April 11, 2010

A Community Transformed

Jesus is risen! What a thing to be able to celebrate. Yet imagine the place of the disciples once Jesus left. Just prior to His ascension Jesus promised the disciples that they would receive the Holy Spirit very soon. Upon this assurance they asked Him if He was going to set up His kingdom in Israel right then. He had spent a lot of time talking about His coming kingdom. They were ready to go. He had definitively demonstrated His identity by coming back from the dead. There was no question to them that He was who He said He was and that meant He was able to do what He said He would do. They wanted to see it done. We would have been the same way. Our preference is for action. We are not a patient people. Who can blame us? When you consider that our life spans do not even constitute a full blink in the eye of eternity it makes sense that we want to see something happen in our lifetimes. But Jesus didn.t bite (He had an irritating habit of that…). He focused their attention on the more important thing: the coming of the Holy Spirit in the near future. That event was coming soon and they needed to be ready for it. When He did come, they were going to be able to be His witnesses throughout the world. Notice the order there? The Holy Spirit would come first and then they would be able to be His witnesses. In other words, they weren.t going to be able to do it without Him. As a people of God, we can.t do our main job (bearing witness to the risen Christ) apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. And if you think about it that makes perfect sense. Dead people don.t get up from the ground. Nobody.s going to believe that happened unless the Holy Spirit enables them to do so. Thus, if we are not filled with the Holy Spirit at every point, if He is not empowering our ministry at each juncture, then we are nothing but a religious club hopelessly swimming upstream against the relentless tide of the world. The coming of the Holy Spirit was one of the great promises of the Gospel of the kingdom and the Gospel changes everything.

Once Jesus had told them all of this He ascended up into the sky and disappeared in a cloud. Well, after this incredible experience, the disciples did just what we would have done: they stayed there looking up, relishing what once was. In the same way, after we have an experience with the risen Lord we want to savor the moment. We want it to last forever. We want that campy, mountaintop high to not be a once in a while thing, but to be an every moment of every day experience. Yet this is not how things work and soon the disciples noticed two men in white clothes standing nearby watching them. These angels encouraged them that Jesus would in fact return some day and sent them back to Jerusalem. Can you imagine the conversations that were taking place among them? Here they were, left behind with the task of bearing witness to the risen Christ to the entire world. They were eleven poor, uneducated men and a small group of women who really didn.t count as far as the broader culture was concerned. Apart from this core were a sundry of other men and women who had experienced the risen Christ bringing their total number to 120. (That.s about the same number of folks we have in this church when everybody is here on the same Sunday.) They were to bear witness to a message that the ruling religious elite had sold their souls to Rome in order to keep quiet. And now the figurehead of their movement had left them. Yet this wasn.t the same gathering that took place after the crucifixion when they were locked in the upper room for fear of being found by the authorities and charged with being Jesus. followers. After spending forty days with the risen Christ they understood in a much more profound way the power of the Gospel. Rest assured the Gospel changes everything, so they were ready for whatever God had in store for them.

Not long after this when they were gathered together, the Holy Spirit did come. Luke describes the event like the sound of a wind rushing into the room. It came from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. And then all of a sudden they all began speaking in different languages, literally different tongues. They poured out of this upper room, still speaking in tongues and the people gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost watched in curious awe. And wouldn.t you have? People love a spectacle. The bigger and more outlandish the better. So a crowd gathered and eventually people cried out: “What.s going on here?” When Luke tells this story he lists the different languages this group newly baptized in the Holy Spirit were speaking. There were fifteen different languages from all over the Roman Empire and even outside of the Empire. This means there were people gathered there from all over the known world. All these people heard the Christ-followers speaking their own language. Yes, they asked: “What.s going on here?” And someone even shouted out: “They.re just drunk on cheap wine!” Yet this was no work of wine but of the Gospel, and let me tell you: the Gospel changes everything.

Now, you might be thinking: how are you going to say the Gospel changes everything? The word “Gospel” simply means good news; euangelion in Greek. Isn.t it the Spirit that does the changing? How can a simple story make much of a difference in the world, in our hearts? Listen to some words from Paul in the first chapter of Romans: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God.s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, „The righteous by faith will live..” This is why the Gospel matters. The Gospel matters because God in His grace and mercy has chosen to use this simple story to reveal Himself to the world. The Gospel changes everything. And the next thing we find here is Peter telling this gathered crowd exactly how. In fact, the rest of the book of Acts is about how the Gospel first changed this group of 120 Christ-followers and then how they went out and changed the world. We are still living today on the power of what they started nearly 2,000 years ago. In light of this, we are going to spend the rest of this month looking at three places in Acts where three different Christ-followers in three different contexts to three different audiences tell the story of the Gospel. We.ll start this morning in Acts 2:14—find your Bibles and turn there with me. Here, in Peter.s response to the crowd that thought they were just all intoxicated, we find the sermon that jump-started the Church. And the Church changed the world. All this because of a little good news. Let us see friends, how the Gospel changes everything.

