Acts 2;14, 22-32
PRAYER: God of new life, remind us today that you are still at work in the world: creating, teaching, loving. Remind us that the work of your church is a partnership into which you have drawn us, and inspire us to be engaged in your work today and every day.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Starting today, we are immersing ourselves into the book of Acts. Each week between now and the end of May, our main scripture reading during worship will come from Acts and at the same time, we are beginning our six week study using the book Acts. Catching Up With the Spirit by Matthew Skinner.
While the book study will take us throughout this important text, for the first three weeks, our lectionary source will come from only one chapter: Acts 2 – specifically Peter’s sermon from the Pentecost. And while I don’t know why the creators of our lectionary chose to do so, we begin this week in the middle of Peter’s sermon, skipping the beginning part of it. We’re going to come back to the beginning at a later date, but for now, we start in the middle.
While we’re not specifically talking about Pentecost today, let’s at least refresh our memories about what’s happened so far in the first chapter and a half of Acts. The disciples are talking to the risen Jesus, asking him when he will restore the kingdom to Israel. In other words, they are asking him when everything is going to go back to the good old days – the way things used to be. And Jesus responds, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In other words: stay tuned.
No sooner does Jesus say this, and then he ascends to heaven, lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And then, one of my favorite lines in the Bible happens. As the disciples are standing there staring, slack jawed up at the sky, two men in white robes came up to them and asked, “Why do stand here looking up toward heaven?” I always picture this scene like an old comedy routine where one person is staring up at the sky, and then someone comes up and – out of curiosity – also starts staring up. And then another, and another. And before you know it, everyone is looking up and no one knows why. At least these two men in white robes asked!
Then, in the beginning of chapter 2: Pentecost. The Holy Spirit shows up and suddenly, from heaven, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting. Divided tongues of fire appeared among them and everyone was filled with the Holy Spirit. It was wild!
With all the commotion, a crowd gathered around and the assumption was made that the disciples were all drunk. At any other time, this might be a safe assumption, but not this time. And that’s when Peter gets up and begins to speak, which is where we are today.
Peter makes clear that Jesus was a man through whom God performed miracles, signs of wonder and power. And, he added, that Jesus was handed over, crucified and killed because of those outside of God’s law. In other words, our sin, our rejection of Jesus resulted in his death.
But, he adds – and this is very important – God raised him up. Peter is pointing out that it was not Jesus himself, who through some super-human strength, defeated death. It was God because God’s will is not defeated by evil. There is often a mindset that during the period between Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is some cosmic battle going on between good and evil… that Jesus is in the depths of hell battling the devil for power. This simply is not true and there’s nothing in the Bible to even hint at such a thing.
The truth is that the resurrection was God asserting God’s power and authority to resurrect Jesus… for no other reason than the fact that God is who God is, and it was – as Peter says in verse 24, “…impossible for him to be held in (death’s) power.” Jesus’ death, resurrection and subsequent exaltation – proclaim that God’s purposes cannot be undone by any evil, human act, or even death itself.
Peter is making it clear that Jesus was resurrected because God acted to resurrect him. He is proclaiming the continuing activity of God in the world, and the Holy Spirit is now present in the disciples… and today, God continues to be active in the world.
Remember that the book of Acts begins with the disciples asking Jesus what’s going to happen next. Jesus doesn’t tell them, so they have no idea that the new church is forming at that moment, in their midst, with the Holy Spirit. God is acting through the Holy Spirit, and a new thing is happening.
And so, it is not coincidental then, that Peter also points to King David, the ancestor of Jesus, and quotes his words from the 16th Psalm, “…therefore my heart was glad and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope.” Peter is making it clear that David was talking about Jesus. David foretold Jesus’ resurrection.
Much of the culture of the day pointed to David. David was revered. David was idolized. But Peter points out that David – as revered and idolized as he was – is dead, and you can go visit his grave any time. “David was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day,” he says. But Jesus is not dead. There is no grave for Jesus. Jesus is resurrected. Why? Because God is acting right here and right now. Creating the church.
