After two sad weeks of failed recordings, our worship services are now available online through YouTube and Facebook. We apologize for the lack of services published for June 28 and July 5.
Remember: You may always join us LIVE on Sundays at 11:00 a.m. through the Zoom app. For details, call the church office at 910-892-2339 or email us at email@example.com.
At the beginning of the tenth chapter of our gospel, Matthew details for us how Jesus gives authority to the disciples. They are to go into the world healing and teaching, laying hands on folks and casting out demons, taking the Gospel Message to the lost. Jesus is sending them out with his authority, but they are to go without any expectation of payment. Nothing in return. The only thing they might expect is that their basic needs will be taken care of as they go.
Jesus is offering them a life of hardship, persecution, difficulty, work – and is giving them very little to look forward to along the way. Not much incentive, you see, because discipleship is expensive. It’s the giving of yourself. They are going to be sheep among wolves, he says – they may even lose their lives as they go.
And that’s where we find ourselves as we continue the story with this morning’s text, we find Jesus continuing to prepare them for their missional work. Continuing to get them ready for the adversity they will face as their work teams leave the comfort area of Harnett County Raleigh and head out into a world of viruses and political unrest, maybe even protests and rioting. Leave their beds and their families behind without knowing what they will face, or when their work will be done, or when they will return. Knowing only that they have to tell people about Jesus and the things he has taught them.
Many of the people around them thought Jesus was a fraud, trying to trick them. Some thought he was as bad as Satan himself. So the disciples couldn’t really expect to be treated well by people who believed Jesus was teaching against God, now could they?
They couldn’t expect it any more than we can expect it. Our message of Good News is being presented to a nation where being part of a church is no longer the norm. We are living in a time when things don’t always make sense, in a nation where people think it is ok to stand on our own and not lean on our faith in God.
But, just like the disciples, we are called to a higher purpose. We are being sent out into that world that doesn’t want us there – and we are being sent to share information that many folks aren’t interested in hearing much less likely to believe. And yet, we are still expected to go. Still required to go. And there will be no peace until we go – until we want what God has planned for us. No peace.
This afternoon several of our church staff and friends will meet together – a couple of us in person, mostly by computer – to plan for our first live worship next Sunday. It’s a little overwhelming what goes into such an undertaking! We have worked so hard on planning and preparing – working to share the message of Jesus Christ with his church. But it’s not too much! We are called to be over-the-top. We are expected to offer the best we can – to offer excellence. We’ve put in hour after hour to share our faith… and guess what? We don’t know if anyone is coming! And unless you have told them about this… they don’t even know we are doing it!
But our goal is to be prepared. Our goal is to be faithful in telling the stories. Our goal is to be the best we can be in every single thing we do. We have a responsibility to share the stories of Jesus Christ with the world in fabulous ways.
Now, surely you can see that we’re doing everything we can to make it a little easier for you, but we can’t follow Jesus for you. We can provide opportunities to grow and learn and serve, but no one cannot take those steps for you. You have to walk in faith on your own. And you have to go without fear. Even though people may not show up or you will be rejected or worse, you go without fear knowing that you are protected by God always. What commitment are you willing to make? Will you be in Bible Study, Sunday School, Wednesday night prayer? Will you put it on your Facebook page? Will you tweet it out?
You know, we acknowledge Jesus by deeds as well as by words. You are here listening and worshiping, and hopefully you are going on our church website and singing the hymns and reading the scriptures and walking your children and grandchildren through their times of learning and worshiping. But what does that mean if on Monday it is simply back to normal and you haven’t taken any effort to tell someone else about these opportunities? What does it mean if your children and grandchildren aren’t experiencing children’s church and activities and Sunday School from our website? What does it mean if you haven’t funded the church or have no plans to help the Food Pantry this Tuesday on distribution day? What does it mean if we compromise our witness in that way?
You see, there will be no peace until we live into our commitment to God – until we seek God with all our hearts. No peace.
You know, so many pastors and their families are saying their good-byes this week. So many moving into new communities and new homes and beginning at new churches. You think preachers aren’t fearful as they bring God’s message to people? You would be incorrect in that assumption. We are terrified! We have every insecurity known to man. And even in a regular year, if the church were to be packed on our first Sunday, we know not to hold onto that too tightly because the newness will wear off and folks will most likely go back to who they really were before the “new” kicked in. Other things will come up in people’s lives that will take them away from church, and they will have all kinds of reasons they couldn’t be in worship on Sunday.
And this year, new pastors in new settings aren’t likely to be seeing packed Sanctuaries welcoming them into the community. This year, the people they do see will be wearing masks and keeping their distance. They will not be attending church in person. In some cases, living into one’s commitment to God can be agonizingly difficult.
We are having worship and Bible study together and committee meetings by Zoom these days, and I’m still hearing from people saying they can’t be a part of things because they are going out of town. This should be the easiest time ever to be engaged in worship. Grab a cup of coffee, sit in your recliner and tune in! But the excuses are amazing. You know, Billy Graham once said, "Jesus spoke about the ox in the ditch on the Sabbath. But if your ox gets in the ditch every Sunday, you should either get rid of the ox or fill up the ditch."
But it’s not all lost – even when we are terrified of the pulpit or saddened that people are playing hooky – again – we do have the assurance that we are under God’s protection. Always. Just as you have that same assurance, that same guarantee, that same hope.
And WITH that hope, comes an undeniable desire to look for Jesus, to be with Jesus, to know Jesus… and to share Jesus. You can’t just get rid of it.
When you recognize the hope that Jesus Christ offers, you realize that you have to share it. And even if it sets us against our friends or our neighbors or even our family members, we are going to love Jesus more than anything else we have ever known. And until we begin to move in that direction and actively look for Jesus, there will be no peace.
Jesus says: “Stand up for me against world opinion and I’ll stand up for you before my Father in heaven... but I haven’t come to make life easy. I didn’t come just so that you can have peace. Actually, it’s the other way around. Follow me and you’re likely to have no peace. You’re likely to plan, and set up, and get excited, and be ready to tell your stories… and no one will come to hear them. You’re likely to feel rejected at times. But the call isn’t to be successful – it’s to be faithful. And when you are faithful, it’s all going to be worth it in the end. That’s where the peace will be.” Folks, I just want us to be faithful. God is going to take care of the rest of it.
Do you hear the urgency in sharing Jesus with all the people who will cross your path this week? Will you make every effort to invite someone to our live worship next Sunday? Will you volunteer at the Food Pantry this week? Will you be a voice of reason and calm – a voice of hope – in a hurting and dying and violent world?
Will you open your heart to hearing Jesus move you into the world without fear?
"An Unlikely Bunch"
About a year ago, I told a story to some of my church family that resurfaced this week so I thought it might be time to tell it again. Etienne de Grellet, whom (in America) we call Stephen, was born to a wealthy family in France in the mid-1700s, and when the French Revolution began, the family fled France. Stephen, through a series of life events, found himself across the ocean arriving in New York in 1795.
