When I was working on my Master of Divinity degree in seminary I was a New Testament major. As I was making my way along through the requirements I got to a point where I needed another New Testament course, and all that was available at the time was a course on the book of Acts. I was really disappointed, because I didn’t think Acts was a big deal. After all, isn’t all the real action in the Second Testament in the gospels, the letters, mainly Paul’s letters, and the book of Revelation? Acts? Who cares about some miscellaneous stories from the early church? Doesn’t Paul tell us what we really need to know?
You understand how these things go. Every now and then we get dragged into something we think we’re not going to like and it ends up being something wonderful. If you had seen me the first time I put on snow skis, you would have advised me to never try again. And that might have been good advice, but fortunately, from my point of view, I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed skiing for a number of years. Never got very good, but it was fun.
That’s what happened when I took the course on The Acts of the Apostles. I became fascinated with the story Luke, author of the gospel, tells about the beginnings of the church, starting, as Jesus directs, “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I guess I had never really thought about the question, how did it happen, that those disciples who were in hiding on Easter Sunday morning managed to get off their rear ends, go tell the good news, and carry on a movement that has in fact made it to the ends of the earth?. That’s the question Luke answers in Acts.
It turns out that it’s a really interesting story! And no, I’m not going to tell the whole thing this morning, so relax. But I do commend the book of Acts to you. It’s twenty-eight chapters, so a chapter a day will get you through it in the month of your choosing. It’s a good story.
Today’s reading comes from Acts chapter four, but the story begins in chapter three, so let me back up to there and give a quick background on what we’re going to hear. At this point in time the followers of Jesus are still a movement within Judaism. It is not until chapter ten, when Peter converts Cornelius, that Gentiles, non-Jews, begin to join in. When the believers accept the fact that they are supposed to allow Gentiles to be followers of Jesus, they recognize that the Jesus movement is going to be something distinct from Judaism. This is the watershed event in the book of Acts and in the early history of the church.
But meanwhile back in chapter three, Peter and John are going to the temple. Luke has told us that the disciples “spent much time together in the temple.” This particular day, Peter and John encounter a man who was lame from birth who is sitting at one of the gates of the temple, begging. He asks the two for money, but Peter says, “I don’t have any money, but I can give you one thing; in the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk.” He takes the man by the hand, lifts him up, and the man can walk! And not just walk. Luke says he jumps up, and goes into the temple, probably for the first time in his life, “walking and leaping and praising God.” Don’t you know that was a sight to see!
As we might imagine, this healing causes quite a stir among the people. Luke uses terms like “wonder”, “amazement”, and “utterly astonished.” The man who has been healed is clinging to Peter and John, when he’s not leaping around, so people gravitate to this threesome. Peter launches into a sermon, which I’m not going to repeat for you. I understand that one sermon per Sunday is enough.
When we get to chapter four, we are told that various religious authorities, those in charge in the temple, come to Peter and John, “much annoyed” because Peter and John are telling the people that through Jesus there is resurrection of the dead. Some of those in charge are the Sadducees, who do not believe in resurrection, so they arrest Peter and John. In the Roman world there wasn’t quite the notion of freedom of speech we take for granted. But Luke says that before the two of them could be silenced, they convert about five thousand people.
That’s where we pick up today’s story, with Peter’s defense before a whole bunch of important religious folks. Their question is “How?”. How did you accomplish this healing? What sort of power did you use? What name did you call upon? Peter says, “this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Were we to read on we would see that the authorities don’t know what to do. They order Peter and John not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. But the two refuse to obey that order. “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard,” they respond.
There’s another interesting little note in the story. Luke says that when Peter is speaking to the leaders, he is “filled with the Holy Spirit.” As you read through the book of Acts – twenty eight chapters, one a day for a month – you will see that the Holy Spirit gets a good bit of ink. Before Jesus leaves the disciples, he tells them “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” That happens in a big way on the day of Pentecost. But it also happens time and again throughout the spread of the gospel recorded in Acts, as in today’s story. According to Luke, nothing of importance happens in the development of the church without the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit continues to be at work down through the ages as the gospel continues to be spread around the world. True, sometimes the church has missed the mark and has not paid attention to the Spirit. But surely there is no other way to explain the growth and spread of Christianity than by the work of the Holy Spirit. And no doubt the Holy Spirit is still at work.
Some of what is happening in the church around the world today is sad. We see long-standing congregations struggling and closing because of declining numbers. We see churches and Christians who, for various reasons, do not accept other Christians as being “true” followers of Jesus. We see fewer people, particularly among the younger generations, being attracted to the faith.
But the Holy Spirit is still at work. There are congregations, even mainline congregations like ours, that are thriving. You may have seen the article in the most recent Virginia Christian, our regional church’s newsletter, about Park View Christian in Chesapeake. Several years ago they had dwindled down to about twenty people in worship. But now they are averaging eighty or more. They have become a very ethnically diverse group. And they are focusing on outreach to the community. They even collect diapers for those who cannot afford them! That kind of recovery is not always possible. But sometimes it does happen.
There are other such success stories in the life of the church. And it is because the Holy Spirit is at work, because the faithful are paying attention to where and how the Spirit is leading them. That can be difficult. It can be challenging. But it is by the work and leadership of the Spirit that the church survives and thrives.
I have to confess, for a good while after we started our mini capital campaign to fund our facilities improvements, I was worried. The pledges and gifts did not come pouring in like I expected they would. After all, twenty years ago we had successfully completed a five hundred thousand dollar project. I thought a mere one hundred seventeen thousand would be a piece of cake. But we started off with just fifty thousand or so in pledges and gifts. The implementation team decided that the elevator was the top priority, and we needed over eighty thousand just to put in the elevator. I was surprised and perplexed that we had not received more.
But you know the rest of the story. Slowly, to me at least, but surely, the gifts and pledges have continued to come in. The elevator is going to cost $83,500. Gifts and pledges to date total $89,035, as you see in the bulletin, of which we have received over $60,000. Remember that the pledge period goes through the end of next year, so don’t worry if you need to spread out your giving between now and then.
So work starts on the elevator next month! The family bathroom has been donated and is complete. And as of today, the nurseries are in temporary quarters, because we hope to start work on that renovation project soon. Next in line will be the Chi Rho room.
Oh me of little faith. Sometimes I forget to account for the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I forget that there is more going on in the life of the church than meets the eye. Sometimes I forget that the Holy Spirit is still at work. Amen.