Acts 4 Sermon: “The Unfinished Story”

Call to Worship

Creator of the universe,
you made the world in beauty,
and restore all things in glory
through the victory of Jesus Christ.
We pray that, wherever your image is still disfigured
by poverty, sickness, selfishness, war and greed,
the new creation in Jesus Christ may appear in justice, love, and peace,
to the glory of your name. Amen.

Intercessory

O God, your Son remained with his disciples after his resurrection,
teaching them to love all people as neighbors.
As his disciples in this age,
we offer our prayers on behalf of the universe
in which we are privileged to live
and our neighbors with whom we share it.

Prayers of the People, concluding with:

Open our hearts to your power moving
around us and between us and within us,
until your glory is revealed in our love of both friend and enemy,
in communities transformed by justice and compassion,
and in the healing of all that is broken. Amen.

Scripture

Light of the world,
shine upon us
and disperse the clouds of our selfishness,
that we may reflect the power of the resurrection
in our life together. Amen.

Centering Prayer:

Again, Lord Jesus Christ, we face the power of avarice.
Against the torrent of oblivion, we plead the blood of Jesus.
When we worry about survival and grasp for false security, remind us of the boy who shared his meal so you could feed the multitudes.
When we are tempted to store up treasure in savings accounts, help us to make eternal investments in your kingdom and trust your economy of love.
When we wonder who will care for us when we are old, give us elders to love and young friends to mentor in your way of abundant life.
Deliver us from avarice, that we might know the love that casts out fear and receive the gift of your provision through another’s hand.

The Believers Share Their Possessions: Acts 4

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

“[O]nly if the form of Christ can be lived out in the community of the church is the confession of the church true; only if Christ can be practiced is Jesus Lord. No matter how often the subsequent history of the church belied this confession, it is this presence within time of an eschatological and divine peace, really incarnate in the person of Jesus and forever imparted to the body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, that remains the very essence of the church’s evangelical appeal to the world at large, and of the salvation it proclaims.” – David Bentley Hart

Let me share this devotional with you that I read this week:

THE CONTRAST BETWEEN early Church faith and Western contemporary “Christianity/Church-ianity” should amaze us. We have distanced ourselves so far from the Scriptures that we do not bear much resemblance to the first followers of Christ. Jesus’ first generation of devotees turned their world upside-down with their courage and sacrifice.

“Church-ianity” (or Christian culture) is when we get bored with God, and our life with Him is no longer dynamic and living. It’s going through the motions. It’s our limited vision. It’s our busyness with the unessential.

God’s activity amazes, astounds. It stirs passions worthy of life … or death. Are we looking for this kind of work? Or are we content with a pre-packaged, pre-digested church-ianity? These are mere shadows of what God wants to do in us.

To have a dynamic relationship with God is not a quick-fix program or formula. It’s a time-consuming process. It’s the constant plea: “God, there must be more about You, and there must be more about me!”
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I entitled this sermon “the unfinished story” because, especially with just having celebrated Easter, it seems appropriate to ask, what now?  Or what comes next?  This passage in Acts, I believe, invites us to think of ourselves, as Christians, as the minor characters in a bigger story, on the stage of God’s drama, in which we’ve been asked to play a part – not as mere passive agents, but dynamic contributors to and co-creators of a new future that has yet to arrive, but that has been promised and definitively foreshadowed in the Event of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection and that has been now inaugurated in the on-going communion of the Church.  And we, as his followers, are the recipients of the instruction to be on a mission.  This mission is God’s, first and foremost.  God is the protagonist in the narrative, but we have a significant supporting role, I want to say – not in our salvation, individually, but in the remaking and healing of the world –a world that may even be literally on the path to destruction in a not-so-far off future.  I think we actually capture this mission fairly well in our vision statement, which you all have their on your bulletin, and it reads:

“Because we choose to follow Jesus Christ, we gather together to nurture and empower each other, so that we can go into the community as the love of God.”

Where there is no vision/mission, the people perish, he said, quoting Proverbs 29:18. But we have a good vision/mission I want to say.  But just having it written on our bulletin doesn’t make it happen.

We as the church are writing and enacting an unfinished story under Jesus’s lordship for the sake of the world.  We proclaim the good news of his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection in our whole lives – not just on Easter or on Sunday – and not – especially not! – just in this building.  We have a mission to lead – a mission of Jesus followership and reconciliation.  And we are all ministers in this work of reconciliation in fact – as Paul tells us in 2 Cor 5.

We have a lot of activities at our church.  As one who tries to get youth events on the calendar from time to time, I quickly learned this.  And many of our activities are good.  And we of course have other churches meeting here too which is I think a wonderful thing.  In doing many of these activities though, I just have this sense, that sometimes we miss the first clause of that mission statement, by getting a little distracted by the second gathering part.  And if we look at that first clause, it’s easy to assume it, not talk about it as much.  And yet EVERYTHING stems from it.  Our activities and practices are a means to an end – namely, to testimony and transformation.

Last week we rejoiced in the hope offered by the resurrection and the new life it brings.  I thought it was beautiful service.  We talked about living into the love of God and seeing the power of the resurrection in our own lives.  And this is a majorly important dimension to the Christian story – hope – hope and encouragement that because of God in Christ, death is not the last word, and we need not fear.  This particular aspect of Easter though is primarily about that what we receive from God – that is, the promise of abundant life.  We’ll call this the first dimension.  We should also talk about how this promise is received from God, and what the response to receiving it should be.  See there at least two other dimensions to the life of the church and to discipleship, that are pronounced and declared by the Gospel, both of which become especially noticeable in the book of Acts, and our text this morning points this out.

Repentance and belief correspond respectively, in other words, to the crucifixion and resurrection.

