Sunday, October 29th's uplifting message “New Beginnings: God's New Creation Community” by Rev. Toni Carmer continuing week 28 of a 31 week study of “The Story – The Bible as One Continuous Story of God and His People.”
New Beginnings: God's New Creation Community
First United Methodist Church, October 29, 2017
Pastor Toni L. Carmer
With the death of Jesus on the cross, everything changed in the minds of his followers. For awhile they were lost; they weren't sure where to go or what to do.
At his resurrection from the dead three days later, everything changed again—they became aware of possibilities that they hadn't fully considered before, hadn't fully understood.
And then, with his ascension, it all changed again: in a way that would profoundly impact the whole world—even you and me—all these years later. The mission and ministry of Jesus, empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit, would reach to the very ends of the earth.
This week we're reading Chapter 28 of The Story, entitled New Beginnings, which takes us through chapters 1-12 of the Book of Acts. We'll begin our conversation as Jesus leads his disciples to the mountaintop where he will ascend into heaven. He tells them that they are to go back to Jerusalem to wait for the gift that God had promised…they will be clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49).
I want you to remember, too, his final words that are the backdrop of everything else that happens: Jesus told them: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And remember, I'll be with you always, even to the end of the age."
The disciples witness his ascension…they're watching the sky, and two angels appear to them: "Men of Galilee, why are you standing here, looking at the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you to heaven will come back—as certainly and as mysteriously as he left."
About 10 days later, they're all together in one place, in Jerusalem. It's a Jewish feast day and people have come to Jerusalem from all around the known world. The streets are packed, they're not taking any more reservations at any of the restaurants—they'd have to stay open all night to accommodate everyone. The hotels are filled, so there are camps set up along the streets, where people are settling in and cooking food with smells both unfamiliar and amazing. People are moving through the streets, shoulder to shoulder, trying to get through, trying to keep an eye on their companions, wives holding onto the belts of their husbands so they don't get separated. There's lots of laughter—it's a festival day, a good day, there is singing, conversations, different languages and dialects, each bringing a sampling of their own culture, their own homes to this place where they have gathered to give thanks to God for the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai.
While all of this is going on outside and around them, the disciples are inside. They have gone to the temple whenever it's open, and then they return to this place where they're staying—they are perhaps 120 strong at this point. They heard Jesus tell them to wait, and so that's what they're doing. I've always envisioned them as a little timid, a little fearful, a bit shell-shocked at all that they've seen an experienced…uncertain of what might be ahead. And yet, they're celebrating, as well, they're thankful for their history, for Moses, for the Law, and they're thankful as well, for Jesus. They are witnesses to the resurrection and they're not exactly sure what's going to happen next, but their faith: their prayers, their worship, their time together—is carrying them through.
And then suddenly, it happens. The blowing of a violent wind comes from heaven and fills the house. They see what seems to be tongues of fire that separate, coming to rest on each of them. They are all filled with the Holy Spirit and they begin to speak in other tongues/in other languages as the Spirit enables them.
The people on the streets hear the sound, the wind, and they gather to see what's going on. They're confused, amazed, perplexed: these Galileans, who aren't world travelers or educated men, who have never studied abroad—they're speaking in the languages of these visitors, proclaiming the works of God. What is this about?
Some laugh—there's an easy explanation—they've been drinking! No, they haven't.
Peter stands up and begins to preach: Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you, listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, it's only 9 in the morning [On a festival day, the fast wouldn't be broken until 10 a.m., and it would be extremely unlikely for a group of Jewish men to not only have broken the fast but to be intoxicated, as well.] Peter then unfolds scripture, proclaiming the word of the prophet Joel, God's gift of Jesus, the giving of his life and his resurrection from the dead. He lifts up God's promise to David that his descendent would one day sit at the right hand of God. And now, they have seen for themselves: they have witnessed the Holy Spirit poured out.
What can we do?, they ask. How should we respond?
Peter replies: Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all who the Lord our God will call.
About 3000 are added to their number that day.
It was a Jewish festival day celebrating the giving of the Law of Moses…it was the Day of Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church. A new chapter. A new beginning.
It was a time of new life, of building. We're told that the people devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders an signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common… And the Lord added to their numbers daily, those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-44, 47b).
