Acts, week 4

Weekly Readings: Acts 12-15

Small Group Questions

  1. Welcome to week four! Do you have a favorite story in Acts so far? Is there one thing we’ve read or heard with which God has especially rocked your world?
  2. How is Peter’s rescue from prison a picture of resurrection?
  3. Look at the way the disciples respond to Rhoda in 12:15. Has God ever done something so wonderful in your life it would’ve been easier to believe in seeing something supernatural?
  4. Herod could not strike down God’s message. What encourages you in our society that God’s Word continues to grow and spread?
  5. What are some “issues” that arose in the early church in this week’s reading that required the church to work through and move forward?
  6. In Acts 15, the early church had certain disagreements to resolve. What disagreements or struggles do you still have with other believers within the global church?

 

Sermon: “The Church Moves Forward”

Texts: Acts 12:20-25

Watch HERE.

Here are some of the thoughts in written form:

20 Herod had been furious with the people of Tyre and Sidon for some time. They made a pact to approach him together, since their region depended on the king’s realm for its food supply. They persuaded Blastus, the king’s personal attendant, to join their cause, then appealed for an end to hostilities. 21 On the scheduled day Herod dressed himself in royal attire, seated himself on the throne, and gave a speech to the people. 22 Those assembled kept shouting, over and over, “This is a god’s voice, not the voice of a mere human!” 23 Immediately an angel from the Lord struck Herod down, because he didn’t give the honor to God. He was eaten by worms and died. 24 God’s word continued to grow and increase. 25 Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch from Jerusalem after completing their mission, bringing with them John, who was also known as Mark. (Acts 12:20-25, Common English Bible)

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

The Providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing zeal and concern, has ordained it the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to him, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men and by sending in him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us to make war to cease, to create peace everywhere, the birthday of the god was the beginning for the world of the gospel that has come to men through him.

31 BC – Augustus became first Roman emperor after a long civil war.

Euangelion, or Gospel, might be best understood as a “breaking headline.” This word we understand as being “good news” was a term referring to the announcement of a great military victory and/or the birth of a new Emperor, a new ruler who is going to bring strength, prosperity and peace to the Roman world. Euangelion, Gospel, was the breaking news that the long awaited reign of a king is finally dawning. So, we can see why a “gospel” that a long awaited King of the Jews being born the first Christmas would’ve been a concerning threat to Herod the Great, grandfather of Herod Agrippa who we read about in our Acts passage today. Gospel has come. Salvation has come for the Jews. Finally, God reigns, God is the King. Who ran the show? Who was called lord, king, and savior? The Emperor…Caesar. Claims of Jesus is a direct challenge to the claims of the Emperor.

When a new ruler conquered a land, it was his right to come in and wipe it out as part of establishing his new reign. If he spared the land and people, he was their Savior. The Savior is the one true king who is in charge and who will reign forever like a god and establish peace.

Salvation is about a new world order, new era of peace and prosperity, mercy, lives spared, and eternal security.

Repentance, then, wasn’t so much about just receiving forgiveness, but about a total reorientation of one’s loyalty to a new regime. It was changing one’s allegiance to the true Ruler. This was the invitation of John, a voice calling in the wilderness “Prepare the way for the Lord!” The King has come.

“The Church Moves Forward” may not be a title that tells you much in comparison to the other weeks in this series. It might seem like for four chapters in Acts we simply want to say, “stuff kept happening.” Last week we made the point that God’s grace is universal. The Church crosses borders as God in Christ has torn down the barriers that hinder any group of humans from coming into His presence by faith. That’s a powerful message. In this week’s sermon, I want to make one point. Christ is King. Acts 12-15 show the Church moving forward in response to this truth: Christ is King.

Acts 12:20-25 challenges our view of the state as protector of liberty, security, and provision.

