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Sunday, September 30, 2018

“For We Cannot But Speak… ”

A sermon based upon Acts 4: 1-20
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 23rd, 2018 
(5-14) Sermon Series: Church: Then and Now

 It’s amazing how quickly the weather can change.  You get up in the morning it’s nice; the birds are singing, there isn’t a cloud in the sky.  But by the afternoon everything looks different.  First the winds changed, then clouds appeared, the storms come, and you didn’t even bring an umbrella.

The same kind of thing can happen in a relationship.  You married this person and everything was fine.  You trusted them.  They trusted you.  You pledged your faith and trust in each other before God and all your family and friends.  Without warning, it seems, one morning you get up and it doesn’t seem that you are married to the same person, or perhaps you aren’t the same person.  You work at different places.  You have different hobbies.  You spend less time together.  The children are getting older. Words are hurled.  Before you know it everything is different.  Now, the bond you once knew has broken apart.  What happened?

The same kind of thing can happen at church.   At first, everyone is excited.  The pastor is excited about the church; the church excited about the pastor.  As days pass the excitement fades.  The crowds settle down.  The budget becomes tighter.  Life together is now longer a dream, its just real.

Of course, we all know that these kinds of ‘changes’ happen, even when we don’t want them.  In our text from Acts today there is an even more sudden, abrupt, less subtle change.   Pentecost was over.   The Spirit had been speaking through everyone.  Now, the main task of preaching has fallen back on the apostles, namely, Peter and John.  Just like in the ministry of Jesus, a crippled has been miraculous healed and was seen ‘jumping’ around and was heard ‘praising God’ in the temple.  People everywhere were amazed.  The gospel is being freely proclaimed and freely received even after Jesus was crucified.   But with all this commotion, clouds of as suspicion are gathering, as the temple police and religious authorities, the very same ones who had crucified Jesus, have become ‘greatly disturbed’ that now, Peter and John ‘were proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead’ (Acts 4:2). 

Can you imagine ‘authorities’ getting upset at someone talking about Jesus and the resurrection of the dead?  It’s not such a stretch, is it?  Try to share your faith out in the open, in a public place, or at a public school, to a public meeting, or dare to share your faith with someone outside this church building.  Can you do see the clouds of resistance, and maybe your own reluctance gathering in your own mind?  Yes, we still worship freely in ‘free’ country, but we all know that freedom only works, as long as we keep our faith personal, private, or discreet.  If we would dare proclaim “Jesus” “resurrection” or especially as Peter does, that ‘salvation is found in no one else’, you would lose proper political correctness, become insensitive to the ways of the world, and you too would discover you have over-stepped a line.  Yes, you can talk about Jesus as the ‘name…given’ behind ‘closed doors’, but open the door, go outside, make the ‘demands’ of Jesus public, or even try to define Jesus demands at church, on our own lives, and you might, like Peter and John and the early church, get some attention you didn’t intend. 

What we read in this text today is a reminder that ‘Jesus’ was a trouble maker from the ‘get go’.  The message of Jesus has always gotten under somebody’s skin.  In one of the gospels, right after Jesus announced his call to preach in his hometown, his own people took him out to a cliff and planned to push him off (Luke 4).

When we actually apply the message of justice, righteousness, and the demands of the gospel, we could still ‘fall’ or ‘get pushed’ off a cliff too, at least figuratively speaking.  There are things that you just aren’t supposed to say in ‘polite’ company.  There are things, especially in matters of politics and religion, that you must let people decide themselves.  If you start saying ‘this is true’ or ‘that is wrong’ or you say ‘you must do this or that’ in any kind of definite way today, which doesn’t go with the flow of those listening, then you could get into trouble fast.  
Stick with the Bible, preacher!”  That sounds like good advice until you remember how Jesus just read the Bible one day then said, ‘Today, the Bible if fulfilled in your ears!’(Luke 4:21). It was right after Jesus read from the Bible, that they wanted him dead.  His listeners were used to hearing the Bible and then going about their business, but they weren’t used God actually getting into the business of their lives.

