they sent back to ministries in Guatemala.

It was extremely impressive. But I must confess that my reaction was mixed. I was in awe of their creativity and excellent work, but I’m ashamed to admit that another part of me thought them a little too bold. “Who do they think they are?” I thought to myself. As if they were somehow arrogant for trusting they had a testimony to give and using their considerable talents to share it as widely as possible!

Later on, when I actually met Scott and Gabby, who turned out to be fairly ordinary people, young adults trying to find their way in a complicated world. I did a little self-reflection and recognized how the way they lived out their faith challenged mine. In their boldness, I saw a confidence in God that I realized I lacked. I had felt called to do something significant, as they were doing, after my own time in Guatemala, but beset by insecurities, I felt had I backed off of those dreams.

Ah, envy. I’ve come to realize that it is a quite useful feeling, meant to help us become aware of ways we can make changes and grow in faith. And so I took my envy as a sign that it was time to learn what Scott and Gabby seemed to be living out.

Today’s scripture from Acts—in fact, the whole of Chapter 4—would have been a good text to study. Last week, we heard the story of Peter and John, standing before the high priests and elders at the temple, in the very place that Jesus had been tried and falsely convicted, testifying to Christ’s power to heal a man. Ordered not to speak or teach in Jesus’ name, they refused, saying, “You judge whether we should listen to you or to God; we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” In spite of this retort to the authorities, they were released, because so many people celebrated the miraculous healing. But as they walk away, I think Peter and John began to recognize that they would not always get off so easy. They began to understand the risks of ministering in Jesus’ name; finding themselves confronting the powers-that-be, they began to see that allowing Christ to live fully in them might actually lead them to their deaths. Are they a little bit shaken by this awareness?

At any rate, they pull back and return to their faith community. As we continue reading Acts, I want us to attend to this rhythm of public engagement and withdrawal back to worshipping community, which scholars have noted is a pattern in Luke and Acts. It is important for us to learn and practice a similar rhythm of action and reflection. We are called to act and speak in Jesus’ name in all parts of our lives, but we cannot continue to do so with integrity if we do not regularly pull back to a supportive community, receiving God’s care through our fellow believers and finding renewed conviction.

And we cannot speak about God to others if we are not also making space to listen as God speaks to us. One way we honor this rhythm is by gathering in this space for Sunday worship, after full and busy weeks of engagement. Praising and praying, confessing our failures,receiving forgiveness, witnessing to the Word: what we do here is meant to rejuvenate us and send us forth again to publicly proclaim Christ in our words and deeds.

And that’s exactly what happens when Peter and John return to their community. Their fellow believers listen to their story, hearing all the implications for their own lives, and together they raise their voices in prayer.

Now, let’s recognize that their response isn’t necessarily the most self-evident in an hour of danger. They could have gotten angry at the Sanhedrin and started forming plans to bring down their opposition. They could have fled quickly out of Jerusalem to save themselves. Or they just could have done as the Sanhedrin commanded, to stop speaking and acting in Jesus’ name.

But what do they do instead? They pray.

And what do they pray for? Do they pray for God to smite the Sanhedrin or the Romans? Do they pray for God to clear away all opposition? No—accepting the reality of these threats, they pray for boldness to speak and heal in Jesus’ name, to do more and more of the very thing that got them arrested.[i]

It’s astonishing, really, and possible because the Holy Spirit is in their midst, inspiring them to see beyond the implications of the moment, to see a deeper reality, the vast and hopeful culmination of God’s purpose, presence, and power in Jesus Christ. That’s the reality they enter in their prayer, as they turn to the Sovereign God, the One they trust is continually creating and sustaining all things in heaven, earth, and sea; as they remember the faith of their ancestors, embodied by David, whose words in Psalm 2 named the truth of the opposition they are now experiencing, that even those who oppose God’s purposes turn out to be used by God to fulfill those purposes!

It is a reality they experienced in relationship with Jesus the Christ, whose entire life, death and resurrection not only demonstrated the depth of the world’s opposition to God’s purposes and the suffering that comes upon those living God’s ways in that world, but also the ultimate triumph of mercy, grace, and love over the ways of sin and violence. Because of Jesus, they are ready to stake their lives on the deeper reality of God’s kingdom.