So we are at the end of the 18th century in the newly formed states, and Stephen is continuing to experience some life-changing events. He is reading and immersing himself in learning, and within a year, he meets a Quaker woman whose conversation about Jesus touches his heart… and Stephen becomes a Quaker missionary travelling all over this country as well as Haiti and then back across to Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Greece, Italy and Russia. He meets with rulers and tsars, visits prisons, schools and hospitals, and eventually finds himself back home in America.
Now, by this time, Stephen is a well-known Quaker preacher. It’s the early nineteenth century, and his prayer life is intensely dedicated to discerning God’s will for his life. While he is looking for answers, he remembers a place out in the woods he had visited in the past and he distinctly hears a voice telling him to go preach to the woodcutters working there in the woods. He wrote that the voice said: Go back there and preach to those lonely men.
Well, what else could he do but leave his wife and child at home and head off to the woods feeling extreme happiness all along the way. As he got closer and closer to the place he had remembered, he was jittery and excited – until the camp was in sight. And he realized that the woodcutters had left it days earlier. The camp was empty, and there was no way to know when the workers would be back. It could be weeks.
He was pretty confused because he really believed he had heard the voice of God telling him to come and preach in this place so he went back to praying and asking if he had gotten the message wrong. And, just as he had heard the voice in his heart the first time, he clearly heard the new instructions: Give your message. It is not yours but mine.
Surely he felt silly working himself up to preach to no one, but following what he knew was God’s direction, he entered the main building, walked to the front of the room and began to preach about God’s love in a powerful way like he had never done before. He talked about sin coming between God and men and about how Jesus Christ tears down that barrier. He thought about the woodcutters and his heart was flooded with love for them as he realized that if he could feel that kind of love for those rough old working men, God’s love would be immeasurably more for them – so he began to pray for them out loud.
And when he was finished, he was exhausted, and he looked up to see one dirty cracked mug that had been left behind. The story is that his heart hated that mug. He felt like it was mocking him just sitting there in the silent empty place all broken and dirty – and he remembered how he had grown up surrounded by such fine things. This was a silly errand he was on. He had preached as if there had been hundreds of men in the place knowing all along that he was alone.
But he eventually got up, took the mug outside to wash it in the creek, got himself a drink of water, ate a little bread he had in his pocket and headed home. He said he felt himself surrounded by a sustaining life-giving presence, and on the way home he knew he was not alone.
Now, that’s a pretty good story, but as it turns out, it’s only the beginning. Years later, Stephen was back in London and was walking across London Bridge in a crowd of people. He was wearing his usual Quaker hat and coat so he may have stood out a little bit when someone grabbed him by the arm and said: There you are. I finally found you!
As you can imagine, Stephen was a little startled and said: Friend, I think thou art mistaken.
No, said the man. I am not. When you have sought a man over the face of the globe year after year, you don’t make a mistake when you find him at last.
As it turns out, the man had been one of the woodcutters from the woods years earlier. You see, he had come back to camp that day to get a tool that had been left, and although Stephen never saw him, the man stood outside the building and heard every word Stephen preached and prayed.
He told Stephen how he had been too embarrassed to be found out so he snuck back to the new camp and was miserable for weeks. Well, he eventually got his hands on a Bible and began to read – even though the other woodcutters gave him a pretty hard time about it.
And when he read Jesus’ story of the lost sheep, he didn’t care if they did make fun of him. He started telling them all the stories, and he wouldn’t let it go until every single one of them was – as he said: brought home to God.
Three of them were so changed that they went out to preach to others, and at least a thousand people had been “brought home to God” by one faithful sermon that was preached to nobody.
Church, throughout history, God has used absurd circumstances and improbable people. Jesus says the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few, and I’ve always thought he meant there is more work to do than there are faithful people to do it. But what if that’s not what that means?
What if Jesus is saying: I’m going to use just a few of you unlikely bunch to make a huge difference in your world.
You know, Divine Street may not be one of the mega-churches that we see on TV, but what if the few of us are being called to follow a ridiculous path of saving others in the most absurd ways? Are we willing to look silly for the Kingdom of God? Are we really listening for God’s voice to lead us, and are we ready to be faithful when it might not make sense to us?
Now I know these are difficult virus-driven times when we are struggling to figure out how to even be the church. If we continue down this path we are on, some of our churches may eventually die out. But let’s be honest, we probably weren’t headed down all that great a path before the virus. Church attendance has been on the decline for years as other things have captured our attention. And perhaps that is God’s plan – perhaps we are only here in our communities for a season – but I don’t think so.
As I pray for the church, and dream for the church, and seek God’s will for the church, I am constantly moved to faithfully change course and face what may seem unreasonable. And, as much as I want to be devoted to God’s call, I have to admit that makes me nervous!
I like things comfortable. However… I am convinced that if we plant only for our own benefit, we will harvest devastation from our selfishness. On the other hand, if we plant for the benefit of the Spirit of God, we will harvest eternal life from the Spirit of God.
Paul says: A person will harvest what they plant. So let’s not get tired of doing good, because (if we don’t give up) in time there will be a harvest. So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith.
Maybe, just maybe, instead of looking around and lamenting who is not engaged in the church, maybe it’s time for us to look around, offer respect to all persons, and rejoice over the people who cross our paths.
YOU are the ones who are going to make a difference in your community. You who ARE committed – who ARE dedicated to making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The key to transforming lives is faithfully seeking to live in God’s will no matter whether we feel equipped to do the work or even if we feel ridiculous preaching to no one. Gracious, I didn’t study pandemic ministry in seminary, and I certainly am not comfortable preaching by myself to a cellphone each week to be spread all over Facebook. But this is what God’s asking me to do these days. And all I can do is try to be faithful to that call.
Being a faithful laborer in God’s field is risky. Now I’m not talking about risking health during the middle of COVID19. I’m talking about risking ego. I am just as human as you are, and I say things the wrong way sometimes. If I say something wrong in a sermon when I’m in the middle of my own community of faith, then I have the reassurance that my church family knows me and will love me at the end of the day. These days, if I say something in the wrong way, social media is going to slaughter me. That is not a comfortable and safe place to be. But God blesses those who are faithful and God provides plenty of everything we need.
Church, there’s plenty of work to be done for the harvest. There’s respect that needs to be offered to others; there’s tension all around us that needs to be healed. We are the unlikely bunch, the improbable people in the middle of absurd circumstances, and Jesus can use every one of us if we are willing to glorify God in our efforts. WE are the plentiful few!
"Go and Make"
(Be Bold and Be Strong)
In my tradition, the United Methodist tradition, we have people in who fall way far to one side of discussions and people who fall way far to the other side. And then we have people all over the middle.