In Acts, not long after Pentecost, Jesus is actually ‘getting into the business’ of ‘the way, the truth, and the life’, through the Holy Spirit, just like Jesus was still here.  As Methodist pastor Will Willimon once said, “Jesus didn’t just go out and preach God’s salvation, but Jesus actually saved people, and some of the people Jesus saved were people that no one wanted saved.”  Jesus reached out and touched untouchables.  Jesus welcomed the unwelcomed.   ‘God proves his love like this’, Paul said, ‘that even while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us’ (Rom 5:8).  Jesus opened the door of ‘respectable’ religion and invited even the most ‘unrespectable’ to come in.  Jesus let ‘whosoever will’ come, which included Gentiles, ‘outsiders’ and ‘sinners’ just like us.

It’s hard to realize just how much ‘trouble’ this kind of message caused for Jesus and then his disciples like Peter and John who got arrested, thrown into jail, then were told to ‘stop preaching’ this message.  Again, what message?  Are we clear about it? 

Once at a Methodist Camp, a preacher preached on this same kind of text, where it says that “Jesus” died for sinners, even while they are still sinners.”  He told the youth he was going to make his point, by inviting people to pretend they were certain well-known people.  “I want you to play ‘Mother Teresa’, and a youth pretending to be Mother Teresa came up on stage and stood on his right.  Then he invited others to be “Martin Luther King Jr., then Billy Graham, and some others.   They all came up and were standing  together on his right.  Then, the minister proceeded to call up youth to pretend to be Genghis Kahn, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, and all these ‘bad guys’ were to stand on his left. 

Finally, the camp pastor invited someone to pretend to be Jesus, and a youth stood up and came and joined all the good guys on his right.  The preacher then stopped.  “Haven’t you guys been listening to what I’ve be saying.  Don’t you get it?  What are you thinking Paul meant when Paul said,  ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us?’   Do you think Jesus only came to die for the good guy?”

Hearing this scolding, the guy playing Jesus started to move over to stand with the ‘bad guys’ on the left.  As he moved, the camp pastor concluded: “This is the kind of people the gospel is about saving and welcoming.  The good news was not just for the good people like you, but it is primarily about the ‘bad guys’ who are called to repent and come to forgiveness and new life in Christ.   Now, when you go out that door, when you go to school, when you go back out into the world, it’s these kind of people that you’re go to and show Jesus’ love!  Do you understand?”  Do we?

What we need to understand, as we read and study about the early church, is that the gospel of Jesus Christ was offensive.   It was offensive, not only because of ‘who’ they were preaching about: Jesus as the one and only way, but the message was also offensive because of the ‘way’, the ‘truth’ and the ‘life’ Jesus was, and still is, as the ‘way’ of God to love sinners who do
not deserve saving, and do not deserve God’s healing words of life.  Jesus dies for them anyway, because God’s love builds this new way, this new truth, and new way of life, not human effort or goodness. 

This is this the new, shocking, offensive, challenging kind of love the disciples were preaching as now being fully revealed through God’s son, Jesus the resurrected Christ.   Now, this compassionate, healing,  and forgiving Jesus the authorities thought they were rid of is back.  His disciples were still preaching and passing on God’s love and healing to the most disadvantaged people, just like Jesus did.  People who were supposed to be ‘marked’ as unredeemable sinners, are still being given the good news of love and life, contrary to the dominating message of hate, condemnation and evil.  Even after Jesus was killed, and even through his death, and the Spirit-filled Church, this loving, forgiving, healing and hopeful message of Jesus was still drawing out the corruption of the world to bring healing and hope.

This gospel, and this ‘Jesus’ that the disciples were preaching about, was not simply a Jewish Jesus, but he was, through the resurrection, that the disciples are now naming Jesus as the ‘universal’ Jesus; not only the Jewish Messiah who could save Jews, but the Jewish Messiah who was rejected by the Jews, so that God could reveal his love to the whole world. 