BACK STORY – Acts 12 and surrounding

Passover = Israel’s Independence Day, 4th of July Celebration. Herod orders James, brother of John, son of Zebedee, Son of Thunder, to be killed. Seeing that this pleased the Jews he also orders the arrest of Peter who is imprisoned and set to go on trial. This is the same time of year Jesus was arrested and crucified. Jesus had a trial too, and I’m sure Peter’s would have been similar in process and ending.

“Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea […] There he exhibited shows in honor of the emperor […] On the second day of the festival, Herod put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a truly wonderful contexture, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment was illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it. It shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him. At that moment, his flatterers cried out […] that he was a god; and they added, ‘Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.’” (Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 19.343-345).

As Bishop Will Willimon says, “God is not nice to politicians who try to act like God.”

Herod Agrippa is a picture of why the world’s “gospel” is a false hope and an unworthy adversary. He is proof also that the true Savior really is the One who reigns eternally. Herod who is hailed as a god ends up worm food. And the crucified suffering servant turns out to be the Risen One! Christ is King.

This is the confidence that allows the Church to MOVE FORWARD with its message, its gospel, its “breaking headline.”

Our mission is the witness, to spread the message, to show that the new regime is already in power and that the New Ruler is already seated in His place of eternal and universal authority. We move forward in unity as we are all members of this one new Kingdom, united under One King, representing one message with one mission.

In the end, God’s word, the message of the church that Herod tried to suppress moved forward and multiplied.

Acts 12:24 “But God’s word continued to grow and increase.” This is the third punctuation of its kind so far in Acts. Verse 6:7 tells us, “God’s word continued to grow. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased significantly. Even a large group of priests embraced the faith.” Then, Acts 9:31 says, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. God strengthened the church, and its life was marked by reverence for the Lord. Encouraged by the Holy Spirit, the church continued to grow in numbers.” The Church moves forward.

This is important for us to realize as we reconsider today how we might understand these words – gospel, savior, salvation and repentance. Christ is King. And as we orient our allegiance to this one true King, we accept His mission and message.

The Apostle Paul, a once Christian-killer, would say in Acts 20:24, “Nothing, not even my life, is more important than my completing my mission. This is nothing other than the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus: to testify about the good news of God’s grace.”

The great theologian Karl Barth says the following about conversion, being called to Christ:

“The Word of the living Jesus Christ is the creative call by which He awakens man to an active knowledge of the truth and thus receives him into the new standing of the Christian, namely, into a particular friendship with Himself, thrusting him as His afflicted but well-equipped witness into the service of His prophetic work.”[1]

What Barth is saying is that every call to Christ is an assignment. Christ offers us salvation and at the same time vocation. We are thrust as an afflicted but well-equipped witness into the service of His prophetic work. We become part of His Church which is always moving forward on mission…with message…in unity. Then, now, and until the King returns. In the name of Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. T. F. Torrance and G. W. Bromiley, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Ltd, 1962), IV/3, Part II, p.481.

Acts, week 3

Weekly Readings: Acts 8-11

Small Group Questions

  1. What caused the early church to be scattered? How did God use that?
  2. Name out loud or in writing some of the borders, boundaries, or barriers that were crossed with the good news in this week’s reading.
  3. One of the most formative things we can do in reading scripture is to discover where the biblical story connects with our lives. Do you see anything in Saul’s experience (Acts 9) that connects with your own human experience?
  4. Paul thought he was obeying God until God opened his eyes to His perfect will. Have you ever thought you were doing what was right and later discovered this was not God’s will?
  5. In Acts 10, Peter realizes his “animals on a sheet” vision is not about unclean animals, but unclean people! Can you think of some people that our own society, culture, and community would label “unclean,” but for whom God’s heart breaks?
  6. Are you challenged to love certain people? What does Acts 8-10 have to say about this?

