Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year B
It is now or never, I’ve decided. Well, I should say, it’s now or wait until next Easter season. It is time to preach a sermon on the Acts of the Apostles. We’ve been reading parts of this fantastical book all season.
With Easter coming to an end, and Pentecost before us, our lectionary will move on to other parts of scripture, so it is time for us to talk about Acts, a book about what the story itself calls the courage of ordinary men.
The Acts of the Apostles is a book that is part witness—telling of Peter’s leadership and success in gaining followers to the Way. Acts is also part journal, part history, and it reads like a novel. It also tells the story of Saul, the awful murdering persecutor of Christians, and of his conversion, his life anew as Paul—the journeys of Paul around the Med. basin comprise the whole second half of Acts. The book tells of his work in Ephesus, Greece, Derbe—near the end his trip to Jerusalem is told and then, as prisoner by guard, his trip on to Rome. Acts is one of the fastest books you can read in the bible; it contains political intrigue and marvels–earthquakes, shipwrecks, murder plots, courtroom drama; in one chapter there is a young man who falls out of a three-story window during a prayer meeting, and he comes back to life; in another chapter, we find an un-Christian exorcism that ends up with naked men running through the street.
There’s something for everyone in Acts!
Saying all this, perhaps I should know trying to capture the essence of the entire book in one sermon may be unwise. But, I’ll try anyway.
At the heart of the Book of Acts is the work of the Holy Spirit empowering believers to spread the Good News and build the community of faith—the church. The Holy Spirit is the main character in Acts, and the life of the growing church. The Holy Spirit is the Advocate, of course, the one who Jesus promised his followers. The one who would strengthen and embolden them. There are 59 references to the HS in Acts of the Apostles; this is ¼ of all references in the bible.
Next week, we’ll read the most familiar story in Acts: The gift of the HS given to all present at Pentecost, each person speaking in their own language and all hearing and understanding in their own tongue. Throughout Easter, though, we’ve read lots of other stories: how the Holy Spirit tells Philip to go up to the African official’s chariot, spreading the gospel into Ethiopia. And of Peter going to meet the Gentile messengers of Cornelius, at the Spirit’s urging; when he does, the Spirit falls on these Gentiles, confirming—to the surprise of all, that God shows no partiality. God welcomes all.
Luke tells us throughout this book how the Spirit moves and directs believers to carry their mission ‘to the ends of the earth.’ Luke’s work lets later followers, like us, know the church did not come about magically, but through persistence, through trial and danger, all with the power of the Spirit!
The power of the Spirit–Somewhere along the way, we Christians have become wary of speaking like this, hesitant to talk about the power of the Holy spirit in our lives, and questioning those who claim the power of the spirit—…perhaps in our quest to be more rational beings or more proper, genteel Christians, particularly us Anglicans. We’ve grown to be skeptical; I suppose we call it careful, but it seems we’ve essentially separated our physical lives from our spiritual lives. I suppose we like efficiency of separation– cordoning off segments of our lives for ourselves (to study or exercise), for others (to socialize or share a concern), and if she’s lucky, we save some time for God. But the very idea that we can detach our “Christian selves” / our “Christian minds” when making “secular” decisions is heretical. It is denying Christ at work in our lives. It is ignoring the little nudges that we get from the Holy Spirit. Somehow we must see that hearing allowing the spirit to move us toward God, is simply the act of being Christian.
When I was in seminary, I helped lead a class at a local parish, and I got to know an old crusty retired priest—his words, not mine. One afternoon we did a bible reflection on the life of Jacob, and this priest told me that he’d always had a tenderness for Jacob because in his own life experience he’d had similar wrestlings – this priest, like Jacob, had been going and going, running away from this and searching for that all his life, and for the most part, he said, he rarely let God catch up to him.
Rarely let God catch up to him…..You have to love that honesty!
Most of us, I’d guess, find ourselves so busy, occupied with “things to do,” both for ourselves and for others, that we could admit the same truth: we rarely let God catch up to us. This priest’s argument, though, wasn’t about being too busy to see the spirit at work in his life, no it was……quite the opposite in fact.
He said it was in the very act of living that he most often encountered the spirit’s nudge, a tug on his heart reminding him to care and to love, rather than judge or a jolt of realization that he’d become cynical or complacent. No matter how hard he tried not to acknowledge the prompting, he eventually found himself wrestling again… grappling with his own indifference, his prejudice, his self-satisfaction.
This man’s whole life is a witness to understanding the spirit at work in us as we walk this walk, trying and failing and trying again to follow Christ. It is by acknowledging and grappling with the spirit inside of us we are impelled to go where we may not want to go, and inspired us to be more open, more truthful, more generous, more Christ-like.
We may think our lives following Christ should seem more book worthy, like all the fantastical things that happened in Acts. But I think we should look around. Luke could write a book about us too, living in a time of pandemic, having our eyes opened by murder, injustice, political intrigue
…like my friend the priest, and the early Christians we too are wrestling with how to follow, and we too feel the nudge, the tug of the spirit to reach out, to speak up, to share what we have.
Our Christian story might not be full of shipwrecks or earthquakes, but can we see the work of the spirit in our community—calling us to the mission of Christ?
Does it always have to look dramatic? or Earth Shattering?
Doesn’t following the way include Making a meal for a family who just lost a brother to a heart attack?
Doesn’t it look like Shopping to buy extra groceries so that the pantry has enough food for everyone the next Saturday? and Sending towels to camp to wrap little ones in after learning to swim?
Or Awakening to violence once again in the Middle East and falling to our knees to pray for peace, and calling on our leaders to say enough violence! Enough!
We heard today Jesus’ prayer to God on behalf of his disciples: Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
Responding faithfully to Jesus’ prayer, the Acts of the Apostles is the first witness to the power of the spirit in the followers of Christ. Through the centuries their work and the works to come have been passed down to us so that we too may carry the torch–the fire of the Holy Spirit– to spread the kingdom of love.
I don’t often close a sermon in prayer, but this one seems to call for it. Let us pray,
God of all power and love,
we give thanks for your unfailing presence
and the hope you provide in times of joy and in the times of uncertainty and loss.
Send your Holy Spirit to enkindle in us your holy fire.
Revive us to live as Christ’s body in the world:
a people who pray, worship, learn,
break bread, share life, heal neighbors,
bear good news, seek justice, rest and grow in the Spirit.
Wherever and however we gather,
unite us in common prayer and send us in common mission,
that we and the whole creation might be restored and renewed,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.