As the murmurs in the gathering crowd build to a dull roar Peter finally addresses the curious onlookers. This only makes sense as Peter had always been the mouthpiece of the disciples. Listen to his words as he both defends and explains what.s going on here. “Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren.t drunk as some of you suspect. They haven.t had time to get drunk—it.s only nine o.clock in the morning. [This was probably a laugh line. What the translator didn.t include was, “Now if it were ten o.clock…”] This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen: „“In the Last Days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters; Your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams. When the time comes, I.ll pour out my Spirit on those who serve me, men and women both, and they.ll prophesy. I.ll set wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billowing smoke, the sun turning black and the moon blood-red, before the Day of the Lord arrives, the Day tremendous and marvelous; and whoever calls out for help to me, God, will be saved.”.”

Now, the natural question here is: what on earth is Peter talking about? His defense of the men and women from the upper room is understandable, but what does it have to do with the long quote from the prophet Joel about people prophesying? Verse 11 simply said that the group was proclaiming the mighty works of God, not prophesying. Prophesying has to do with the future. Actually, in its most basic form, prophesying is simply delivering the words of God to His people. It can even be as basic as proclaiming the mighty acts of God to a listening world. And furthermore, the Old Testament prophets did spend a fair bit of time talking about the future, but they spent even more time talking about the present. And Peter here is talking about his present. Here.s the reality Peter is proclaiming in these words: the Last Days are upon us. They have in fact come. What Peter is arguing here is that the Last Days began at some point during the life and ministry of Christ and we are now in the place of awaiting their fulfillment. This is called inaugurated eschatology—there.s you.re technical term for the morning. What this means is that the power of God is free to operate in the world through His people. The Holy Spirit is here and working. He is working through every kind of people on earth as the passage from Joel makes clear. There is no one who is unfit to be a minister of the Gospel of God. God can and does take literally anyone who is willing and uses them to accomplish His purposes in the world through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Anyone who calls on the name of Christ in faith and belief will be saved. This is the fruit of Jesus. labor on the cross. This is why the apostle John would later write that no one can say “Jesus is Lord” from the heart but that the Holy Spirit is in them, filling them with the same power available to these who were in the upper room. In other words, every person who claims the name of Jesus is a minister of the Gospel, not just the folks who get paid to do it full-time. This is the joy of serving a risen Savior. As far as the ministry of God.s kingdom was concerned, there had been nothing like this to ever happen before. This was the result of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel changes everything.

The next thing Peter does here is to actually proclaim the message of the Gospel to the crowd. This was the first time such a thing had been done by someone other than Jesus in any kind of an organized fashion. Listen to Peter.s words and imagine what it would have been like to have been in the crowd hearing all this for the first time in history. Follow along with me starting back up in v. 22: “Fellow Israelites, listen carefully to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man thoroughly accredited by God to you—the miracles and wonders and signs that God did through him are common knowledge—this Jesus, following the deliberate and well-thought-out plan of God, was betrayed by men who took the law into their own hands, and was handed over to you. And you pinned him to a cross and killed him. But God untied the death ropes and raised him up. Death was no match for him. David said it all: „I saw God before me for all time. Nothing can shake me; he.s right by my side. I.m glad from the inside out, ecstatic; I.ve pitched my tent in the land of hope. I know you.ll never dump me in Hades; I.ll never even smell the stench of death. You.ve got my feet on the life-path, with your face shining sun-joy all around.. Dear friends, let me be completely frank with you. Our ancestor David is dead and buried—his tomb is in plain sight today. But being also a prophet and knowing that God had solemnly sworn that a descendant of his would rule his kingdom, seeing far ahead, he talked of the resurrection of the Messiah—„no trip to Hades, no stench of death.. This Jesus, God raised up. And every one of us here is a witness to it. Then, raised to the heights at the right hand of God and receiving the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he poured out the Spirit he had just received. That is what you see and hear. For David himself did not ascend to heaven, but he did say, „God said to my Master, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a stool for resting your feet.”. All Israel, then, know this; There.s no longer room for doubt—God made him Master and Messiah, this Jesus whom you killed on a cross.”