One of the beautiful things about The UMC, is that we are allowed, and even encouraged, to use Scripture as our primary way of seeking God’s will, followed by using our reasoning, our experiences and our traditions. We work hard to talk through difficult conversations.
It’s like how Bill and I approach our marriage. We have our moments, but divorce is not an option. We will never agree on everything, but leaving the relationship is off the table. We get frustrated and even angry with one another, but at the end of the day we love one another dearly and remain the best of friends – we live unity to its fullest.
When I listen to the holy conferencing of the Church, I understand the arguments on both sides of all of these conversations. I know what we are talking about. The challenge for me is that I often like pieces of both sides of the dialogue.
I like the social justice aspect of our tradition. I like that we respond to the call of God on our hearts through the work of our hands. I like that we are to make a difference in the world through our mission fields. I like that mission teams are an incredibly Methodist way of thinking. I like that we are empowered by the Church to go.
At the same time, I like that United Methodists are evangelical. Our own General Board of Discipleship says no ministry of the church is more vital than evangelism. “Evangelism involves several key actions: telling the Good News, announcing the kingdom (reign) of God, and bearing witness.” We are sent into the world to go and share the message that Jesus Christ has authority universally.
On Jesus Christ’s authority, we are given the Great Commission which is the number one reason for mission teams going out in the world AND the number one reason for sharing the gospel message out in the world.
This isn’t one or the other – This is “both and.” Working and sharing. Missional and evangelical. Actually you cannot have one without the other. It’s ONE call. Jesus Christ is calling us to be both.
And that’s where we get a little lost sometimes. We can label ourselves all day long, but for those of us taking a stand only on one side or the other, we are missing the big picture here. Look what Jesus is saying to us: Go therefore – get out of your seat, out of your daily grind, out of your comfort zone, and GO into action.
Go and make – more action – make disciples – bring more folks into the fold. Help other people understand what this Christianity, this following Jesus, is all about. And don’t stop there. Tell them what God is doing in your life. Spend some time thinking of your own personal stories and then tell people those stories. Live your life as a breathing example of who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing in your life.
For some of us that means we need practice. For some of us it means watch what comes out of our mouth – or if I am on Facebook, out of my fingers. There are Christian folks who are not always great examples of what Jesus is doing in our lives. We post a lot of talk. We post a lot of things that just really aren’t helpful in making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Raising awareness of problems in the world is necessary. I will agree with that all day long. We have to keep conversations going about what is needed in the world. We have to talk about injustice and oppression, hunger and poor, sick and hurting, and all the things I just mentioned a moment ago – that’s how we together discern God’s will for God’s people in God’s Church. However, raising awareness without the follow-up action or raising awareness in a way that never mentions Jesus Christ as the key to change is misunderstanding the Great Commission. Talking about the problems in the world isn’t the place we, as Christians, get to land. That’s only the starting point.
I said that in one of my previous churches, and my office had a line of angry people out the door telling me that I degraded them because they post pictures of their kids on Facebook without mentioning Jesus. That is NOT what I’m saying. I LOVE looking at your kids on Facebook I do not expect you to invoke the name of Jesus before every sentence you speak.
I’m talking about identifying a problem and then doing nothing about the problem I’m talking about leaving Jesus completely out of our equations. I’m saying that we are called to be people of action!
One of my favorite movie characters is named Thumper. Remember Thumper? The little bunny from the movie Bambi? Thumper was brutally honest in offering his opinion, but he had a way of pointing out the obvious in a very negative light. When he first met the brand newborn fawn, Bambi, who was trying to get up on his feet for the first time, Thumper didn’t offer helpful reassurance or hints on how to try to stand. He didn’t show Bambi what to do. He didn’t try to prop Bambi up. He didn’t set an example at all Thumper simply raised awareness of the problem and said: “He doesn’t walk very good does he?” There was nothing encouraging or engaging in his rhetoric. If Thumper had a Facebook page, it would probably resemble some that I have read. And what did Thumper’s parents teach him: “If you can’t say something nice, (pause) don’t say nuffin at all.” You see, there is no action in pointing out the problem.
Jesus named the problems; that part has already been done. We are always going to have the poor with us, he said – go and help them. Go visit in the prisons. Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry. And in the midst of your actions, tell the people about me and invite them to join you in believing in me. That’s what Jesus said. The two concepts are married. Mission and evangelism. Evangelism and mission.
You are to go to the people, and make disciples of the people of all nations. Wesley once said “The world is my parish.” That’s exactly what Jesus is talking about here.
Go and make disciples of all nations – action that continues in verse 19: “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Notice the use of the word name. One name. One God. Those who are baptized are brought in under one name and one baptism. Actually it is literally ‘into’ – baptizing them into the name of our one True God. We are baptized into the name of God and therefore belong to God – brought into the promise.
“And teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Even more action. Teach, tell, explain. Communicate. And obey. Talk to the people, all people, about the things Jesus Christ has done. That’s evangelism. Evangelism is literally about personal commitment to Jesus. And while you are personally committing and talking to others about personally committing, put some work behind it. That’s mission.
This is not just an invitation to be nice to each other. Not just an invitation to go out and do good works. This isn’t actually an invitation at all. This is a commission. A command, a directive, an assignment. Our instructions are to go out into the world and make disciples!
Come and evangelize; go do mission. The Great Com-mission is both. Your job is to come and go as People of God!
Be bold and be strong. Banish fear and doubt. For the promise of your God is to bless your coming in and to bless your going out. Rejoice!
"Best. Gift. Ever."
I love getting gifts. October is my favorite month because that’s when I get birthday presents! Just for me! And don’t get me started on Christmas! All kinds of gifts flowing around. I’ll bet some of you are receiving some graduation gifts this time of year – you know, because you’ve accomplished this little thing we call education. What a wonderful invention, this gift-giving!
On the Day of Pentecost, biggest birth day party ever, the birthday of Christ’s Church, everyone was given the best gift of all – the gift of God’s Spirit to live right inside of us. Jesus called the Spirit of God “another Friend” to come and be with us after Jesus ascended into heaven – this is the gift of “another Jesus.” This is not only a gift from God but also the gift of God.
And from the gift of that Spirit, we continue to be given more gifts. All kinds of gifts. It’s like October all the time! A generous time when we find peace and love and healing.
Paul tells us that there are varieties of gifts and services and activities, but only one God. Every one of us is given something unique, something special just within us – but it’s all given by God. Maybe you have the gift of healing. Maybe you have the gift of prophecy, or preaching. Maybe one of you has the gift of working miracles, or the gift of speaking in different tongues, while another may be able to interpret those languages. Someone may have wisdom, another knowledge, another faith.
Some of you are thinking “Nope. That doesn’t sound like me at all.” But the gifts are given as God chooses – not as we think ought to happen. All of us are given gifts, different gifts, but all given by the same Spirit of God – and all given for one reason. Paul says: for the common good of all.
