Church on Fire: The Church of Paul and Peter

Scripture: Acts 9:1-20; Acts 10:1-23

 

Victor Torres moved to New York City from Puerto Rico with his family as a child in the 1950s.  Even though his family hadn’t been especially poor in Puerto Rico, it hard to ignore the siren song of New York, promising opportunity for all of them.  But once they got there, opportunity wasn’t quite what they found.  The only place they could afford to live was Brownsville, one of the worst neighborhoods of Brooklyn.  Their apartment was infested with rats and cockroaches and violence was rampant on the city streets.

Victor spent time on the streets by himself while both of his parents were at work.  He quickly learned that he had to be tough to survive.  One day when a man harassed him while he was trying to make some money shining shoes, he stabbed him with a pocketknife.  When he was a little older, he got recruited for a gang called the Roman Lords.  He saw it as his “entrance into the world and manhood,” a “chance for security and identity.”  From there he worked his way up the ladder until he was one of the gang’s leaders.  He fought people, stole things, and eventually got hooked on heroin.  Multiple stays in the local hospital’s detox program didn’t help him.

But then one day in November 1963, Victor walked in the doors of a place called the Brooklyn Teen Challenge Center.  There he met Nicky Cruz, a man with a very similar story which you might know from the movie The Cross and the Switchblade.  He also met some of the people who had been instrumental in Nicky Cruz’s own conversion to Christianity.  There, he didn’t get any of the medication that the hospital had given him to help him detox.  There, his only hope was prayer and the Bible.  Almost as soon as he arrived, he tried to leave.  But he was stopped by some of the people who worked there.  As they stood in front of him, Victor began to cry, and he began to ask God for help.  The next time he went back out onto the streets, it was as a witness for Christ.[1]

In a lot of ways I think I grew up thinking that that was what a conversion story looked like: bad guy meets Jesus in a sudden moment of clarity.  The worse the guy, the better the story.  That was conversion.

And sometimes it is.  A few weeks ago we read in Acts about the death of Stephen, who was persecuted for his faith in Jesus, and Luke tells us that as the crowds gathered to stone Stephen, they handed their coats to a young man named Saul.  In the aftermath of Stephen’s death, Saul “began to wreak havoc against the church.  Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison.”

Saul is back in the picture today, and he’s on the warpath.  Now, just like the church’s mission is moving out of Jerusalem, so is Saul’s.  He’s traveling all the way to synagogues in Damascus, looking for Jesus followers to bring back to prison in Jerusalem.  The CEB translation describes him as “spewing murderous threats.”  Can’t you just see Saul on that road to Damascus, with murder in his eyes?

But that was when everything changed.

A blinding light beamed down from heaven.  The voice of Jesus spoke: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” says Saul, and there’s a loaded question if I ever heard one.  The voice answers, “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.”

When Saul finally does enter the city of Damascus, it will be as a witness for Christ.  Soon after, he will come to be known by his Roman name, Paul, as this persecutor of Jewish Christians goes out to make some Gentile ones.

Like I said, the worse the guy, the better the story, and Saul was pretty much the worst.  He even writes to Timothy, “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” (1 Timothy 1:15)  We have to love Saul’s story.  We have to love the complete about-face.  We have to love the reaction of Ananias, who God sends to lay hands on Saul and restore his sight- who’s like, uhhhhhh.  We have to love the reaction of the people in the Damascus synagogues when he’s starts preaching and they’re like, uhhhhh.  We have to love the disciples when Saul tries to join them back in Jerusalem.  “Hey guys!”  Uhhhhhhh.

We have to love how God works like this, through people like this, to build up God’s church – because truly if there is hope for Saul there is hope for all of us.

Most of our own stories aren’t quite like that, though.  Some of us may well have more dramatic conversion stories than others.  Some of us may very well have stories about how we were hard and fast skeptics but then there was one precise moment where we somehow saw the light and everything changed.  Those are great stories I’ve often wished I had a story like that, because I think they preach so much better than, “I grew up in the church and always kind of liked it.”

But let’s face it, some of us have stories that are more along those lines.

And that’s OK, because while Saul is busy proving to the disciples in Jerusalem that he actually doesn’t want to kill them anymore, Peter is on his way to a conversion story of his own.  It happens when Peter is traveling around the region healing people, and after raising a disciple named Tabitha from the dead (like you do) he ends up staying for a while in the city of Joppa, at the house of a tanner named Simon.

Meanwhile, we meet a man named Cornelius, who is not Jewish, but he is a God-fearer.  Do you remember that term from last week?  A God-fearer was someone who hadn’t officially converted to Judaism – when conversion meant circumcision, you can understand why adult men might find that to be a bit of a barrier – but he did participate in Jewish life and faith through prayer and financial support.  One day while he’s praying, an angel appears to him and tells him to send some messengers to go find Peter.  So, Cornelius does.

As the messengers are approaching Joppa, Peter is praying himself.  He’s on the roof of Simon the tanner’s house and it’s lunchtime and he’s starting to get hungry.  And while lunch is being prepared, Peter has a vision.  He sees heaven opening up and a sheet being lowered down with all sorts of animals on it, and a voice says to him, “You ordered lunch?”

And Peter says, “Oh no!  I couldn’t possibly!  By no means, Lord!”  I love that response; the CEB puts it “Absolutely not, Lord!”  Absolutely not, Lord – that takes a little bit of chutzpah, right there.

But what you need to remember about Peter is that Jewish law forbade him to eat certain kinds of animals, among them animals on that sheet.  And Peter has grown up in the synagogue and always kind of liked it, right?  That’s his story.  Peter’s a good Jew.  And good Jews don’t eat that stuff.

I can tell you, as someone who became a vegetarian at age 16 and then a few years ago started eating fish again – just fish – that I thought about it and considered it for years, literally, before I actually ate fish.  And the first time I did, it was hard to actually put that fork in my mouth and then swallow.  Things like this are hardly a matter of someone just shoving a sheet in your face – and my diet wasn’t even religiously motivated.

Peter’s dilemma is this: what he hears God saying now directly contradicts what he knows God to have said before.

What would you do?

Well, Peter never gets the chance to actually eat the food on this sheet.  After Peter protests, the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” and then the sheet is pulled back into heaven.  This happens three times.  And Peter’s wondering what to make of this all when all of a sudden there’s a knock at the door.

It’s Cornelius’s messengers, and they ask Peter to come back with them to Cornelius’s house.

But Peter isn’t supposed to stay at Cornelius’s house.  He’s a Gentile.  He doesn’t follow the same dietary and purity laws as Peter.

But Peter must hear in his head, again, a voice saying to him: “What God has called clean, you must not call profane.”  And something clicks.  It wasn’t just about food.

At Cornelius’s house, Peter says, “I now understand that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.”  At Cornelius’s house, Peter preaches the Gospel of Jesus.  At Cornelius’s house, Peter watches as everyone there – this whole group of non-Jews – receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, just like Peter and the Twelve had at Pentecost.  Up till now, the Christian church had been a Jewish movement – but suddenly the doors swing open wider.

Like I said, Peter was a good Jew, probably from birth.  And what’s more, Peter was a good Christian.  He didn’t need a bright light to bring him into the family of Jesus, because he was already there, already its leader.  Peter didn’t need a conversion story.

But he got one anyway.

Because conversion doesn’t end when you become a follower of Jesus.

It makes me wonder if to be a part of God’s church, to submit yourself to the leading of the Holy Spirit, is actually to be called to conversion over and over.

So here’s a question: When was the last time you changed your mind about something related to God or faith?

I had to really think about this question and it made me wonder if this was one of those times I was preaching to myself.  In college and in seminary, as I was learning all sorts of new perspectives on the Bible and theology, I felt like what I believed was changing every day.  In a good way.  What did it mean for Jesus to die on the cross?  Maybe it was something different than what I had always taken to be the one right answer.  How does prayer work?  Maybe it was a little more open-ended than simply getting God to do I wanted.  It felt like every new answer, as provisional and imperfect as it may be, led me a little bit closer to the God that I was seeking.

Somehow that’s a little harder these days.  I feel like I’m supposed to know certain answers a little bit more.  Whether I do or not is another question.

