Acts

“The Living Body of Christ: Be Witnesses Where?”

The Living Body of Christ: Be Witnesses Where?

First Baptist Richmond, May 12, 2024

Acts 1:1-11

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.

I started a sermon once by saying something I shouldn’t have said. I was new to the preaching game. I didn’t know all the rules. But now I know that you shouldn’t start a sermon by saying “I hate witnessing to people,” especially if it’s 1986 and you are the brand new pastor of a small Baptist church in Kentucky where the congregation seems to believe that the pastor should be the number one soul winner. Those people were so shocked by what I said at the beginning of the sermon that they couldn’t hear what I said next, and what I said next was really the point. The sermon was from Luke 10:16 where Jesus says, “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sends me.” It wasn’t a sermon about witnessing; it was a sermon about rejection. Witnessing was only an illustration. Later in that sermon I said that it wasn’t witnessing I hated, but the fear of rejection that starts churning in my stomach whenever I think about sharing my faith with a stranger.

Do you know what I mean?

I sat beside Lynn Turner on the bus when we were on staff retreat last week. We were on our way to dinner and had a few minutes so I asked her about her experience of witnessing. She said that when she was in seminary it was a requirement for her evangelism class. They had to choose a partner and go out

two by two, knocking on doors. And if someone should actually open the door (which was far more likely then, in Fort Worth, Texas, than it is now, in Richmond, Virginia), she was supposed to say, “If you died tonight do you know for sure that you would go to heaven?” No, “Hello, how are you?” or, “My name is Lynn Turner and I’m a student at the seminary.” No, just “If you died tonight do you know for sure that you would go to heaven?” That’s getting right to the point. And if they should say “No,” or, “I’m not sure,” that was Lynn’s cue to ask, “Could I talk to you about that for a minute?” And if they said yes she was supposed to walk them down the Romans Road.

Are you familiar with the Romans Road? According to the website,i it’s a way of explaining the good news of salvation using verses from the Book of Romans. The first stop on the Road is Romans 3:23, which reads: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” In other words, “You…are a sinner.” The next stop is Romans 6:23, which explains, “The wages of sin is death.” So, you’re a sinner, and you’re going to die. You might be wondering when this news is going to start sounding good. But if you read the second half of that same verse (Romans 6:23), you will learn that while the wages of sin is death, “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Whew! What a relief! And how do you get that life? You move on to Romans 10:9 which promises that, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Simple, right? And if you do that, then you have the reassurance of Romans 5:1, which reads: Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That’s the Romans Road, and that’s what Lynn was supposed to share with anyone who wanted to know more. At one of the houses she visited a woman

invited her to come inside. They sat in her living room, and Lynn walked her down the Romans Road. When she was finished she said, “Are you ready to do that? Are you ready to trust Christ for your salvation?” And that woman wasn’t, but her sister, sitting next to her, was. And so Lynn invited her to repeat the words of the Sinner’s Prayer, which goes something like this: “Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior.” That woman said that prayer. And when Lynn shared that story with her evangelism class they burst into applause.

And I say good for them, and good for Lynn, and good for that woman who, on that day, became a Christian. I don’t always approve of the methods people use to “win souls.” Some of them are emotionally manipulative. And to greet someone by asking them if they are ready to die seems a little extreme. But if that person has a change of identity, if they go from thinking “I am not a Christian” to thinking “I am,” then that seems like a good thing. They might say, “You know, I used to spend Sunday morning doing the crossword puzzle on the front porch, but now that I’m a Christian I might try going to church.” Or, “I used to spend Saturday night drinking until I passed out, but now that I’m a Christian I might spend it polishing my Sunday shoes.”

What does any of this have to do with Acts 1:1-11, our text for today? Only this: in verse 8 Jesus tells his disciples, “You will be my witnesses.” You might expect that the next thing he would tell them is how to be his witnesses: how to lead off with that question about “If you died tonight,” and how to follow that with the Romans Road, and how to finish up with the Sinners Prayer. But Jesus

doesn’t do any of that. He doesn’t tell the disciples how to be his witnesses; he only tells them that they will. And since it’s Luke who is telling this story I thought I would look through the early chapters of Acts and see how those first disciples did it. It may be that Luke is giving us a model we can follow as modern day witnesses.

So, what’s the first thing the disciples did after Jesus ascended into heaven? They went back to Jerusalem and called a meeting. Peter said, “We’ve got to find someone to replace Judas” (who had killed himself because he was feeling so guilty for betraying Jesus). Peter reassured them that all of this had been foretold by the prophets; they shouldn’t be surprised; but they did need to find a replacement for Judas and Peter suggested that it should be, “One of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” Did you hear that? It doesn’t sound as if Peter is looking for someone who knows the Romans Road or the Sinners Prayer, but rather someone who is intimately acquainted with Jesus, someone who can tell his story. And in the very next chapter, Peter gets to be that person.

I don’t want to linger too long here, because this is the story of Pentecost and I’d like to save it for next Sunday, but you may remember that Jesus said to his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and all of Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Well, that’s what happened. Peter received power when the Holy Spirit had come upon him, and he became a bold witness for Jesus in Jerusalem. It’s remarkable, really, because before the Holy Spirit came Peter had been too fearful to say a word. He was warming his hands over a charcoal fire

while Jesus was on trial, but when a servant girl wondered if he was one of Jesus’ disciples Peter denied it and swore that he didn’t even know the man. You know that fear I was talking about earlier, the fear of rejection? Well, this was worse. Peter was afraid that standing up for Jesus might very well cost him his life.

But when the Holy Spirit comes upon him Peter is fearless! He goes out into the street where a great crowd has gathered. He climbs up to a place where everyone can see him. He shouts his message so everyone can hear. He says, “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” There’s more to his sermon, but in those few sentences Peter bears witness, not to the plan of salvation, but to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And if you’re wondering if that approach to evangelism is effective you might remember that 3,000 people were baptized that day.

In the next chapter Peter and John are on their way to prayer when a crippled beggar asks them for alms. Peter doesn’t have any money, but he takes the man by the hand, lifts him up, and heals him, and when the crowd wants to know how he says, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and

Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are (wait for it) witnesses.”

In the next chapter Peter and John are called before the authorities for what they have done, and when they are asked to explain themselves Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, says, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

It goes on and on like this in the Book of Acts: the Apostles are called upon to explain themselves as they go from place to place healing people, and performing miracles, and preaching the gospel, and baptizing sinners. At one point they are brought before the authorities simply because they are “turning the world upside down.” Don’t you wish someone would accuse us of that? But in each place they stand up and bear witness to Jesus; they do it by the power of the Holy Spirit; they do it without fear. And that’s a good thing because the word witness, in Greek, is martyr. “You will be my martyrs,” Jesus said, and a truer word has never been spoken. According to tradition only one of the Apostles died of old age, and that was John. All the others—including Paul—were put to death for their fearless testimony about Jesus.

So, when we use that word—witness—let’s start thinking of it as a noun

rather than a verb. That is, not so much as something you do, but as something you are. Think about those first disciples, who had walked with Jesus for many a dusty mile, who had heard him preach and teach, who had watched him help and heal. Think about how intimately they knew him, so that if you asked them, “What would Jesus do?” they might actually know the answer. And then think about taking all that personal experience and filling it with the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit, until their cringing human fear fell away and all that was left was bold witness. That’s what I think Jesus had in mind, and if you read through the entire Book of Acts you will see that that’s what he got, and the movement that he started with only twelve disciples spread like wildfire through the ancient world.

But in Lynn Turner’s evangelism class they taught her how to ask people where they would spend eternity, and how to walk them down the Romans Road, and how to get them to pray the Sinner’s Prayer. As I said, those things can be helpful. They can lead people to identify as Christians and that can lead them into a life of faith. But Lynn and I agreed that that kind of evangelism tends to be contractual rather than relational. For example: someone might find a gospel tract in a bus station somewhere, and read through it, and say the Sinner’s Prayer, and sign his name on the back of the tract, and then never think about it again. And yet, at the end of his life, I wouldn’t be surprised if God honored that contract, and let him into Heaven. But that poor soul might end up spending eternity with someone he doesn’t even know, and who wants to do that?

I was talking with Annie Campbell on Wednesday night. Annie led one of our recent prayer retreats. She’s a retired schoolteacher who is married to an Episcopal priest. She’s a beautiful writer, a terrific storyteller, and even though

she’s been fighting cancer it hasn’t affected her sense of humor; she may have the most contagious laugh in Richmond. But she is also a person of deep faith, and on Wednesday night, at a reception at Union Presbyterian Seminary under a big white tent, she was telling me about a conversation she had recently with a young woman who identifies as an atheist. This person was wondering how someone as smart as Annie could believe all those things in the Bible, including the Ascension, which seems even more unbelievable than the Resurrection. But Annie laughed and said, “Oh, honey. I just love Jesus.” And I wonder: is there any witness more powerful than that?

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“The Living Body of Christ: Who Do We Keep Out”

The Living Body of Christ: Who Do We Keep Out?

First Baptist Richmond, May 5, 2024

Acts 10:44-48

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.

