April 14, 2013

Explosive Beginnings

Alright, so this morning finds us two weeks past Easter.  Hopefully you have taken some of our last series, “Living an Easter Kind of Life,” to heart and the transition has been a bit smoother than normal.  But still, for most of us, if we’re honest, the question ringing somewhere in the back of our minds is: now what?  I mean, Easter is exciting, make no mistake about it.  With the right tools we can maintain that excitement for a time, hopefully a very long one.  Yet we must confess that the Monday after, the sun rose and life went on.  Now, for our young people, they were certainly excited since life went on without school for a few days, but then this past Monday morning when the sun came up even that was back.  Everyone went back to the grind.  Life goes on.  We have all this build up and excitement and this sense of expectation begins to grow like something is going to happen.  It was kind of like New Year’s all over again.  Are you with me?  Toward the end of December we were looking forward to the natural break point and were ready to make some changes.  Then the calendar turned over the January.  We hit the ground running and things were good for a while.  But then February dragged on longer than it seems like its 28 days should have and the weather was colder than normal so our electric bills were higher so there was a little bit less money which always makes us kind of grumpy and we couldn’t get outside as much so cabin fever started to set in and we generally hit a low point.  Then there was Easter.  The excitement started to build again and we had a couple of meaningful services and we were feeling spiritually recharged and we were ready to go and…now what?  If I could be so bold, I suspect that for many of you, the Monday after Easter didn’t feel so different from any other Monday.  And yet, in another sense, it was entirely different because you now knew some things that you perhaps didn’t know before.  You knew how to maintain the high.  You knew how to carry the joy with you all the time.  Moving forward was no longer a matter of knowledge, but of practice.  But still that question rang: now what?

This not a bad place to be.  In fact, this is exactly the place in which the disciples found themselves after Jesus went back up into heaven.  His life and ministry were amazing.  Then there was the agony of seeming defeat in the crucifixion which only made His subsequent victory in the resurrection even more amazing.  Then there were His incredible post-resurrection teachings which we don’t have written down for us anywhere that we know, but which I suspect show up in the letters written by Peter and James and Paul and John.  But then Jesus rose back into the heavens leaving the group standing there staring up after Him wondering, “Now what?”  Now what indeed.  If history is any witness, “now what” is a very good place to be.  It is a place ripe with potential for incredible things.  In fact, out of the disciples’ wrestling with “now what” came the church and the world has never been the same.

This morning we are going to launch out on a new journey.  We are going to spend the next few weeks looking at exactly what came next for Jesus’ closest followers after He left.  We are going to examine their wrestlings with “now what.”  We are as fresh off of Easter as they were.  Perhaps the ways they went about answering their question will give us some clues as to exactly how we should be answering our own.  After all, we are right now directly benefitting from their answer.  Their answer launched a movement geared at continuing what Jesus had started that has become known as the church.  In the 2,000 years since, the efforts of the church in advancing the work the disciples started have transformed the world.  And yet, still today it sometimes seems like we have not come all that far.  What more, everybody knows it whether they are inside the church or have never set foot inside one.  Church people still struggle with some of the same issues we always have.  In at least this culture traditional churches are a dying breed.  For a variety of reasons, some outside of our control, some very much within it, the opinion of the church and church people is very low.  Most people know much more about what the church is against than anything it’s for.  There are certainly some places where things are rocking and rolling, but on the whole, the church is in a place where it might be wise to take a step back and reevaluate where we are and what we’re doing.

Taking time, however, to do a detailed analysis of what Jesus followers were doing then and how we can copy that is not, I think, the way to go.  After all, there is not any one right way to do church.  There is no one method or approach which is going to be useful in every place and at every time.  Therefore, trying to simply copy the methods of our forebears isn’t going to do much to help us get a handle on how our “now what” should be answered.  Still, by all accounts, the church was doing really well then.   It was on track with the mission of Jesus and was attracting people like iron shavings to a magnet.  They were regularly connecting people to Jesus.  Are there any principles, then, we could draw from what they were doing that might reshape how we look at and think about the church?  Again, though, a detailed analysis isn’t going to help us go about looking for these.  Instead, I want to simply tell you some of the stories of those early days and we’ll see if we can’t uncover some truths in the context of the stories.  In order to do this we are going to be camping out in the book of Acts.  Acts was written by the same guy who wrote up his investigation into Jesus’ life and ministry known as Luke.  Acts is part 2 of the investigation and focuses its attention on what came next.  If you have your Bible or a Bible app of some sort, find your way to Acts 1 and we’ll start there this morning.  In this first part of the story, Luke writes about how the church actually got started.  This is an incredible story.  Are you ready?