I think it can be scary to change our minds about something as big as God and what God is like and what God wants from us.  Those are often things that we have a lot invested in.  They’re things we’ve built a worldview around.  The stakes are high.  It’s scary to think that the conclusions we’ve come to today, much less the ones we’ve held forever, might not be the ones that God wants for us to hold for all time.  It’s not quite as easy as someone sticking a sheet in your face.

Here’s what I will say: when I’ve changed my mind about something related to God or faith in the past few years, most often, I think, it has been about people.  People who might not share my exact theological convictions, but who I come to realize are full of grace and love, anyway.  People whose politics frankly annoy me, but then I’m struck with how they are living out their Christian faith in some ways better than I am.

If Peter’s conversion is any indication, then maybe changing our mind about people and where they fit into God’s family and God’s church and God’s will for the world is maybe the most important kind of conversion we are called to.  All the theology – we have time to figure that stuff out.  But to God, people are urgent.

Think back to Ananias, the Jesus follower who laid his hands on Saul to let him see again.  Saul changed his mind about Jesus, but it wouldn’t have gone any further than that – except that Ananias was willing to be converted about Saul.

Here’s what I believe: I believe that a church on fire, the way it was in these early days of Acts, can never be a stagnant church.  I believe that Jesus calls each of us into a relationship with God through him and that Jesus calls us to follow in the way of life that he shows us, life in the Kingdom of God even before death.  And I believe that as we do that, as more is revealed to us, as we meet new people who bear the face of Christ along the way – that we are going to have to change our minds.  Not just once, but a lot of times.  Not just about one thing, but about a lot of things along the way.

It’s called conversion, and we’re called to it over and over, well beyond the day we first saw the light.

 

[1] Victor Torres, Son of Evil Street: The Amazing True Story of a Son Who Became a Product of New York City’s Mean Streets

Church on Fire: Someone to Guide Me

Scripture: Acts 8:26-40

If you were in worship last week, you heard Kelvin tell the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  Up to now the early church has been going along, picking up steam, driven forward by the power of the Holy Spirit – but not entirely without notes of trouble.  The apostles, early on, are arrested and released.    The scrutinizing eyes of the powers that be have never completely left them.  It seems that, even post-resurrection, God’s love and grace and goodness will always be opposed by those who have the most to lose, and those who live in the way of this love and grace and goodness will always need to be prepared for that.  So, Stephen is stoned to death for his faith in Jesus, and it’s an image of what the life of discipleship has in store for the rest of Jesus’ followers.

When Stephen dies, it’s like something is unleashed, and persecution of the early church begins in earnest.  The believers leave Jerusalem and scatter throughout the rest of the province of Judea and Samaria.

But like in Jesus’ case, death and scattering in fear are not the end of the story here.  After all, it is often the case that persecution strengthens rather than weakens faith.  Faith dies when it gets too comfortable.   But when people see how much we are willing to risk and sacrifice for something we believe in, they start to think maybe there’s something to that.

So instead of the end of a movement, Stephen’s death gives way to something new.

Do you remember how just before Jesus ascended back into heaven, he told the disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth?  Well, now for the first time the church leaves Jerusalem.  The Gospel for the first time reaches the rest of Judea and Samaria, because suddenly there are followers of Jesus spreading the word – not quite to the ends of the earth, yet, but we’re getting there.

One of those followers is Philip.  Philip isn’t one of the Twelve, but if you have read the book of Acts up to this point, you’ve met Philip before, briefly: like Stephen, he was one of the people chosen to be in charge of distributing food to the poor members of the community so that the Twelve would be freed for prayer and proclaiming God’s word.  When the church scatters, Philip finds himself in the region of Samaria, which had once been the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  He preaches Christ there, to great success.  As our story begins today, the Holy Spirit is about to send him on his next assignment.

I’ve heard that instead of Acts of the Apostles, this book could really be called Acts of the Holy Spirit.  She’s really the one driving the action throughout the book – as it should be, right?

So one day soon after all this has taken place, an angel comes to Philip and says, at noon, take the road the goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.  So Philip does.  When the Holy Spirit says go, you go.  And as he goes, he sees on this same road a man in a carriage.  There are a couple things it is important to know about this man.

First, he is an Ethiopian.  Ethiopia, at this time, called Cush or Nubia, was basically any of Africa south of Egypt.  It was also, for Jews in Jerusalem, pretty much “the ends of the earth.”  The church’s mission continues to look outward.

Second, he is a high-up person in the court of the Queen of Ethiopia.  He’s like the Secretary of the Treasury.  A few things here are indicative of his high social status, including his fancy carriage and the fact that he can read.

Third, he’s a eunuch, and this is related to his social status, because it was often eunuchs who served in the courts of powerful women – because they were castrated, they were seen as “safe.”  But, despite his status as a rich and important person, being a eunuch does in one sense put him outside society’s mainstream.  His sexual identity makes him “other.”  He doesn’t quite fit into the boxes that most people expect other people to fit into.

And fourth, he is returning from worshiping in Jerusalem, which means he is either a Jewish convert or what was sometimes called a God-fearer, someone who hadn’t officially converted but practiced the Jewish faith to some degree.  And this is also related to the previous item, because while he had come to Jerusalem to worship God at God’s Temple, there were some rules about eunuchs entering the Temple.   Namely, according to Deuteronomy 23 and Leviticus 21, they could not.  So if those rules were in effect during this time, and depending on how much the Ethiopian man knew about them beforehand, there’s a chance he was going home somewhat disappointed.

But Philip doesn’t know all this yet.  What Philip knows is that there is a man in a carriage, until the Holy Spirit says to him, “Hey, you should go talk to that guy.”  (Has the Holy Spirit ever nudged you into conversation with someone for a certain purpose?)

So Philip runs to catch up with the carriage, and he realizes as he gets closer that the man is doing a little personal Bible study, reading from Isaiah.  So Philip, still running, calls out breathlessly, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

I imagine this guy being slightly taken aback – after all, if someone’s running to catch up to my carriage, I really figure either they’re in big trouble or I’ve left my coffee on the roof again – and possibly even offended, because who even is this guy to imply that he might not understand? The Ethiopian man, after all, is a rich and important guy.  Philip is, presumably, a peasant.  He certainly doesn’t have a carriage, although as we learn later, the Holy Spirit does once in a while provide some pretty sweet transportation.

But he doesn’t say, “Who are you, exactly?” and he doesn’t dryly say, “I’m fine, thanks;” he says, “You know, now that you mention it, I really don’t understand, no.”

And then he says, “How can I, without someone to guide me?”

And then he says, “Hop in.”

I want to pause the story there because I think I know the feeling.  Do you?  That when it comes to studying the Bible, when it comes to understanding our own faith, we’re doing all the right things but something isn’t clicking.

When I first started seriously studying the Bible in college – not just reading the words on the page, but taking classes that got into the history and the literary context of those words, and how they were different in Hebrew, and that sort of thing – I began to feel incapable of ever reading the Bible on my own again.  I certainly don’t believe that you need a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies in order for God to speak to you through Scripture, but once I knew how much was there between the lines, I was well aware of how much I was missing.  It’s a big reason I still mostly use a study Bible today, even in my own devotional reading, so I can read the notes that someone smarter than me has included to help guide me in my reading.  How can I understand, otherwise?

Well, Philip hops in and discovers what the Ethiopian man is reading, and it’s from Isaiah 53.  “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,” it goes, “and like a lamb before his shearer is silent, so he didn’t open his mouth.  In his humiliation, justice was taken away from him.”

And the man asks, “Who is this about?  Is it about Isaiah, or is it about someone else?”

His question is theological, of course, but it’s also personal; especially if we consider that he is perhaps on his way home from not being able to worship as expected because of his sexual status, his own experience of humiliation; especially if we know that a few chapters later, in Isaiah 56, the prophet has a vision of God inviting all people who live righteously to enter God’s house, yes, even eunuchs.

As one writer puts it, when he asks who Isaiah is writing about, he is really asking, “Is this passage about me as well?”[1]

Sometimes my questions aren’t about historical context or translation issues, either.  Sometimes my questions are more along the lines of “What does this mean for me, here, now?”  “How does this apply to my life?”  Does Jesus really need me to sell everything I own and give the money to the poor?  If I act sometimes like a sheep and sometimes like a goat, which line do I get to stand in on Judgment Day?  How do we extend God’s grace to others without encouraging wrong or unhelpful behavior or letting ourselves be a doormat?