Sermon: “The Church Crosses Borders”

Texts: Acts 8:26-40, Isaiah 53:7-8, Isaiah 56:1-8

You can listen HERE, slide to about  28:00, and wait for it to start at the beginning of the sermon. Or just hit play and enjoy the whole service! Written sermon below:

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

I want to introduce the sermon today by identifying the introduction of this week’s reading in Acts. We will look this week at chs.8-11. And at the beginning of Acts 8, which is where we left off last week, we find that the church is scattered due to persecution resulting from Stephen’s death. Stephen was the first Christian killed for the faith, he was stoned to death, and a great persecution broke out. This is the introduction this week. Listen to how the stage is set in Acts 8:1 – “At that time, the church in Jerusalem began to be subjected to vicious harassment. Everyone except the apostles was scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” Now, I want to go back to the very beginning of the book at verse 1:8. Listen to what Jesus told the disciples before they were to receive the Holy Spirit: “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 end of the earth.” Do you see it? Here Jesus tells them that the Holy Spirit is going to come upon them in power and then they are to be His witnesses throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. They receive the Holy Spirit, but up until ch.8 the good news has stayed only in Jerusalem. Then, here finally in ch.8 the church finds itself being scattered through Judea and Samaria. This is the backdrop of our message today. The Church is now poised for what it was always intended to do – crossing borders.

The first man to flee into the territory of Samaria that we are told about is Philip. And after a successful spreading of the gospel there he is led into an encounter we are going to spend this morning looking at.

After witnessing in Samaria, we read in Acts 8:26 that Philip receives instruction not from the Holy Spirit but “an angel of the Lord” in the same way the prophets of the Old Testament were given divine guidance.[1] He was appointed to take a specific road, a desert road to Gaza. Had he taken another road he would have missed the divinely appointed border crossing, an encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. Question #1: Have you ever had a divinely appointed border crossing…an ordained encounter that you were pretty sure was from God and afterward you had no doubt because of what God did through it? Or, have you ever thought that maybe God was nudging you to cross a border, but you talked yourself out of what may have been a divine appointment?

Philip engages in this divine appointment. He takes the desert road. As Philip makes it to the road, this time the Spirit (not just an angel of the Lord) instructs Philip to approach a carriage and stay with it. Philip walks alongside the carriage in which is riding an Ethiopian eunuch. The kingdom of Ethiopia lay on the Nile River in Africa near Egypt and Sudan. This man was the royal treasurer, and is coming from worshiping in Jerusalem. He was probably a Gentile worshiper of the God of Israel.[2] The text suggests that like other Jews he had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for one of the annual Jewish festivals. Now, what was significant about this man being an Ethiopian eunuch? Well, for one thing, Ethiopia was located at the edge of the known world at that time. So, when Jesus commanded His disciples in Acts 1:8 to be witnesses throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, Ethiopia would have been considered to be at the end of the earth! He was also a Gentile and a eunuch. Deuteronomy 23:1 prevents eunuch’s from being “part of the Lord’s assembly.” A eunuch was prohibited from being part of the people of God. He could be a worshiper, but not belong to the community. Why? Because lacking the male sexual organs made a man incomplete or unclean. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the mark of the covenant was circumcision. If a man had no genitals, circumcision was not an option. Thus, being a part of God’s covenant people was not an option. For this eunuch, being part of God’s family would never be part of his future, and he knew it, even though he was a sincere worshiper and God-fearer. But all this was about to change. As this Ethiopian eunuch royal treasurer is returning home on this desert road he is reading an Isaiah scroll in Greek.

Philip hears the eunuch reading aloud Isaiah 53:7-8, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent so he didn’t open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was taken away from him. Who can tell the story of his descendants because his life was taken from the earth?” Philip hears the familiar passage and recognizes his chance to engage. It is Philip who initiates the encounter. Philip crosses the border. “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The eunuch replies, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then, he invites Philip climb up into the carriage with him to look at the passage of scripture.