I once wrote a 300-page doctoral dissertation on the Gospel of Luke. Do you know why? Because I love Luke! It’s my favorite Gospel. And mostly because Luke is such a wonderful storyteller. Do you know that if it wasn’t for Luke we wouldn’t have the story of the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan, or the Road to Emmaus? But apparently, when he got to the end of his Gospel, Luke still had some good stories to tell. In the Book of Acts he tells us about the Day of Pentecost, and Saul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus, and something New Testament scholar Carl Holladay refers to as “the breakthrough event in the life of the early church,” the Conversion of Cornelius.i That’s the one we’re going to look at today.

It begins in the first verse of chapter 10, with the introduction of Cornelius as a Roman centurion, meaning that he was a military man: the commander of a hundred Roman soldiers. But he was also a godly man. Even though he was what the Old Testament might dismiss as an “uncircumcised Gentile,” Luke describes him as “devout,” noting that he and his household had tremendous respect for the God of Israel, that he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. I think Luke is trying to tell us that Cornelius was as close to God as a Gentile could get without actually becoming a Jew, that is, without submitting to the ritual requirements of circumcision, dietary laws, and sacrifices.ii

But one afternoon at about three o’clock Cornelius had a vision of an angel, who stood before him and said, “Cornelius.” He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Sir?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything he sent them to Joppa.”

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. And Luke doesn’t have to introduce us to Peter. We know all about him, not only from the Gospel but also from his central role in the Book of Acts. He is the chief apostle, the one whose preaching led to the conversion of 3,000 people on the Day of Pentecost. But now, for whatever reason, he is in Joppa, on the Mediterranean Coast. Maybe he’s there on a spiritual retreat. But Luke tells us that while he was on the roof praying, “He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while it was being prepared he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.”

I want to pause there for a moment, because those ten words—“What God has made clean you must not call profane”—are crucial. In Hebrew the word for

“clean” is kosher, which you’ve probably heard before, but the word for unclean is tamē, which you probably haven’t heard. Strong’s Concordance defines it as “foul in a religious sense—defiled, infamous, polluted,” like those animals in the sheet Peter saw lowered down. But now he tells Peter to kill and eat some of those same animals. “God forbid it, Lord!” Peter says, shocked by the very idea. “I have never eaten anything unclean or profane!” The voice warns, “Don’t call unclean what God has made clean.” And then there’s a knock on the door, and when Peter opens it he finds three Gentiles standing there.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

They tell him they’ve been sent from a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and that Peter is supposed to come with them. He invites them in to spend the night but the next day he rounds up a few believers from Joppa and goes with them and on the following day they come to Cornelius’s house in Caesarea. There’s a big crowd there; Cornelius has invited his friends and family to hear what Peter has to say. Peter says, “Look, you yourselves know that the Law of Moses forbids a Jew to associate with or even to visit a Gentile, but the Lord has shown me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean. So, when I was sent for I came without objection. Now, what’s this all about?” And then Cornelius told him about the angel who had come to him and told him to send for Peter and to listen to whatever he had to say. And what Peter said, finally, was this: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” That is, he doesn’t make the distinctions we do. He doesn’t regard some as clean and others as unclean. He seems to be ready to accept whoever is ready to be accepted. If we were trying to apply this story to our own context we might ask: What about us? Are we ready to accept those that God is ready to accept?

I know I’ve told this story before, but some of you weren’t here to hear it. It was May 13, 2008. I had been pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church for exactly two days. At staff meeting on that Tuesday morning we were talking about the woman who had come forward on Sunday to join the church. I looked at her application for membership and in the margin, in pencil, someone had written, “Needs to be baptized.” “Why is that?” I asked. “It looks like she’s coming from the Methodist Church.” “Well, yes,” I was told, “but it’s our policy to baptize anyone who hasn’t been immersed.” And my reaction was exactly the same as if a nice Gentile boy had come down the aisle and someone had written a note in the margin saying, “Needs to be circumcised.”

I was shocked.

I know that in the Baptist tradition we practice believer’s baptism by immersion. It’s the only way I’ve ever done it and the only way I ever will. I love it that we wait until you are old enough to make up your own mind about Jesus before you are baptized, and that nobody carries you down the aisle of a Baptist church and nobody pushes you down. I love it that we baptize by immersion, which is a powerful symbol of being washed, of dying and rising to a whole new life, or even of being born again. What I didn’t love was the idea that someone who had become a Christian in another tradition—where they have their own beautiful reasons for doing things the way they do—couldn’t simply transfer their membership from that tradition to this one. Why were we asking them to start all over again with baptism, which is the initiation ritual of Christianity?

My questions in staff meeting started a church-wide conversation that went on for two years. We weren’t talking about changing the way we baptize, but we were talking about changing our membership policy so that we could welcome

those who had come to us from other Christian traditions without requiring them to be re-baptized. It seemed to me that we were treating Christians of other denominations the way the Jews used to treat Gentiles by letting a religious ritual stand in the way of their full inclusion. The Jews would say those Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to become Jews; we were saying those Methodists had to be immersed in order to become Baptists. But on that rooftop in Joppa Peter heard the voice of the Lord telling him, “Don’t call profane what I have made clean,” forcing him to reconsider his long-held understanding of who was in and who was out.

By the time he gets to Cornelius’s house he is able to acknowledge that even though the Law of Moses would forbid him to do what he is doing the Word of the Lord is teaching him something new. “God has shown me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean,” he says. And that’s huge! Only a few days earlier if you had told him that there was a Gentile who wanted to join the church he might have said, “That’s wonderful! But of course he will have to be circumcised and begin following the Law of Moses.” A few chapters later some of the traditionalists in Jerusalem will say that very thing.iii But Peter’s mind is being opened in ways he never imagined, and after Cornelius tells his story of seeing an angel who praises him for his godliness Peter is able to say, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” That is, he doesn’t make the distinctions we do. He doesn’t regard some as clean and others as unclean. He seems to be ready to accept whoever is ready to be accepted.

And so Peter begins to tell these Gentiles the good news about Jesus, the Messiah. And based on his experience in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost he may have assumed that his hearers would 1) be cut to the heart, 2) repent, 3) ask

for baptism, and 4) receive the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is impatient. While Peter is still preaching the Spirit falls, throwing the whole thing out of sequence. It would be like Cheryl playing the Hymn of Invitation before I’d even finished the sermon, or people coming down the aisle to join the church before I’d asked them to come. Peter wasn’t finished yet, but the Spirit had heard all it needed to hear. Peter sees these Gentiles rejoicing, he hears them speaking in tongues, and he realizes that something more powerful than the order of worship is at work. He says to those who are with him, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these who have received the Spirit just as we have?” And no one among those six Jewish believers who had come with him from Joppa could think of a single good reason. They had witnessed this miracle with their own eyes.

But word got back to Jerusalem, and those Jewish believers who hadn’t seen it wanted a full accounting. Peter was baptizing Gentiles? What?!? So he laid it out for them step by step, telling them the whole story of being up on the rooftop in Joppa, of seeing the sheet lowered, of hearing a voice say, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat,” and being told that what God had made clean he should not call profane. That led him to the home of Cornelius where he first told them that he shouldn’t be there, but then admitted that God had made it clear to him that he shouldn’t make distinctions. And so he shared the gospel with those Gentiles, and while he was preaching the Holy Spirit fell on them and they began to speak in tongues. “And I remembered the word of the Lord,” Peter told them, “how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave [to these Gentiles] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:16-17). And here’s the real miracle: Luke writes, “When they heard this, [Peter’s critics] were

silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

Frank Stagg says that ultimately, this good news was too much for the Jewish believers to accept. In his commentary on Acts he writes: “The problem of accepting uncircumcised Gentiles became increasingly difficult for Jewish Christians, leading to their eventual self-exclusion from the Christian community….iv That which finally proved unacceptable to them was the fact that Christianity threatened to release even the Jews from the ritual law and demanded the equality of Jews and Gentiles in the kingdom….v Christianity did not demand of Gentiles that they become Jews; it did not require them to become members of the Jewish nation. Instead, it formed a new community in which Jew and Gentile were equal, or rather in which the matter of being a Jew or a Gentile was irrelevant.”vi

It’s like some people were saying fifteen years ago when we were talking about letting Methodists become members without immersing them. Some said, “If we do that we’ll have to take the name Baptist right off the building.” But you know what? We did it, and we didn’t take the name Baptist off the building, and some of those Methodists have turned out to be pretty good Baptists. It’s like my brother-in-law, Chuck, the Episcopal priest, said to me in those days when I asked if I would have to be re-baptized in order to join his church. He said, “Absolutely not! We would accept your baptism. But we would also immerse you in the Episcopal way of doing things.” Maybe Peter learned to say to those Gentile converts, “We’re not going to ask you to be circumcised, or follow the Jewish dietary laws, or make ritual sacrifices. But we are going to ask you to learn the way of Jesus, and to walk in it for the rest of your life. Are you ready to do that?” And if

someone said yes to that question, no matter who they were, could there be any good reason to keep them out?

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“The Living Body of Christ: Go Where I Send Thee”

The Living Body of Christ: Go Where I Send Thee

First Baptist Richmond, April 28, 2024

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he got up and went.

We didn’t read it this morning, but the text for today’s sermon is Acts 8:26-40. It’s the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, which is one of my favorites. With your permission I’d like to retell it with a little explanation and a little application, but mostly just appreciation for the story of this groundbreaking moment in the life of the early church.