Several years ago some friends of mine gathered together, formed a work team, and headed down to Mexico to do some mission work. True story. Now, two of my friends were United Methodist pastors and had been the best of friends for many years. And although they had traveled to Mexico for several years in a row, neither one of them spoke a lick of Spanish. Actually, these two men barely spoke good English – they spoke Southern. When they were in Mexico, they always had an interpreter with them, and except for a few badly pronounced phrases that John used from time to time, neither John nor Ned knew anything of the Spanish language. Especially Ned. Ned never even tried.
Now at the end of this particular week of mission work, Ned was invited to preach at the closing worship service. The mission team gathered with the people of the community there in Mexico, and with the interpreter’s help, he began to preach. Ned would speak a line or two, and the interpreter would translate it from English into Spanish. And so it went through the sermon.
And as Ned moved through his sermon, he began to feel his heart being moved. I don’t know that Ned would have named it “the movement of the Holy Spirit” at that moment, but he did recognize that God was alive and at work in the service. And he began to get caught up in the preaching of the Gospel message.
Now at that point in his sermon, when Ned felt his own heart being moved by the Spirit of God, he noticed that the people began to pay particularly close attention to what he was saying that was being translated into Spanish for them. And it was at that point that the translator actually stumbled a bit in the translating. But after a few lines the translator caught up, and Ned kept right on preaching from his heart. It was a particularly moving service and many people were touched by Ned’s preaching.
Well, after the service was over, Pastor John came up to Pastor Ned and said “Ned, what was that?” What was what? What was that sermon? And after a few minutes of trying to get at what the question meant, John explained to Ned that right in the middle of his sermon, right at the point where the people really got caught up in the Word, right in the moments when the translator himself had stumbled… that was the moment when my friend Ned, American United Methodist Ned, Southern English-only Ned, had switched to preaching in fluent Spanish.
That’s why the people had been so attentive. The Spanish speakers were hearing the Word in their own language, and the English speakers were reliant on the translation. That’s why the translator had stumbled. He had had to switch his train of thought from English to Spanish and begin moving from Spanish to English.
And Ned did not know he had done it. Ned, who didn’t speak a lick of Spanish, had preached in fluent Spanish… and he didn’t know it until John told him. To this day, my friend Ned doesn’t speak Spanish. But he did that night I believe through the power of the Holy Spirit. The power of our God who is alive and working in the Church today.
The Scripture describes that there were many Jews staying in Jerusalem because they had traveled for the Pentecost Feast – they were “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” – and when they heard the noise of the wind and the commotion of the Spirit, they came running to see what was happening. The Message says: “Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn't for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, "Aren't these all Galileans? How come we're hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?” They said “They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works! … What’s going on here?” And some of them joked that the disciples were drunk on cheap wine.
But Peter stood up and spoke out – now remember Peter? He’s the one who just two months ago was so afraid of persecution that he denied he even knew Jesus. And in the past 50 days with Jesus’ rising from the dead and being with them, he has been hiding out with the other disciples not quite knowing WHAT to think. And in the past 10 days, since Jesus’ ascension into heaven (remember we celebrated that last week), in these last ten days, Peter has remained in a kind of hiding state.
But this same Peter has just been empowered by the Holy Spirit who is alive and at work, and he stands up and, backed by the other eleven, he speaks out with what the Bible calls not just urgency but bold urgency. He speaks with passion and excitement. He raises his voice and says: “Listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren't drunk… They haven't had time to get drunk — it's only nine o'clock in the morning. This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen…” And then Peter quotes from the Book of Joel which would have been familiar words to those who were listening.
You see, Peter is no longer afraid to admit that he is a follower of Jesus. He’s not the same guy who heard that rooster crow awhile back. He is actually excited about being a Jesus Freak because he finally is understanding the big picture. And Peter wants to tell other people and help them understand that what they are seeing is the Spirit of God being given to all of them.
Peter is reminding them what Joel was talking about and how it makes sense now. Joel had said that God would pour out God’s Spirit on the people – look at it there in verse 17: “God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh [on all people]… and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy [he’s saying ‘Even on my servants, both men and women] I will pour out my Spirit… Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'” … through the power of the Holy Spirit who is alive and working in the Church that day.
Now, we didn’t read the rest of the story in Acts, but Peter goes on to remind the people about Jesus – the one who had done all the miracles through the power of God. Peter reminds them of how they had put Jesus to death, and with his newfound voice, Peter maybe even surprises himself by telling them that Jesus is alive!
He tells the people that he has seen Jesus – has spent time with him – and that Jesus now has ascended to be with God the Father because that same Jesus that the people killed IS God’s own Son, and that same Jesus IS the Lord and the Christ.
Well, when the people hear Peter’s speech, they start to see a little clearer about what has happened, and they start to understand how wrong they have been in killing Jesus. They yell to Peter and ask him what they can do, and Peter’s answer is to turn from their evil ways and be baptized. They have to believe that Jesus will forgive them for the way they have been living – and when they do that, God will give them the Holy Spirit.
That very day “about three thousand persons were added” – My children’s Bible says: “about three thousand people [say] that they believe in Jesus and want their sins to be forgiven. They are all baptized, and with great joy they become part of this band of disciples here in Jerusalem. Those who are saved from their sins become members of Christ’s church... All the members are like one family; they love one another with a love like Christ’s. And when others see this wonderful love, they come to believe on the same Savior.”
That’s what we are celebrating today – the birthday of the Christian Church. Without the influence of the Holy Spirit, who is alive and working in the Church today, there would be no Church today – we wouldn’t be here worshiping the One True God whom we recognize in the Father, the Son AND the Holy Spirit. We would be lost and floundering and maybe wondering who we are and what our purpose is to be.
But WITH the gift of the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost Day, we were given that purpose. We know who we are and why we are here – and we KNOW that our purpose is to take the message of this day, and the power of our stories, out into the world – to share with those around us so that they see in us the love that those first church members had for one another – a Christ-like love.
“That outpouring of the Spirit that began at Pentecost has never stopped.” Oh, sometimes we may think that we have stopped seeing it or witnessing to it in our midst, but it hasn’t stopped. The people in Mexico can testify to that! Today is a day to live into the spirit in worship and languages and hearing and understanding as we are reminded of the power of the Word!
Now, I may not be speaking in other languages – I haven’t been given that gift yet, – but I guarantee you that every week in our church someone hears something that they need to hear whether I actually said it or not.
I hear it all the time – someone will come to me and say: When you talked about this or that, it really spoke to me. And I’ll think to myself, YES! The Holy Spirit IS alive and at work because I didn’t say anything like that! But when you hear what God wants you to hear, when your heart is open to hearing from the God who is alive and at work in his Church, that is confirmation that the Spirit of God is alive and working in our lives!