What’s amazing to me is an insight Craig Keener points out in the Immersion Bible Studies book on Acts, that just three chapters ahead of where this Ethiopian eunuch is reading, the prophet Isaiah already predicted the good news in 56:3-5:

“Don’t let the immigrant who has joined with the Lord say, ‘The Lord will exclude me from the people.’ And don’t let the eunuch say, ‘I’m just a dry tree.’ The Lord says: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, choose what I desire, and remain loyal to my covenant, in my temple and courts, I will give them a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give to them an enduring name that won’t be removed.”

How providential that this eunuch was reading a prophetic word about Jesus just three chapters before the passage that would tell him that one day the Lord would give him a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. He would belong to God forever.

Continuing the story, “The eunuch asked Philip, ‘Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?’ Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him.” (Acts 8:34-35) Philip is able to answer the question of the Ethiopian, because he was an apostle. In other words, he had witnessed the good news about Jesus! He knew the one about whom this scripture was written.

“As they went down the road, they came to some water. The eunuch said, ‘Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?’ He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him.” (Acts 8:36-38)

The eunuch’s response to Philip’s witness blows me away. For one, it addresses a major shift in God’s requirements to be part of His family. Another reason it blows me away is the passion it reveals in the heart of the Ethiopian – “What would keep me from being baptized?” The mark of being in the family of God is no longer circumcision. It’s baptism. And this will become an issue for the Jewish community later in this section in Acts. The fact that he is a eunuch no longer prohibits him from being part of the Lord’s assembly. The Ethiopian’s question pours from a heart of gratefulness, conviction, and desire to belong to God. And now, the borders have been crossed, the barriers torn down, for this man to have a home in the Body of Christ.

What is going on here? Border crossing. In this same section in Acts, we will read this week another story of border crossing in which a man named Saul who thought he was living in God’s will shall be confronted by Jesus and called to serve His Church. Paul would later write these words in Galatians 3:28:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

One thing I hope you’ll discover as we encounter the book of Acts is that what happens to Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is continued in Acts in, through, and to the Church, the Body of Christ. And one image that comes to mind from the end of the gospel of Luke is when Jesus breathes His last on the cross, the sun stops shining, and the seamless curtain in the Temple is torn from top to bottom. In the sacrifice of Jesus, the barriers and boundaries between God and humanity are torn down. Borders disappear, and the grace of God is freely available to all peoples. The curtain between Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female are torn down as all are given access to the one true God of love and redemption. This, brothers and sisters, is the activity of God that is still going on through His Church. We re-present Christ every day in how we live, act, and speak as witnesses to the world around us. We evidence every day over and over that the Temple curtain has been torn. The barriers, the boundaries, and borders between how can belong to God and who can’t, who is acceptable to God and who’s not, who can receive grace and who can’t have been breached by what Christ has done for humanity. It is our job to make the world aware that the love of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the power of Resurrection is now available to everyone who would accept it. Church is a place where the racism, sexism, ageism, and classism of the world are torn down and there is one category of redeemed humanity who needs Jesus and has access to Him with no borders. We must be border crossers.

At the end of this amazing story in Acts 8 we see that Philip has fulfilled the mission the Spirit led him to carry out. So, at the end of the story we see the Spirit “taking him away,” leading him without wasting any time on his next mission to cross borders with the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and the universal availability of God’s love. The Ethiopian leaves as anyone should leave baptism – rejoicing. He has been made new. It is clear that this man is baptized in one instance with both water and the Holy Spirit. He receives forgiveness and an overwhelming “joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17).[3] And now this one, this Gentile God-fearer whom the Law of the Old Testament barred from God’s assembly, is not only accepted into the Body of Christ as a reborn child of God, but is given a new vocation as missionary to his own people. Christ now has a living witness in Ethiopia of royal influence. The gospel is indeed beginning to reach the ends of the known world.