It begins with Philip, not the one who was a disciple of Jesus but the one who was numbered among the “seven men of good repute” you may remember from Acts, chapter 6. We often read that passage when we’re ordaining deacons, because these seven were chosen by the congregation (just as we do it here), but then they were prayed over by the apostles, who laid hands on them and set them apart for special service. In some ways these seven were the first deacons, but their job wasn’t nearly as important: they were simply supposed to make sure that the Greek widows weren’t neglected in the daily distribution of food. As the apostles put it, they were set apart to “wait on tables” (vs. 2). That was it; that was all.

But then one of the seven, Stephen, was stoned to death because he wouldn’t stop preaching (some deacons are like that). In Acts, chapter 8, Luke writes: “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and

all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Those who were scattered went from place to place proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them” (vss. 1, 4-5). And this is one of the reasons I love this story, and one of the reasons I love Philip. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews. They thought of them as half-breeds. They wouldn’t have anything to do with them. But Philip was full of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit doesn’t care: it has no prejudice, it makes no distinctions. When Philip was driven out of Jerusalem he went to Samaria, and started preaching to the despised Samaritans, telling them the Good News about Jesus, the Messiah.

When I was looking at the Book of Acts last week I remembered what Frank Stagg said about it. Dr. Stagg was a brilliant New Testament scholar who finished up his teaching career at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, my alma mater. He was retired by the time I got there, but Christy and I once hosted him at the seminary guest house and I remember him sipping Coca-Cola from one of those little six-and-a-half-ounce bottles and telling us stories from his native Louisiana, some of them sprinkled with a Cajun accent that was simply part of his heritage.

Dr. Stagg had this theory that the last word in the Book of Acts explained what Luke was trying to do when he wrote it. The last word is akolutos, an adverb, which Dr. Stagg translated as “unhinderedly.” He said not many books end with adverbs. They don’t make for a strong ending. But this one, he claimed, is what the Book of Acts is all about: it’s the story of how the gospel broke through one barrier after another until, in the end, Paul was in Rome, preaching the gospel “quite openly and unhinderedly” (Acts 28:31).i

So, when Philip started preaching to the Samaritans he was breaking through a barrier, through one of those “hindrances” to the gospel that Dr. Stagg talked about. And the Samaritans responded. They lined up to be baptized. Peter and John came down from Jerusalem to investigate but when they saw what Philip was doing they gave it their blessing. They prayed for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit and they did, and in the early church that was all the evidence you needed to prove that someone was “in.” Prejudice said one thing about the Samaritans, but the Spirit said another. Prejudice said they had no place among God’s people, but the Spirit said they did. The Spirit broke down the walls and kicked down the doors that kept others out. It removed those hindrances to the gospel Dr. Stagg talked about, so that it could be proclaimed among the Samaritans “quite openly and unhinderedly.” That’s what Philip was doing, and maybe that’s why God chose him to preach to the Ethiopian Eunuch.

In Acts 8:26 an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Luke explains that this is a wilderness road, which means that it’s in the middle of nowhere. In other words an angel told Philip to get up and go to the middle of nowhere and Philip went. It’s not the kind of thing you or I might do but it’s almost exactly what you would expect the living body of Christ to do, and that’s the name of this series, remember? You and I are part of the living body of Christ, and we can learn something from Philip’s example. An angel of the Lord told him to get up and go to the middle of nowhere and Philip…got up and went. Would that we all were so obedient!

Who knows how long he stood there, waiting by the side of the road, but eventually an Ethiopian Eunuch came along riding in a chariot, reading from the

Book of Isaiah. In a sermon on this same passage Presbyterian preacher Andrew Connors says, “Chances are good that this Greek-speaking Jew from the Holy Land had never before encountered an upper-crust member of the African elite. That’s how Ethiopian would be understood in the culture of New Testament times: not a person from what we know today as the nation of Ethiopia, but an exotic stranger from the African continent with skin like polished mahogany. Not a person to be despised,” Connors insists, “but a leading member of a wealthy court—a person most Greeks would have admired.”ii

So when the Spirit told Philip to go over and join this chariot Philip ran. And when he heard what the eunuch was reading he asked him if he understood it. The eunuch said, “How can I, when there’s no one to explain it to me?” He invited Philip to come up and sit beside him and Philip did. The passage he was reading was from Isaiah 53, where it says, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (vss. 7-8). The eunuch asked Philip, “Who is the prophet talking about? Himself, or someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. This scripture, Luke says: the one from Isaiah 53, the one about the suffering servant.

Do you remember that episode from Luke 24, when the risen Jesus was walking along the road to Emmaus with two disciples who hadn’t yet figured out who he was? He asked them what they were talking about and they wondered if he was the only stranger in Jerusalem who hadn’t heard about Jesus, a prophet mighty in word and deed. They had thought that he would be the one to redeem

Israel, but then he had been arrested and crucified and now they didn’t know what to think. Jesus said, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” And then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures and showed them how it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer and then enter into his glory. That’s not the way they had understood it. They had thought that we are the ones who suffer and die, while the Messiah is the one who conquers and rules. Because Jesus had suffered and died they had decided that he wasn’t the Messiah, but there, on the road to Emmaus, the risen Jesus helped them see things another way, and as they did their hearts “burned” within them.

I’ve always wondered which scriptures Jesus shared with those disciples on the road. Luke doesn’t tell us, not in his Gospel anyway. But here in Acts 8 it seems clear that at least one of them was this passage from Isaiah 53, the one about the suffering servant. Philip, who had been taught by the apostles (who had been taught by Jesus), was able to say to this Ethiopian Eunuch, “The prophet wasn’t talking about himself. He was talking about Jesus, the Messiah, who suffered and died but then rose from the dead to reign forever!” And Philip was just getting started. By the time he finished preaching the Ethiopian Eunuch was ready to join the church, and when they got to a certain point on the journey he said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

And maybe it’s because I’m not a Greek-speaking Jew from the First Century, maybe it’s because I’m from this part of the world, where Africans have not always been treated with such respect and admiration, but when I’ve preached on this passage before I’ve said, “What was to prevent him from being

baptized? Everything!” In the first place he was a eunuch, and according to Deuteronomy 23:1 no one like him was permitted to enter the assembly of the Lord. But in the second place he was an Ethiopian. If you’ve read our church history you may recall that on the first Sunday of January, 1965, two Nigerians who were students at Virginia Union University came down the aisle requesting membership. Dr. Adams was the pastor in those days, and he had been the President of the Baptist World Alliance. He had traveled all over the world, including the part of the world these two young men had come from. Their fathers were pastors who had told them that while they were in Richmond they should visit the church of the famous Dr. Adams. They did, and at the end of the service they came forward to join the church.

The congregation was all white in those days, and if those Africans had thought to ask anyone before coming down the aisle what was to prevent them from joining they might have been told that it was the color of their skin. But they didn’t ask. They couldn’t imagine that a church so clearly led by the Holy Spirit would make such distinctions. But when Dr. Adams introduced them he explained that the deacons would have to meet and the church would have to vote before their membership became official.

The sanctuary was packed on that Wednesday night a few weeks later, and the meeting ran long. Some 50 or 60 people stood to speak either for or against the motion to welcome the Nigerians. It wasn’t pretty. But when the vote was taken it was in their favor, and the door of the church was opened a little wider. In the context of this sermon series I might say it’s just what you would expect the living body of Christ to do.

This church learned from that experience. It learned that welcoming

diversity into our membership makes things better, not worse. It makes our fellowship richer and sweeter. I’ve come to the place where I couldn’t imagine First Baptist without its members and friends of African descent. And don’t get me started on those people who have found their way here from places like India, Korea, China, Brazil, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The title of this sermon is, “Go Where I Send Thee,” and through the years this church has sent missionaries to every part of the world, led by the same spirit that sent Philip to preach to an Ethiopian eunuch. But these days it seems that God is sending the world to us, and the only question is how it will be received. When we talk about our values in the newcomers class one of them is “the beauty of our diversity.” Yes. When I look out over the growing diversity in our congregation it’s beautiful. It looks more and more like the Kingdom of God and I believe it’s one of the ways we are bringing heaven to earth.

But back to Philip and that Ethiopian Eunuch. Philip must have explained to him that anyone who wanted to follow Jesus, the Messiah, would need to be baptized. And if the eunuch wasn’t familiar with that Philip may have had to explain to him how baptism works. But apparently that didn’t put the eunuch off, because when they got to a certain point on that journey he said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” If Philip had been to seminary he might have known that the Law forbids a eunuch to enter the assembly of the Lord. He might have assumed the church had the same standards. But Philip hadn’t been to seminary. He wasn’t a pastor, he was a deacon. He didn’t follow the letter of the Law but the leadership of the Spirit, and he couldn’t think of one good reason to say no. It’s what I love about Philip. But what I love about this eunuch is that he couldn’t think of one good reason either. He laid aside his

expensive copy of the Book of Isaiah. He got down out of his fancy chariot. He shucked off his opulent robes and waded out into the water with Philip, this dusty itinerant evangelist who had shown him the way of life. And then, in an act of absolute humility, he professed his faith in Jesus as Lord and was dipped down under the water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Luke says that when they came up out of the water the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. His work there was done. But the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. I picture him getting dressed, getting back into the chariot, slapping the reins, and going down the road singing old hymns and shouting, “Hallelujah!” And what do you think he did when he got home? Don’t you think he told somebody what had happened to him on the way? Don’t you think he began to share the Good News about Jesus, the Messiah?