Only after they have voiced these convictions together do they petition God, honestly acknowledging their need in the face of such opposition. I like how William Barclay puts it: “They did not pretend that they could face this in their own strength; they took it to God. In the hour of trial they turned from time and stretched to eternity; when their own strength failed they turned to a power that was not their own.”[ii]

And what a sign they receive in response to their prayer! The place in which they were gathered together was shaken. The ancient preacher Chrysostom suggests that God did this to reveal that their prayers had been heard and “to make it more fearsome and to lead them to courage.”[iii]

It’s a confirmation of their assertion that God is truly sovereign over all; both fearsome and inspiring, because who can stand against the One who has the power to shake the earth at its foundations? So this awesome sign empowers and emboldens the apostles: “‘The place was shaken,’ and that made them all the more unshaken.”[iv]

My friends, if we truly believe that God holds the whole world in his hands, we can be bold, for there is nothing to fear from any human opposition. The same One who can make the earth tremble has a purpose and a call for us in Jesus Christ, and when we pray for boldness to follow that call, God will make a way where it seemed there was no way.

What I learned from Scott and Gabby is what I learn from the praying community in Acts. Right now, I’d like to share with you the song Scott Dannemiller wrote when he and Gabby decided to go to Guatemala, called “What Would You Do?” You received the lyrics to this song with your bulletin this morning. (Play music.)

“Lord, grant us wisdom to discern and the intellect to learn

that courage is just faith on top of fear, so we can do your will right here.”

This is a prayer for boldness, isn’t it? Scott says elsewhere that “fear is just something God gives us to let us know what we’re doing is significant.” Laying our faith on top of our fear is to trust not only that God has a significant purpose for us, but that when we ask for it, God will give us the boldness we need to carry out that purpose.

Therefore, let us take seriously the question in Scott’s song: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” What are you called to do that right now seems exceedingly bold? In what areas do we as a congregation need to pray for boldness?

Friends, the life of faith in Jesus Christ is full of risks. We will run us up against enormous opposition. Sometimes we will run up against the powers-that-be, as we seek to minister in Jesus’ name. But sometimes the opposition will simply be our own fears and anxieties. “Who do we think we are?”

Friends, when we find ourselves asking that question, it’s time to return to this community, to return to the Bible, to return to the witness of God in Jesus Christ, to remember that we are the servants of the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and to trust the Holy Spirit will always ignite the courage we need to act in God’s will and walk in Christ’s ways.


(by the way, Scott is now blogging at The Accidental Missionary. Check it out!)


[ii] William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955, 38-40.

[iii] Chrysostom, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Acts. Edited by Francis Martin, Gen. Ed. Thomas C. Oden. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 54.

[iv] Chrysostom as above, 54.

Can’t Help It: Sermon by Keith, 6.16.13, Acts Sermon Series

Text: Acts 4:1-22

Peter and John were standing on holy ground.  Just a few weeks previous, Peter had stood outside the gates of this same room that he now found himself standing in the middle of.  The same people as before were there today; Annas, Caiaphas, and the rest of the high priestly family.  Then, Peter watched as Jesus was tried and condemned for blasphemy and sent to Pilate for execution.  And Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times that day, ashamed that Jesus wasn’t measuring up to be the Messiah he had hoped.  But things had changed since that day.  Things had changed a lot.  Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven.  The Holy Spirit had come blowing into Jerusalem like a mighty rushing wind allowing for Jews from distant lands to hear in their own languages the good news of Christ’s resurrection.  A new community of the church was growing, responding to the Spirit in their midst.  And now Peter and John had healed a lame man in the name of Jesus Christ.

“By what power or by what name did you do this?”  In asking this question, the temple leaders were attempting to determine what side of the theological/political line that Peter and John stood.  And it was an important question.  On the theological side, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body, but they were also the ones who held the power in Jerusalem.  They could not help but take note of the new 5000 followers of Jesus, and they knew the Romans would take note as well.

But Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, boldly turns their question around, making it about the good deed represented by the person that is now standing with him and John before the council.  Many of the priestly family had walked by this man their entire lives as they came into the temple.  They had even given alms to him many, many times.  There is no argument or hoax going on.  This man is healed.  And Peter clearly gives the name of Jesus, “whom you crucified, and whom God raised from the dead,” as the power responsible for raising this man up.  Peter is no longer ashamed to call Christ the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel.  And then Peter gives the temple council an invitation.  In letting them know that Jesus is the cornerstone they have rejected, he is inviting them to accept and receive Jesus as Israel’s promised salvation.   But instead of heeding the call to follow Jesus and the salvation found only in him, the temple council becomes fixed on the boldness of both of these uneducated, ordinary men.

Boldness.  What does it look like to be bold for Christ?  I think for many of us, we don’t like the picture that jumps to our minds.  We image of brash, obnoxious people, trying to strong-arm others into believing the Christian faith.  I met a college professor in Texas that had grown up in a tradition where it was considered to be every member of his church’s responsibility to convert as many people as possible.  Everyone was a potential convert.  And “being converted” meant they went to that particular brand of Christianity.  Now, this wasn’t so bad for him as a child and youth because he was basically surrounded by people from his church.  They were ok.  But then he went to college, he was surrounded by heathens.  And just knowing that he was supposed to ‘convert’ these people started eating him up inside.  It led to a life of a recluse.  He would even go to the laundry mat at 2AM to do his laundry, praying as he went that no one would be there so he wouldn’t have to make a convert.    And if someone was there, he would turn around and go back home.

So what does it look like to be bold in the faith?  It can’t be something that eats us up on the inside and afraid to be around others.  There is a difference between being bold and being coercive or even violent with the faith.  And Peter demonstrates a Holy Spirit-produced boldness to preach, teach, and heal in the name and authority of Jesus Christ.  And that is summed up when he says, “There is no salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Now this passage has been used to create an “I’m in and you’re not” mentality and exclude groups and people, especially people of other faiths.  Maybe it can say that if you rip it off the page and try to have it stand alone as a solitary passage.  But in the larger story, it says something different.  Peter is saying, first and foremost, that the healing isn’t about him.  But Peter, you healed a man!  No I didn’t.  At a time when healers were running a round claiming to have power to do miraculous things, Peter was saying that healing had came through Jesus and that healing can only come through Jesus.  If you look at Peter’s credentials, he was a nobody fisherman from Galilee who rejected his teacher.  The healing could only be about the Holy Spirit moving in and through him.  If it was about credentials, that temple council should have been making some healing happen.  So, friends, it isn’t about who you are or where you are from, how long you have been a member of the church, or even what is on your resume.  If what you have done or are doing is not in response to what God in Christ is doing in your life, it is for nothing.

Peter is also saying it isn’t about the institution of the temple.  The temple didn’t save anyone.  And likewise the church doesn’t save anyone.  God in Christ does the saving.  It’s about the living God that is encountered in the sanctuary of the temple and in the church that offers salvation.  It is about the Holy Spirit spilling out of the doors of the church and into our neighborhood and communities that does the saving.  And God seems to want to use us, the church, so others can embrace his salvation.

But Peter also opens wide our understanding of salvation.  The term salvation as Peter uses it has a wide range of meanings including physical healing, rescue from bondage, and spiritual healing.  In fact, most biblical scholars believe that the idea of “going to heaven” when we think about salvation wasn’t even on Peter’s radar when he said that salvation can only come in the name of Jesus.  Peter was living in the Kingdom of God at that very moment, and he was inviting the temple council to join him.  For Peter, the idea of salvation was the restoration of broken relationships.  The man who God had healed could never go farther than the temple gates for 40 years.  Now, no one could hold him back.  His relationship with the community and with God was now made whole.  He was saved.