Those more personal questions, to be honest, are the harder questions.  Those aren’t questions that can simply be answered by notes in a study Bible.  Probably nobody’s going to hop up into our carriage and give us the one right definitive answer to all of them.

But as it so happens, on that day, Philip answers both.  “I’ll tell you who Isaiah is writing about,” he says, and then he goes on to tell the Ethiopian man about Jesus, the one who was led like a sheep to the slaughter, the one for whom there was no justice.  And Jesus, the one who opens the doors wider for us, for whom neither race nor gender nor in this case even an outside-the-box sexual identity are barriers to a full relationship with God.

It’s a good thing Philip came along.  Otherwise, he might have kept reading but never understood.

If you’ve ever felt like the Ethiopian man, unsure about what God wants or what faith means or what it all looks like in real life, have you sought guidance?  Have you taken that step to understand better?  The Holy Spirit might not just drop someone into your carriage, but God does give us people and resources to help us along the way in this life of faith.  Pick up a study Bible, for instance.  Maybe there’s a Philip you know, someone whose faith you admire, someone who through age or experience has a little more wisdom than you, who can help you get a little closer to what God might have to say to you.

It might be easier or take less energy to just keep not knowing, to keep feeling a little bit stuck, even to despair a bit – but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Of course in this story Philip is the one in the know, imparting his greater understanding to someone with less, but I have to wonder if the Ethiopian man taught him something too.  Maybe Philip had never thought specifically about what the good news meant for someone who was a eunuch.  Certainly he’d spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant for those who were poor – he had been, after all, in charge of feeding people.  But what about this man who was clearly not materially poor, clearly not lacking in influence, and yet marginalized in his own way, too?  Philip believes in the Jesus who breaks down barriers to our relationship with God – but might he have understood what that meant a little more fully that day?

The truth is, none of us understands perfectly, this side of heaven.  The truth is, we all need a little guidance.  The truth is that when it comes to figuring out this whole faith thing – what we believe, what it means, how to live it out – none of us are supposed to go it alone.  We need each other.  We’re supposed to do it together.

When we meet upstairs for Bible study after worship, that’s what we do.  We’ve read the text for the week, but we’ve each read it in a vacuum – alone in our chariots, so to speak.  Then we come together and we all have our different takes and our different experiences that shed some light on the story and some different ideas about what it might all mean – and of course, I bring my study Bible, for the notes of people smarter than me – and we talk, and we guide each other.

How else are we supporting and guiding each other in our life in community?

Are you seeking the guidance you need?  Are you sharing your insight and experience and even doubts and questions for the benefit of others?  Because that’s part of what it is to be the church.  It’s part of how our mission grows and expands and welcomes other people in.  It’s part of letting the Holy Spirit move and work among us.

When Philip has spoken, the Ethiopian man knows that he’s found an answer he’s been looking for.  “Look,” he says, “there’s some water, is there any reason I shouldn’t be baptized right now?”

And Philip says, “Well, come to think of it, no,” and he baptizes him right then and there.  I suspect neither the Ethiopian man nor Philip will find that all their questions will be answered for all time, even if something new has been revealed to each of them today.

But that’s OK.  They don’t need to be.  They are both part of the Body of Christ, and they aren’t doing this alone.

 

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, p. 428 (Thomas C. Long, “Pastoral Perspective”)

Church on Fire: The Cost of Discipleship

Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe

Scripture: Acts 6:8-15, 7:54-8:1

History was one of my majors in my undergraduate degree. I always enjoy learning about the past and how it shapes the present. In fact, in school I was good at it. But, to be honest, I loved history for selfish reasons. To win debates and often to catch people in their lies.  Fake news or alternative facts. Historians have a way of getting down to the root of something. They help us remember important events and give us symbols we can use to honor our past. But, that does not mean they are foolproof from bias and selective recording. After all, it’s the past.

This July 4th weekend is made possible because historians recorded it. We celebrate this day of independence with hotdogs and fireworks, which sometimes may obscure the real meaning of the day. But, thank God for PBS documentaries, we are reminded of the price for independence – the death toll and sacrifices made by countless individuals. Some recorded in history books. Others deliberately omitted. People that died not so much for the love of country because it was not a country then, but for a desire to be free from abuse and persecution.

Nothing is more important to humans than the desire to be free. We all want to be free from pain and suffering, free to choose the way we live, free from being broke and sick, free from humiliation, free to worship God, or not be forced to worship another God.

Luke the historian, author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts, gives us a glimpse into the troubling history of the early Church. Besides miracles and wonders, the early church also confronted infighting, jealousy, bribery, racism, and murder. Luke gives us an account of Stephen who was the first Christian to be killed for his faith. Stephen was one of the seven deacons chosen to care for the orphans and widows in the Hellenistic Jewish community. He was a well-known community organizer, and a great public speaker. The bible describes him as a man who was both “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3) and as one who was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5). His ministry to orphans and widows seems to have put him in constant contact with many Hellenistic Jews – multicultural Jews born and raised outside of Israel.  Stephen also performed wonders and signs among the people just like the apostles.

Unfortunately, like we saw with Jesus, being a well-known, honest, and charismatic person, or being filled with the Holy Spirit does not shield us from pain and suffering. If anything, Stephen was killed for this very reason. He was charged with blasphemy and for speaking against the holy place (the temple and city of Jerusalem). His sermon was not evangelistic, asking people to repent like peter did on the day of Pentecost. Instead, it was an indictment and a judgment against them. He cited historical precedence going back to Abraham, Moses, Joseph, and ending with Jesus. Stephen was not an angry preacher who just wanted to vent. He was a gentleman filled with grace. He loved his accusers, so much that he forgave and prayed for them even as they were killing him.

Stephen’s sermon highlights a few things for us:

It exposes the self-righteousness that Israel had exhibited throughout history.   Rebelling against God and God’s chosen servants.

It exposed the hypocrisy in their claims of having respect for the prophets especially Moses and the law. Stephen reminded them using the Old Testament scriptures how they had repeatedly rejected the prophets and chosen their own ways, including worshiping idols.

It also demonstrated that Israel’s worship of God had been experienced outside the land in other places of the world. Therefore, God cannot be confined to the temple or the city of Jerusalem. However, to the Hellenistic Jews the temple and Jerusalem had become synonymous with God’s presence.  Sometimes placing too much value on something, even if we started with good intentions, can become an idol and hinder us from experiencing God. It is possible for us to place too much importance on patriotism at the expense of righteousness and justice. To respect our denomination so much that we begin to worship it instead of worshiping God. Tradition has a way of blocking innovative ministries even if they are being initiated by the Holy Spirit.

In emphasizing the temple and Jerusalem, the Hellenistic Jews missed the promise in Isaiah 66 that first –  God would bring judgment upon the city of Jerusalem and its man-man temple. Second – God would bring salvation to the many nations of the world.

As the early church was getting established, the focus was more on discipleship and not doctrine. It was more practical than aspirational. It emphasized caring for the poor and vulnerable among the community. The focus was not on heaven but their “daily bread and forgiving each other on earth as it was in heaven. Christianity was about living out God’s kingdom by following the ways of Jesus. But when the church started having power it forgot its mission or became the oppressor. Therefore, we need to keep reminding ourselves of our mission as disciples of Jesus. Stephen demonstrated a mature level of discipleship.

Four qualities of an effective disciple demonstrated in Stephen:

  1. Must be full of the Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit is the one who gives us the power to be witnesses. This was the main the qualification for being appointed as a deacon (6:3). They needed to have a stable reputation in the community. Therefore, this is not talking about speaking in tongues. This is referring to observable character that over time produces the fruit of the Spirit.
  2. Must be full of wisdom – Stephen was said to be full of wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom comes from knowing God. Wisdom in the sense it used here implies a special ability to understand the art of living a beautiful life. Much of this wisdom can be derived through the serious study and understanding of scripture. Godly wisdom leads us to a deeper appreciation of the significance of Christ’s death on the cross and God’s extravagant grace. Steven proved that he knew the scriptures.
  3. Full of faith – there can be no substitute for faith. Without faith, it is impossible to please God, and because anyone who comes to God must believe that God exists and that God is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him. You must believe in the sovereignty of God to bring about good even in circumstances that demonstrate absolute wickedness. Like the Shunamite woman whose son had died but believed in God would somehow make a way – declared it shall be well. Or the ability that enable Horatio Spafford to write the hymn “it is well with my soul” after he tragically lost five children. Faith in God is a mark of true discipleship. Not simply academic knowledge. Stephen believed in the sovereign God. You cannot believe in a sovereign God unless you are full of faith.
  4. Full of grace and power – a person full of grace understands that salvation is gift from God through Jesus Christ. That it is not by works, even though, the seed of grace will ultimately lead to works of righteousness. An inward experience of grace flows outward into a gracious spirit toward others. A person who appreciates being forgiven will extend forgiveness toward others no matter how terrible the sin against them may be. Stephen expressed this overflow of grace even as he forgave his murderers as he choked on his own blood. “father forgive them, and do not hold this against them.”