That’s one of the most exciting things about being surrounded by people who are ready and open to hearing God’s message for their lives. It’s exciting to watch it happen! And it’s happening to the people who are around you – whether it’s happening here or in Mexico or in a Zoom Sunday School class or in Bible Study or at work or at the grocery or the drive through window – the Holy Spirit is alive and working in the lives of people everywhere. And there’s power in that life and work IF we take the step of accepting the gift of the Holy Spirit!
When we do that, we are given the tools we need and the words we need and the languages we need and the experiences we need to be God’s people. And with that guidance comes the passion and the excitement of Peter as we embrace the role we are called to fill, and we recognize the power of sharing the stories that the Holy Spirit is alive and working in God’s Church. It’s the best gift ever! Happy Birthday Church!
 Beautiful Bible Stories, The Southwestern Company, Nashville, Tennessee, 1964, 439.
"And That's the Truth"
The writer of Acts is sharing with us an account of what he actually saw and experienced, and now has to tell. This is his witness to the events following Jesus’ resurrection.
You see, by the time this is written, the Roman government has martyred Paul and Peter. The first-hand witnesses are dwindling. Christians are being persecuted and accused of being against the government. They are sometimes called enemies of Rome – those who believe things and spread stories that work against Rome and the empire.
And people maybe are starting to question their beliefs. Maybe doubting their own faith, and this two volume writing of Luke and Acts is a way to offer the stories from an eyewitness – to help folks gain a better understanding of what happened.
You see a witness isn’t someone who simply sees or hears or experiences something – the something doesn’t mean anything until the witness tells about it.
In our house, we have watched many TV shows that end up in a courtroom. And I find that an attorney can never solve a case without hearing the story of the witnesses. You can say all day long that you have witnesses, but until they climb up in the chair and actually tell their story it does no one any good.
And so the story in our scripture lesson is being told by the witness – because that’s what witnesses do.
Now the witness tells us that Jesus has continually appeared to his disciples for forty days after he rose from the dead. Physically – in human form not spirit form. He eats fish. He shows them his scars. He spends time giving them instructions on how they should act and what they should do.
Jesus tells them that they have already been baptized by John with water – an incredibly important baptism but one that is focused on repentance. Now they will soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit – which actually completes the baptismal covenant, this outpouring of the Spirit – and that’s going to make all the difference.
Because, you see, when they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, they will be empowered to go into the world healing and preaching and telling their eyewitness accounts in the areas of Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth – in other words, they are going to tell what they have seen and what they know and what they have experienced to everyone at home and at church and in the community and in the county and in the state and the nation and the continent and all over the world.
And they are going to receive that gift of the Holy Spirit very soon. They just need to stay in Jerusalem for a bit and wait for God to give them the gift. Which does hap0pen in about ten days, and which we will explore next week on Pentecost Sunday.
Now the disciples are a little excited at this because they think they are going to witness God’s Kingdom coming in to take over the world and restore the Jews to power and dominion over everything.
They are concerned about their standing in the community. They are concerned about status. They are concerned with whether Israel is going to be brought back into power – whether THEY will have any power – whether Rome is going to be overthrown – whether the poor will be liberated – whether the people of Israel will be free to worship the One True God.
But this is Jesus interrupting their very focused we-have-to-concentrate-on-our-own-neighborhood thinking. Jesus redirects their focus away from restoration of Jerusalem, away from their own backyard, and moves them in the direction of the mission field. Their world just got a whole lot bigger – it now even includes not just the Jewish Christians, but all the Jews, and the Gentiles, and the Muslims, and the agnostics and the atheists. It includes America, and England, and the Australians, the Africans, from the Italians to the Chinese, from Germany to North Korea – everyone. Their world now includes everyone living.
So Jesus – even though he knows what they are after when they’re asking questions – doesn’t answer them directly. Jesus only says: It is not for you to know the times that God the Father is going to move. You may have times or ‘seasons’ in your Bible – whatever word you have there, the Greek means “you don’t know whether it’s going to be a short period of time or a long period of time” – but what you do know is that you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in this area and the areas which are familiar to you, and even to places you haven’t even heard of yet much less have travelled to. You are going to tell everyone my story, my good news. He is basically saying “You don’t need to know when” but here’s the promise that it will happen – the Kingdom of God will come. And WHEN the Holy Spirit comes, you have to be the witnesses, you have to tell all the stories so that people will have readied and faithful hearts.
And then in an instant – he is gone. Look in verse 9: “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” He ascended into heaven.
Now, Jesus’ ascension into heaven is not an historical event we are trying to prove or disprove. It’s just the truth – and necessary truth. It is necessary for Jesus to show himself to the disciples and to show himself ascend into heaven. Otherwise, the stories and rumors are going to get out of hand. We saw him alive; we saw him rise into the clouds. We can’t explain it – we just believe it because we have the eyewitnesses telling us! And this is core to our faith. Christ is alive and sitting at the right hand of God the Father, and is in charge of the whole world. That’s the truth.
Now if we put ourselves in the place of the disciples, we have a very different view of the whole world. Remember, this is long before Christopher Columbus; everyone believes that the earth is very flat. Heaven is up in the sky and hell is below the ground, but most importantly for this moment, is that regardless of how we view the world, I know we need Jesus with us and – drat it all – he’s headed out of sight. And I’m standing here not knowing what to think watching him disappear from sight right up into heaven – and I’m nervous and anxious and a little scared.
Verse 10 says: “While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.” Wasn’t that long ago that two men stood with Jesus and he was enveloped in a cloud as he took his place between Moses and Elijah. Took his rightful place between the Law and the Prophets – when he was transfigured right before their eyes – when he shined bright as the sun – when he showed himself to be fully human AND fully divine. And now he is taking his rightful place. And the disciples are going to talk about that when they talk about this. They are going to share that transfiguration experience when they share this ascension story… and things are beginning to come together for them as they look on divinity itself.
And then they get the promise: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? There’s work to be done. You can’t get the work done standing there staring at the sky. (Here comes the promise.) This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go. So get busy.”
And when the disciples receive this promise, when they first hear and realize that it isn’t over – that Jesus Christ really IS King of all and really IS coming again – guess what they do. They gather together… and they constantly devote themselves to prayer. They were active in prayer – they were faithfully doing what they were called to do.
During this time between the Ascension and the upcoming Pentecost, they waited in a period of faithfulness and devoted themselves to prayer. At Ascension, we are impressed with the power of Christ. At Pentecost, we are filled and driven by the power of the Holy Spirit. In between we wait – and not passively sitting around killing time until we figure out what God has planned for us, but active waiting.
The Book of Acts tells us in those next verses what those first disciples did while they were waiting. They prayed and they prayed and they prayed… and in their praying they became of the same spirit. They didn’t sit around waiting for God to herd them into one accord. They actively prayed and opened themselves up to God’s power. They were looking for the truth. By being so intentional in prayer with one another, they prepared the way for God’s uniting power to take hold among them.