So to be bold in your faith of Christ is first to embrace who God is, what God has done, and what God will do.  God is our loving creator who stepped out of eternity in Jesus Christ to mend the relationship between God and humanity.  And Jesus continues to be with and within us in the Holy Spirit.  And it is through the Holy Spirit working in us that Christ continually is reconciling us to one another and to God.   To be bold is not just handing someone a tract with a prayer in it and telling them that is what they need to get to heaven and ignoring their empty stomach.  Nor is it just handing someone a plate of food and walking away.  God in Christ by the Spirit is calling us to be concerned about the spiritual and physical needs of others so salvation can take place.   And salvation always begins with relationship building and relationship mending.  We sit with people, we hear their stories, and we learn of their needs and we share ourselves.  And God will do the saving, because in sharing ourselves, we share Christ, because Christ is ever present and moving with us and it is through us people get their first glimpse of a relationship with Christ.

The man who was healed wasn’t the only one who found salvation that day.  I think Peter did, too, by standing in that same court where Jesus had just recently stood, and boldly sharing the good news of the salvation that is found only in Christ.  Friends, we too stand where Christ stands, because he is here with us.  He calls us to follow him, to boldly share ourselves with others in his name’s sake so they too may come to know him and live restored, healed lives.  He offers salvation to the world through us.  Amen.

Take a Good Look: Sermon by Laura, 6.9.13, Acts Series, Pentecost 3,

Text: Acts of the Apostles 3:1-21

“Why do you wonder at this,” Peter asks the gathered crowd, “Why do you stare at us?”

It’s kind of a strange question. Isn’t the answer obvious? There’s been a miracle, Peter. After all, next to Peter and John is standing—standing!—a man they knew to have been born lame. Just minutes earlier, people had seen him being carried to his post outside at the Beautiful Gate, the place he had made his living by begging.

Actually, most people probably hadn’t really seen him, as they had gotten so accustomed that they really didn’t notice him any more. They just occasionally dropped some pennies in his palm and moved on. Or maybe, as many of us have learned to do with beggars in our streets, the people actively avoided looking at him.

At any rate, if they gave it much thought, people would never have expected to see him inside the temple, not just walking, but jumping and leaping with God’s praises. It’s not just that he couldn’t get there himself.  His physical impairment limited his movement, but according to practices at the time, it also barred him from entering the temple. Clearly, something momentous has happened, and of course a crowd gathers. They want to take a good look.

There must be a human instinct that draws us to crowd around and stare when we perceive something important is going on, whether we are rubber-necking a highway accident or viewing a concert or a sporting event. These days, with 24-7 media coverage and cameras in every telephone, we don’t even have to leave our homes to gather and stare at spectacles across the world. But I wonder, what exactly are we looking for in our staring? Is it our curiosity that drives us? Are we looking for deeper meaning, connection with other human beings or a higher power, or do we just want to be entertained? Does so much looking actually lead to seeing?

Now, it’s interesting that Peter should mention staring, because this story is set in motion when he does just that. Notice how the author of Acts narrates Peter and John’s initial encounter with the lamed man. “When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.”

Why do we need three full verses of “seeing” action? Maybe to help us begin us to notice the difference between just looking and truly seeing. The man’s basic visual awareness of Peter and John is just enough to reach out to them for alms. He probably saw them from ground-level, because he was unable to stand and look them in the eye. He has learned, over his forty-something years, that this is all he can expect from relationships with other people. But Peter stops and “looks intently”—it’s actually the same Greek word used for the crowd’s staring—and he asks for more attention from the man as well. Even before Peter or John lays a hand on this man, they are actively choosing to invest in relationship with him in this intense exchange of attention—and they believe something more is possible from him and for him.  Maybe the apostles’ basic willingness to really see and be present with this man what sets his healing in motion.

But all this reciprocal looking also functions like a magnet for us listeners, drawing us to stop our relentless forward momentum and pay closer attention, too. “I have no silver or gold,” Peter says, “but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” Taking the man by the right hand, the text very carefully says that Peter “raised him up.” The Greek verb used here is the same used elsewhere to say that God “raised” Jesus.[1] We are meant to understand that what’s happening here is more than a healing miracle—it’s a resurrection.

