Monday, May 26, 2014

The Story: a sermon on Acts 2:36-47 (and how the end is really the beginning)

This was my sermon on my last day at Light of the World.

Scripture:  Acts 2:36-47

Peter spoke to the people, telling them the story of God and Jesus from the very beginning, concluding, "Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods 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. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.



Today we move from the gospels into the book of the Acts of the Apostles.  It’s a part II to Luke’s gospel specifically; the writer introduces both books the same way:  to Theophilus, Greek for “lover of God.”  And Luke begins the book of Acts by explaining that the disciples looked to the risen Christ and said “So you’re going to wipe out all the Romans now, right?  Now that you’re back from the dead?”  And Jesus sort of smiles gently and says “That’s not really why I’ve called you all here.  You are going to receive power from the Holy Spirit, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in the surrounding countries of Judea and Samaria, and you know what -- to all the ends of the earth.”

So the Acts of the Apostles is the book of the Bible that tells the stories of all the disciples becoming apostles, becoming people sent out to the very far corners of the globe to preach the good news of God come to us in Jesus Christ.

In today’s story Peter and all the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem, preaching and teaching about God’s deeds of power through Jesus.  Peter tells the assembled crowd:  “God knew that you would hand Jesus over to death, and you did -- you crucified him.  But our ancestor David, the great king David, whose kingdom was supposed to last forever -- he died, and his kingdom is over, but Jesus his descendent did not stay dead.  This Jesus is Messiah and Lord.”

And the people gathered are cut to the heart, and three thousand of them join the Christian church that day.  They are cut to the heart -- they are pierced all the way down, the Greek says:  katanusso.  It’s the same word for when Jesus’ side is pierced on the cross.  Something about what Peter says gets them right here, pierces them, life-changingly.

And so they join the church.  By their actions they proclaim:  This story is greater than any other story.  Greater than religious ritual that tries to manipulate God; greater than political power that tries to dominate others.  This story of Jesus of Nazareth, who did deeds of power and wonders and signs, who was crucified and died and was buried and rose again -- this story is greater than death.

These people knew death.  In some ways death was closer to them than it is to us.  People died much younger, and at home.  Babies died.  Children were lost.  Many of the common jobs in first-century Judea were dangerous:  fishing in stormy seas, guarding herds of sheep against hungry wolves.  And Peter is speaking to a crowd of Jews -- people who are under the oppression of Rome, people who are not unaccustomed to seeing their hopes destroyed by their ruler’s violent ways of shutting down protests and silencing calls for justice.

Some of us live in that place, too.  Some of us fight cancer diagnoses and sick bodies and broken minds, parts of us that we can’t get away from and make every day feel like a struggle.  We watch our loved ones fight for life.  We pray over babies and we mourn our friends.  This is real and it is scary and I don’t like it.  I don’t like that even two thousand years later life can still be as precarious as it was for a sheep out among wolves.

I like life much better when it’s controllable.  When I can fit it inside my hands, like clay, like marbles.  And I don’t think I’m alone in this; I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to keep things safe.  To make things easy.  And sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if when we hold on to things, when we cling to our own security and wealth and power, when we do not want to share, we might be dangerously close to looking at whatever our hands have a white-knuckle grip on and saying “This -- this is life.”

And into all this Peter has come and said No -- this [the cross] is life.

And you know the frustrating thing is that I think he’s right.  Because I have tried, God knows I have tried, to make a life out of the things I can hold.  To say this money, or this job -- or this relationship -- is life, and I will cling to it with everything I have.  Completely ignoring how that clinging turns into a cage.  How whatever I am trying to control soon gets control of me.  How trying to fit my life into something I can grasp often turns into me breaking myself, cutting off the parts of me that can’t fit into my clenched hands.

And Peter says Save yourself from this corrupt generation, from this clinging, this hoarding, this fear, this breaking of yourself down so you can fit into your own tight fist.  Save yourself from that kind of death.  It might look like life, it might move and breathe and talk like life, but this isn’t life.  This [the cross] is life, that God sent Jesus.  This is life, that God knew us, knew that we would try to squeeze down this crazy Jesus message of mercy and hope, that we would try to hold it and when we couldn’t hold it we would seal it up inside a tomb.  This is life, that even death could not hold Jesus.

That’s the story that made three thousand people believers -- that this man Jesus is freedom, is hope, is life, and smallness and fear and even death has no more power.

This is the story that made thousands of people bold enough to sell what they had and share it; to gather every day for worship and prayer; to praise God and care for everyone around them.  

And so over time they became part of the story; this little church of three thousand believers in Jerusalem, who kept growing by tens and hundreds and thousands more, until the day came when one of them whose name was Luke said “We’d better write this down.”  And so the believers came to be a part of the story of Jesus, the story of life that is stronger than death.

So let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was a little group of people who were looking for life.  Some of them had looked in church and they hadn’t quite found it there.  Some of them had looked inside their big houses and their large yards and they hadn’t quite found it there, either.  

And they came together, and they heard each other’s stories.  They broke bread in their homes, and in a golf course, and in an elementary school gymnasium.  They met together to pray.  They talked about trusting God in their finances; those who could, gave, and the funds were distributed to those in need.  They painted a house, and marched in parades, and packed food for Feed My Starving Children.  And every Sunday they met, and sang, and praised God, and prayed for one another, and learned together, and broke bread and found Jesus there.  And sometimes they would turn to each other, and make the sign of a cross on the forehead, and say the words they heard at every baptism:  “You are a beloved child of God.”

They told their friends and family.  And they told their friends, and they told theirs, and slowly the church grew.  People came who were hungry for forgiveness, for mercy, for grace, for life.  And they found it, and they became one people, a people called Light of the World, a place where people were fully known and totally welcomed and radically loved.

They survived change.  Some traditions stayed, and some faded.  They moved from building to building as it was needed.  Finances changed, and they went from two pastors to one and full-time staff to half-time.  They had one intern pastor, and then another, and another.  Their founding pastor was called to larger ministry, and on the day she left they laid hands on her, and with great hope and trust they prayed for the future of all.

They knew there was something greater than death here -- something more than a pastor -- something that felt like life, abundant and real.  

An interim pastor came, and guided them through transition.  They talked and discussed and met and voted and became the first Reconciling in Christ church in Dakota County, repeating what they heard every Sunday over the communion table:  All are welcome -- no exceptions.

They called a new pastor.  She came and she stayed, and she brought with her a wonderful partner and a passion for justice.  There was life, new life, new joys and excitement.  And every Sunday they met together to praise God and break bread and remember each others’ stories.  

And today you will lay hands on me, your third intern, and send me forth.  But thinking that the story stops here would be like thinking the story stops in Acts 2.  It doesn’t.  Even if I didn’t know a single word of the Bible past where we ended today, I would know the story doesn’t stop, because two thousand years later here we are.  Two thousand years later we are still devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers.  

The story keeps going.  The marble keeps rolling.  And this promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone to whom God calls.  There is life here -- there is life here, for you, and you, and you, and you.