Sermon preached today at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Northampton, MA.
Throughout this holy Season of Easter one of the scripture lessons every Sunday is always from the Acts of the Apostles – the story of the earliest days of the Jesus Movement. In this sermon let’s look at the major themes of this book and see what it tells us about how to live as followers of Jesus now. That is a big job to do in one sermon. And if I had to get you out of here for a Red Sox game that starts at one pm, it would be impossible. But the Sox don’t play until 8 pm tonight, so we have some time.
It is interesting that this book is called The ACTS of the Apostles. Not the “ideas” of the Apostles. Not the “prayers” of the Apostles. No, it is the ACTS of the Apostles. When we follow Jesus, stuff is going to happen. My favorite theologian, Walter Bruggemann, writes:
“The whole book of Acts is about power from God that the world cannot shut down. In scene after scene, there is a hard meeting between the church and worldly authorities, because worldly authorities are regularly baffled by this new power and resentful of it.” At one point, in chapter 17, the followers of Jesus are accused of “turning the world upside down.”
Or as our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, says, this new world “is really right side up.” They proclaimed the Resurrection of Jesus and therefore the old powers of death were no longer capable of defining reality. They attested that new power had been turned loose in the world that evoked new patterns of social practice and new waves of truth.
Those new patterns of social practice were oh so evident in the earliest days. Right after Pentecost that day when Peter and his friends baptized “around 3000 people” (we are not sure it was really 3000. Preachers tend to round up attendance figures to the next thousand. That is why when I am at a meeting later this afternoon and someone asks me how many people were at church at St. John’s today, I’ll say “a good crowd. About a thousand.”) Here is the description of the church:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
Sounds good, right? They even renamed one of the new members “Barnabas” which means “son of encouragement.” Wouldn’t you love to have a son or daughter of encouragement in your life? Someone saying “you can do this, you can do this, I believe in you.”
That was chapters two, three and four. In chapter five there is trouble in paradise. Remember how everyone shared their money so no one would be in need? A couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold some property and they kept some of the money for themselves. Peter found out about it and called them out. They were so ashamed they dropped dead on the spot. (Now I will admit that when I was a rector and there was a year when pledging was slow, I felt tempted to tell this story from Acts 5, but I resisted the temptation.)
Evidence that the church was never perfect, right from the beginning. More evidence. One time Paul was preaching to a community gathered on the second floor of a house. A boy was sitting on a window sill, fell asleep during the sermon and fell out the window to what seemed like his death. Paul ran out and brought him back to life. You see, the sermons were not always great. This has always been a flawed church.
What kept this “less than perfect” Jesus Movement going? In the next seven minutes I will offer you five dimensions of a Movement that changes the world – and maybe even you and me.
1. The Jesus Movement kept going because they built bridges instead of walls. Today’s story from Acts is a perfect example. Peter overcomes all his inhibitions and reaches out to Cornelius – someone not of his tribe. As my brother bishop, Rob Wright of Atlanta, puts it so well:
“God’s circle of love is enlarging. Too often we have painted our fear of others onto God. We’ve confused being closed to others with being faithful to God. But the Spirit gave Peter a vision of humanity without distinctions. A Spirit that defies death and opens tombs. A Spirit that whispers to us ‘who are you to hinder God’?”
2. The Jesus Movement kept going because it was a “learning community.” Here’s an example. In chapter 12, Peter was arrested by King Herod. He was bound in chains and several guards watched over him. When they fell asleep, an angel came to Peter and set him free. Peter escaped the prison. The next day when Herod heard Peter got away, he ordered all the guards executed.
Go to chapter 16. This time Paul and Silas are arrested. I told you the early Christians were always in trouble with the government. This time the guards took extra precautions. Paul and Silas were placed in the “innermost cell” with their feet fastened in stocks. There was no angel this time, but an earthquake that broke open the chains and made the doors fly open. Paul and Silas could have easily escaped. But they didn’t. They stayed right there. When the guard came the next morning and saw the doors open, he took his sword out to kill himself, knowing that his boss would have him executed for letting the prisoners escape. Then he heard Paul’s voice “do not harm yourself. We are all here.” The jailer ran in, saw Paul and Silas, and realized they stayed to save his life. He was so moved by this act of compassion he said “sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And by that he meant really saved. What would it take to turn away from the world of cynicism and hate and toward a new world of hope and compassion? And then to show he wasn’t merely giving intellectual assent to this new way of living, the jailer “washed their wounds.” He joined their mission of mercy, compassion and hope.