What about you? I don’t know how many things might have prevented you from being baptized but if you were, if you were bold enough to ask and someone was bold enough to do it, shouldn’t you be telling everyone? And if you haven’t been baptized wouldn’t this be a good day to come down the aisle and ask for it? Because at the moment, I can’t think of one good reason to say no.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“The Living Body of Christ: What Do Our Neighbors Say?”

The Living Body of Christ: What Do Our Neighbors Say?

First Baptist Richmond, April 14, 2024

Acts 3:12-19

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”

When I came to First Baptist in 2008 the staff was wondering how we could reach “the Fan.” I didn’t even know what that was. They said, “It’s the church’s nearest neighborhood—the Fan District. It’s full of beautiful homes and well-to-do people who sit on their front porches on Sunday morning sipping lattes and reading the New York Times. Only they don’t seem to be interested in coming to church. How do you think we could reach them?” And I remember thinking that people don’t like to be “reached,” they don’t like to have targets painted on their backs, and that these people, in particular, might not appreciate being the object of our evangelistic efforts. I thought about how Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors and wondered what would happen if we did that. I said, “What if, instead of reaching the Fan, we tried loving the Fan?” And the staff, at that time, seemed to think that was a pretty good answer.

But last week I asked a member of our current staff, Matthew Hensley, our Minister of Christian Invitation, how we were doing. “What do our neighbors say about us?” I asked. And Matthew pulled out a collection of quotes he has been gathering since he got here two years ago. The first one was like an answer to that question the staff had asked me back in 2008. Rebecca Keller, the President of the Fan District Association, said, “Thank you for all the wonderful partnership with

the Fan over the years. Your church is truly a good neighbor.” I could have stopped right there, because that’s one of my regular catchphrases: whenever I have a chance to greet people from the Fan I like to tell them that “First Baptist Church is trying to be a good neighbor in a great neighborhood.”

But Matthew had more.

Someone who came to our Classics and Cocoa series in February said, “We really like the way you responded and opened your church to the students at Fox Elementary School [after their building burned].” Someone from the Museum District, which is the neighborhood just across Arthur Ashe Boulevard, said, “I came to your Divorce Recovery Workshop over twenty years ago. What your church provided was really needed and it saved my life.” Someone from Westover Hills, who brings his son to our Upward Basketball program, said, “Thank you for hosting Upward – your church is doing things the ‘right way.’” Karen, one of our neighbors from Tuscan Villas, the condominium complex right next door, said, “Your compassion ministry is a wonderful gift to those in need.” And then Matthew was talking to someone whose house is literally across the street from the church, who said, “You all are wonderful neighbors!” And that’s the one that got my attention, because I know that house, and one of its former residents wouldn’t have said that.

I feel sure I’ve told you this story before, but I can’t find it in my files, so maybe you can’t find it in yours either. But one of the former residents of that house came to me years ago to complain about the church. He said, “This place never shuts down. These people who come to your compassion ministry start lining up on Park Avenue at six o’clock on Monday morning, and that would be bad enough, but you’ve got your ladies’ Bible studies and your Boy Scouts and

your Upward Basketball and your Richmond Symphony Orchestra, not to mention what it’s like on Sunday morning, when there’s not a parking place to be found for five blocks in any direction!” He said, “We used to live on the Northside, next to a church that was only open for choir practice on Wednesday night and a couple of hours on Sunday morning. That was nice. Why can’t you be a little more like that?”

I listened to his complaints but eventually said, “You know, this is part of what we love about the city, it’s one of the reasons you and I moved here: it’s alive!” He snorted and said something about not needing so much life, about simply wanting a little peace and quiet, but as he got up to go I told him I would do what I could.

What I ended up doing was driving to J. Emerson, the fancy wine and cheese shop in Libbie Grove, and asking them to put together a gift basket—a nice one. When I took it to his house that afternoon he smirked and said, “Is this a peace offering?” “Yes!” I said. “That’s exactly what it is. I’m trying to be a good neighbor in a great neighborhood.” He and his partner moved out soon after that and Shaka Smart, the head basketball coach at VCU moved in. Now, he was a great neighbor, and his mother-in-law, Margaret Payne, came to church here every Sunday.

But what about that first church, the one in the Book of Acts? What did their neighbors say about them? Apparently it wasn’t all good. In chapter 3 we learn that Peter and John were on their way to the temple around 3:00 one afternoon, the usual time for prayer, when they saw some people carrying a crippled beggar to his usual spot beside the Beautiful Gate. When they set him down he looked up, saw Peter and John, and asked them for some money. Peter

looked at him intently and said, “I don’t have any money, but I’ll give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth stand up and walk!” And then he took him by the hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong, and he began to praise the Lord and the neighbors began to complain.

Not all of them, of course; Luke says most of them were filled with “wonder and astonishment.” They listened eagerly to Peter’s explanation of what had just happened, and how it was faith in the name of Jesus—the one their leaders had killed in cold blood, the one that God had raised from the dead—faith in his name that had made this man well. But the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees eventually elbowed their way through the crowd, “much annoyed” (as Luke puts it) because Peter and John were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. Since it was already late, they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day. “But many of those who heard the word believed, and they numbered about five thousand” (Acts 4:4).

In his comments on this passage New Testament scholar Carl Holladay writes, “Luke wants his readers to see that the church is the divinely appointed messianic community through which the God of Israel is now at work in new and decisive ways…. The locus of divine activity has now shifted, however. Formerly the [glory] of God, the Shekinah, dwelt in the temple. Now it is focused in the name of Jesus (v. 16).”i And he’s right about that. This episode takes up most of chapters three and four in the Book of Acts, and if you look for it, you will find that the name is mentioned nine times:

It begins when Peter says to the beggar, “In the name of Jesus Christ of

Nazareth, stand up and walk” (3:6). And then afterward, when Peter is explaining the man’s healing, he says, “And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong” (3:16). When Peter and John are being questioned their interrogators ask, “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7) And Peter replies, “Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (4:10). Two verses later he says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” The authorities couldn’t deny that a miracle had happened, and that it had happened in the name of Jesus. And so they ordered Peter and John to no longer speak or teach in that name, and then released them. But as the apostles were praying later they said, “And now, Lord, grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

What were the neighbors of that first church in Jerusalem saying? They were saying, “These people won’t quit talking about Jesus!” They couldn’t understand why. But we understand why, don’t we? We know that there is power in that name. It’s why so many of us end our prayers by saying, “We ask it in the name of Jesus, Amen.” It’s not only something Jesus told us to do,ii it’s an attempt to apply the power of that name to our own, feeble prayers in the hope that they will be answered. But it’s not a magic word. It’s not like saying “Abracadabra” or “Hocus Pocus.” My friend Drexel Rayford insists that, “To do something in Jesus’ name is to do something that is consistent with the nature and character of Jesus.” It is to do what Jesus himself might do. By the same token to pray in Jesus’

name is to pray for something that Jesus himself might pray for. And to use the name of Jesus—the divine name—rightly and not wrongly, is to use it in a way that is consistent with the nature and character of Jesus.

But you might be wondering: what is his nature and character? How would you find out about that? The answer, I think, is to look at the things Jesus actually did, and to listen to the things he actually said. That’s how we discern the nature and character of anyone. And because the Gospel writers took the time and made the effort, many of the words and deeds of Jesus have been recorded. You can sit down in your own home, put your feet up on the coffee table, open your Bible, and read for yourself what Jesus said and did. And if you didn’t have time for all four of the Gospels, you could learn a lot simply by turning to the Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the four. You can read it in an hour. And if you do, you will come away with a much clearer picture of the nature and character of Jesus.

So, what did Jesus do, and what did Jesus say? When I was teaching the Gospel of Mark to college freshmen I used to tell them that Jesus went around Galilee doing “show and tell,” that is, he told people about the Kingdom of God and showed them what it would look like. For instance:

The first thing Jesus says in this Gospel is: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (1:15). The good news of the coming kingdom, that is. And then Jesus tells people about that kingdom through his preaching and teaching, and much of it is done in parables, where he compares the kingdom to something small and ordinary, like a mustard seed. Because the people he was talking to hadn’t had any experience of the kingdom. They didn’t know what he knew. And so in parable after parable he said, “It’s like this, or like this, or like this.” He was trying to communicate heavenly

truth in earthly expressions, and that’s not easy.

But he also demonstrated the kingdom. He showed people again and again what the world would look like when God finally had his way. He healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, and cast out demons. He opened the eyes of the blind. He unstopped the ears of the deaf. He fed people who were hungry. He comforted those who were sad. He let the little children come to him. And wherever he went, things got better.

Think about that for a minute.

Suppose Christians in this country had that reputation. Suppose that wherever they went, things got better. I don’t think that’s how it is these days, and I think it’s because not all of them are acting in ways that are consistent with the message and mission of Jesus. They’ve gotten the wrong idea about what it means to be a Christian. They think it’s about individual salvation, about personal piety or purity, or about getting God to answer all their prayers. Some of them seem to think that being a Christian is all about being an American (or maybe it’s the other way around). No, I think my friend Drexel Rayford was right; I think that when we do things in the name of Jesus we do them in a way that is consistent with his mission and message. That is, we do the kind of things that Jesus would do. We say the kind of things that Jesus would say.