Here’s a little personal testimony. As you know, my father, Ron, had a stem cell transplant for his multiple myeloma cancer this past Wednesday (going well so far, by the way). Now, a week before that, I had finally gotten around to reading some information about this procedure, and as it began to sink in to my brain just what my dad was about to do, I started to get anxious.

Last Sunday morning before worship, I was in our office, starting to study the scripture for today. I often begin by writing the text out by hand, because it slows me down and helps me to pay attention. As I was doing this, Randy Jones stepped in. Having listened to me talking about my anxiety, he offered care and encouragement. It’s not much, he said, but it might help a little to remember others who had gone through this procedure. Yes, I said, what a comfort it is to see David Fratzke in our congregation looking so well after having the same procedure. Randy smiled and went back to the sanctuary, and I turned back to my scripture study.

It might have been a passing conversation, but when I resumed writing, I had come to these words: “All the people saw him walking and praising God…and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.” And I realized that, though I had been glad for David before, I hadn’t fully recognized the testimony of God’s healing he has been demonstrating to us. It was just a little holy coincidence, you might say, but those words about the man in Acts 3, set next to Randy’s words of encouragement, and David’s witness, suddenly became for me the Living Word. I felt like God was saying, “Look and see and trust: there will be healing for your Dad, too.”

Even more, I felt my eyes were focused again on something I lose sight of all too often, when I find myself plodding through mundane routines as if there is nothing much worth getting excited about in life. Maybe because of all that media coverage I mentioned earlier, I’m all too aware how much suffering happens, how many people are struggling, and how little it seems I can do to change things. God seems absent, and though I say I have faith, I often function as an atheist. But the truth is that the amazing work of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, healing, restoring, and transforming the brokenness of our world takes place all the time, here and now, before our very eyes. Are we looking? Can we see it?

Sometimes we need a little help. I think that’s why Peter asks the crowd, “Why do you wonder at this?” I think he senses the crowd is looking without seeing. The healing is a sign, but signs are easily misunderstood. As Thomas G. Long notes, “Amazing as it was, the healing by itself was mute, ambiguous, and finally misleading. It took the proclaimed word to tell the whole truth.  The healing was powerful, but its true meaning was hidden until the sermon was preached.”[2] We, too, need the act and the Word together.

Now, when we hear Peter’s sermon, we need to remember that Peter is a Jew addressing a crowd of Jews, talking about a Messiah who was born, died, and raised a Jew. Peter is not taking a superior tone, telling this crowd stuff they don’t already know (how can he, when he himself “rejected” Jesus three times?). He is an insider exhorting his own people to look below the surface and come to a deeper, truer faith as God’s people. Peter wants his sermon to refocus their gaze so they may take a good look and come to truly see the crucified and Risen Lord.

His sermon is a Word for the Church as well, all of us Christian insiders longing to experience times of refreshment from the Holy Spirit. We, too, are prone to looking without seeing, to staring miracles in the face without full recognition. Peter wants to clear up some misunderstandings.

First, how often do we misunderstand the source of healing? It’s so tempting to believe that there are certain individuals with have special access to healing powers, especially when they want to make it all better for us for the low, low price of 19.99! Peter tells us, no: not by our power or religiosity was this man healed. Only by the power of God, the same God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose purpose has always been gathering all creation into a harmonious community of security, well-being and joy, does healing come.[3]  Only by the power of the God we know in Jesus, the crucified and risen Christ, in whom God’s purpose comes to fullness, in whom the “times of refreshing” are already here, does healing come. Peter and John could heal in Jesus’ name because they were being healed in Jesus’ name.

Which leads to the second misunderstanding. So often we think God’s healing is special, an incredible exception in a dreary world. But from Peter’s perspective, today’s miracle is just one more extension of the resurrection power God set loose in the world in Jesus Christ. It is just another glimpse into something happening all the time, the deeper reality of God’s kingdom the signs of which are that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”[4] It’s not the exception to the rule, it’s the rule of the Resurrection God, who takes exception to the brokenness and decay in a world created good, who is constantly about the work of restoring creation to wholeness and harmony.

