The Sunday Sermon: Trinity Sunday – June 11, 2017
Scripture: Acts 2:42-47
Life After Jesus
A provocative title for this morning’s sermon, I thought. I came across the phrase in some reading I was doing this week in preparation for the weeks ahead. I found myself wondering what the very first gatherings of those who would become Christian’s may have been like. Those men and women from last week who, according to Luke, were first “stricken in the Spirit” that was promised to them by Jesus. These would be the men and women that walked with Jesus, historically speaking.
Now these wouldn’t be the communities that Paul founded. We most often jump from Pentecost to those communities – the churches in Thessalonica, Philippi, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, and eventually Rome. But “Christianity” was established before all that, of course. In some way, shape, or form, Christianity – whether as a separate religious practice or a sect of ancient Judaism, Christianity existed before Paul. After all, Paul was persecuting communities before he was producing them. Paul comes next, in the growth and development of this new faith, but not in its birth. Christianity had to be born before Paul could notice its existence and persecute its presence (Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, 62.) I’ve been wondering “What was there for Paul to persecute?” and how might we learn about ourselves as we discover the answers to that question.
Pray with me …
And listen for the Word of God from the second chapter of Acts. After the Spirit filled everyone present on Pentecost, Peter began to preach. And when he was done, “all who heard him were cut to the heart,” welcomed his message, and were baptized – three thousand were added. And …
Read Acts 2:42-47 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The book of Acts is our most comprehensive history of the spiritual and political movement that gave birth to the early Christian church. In the first chapter, Luke recaps his first book – his Gospel account of Jesus of Nazareth, and then he writes about Jesus’ ascension into heaven. This took place forty days after Easter, as Jesus had promised. Next is the selection of Matthias to replace the lost Judas. And then, of course, the Coming of the Holy Spirit, again as promised, on Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. The Book of Acts then begins to chronicles\ the deliberations and actions of the church at Jerusalem and the spread of Christianity across Greece and Asia Minor, finishing with the Apostle Paul’s Christian presence in Rome. It all began with the first “theological question” we heard last week on Pentecost Sunday – What does this mean? The first sermon, or response to that question, ever delivered comes next, just before our reading this morning, which is followed by the first baptisms ever performed – three thousand of them! And then we hear of this new “utopian-esque” community.
It’s easy for us to imagine that, even before Paul, Christianity began “with a bang.” I mean it’s recorded right here in Acts. From the one hundred and twenty persons recorded in Acts 1:15 the community leaps into a megachurch-like status of three thousand. And that after only one sermon in Acts 2:41 (I’m filled with humility and envy, myself – how might I preach like Peter!). And from there, “day by day the Lord added to their number” (2:47). That sounds like a “bang” for a start!
But the truth is, nothing happened “all at once.” And nothing happened in a “tidy progression” of perfect responses that tempts us today toward nostalgia of some time in our lives, some time “back when” in our own churches, that never really was. To begin with, as we noted again last week, this isn’t yet a “Christian church,” yet. Not in the sense that we know the “Christian church” – separate from its Jewish heritage. This community is still a “sect” of that mother faith, growing, yes, but not apart from Judaism, still very much within the fold. And it’s growing through the grace of God, the faith of individuals who will pay a price (more on that next week), and it’s growing through the messy expressions of human determination. It’s so incredibly easy to forget all this, to forget all that comes first in our life after Jesus. In fact, many of us may not have forgotten it because we never learned it to begin with. We’ve always moved right from Spirit delivery to Church founding all our lives – from Pentecost to Paul without considering what had to have happened in-between.
The short passage we read for this morning has, in large part been the reason. This passage and the community it describes has become the emblem of the earliest Christian community – the first “church.” So “perfect” is it that we are distanced from it in our own realities of denominational divisions and theological differences. But we should put this in a sharper focus. This community was shaping up under the larger authority of Judaism. It’s not, and never was, something breaking away from it. It is the first description of that transitional time when old Jewish practice and new beliefs were coming together into something different, something pretty novel, but it was still part of the ancient practice. Verse forty-six makes that clear, noting “they spent much time together in the Temple.” What we, as a long established Christian community see as an ideal and emblematic community was actually getting ready to create enormous shifts in faith and practice for its larger religion. Our “perfect community” was first century Judaism’s problem child.
This makes me wonder how we, as the church today, maybe ought to be seeing things differently “through the new eyes of the Spirit” we recognize most fully at Pentecost. How are we to “redefine” and “recharacterize” our own traditions and lives of faith?
In six verses Luke tells us that a new expression of faith, a life together “after Jesus,” is changing, and will change, where people live and with whom; how they understand property ownership; their sense of “communal obligation,” or how they are to take care of one another; and how they understand something as basic as food. Meals themselves are becoming a spiritual activity, accompanied by an understanding of who may doesn’t have food and our role in providing it for them. The “ideal” community we “ideal-ize” is one that is set apart from whatever has been established and has been practiced for centuries as “normal” and “faithful.”
We have read this passage for centuries and found wonder in its new ethic, economy, and culture. It’s a profoundly political vision. For centuries we’ve inevitably compared this community to our own – our own “church community” – and we always come up short. Of course we do. If this is what a true “Christian” community is supposed to look and act like, we don’t stack up so well. And once we’ve “come up short,” we begin to wonder whether this is what really what happened. There’s actually no historical record of a community such as this doing what it says its doing in the early first century of the Common Era. So, is this an exaggeration that tries to describe what should happen, but never fully did, or does? And if so, how close to this is “close enough” for us? But, here’s the thing: These are the wrong questions for a post-Pentecost community – for a group of men and women engaging in “life after Jesus.”
The question we must ask, about this passage and this description of the first community that led its life after Jesus is not “how do we compare?” But “how do we respond?” What momentum, what new, spiritual, and political movement is at work in our community, our congregation, our church today, that is refreshing our entrenched and institutional religious tradition?
How must we respond to the Spirit of Christ after, and because of, the Life of Jesus? What is our response today to the maddeningly increasing gap between those who have so much more than they need and those who don’t even have enough to survive? What is our position on the increasing violence around the world that still insists it exists to establish peace? How will we, how do we, address the food poverty in our cities and counties? How do we engage a consumerist mentality that keeps us enslaved to our possessions? A capitalist society that increases wealth gaps? A militaristic mindset that insists war will bring peace and ignores justice? And a therapeutic culture that keeps us too drugged up to really notice, or even care, beyond our own personal concerns?
Because Jesus lived and loved as he did, we must ask and answer, what our life after Jesus is supposed to represent? The question for our life together now is not “how do we compare?” But, how will we respond? “Day by day” we, too, must spend time together “in the sanctuary,” breaking bread together “at home” and “here,” seeking God and “having the goodwill of all people.”
We’ll engage that on Sunday mornings in the weeks left in June. But don’t wait until next week. “Day by day,” our scripture tells us. Everyday, together, we must ask and answer the questions of our new life: How are we living differently in our “Life after Jesus?” What difference does salvation make in the life of this community?
(No “Amen” this morning. We’re far from finished living the life we’re called to live. So …)
If you’re comfortable able to do so, let’s stand together and sing …
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / June 11, 2017