So, I’m wondering:

What would our neighbors say if we couldn’t stop helping people and healing people and talking about what the world will look like when God finally has his way? Well, some of them might complain. Some of them have. “You have all these divorced people coming here to find hope for the future. You have all these homeless people coming here to get hot showers and clean clothes. You’ve

got all these lonely people coming here to make friends and find community. You’ve got all these other people coming here looking for meaning and purpose. Why don’t you stop all that? It’s causing traffic jams. It’s keeping me from finding a parking place! Why don’t you just have choir practice on Wednesday night and church on Sunday morning? Why do you have to be helping people and healing people all the time?”

Why? Well, because we believe it’s what Jesus would do. When the pastor of 1 John faced that kind of opposition from his neighbors he explained to his congregation, “The reason these people don’t understand us is because they didn’t understand him.” If they had they would know: this is just what it looks when people minister in the name of Jesus. This is just what it looks like when God’s kingdom begins to come. Not everybody is going to like that. But for the people who have been waiting for that kingdom, praying for that kingdom, working for that kingdom,

It will be heaven on earth.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“The Good News We Live”

The Good News We Live

First Baptist Richmond, April 7, 2024

Acts 4:32-35

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

On Easter Sunday I started a new sermon series called “the Living Body of Christ,” suggested by my friend Don Flowers who wrote, “This is a series on the Easter season readings mostly from the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles, which may be an excellent way for us to think about how the mission and message of Jesus lived on through the early church. How do they live on in us?” And then he suggested some sermon titles: “The Good News We Share,” “The Good News We Live,” “What Do Our Neighbors Say?” Etc. On Easter we looked at the Good News Peter shared with Cornelius, a Gentile, who didn’t know anything about Jesus. So, Peter shared his version of the gospel, which you can find in the tenth chapter of Acts, and which you can read in about 30 seconds.

Peter came down hard on several important points: 1) that God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; 2) that Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; 3) that he became a threat to the religious and political authorities of Israel who tried to stop him by putting him to death; 4) but God wouldn’t take their no for an answer; God said yes to Jesus by raising him from the dead; 5) Peter said, “We are witnesses to these things, we saw the risen Lord, we ate and drank with him; 6) he commanded us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one who will

judge the living and the dead; and 7) everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

That’s Peter’s version of the gospel, that’s his 30-second “elevator speech” when someone says, “Tell me about Jesus.” But I wonder what yours would be? What would you tell people about Jesus if you only had 30 seconds to do it? What would be the most important part of your elevator speech? I hope you will actually take some time to think about that and perhaps even write something down. We’re trying to let the Good News of Easter sink down deep inside us and impact the way we live. That was certainly true for the early church; can it be true for us as well?

In today’s reading from the Book of Acts we get our second summary statement about how things were going in the early church. The first comes at the end of chapter two—after the Holy Spirit has come upon the believers on the Day of Pentecost, and after Peter has preached a sermon that results in the conversion of 3,000 people—Luke tells us that the believers, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” and concludes by writing, “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.”

But then a crisis occurs: Peter and John are arrested for healing a crippled beggar; they come before the religious authorities and for a moment it looks as if they will be put to death just as Jesus was; but, no! They are released. They come back to the other believers rejoicing. And then Luke sums up the life of the early church once again. Only this time there’s a difference. See if you can hear it:

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Did you hear it? The believers are still united in heart and mind, they are still bearing witness to the resurrection of Jesus, but in Luke’s summary of their common life there is a great emphasis on the fact that no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, that everything they owned was held in common. “There was not a needy person among them,” Luke says. So, here’s what I want you to do: tomorrow morning those of you who have lands or houses can put them up for sale and then, when you sell them, you can bring the money here to the church and lay it at the deacons’ feet so that if there’s anyone in need among us we will have plenty of money to take care of them.

I’m joking, right? I’m not really asking you to do that. That would be fiscally irresponsible. But apparently those first believers really did. Because the resurrection of Jesus changed everything for them. It turned the world upside down. The things that used to matter so much didn’t matter anymore and the things they had neglected for years became incredibly important: Bible study, fellowship, worship, prayer, spending time together in church, breaking bread together in homes, praising God with glad and generous hearts, and having the goodwill of all the people as the Lord added daily to their number. How do we get some of that? Without giving up everything we own how do we get a taste of that

kind of life?

I’m grateful to New Testament scholar Carl Holladay for pointing out that selling lands and houses and giving the proceeds to the church is not the only way in which responsible use of possessions is presented in the New Testament. At least two other possibilities are presented: 1) the complete renunciation of possessions as a prerequisite of discipleship (as in the story of the Rich Young Ruler from Luke 18, where Jesus says, ‘Sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me’), and 2) the giving of alms” (which is basically what you do when you put money in the offering plate. Holladay mentions the example of the poor widow in Luke 21 who put two small coins into the temple treasury).i So, you have three options: 1) you can give alms—online or in the offering plate, 2) you can sell your possessions and share the proceeds, or 3) you can give up everything to follow Jesus. But the point remains that you should do something: the good news of Easter really should change the way you live.

In this story from Acts, what really changed was the reality of those first believers. Because Jesus had risen from the dead they didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore. As Paul says in Romans 6, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” It didn’t have dominion over them either. They were free in a way they had never been free before: free to live the lives God had given them without any fear of death. And that changed the way they related to their possessions. I say that because I know how it is for me: I’m trying to put money in savings now so that when I retire someday I will have enough to live on. The problem is, I don’t know how much “enough” is. So, I try to save as aggressively as I can, and if someone comes along asking for money I’m reluctant to let go of it; I’m afraid there won’t

be enough for me when I really need it.

Whatever happened for those first believers seems to have set them free from that kind of fear. And as they actually did it—as they sold lands and houses and brought the proceeds to the church—they realized that no matter what happened to them they would be OK. Because the church would take care of them! That’s what Luke is talking about when he says, “There was not a needy person among them.” If they had a need they would come to the apostles (who apparently had all this money lying at their feet) and the apostles would say, “What? You need money to pay your rent? Well, here you go!”

Now, if we actually did what those first believers did, if we sold our lands and houses and piled the money at the deacons’ feet, we would have more than enough to meet any need in the church family. But I don’t think we have to go that far. I’ve been saying this for years but I believe if we exercised option 1—if we all gave alms, and if those alms equaled only ten percent of our lands and houses—it would still be more than enough to meet the needs of the church. Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that preachers are always talking about money. But if you listen carefully maybe you can hear that I’m trying to set you free from your fear of death, and trying to set you free from your fear of not having enough, and instead of asking you to sell your lands and houses I’m asking you give a tenth of what God has given you so that there won’t be one needy person among his people.

That’s the point, that’s what was happening in the early church, and Carl Holladay says it was a fulfillment of an Old Testament idea found in Deuteronomy 15:4, which reads: “There will be no one in need among you.” But it was also the fulfillment of a Greek ideal which held that, “for friends all things are common.”ii

In my own notes I wrote the words of that familiar Spanish expression, “Mi casa es su casa,” meaning, “My house is your house.” And that’s what we would all hope for, isn’t it? The kind of fellowship where we really do know each other and love each other and have so much in common that there is nothing we would withhold from each other? I think that’s why we are sometimes a little overzealous about the membership process; it’s because we know that these people are not only going to have their names on the church rolls: they’re going to be part of the family.

But how wonderful when they really are! When we call their names in the parking lot, hug them in the hallways, pat the chair beside us in a Sunday school class; when we whisper their names in our morning prayers and take them casseroles when they’re sick; when we celebrate their victories and help them grieve their losses—that’s good! That’s family of the best kind, better than some of our own families. And that’s what the risen Lord has made us. If we belong to him, we belong to each other, and if he has given everything for us, we ought to be willing to do the same for each other.

I think about Doubting Thomas, the one whose story we always hear on the Second Sunday of Easter. It’s not really a story about being needy and not having enough, but on the other hand it is. Thomas needed faith; he didn’t have enough. And when he came back to that room where the disciples were gathered they shared their faith with him. “Thomas!” they said. “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas said, “I don’t believe it and I won’t believe it until I put my fingers in the marks of the nails and my hand into his side.” The incredible thing to me is that the next week all the disciples were together in that same place and Thomas was with them. Even though he was a doubter, a disbeliever, they made room for him.

They took all the faith they had and put it together so there was enough for him, the one who couldn’t believe. When Jesus showed up, Thomas was there, thanks to those other disciples, and because Thomas was there he was able to see Jesus and say, “My Lord and my God.”