Making Jesus ‘universal’ and big enough for everybody, is exactly what the disciples mean when they said, ‘neither is there salvation in any other (4:12).’   Here is the second reason the disciples were opposed by the authorities:  Jesus not only saves and heals people we don’t want save, but Jesus now, Jesus is being proclaimed as the exclusive, only ‘name…given by which humans can be saved (4:12b). 
This is certainly the other kind of ‘preaching’ that will get the church in trouble.  We not only get into trouble when we offer God’s love to the most ‘undesirable’ or ‘undeserving’, but we also get into trouble when we preach that Jesus is ‘only’ what people can be saved.   How can we dare keep preaching such an exclusive and offensive message like this, in a world that has gone ‘global’, where there is so much demand for ‘political correctness,’ and when any kind of exclusive claim like this now seems narrow-minded, short-sighted, and just plain ignorant?  Should we dare still say and sing, ‘no other name’ in a world filled with so many ‘truth claims’?

My answer is ‘yes’, but we do have to explain ourselves now, more than ever.   We have to explain what we mean by ‘no other name’ because we too have failed in bearing witness to the truth.  Just because we are Christians, and say we follow God’s perfect light and love revealed in Jesus Christ, does not mean that we are perfect followers of that light and God’s truth.   We do have to take ‘care’ when we ‘preach Jesus’ because, just like Peter, John, and others too, we have not been perfect reflectors of the light of God’s love.  Gandhi, the great Hindu lawyer, lived more like Jesus, and respected Jesus teachings of love, far better than those ‘prejudiced’, conceited Christians he encountered on a train in South Africa.  When Gandhi discovered that calling yourself a Christian, or a follower of Jesus, didn’t actually make you like Jesus, he decided that he would continue to follow the teachings of Jesus as a Hindu, not as a Christian.

This is why we must be careful when we proclaim Christ today.  We must not turn the message of the gospel of love that is for everyone, into a gospel that is only for a ‘chosen’ few.   This is what Jesus found to be wrong in the Jewish religion of his day, and we must take care not to make it our religion again today.  So, when we preach with Peter and John that ‘salvation is found in no one else’ we must not make this a way shorting, limiting, or confining the power of God to save only within Christian confines.   Just as still God speaks through nature, spoke and still speaks through Israel, and now speaks his fullest revelation of the truth of love and healing through Jesus his only Son, when we say that Jesus is the ‘only, true, way’, we don’t have to denounce or fail to respect other religions.  All religion, even the Christian religion is a human way of seeking the truth.  We all seek God through our religious cultures, but God reveals himself through Jesus, who stands above all religion and above all cultures,  who reveals God’s message of healing through ‘faith’ which elevates Jesus to be Lord ‘of all’ and ‘in all things’.

What helps me most, in more fully understanding and proclaiming the exclusive truth about Jesus, is to take more seriously what Peter and John where preaching to Israel, the Jews, before I apply Jesus to me and my world.   When Peter says, ‘Salvation is found in no one else’, he was not yet saying to the whole world.   Peter doesn’t even think the world of Gentiles can be saved Gentiles just yet (Acts 10).  Peter is looking directly at the Jewish people, the same people who crucified Jesus, and the same people who rejected Jesus as the ‘way, truth, and the life.’  Peter was still warning Israel,  Jesus as Jesus did, that the only way to avoid the coming catastrophe (Matt 24, Luke 21), is to follow Jesus and his teachings by ‘turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and by loving their enemy.’   Unless Israel find Jesus as the true ‘name for ‘salvation’, they are headed for destruction.   This was the ‘truth’ Jesus died for, and this is the ‘message’ that still applied, though it was rejected again and again, until Israel was finally destroyed by the Romans, just a few years after the story of Acts takes place.
But what unfolds, as the story of Acts continues, is that what Peter was ‘preaching’ to these “Israelites” and to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ became ‘the message’---the one, only, true saving message, that also can bring ‘healing’, ‘health’, ‘wholeness’ to the whole world.   This ‘saving message is that ‘this Jesus who was rejected and crucified, God has raised from the dead.  By raising Jesus God is at work, in the early church, validating and ‘universalizing Jesus as the ‘way, truth, and life’.   Through the power of God and the Holy Spirit,  the saving power of Jesus is not just a message for a small, religious, nation on the back-side of nowhere that existed 2,000 years ago, but the ‘truth’, the ‘life’, and the ‘way’ of Jesus can bring healing, saving, forgiving, and redeeming power to anyone, anywhere, regardless of their religion or even their lack of it.  Jesus did not come to start a new religion, nor even to start a Christian one,  but Jesus came to bring ‘faith’ into the world through the miracle of God’s ‘saving’ grace.