What can the church learn from this?

  1. The church is called to discipleship – discipleship in not just a task for individual believers. The church is called to care for orphans and widows. To lift those whom society ignores or rejects. To fight for justice. And sometimes we may end up losing our tax emption. But that is the cost of following Jesus.
  2. The church must be full of Holy Spirit – without the Holy Spirit the church becomes a social club. We are not called to nurse ourselves into comfort.
  3. The church must be full of wisdom – we must be able to offer solutions in practical ways. We must be the intersection between hope and despair.
  4. The church must be full of grace. We must refrain from rushing to judgment. We must be gracious even in our disagreement as we seek to find ways of doing life together.

Nowadays, it is difficult for the church to use the language of obedience. The word has become toxic on many fronts because of its abuse by humans to inflict pain or impose their wills on others. Even the church cannot be exempt from abusing the term. Yet the language of obedience and faith in God go hand in hand. To obey God is to have faith in God. When God says love your neighbor as yourself, it is not a suggestion. It is a command. You either obey or disobey. There is no middle ground. Now this does not mean that you will not fail. In fact, you will fail many time overs. But, you must try and demand it of yourself, even as you ask God to help you. “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”

Discipleship is learning on the job how to follow Jesus.

The point of the story is not to glorify evil or human wickedness. The point of the story is to demonstrate the sovereignty of God. God is able to redeem a tragic situation and write a new story. What happened to Stephen should not be justified in any way. It was terrible. The raping of young girls by ISIS as its affiliates is evil and cannot be justified; the bombing of civilian hospitals is evil and cannot be justified. Yet even in these terrible situations, God can still make something good out of them. Lives can be rebuilt as we Christian learn to open our homes to welcome and adopt refugees.

Obedience in God means trusting in the sovereignty of God even if it does not humanly make sense.

Jürgen Moltmann says, “Christian faith is faith in the resurrection.” We believe that God has a way of making beauty from ashes, turning our mourning into dancing.

The killing of Stephen marked the beginning of the Christian persecution. Many died and others fled to other parts of the world where they began spreading the good news of Jesus. We are here today because God made something good out of a tragedy. Jesus promised never to leave us nor forsake us. Even in the middle of your emotional storm, God is there to grant you peace.

Amen!

Church on Fire: The Church of Ananias and Sapphira

Scripture: Acts 4:36-5:11

 

I’d like to tell you that this passage is not about money.

Because it would seem a little anticlimactic, wouldn’t it, for it to be about money, since so far in the book of Acts we’ve seen Jesus ascend into heaven and the apostles receive the fire of the Holy Spirit and head out into the mission field of Jerusalem and perform an honest-to-God healing miracle like Jesus used to and get arrested for it and then released.  It’s like we’re ramping up and things are getting exciting and we’re feeling the fire and then all of a sudden it’s a stewardship sermon.

Let’s talk about mission.  Let’s talk about resurrection.  Let’s talk about all the things that are going on in the world like we mentioned in prayer time earlier.  Anything but money.

But, I didn’t write the story, I just preach on it.

If you were here last week, you heard the passage that comes right before this one from today.  In it, Luke (remember that Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke) takes a break from the action to shift the scene back to the church community itself, and, he tells us, this is how it worked: no one owned any of their own stuff, and if they did, they sold it and brought the money to the apostles and laid it at their feet, and the apostles distributed it among the people in the community as there was need.

I don’t know a lot of present-day churches that work like that, and to be honest if I did, if someone told me that they had found a new church and the pastor wanted them to sell everything they own and come bring her or him the money, I would be a little concerned.  Don’t drink any Kool-Aid, I would say.  So I’m not going to tell you that, though I do think that we could all stand to read this passage and feel a little convicted by just how much the church today does not in fact work like that.

Luke does paint a pretty rosy picture of the early church here, one that may make us wonder if it ever could have been really like that, and that brings us to today’s reading, where Luke gives us two specific examples of this principle at work.  Just in case we were tempted to take the whole money thing as an aside, Luke isn’t going to let us move on that easily.  The first example he gives is the example of Barnabas.  We’ll hear more from Barnabas later as he travels around evangelizing with Paul, but in this little section, Barnabas’s claim to fame is that he did in fact own a field, sell it, and bring the money to the apostles for redistribution in the community.  This is Barnabas, Luke says, in effect.  Be like Barnabas.

But it turns out things are not always quite as rosy as they appear in this early Christian community, because as it turns out, the church of the apostles, the church of the Holy Spirit, the church of Barnabas, is also the church of Ananias and Sapphira, the kind of imperfect people we are perhaps used to church being made up of.

Ananias and Sapphira, like Barnabas, own some property somewhere, and like Barnabas, they sell it, and like Barnabas, Ananias brings the proceeds to the apostles.  I don’t know whether to imagine he made a big show of all the money they were donating, or whether he nervously laid it down and tried not to call too much attention to himself.  In any case, unlike Barnabas, it wasn’t all of the money they handed over.

I don’t know how Peter knew something was amiss, whether it was something in Ananias’s demeanor, the way he wouldn’t make eye contact, or whether Peter simply had access to that kind of divine knowledge, but instead of saying “Thank you, praise God,” and letting Ananias go, Peter says, “Hmmm.”

“Ananias,” he says, “This is the amount you got for the property?”

“Yep,” says Ananias, “that’s all of it.  Definitely all of it.”

Peter shakes his head and says, “Ananias, you didn’t have to do this, you know,” and then Ananias drops dead on the spot.  We can think of it not so much as an invisible lightning bolt from heaven, but maybe more like Ananias dropping dead of shame and fear.  Either way, it does make for a pretty heavy-handed stewardship sermon, doesn’t it?  And we’re not even done yet, because then Sapphira comes in – I don’t know where she’s been all this time – and Peter says, “Thanks for the donation, was that all of it?” and Sapphira says, “Yep, definitely all of it,” and then she drops dead too.

Luke tells us that “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things,” and you can kind of see why.  If I was part of the early church there, I might wonder just what I had signed up for, too.

I have to say that I have some sympathy for Ananias and Sapphira, who were really probably not at all as bad as history remembers them.  I mean, we don’t know any numbers, but let’s say they kept back 25% of the proceeds.  Does anyone here give away 75% of their income?  Me neither.  (By the way, if anyone can answer yes to that, I’m willing to bet it’s someone poor.)  So, the rest of us really don’t have much of a leg to stand on.

Maybe they had bills to pay.  Maybe they had an elderly parent to care for or a kid to send to college.  Maybe they just weren’t sure what the future was going to hold.  They’re not so different from us, are they?

Well, you might say, at least I don’t lie about it, though.  Because that was the real problem for Ananias and Sapphira – not that they didn’t fork it all over but that they acted like they did, presumably because they wanted to be seen in the same light as people like Barnabas.  There’s no outright requirement here for how much you need to give to be part of the community (though tithing, 10%, is certainly recommended, and in light of this story, seems like a good deal) – there is no outright requirement, so there’s really no reason to lie about it.

I don’t know, though.  Just a couple weeks ago I was going into downtown DC for a friend’s birthday dinner, and on my way from the Metro to the restaurant, as I was waiting at a crosswalk, a woman approached me.  She asked for some money to get something to eat and buy a new pair of shoes.

I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything for you at the moment.”

But that was a lie.  Or at least, it was mostly a lie, because while I actually had a couple twenties on me, it was true that they were not for her.  For one thing, I wanted to have them on hand for bill-splitting purposes.  For another thing, when I do give money to people I encounter on the street, it’s most often a dollar or two, and 20 seemed kind of steep.  I felt a little bit guilty, but I figured she would go on her way and that would be the end of it – only she didn’t go on her way.  Instead she stood there and she asked, “If you had it, would you want to give it to me?”