What kind of things will we make possible for others by simply sharing what we have, whether it’s faith, or hope, or love, or enough money to pay the rent? In God’s family there shouldn’t be a needy person among us. Our Heavenly Father has given us more than enough to share, and his only son, our Lord, has freed us forever from the fear of not having enough.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“The Good News We Share”

The Good News We Share

First Baptist Richmond, March 31, 2024

Acts 10:34-43

They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses…

The date was March 14, 2024, a little less than three weeks ago. Do you remember it? It was the first truly warm, sunny day of the year. It was also my 65th birthday, and my wife, Christy, had planned a surprise Tuk-Tuk tour. Have you seen them? Those brightly colored, multi-passenger, motorized tricycles putting around Richmond? I didn’t know what we were doing. I just showed up at the VMFA at 4:00 on that Thursday afternoon and there was the whole family: my wife, her mother, my children, my grandchildren, and a few assorted in-laws. We piled into those Tuk-Tuks, got the grandchildren into their car seats, buckled ourselves in, and then lurched away from the curb to see the sights of our city. We were out there in public view as we putted around Richmond, but we also had a good view of the public, and they seemed to be in the most wonderful mood.

As I said, it was the first warm, sunny day of the year, and that kind of thing tends to bring people out of the woodwork. They came out in shorts and T-shirts, baring their pale limbs and turning their faces toward the sun. Pedestrians jaywalked across the street in Carytown, smiling and waving as we narrowly missed them. VCU students sprawled on the grass in Monroe Park, talking and laughing, listening to music. It was a practically pagan celebration of springtime.

That kind of thing has been going on forever. I remember hearing a woman

named Barbara McBride-Smith tell the story of Demeter and Persephone. She told it with a twang, like someone who had been born and raised in Waco, Texas (which she had), and included a detail about Zeus inviting Demeter to come up and sit on the porch with him and have some ambrosia ice cream which is not in the original story. The original story is an ancient Greek myth about why the seasons change, and as Barbara McBride-Smith told it, it was because Hades kidnapped Demeter’s daughter Persephone and forced her to become his wife. For six months of every year she had to live with him in the underworld and her mother, Demeter, grieved so hard that summer turned to fall and fall turned to winter. But when Persephone came home Demeter rejoiced so exuberantly that winter turned to spring and spring turned to summer.

Smith ends her story by saying, “Do you have any idea how strong a mother’s love for her child is? Well, one day in the spring you just look outside at the crops and the wildflowers growing. You listen to the birds singing, you feel the gentle breeze and the warmth of the sun, and you’ll understand something of the joy and love a mother feels for her child. And then, you look outside again on a bitter winter day. You see how stark and desolate the fields are, how dead the grass and trees look. You feel the cold wind blowing around you and you’ll begin to know the emptiness in a mother’s heart when her child is taken from her. And then remember this—a mother’s love is as endless as the cycle of the seasons.”i

Long before there was anything called Easter our ancestors were telling their stories and celebrating springtime. They had to. There is something in human nature, something deep and primal, that simply has to celebrate when the icy blast of winter gives way to the warmth and beauty of spring. But then this happened, this thing we’ve been talking about today, when a man named Jesus

apparently rose from the dead. And if you think people get excited when spring overcomes winter you should see what they do when life overcomes death. Because we’ve stood beside too many open caskets, haven’t we? Looking down on the faces of those we have loved and lost? If we had the power to bring them back to life, if we could take them by the hands and lift them up out of those caskets, we would, wouldn’t we? And so when we hear a story about someone who actually did it, who actually came back from the dead, we get excited. We put on our most festive and colorful clothes; we come to a place like this one and sing hymns of resurrection; we lean in close to hear the story of how it happened that first time in the hope that it might happen again for all of us, but especially for those we have loved and lost.

That’s what Easter is usually about: it’s about hearing the story of Jesus’ resurrection. And if we’re honest Mark’s Easter story—the one that was read this morning—is not our favorite, because at the end of that story there is no proof of the resurrection, no appearance of the risen Lord; it’s just two women running from the tomb, terrified: women who say nothing to anyone because they are so afraid.

We prefer John’s version of the story, where Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb early on the first day of the week, while it is still dark, and finds that the tomb is empty. She comes back and tells Peter and John what she has seen and they run to the tomb to see if it’s true. They find the empty grave clothes, but they don’t see Jesus. And then, a little later in the story, Mary does: she sees the risen Lord! At first she thinks it’s the gardener, but then he calls her by name and she runs to him and throws her arms around him and hugs him so tightly that he finally has to tell her to let go. He sends her to tell the others what she has seen

and she runs back and blurts out the world’s first Easter sermon in five unforgettable words:

“I have seen the Lord!”

I appreciate the fact that we have different resurrection accounts in the Bible. I like it that John can tell his story in one way and Mark can tell his story in another. It allows each of them to focus on what they find most essential. But what about Peter? What’s his story? Peter, who was arguably closer to Jesus than anyone other than John and maybe Mary Magdalene: what did he say when people asked him about the one he had followed for three years?

Well, thanks to our friend Luke, we have an idea. In Acts, chapter 10, he tells the story of the time Peter went to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who didn’t know anything about Jesus. And so Peter shares his version of the gospel (which is not 16 chapters long, like Mark, or 21 chapters long, like John, but only about 10 verses long, right there in the tenth chapter of Acts). He tells him the story of Jesus of Nazareth, who was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power. “He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil,” Peter says, “for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did and said, both in Judea and Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to everyone, but to those of us who were chosen as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

That’s it: that’s Peter’s Gospel. But those of you who have read the other Gospels may be surprised by how much he has left out. For example: where is that detail about Jesus telling the disciples that they will all abandon him and Peter saying, “Even though all fall away, I will not”? And when Jesus responds by saying,

“Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times,” why can’t Peter seem to remember that he said, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you?” Beyond that he doesn’t seem to remember that when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and wanted Peter and the others to keep watch with him, Peter kept falling asleep. He doesn’t talk about cutting off anyone’s ear with a sword, and of course he completely fails to mention that part of the story where he denies Jesus three times, although the others remember.

Matthew says that when Peter realized what he had done he went out and wept bitterly. Mark says that he “broke down” and wept. Luke adds the heartbreaking detail that when Peter shouted out his third denial, the Lord turned and looked at him; only then did he stumble out of the courtyard weeping bitterly. And although John doesn’t tell us how Peter responded when he realized that he had denied the Lord, he does tell us that he did it. Everyone seems to remember that and feel the need to include it in their story; everyone except Peter.

But he does include this other detail, one that I don’t find in any of the other gospel accounts: in Acts 10:36 he says that Jesus came “preaching peace,” which I usually think of as the absence of war, but as you know it can also mean peace between individuals or even peace with God. In fact, that was the title of one of Billy Graham’s bestselling books: Peace with God. He wrote, “I know men who would write a check for a million dollars if they could find peace. Millions are searching for it. But we Christians have found it! It is ours now and forever. We have found the secret of life! When your spouse dies or your children get sick or you lose your job, you can have a peace that you don’t understand. You may have tears at a graveside, but you can have an abiding peace, a quietness.”ii I think

that’s the kind of peace Peter eventually found. He doesn’t include it in his Easter story, but if he hadn’t found it, we might never have heard his Easter story at all.

Mark hints at it. After that terrible thing Peter did to Jesus, after denying him three times, Mark says that when the angel spoke to those women at the tomb he told them to “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” Jesus knew that if he didn’t send Peter a special invitation he might not come; he might have felt too guilty about what he had done. And then John spells it out. In one of the most poignant moments in Scripture he tells us about Jesus and Peter going for a walk on the seashore, after Peter had denied him three times and after Jesus had risen from the dead. He says, “Peter, do you love me?” which must have been like a dagger to Peter’s heart. He says, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” But then Jesus asks him again, and again, until you can almost see the tears rolling down Peter’s cheeks. Each time Peter assures Jesus that he loves him, and it’s as I’ve said before: Jesus gives Peter a chance to fill in the enormous hole he has dug for himself with three big shovels full of love. And then he repeats the first thing he ever said to Peter: he says, “Follow me,” reinstating him as a disciple, and restoring their lost friendship.

That’s when Peter found peace with God and for him it may be the best part of the good news of Jesus’s resurrection. Yes, when spring overcomes winter we have to celebrate. We can’t help ourselves. And yes, when life overcomes death, we have to celebrate. We can’t help ourselves. But yes, also, when ruined relationships are resurrected, we have to celebrate. We can’t help ourselves. And that may be the part of the Easter story Peter most wants us to hear.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote a short story called The Capital of the World about a boy who had sinned against his father and run away from home. The

father searched all over Spain for him but couldn’t find him. Finally, in the city of Madrid, in a last desperate attempt, the father placed an ad in the daily newspaper. The ad read: “PACO MEET AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN. —PAPA.” The father prayed that maybe the boy would see the ad and maybe, just maybe, he would come to the Hotel Montana.

On Tuesday, the father arrived well before the appointed time and could not believe his eyes. A squadron of police officers had been called out to keep order among the eight hundred young boys named “Paco” who had come to meet their father in front of the Hotel Montana.iii That’s how much estrangement there is in our world. That’s how much need there is for forgiveness and reconciliation. And it’s part of the good news of Easter: that it’s not only about spring overcoming winter, or life overcoming death, but also about enemies becoming friends.

I wonder if that has anything to do with how many people show up for church on Easter Sunday. Is it like that first truly warm, sunny day of the year? Does it just bring them out of the woodwork? Or is it the idea that life can overcome death: do they simply need to hear that story again, to give them hope? Or is it this: that the Heavenly Father’s love “is as endless as the cycle of the seasons,” as if he had put an ad in the paper saying, “CHILDREN, MEET ME IN CHURCH AT 11:00 ON EASTER SUNDAY MORNING. ALL IS FORGIVEN. –PAPA.” Do we secretly hope, as Peter once hoped, that peace with God is possible? And do we come to church on this Sunday or any Sunday with our ears cocked toward heaven, hoping to hear those words:

“ALL IS FORGIVEN”?