What better picture of redeemed humanity without borders than Communion – a Table with common elements shared by all regardless of any category or label the world would attach. In a moment we will come to this Table, not as Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, not as a certain ethnicity or social class, but as a beloved child of God redeemed by Jesus Christ. So, as we prepare our hearts to receive God’s grace anew and afresh this day, I ask…

What borders, boundaries, and barriers is God showing you in your own sphere of life? What might be keeping those around you, the people you regularly interact with, from knowing and accepting the love of God in Christ? Can you cross those borders? Will you let the Holy Spirit lead you? I pray it will be so…for you and for me.


[1] Bruce. The Book of Acts, rev. ed. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998; p.174

[2] Ibid.; 175

[3] Ibid.; 178

Acts, week 2

Weekly Reading: Acts 3-8:4

Small Group Discussion Questions

  1. How do you feel when you hear of Christians getting killed for their faith?
  2. Not everyone is happy when you share your faith with them. Have you ever encountered this?
  3. How did the early Church respond to suffering and persecution?
  4. At the end of chapter 2 and the end of chapter 4, the experience of the Holy Spirit caused the community of believers to value people more than possessions. Do we? How do we live it out?
  5. What does the controversial story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:-11 teach us about the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Church?
  6. In the Craig Keener’s bible study, he suggests that if the Jesus movement was manmade it would have been crushed before the end of the book of Acts. What has convinced you personally that God is in the Church and the movement of Christianity?
  7. Stephen’s death accomplished 3 significant results – a message that God is not localized in the Temple, the scattering of the Church, and a seed sown in the heart of Saul (who would become Paul). How have you ever seen God turn tragedy to good?

Sermon: “The Church Perseveres”

ACTS, Part Two

Text: Acts 5:33-35, 38-40 (CEB)

To listen to the sermon, CLICK HERE, slide to about 23:03, and wait a minute for it to start at the beginning of the sermon. Or, don’t fast forward and enjoy the whole service!

Forever Golden

One of my favorite poems is “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost. I learned it sixteen years ago.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

But against this backdrop of the loss of innocence in a world of decay comes good news…Resurrection.

Easter continues.

Heavenly Haze?

Do you often think of heaven as this ethereal, hazy place? You know, how movies train us to visualize that dreamy state where the edges of the TV frame are frosted and the middle picture is blissful and foggy. Earth, on the other hand, is the place of harsh clarity, concrete finitude, and restrictive definition. Life is about cold hard reality and seems to involve frequent buckets of ice water to the face. As such, I don’t think any of us would argue that this earth, this reality is the place of imperfection, noncompletion, and certainly leaves one with a general desire to experience more love.

The opposite is true. We live in the haze.

1 Corinthians 13 contains a series of verses we often read in pieces – “the love chapter” (and most popular wedding passage), “when I became a man I put childish things away” (I can’t tell you how many times I heard this growing up…love you, Dad), and “I see through a glass darkly.” All these thoughts go together – perfection, completion, maturity, all climaxing in God’s most defining attribute, love.

How is our vision different between earth and heaven? 1 Cor 13:12 says…

“Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.” (NLT)

We live in the place of limited sight, visionary let-down, and frustrating lack of clarity. We live in the haze. Heaven is the place where eyes are opened. The reality of God is where we can finally see the truth and limitless beauty. I feel home calling.

PRACTICING PRESENCE, PART 3: PREACHING

Preaching-from-the-Soul-Kalas-J-Ellsworth-EB9781426720802

The third way I am learning to practice presence involves the primary calling upon my life, the vocation of preaching. My biggest preaching influence has been one of my preaching professors in seminary, Dr. Ellsworth Kalas. And one of the most valuable things I have learned from Dr. Kalas is that to preach you must have three love affairs in your life: to Christ, to the people to whom you preach (not just vague humanity, but the individuals on the other end of the sermon), and to the sermon you are preaching today. Yes, a preacher must be in love with the sermon…this sermon. Otherwise, the preacher has no business preaching it. Dr. Kalas also taught me, as the title of his book suggests, that preaching must come from the human soul. This is where preaching connects with the title of this blog, Practicing Presence. For a beautiful and mysterious reason our Triune God of relational community chooses to speak into humanity through other humans. He uses souls to connect with other souls in this profound transmission of soul-changing truth and inspiration. I would daresay there is rarely a more intimate encounter near strangers can have than for one to preach and others to receive. It involves the connection of souls. So, it is no wonder that so many preachers get approached by individuals they are not aware they knew, called by first name, and talked to as if the deepest of life events has been shared as the sermon recipient speaks through tears. When this happens I realize I have succeeded in something – not only have I sufficiently communicated a message from God (a message I’m in love with), but I have borne my soul. I have practiced presence.