I didn’t drop dead on the spot, but I think I understand a little of how Ananias and Sapphira felt.  I would have liked the answer to that question to be yes – if only I had had some smaller bills, if only I hadn’t been on my way somewhere, yes, I would have liked very much to help her, I wish I could have – but obviously, the answer was no.

Often, though, I think the people we lie to about money are ourselves.[1]  I can’t afford to give more, we say.  I wish I could, and if things were a little different, I would; it’s too bad I can’t.

I don’t know your financial situation.  Just putting that out there.  I’m guilty too.

It’s striking that this, more than anything else, is the characteristic that Luke chooses to emphasize about what made the church the church.  He could have said it was their life of prayer, which is clearly important in many parts of the story.  He could have said it was their fellowship, their breaking bread together, which also gets a shoutout in Acts 2 and becomes important once dietary restrictions that separate Jews and Gentiles are removed.  But when Luke gives us this picture of the church, what he tells us is that no one owned anything of their own, and all their money was distributed among the community as there was need.  Like it or not, being the church, being in the church, has a lot to do with what we do with our money.

It’s also not only about money.  With Luke, it never is.  “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also,” Jesus says, and in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts when there is a story about what someone does with money it always has to do with where their heart is.  Think of Zacchaeus, whose conversion was known by his promise to give half of what he owned to the poor.  Think of the Rich Fool, who kept building bigger barns to store his crops that he never got to enjoy.   I think it’s a pretty good indicator for us, too.  If someone were to look at your bank account or credit card statement, what would it tell them about what is important to you?  Not what you wish was important to you – but what’s actually important?

These stories of Barnabas and of Ananias and Sapphira are stories about where people’s hearts are.  Are they ready to literally buy in to this community called the church?  Are they all in?  Or are they holding something back?

I told you that I’m not asking you to sell everything you own and bring me the proceeds, at least not today, but I did get to thinking – so what does it mean, then, to be all in?  What does it mean for our hearts to be here in this community?  What does it mean to be fully committed to this thing we call church?

I thought of our membership vows.  When we join the church we promise to support God’s work here through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.  Are we making good on those vows?  Or are we holding something back?  Do we say, well, my occasional presence is good enough, when I don’t have other plans?  And maybe I’ll remember the prayers that people lift up in service every once in a while?  And I’m happy to help out when I can, but I wouldn’t want to volunteer for anything that would be too much of a commitment?  It’s too bad I can’t give more.  I definitely would want to, if I could.

I’m not pointing any fingers, here.  These are questions for you to think about.  And some of you haven’t taken these vows, and it’s OK to not quite be all in yet, as long as we’re honest about it.

But God does need people who are all in.  Maybe it’s time.

Think about it: how can the church be the Body of Christ in the world – serving and healing and sharing God’s love and working for justice – if we’re not first the Body of Christ, together?

To be the Body of Christ together is to be committed to each other.

To pray, for and with each other.  To be present, together, with each other.  To pool our resources with each other to do better things together than we could do alone.  To serve each other, to commit to doing our part so that someone else can do their part.  To encourage one another and share our stories so that we create new testimonies to share with others.  Committed, to each other.

I struggle with this sometimes.  Last weekend at Annual Conference we were debating some of the constitutional amendments we were supposed to ratify, two of which had to do with gender justice – simply asserting our belief that women are equal to men, and equally created in the image of God.  And I listened as, for different reasons which I won’t go into here, a number of people got up to oppose these amendments, and others applauded them.  We won’t know the actual results until all the conferences have voted, so I don’t know how it turned out.  But I was about ready to call it a day.  If this is church, I said, I think I’m done.  Sometimes pastors have these moments.

Reading this passage this week, I had to question how far my commitment went to these other people who make up the Body of Christ with me.  How far did my presence there in the same body with them go?  Right up until they say something that makes me mad?  How deep does my commitment go to these people who are part of the same Body of Christ go?  Maybe I’m Ananias.  Maybe I talk a good game but I’m only willing to give so much.

It can be exciting to talk about mission, about going out and doing bold and good things in the world.  And if the church doesn’t have a mission, the church doesn’t have much.

But it’s here that our mission starts, here together and to and with each other.

And God needs people who are all in, who aren’t holding back.  Their money, yes.  But also everything else.

If you had something to give – would you want to?

 

[1] Cf. Will Willimon, Intepretation: Acts, p.54

Church on Fire: What I Have I Give

Scripture: Acts 3:1-10

Last week on Church on Fire:

As the disciples prayed and waited in the Upper Room, the day of Pentecost arrived.  The Holy Spirit rushed in like a mighty wind and tongues of fire rested on each of them, and they preached in multiple languages they didn’t speak, much to the surprise of the wide-eyed onlookers below, about the day of the Lord.

This week, the mission begins.

But first things first.  The new fire burning in the disciples’ bones doesn’t immediately drive them out as witnesses to the far corners of the earth.  The first thing that fire does is bind them together with all the other new believers and make them the church.  And so, Luke tells us in Acts 2, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.  A sense of awe came over everyone.  God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles.  All the believers were united and shared everything.  They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them.  Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes.  They shared food with gladness and simplicity.  They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.  The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”

It is a beautiful picture of church that has made people for centuries ask what happened.

Today, though, Peter and John are venturing outside this heavenly community, on their way to afternoon prayer at the Temple, when they encounter a crippled man outside the entrance called the Beautiful Gate.  His friends had dropped him off there knowing it was a strategic panhandling location – after all, they can reasonably assume that the people going in and out of the Temple to pray might be, if not actively inspired to give, at least guilted into it.  So as Peter and John are entering the Temple gate there is this man, hands outstretched, asking, “Can you spare any change today?”

And all of a sudden our reverie of this nice, idyllic, joyful church is shattered, and instead we have the church as it bumps up against the raw pain and brokenness of our world.  Which is, of course, the point.[1]  So what now?

I imagine many of us might be able to imagine ourselves in the apostles’ place, here, though some of us might identify more readily with the crippled man, and perhaps some of us a little of both.  I know I find myself in the place of Peter and John sometimes when I go to Safeway.  Or when I walk along Lynn Street deciding what I’m going to have for lunch.  Or when I get off the Metro in downtown DC.  Or sometimes, when people come to my church office: we even have a fund set up for times like that.   Sometimes I respond generously, though often less generously than I might; sometimes I don’t respond generously, and then feel guilty about it; sometimes I say no and the person is persistent enough that I pay them to leave me alone; sometimes I stand there awkwardly trying to decide whether I am being taken advantage of.  I think of all the different opinions there are about how Christians should respond when people ask for money, and I am already interested in which one Peter and John will choose.  Will they in fact give him what they have?  Will they tell him they have already donated to the Jerusalem Foundation for the Disabled, and direct him there instead, thinking that that’s ultimately better stewardship of their funds?  Might they not give him money directly, but instead offer to buy him dinner at a nearby falafel cart, knowing that that way, he won’t spend the money on booze?  Will they give him an apologetic look and say they are sorry, they can’t help today, knowing they have to save their change for the Temple offering?  Or, in a hurry not to be late for prayers, will they simply avert their gaze and keep on walking?

This isn’t just a question isn’t about giving money to panhandlers.  What is the answer of the early church when it faces need and suffering out in the real world?  I would like to know.

So, we read on.  First Peter says to the man, “Look at me.”  We have our first answer: he will not avert his gaze and keep walking and pretend that this man, this child of God, does not exist.

“We don’t have any silver or gold,” says Peter, and that rules out option #1, just hand over some cash.  Remember, though, that the reason they don’t have any silver or gold is because no one in this early Acts church had any property of their own; it was all held in common.  So I suppose one way to get out of giving at a time like this, if that is ever your goal, is to have already given everything away.  OK, no money, they can keep walking.

But they don’t keep walking.  “I don’t have any silver or gold,” Peter says, “but what I do have I give to you: in the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk.”

It wasn’t exactly what the man asked for, but he does: he gets up and walks.  In fact, he doesn’t just walk, but leaps in the air and praises God.