—Jim Somerville © 2024

Peter Remembers Pentecost

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say…”

            It’s the Day of Pentecost, and you’ve heard just the beginning of that story from Acts, chapter two. I want you to hear the rest of the story, but I want you to hear it from the Apostle Peter, who was actually there. This is not a continuation of my Easter Season sermon series, “the Well-Remembered Word,” because it is not a first-person narrative about Jesus, but it is a first-person narrative about the Holy Spirit. So, if you will give me just a second to slip into character, I’ll come back to the pulpit as Peter himself. Yes?

            Yes!

            Well, good morning! It’s a pleasure to be with you, and I’m grateful for the chance to share some of my story. As you know I am not “the Beloved Disciple” (that would be John), but I think I may be everybody’s favorite disciple, mostly because they can relate to me: I’m not perfect; I’ve made some mistakes. But if I have it’s because I’m a whole-hearted person.[i] I followed Jesus with my whole heart. I wanted to make him proud, and for that reason I sometimes leaped before I looked, and sometimes spoke before I thought. Like that time on the road near Caesarea Philippi, when he was asking us who we thought he was and I just blurted it out: “You’re the Messiah!” It’s what everybody else was thinking, but nobody else said it. I did, and Jesus blessed me for it. But then he began to talk about going to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die and, honestly, I could not imagine that happening to the Messiah. So I said that, too. And this time he cursed me. He said, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are not thinking the things of God but the things of men.” And that stung, because the truth is I wasn’t thinking at all; I was feeling; I was speaking from the heart.

            And I’m sure you’ve heard about that other time—the time I denied Jesus. It grieves me to think of it even now, but that, too, came from the heart. When Jesus said that he would be arrested and all of us would abandon him I said, “Not me!” Those words leaped out of my mouth. I said, “Even if I have to die with you I will not abandon you!” And Jesus turned to me with a sad look on his face, as if he knew just how much I wanted to follow him and just how miserably I would fail. But this time he didn’t say it like a curse, he said it like the truth: “Before the cock crows tomorrow morning you will have denied me three times.” And that made me even more determined not to do it. But again it was my heart, my fearful heart, that did me in. After his arrest I got as close to Jesus as I could without actually being in the courtroom with him. They were in there, accusing him of every crime they could invent, and I was out there in the courtyard, warming my hands over the fire, when some servant girl recognized me and said, “You’re one of his disciples!”

            Judas betrayed Jesus, but my heart betrayed me. In that moment when I should have stood up to her, when I should have said, “Yes, I’m his disciple, and I’m not ashamed to say so!” my fearful heart leapt into my throat. It did the talking for me. And what it said was, “I don’t even know the man.” I’m ashamed to say it. I’m ashamed to say my fearful heart did it two more times, and when the cock crowed it realized what it had done and broke into a million tiny pieces. I ran out of that courtyard sobbing, the tears running down my face “like rain down a rock,”[ii] because I was Peter: I was “the Rock.” But in that moment I couldn’t imagine how Jesus could ever build a church on a pile of rubble like me. 

            It was later, much later—after he had died and risen, and shown himself to us—that he showed himself again, while we were fishing. John was the first to recognize him. We thought he was just some stranger on the beach, but when he told us to cast our nets on the other side, and we did, and we caught that boatload full of fish, John said, “It is the Lord!” And I was embarrassed. I was stripped down for work. I didn’t want him to see me that way but I wanted to see him so I put my clothes back on and then jumped in the water (do you see what I mean about sometimes leaping before I looked?) But when I got to shore I didn’t know what to do. I was still so mortified by the memory of my denial I couldn’t even look him in the eye. But Jesus knew what to do. He always seemed to know what to do. He said, “Let’s take a walk.” And walking down the beach that way, beside the sea, I didn’t have to look at him and he didn’t have to look at me. He said, “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” And that hurt so much—that he would have to ask. But I told him the truth, I said, “Lord, you know that I love you.” And then he asked me again, and then again, and each time I said the same thing, “Lord, you know me. You know everything about me. You know how much I love you!” But somehow saying it out loud like that three times seemed to undo the damage of those three denials. It filled up the hole I had dug for myself with three, big shovels full of love. And at the end of all that he proved that he is the God of the Second Chance, because he said to me what he had said in the very beginning: “Follow me.” And this time I was determined not to let him down.

            So, just before he ascended into heaven, when he told us to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the power from on high, I made up my mind that I was going to do it. Not my heart, mind you—my mind. It was my heart that was always getting me in trouble. I thought I would have better luck with my mind. But don’t you know that as soon as we got back to that upper room my mind told me that what we needed was a disciple to replace Judas. I wish I had waited on that. I wish I had waited until it became clear to all of us that the Lord had picked his own replacement disciple, and that the one he had picked was Paul. But no, I was trusting my mind, and my mind told me something had to be done right away. So we drew lots and picked Matthias and he was a good choice, but looking back, I don’t think he was God’s choice. You never hear from him again in the Bible, do you? No. But you hear a lot about Paul. I think your pastor is going to be talking about Paul this summer; I’ll leave that up to him. What I want to tell you about this morning is what happened next.

            As Luke so accurately reported in the second chapter of Acts, we were all together in one place, in that same, large upper room where we had shared our last meal with Jesus. We were waiting and praying for the promised power from on high. We had been waiting and praying for ten days, and some of us were on the verge of giving up. Some had given up and gone home. But 120 of us were still packed into that upper room praying in shifts so that there wouldn’t be a moment when we weren’t praying. And then, on the Day of Pentecost, just before nine o’clock in the morning, it happened. We began to hear a sound like I used to hear when I was out fishing on the Sea of Galilee, when the wind came roaring through the Valley of the Doves and onto the water with such force it could capsize a fishing boat. But this wind came roaring through the room where we were praying, through closed windows and locked doors. This wind swirled around us and among us and when we sucked in our breath we sucked it into our lungs, and that’s when we found out that it wasn’t wind at all, it was breath:

It was the breath of God.

            I looked around and saw something that looked like flames dancing over people’s heads, like they were literally on fire for the Lord, but that was nothing compared to the light that was shining from their faces. They were lit up from the inside—I was lit up—by the glory of God, the shekinah, and if you’ve never had that experience I don’t know that I can explain it. But I’ll tell you this: we couldn’t contain it. That room couldn’t contain it. We spilled out into the streets whooping and laughing and babbling like idiots, but in other languages. We didn’t know where that came from. We were looking around at each other like, “I didn’t know you spoke Egyptian!” “Well, I didn’t know you spoke Arabic!”  But mostly we were just looking toward heaven, and praising God for his mighty acts in whatever language leapt from our lips.

            The commotion brought a crowd together, faithful Jews from every nation under heaven, and all of them could hear and understand what we were saying in their own languages. They were amazed. But some bystander who didn’t understand anything said, “Look at this bunch of drunks!” And that’s when I finally understood. In that moment I knew it wasn’t that we were full of intoxicating spirits, but that we were full of the Holy Spirit. The same spirit that had been in Jesus, the one that had filled him with such incredible wisdom and power, was now in us—in all of us! And in that moment I knew why Jesus had to leave us: because as long as he was with us the Spirit could only be in him, but once he returned to the Father that same Spirit could be poured out on all of us. And you’re right: none of us got as much of it as he did. Jesus was full of the Spirit like the ocean is full of water. Each of us got only a little, maybe no more than a spoonful, but in my case, at least, that was enough. It was powerful stuff! Suddenly, all those old, earthly fears were gone, and my muddled human thoughts were replaced by God’s own truth. I scrambled to the top step of the building where we were gathered so I could address the crowd.

“Men of Judea,” I said, “and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (Acts 2:14-18, 21).

The sermon went on longer than that. It turns out I had a lot to say, or, rather, the Spirit did. I told them about Jesus, the Messiah, the one they nailed to the cross, the one God raised from the dead. I quoted the Scriptures as if I had memorized them. I made sense of things that until that moment had been a mystery even to me. But when I was finished that crowd was cut to the heart. They stood there in shocked silence until someone said, “Brothers, what should we do?” I said, “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.”  And do you know how your pastor gives an altar call at the end of the service, and on a good day two or three people come down the aisle? Well, I’m not bragging—after all, it wasn’t me, it was the Holy Spirit—but that day three thousand people came down the aisle asking to be baptized. And that’s what we did: we went to the Pool of Bethesda and baptized them. At first it was only me since I was the one who suggested it, but have you ever tried to baptize three thousand people? Do you know how tired your arms get? Soon all the rest of the apostles were in the water, baptizing right along with me. We got the job done, and a lot of people went home wet and happy that day. We went home wet, happy, and worn out from all those baptisms, but what a reason to rejoice!

Friends, that happened nearly two thousand years ago, but I’m here today to tell you there is still reason to rejoice. The Spirit of God is still moving among his people. And when you open yourself to that Spirit, when you stop resisting it because you like to be in charge, when you close your eyes and fill your lungs with the divine Breath—with the wisdom and power of God—things will never be the same.