“One should preach not from one’s rational mind but rather from the heart. Only that which is from the heart can touch another heart.” ― Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

Acts, week 1

 

Weekly Reading: Acts 1-2

Small Group Discussion Questions

  1. What did you see the Holy Spirit doing in Acts 1-2?
  2. How did the Christian community respond?
  3. What two baptisms does Jesus identify in Acts 1:5, and what is the significance of each?
  4. Do you see any parallels between how Jesus began His ministry and how the church began its ministry?
  5. In following Christ and carrying out God’s mission in the world, why do you think community matters?
  6. According to Acts 1-2, what do you see as the primary function of the church?

Sermon: “The Church Is Born”

ACTS, Part One

Text: Acts 1:4–8 (CEB)

4 While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: 5 John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 6 As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” 7 Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 Rather, 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 end of the earth.”

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

One word should frame our reading of Acts over the next eight weeks – Resurrection.

We begin our journey, in a sense, in Act Two of a great drama. Luke writes Act One as a gospel, a story of one man, Jesus. He writes Act Two not as a history of the early church as we might be tempted to assess, but as an explosive sequel in which the church picks up where the Messiah leaves off and the gospel begins to transform the world. Bishop Will Willimon suggests it could even be considered a kind of sermon, “Jesus: Greatest Hits,” stories of the resurrection recurring over and over in the life of His followers, “Jesus Continues,” or perhaps best, “Easter Continues.” This, brothers and sisters, is our story. It’s the story of disciples of Christ trying to figure out how to live, what to do, and ways in which to engage God’s mission once Christ is risen and a witness is needed in the world. It is the gospel proclaimed, as Willimon puts it, “in such a way that the hearers, the church is given encouragement and guidance in another age.”[1]

Some of you have already gotten Craig Keener’s Bible study on Acts we will be using. You don’t have to have the book, but it’s a great resource. He titles this week, “The Power of Pentecost,” and he makes the following statement: “Our problem today is not that we lack access to God’s power. It is that we often neglect to plug our spiritual appliances into the power source by faith.”

At the end of Luke’s gospel, Christ appears to His disciples, proves His bodily (not just spiritual) resurrection, and illuminates this new reality by teaching them the scriptures. Then, He leaves them with explicit instructions – “do not leave Jerusalem until I send you what the Father has promised.” So, Christ has conquered death and hell, the disciples have witnessed it, and God has won a cosmic victory. Yet, somehow the disciples don’t have all they need! Interesting. And this is where the gospel of Luke leaves us. We find the same scene at the beginning of Acts, the disciples obediently waiting in Jerusalem. Why? Because Pentecost shows us that it is not only useless, it is foolish to embark on the mission of God in the world without the Holy Spirit. We can think we know Jesus. We can have what we think are the right beliefs. We can even want to serve God. But if we are not filled with the Holy Spirit, we are simply not equipped to do God’s work in the world. It’s like the distinction I’ve heard between being “in the world for God” versus “in God for the world.” The Holy Spirit is the One who allows us to be in God for the world. He is the power source of God. He connects us to God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ.