Now, I don’t want this to sound like smart-double talk, when I say that Jesus is the ‘only’ savior, but God is not against other religions or other ways to find truth.  But we must turn back the clock and make the universal gospel of God’s love shown in Jesus Christ, into an ‘condemning’, narrow-minded message about a certain religion, even the Christian one, but we must insist that in Jesus, God has uniquely revealed God’s heart of love to reveal the truth, to save, and to heal the human heart with the ‘good news’ for all people.  God has uniquely spoken in Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit, God still speaks, still loves, and still saves.

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not trying to make Jesus any less a perfect Savior, any less the exclusive Savior, or any less the ‘only name…that saves’, but what I’m saying is we must be careful not to ‘exclude’ people from God’s love, who Jesus came to include.  This is the ‘direction’ the gospel flows, to open our hearts toward the people God loves, not to use Jesus to close our hearts, especially toward those others who don’t see, believe, or understand like us.

What was most ‘impressive’ to the authorities, who try to stop the disciples and apostles from ‘speaking’ about Jesus was their ‘boldness’.  And this isn’t this what people need to see in us, even in a world of religious, cultural, and political confusion?  But how, can we live, speak, or live ‘boldly’ in the knowledge, love, confessing our confidence and hope in Jesus, when the world has so many viewpoints, opinions, and ideas?  Can we still preach and live “Jesus” in the midst of all this?

Years ago, a confused young ‘preacher’ went to see a notable pastor in a nearby town.  He had just come out of seminary and was facing a world that was much more complex than he had ever imagined.  The more the read, studies, and even tried to preach the Scriptures, the more doubts he had about certain teachings he’d grown up with.  He confided in the pastor that he was thinking about, even praying about leaving the ministry.  “How, can I keep on preaching, when I have discovered so many things, from my childhood, in my studies, and even from the Scriptures, I just can’t easily accept anymore. 

After hearing about his doubts, the wise pastor, began to try to move the young man away from the doubts he was having about certain things, toward the things that still mattered: his family, God’s love, and the things in the Bible that mattered most of all, having faith, granting forgiveness, and receiving God’s grace.   Do you still believe in these things?  Can’t you see that your ‘doubts’ are not necessarily driving you away from the Bible, from God, or from ministry, but that your ‘doubts’ may be moving toward the things that matter most of all?   Hearing this word of hope, the young minister returned to his study and to his pulpit, not to preach what he didn’t know, but to begin to focus on the what he did know for sure, and on the message of the Bible that mattered most of all.

What should give us ‘boldness’ even in these days of ‘political correctness’ or religious confusion, is that the things in the Bible that matter most, matter more now than ever before.   Having faith matters.  Having hope still matters.  Showing love matters.  The message of Jesus matters too, because Jesus came not only to save those who can find them, but Jesus matters because he, as Jesus himself said, came to ‘seek and save’ and as Jesus himself said in Scripture, that he ‘has sheep that do not belong this this fold’ (John 10:16). 

If you get to the core of who Jesus was, why Jesus died, and who Jesus loves, you may just discover that they ‘will listen to (his) voice’ too, and that Jesus can still make us all ‘of one flock and of one shepherd’.   We still need to find the things that matter and are common to all of us, even in this confused religious world.  And we can still find these ‘healing’ and ‘saving’ truths we all need in the love of Jesus Christ.  We can preach with boldness that the truth of Jesus reveals truth that is the same to all people, everywhere.  We can preach this with boldness, if we will allow the same Spirit of Jesus to do talking through us, as we do the walking with him.  We might still get in trouble for saying this, but we can’t stop, because the truth of God’s love revealed in Jesus, is still the truth that trumps all religion, all politic, and all human ideas.  It is the truth that preaches boldly, not only that the world needs Jesus, but we that we still need him too.  Now, that’s bold!   Amen.  