You see, the Jesus Movement learned something from the arrest of Peter in chapter twelve to the arrest of Paul and Silas in chapter sixteen. God’s revelation is never finished.
3. The Jesus Movement is never a finished product.
4. The Jesus Movement continued because it was immersed in prayer. No, the Jesus Movement did not “simply” pray. They acted. They worked to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it, but those actions were always connected to their relationship with the Living God. True for them and true for us. My spiritual hero, Thomas Merton, wrote:
“If we dare to go to the deepest part of our souls, there we will be in immediate and direct contact with God.”
Let me give you a term you can toss around at a party sometime. “Supernatural existential.” It comes from the theologian Karl Rahner who says we are all created with an inbuilt capacity for God. Our existence (existential) that is open to the divine, the supernatural.
5. The Jesus Movement rolled on because the early church believed that what Jesus did can still be done now because the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ still lives among us. Jesus’ life was not a one-time event consigned to history books, but is repeated now and forever.
There are numerous examples in Acts but I will stay with just one because you might have something else to do before the game at 8 pm. In a story you heard in this church last week from Chapter Nine, a wonderful woman named Tabitha became ill and died. We know she was wonderful because we are told “she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” Among her acts of charity was making clothes for poor widows – widows who in that time and culture might literally starve to death without the income only men could acquire. Peter is told of her death, and when he gets to her room, it is filled with widows crying. Peter prays and says, “Tabitha, get up!”- the same way he saw Jesus do that for a little girl a couple of years earlier. Tabitha comes back to life and it is witnessed by “saints and widows.”
My go-to-theologian Walter Brueggemann says:
“The wonder is witnessed only by saints and widows. What a pair! The saints are those who did not flee from the smell of death. The widows are those who live every day in their vulnerability. The non-saints, the ones who fear death, were gone and did not see the miracle. The anti-widows, the ones who work death on the weak, were not there. It takes a certain kind of witness to see the newness. They stayed in the chamber of death and were there for the surprising gift of new life.”
I could go on well past 8 pm about what that says about issues of social justice, but instead let’s make it personal. Let’s spend the final three minutes of this sermon inviting the same Spirit that worked so powerfully in the life of Jesus of Nazareth 2000 years ago, the same Spirit that continued in the early years of the Jesus Movement, into our lives right here, right now. Let’s use this powerful story of Tabitha for our own lives. I invite you to sit as comfortably as you can in those wooden pews. If you want, you can close your eyes.
In the story, Tabitha has died. Is there a part of your soul that has died? A dream gone, a hope dashed. Or is there a situation in your life that feels like death? Get in touch with that situation, that feeling. The Tabitha in you.
But Tabitha is not alone. Some stay with her even though the situation is hopeless. They do it out of love. Each and every person here has done that sometime in your life. You stayed at someone’s bedside, you taught someone who seemed to resist learning, you supported friends who were going through a tough time. It was hard. But you did it. For a moment, get in touch with that dimension of yourself. The part of you that is faithful.
Now bring the faithful you, the saints and widows in the story, into contact with the Tabitha in you, the place, the situation, that feels dead.
And now Peter enters the room. Like Jesus, he is not afraid of death. He does not bring despair. He brings hope and life. He has power. For a moment, get in touch with the power of your soul. That supernatural existential. That place where you know God’s love, where you know God’s mercy, where you know God’s hope. The power is truly in you. It was given to you in your baptism. Stay with that power for a moment.
Now bring that power through the faithful crowd that surrounds Tabitha. Bring that power to the place in you that feels dead. And in your soul, hear the words, “get up. Be alive. Remember love is stronger than death and to that love you are returned.” Amen.