Active waiting – spending time praying and listening and seeking God’s will for our lives together. That’s what we are called to – whether we believe we are ready or not to receive answers, we are called to faithful unified living through active waiting. That comes first.
We can’t respond to something we don’t have so we have to get this in the right order. We cannot take the message of Acts and disregard the message of the Gospels. Remember, Acts is volume two; the gospel message of Luke is volume one. Relationship with Jesus Christ comes first. First we seek God, we become as one in that, we become the one Body of Christ… and then we respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit on our hearts. You see, it’s a particular order.
Sometimes our best prayer – our best “active waiting” is just to BE with God – and to seek God’s will for us – together in our thinking and our worshipping and our reaching out to Jesus.
You know, we have to get this right before we head out to our Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth. We come together on Sundays and throughout the week to be better spiritually prepared. Even in this crazy weird time of socially distancing, we are to be in this together. We are going to have to get really creative in how this works, but if we aren’t in right relationship with Jesus and with one another, then our efforts to reach the ends of the earth are pointless.
We have to be witnesses to the end of the earth – people who have experienced the Risen Christ and are willing to tell about that. How has God been at work in your life? How has the Holy Spirit influenced your week? How has Jesus been recognized in your day? Those are the things we are to talk about as we develop relationships with each other.
None of this means anything until we become eyewitnesses for Jesus Christ – seeing, loving, seeking, experiencing, telling witnesses – in our active waiting for the glorious return of our Savior. And that’s the truth.
Over in the Gospel of John, Jesus said that after he was gone, the Father would give us another Advocate, or Helper, to be with us for ever. One translation I have says: He'll provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you. This Friend is the Spirit of Truth. The godless world can't take him in because it doesn't have eyes to see him, doesn't know what to look for. But you know him already because he has been staying with you, and will even be in you!
Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit here, the third person of God. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.
You know, there’s a difference between truth and fact. If you have been with me in one of our Bible studies, you will have heard me say that we don’t want to get bogged down in fact and miss Truth. But as a Christian, I recognize, accept, and believe… the truth and the fact… that there is one God.
Now hang on, we are going to get a little theological for a minute while I tell you what I believe.
I believe the truth and the fact that there is one God. I also believe that our one true God is self-expressed as three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It’s more than something I learned as a child or recite on Sunday mornings during The Apostles’ Creed… I actually believe it!
And while it is difficult to fully grasp, since God cannot be definitively described, this concept of the unity and trinity of God is the very foundation of my Christian belief and is the root of all my personal experiences of God.
I believe the first person, God the Father, is almighty creator of heaven and earth who formed all that is, that was, and that is to come, both what can be seen and what remains unseen.
There have been times when I have known this first person of God as a loving parent caring for me as a loved child. When I have felt at risk – like when I’ve experienced great illness, or when I’ve been affected by the instability of someone threatening suicide, or when I’ve felt hopeless or helpless in my personal battles – in those moments of personal risk, I have felt God’s arms around me in a protective embrace.
I believe Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity and the Son of God, is of one substance with the Father – Jesus is the very Word of the Father. Jesus, both God and man, fully divine and fully human, and I know him to be the only Son of God.
I believe Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. I believe Jesus lived, suffered, was crucified, died and was buried in an effort to reconcile humankind to God the Father. I believe Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven – all of it, everything – will come completely together when Jesus Christ returns to the earth to judge all people.
This is the person of God who wants to know me and be my companion. This is God who stays with me through the tough times. This is who is by my side through emotions of every kind and reassures me that I am never alone.
I also know God to be the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit of God, who proceeds from and is of one substance with the Father and the Son.
In the Greek, the word is Paraclete which means advocate or helper. So another Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate, is actually another Jesus. This is the presence of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, who comes to us after Jesus (who is God the Son) ascends to God the Father.
I believe the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, leads persons through faithful response to the gospel into the fellowship of the Church. This person is a comforter, a guide, and a teacher who empowers the faithful. This is the eliminator of chaos as I continually discern my calling… and the giver of peace when a friend dies.
Now all this could sound complicated if you just throw everything out there in a jumbled mess, but maybe you could think through the whole concept by thinking of a good friend. Maybe that friend sometimes relates to you as a parent who sometimes makes you feel protected. And sometimes that friend is just that – a friend who stands by your side through thick and thin. And then sometimes that friend is someone who gives you advice and teaches you the best way to go. Individual but unified. Trinity and Unity.
Now, the person of God that Jesus is talking about in John 14 is the third person – the Holy Spirit – the person who Jesus says comes to us as a gift and who will be with us always.
Whether felt as a rushing wind sweeping over the waters at creation or seen as a dove descending in baptism, the Holy Spirit actively and vigorously leads people as a comforter, a guide and a teacher who empowers the faithful. The Spirit is the eliminator of chaos and the giver of peace. Through the movement of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to a faithful response to the gospel. God is glorified when, through the Spirit’s influence, our inner attitude is matched by our outer behavior.
In my personal life, I depend on the Holy Spirit for guidance and comfort. I am encouraged by the Spirit of God and constantly reminded of the sacrifice Jesus Christ made so that I might live.
It’s important to note, though, that this person of God is revealed to us as more than individuals. Our faithful response to the Spirit’s work moves us beyond our singleness and into the fellowship of the Church. The Spirit of God calls to us and leads us as the Church to recognize the needs of the poor and marginalized in the world. The Spirit opens our eyes to the need of inclusiveness. The Spirit pushes us to support all persons, welcoming and accepting everyone into the community of faith. What exactly does that mean? Quite simply it means that we are called to be together and seek God’s will together.
Yes, you can find Jesus at the lake on Sunday morning or in your garden or at the beach. You can be assured that God is with you when you go there. But as Christians we are called to fellowship.
The early church devoted itself to “fellowship.” Fellowship was a very important part of their reason for meeting together. It was one of their main objectives. But our modern ideas of fellowship have become so watered down that the word no longer carries the same meaning it did in New Testament times.
We are not surprised that the early church devoted itself to “the apostles’ teaching” and also “to prayer.” Apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit, these are the two most important means of growth, power, and effectiveness in the Christian life and this is everywhere evident in the rest of Scripture.
But Scripture (particularly in Acts) tells us these early Christians also devoted themselves to fellowship. They just didn’t have fellowship; they devoted themselves to fellowship. Fellowship was a priority; it was one of the objectives for gathering together. They made fellowship an imperative.
We often view fellowship as what we do in “the fellowship hall.” It’s the place where we have casual conversations and share our covered dish meals. That’s not a bad thing, and it can contribute to fellowship, but it falls far short of fellowship according to biblical standards… interpersonal relationships are so desperately needed to keep our faith glowing and growing.