Luke begins part 2 where he left off in part 1: with the disciples standing around with Jesus receiving His final instructions before He leaves the scene.  They were gathered on the Mount of Olives a little over half a mile outside the walls of Jerusalem.  As they all arrived, the moment seemed thick with anticipation.  Feeling like something important was about to happen, the first question the disciples asked Jesus was: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  They still didn’t get it.  After three years with Jesus before He died and now forty days with Him after His resurrection, they still didn’t get that the kingdom He kept proclaiming was about more than just Israel.  Now, I would have been tempted to write them off, but Jesus, patient as always, merely turned their attention back to the task at hand: “You don’t need to worry about what God has planned there.  Besides, it’s not Me who’s going to do what comes next.  You will.  You’re about to get some serious help with the necessary power through the Holy Spirit.  When that happens, you are to go out and bear witness to everything I said and did starting here and then moving outward to the ends of the earth.”  With those words, Jesus rose up into the sky and disappeared into a cloud.  The disciples stood there, dumbfounded, staring up into the sky until a couple of angels gave them a rhetorical kick in the pants: “Stop staring up into the sky.  He’ll be back.  Right now, go and get to work.”

When the group of Jesus followers, numbering 120 men and women, settled back in Jerusalem, there was first some business to attend to.  Indeed, one of the things to do while waiting for an answer to the “now what” is to get busy doing the things that will be necessary to allow the answer to be implemented.  If we’re not ready for God when He calls us to action we’ll be more likely to miss out.  In this case, Jesus had originally formed the disciples as a group of twelve for a reason.  And yet sitting there, only eleven were left.  Judas, in grief over his betrayal of Jesus, had gone out and committed suicide after throwing the money he’d been given for his dirty deed back at the priests in a belated attempt to stop what he had set in motion.  The priests, not knowing what to do with the money since it was ceremonially unclean and could not be used for temple purposes—the irony of such should be readily apparent—decided to use it to purchase the field where all this happened and named it the “Field of Blood.”  Luke tells us that everyone in Jerusalem knew about this infamous field.  Little details like this, by the way, help confirm our sense that this isn’t all just made up to be a good story, but is actual history.  The historical reality for the disciples, though, is that they need to replace him.

It’s Peter who takes the lead on this point.  This in itself is remarkable because Peter was a wreck after the crucifixion.  With his denial of Jesus and abandoning Him in His moment of need after being scolded for attempting to come to His aid in the manner He deemed appropriate (namely, cutting off a guy’s ear) all behind him, Peter was about the least likely candidate for leader of the group.  If anything, John should have taken that role since he actually bothered to show up for the crucifixion and was entrusted with the care of Jesus’ mother.  Yet with his resurrection confidence fully on display, Peter shows how Judas’ betrayal and end were foretold in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures and furthermore, that his being replaced was predicted as well.  The group then got together, settled on two possibilities, laid the whole process before the Lord in prayer, and cast lots to decide which man was the right choice.  Now the whole casting lots thing here feels kind of weird to us since it seems like they should be, you know, trusting the Holy Spirit and prayer for this kind of a decision.  But we need not let ourselves get hung up on it because, 1. the Holy Spirit hadn’t come yet so they couldn’t ask Him, and 2. casting lots was how people made big decisions like this back then.  Well, when the lots are cast they point to a man named Matthias who replaces Judas as the twelfth apostle.  This, by the way, is an important language change.  From this point forward, all followers of Jesus are referred to as disciples.  The original eleven plus Matthias are now consistently referred as the apostles, or “the sent ones.”  They are no longer simply learners, they are leaders sent by Jesus to accomplish a mission.

For the next few days the group continued to gather together and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Then it happened.  The day was Pentecost.  Pentecost was one of the two major harvest festivals for the Jews.  Because of where it happened to fall in the year travel conditions were such that it was the best attended of any of the Jewish festivals.  Tens of thousands of people from all over the region crowded into the already crowded city.  It was during this celebratory moment that the full group of Jesus followers was gathered together and suddenly it sounded like a tornado had blown into the room.  As the disciples—again, I’m talking about all 120 men and women gathered there—try to make sense of this wind that’s not a wind, suddenly a symbol that looks like a candle flame appears over each of their heads.  Then, as if all of that weren’t enough, they all began spontaneously speaking in languages other than the Aramaic native to them.  Now, if something like this happened here where we have thick walls with brick exterior and closed doors, short someone pulling out their smart phone and posting a video to Facebook or YouTube, no one would know about it.  But, in a house with open windows and thin walls and in a city so packed with people as to make walking around the mall at Christmastime seem like a lonely stroll in the woods, the sound of all these different languages being spoken drew a crowd.

The crowd included people from all over the known world.  There were people from Parthia, Media, Elam, and Mesopotamia to the east of the Empire, from the Arabian Peninsula to the south, from Egypt, Libya, and Cyrene along the northern coast of Africa, from Cappadocia, Pontus, Pamphylia, Phrygia, and Asia to the north, from Crete in the Mediterranean, and even from as far away as Rome.  All of them heard the group of disciples not only speaking in a language they understood, but heard them proclaiming the mighty works of God.  This kind of an experience went completely beyond what they were equipped to interpret.  The more thoughtful members of the crowd marveled while the more juvenile mocked: “They must be drunk!”