So I admit that as I’m sitting here reading the story looking for the early church’s answer for how to respond to the world’s need, this presents a bit of a conundrum.  Because mostly as I go about my life encountering the pain of the world around me, this is not really an option I consider.

“In the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk?”  I wish I could do that.

I know that we here have different beliefs and experiences regarding whether this kind of healing miracle is still possible today, or whether it was ever even quite like the story tells it.  I don’t presume to say what is possible for God, but I have personally never physically healed someone in the name of Jesus (or otherwise) and I am challenged by this text.  I’m not sure if it is telling me that as someone with faith in Jesus I should, actually, be able to do such things; and I’m not sure where it leaves us as the church if we cannot.  If we can’t respond as the apostles did, are we back, then, to deciding whether to share or withhold the spare change in our wallets?

Once I was on a trip with my college campus ministry and as our group walked along to wherever we were going, someone did stop us and ask us for money.  We were actually in Jerusalem, or somewhere nearby in the Holy Land.  I don’t remember whether anyone gave him some, but what I do remember is that two students got in a debate about whether you should give money to people directly like that or not, and the student who thought “not” said, “I believe we are called to care for that man in a radical way.”

It sounded like a really good answer, and from my place a few steps ahead of this conversation, I felt convicted in my own heart, only as we walked on a little farther, I thought, “How?”

We were on a 10-day trip.  We were never going to see that man again.  It was probably a couple of shekels or nothing.

But what if we could have given that man something more?  What if we could have looked him in the eye and said, “No, I’m not going to give you money today, but in the name of Jesus Christ, you are made better.  Whatever your real, underlying problem is; whatever your pain is, whether what you need is housing, or a job, or mental health, or a re-established connection with your family and community: whatever that real, deep need is, that is what I give you in the name of Jesus Christ.”  And it would be so?

I wish I could do that.

Of course, Peter is careful to let everyone know that it isn’t him doing that at all. Later in Acts, a guy takes credit for some miraculous act that God does, and then he falls down dead and gets eaten by worms.  So when Peter gets a chance to preach his second sermon, after the crowds have attracted the attention of the local officials and the apostles have been taken into custody, he makes sure to tell everyone that it is not by his own power but by the power of Jesus Christ that this man has been healed.

And even so I admit I wonder what I have to give.

This is, again, about more than just people begging.  As the church, what do we have to give to the world around us?  When war rages across the world from us, what do we have to give?  When people the next county over are dying of their addiction to opioids, what do we have to give?  When our neighbors are alone and hopeless, what do we have to give?  How do we speak the name of Jesus Christ into these situations in a way that is neither dismisses nor tries to slap a Band-aid on the world’s problems, in a way that brings the Gospel to life for people where they are?

I don’t think the answer is always cut-and-dry, but here are a few things I think we can learn from Peter and John, miracles or not.

First of all, Peter and John don’t ignore this man, and they don’t ignore the real, immediate cause of his pain.  They don’t say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, repent of your sins and receive Jesus into your heart and have eternal life.”  Now, I’m certainly not trying to knock eternal life, and I think it’s clear that this man’s healing points him to something bigger– the story doesn’t just end with healing, but with him praising God and clinging to Peter and John, becoming part of their community.  But this man’s first problem is that he is crippled, and that is the problem Peter and John address when they heal him.  As Desmond Tutu once put it, “The good news to a hungry person is bread.”

And at the same time, they are clear that what they are doing is in the name and by the power of Jesus.

I have a friend from seminary who was talking about her church the other day, and all the good things they do: their food bank, their community garden, the shelter they help run, the apartment they are getting ready to house a family with no place to go.  “Now,” she said, “they do have some serious work to do to be able to say ‘Jesus’ out loud without apologizing.”  I am sure there are more than a few of us here who resemble that remark.  How easy is it, sometimes, to separate the nice things we do – sandwich making, collecting supplies for health kits, even repairing houses in Appalachia – from our faith in Jesus completely (or if not completely, we’re at least really, really quiet about that side of things?)  When we do these acts of service, do we allow them to point beyond us and our own general goodwill to the power and call of the one who sent us?

I do have to wonder – what if Peter and John had just had some money?  Would this whole thing have gone down differently?

Of course, when we think we have something of our own to give, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for God to do even greater things through us.  Maybe the point is, that when we are driven by the fire of the Holy Spirit, we have more to give than we might think.

In the Gospel of John (ch. 14), Jesus at one point tells his disciples that they will do even greater acts than he did.  That’s an eyebrow-raising promise coming from a guy who not only healed people but also raised people from the dead.  And that promise might give us one more reason to look around at this thing we call church and wonder if we’re doing it wrong.

But maybe our response doesn’t have to be overtly miraculous to be miraculous nonetheless.  When as the church, as Christians encounter the pain of the world around us, what do we have to give, that’s beyond just some spare change?  Is it relationship?  Community?  Ongoing commitment to a person or a cause?  Is it prayer – not just an “I’ll pray for you” but fervent, consistent prayer that might bring about healing in ways we never would have guessed?

When we encounter the pain and suffering of this world, does our response say, “We are nice people” or “What I have, I give – and what I have, I have because God has given me?”  Does our response say, “We want to do good things,” or “In the name of Jesus, we believe that God is at work here and God has more for you than whatever this is?”

The point, of course, is not to not be generous.  It’s to be more than generous, to be ready to give even more than we ourselves have.

Now I’ll warn you that the disciples do end up in jail for the night, for the first but certainly not last time, which doesn’t tend to happen when you just give someone the dollar crumpled up in your pocket or hand them a granola bar.  So it might be that we need to be ready for that, too.

But here’s the thing: Jesus might not be bodily, tangibly here anymore to do things like heal people and make them walk or to tell the demons that plague them to take a hike or to multiply loaves and fish until everyone eats and is full.  That’s the whole point of the book of Acts: someone else has to do these things instead.  This is our call as the church, the Body of Christ on earth, the hands and feet of Jesus, the heart of God.  This is our job, now.

And so we gather, and we pray, and we sing hymns, and we break bread, and we share this portion of our lives together.

And then we march out those doors and into the pain and the brokenness of the world around us and we say, “We may not have a lot but what we have we give: in the name of Jesus Christ, world, be well.”

 

[1]     Cf. Will Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, p. 43-44

Church on Fire

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21

Do you know what it feels like to be set on fire?

When the day of Pentecost had come, the story goes, they were all gathered in one place: the Twelve, some women, and some other unnamed followers of Jesus.   As we left off with the disciples last week in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus had just ascended into heaven promising that he would be with them always, and they had gathered back in that infamous Upper Room, praying and waiting for God to make the next move.  But the thing about waiting is that sometimes it’s time to wait and sometimes it’s time to get up off your butt and do something for Jesus.

Today, that’s what it’s time for.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all gathered in one place.  Jews from all over the known world once again flooded the streets of Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot – Pentecost in Greek – to celebrate God giving Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.  Who knows if the disciples woke up that morning thinking “Maybe today’s the day,” or if they thought it would be too obvious a move.  Who knows if they woke up with a certain sense that it was time, that God was about to do something big, and nothing would ever be the same.

God was, and it wasn’t.

Because, there gathered in that Upper Room, as the disciples are waiting and praying, all of a sudden the wind begins to pick up.

The disciples look around and raise their eyebrows, silently acknowledging to each other “Wow, it’s kind of gusty out,” but it doesn’t let up.  Instead the wind begins to howl.  It rushes in the windows and the disciples hold their hands in front of their faces and in the midst of trying to catch their breath maybe one of them says something along the lines of, “Guys, I think this is it.”

And then there is fire, fire coming in the windows too, tongues of flame hurling and curling toward each person huddled there, only like the Burning Bush from those days on Sinai, they are not consumed.

This wasn’t the kind of fire that burns a person alive, but the kind of fire that gets into your bones and drives you forward.

Do you know what that feels like?

The prophet Jeremiah once spoke of his mission to speak God’s word as a “fire shut up in his bones,” and I know what it feels like.  I remember going as a teenager to a youth rally called, appropriately, Acquire the Fire, and coming back and telling my mom (much to her alarm) that I wanted to go on an international mission for Christ.  Though that particular fire was short-lived, I remember being in college and encountering for the first time sermons preached by religious leaders who fought against apartheid in South Africa, and how when I read them at night they kept me awake because I knew that, though apartheid had ended a decade ago and I was not in Johannesburg but Colonial Williamsburg, those words had a bearing on my life that I would not be able to shake.  I remember telling my once-again-skeptical mother that I was going to seminary and while it would be nice if I got a scholarship, it didn’t matter if I didn’t, because this is what I was called to do and God would make it happen one way or another.  It felt like accepting a daring invitation to a radical life.  It felt like embarking on an adventure.  It felt like falling in love.