If it were not so, would I have told you?

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] In The Gifts of Imperfection Brené Brown writes: “Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” I think Peter could have said that very thing.

[ii] Frederick Buechner, “Peter,” in Peculiar Treasures

What Just Happened?

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.

When I came back from sabbatical last year I came back determined to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of.  There were a lot of assumptions there.  First, the assumption that the pandemic was over, which it wasn’t, not then, and isn’t, not yet.  Secondly, the assumption that I would know what Jesus would be proud of and what he wouldn’t.  And finally, the assumption that I could build such a church, which I can’t, at least not without your help.  But when I came up with this sermon series called “Building It as We Fly” I was thinking that those founders of the early church probably didn’t know much more than we do.  They were like Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kitty Hawk, trying to invent heavier-than-air flight, conducting experiments, and having to make a lot of adjustments along the way.  So, Peter, who was there on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit came and the church was born: did he know what he was doing?  And Paul who went from place to place preaching the gospel and planting churches: did he know what a church was supposed to be?  Still, I want us to go back and take a closer look at these “inventors” of the early church to see what we might learn from them about building a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, and I want to begin with Peter.

In the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  And Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus is surprised, and pleased!  He says, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father, who is in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter—the Rock—and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”  That’s a comforting word, isn’t it?  Sometimes it feels as if the church is right up against the gates of Hades.  But what about Peter, “the Rock”?  When Jesus begins to tell his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering Peter pulls him aside and begins to rebuke him.  “God forbid it, Lord!” he says, “This shall never happen to you!”  And five verses after he has called him a rock Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!  You have become a stumbling block to me.  For you are not thinking the things of God, you are thinking the things of men.”  I once preached a sermon on this passage called “From Solid Rock to Stumbling Block.”  How did it happen?  Peter started thinking the things of men.  It makes me think that if we want to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of we have to be careful not to think the things of men, which might include money, success, power, influence, and other things you could name.

So, was Peter “the Rock,” or was it his confession of faith?  When Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” did Jesus think, “Yes!  I could build my church on faith like that!  Peter’s mind may change from one moment to the next, his ways may be impulsive and unpredictable, but his faith is as solid as a rock.”  I think about how, when I baptize people, I don’t ask them if they believe that Peter is the foundation of the church, I ask them if they believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.  If I asked them to sing it rather than say it they might sing, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.”  Including Peter.  He was sinking sand.  I know some of my Catholic friends would disagree; they think of him as the first pope.  But if you read on in the Gospels you will find that on the night Jesus was betrayed Peter became so fearful for his own life he denied Jesus three times.  The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.  And yet his faith was rock solid and Jesus knew it.  He knew he could build on a foundation like that.  How about you?  How’s your faith?  If we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of it’s going to take a lot of that.

I mention Peter because he features so prominently in today’s reading from Acts, chapter two.  But the story begins a good bit earlier, sometime between Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and his ascension into heaven.  It was during those forty days, Luke tells us, that Jesus “ordered [his disciples] not to leave Jerusalem but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’”  He ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, and so, after he went up to heaven, they came down from the Mount of Olives and went back into the city.  It seems like a small detail, but it’s not.  These were men of Galilee.  They had come to Jerusalem with Jesus, and for Jesus.  But now that Jesus had returned to the Father they had no real reason to stay, except that Jesus had told them to.  So, they did, and I’m guessing it was Peter, the leader of the group, who led the way.

How do you build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of?  Maybe you start by doing what Jesus’ disciples did: they obeyed his clear command.  Let me remind you that the five essential ministry areas of this church are built on five clear commands of Christ:

  1. Worship, because Jesus told us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.
  2.  Compassion, because he told us to love our neighbors just as much as we love ourselves.
  3.  Community, because he told us to love one another as he has loved us.
  4.  Invitation, because he told us to make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
  5.  Formation, because he told us to make disciples by teaching them to obey everything he commanded us.

I sometimes ask our members to picture heaven as a big, white fleecy cloud with five ropes hanging down from it, and then I say, “These are the five ropes, these five essential ministry areas: worship, compassion, community, invitation, and formation, and if each of us grabs a rope, and we all pull down together, heaven will come to earth, or at least it will come a whole lot closer.”

So, yes, we build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of by doing what those first disciples did: by obeying him.  He told them to go into the city and wait for the promised power from on high and they did, but did you notice they didn’t only wait?  In Acts, chapter 1, it says that when the disciples returned to Jerusalem they went to the upper room where they were staying, and they devoted themselves constantly to prayer!  I’ve looked, but I can’t find where Jesus told them to do that.  In Luke 24 he says, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”  In Acts, chapter 1, he “ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait there for the promise of the Father.”  He ordered them to wait, he told them to stay, but he did not tell them to pray.  They must have come up with that on their own.  Maybe they waited for a few hours and when nothing happened they began to say, “Come, Holy Spirit.  Come, Power from on high.  Come, you Promise of the Father!”  Just as you might start praying for the bus to come if you’d been standing at the bus stop for more than an hour.

Whatever else you might say about that I believe that if we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of we might have to do what they did: we might have to pray for that power from on high.  We actually did this once.  We got people to sign up to pray for the full ten days between Ascension and Pentecost, just like those early disciples.  I can’t remember if we got someone to sign up for every hour, but that was our goal: to have ten days of uninterrupted prayer, asking the Father to send the Spirit Jesus promised to the disciples.  Another year we read through the entire Bible in those ten days, each person signing up to read a certain section, to listen for the voice of God, and to write down what they heard so we could share it with the entire church.  Neither of those things resulted in a Pentecost experience like the one recorded in Acts, but both of those things were honest efforts to trust God, rather than our own wisdom or power.

That’s what those first disciples were doing: they were in that upper room trusting, praying, listening, waiting, when suddenly there came from heaven a sound like the rush of a mighty wind (the Greek word is pneuma, which can mean “wind, breath, or spirit”), and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.   Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”  And something happened to Peter.  This formerly fearful disciple, too timid to speak to a servant girl, suddenly found himself standing before a crowd of thousands and telling them that what they were witnessing was nothing less than a miracle.  “This is what the prophet Joel was talking about,” he said, “that ‘in the last days God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women; in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy,’ says the Lord.”

You know the rest of that story: by the end of the day 3,000 people had been baptized.  But after all that, when those disciples finally sat down to supper, exhausted from all that baptizing, their arms too tired to lift a fork, they must have wondered, “What just happened?  What was that?  What are we supposed to make of all that?”  “Well,” Jesus might have said, “You’re supposed to make a church.”  And they did.  And now, nearly two thousand years later, this is how we remember the Day of Pentecost, as the birthday of the church.  Those first disciples did everything they were supposed to do: they started with a solid foundation of faith; they obeyed the clear command of Christ; they went back Jerusalem where they waited and prayed; and then—a miracle happened.  The Spirit came, that promised power from on high.  Without it the church would never have been born, and without it we will never build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of.  But where, in these days, will we find the Spirit?

“On May 13, 1900, Wilbur Wright wrote a letter to Octave Chanute—his first letter to the eminent engineer—asking for advice on a location where he might conduct flying experiments, somewhere without rain or inclement weather and, Wilbur said, where sufficient winds could be counted on, winds, say, of 15 miles per hour.  The only such sites he knew of, Chanute replied, were in California and Florida, but both were deficient in sand hills for soft landings.  Wilbur might do better along the coasts of South Carolina or Georgia.  Wind was the essential, the brothers had already come to appreciate.  And clearly, if ever they were to succeed with what they had set their minds to, they must learn—and learn from experience—the ways of the wind.”

That’s a quote from David McCullough’s book, The Wright Brothers, and I love it.  “If ever they were to succeed they must learn from experience the ways of the wind,” it says.  And so they ended up going to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, because that’s where the wind was.

If we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, we too may have to go where the wind is.  I can almost hear someone volunteering after worship, “Look Pastor, if you need me to go to Kitty Hawk I could do that.  I would be willing to spend the summer on the Outer Banks.”  No.  I’m not talking about wind; I’m talking about Spirit.  In John 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”  And then he implies that it’s the same way with the Spirit.  You can’t see it, but you can see what it does.  People can be moved by the Spirit as the leaves of a tree are moved by the wind.  So, where is the Spirit blowing in our time?

  • Church is always a good place to look for it.  When the people of God come together, when we are all in one place as the disciples were on the Day of Pentecost, waiting and praying for something to happen, something just might happen.  I’m glad you’re here.
  • But in these days I’m wondering if the Spirit can also move through the fiber optic cable that brings us the Internet.  Those of you watching online may be able to tell me.  Can it?  Does it?  And if so, will it be important to keep that in mind as we try to build a post-pandemic church?
  • And finally, the Spirit may be moving outside these walls in other ways, among people we don’t even know, haven’t yet met, and might not think to include.  If that’s where the Spirit is, then maybe that’s where we need to be, at least some of the time.

I don’t know.  I would be interested to hear your thoughts on where the Spirit is moving these days, and how we could go where the wind is.  But what if, when this pandemic is finally over, we sit down and ask ourselves, “What just happened? What was that?  What are we supposed to make of all that?”  And what if Jesus says, “Well, you’re supposed to make a church, a post-pandemic church, a post-pandemic church that I could be proud of.

“So, what are you waiting for?”