And if that’s the deeper reality, than there is a third misunderstanding. Signs of God’s kingdom call for more of a response than the “Church Lady” might give: “Isn’t that special?” Tom Long writes, “Whenever we see signs of God at work in our world—someone is healed of cancer, a broken relationship is restored, a hungry child is fed, nations put down weapons and work toward peace, despair yields to hope—people of goodwill are full of wonder and joy. But Peter’s sermon lets us know that such events call for an ever-deeper response of self-reflection.God’s healing and restoring work discloses another world, another reality, another sovereignty shimmering amid the wreckage of a decaying culture.”[5]

Friends, we are called, not just to take a good look, but to become people who truly see that “shimmering.” We must become people of attention and imagination. And seeing clearly, we are called to speak and act. But words without action, action without words are indeed prone to misunderstanding. Above all, we must become people who trust in the Living Word, who know the Bible well-enough to recognize the promises of God jumping off the Bible pages and coming to fruition.

So how do we grow in these ways? The Acts church, devoted to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer, gives us some direction. These practices help us grow to become those who look and truly see. And as we practice together, we grow together, becoming those who both pray and act for healing in every realm of our lives, and we become those who are blessed to give Christ’s powerful name as a gracious gift in the world.

May it be so, Lord Jesus! Amen.



[2] Thomas G. Long, Pastoral Perspective in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 408.

[3] Diana Butler Bass, quoting Walter Brueggemann in Christianity for the Rest of Us,110-111.

[4] Matt. 11:5

[5] Thomas G. Long as above, 410.

Devoted Life: Sermon by Keith, 6.2.13, Acts Sermon Series

Note to readers: This sermon is the first in an ongoing series Keith and Laura are preaching in summer 2013 on the Book of Acts. 

Text: Acts 2: 22-47

As a pastor, I can only stand in awe of what was just read.  I get excited at the sheer abundance of new converts.  Peter’s sermon reaches into the heart of those who hear it and the community jumps from a few beleaguered followers of Christ to a megachurch.  And then the community continued to grow!  Lives are radically transformed as this new church embraces communal living, with those who have, selling and giving to those without.  People were eager to learn more about this new way of life, coming together to eat and learn and pray together as they celebrated the goodness of the Holy Spirit in their midst.  Wow.

And then we look around at the state of the church, or state of the churches on every corner, and wonder what happened.  The standard set by this passage is beyond my reach or the reach of any church.  In fact, it goes beyond the reach of our imaginations.  We are tempted by the nostalgia of these early church days, and in fact many people have continually tried to recreate it.  If you were to go home and type ‘Acts 2 Church’ into your Google search engine, you would come up with over 2 million links.  Some of those links lead you to commentaries, but many lead you to a plethora of groups, churches, and congregations that go by the name “Acts 2 Church.”  There are networks and programs and processes to becoming an Acts 2 Church, all attempting to recreate the early church.

But can we recreate the original?  As much as I want to say yes, I don’t think we can.  We can’t for a couple of big reasons.  First we are separated by 2000 years of cultural and historical differences.  We can’t go back in time.  It’s like the parent who keeps their child’s bedroom exactly the way it was when that child went off to college to try and hold on to the feelings they had as Johnny grew up.  But Johnny’s gone, off creating his own life.  The church of today can never be the church of 2000 years ago.  In fact, we can’t even be the church of 10 years ago, or of last year, or even of last Sunday, even though many of you are sitting in the same pew.  We will always be the church, but we can’t be the church of yesterday or even of tomorrow.  We are the church of today.

The other reason we can’t recreate what happened in the early church is it wasn’t created by people.  It wasn’t created by the apostles or those first 3000 converts getting together and talking about what kind of programs they were going to have.  It came into being by the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that is moving with us today.  The Holy Spirit breathed life into the church and what we read about was the effect, not the cause.  The Holy Spirit is not a program.  We can’t regime when the Holy Spirit will come blowing in.