Have you ever felt like that?  Have you ever felt that fire in your bones?

Have you ever felt like you had a mission and for once in your life, even just for a moment, you were so completely sure of who you were and what you were doing here?  Have you ever felt just once like it was all coming together, like God was present here and now and opening up a way for you just ahead?  Have you ever felt like you were ready to step up to what was demanded of you and ready to take risks and ready for whatever God had in store? Like there was nothing that could stop you?  Like you were compelled by a force outside of yourself –a force you might even call holy?

As those tongues of fire came to rest on the disciples they felt their own tongues begin to move, but the words that came out were strange and unfamiliar.  Still, they leaned out the windows and flooded the balcony and let those strange words flow, attracting the attention of the pilgrims flooding the streets of Jerusalem below.  These people heard their words but they weren’t unfamiliar to them, they were the languages of the places they had traveled from: North Africa, Persia, Asia Minor.  In those words the disciples proclaimed the story of Jesus and the amazing things that God had done.

Fishermen from the backwater of Galilee were not the kind of people you’d expect to hear preaching in Persian, but this was the kind of fire that meant that you could do things you never could have imagined yourself doing before.  This fire was the power of God working through your own weakness.  Do you know what that’s like?

More importantly, though, than any linguistic miracle, it was on this day that that ragtag group of disciples huddled in an upstairs room became the church.  It was that day that they became not just followers of Jesus, but the Body of Christ present doing God’s work on earth.  It was from there that they set out on their mission to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, enduring arrest and prison, risking rejection and death, knowing not just that they could do it, but that they couldn’t not.  Have you ever been there?

I remember being 23 years old and just having completed my first year of seminary and enrolling in a chaplaincy program in a planned community that used to be the worst projects in Atlanta, the next step in my plan to save the world in the name of Jesus.  I was the youngest student in my group and the rest of them thought that I was hopelessly naive, and I remember that as we sat and read our evaluations of each other at the end of the summer, one woman named Sue said of me, “She really believes in the power of one person to change the world,” and then she cried, because she used to feel like that, too, and she didn’t know what had happened.

Maybe it’s because old age has made me cynical, but most of the time now I think I’m probably closer to Sue than I am to myself back then.  I don’t really know, anymore, if one person can change the world, and frankly, it’s exhausting even to try, and you have to worry about the politics of it all, and not saying something that will cause someone else not to come back to church.

Do you ever feel like maybe once you had that fire, but you don’t anymore?

Fire can be hard to sustain.

But do you remember how it felt?

Well, church, it’s Pentecost and it can be that way again.

Or have you never felt that way, not yet?

Church, it’s Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit has the power to set even you on fire, for the first time ever or once again, because what God’s church needs is people who have been set on fire.

What is it that sets or once set you on fire?  Did you have an immediate, unmistakable experience of the grace and holiness of God, and had to tell others?  Was it a person you met or a story you read on the news that made you say, I know what God’s work for me is?  Was it a mentor who made you want to be just like him or her, or a ministry you knew you wanted to be a part of?  A subject, even, that you fell in love with and knew you would spend your life devoted to?  Do you remember?  What did God want to do with that?  What does God want to do with that now?

Do you remember what it felt like to fall in love with Jesus for the first time?

What did you do with that fire?  Did you allow God to fan that flame, even if it became less a roaring fire and more of a slow, controlled burn after a while?  Or did it burn bright and burn out?

Might our God of resurrection want to resurrect that fire in your heart?  Might the Holy Spirit be ready to visit you again, sending you on a mission, giving you work to do, whether it takes you to the ends of the earth or takes place right here?

That day as the wind howled and the tongues of flame swirled and the lips of the disciples made new and strange and exciting sounds, Peter told the crowd that was gathering below – some out of the sense that God was doing something new, some out of pure morbid curiosity – that this was what the prophet Joel had prophesied, this was the day that God had promised when God would pour out God’s Spirit on all people, men and women, young and old, slave and free, and everyone who called on the name of the Lord would be saved.  This was what Joel prophesied, no doubt having felt that same fire in his bones, that God’s Spirit was for everyone, that God’s church was open to everyone who felt or wanted to feel that fire.

As the church here and now, what is that fire in our bones?  What has God given us to do that we can’t not do, even if it’s dangerous, even if it’s risky, even if people think we might have gone crazy?  What has God empowered to do together that we can’t do on our own?  Have you felt that fire?  Do you remember?  What does God want to do with that now?  To feed the hungry?  To heal the hurting?  To create a family out of strangers?  To set the oppressed free?  To stand up for justice?  To speak God’s truth into a world that may or may not want to listen?

We are the church, and God has work for us to do.  God has work for you to do.  Maybe you remember what it was like to feel that way.  And if you haven’t, or if you’ve forgotten, the promise of Pentecost is that it’s not too late; these things happen in God’s time, and perhaps our job now is simply to say Come, Holy Spirit.  Set me on fire.  Set us on fire.

But maybe, if you listen closely, you can feel the wind beginning to pick up.  Maybe you can feel that heat, that burning, that begins in your bones and won’t let you sit still.

It’s Pentecost, and before the story goes on, God needs a church that has been set on fire.

Church on Fire: Ready Isn’t a Question

Scripture: Acts 1:1-14

A few years ago I had the chance to take a trapeze lesson.  One thing you should know about me is that I’m pretty afraid of heights, so this is not the kind of activity that it would normally ever occur to me to do.  But we happened to be in Puerto Rico on vacation, and my friend Jenny happened to be there at the same time visiting her brother, who happened to be a trapeze instructor in San Juan, and we got the lesson for half price.  I may be afraid of heights, but I’m not going to turn down a half-price trapeze lesson on my friend’s brother’s trapeze.

So there we were at this trapeze place in San Juan, but before we actually got to fly, an instructor told us what was going to happen.  First we would climb up the ladder, where someone else would meet us on the platform.  They would get us hooked in to the safety harness and tell us to move our toes to the edge of the platform.  We would hold on with one hand and reach out for the bar with the other.  Then they would hold us by the back of the harness as we held our hips out over the platform and reached for the bar with the other hand.  They would say “Ready,” and we would bend our knees.  They would say “hep,” and we would jump.

“When we say, ‘Ready,’” the instructor told us, “that isn’t a question.”

The instructor told us that the trapeze was a metaphor for life and if we could jump off that platform we could face any of ours fears, and honestly I really don’t know about all that, but I did think he was right about that one part, that when big stuff is about to happen in life, ready a lot of times isn’t a question.

I’ve often thought of that experience when I think of the disciples here at the very beginning of Acts, on the precipice of something new and big.  Over the next couple months we’re going to be following the plot of Acts and the apostles, especially Peter and Paul, and the early church.  This story we just heard, which we call the Ascension, is the opening scene of Acts, and picks up where its prequel, the Gospel of Luke, ended.

At this point in the story, it’s already been a whirlwind couple weeks for the disciples.  Jesus is executed then rises from the dead and appears to them over the course of forty days.  They’ve gone from the ultimate low to the ultimate high to, as they begin to process it all, probably just a lot of what is going on here and what does it all mean.

And then one day they are eating together and Jesus says to them, don’t leave the city.  Stay here and wait because something big is about to happen.

And the disciples say, oh, it must be the Kingdom of God being established on earth, the culmination of everything, right, Jesus?   Is that now?

And Jesus tells them not to worry so much about that, but to worry about the work that is ahead of them, because in a few days they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and go out to be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem – right where they are – and Judea and Samaria – a little further afield – and to the ends of the earth.  (If you read Acts you’ll see that it basically follows that geographical plot.)

Anyway, remember that just about forty days ago these guys were locked in a room waiting out the hysteria that had led to Jesus’ crucifixion, and now apparently they are about to sent off on some global mission to tell people about Jesus and to start doing the work of the Kingdom of God right now.

I’m not sure they were ready, but then again, ready wasn’t a question.