In Chapter 3 of Acts and on page 393 of The Story, we read where John and Peter encounter a man begging who has been lame since birth. As they come closer, the man asks them—and anyone else who might glance in his direction—for some money. Peter focuses in on the man saying "Look at us," so the man turns directly to him, expecting to be offered a handout. Instead, Peter says, "I don't have any money to give to you, but I will give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." Peter takes the man's hand and helps him up. With this, his feet and ankles become strong, he jumps up and begins walking…and jumping and praising God. (How could he not?!)
Everyone sees it, everyone is amazed…and they come to see what has happened. Peter begins preaching. It's an opportunity to tell about Jesus, that it's not by his own power, but by the power of Jesus. He speaks of Christ's resurrection, God's purposes, and calls the people to repentance.
Not everyone is pleased. The religious leaders seize John and Peter and jail them until the next day. They are brought before the council and questioned, and again, Peter preaches his faith, the truth that this man was healed as an act of kindness through the power and in the name of Jesus Christ. They don't know what to do our how to respond—they can see that the man has been healed, so many in the community has seen, as well. How can they punish these men without opposition? They know they can't do it. So, John and Peter are released after a stern warning to keep quiet.
The disciples continue to perform many signs and wonders. They are highly regarded; people would even position their loved ones needing healing in places along the street where they expect Peter to pass, hoping that his shadow will touch them and make them whole.
Each day the Lord continues to add to their numbers, and the time comes when they realize that more leaders are needed to help care for their growing flock. Seven men, known to be wise and filled with the Spirit, are chosen to share in this ministry of service. One of these men is Stephen.
As Stephen serves the community, he meets opposition. Members of a synagogue begin arguing with him, but his wisdom is beyond theirs. False witnesses testify against him, and his response is to proclaim Christ crucified, which infuriates the religious leaders and prompt his execution by stoning.
We're told that a man named Saul, possibly connected to the synagogue who originally began having problems with Stephen, approves of his killing.
At this point, great persecution breaks out against the church in Jerusalem and Saul is at the center of the persecution. People are taken from their homes and put into prison. Saul goes to the high priest and asks for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that he might bring followers of Jesus back to Jerusalem to imprison. On the way to Damascus, he is blinded by a light from heaven that flashes around him. He hears a voice speak: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
"Who is this?" Saul asks.
It is Jesus. Saul is instructed to go into the city and wait. He will be told what to do.
For 3 days, Saul is blind. He doesn't eat or drink anything.
In Damascus, Jesus appears to a disciple named Ananias. Jesus tells him to go to the place where Saul is staying and to place his hands on him to restore his sight.
Ananias has heard of Paul and is fearful, but he goes.
Saul has also experienced a vision: that a man named Ananias will come to restore his vision. Ananias does this, and something like scales fall from Saul's eyes. He stands up, he's baptized, and after taking some food, he regains his strength.
At first, those who follow Jesus are frightened of Saul; they're not ready to accept him because of all that he has done to persecute the followers of Jesus. But when they hear of his fearlessly preaching for the cause of Christ without regard to his own life, they take him in, and do what they need to do to protect him. God works in surprising ways through surprising people and circumstances.
One final story in Acts chapter 10 and beginning on page 401 of The Story.
A centurion named Cornelius receives a vision from God to go to Peter who is in Joppa—he sends his servants to find him. At the same time, Peter has a vision during prayer of four- footed animals, birds and reptiles, and a voice tells him to "Get up, Kill and eat."
These would be considered unclean to the devout Jew, and Peter's responds—oh, no—I can't do that. The same thing happens two more times.
As Cornelius's servants come to the door, the Spirit comes to Peter again, telling him to go with them…to do what they ask. So he leaves the next day to go with them to the home of Cornelius.
Peter enters the home of Cornelius and greets him and his invited guests. Though it is against Jewish law for him to visit the home of a Gentile, God has shown him that he should not call anyone impure or unclean.
He now realizes that truly, God shows no partiality.
This is all such good news.
The Spirit has been given.
God's people have been equipped to do ministry in Jesus' name. To heal, to preach, to love, to care.
Hearts have been transformed.
Sinners have been forgiven, converted, and can still do amazing things for the cause of Christ.
The door has been opened.
May we rejoice in that for ourselves, and may we remember that it's true for others, as well.
In Jesus' name. Amen.