Written by Pastor Ed.
Due to technical difficulties, a recording of the sermon is unavailable.
Acts 1: 6-8 and Acts 2: 1-8; 14-21
Who are we? That is, who are we as Christians and as a Christian church? How are we related to the Jews, the people of God in the old Testament? Are we totally new? It wouldn’t seem that way because like the Jews, and later the Muslims, we claim Abraham as our ancestor in the faith, and we use the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. And yet, we are also different than the Jews for we claim a unique place for Jesus, and call ourselves Christ followers, or Christians.
In many ways, that question of identity was a primary one for the believers of the first century, and Luke, a physician and friend of Paul’s, a Gentile Christian, sought in his writings to answer part of that question. He did it, not be lengthy arguments and explanations, but simply by telling at least part of the story of those early years. In many ways, we shouldn’t read the book of Acts by itself, because it is part of a larger document that we sometimes call, Luke-Acts.
These two writings, the gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts of the Apostles were originally one document, and only later split apart and put in their current order in the canon. Of course, Luke himself divides them somewhat, for he begins this second part by referring to “the first book” which he had written to Theopholis, about whom we know nothing.
Acts was probably written in the early 60’s, some 30 years after the resurrection and probably written from Rome where Paul was still imprisoned, awaiting the outcome of his trial. Some of it is written in the first person, as an eyewitness to events, and some in the third person. Luke notes in his opening to the gospel that his purpose is to set down an orderly account of what has happened. In volume 1, the gospel, he records his account of the life of Jesus, gathered from a variety of sources, probably both written and oral. And now, volume 2, recounts the beginning of the early church from Pentecost until the time of his writing this account, some two years after Paul was taken to Rome.
As always, we need to recognize that not everything that happened is recorded here, and thankfully we have other sources from historians of the time to give us a fuller picture of life during these years, but Luke records what he deems important for the story, and particularly those things about which he had first-hand knowledge.
He begins where he ended the gospel, with Jesus’ ascension, which we recognized last Sunday, and then proceeds to the main event which provides the impetus, the start of the rest of the account, namely Pentecost, the coming of the spirit on the believers in Jerusalem, giving them the power and courage promised by Jesus, which enables them to speak boldly about the gospel of Jesus.
In many ways the outline of the book of Acts is given in Jesus’ words to the disciples prior to his ascension that Luke records in chapter 1, verse 8: “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.”
So the story begins in Jerusalem where the church begins on Pentecost and where numerous people, including the first 3000, are converted. it is also in Jerusalem where the first opposition is recorded and the first misunderstandings and internal issues begin to arise, with the account of Ananias and Sapphira. And finally we have the account of Stephen who becomes the first martyr of the faith. Then the story begins to expand with Philip and the Ethiopian, with Peter’s vision and the conversion of Cornelius, a Gentile, and finally to the introduction of Saul, his conversion of the Damascus road, and finally to Saul, now Paul’s carrying the gospel across the near east, and finally to Rome.
Perhaps one of the most unique features of the book of Acts is the recording of numerous sermons including Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, Stephen’s sermon prior to his stoning, Peter’s again at the home of Cornelius, and then Paul’s sermon in a variety of places, including his famous sermon at the Areopagus in Athens.
While we sometimes idealize the early church, Luke makes it clear that there were growing pains along the way. There were growing pains, new insights and persecution, which often lead to further expansion of the church. There were power struggles, even between Peter and Paul. There were those who weren’t ready to admit Gentiles to the church, and Luke records the major conference on Jerusalem which wrestled with the question. Differences of opinion in the church are nothing new!
The early church was not static, a nice, neat package tied up with a bow. It was moving, changing. It had to deal with new situations and as it did so it relied on the leading of the Spirit and the counsel of the church to guide the way. It was a movement growing on the way, a term used to describe the early Christians, a People of the Way. Luke shows in Luke-Acts a people both connected with the past, yet also a new movement under the guidance of the Spirit. He shows the church as it related to the surrounding culture, to other religions, and to the new people who joined the way.
So what might we learn from reading the book of Acts that would help us today. Through the centuries there have been many movements, including in many ways our forebears in the Anabaptist movement, whose goal has been to recreate the 1st century church which isn’t really possible. But we can perhaps see some things that should be marks of the church at any time. Let me cite four.
First of all, it is clear from the beginning that the church is to be a growing, missionary body. “You are my witnesses,” said Jesus. I think you heard something about that last week. The church doesn’t send out missionaries, Christians are missionaries in the world. By its nature the gospel is to be proclaimed to whoever will listen. Whether it’s at home, in the next province, or around the world. And, we can also note that the message should be tailored to the audience, as Paul did on numerous occasions. While there is a central message to the sermons recorded, namely the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, how it is presented varies depending on the audience.
Secondly, the church is unashamedly Christian; that is the focus is on Jesus and God’s actions through Jesus. The story doesn’t begin with Pentecost and the church. The story begins with Jesus, with Luke 1 not Acts 1. Peter sums it up in his speech before the council, after he heals the crippled beggar when he says,
“Rulers of the people and elders, 9 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, 10 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,[d] whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus[e] is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.’[f]12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
That is the starting point for all preaching and dialogue in the early church, and even today.
Having said that, we might also note, as point three, that while we are clear about who we are and what we believe, we can do so while still respecting others and not putting them down, recognizing that we might be wrong. We see already in the book of Acts that there were various groups and interpretations forming, and that has certainly continued. The church, growing out of Pentecost, has become a world-wide body of believers in a myriad of denominations, with a broad spectrum of interpretations of Scripture.
We are a Mennonite church that traces our theology and interpretation of scripture back to the Anabaptists of the 16th century, although we have certainly changed since then. Every congregation has some affiliation or leaning, whether they are up front about it or not. I would argue that there is no such thing as a generic Christian, even though some churches would like to say they are non-denominational. That just means they aren’t formally part of a broader group. But if you listen to sermons, or look at the literature used, or whatever, you can soon discover which major stream of theology they come out of.
And that’s ok. It was probably inevitable over the centuries. My point is that we can hold to our beliefs and be clear about them, while remaining in dialogue with other Christians, believing that the Spirit has been given to all of us and that it is in dialogue with each other than we can come to the fuller truth.
Which is the fourth point I want to lift from the book of Acts, for it is clear right from the start that the church is not a static institution. The church is a movement, an ever changing, body that grows, that faces new situations, and that relies on the Spirit to guide it. Jesus said that he would send the Spirit to guide us into all truth, and we are still in that process. The church of Jesus Christ has taken many detours, has seemingly lost its way at times, and yet it has endured the centuries, and I am convinced will into the future.
I guess that’s why I don’t get too worked up about decisions that the church makes on issues that present themselves. Because I believe that the Spirit is still active, and that the story of the church is not yet finished, I trust that the church will find its way into the future as it has in the past. The book of Acts ends rather abruptly, simply noting Paul’s continuing presence in Rome, teaching and preaching to everyone who would listen. And that’s what we are called to do as well, to carry on the mission of God in the world.
As we do that we will continue to grow on the way, and the church will survive, sometimes in spite of us, sometimes because of us. May we commit ourselves to Christ and Christ’s church in the here and now, guided by the Spirit whose coming we celebrate today.