With that, Jesus leaves, disappearing into a cloud that lifts him back up into heaven, from which he came.  It’s best that we don’t take this description too literally or else we might really be caught in the mechanics of where exactly Jesus went and how he got there, but the point is that Jesus enters another realm, one where he is not immediately, tangibly accessible to his disciples, though of course his promise is that they will not be left alone.  Jesus, who has died and risen again, is now exalted as Lord and reigns from heaven with God the Father.  The disciples, for their part, are left staring into heaven with their mouths hanging open.

And with that, the opening scene of Acts changes our focus from Jesus and the things he did and taught to the disciples and the adventures they will go on.  They are now the Body of Christ on earth, and the spotlight is on them, ready or not.

Of course, they still have to wait for a couple days for the Holy Spirit to come and give them the power to do all of the things they are about to do.  So in the meantime, there the disciples are, kind of in limbo, suddenly without a leader, suddenly with a lot of risky work ahead of them, suddenly on the precipice of something big that hasn’t quite started yet.

What would you do if it were you?

What do you do when you sense that your whole world is about to be set on fire?

I think I know what the right answer is, and in fact that story will tell us in just a second, but honestly, I don’t know.  I think I might spend a lot of time trying to work out nervous energy, maybe distract myself if I could. If there were such a thing, I might want to read a book, like “How to Be A Witness for Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the Ends of the Earth.”  I might start to pack, or try to put together an itinerary, even though of course I would know I wouldn’t end up following it.  Or maybe if I thought my time in Jerusalem was coming to a close I might want to spend a little time enjoying it.  And probably, in the midst of all of it, I would try to make myself take some deep breaths.

It would seriously drive me crazy not knowing exactly when to expect the Holy Spirit, or what to expect when she got there.

Well, Luke tells us what the disciples did.  Once their reverie is broken by two men in white robes who tell them to stop staring into heaven and get on with it, they return to Jerusalem proper from the nearby Mount of Olives, enter the city, go back to that upper room where they had locked themselves in after the crucifixion, join the others, and are “united in their devotion to prayer.”

What do you do when life is about to send something big your way?

You pray.

It’s the kind of thing that we know is yes, definitely the right answer, and yet I suspect for most of us it’s a lot easier said than done, not only because we might be busy trying to distract ourselves, but because in my experience it’s actually pretty hard to feel very prayerful when you are a bundle of nerves waiting for something big to happen but not knowing exactly what or when.  How do you even pray in that situation?  What does prayer look like in that upper room with all the disciples huddled together?  I imagine that “Dear Jesus help me” uttered over and over again, while a perfectly good prayer if you ask me, is not exactly what Luke means by “they were united in their devotion to prayer.”

How you sit down and meditate when the Holy Spirit might be shooting tongues of fire your way at any moment, I don’t know.

I tried to think of a time in my life when I’ve been waiting for something big to happen and how I responded in the meantime, and what came to mind was last year at the very beginning of maternity leave while I was waiting for Evelyn to be born.  I started maternity leave two days before my due date, and Evelyn ended up coming, with the help of induction, at exactly one week past my due date, so I had just a little over a week at home to do basically nothing but wait for what promised to be probably the biggest overhaul to my life, ever.

I watched a lot of Netflix that week.  I cleaned the house, as much as you can at 40-and-a-half weeks pregnant.  I tried to get together with friends as much as possible, hoping they could help keep my mind off of other things.

Also, I tried to take a long walk every day, and this was partially in hopes of getting labor going, but also just for exercise and for time to be quiet and breathe.  And I tried to use this time as prayer time.  I prayed to God for my safety and my baby’s.  I prayed for patience.  I prayed that Evelyn would grow up strong and good and that God would help Jon and me to love her well.

The truth is, though, that I was distracted and nervous, and I doubt this time really counted as “devoting myself to prayer.”

Still, imperfect though my prayer may have been, I hope that it did something to prepare me spiritually for what was to come, in the midst of all the logistical preparations.  I hope it did me some good to be reminded that what I was about to embark on as a parent was, in fact, a spiritual endeavor, one that would and does and will require me to continually return to God in the midst of it, no matter how chaotic life may be.

What do you do when something new is coming your way and life will never be the same and  you have absolutely no idea what you are doing?  You pray – even if you don’t do it very well.

And yet what would it have looked like to devote myself to prayer during that time?  What must the disciples have done in that upper room?  How did they pray?

I think it’s important, for example, that they were gathered together, and they didn’t do their waiting or their praying alone.  After all, the big new thing that was about to happen in their lives would require them not to be solitary actors, but a community.  They might go off on their own missions, but they would have to make decisions together and support each other along the way.  They were preparing to become the church, and they had to prepare for that together.

What do you think?  Did they read Scripture and discuss it together, allowing it to instruct them for this new time in their lives?  Did they read the words that told them to “Fear not; be bold and courageous” and repeat those words over and over to themselves like a mantra, or a breath prayer?  Did they recite Psalms together, letting those ancient words speak their modern prayers?  Did they talk about Jesus and try to keep everything he had taught them and shown them at the forefront of their minds?  Did they lift their fears and their doubts and the questions they had no answers to up to God and allow God to take those burdens, at least for a little while?  Did they sing songs of praise that recentered them on what was important – not their own poor qualifications for the job, but the power and goodness of God?   Did they spend time in silence and allow God to speak through it, quieting their own thoughts just for a while?  Did they ask for God to keep their eyes and ears and hearts open for this arrival of the Holy Spirit – and then did they do their best to practice those things for which they asked?

Or maybe all of those things?

I don’t how many of you may have something on the horizon that promises to turn your world upside down.    It could be a graduation or a transition at work or a move or a change in your family or personal life.  No doubt you are preparing in a lot of ways.  Is devoting yourself to prayer one of them?

Of course, maybe there isn’t anything, at least that you know of.  In that case I will say two things: 1) This period between the Ascension and Pentecost wasn’t the beginning of disciples’ prayer life. They may well have learned how to pray better or differently because of it, and they may well have felt its urgency in a new way, but it’s been a long time since the point in the Gospel of Luke where the disciples say to Jesus, “Teach us to pray.”  Prayer is of course not just for times of transition or big things, but it is to imbue our ordinary and mundane days with a sense of the sacred and open our eyes to God’s presence and ask for God’s help in those times, too.   And 2) we don’t always know when our world is going to be set on fire, for better or worse.  The disciples had some warning here, but we don’t always, before everything changes.  Better to be prepared for whatever comes.

I think of Rick Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche, the two men stabbed to death this weekend on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon, trying to protect two young Muslim girls from a white supremacist who was harassing and threatening them.  Did they think they were heading off that morning to do something heroic?  Probably not.  Probably they just thought they were going to work, coming home, wherever they were headed.

I have no idea what the prayer lives of those two men might have looked like, only that something more was demanded of them that day.  And I also know that if I would ever be able to do something similar – and if I’m perfectly honest, I’m not really sure – it would only be because I knew who I was and what God wanted of me in that moment, and I believe that’s the kind of clarity that can come from a life of prayer.

What do you do when life is the same day after day and nothing seems to change?  You pray. Maybe that will change things and maybe it won’t (and maybe you want them to and maybe you don’t) but you do your best, though of course it will be imperfectly, to keep that connection with God going in the ordinary days knowing that that’s what will sustain you in the earth-shattering ones.

The disciples, for their part, are about to leave ordinary days behind.

Prayer’s not all, of course.  When Pentecost comes and for the rest of the book of Acts Peter and Paul and the rest of the disciples will have plenty of time for going places and doing things to make a real and tangible difference in the world – but the journey starts in prayer.  Neither will prayer end when the adventures begin – because throughout it all, the disciples will need to stay attuned to the will and open themselves up to the power of the God who sent them.

Next week is Pentecost, when Holy Spirit comes as promised and sets this nascent church on fire, and the disciples go out to do all the things God has given them to do.  In the meantime, they pray.  And I’d like to invite you to spend some time with me this week “devoting yourselves to prayer.”  Pray in some of the ways we mentioned the disciples might have.  Pray for our world, our country, our community, our church.  Pray for the needs of those around you and pray for yourself, that you would know the work of God’s Holy Spirit when she comes, that you would answer God’s call when it comes.

Who knows, but God could be about to do something big in your life or our lives together.  What if we really believed that?

When God says ready – it isn’t a question.