Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 7, 2017
Acts 2:42-47 Commentary
Some of the Bible’s most intriguing stories involve events or phenomena that are both unprecedented and unrepeated. In those remarkable but rare instances God is uniquely present. However, even those wonderful stories are always only just a beginning.
So when a barefoot shepherd stands before a bush that burns but never burns up, God is uniquely present. Yet it’s only just a beginning. A rag-tag bunch of freed slaves, fleeing their masters, stand in terror before the Red Sea. Yet while God is uniquely present there, it’s only just a beginning.
When a young woman, exhausted by her long trip, gives birth to a son in the midst of ordinariness, God is uniquely present. Yet it’s only just a beginning. At dawn grieving women hurry to anoint a dead body but find only an empty grave. Yet while God is uniquely present there, it’s only just a beginning.
Even in more ordinary places and circumstances that may seem to repeat themselves endlessly, God is present. In fact, we profess that God is present whenever and wherever just two of God’s children come together in Jesus’ name.
So God isn’t just present when God’s adopted sons and daughters gather for worship. God is also among God’s people as we gather in smaller groups. God isn’t just present when Christians celebrate communion together. God is also present whenever God’s people share a meal or some other kind of fellowship. The places and circumstances change. However, one thing stays the same: God’s gracious presence is just a beginning. The only question is, “What does it begin?”
After Jesus ascends to the heavenly realm, his followers gather to wait for God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. What happens on that first Pentecost had neither happened before nor, in some ways, ever since. After all, God Spirit filled Jesus’ followers and instantaneously equipped them to proclaim the gospel in a variety of languages. Yet even that was only just a beginning.
As Will Willimon notes, modern Christianity is sometimes plagued by temporary enthusiasm that quickly burns out. Like eager dieters who sometimes abandon their plans after a few months, some people have short-term religious highs that don’t flower into long-term commitment.
So even when Luke tells us that God converted more than 3,000 people on the first Pentecost, we may be a little skeptical. After all, some outbursts of religious enthusiasm are the beginning of little more than burnout and disillusionment.
However, the story of the early church is remarkably different. God converts about 3,000 people … and it turns out to be only the beginning. Among other things, Pentecost’s Holy Spirit equips Jesus’ followers to boldly tell the truth about humanity’s rebellion against God and God’s longing for us to be reconciled to God.
Yet even that proves to be only just the beginning. The truth God reveals to Jesus’ first followers triggers not just mass repentance, but also a remarkable chain reaction of love. After all, Luke reports, “all the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”
Of course, Christians sometimes argue about just what this means. Some say it’s a mandate for us to redistribute wealth. Others claim that the early church’s sharing is a symbol of generosity that we shouldn’t take as an ethical imperative. The interpretations of most of Acts 2’s preachers and teachers probably fall somewhere between those extremes.
On the first Pentecost the Holy Spirit fills Jesus’ followers. But it’s only just the beginning. Those followers proclaim the gospel and invite people to receive God’s grace with their faith. But that’s only just the beginning. God converts about 3,000 of those people. But even that’s only just the beginning.
It’s always been tempting for God’s people to receive God’s grace with our faith and then be, in a sense, done with it. After all, we’re at peace with God and will go to heaven when we die. However, becoming a Christian is always only just the beginning. The question is what the rest of the story will be.
Those who preach and teach Acts 2 might invite people to imagine the rest of that story as being part of a group of people who care so much about them that they’d sell everything they had to take care of their needs. Not because they had to, but because they wanted to. Because God’s Spirit had given them what Luke calls “glad and sincere hearts.”
We live in what seems to be an increasingly fragmented society. We’re so busy building something for ourselves and those we love that we sometimes isolate ourselves from all but a handful of people. Some of us have found success … and loneliness. Others haven’t been so successful … and yet are lonely anyway.
North Americans live in a culture in which a growing number of communities are virtual. Yet we’re sometimes so busy text-messaging each other that we scarcely have time to actually spend with each other. We’ve built our communities on Facebook and Twitter, but when we actually see each other it’s almost as if we hardly know what to say or do.
Yet today’s burgeoning social media seems to reflect a basic longing for community. After all, why is it that some who are so connected to social media also drift into the “hook-up” culture? Why do people who can instantaneously electronically connect to others still go bar- and club-hopping? Maybe that’s in part because we long for the kind of face-to-face community that social media just can’t create.
You and I naturally long to be part of a community that will tangibly both support us when we struggle and give us opportunities to support those who struggle. We long to be part of a community where we can make some kind of difference.
God creates you and me with a need to be part of a community that helps us remember who and whose we are. So we need to be part of a community that both tells the truth about us and allows us to speak that truth. This morning’s text reminds us that such a community has been God’s gift to us from the very earliest days of the Christian Church.
Among the first Pentecost’s greatest miracles is God’s formation of a community out of people “from every nation under heaven.” Yet that makes this kind of community fairly unique. After all, we often call today’s “communities” networks, coalitions or alliances. Individual agendas motivate many of them. We join at least some of today’s “communities” because of what they can do for us.
Perhaps, as Will Willimon posits, that’s why even some churches promote what they’ll do for their members. We promise to babysit your kids, stir your souls with rousing worship services and even help you shed your pounds. And if we don’t give you enough, you can always go somewhere where they’ll do even more for you.
Yet our text at least suggests that from the very start, the church has always been less about what we get and more about what we give. The church doesn’t promise you you’ll get a lot out of this community. We don’t, for example, promise to fight for your interests or somehow make you feel better about yourself.
Our text reports, “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Certainly the Lord was graciously saving people from hell. Perhaps, however, God was also saving people from our delusion that we’re on our own to take care of ourselves.
As one prominent preacher notes, we spend our week dominated by questions about ourselves as well as those we love and like. Perhaps as a result, when we come to church, at least some of us are ready to think about someone else for a change. And if even we aren’t ready to do so, the Scriptures have a way of diverting our attention away from ourselves and onto both the Lord and other people.
We believe that God is graciously in worship spaces, because they’re where God’s children meet for worship. Yet as always, God’s presence is only just the beginning. You and I encounter the Spirit of the risen Christ whenever and wherever Christians gather. But that’s only just the beginning of the story that God equips you and me to write as we leave our churches. The only question is what that story will be about.
Paul Harvey was a commentator who had a radio program called “The Rest of the Story. In it he’d often describe some relatively famous event, and then break away for a commercial. After a commercial, Harvey would then fill in the background or aftermath of that story. He’d then close his program by telling us, “And now you know … the rest of the story.”
God is present among God’s people, by God’s Spirit. But that’s only just the beginning. However, we don’t yet know the rest of the story. So what is the rest of the story God will write through us as well as those whom we teach and to whom we preach?
In an article in the April 1, 2015 issue of The Guardian entitled “The Future of Loneliness,” Olivia Lange writes, “At the end of last winter, a gigantic billboard advertising Android, Google’s operating system, appeared over Times Square in New York. In a lower-case sans serif font – corporate code for friendly – it declared: “be together. not the same.” This erratically punctuated mantra sums up the web’s most magical proposition – its existence as a space in which no one need ever suffer the pang of loneliness, in which friendship, sex and love are never more than a click away, and difference is a source of glamour, not of shame.
As with the city itself, the promise of the Internet is contact. It seems to offer an antidote to loneliness, trumping even the most utopian urban environment by enabling strangers to develop relationships along shared lines of interest, no matter how shy or isolated they might be in their own physical lives.
But proximity, as city dwellers know, does not necessarily mean intimacy. Access to other people is not by itself enough to dispel the gloom of internal isolation. Loneliness can be most acute in a crowd.”
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