Speaking of Jesus, did you ever wonder why God needed a body? We celebrate Jesus being born at Christmas, the little Child of Bethlehem born in a moment in human history in a manger of all places. For the first time, God has a human body. Wow. Then, we remember the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday: God in the flesh is killed. He dies and is buried. But then, as we celebrated last Sunday and are still celebrating, He is risen! And after Jesus was raised from the dead and God had conquered sin, hell, and death, Luke 24:43 tells us that He ate a fish. I love that part! Why did He eat a fish?! Because this is a physical world and we are physical beings. Spiritual resurrection would not be enough. The risen Christ has a body. But then He leaves the earth to be with the Father and return again one Day. What about the meantime? This is why it is necessary for the Church to be born. Because God still needs a Body in this world. Until Christ returns that is where you and I come in. Pentecost in Acts 2 is the birth of the Church. The Holy Spirit comes in with a violent rushing wind and what appear to be tongues of fire, and the disciples are flooded and filled with the Holy Spirit of God. And from that moment to now, we are the Body of Christ on earth. Mortal bodies were raised to new life in Christ filled with the Holy Spirit of God. The Church is the Body of Christ filled with the Holy Spirit for the purposes of God in the world.

Practicing the presence of the Holy Spirit is our way of “plugging in” to the power of God. Again, we don’t lack access to the power. We must plug in. We have a fancy term for ways of plugging in called “means of grace.” Think of “means of grace” as sails you raise in order to catch the wind. The wind is there. You’re on the water. But it’s up to us to raise the sails to catch the wind and let it propel us toward God’s destination. If you feel like you’re sculling around in circles, perhaps it’s a sign that you need to engage the means of grace more in your life. John Wesley, the father of Methodism, taught that God’s grace is unearned and that we are not to idle around waiting for God to make us experience grace. Rather, we are to engage in the means of grace, because it’s always available to us. Prayer, Scripture, fasting, worship, small groups, and Communion – these are means of grace.

What an appropriate morning to begin our series on Acts. Today we gather for worship, Scripture, and prayer. We are launching small groups. And we center our worship this day on Communion. We are also baptizing and confirming the baptisms of our confirmands today in the 11:00 service. How fitting. Peter says in his sermon, Acts 2:38-39, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away – as many as the Lord our God invites.” Baptism is about God’s grace and belonging to the Church. Confirmation is about personal faith and response to God’s grace, receiving the Holy Spirit, and full membership into the church. And then, Communion is a regular experience of grace, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the unity of the Church to come together and go forth in mission. All of this is part of our worship today.

The other means of grace we are celebrating today, of course, is small groups. This is a new venture in discipleship and Christian community.

Again, Acts 2:42-47 tells us…

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them.46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

No matter how many were added to the Church, the emphasis was always on community and mission. The Church was to carry out the mission of God, but it was always a community. The larger we get, the smaller we must feel. That’s why today we are launching small groups. Christian community is a means of grace.

Acts gives us a glorious picture of the Church in community…on mission…filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s going to be a powerful eight weeks.

Let us begin by sharing together the meal of the Church, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. This meal is a reminder of the physical body and blood that were broken and poured out for us. It is also a means of grace. In a moment we will pray for the Holy Spirit to come in presence and power upon these ordinary things to make them extraordinary and fill us once again with His presence. Finally it is a reminder that we are the Body of Christ. We eat and drink physical elements as a physical reminder that we are God’s physical presence upon this earth. Let the eating and drinking of this meal overwhelm you with thanksgiving and also be a challenge to go forth and witness what you have experienced. He is risen! He is risen indeed!


[1] Bishop Will Willimon. “Preaching and Teaching Through Acts.” Pensacola District Day Apart, April 1, 2013. Alabama West Florida Conference, UMC. First United Methodist Church of Pensacola, Pensacola, Florida.

Acts Begins

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In celebration of our church beginning an eight-week series on the Book of Acts in conjunction with launching small groups I have decided to post sermons and small group discussion questions for each week here. One of the resources we are using throughout this series is the Acts volume of Immersion Bible Studies, a volume written by New Testament scholar, Craig Keener.

Grace and peace,

Jonathan