If you drop off your associations with other Christians and disassociate yourself from them in worship and service, you’ll run out of spiritual enthusiasm and dedication in a short time. There is no substitute for “going to church and worshiping with others who share your faith because THIS is where we are fed by the Holy Spirit. THIS is where we come into contact with the Spirit of God who leads us in our every day lives. It’s all in the fellowship of Christian believers. It’s not in the me, but in the us.
Jesus said: If you love me, you will keep my commandments. I’ll be with you forever, the Spirit lives in you. I am coming to you. What we need to hear is that this “you” he is talking about is not the individual you. Jesus is using the second person plural. In Southern, that’s y’all. “If y’all love me, y’all will keep my commandments. Because I live, y’all are gonna live too!”
Jesus made his promise to the group, not to the single. There is nothing about individualistic faith in the New Testament. It is always about community. Being together, nourishing one another, living life together.
Now that’s a challenge for us in the COVID19-driven existence. In order to be plural, we are going to have to make some intentional efforts to be together. Life is not going to look like it did a few months ago – and there is a possibility this will go on for awhile. It may be that we never fully recover togetherness in the way we have known in the past. It doesn’t mean that worshipping together and gathering together and serving together is over. We just have to get creative right now!
Who have you checked on this week? Have you made sure someone has groceries? Have you dropped off peanut butter at the church, have you sent in your tithe, have you practiced sacrificial giving in any way?
Maybe you need to go further than that… Do you know someone who is unable to watch this sermon because they don’t have computer skills? If you are both healthy, why can’t you wear a mask and take your laptop or your tablet or even your phone and let them watch this fifteen minutes while you socially distance? If you are both in a vulnerable group, why can’t you call them and tell them what you heard or read or experienced today? Why can’t you call and sing a hymn with someone? Or pray with someone?
No, it’s probably not comfortable, but none of this IS comfortable! We are having to learn new things, and it’s pushing us out of our comfort zones, but with God’s help, every bit of this new existence can be used to glorify God in wonderful ways.
Being in Christian community doesn’t mean holding hands – it means loving each other.
There was a story awhile back (reported by the Associated Press) out of Kentucky that said: After struggling to start his car, he lifted the hood and discovered that someone had stolen the motor.
Without the fellowship of Christian believers, without surrounding ourselves by our brothers and sisters in Christ, and without the guidance and counsel of the Holy Spirit in every aspect of our lives – that story could well apply to us – without the fellowship of Christian believers, it’s like our motor has been stolen.
If you want to take that analogy a little further, think of God the Father as the vehicle, God the Holy Spirit as the motor, and God the Son Jesus Christ as the key. None will work without the other, and all are part of the same system, the vehicle, that keeps us going in the right direction.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, given to us as a gift, we are empowered to be God’s people. Worship is an encounter with the living God through the risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. And when the people of God gather, the Spirit is free to move us. Even if we have to gather differently for now. Gather means assemble and assemble means build, connect. When we connect – even if it’s not physically connect – however that looks for now – when we connect, we build the community of faith.
So the challenge and the invitation is to gather. We simply cannot be in this relationship alone. We weren’t designed for it, weren’t hard wired for it, and aren’t called to it alone.
God’s presence is in the Body of Christ… and we are devoted to the fellowship of community, devoted to the community of faith, devoted to the work of the Body in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Once upon a time there were two rulers who went into a fierce battle. Now this clash happened 2500 years ago, give or take a bit, and Leonidas, the King of Sparta, had set out to meet Xerxes of Persia – so you have Leonidas the Spartan and Xerxes the Persian in one of the most famous battles in history. Now the Spartan Army was coordinating with the Greek naval forces to fight the Persian Navy, and that meant neither the Spartan Army nor the Navy was available to go into this battle – so Leonidas took only 7000 men from some of the nearby Greek cities to face Xerxes and his huge army of hundreds of thousands of soldiers because they were headed in to take over Greece.
But Leonidas had some helpful information. He knew the area really well, and he took his little group of men to the small mountain pass of Thermopylae. Because the pass was so constricted and was the only way in to the area, Xerxes’ whole army couldn’t get through at one time – they could only go through that narrow pass a few men at a time – and for 2-3 days Leonidas’ 7000 men overtook about 20,000 of Xerxes’ soldiers.
It is said that the performance of these men – the defenders at the Battle of Thermopylae, the ones who stood in the narrow pass – their performance has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.
If they had chosen to battle all those soldiers at once, they would have been crushed. But they figured out how to battle the challenger one at a time.
As Christians, we stand in a sort of narrow pass of today. If we choose to battle everything all at once, we're going to get crushed. But if we trust God, we figure out how to battle the challenges one at a time. We will find that we have more than enough strength and courage.
In our John reading for today Jesus is teaching: Don’t worry about everything. Let not your heart be troubled. Jesus says: “The words that I speak to you aren't just words. I don't just make this stuff up. The Father who lives in me crafts each word into a divine act. Believe me; have faith.”
Faith always has been the mark of God's servants, from the beginning of the world. Faith is believing in things that are real but that cannot be seen by our eyes. Faith is our way of acknowledging all the things that God has revealed, as holy, just, and good. And our way of showing our faith is in the way we live our everyday lives.
We believe that God has a plan, and because we believe that, we don’t have the luxury of worrying about how things will work out because we have to be too busy following the path that is Jesus Christ! We know the way – Jesus is very clear when he says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Peter calls him the cornerstone of our faith. A “living” stone, he says. And that’s not meant to say that Jesus is hard and rough like a stone; it’s just that Jesus is the source of life and eternal life, and he is strong as stone, invincible and permanent; a source of protection and security.
The folks receiving Peter’s letters understand the beauty and purpose of calling Jesus a stone. They recognize the imagery from the prophet Isaiah who refers to the Messiah as ‘a stone.’ They appreciate the strength of the cornerstone knowing how the Temple is constructed – the Temple with all its majesty and religious authority in their lives. Jesus Christ the Messiah is the cornerstone, on which we are built.
And going on to declare followers of Jesus as living stones themselves, moves us to see that we make up a living temple made up of living parts. Matthew Henry described the church of God as a ‘spiritual house’ built on Christ the foundation. He said the house has strength and beauty, a variety of parts (that’s us), and usefulness of the whole. It is built with the materials of spiritual persons – furnished by grace – held together by the Spirit of God and by one common faith – used for spiritual work, to offer up spiritual sacrifices. This house is built up every day, every part of it improving, and constantly being supplied in every age by the addition of new members. New building blocks, if you will.
And for those who do not believe – who lack faith – they are going to fall over that stone. Actually, over in Matthew, Jesus says: “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
Do you see that you and your faith is what keeps the living Church from crumbling? You are standing in the narrow pass. Peter calls you a holy priesthood – there’s a lot of accountability and responsibility that comes with that.