What powerful words these are. Peter demonstrates in a definitive way from both Scripture and history that Jesus is Lord and Messiah. What Peter gives here is the basic message of the Gospel. Jesus came and was killed by sinful people. God raised Him from the dead. He was glorified. The Old Testament said all this was going to happen well ahead of time. In light of all this there is only one reasonable response. Today when we think about presenting the Gospel we like to put a lot of different things with it. We want to wrap it in all kinds of cultural garb that will make it easier to swallow. The mindset this reflects, though, is that we doubt the power of the Gospel itself. Now, does this mean we can have one set presentation of the Gospel to be used in very single circumstance regardless of any cultural considerations? Of course not. In fact, Peter tailors this presentation to his audience. He presents Jesus as the true heir of David who will sit on the throne for all time. Such a line of reasoning wouldn.t carry as much weight with modern audiences as it did with Peter.s. But, this does not mean that we need to add anything to the story in order for it to really connect with people; to soften its edges, so to speak. If it is our stories they are connecting to then they are necessarily not connecting with the Gospel itself and that.s where the real power lies. The Gospel changes everything, not simply our stories about it. At the end Peter comes down to a very simple ultimatum: there.s no longer room for doubt. A bit more literally Peter exclaims: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know with certainty…” In other words, the power of the Gospel is that it opens us to be able to know without question the identity and power of Jesus Christ. Friends, this is a much needed message in a culture that casts down all truth as relative because in our heart of hearts we long for truth. Indeed, we were designed to live in light of the truth. In a milquetoast world, the story of the Gospel gives us something to really sink our teeth into. The Gospel changes everything.

In this case, the Gospel, as proclaimed through Peter, spoke right to the hearts of the crowd. Stay with me in v. 37: “Cut to the quick, those who were there listening asked Peter and the other apostles, „Brothers! Brothers! So now what do we do?.” Incidentally, wouldn.t it be awesome if every time we shared the Gospel we got this kind of a response? As we.ll see in a couple of weeks, it didn.t always go so well for the apostles. And while we sadly cheer that instance given that it makes us feel better about our own ineptitude in this area, we still have the promise from Scripture that the words of God always accomplish His purpose for them. God can still use us even when we are tripping over ourselves in His way. Continuing: “Peter said, „Change your life. Turn to God and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so your sins are forgiven. Receive the Holy Spirit.” Let me stop here briefly to say that the phrase “so your sins are forgiven” modifies “turn to God,” not “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” Baptism does not save us, but neither could the early Christians have imagined a believer who had not been baptized by full immersion since that.s what the word means in its plainest sense. Verse 39: “„The promise is targeted to you and your children, but also to all who are far away—whomever, in fact, our Master God invites.. He went on in this vein for a long time, urging them over and over, „Get out while you can; get out of this sick and stupid culture!.” What this last part means is that we don.t have the full sermon Peter gave here but a concise summary of it hitting the most important parts. Peter.s real call here was for his listeners to get out of the world and into the kingdom through the power of the Gospel. This call to “get out of this sick and stupid culture” was of course aimed at his listeners, but it is also aimed at us. Every generation has turned on God wholesale and if we insist on keeping our allegiance with our culture instead of with God, we cannot truthfully claim to have fully embraced the message of the Gospel. We are to be citizens of the kingdom of God first and the United States of America second. There is no single culture that is totally reflective of the reality of the kingdom. In fact, the history of Christianity is littered with stories about believers trying to make such a culture. The problem is that we always get in the way. Ultimately sin corrupted every one of them. They are all sick with sin and stupid in their refusal to embrace the truth. But the power of the Gospel is that it can call people out of their culture to a lifestyle that adequately reflects the kingdom reality. The Gospel changes everything. And indeed: “that day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.”

Here then at the end is the real meat for we who claim to have already embraced the life-changing power of the Gospel. It boils down to this question: how has the Gospel changed us? In what ways are we as both individuals and as a church reflective of the reality of the kingdom? Look at how it changed this early community: “Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! [We may not hear about as many stories of dramatic healings and other miracles as there apparently were going on back then, but perhaps that.s not because God is not still powerfully at work in His world as it is our self-induced blindness to His powerful works thanks to a century-and-a-half.s training to not think in those terms anymore.] And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person.s need was met. [This is not necessarily a picture of some communist/collectivist commune, but perhaps of the believers giving generously and sacrificially to the ministry of the fledgling church which in turn used the money for the meeting of needs in its community…kind of like what we do today.] They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. [These first believers worshiped together and fellowshipped together. That.s part of what sustained them. If worship and fellowship together are not a regular part of our lives, we will not have what it takes to live the life God calls us to live.] People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.” Make no mistake friends: the Gospel changes everything.

What we can see here are examples of these early followers of Christ developing a culture of among other things belonging, learning, and serving. These are exactly what we are all about as a congregation. The reality in which we dwell as people of God, as followers of Jesus Christ must be one thoroughly shaped by the power of the Gospel. This will and should look differently for each local arm of the body of Christ—the Church—but it will be present in a way obvious to all who care to look. For us at Central, the power of the Gospel is shaping us into a community where people can truly belong to God and to one another and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they matter. Ours is a community where people can learn what they need to know about the Christian faith and experience the empowerment this brings. Finally, this community is a place where people can put their knowledge into practice by engaging their world for Christ through Christian service. This is the way the Gospel is working on this community. I encourage you to take some time this week to think about how the Gospel has changed your life and it what ways it still could. Then next week we will come together and take a look at a specific story of the life-changing ower of the Gospel.