The Sunday Sermon: Trinity Sunday – June 7, 2020
Scripture: Acts 2:42-47
Life After Jesus … in Christ
A provocative title for this morning’s sermon. In the midst of all that continues to swirl around us regarding racial unrest and political injustice, and – “Oh, yeah” a pandemic – we continue to seek our identity “in Christ.” How might a better understanding of who we are serve us in our search to better understand what we can do in our time? So, we return to the book of Acts this morning to continue our search.
But first, let’s pray together …
In an historical sense, there was, and still is, life after Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross in 33 CE. What is not possible for people of our faith is “life after,” or without, Christ. Such was the case from the first Easter experience of the Risen Lord to this day for those who became and for those who are Christians. I found myself wondering this week after Pentecost what the very first gatherings of those who would become Christians 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 – 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.
Listen, now, 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. The first sermon about Jesus of Nazareth (can we call it a Christian sermon, yet?) was a response to the question asked by the crowds last week: What does this mean? Peter’s sermon was preached in the verses that preceded our reading and is followed by the first baptisms ever performed – three thousand of them!
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 after only one sermon in Acts 2:41 (I’m filled with humility and envy, myself – how might I preach like Peter!). 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.” Not in the sense that we know the “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. It’s growing through the grace of God, the faith of individuals who will pay a price (more on that next week). It’s growing through the messy expressions of human determination. It’s so easy to forget all this, to forget all that comes first in life after Jesus. Truthfully, 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 experiences of “the church.” But let’s look more closely. This community was shaping up under the larger authority of Judaism. It’s not, and never was, something breaking away clean from it. It is the first description of that transitional time when old Jewish practice and new ways of doing things were coming together into something different, something pretty novel, but it was still part of the ancient practice. 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 mother religion. Our “perfect community” was first century Judaism’s problem child.
This makes me wonder how we, as the church today, 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 the six verses we just read, 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 doesn’t have food and our role in providing it for them. The community we “ideal-ize” is one that is being set apart from whatever has been established and practiced for centuries as “normal” and “faithful.”
I hope you’re making some connections between what I’m sharing about the first followers of the Way and today – our time, our COVID-19, re-energized call to live and let breathe all of God’s children, indeed all of God’s creation, equally and without regard to race, gender, class, orientation, or even religious affiliation “time”. Life “after Jesus, in Christ” today should change where we live and with whom; how we understand property ownership; our sense of “communal obligation,” or how we take care of one another; and how we understand things as basic as food and breath. Justice and righteousness should be social prerequisites, accompanied by an understanding of who doesn’t have them and our role in providing it for them.
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. But, 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 to then?” But “how do we respond now?” What momentum, what new, spiritual, and political movement is at work in our community, our congregation, our church and the world today that is refreshing our entrenched and institutional traditions? How must we respond to the Spirit of Christ within us?
What is our response today to the complicity and investment in white supremacy? 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 do we engage a consumerist mentality that keeps us enslaved to our possessions? And a therapeutic culture that keeps us too drugged up to really notice, or even care, beyond our own personal lives?
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 do we respond? “Day by day” we, too, must spend time together “in the sanctuary,” breaking bread “at home” and “here,” seeking God and “having the goodwill of all people” in our hearts and on our minds.
What difference does salvation make in your life and in the life of this sacred community?
(No “Amen” this morning – yet.. We’re far from finished living the life we’re called to live. So …)
Join me in words form our Brief Statement of Faith and let us say together what we believe.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / June 7, 2020