Here’s the good news, though. This is not rocket science – not even something WE do! This isn’t essentially about what we can do. It is about what God does for us that we can’t do for ourselves.
Jesus says don’t let your hearts be troubled! That means this is not our troubles, not our worry, not our burden! We simply place ourselves in the narrow pass that is Jesus because nothing can crush us there! We are just drawn into his waiting arms one by one where it is safe.
The only thing for us to do is decide to place ourselves in that space. We decide to trust him with our hearts. Our job is to respond to Love in ways that bring us together – even in a time when individuality is prevalent and separation is encouraged.
We are better together. Even today when we are socially distanced because of a pandemic, we are better together. We are better when we join our hearts – even when we have to do that for a time through a phone call or an email or a Zoom meeting. When we join in music or mission, or ministry or fellowship, we discover that God makes us better, being built upon one another like living stones in the house of the Lord.
God is alive in our midst and begins life anew among us. Even technology-gathered us. When you look with your heart, you will see the very nature of God in those gathered around you. Through scripture we have some helpful information. If we know our environment really well, and we place ourselves in the right space, the enemy can’t get to us all at once. We still have the battles, but we don’t have to be crushed by them. And when we stand with Jesus we have courage against overwhelming odds.
I can’t believe that we will be encouraged to socially distance forever so our work now is to be ready to stand firm, to stand on the Rock that is Jesus Christ. From there – from THAT vantage point – we will feel the confidence of those who follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life – those standing in the narrow pass.
A few years ago, I was driving down my street headed home on a warm day like this one. I had the windows of the car open, and I could hear the sounds of my neighborhood. It was a good feeling until I heard something strange (but somehow familiar) coming from my own yard. As I got closer and closer to my house, I realized what I was hearing – it was my dog barking hysterically.
She had been at it awhile because her bark was very hoarse and she sounded tired, and I wondered just how long the neighbors had been listening to her.
So I parked the car and hurried to the backyard to see what all her commotion was about, and there she was – right where the fence met the corner of the house – barking and barking, completely focused on one spot in the grass.
And as I approached her, she jumped back just in time to miss a pretty good-sized snake striking at her. Immediately the snake recoiled and the dog went back to her barking stance – and before I could get to them just across the patio, there were three more strikes, three more jumps out of the way, and three more near-misses.
Now the snake never connected, and I got them separated long enough to pitch that snake over the fence and out of the dog’s sight. But when I thought about it, I realized that that dog had never taken a breath.
Once she had seen the danger of the world around her, it was as if she had determined the need to tell others and save them from the threat. She was being the family shepherd of the yard.
And I know that dogs don’t reason and think things through like you and I do, but I also know that my dog had barked every second with full commitment until her master had come. She was completely exhausted, and I wondered just how long she had been at it – but I believe that if I hadn’t come home for hours, she would have been right there committed to her cause.
In the story leading up to our Scripture text, Peter has been preaching – if we know Peter, we can probably assume he has also been barking – but he is committed to his cause, and he has invited his listeners to turn to God, be baptized, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Now Peter’s sermon may have ended with the words of those verses we read – but the TRUE end of a sermon is what happens next. The challenge is what happens in response, how we choose to approach tomorrow, what happens Monday morning. How does our lifting up the Word of God show up among the people of God?
And in Peter’s case here, three thousand people respond to Peter’s invitation. To put that in perspective for us… that’s more than forty school buses filled with people – with three people per seat! And every one of them has committed his or her life, has been baptized, and has become a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. It’s been a busy day!
And these new followers carried maximum commitment with them. They flung themselves fully into their task of barking the story until the Master comes. They approach life from this point on with drive and determination and focus… and holiness. The whole world is open to them with possibilities never before imagined. It’s like they were all new graduates, and the potentials and prospects are wide open!
And for these new converts, the first thing to do is commit to living smack dab in the middle of the community of faith. These new converts committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles beginning with the life together. And their life together began at church.
We have lots of students in our communities who are graduating from high schools and colleges, and it’s happening in a way we’ve not experienced before nor could we have really anticipated it. Their lives have been interrupted in the strangest of ways – with a virus striking from the yards of their summer year.
As we get closer and closer to a time when we might return to being together, it could not be more important to remind one another of our commitment to being together – beginning with life together at church.
Just as those early converts to Christianity realize, life begins at church. Their relationship with one another is found in their fellowship at the Temple. They never give up being good Jews in the Temple courts – they continue to worship at the Temple, but their commitment to God is bigger and stronger and deeper than anything they have ever experienced there before. This is personal. This is the largest tent revival ever known, and they are dedicated to carrying their new diploma throughout today and tomorrow and into next week and the week after that… and for the rest of their lives barking their stories without reserve. This is a certificate that is going to open doors for them – most importantly is the door to eternal life, and they are unbendable in seeking that new opportunity. Life has a new purpose – and it is unending!
These folks are persistent in the time they give to one another and unwavering in the time they give to God. And they carry that time spent in worship out into the world with them.
There is a unity here unknown before. And in that unity, they recognize the needs of one another and everyone gives according to the needs of the whole. Everyone voluntarily gives to the community so that anyone who has need could be cared for. What an example for us today!
They take care of one another understanding that this is how they are to love one another. This is social justice at the top of its game! This is total commitment to the good of the world. Passionate not just for the Scriptures and to the teaching, but completely unswerving in their task – faithful to the way of life that shows Jesus Christ to the world.
And with the center of this commitment being the worship of God, the fanatical enthusiasm for Jesus Christ as their Savior, the devotion to relationship with one another – with that as the center of their lives – with that as the center of our lives – the church grows. When you commit to developing ties within the framework of the Church, the Church grows.
“And in those relationships, day by day the Lord added to their number.” Do you hear it? In the relationships, the Church grows.
We worship together, we talk together, we pray together, we spend time together – even when it has to be through technology for a time – and we tell one another the stories of the Church. And in the togetherness, God blesses us and the Church grows.
Without the effort, though, the Church will not grow. And when you are not growing, you are dying. That’s the danger.
When I stop to think about it, I think maybe I want to be a little more like the dog. Once I’ve heard the Gospel message, and I realize the danger of the world around us, once I have found that there is a need to tell others about the saving grace of Jesus Christ, once I embrace Jesus Christ in my heart and feel compelled to spread his Word… then I have to bark every second with full commitment until my Master comes.
And it doesn’t matter if sometimes I feel completely exhausted. Nor does it matter if I feel that everything is striking against me time after time. I want to be completely committed to the cause because when we are in awe of the Living God, when we live in a wonderful harmony following a daily discipline of worship, when we celebrate as we praise God, when we are dedicated to relationship and intentional in loving and caring for one another – THAT’s when every day our number grows as God adds those who are saved, and THAT’s our fully committed response to the Word of God.