Since we can’t recreate what the early church was, do we just gloss over this passage so we can hurriedly get through the book of Acts and into the meatier letters of Paul?  No.  This passage doesn’t mean we be church in a certain way for the rest of eternity.  What it does give us is insight into the life of the early church following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, giving us a shape and vision to what a 21st century Spirit-led church just might look like.  It points to what the church can be when people get out of the way and respond to the Holy Spirit moving in their midst.  So, we can’t recreate what the early church was, but we can’t ignore it and set it aside, either.  We can’t revive what happened, but there are things that are happening in this text that we have to pay attention to.   We pay attention to them because we want to be intentional in what we do.  We hope and pray that the Holy Spirit is guiding us as we make decisions as the church today, that we aren’t doing things and creating programs because we ‘should,’ but we are responding to the gift of the Spirit by the grace we have received in Jesus Christ.

And that is where we begin, Jesus Christ.  The early church’s foundation was built on repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.  Those first converts accepted Peter’s message of the Gospel.  They experienced the forgiveness of sins found in Christ and received the Holy Spirit.  This is one of the reasons why every Sunday one of the first things we do in worship is confess our sins, repent, and receive forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ.  I’ve been asked why every Sunday we have to go through the downer of being reminded we are sinners.  Because the forgiveness we have found in Christ is good news.  We are redeemed sinners.  Sin and death no longer have a claim on us.  We are new people, called to live and experience new lives like those new converts to the church.  The grace and forgiveness we receive affects the way we live and our relationship with God, each other, and all of creation.

And we respond to that new life like the early church did, as they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.”  It would have been awesome to have sat a Peter’s feet, hearing his stories of Jesus, but the early church has handed down the teaching of Biblical truth as central to the business of the church.  We are called to explore these wonderful rich texts that have come down to us in their names.  Now, no specific way is given, just active effort.  We are called to dwell into Scripture here on Sundays as a community, but also in small groups and as individuals through the week.   Delving into the Word of God takes us deeper into a relationship with the living God that we experience in the pages of scripture.  I once read that a church that has the Spirit and not the Word of God will blow up, a church with the Word of God and not the Spirit will dry up, and a church with the Spirit and the Word of God will grow up.

We also respond to the Spirit in our midst by devoting ourselves to fellowship.  Now, this go beyond what happens in the back of the sanctuary after services on Sunday.  It’s more than that, and I like to call it Divine Fellowship.  It’s about the relationships that exist between members of the church and the effort to include others into those relationships, because a commitment to Christ is a commitment to his community.  And those relationships are built and sustained by the Holy Spirit when we walk out the doors of the church.  Fellowship means nurturing the practice of hospitality, taking the courage to notice and welcome the newcomer, to invite them into deeper relationship for a meal or a cup of coffee outside the walls of the church.  With Divine Fellowship, people are made to feel at home, growing close enough for rejoicing in each others joys, and sharing tears over their greatest losses.  Divine Fellowship is about the ever increasing size of the family of God.

The breaking of the bread together by early church appears to be a combination of that divine fellowship and eating with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper together in worship.  In that time it was called the Agape or Love Feast, a celebration of the community.  For them, it happened in both the home and the temple, formal and informal.  Gathering here for worship around the Lord’s table is as important as gathering around your dinner table at home.  Christ is present at both.  Next time you set the table for dinner, leave an open spot for Jesus.  Just having that visible reminder of his presence will want you to invite others to the table.  And as those bonds of fellowship are increased and strengthened because of Christ’s presence, we will find that our table becomes his table, and the one who was our guest also because our host.

And we lift up prayers together as the early church did.  We respond to the forgiveness that we have found in Christ and the new life we have been given by the Holy Spirit by praying.  More than a part of worship, prayer is for each of us the opportunity for communion with God.  The text uses the word “prayers”, giving the indication that the early Christians were learning different set prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer or the Psalms.  There are many ways to pray, here as a community, and as individuals at home, and those prayers must be done intentionally and with energy because the Spirit is moving us to call upon the name of the Lord for what he has done in our lives.

Friends, we can’t be the 1st Century Church, but we can be First Presbyterian Church of La Grande today, responding to the gifts of forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ that have been lavishly poured out upon us by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is here, with us and alive, moving in our midst and we respond to what God has done in the Spirit by being a learning congregation, a worshiping congregation, a caring congregation, and a praying congregation.  Amen.