Now I love to point out that the early church was nothing like it is today. The early church was around tables of fellowship; a meal among family and friends, communion with one another. I love to point out that the early church was conversational, not preaching. The people of the early church shared their resources, no one was left in the dark or in the cold. It was community beautifully imagined and implemented.
The people who formed the new church had come – pretty much to a person – from the environment of the temple. Yet, they formed this new thing based on the teachings of Jesus, and thus rejecting the hierarchical structure that separated people from one another. God was indeed active in creating this new thing. They reimagined worship. They reimagined community. and they concluded that it doesn’t have to be what it always was.
Now make no mistake, as we will read in the book of Acts in the coming weeks, there were flies in the ointment. People sin and problems ensue. It’s just the way it happens, unfortunately. And over the last two thousand years, the church has seen (and caused) plenty of problems. Let’s not deny that. The church today does not resemble the church as it was formed in the homes of the disciples. And it never will. And that’s OK. But God is still active. God is still working. And God will not be defeated by evil. God cannot be defeated by evil.
I want to tell you that I cannot count the number of times I have been in a conversation with people that involves someone lamenting how the church today is in decline and how they just want to see the church get back to the way things were. The way things used to be… as if that will make everything better.
That would be fine – if it was as simple as that.
On the other hand, I also cannot tell you the number of people who have commented to me that they won’t come to church precisely because it is the way it’s always been.
On my facebook feed, I follow a group that posts old photos of baseball stadiums. I love old photos of baseball stadiums. Ebbets Field, Forbes Field, The Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium of course, and so many more. I love the history and the stories that come from these places. The one thing that these photos have in common with the church is that there are always people who are lamenting – wishing for baseball to go back to the way it was all those years ago when players played – not for money but for the joy of playing. Doesn’t that sound nice? Doesn’t that sound bucolic?
Except that players back then weren’t playing for the sheer joy of playing. They were playing for the paycheck, just like they are today. They were playing to support their families as best they could, just like today. The difference is that they were getting minimal salaries to do so because the team owners in the supposed ‘good old days’ held all of the power. The difference in baseball is not that money has taken over the game; money has always been front and center in the game. The difference is that now, the players have access to that money that they didn’t back then. Baseball could never go back to those supposed “good old days” because they weren’t good – especially for the players.
Likewise, the church cannot go back to some supposed “good old days” where we have idealized everything. Those days are gone and they’re not coming back. So rather than lament for the church of the past to make a return, let’s instead focus on the church of today. Notice that I didn’t say the church of tomorrow; I said the church of today.
We need to acknowledge the fact that the church of yesterday belongs in the past, but God is still active today. We can now look to the Pentecost and recognize the fact that God is still at work, and God is still creating. Hope is not lost because God never loses.
I mentioned earlier that Peter referenced David to make the point that David is dead, but Jesus is alive. Well, I say that it is time for us to leave the past as the past and look to today as a new opportunity to reimagine and rebuild the church for today. Let the church of yesterday be in the past and let’s focus on the church of today.
The church doesn’t have to be what it’s always been. In fact, the church cannot and should not be what it’s always been. But the good news is that God is still at work. And we can trust in God’s hand to be present, and we can trust in God’s hand to be forming us into the beautiful community that God has in mind for us today. We can now – today – with Peter’s Pentecost sermon in our hearts, reimagine the church of the 21st century and continue to trust that God is victorious over evil. God defeats death. God is still working. God is still present.
The church of today must be present in its community and engaging with a skeptical world to re-present Christ in a way that demonstrates love and kindness. The church of today must celebrate the diversity of the world in solidarity and hope rather than authoritarian judgment. The church of today must stand with the poor, the hungry, the sick, those who have lost hope and be ready to be an advocate for them at any moment. The church of today must be active as God is active today.
This is a new day. We must remember that Pentecost was not a single moment in time. It was the Holy Spirit active then as much as it is active right here and now. We might be inclined to ask Jesus as the disciples did, “What happens next?”. I’m pretty sure the answer will turn out to be that we are part of a new creation… God’s new creation because God is still at work through us. And the hope for the future is never brighter than it is right now… why? Because God is still working. Let’s join in the work of refocusing on God’s church for the world today and be disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It’s a new day.
To God be the glory.