2nd dimension:   The crucifixion in Luke-Acts, while having a variety of meanings, is a matter of convicting people of sin – people are being called to repent.   The severity and offensiveness of sin is taken very seriously, which is something we should remember.  The cross reveals the horror of what happens when people and governments seek their own way rather than that of God.  That human beings could crucify each other – that’s about as bad as sin gets – it’s the worst of what happens when people oppress, dehumanize and dominate each other.  The Romans achieved this.  Add to the mix, misplaced religious zeal on the part of the Pharisees, and there you have it – the ultimate tragedy, and Jesus suffers the consequences of it – of both individual and social sin – something I mentioned the last time spoke at Sunday service.  And we’re gonna discuss this more by the way tonight at Overflow – sin and its ugliness, contrasted with the beauty of godliness.

3rd dimension: The resurrection, on the other side: the testimony of the risen Lord is God’s validation of Jesus and give rise to the life and rhythm of the early church that we see in Acts.  The resurrection animates, energizes and informs a new way of being in the world – for the sake of the world, and for each other, rather than for ourselves.

By it we know that Jesus is still incarnate in the world, in the body of Christ we call the church, made up of his disciples; and as the church, we are commissioned to be a sign, witness, and foretaste of God’s dream for creation.  That is our occupation, which should lead us to ask the question: when our neighbors see us meeting here, and if they were to come in and watch or hear about what we do, would they see Jesus and the good news he brings to the brokenhearted and our hurting world?  Would they get a feel for our hunger after justice?  Would they notice that we’re living on mission?

Luke is signaling strong continuity between the life of the church and Jesus’s own ministry. Of course the God of Israel is the one that constitutes this continuity through the sending of the Spirit, which we’ll commemorate on Pentecost Sunday, but that Spirit of the Lord is here now.  As was mentioned last week, the resurrection is indeed a victory, but it is also a new beginning.  It’s everlasting while also leaving room for real possibility.  There is a role for us.  The story is unfinished.  With the Spirit as our guide, with this picture from the early church as an example to follow, and with the commission from the resurrected Jesus as our inspiration, we get to write a new chapter in the story.  And what does a story consist of?  Conflict, Struggle – maybe even an uncertain resolution.

There is power in the new life of the believing community – a power that fuels our story – the kind of power that Jesus had in mind when he said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (Jn 13:35).

“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (17:18).  The mission of the church grows out of the mission of Christ.  Again, It is a continuation of what God purposed when God sent Christ on the mission of redemption.  As he went, so also do we go.  His mission determines the mission of the church and provides it with direction and motivation.

Which should lead us to ask further still, where was Jesus going?  We don’t like to talk about this part, because he was going to the cross.  Yes, the way of negation is being overcome, but the story lives on, and as disciples, we’re still summoned to die to ourselves, to pick up our crosses, and follow him.  This is not just a message of consolation.  Jesus didn’t just die to give you eternal security.  He died so that you could live as he did without fear about a lack of eternal security.  See sometimes, Church members aren’t interested in missional Christianity; that is, being sent out into the world to be salt and light.  They want safety, not challenge; certainty, not risk.

To finish up here and to concretize this somewhat, I just want to mention a few of the key features or attributes of the early church and talk about two of them that – despite being a far-removed from our present-day situation – can nonetheless teach us a timeless lesson.  And we shouldn’t romanticize the early church either – they had their problems too, but there’s a reason why Luke is telling us about these believers.  It’s because they continued what Jesus started.

One of the marks of the church with unfinished story is :

Unity – not uniformity – churches can have unified identity and purpose while also celebrating diversity.  cooperative, not competing.  Interdependent, not self-sufficient.  Communal, not individualistic (it’s a privilege!).  Notice how much these values contrast the values of mainstream culture.

The slogan wasn’t God helps those who help themselves.  That’s the slogan of the American dream.  Does it look like the early Christians were concerned about accumulating wealth or securing their retirement?  They found the strength in each other, and this what made them salty and luminous to the world around them.  They weren’t trying to appeal and attract people, and yet they did appeal to and attract people, by being counter-cultural – not irrelevant to or removed from culture – notice the difference.

Unity also takes simplicity.

Simplicity – Some of you are going through the book by Adam Hamilton right now I think, on this subject, it’s funny, my uncle is a pastor in Texas, and he too is publishing a book with this same title in a couple of months.

simply put, simplicity is about removing excess wants, sticking to needs, and focusing on just the couple of things – not very many – that are most important in life.  Certainly simplicity implies not leaving beyond one’s means, but it’s much more than that.  Simplicity in the Christian sense, involves humility and kenosis, not just in attitude, but in materiality as well.

The church is called to have solidarity, in the same way that Christ did, with the lowly, and this is hard to do if you’re always living from a privileged place, economically and geographically speaking.  Which is not to say there’s can’t be justice in suburbs, but we need to explore and think more about what this might look like.

Generosity – This one really need to reframed for us.  Again, though, keeping it simple, generosity is not primarily about what how we as individuals between Monday and Saturday are giving treating other people and taking care of the poor in this case, in Acts – though that can be part of it – nor – and this is the important point – is about giving to the church.  This talk kind of drives me crazy to be honest.  We are not giving to the church.  As this picture in Acts 4 perfectly illustrates.  We are the church.

Theologically, the early believers considered themselves the righteous remnant within Israel.  So Deuteronomy 15:4 would have been in their minds: “There should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.”
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In closing, by affirming the resurrection now (not at the end of time), we as a church with an unfinished story are inviting people everywhere to join Jesus in his on-going mission of making all things new.

As Brian McLaren reminded this week on his blog, “It is good and right to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, but even better and greater to choose to affiliate with it . . . so we can wholeheartedly participate in it and with it, so that resurrection keeps spreading until everything is healed and everything is new and all is well and all manner of things are well.”

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