It was into this chaos that Peter, whose resurrection confidence was now paired with the limitless power of the Holy Spirit, proclaimed the Gospel.  Like any good preacher he began by making a connection: We’re not drunk.  It’s only nine in the morning!  Once he has their attention he gets a bit more serious.  Look at Acts 2:22 with me: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did thorough him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.  God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”  And then from v. 36: “Let all the house of Israel therefore known for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”  With the full power of the Holy Spirit filling Peter’s message the words cut straight to the heart of the crowd who could only respond: “What shall we do?”  In other words: Now what?  Peter made it plain: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”  And Peter went on like this for a great while, but at the end of the day, some 3,000 people embraced the message and mission of Jesus.

And while this was another powerful moment in a great string of powerful moments, they were still left with yet another “Now what.”  So the Jesus movement had exploded into something exponentially larger than its beginnings.  How did it happen?  What allowed this to take place?  What elements are present in churches today that are reproducing the incredible movement and excitement of this initial gathering of Jesus followers?  How did their answer to the “now what” give rise to what we have today?  What do we as a church do with this story?

Well, somewhat helpfully, Luke includes a little summary at the end of this piece of the story to help clarify what is most important here.  From 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.  And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  Now, before we wrap this up, think about that.  Every single day there were new people coming to faith in Christ.  What would it take for something like that to be true of us?  What was it that this group of Jesus followers was doing that resulted in so many people connecting to Christ?  And if you are here and you’re not totally sure what you want to do with the whole Jesus thing or maybe you aren’t totally sold that this is the church where you want to commit your energies, you can check out for the rest of this because I’m going to talk to the regulars for a few minutes.  Although if you listen closely, you’re going to get a bit of the picture of the kind of church you’d be taking part in.

I think there were three things that allowed this to happen and it takes all of them.  With Peter’s initial sermon as their guide, the Jesus followers powerfully proclaimed the Gospel message: Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus rose, you need to believe in Him.  The disciples did not merely proclaim Jesus’ words, though, they lived them.  They practiced the radical love of Christ.  They were radically generous.  They each gave what they could and beyond and used the money to meet physical needs around them.  Historically speaking we know all of this continued because 300 years later a pagan Emperor complained in a letter that the Christians were better at loving pagans than the pagans themselves were.  The first two pieces here, then, are powerful words and loving actions.  Powerful words and loving actions are absolutely essential to see the disciples’ answer to the “now what” continue to roll in our churches today.  But there is one more necessary piece: an attractive community.  Connections happen through word, deed, and community.

There are ministry groups out there today whose focus is on powerful words and loving actions.  They do a lot of great work in Jesus’ name.  But rarely do they see lives changed on a consistent, sustained basis.  The reason for this is that they are missing by virtue of not being the church the final critical element: an attractive community.  I use both of those words intentionally.  The disciples back then could have simply formed a tight-knit community, gone out to proclaim Jesus’ words and perform some loving actions, and came back together to pat themselves on the back for how good they were doing at continuing Jesus’ mission.  Indeed, connections happen through word, deed, and community.  But it’s not just any community that will do.  The disciples created an attractive community, a community that everyone wanted to be a part of.  It wasn’t a community where people showed up, did their duty, and then went back home to focus on their own thing.  It was a place where everyone shared life together.  They fellowshipped together, they broke bread together, they served together, they learned together, they all had a place and to the extent they were capable with the Spirit’s help they filled it.  There were expectations of them that were high and there were meaningful repercussions for not meeting these.  It was a community where everyone was accepted just as they were regardless of any social distinctions and yet they were never left there.  They were all consistently and intentionally called to become fully who God designed them to be.  In other words it was a loving community.  A community like this draws people in.  They can’t resist it.  And when you pair an attractive community with powerful words and loving actions life change is a regular occurrence.  Indeed, connections happen through word, deed, and community.

So then, what do you do with this when I pray and send you out of here in just a minute?  Here’s what you do.  I suspect many of you are wrestling with your own “now what.”  It might be related to Easter.  It might not.  In fact, I can only think of a couple of reasons why you wouldn’t be pondering a “now what” from time to time: you either don’t care or you have everything figured out.  If the former I can’t help you much, but if the latter I’d like to hear how to solve everything.  In any event, as you wrestle with your “now what” as it relates to this church let this principle from the first church guide your thinking: connections happen through word, deed, and community.  Are we proclaiming Jesus’ words powerfully?  If not, how can we do it more effectively?  Are we practicing the radically loving actions of Jesus?  If not, how could we better seek to remain committed to these?  Do we have an attractive community?  Is our community a place where all people, but particularly unchurched people, love to be?  Are we doing everything possible short of sin to create a place where people absolutely know they matter?  How could we do this even better than we already are?  I want to hear from you.  Dream with me a little bit here, friends: what would it be like to say that God was adding to our number daily those who were being saved?  What are we willing to do to see that happen?  Connections happen through word, deed, and community.  Let’s make sure we’re following the first church in pursuing all three.