Sunday, September 16, 2018

“Silver or Gold I Don’t Have...”

A sermon based upon Acts 3: 1-12
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time,  September 16th,  2018 
(4-14) Sermon Series: Church: Then and Now

 We’ve all witnessed ‘beggars’ in our society.  Once, I when I was walking on the streets of Berlin, I saw Muslim woman sitting on the steps of a great Cathedral, beside of her two children, begging for money with great sadness written on her face.  She was evidently a refugee from the conflict in Sarajevo, where Serbs and Croatians were killing one another out of fear, suspicion and hate.

What caught my attention, is how most people simply walked by that lonely, troubled, woman without actually noticing her.  But then, suddenly, out of nowhere, this young adult girl stopped, turned, walked over toward the woman and knelt down putting her arms around her embracing her in her arms.  The young girl didn’t say anything.  She couldn’t speak her language, but something was said in that moment.   It was as if that young girl was saying, “I don’t have any money, but I’ll give still give you the best I’ve got.”  I’ll give you compassion.  I’ll give you my prayers.  I hope for a better world.  I’ll not ridicule you.  I’ll not tell you go home, nor will I ignore you, but I will try to understand and show compassion for you.   There, in front of that church, that young girl gave this woman a gift of a loving and caring heart.

In the text before us, right after Pentecost, after the Spirit came, after Peter had preached his historical sermon, and right after the church had just enlarged by 3,000 people,  Peter and John were following their normal routine of ‘going to the temple’ to pray, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a beggar who could not walk, lying there at the temple gate, saw them entering and asked them for money or ‘alms’.  “Alms’ was the Jewish way of asking for ‘a love offering’. 

This beggar was lame--that is crippled, so other people had to take him there every day so that he could earn money to live.  Begging was an honest way for him to make his living.  Still, it was not easy for him to live or work this way, just like it is not easy to have our busy lives ‘interrupted’ by other people’s problems.  But when it happens, and it will happen, if we are fortunate enough, someone will be asking something from us instead of us having to ask something from someone else.   

What should we do when life grants us the upper hand and we have advantages that someone else doesn’t?   How do we respond when we are the one who is fortunate, who is gifted, who is advantaged, instead of being the one who is unfortunate, who is lacking, or is disadvantaged?   I recall an old story about a professor who, on his way to class, was robbed, and then reported to his students that his first response was not to call the police, but to thank God.  “You’re thankful for being robbed”, his students asked with a puzzled look?  No, not exactly. But I am most thankful that I was the one who was robbed rather than the person who was doing the robbing.”

I often hear people say when things are bad for you can visit a nursing home or a hospital and see someone worst off than you.  This is supposed to make you feel better about yourself.  I’m not sure about the longevity of such a point of view, but it might work, to a point.   However, I think there is an even better way to deal with life’s disappointments and difficulties.  Invest some time with someone who is struggling and you might bring hope, courage and a spirit of peace and contentment back to yourself.  The joy of life is not found in comparing  how good you have verses how bad someone has it, since some day you might be that one who has it bad.  No, courage can be found by connecting yourself with God compassion and grace.  This is how you can discover how ‘blessings’ really flow.

But there’s something else from this word from Peter that strikes me.  When you hear Peter say, “I don’t have silver and gold…” do you feel pity for him?  Think about it.  If you say about someone ‘they don’t have any money’ or you say, ‘I don’t have enough money’ and feel pity, then you know what our culture values.  There have been times when people could get by without much money, but that day is gone.  In our culture we depend upon money more than we depend on love, family, community, or neighborliness.  In our culture a sense of contentment and hope depends on having a significant amount of money, but the emptiness returns with more questions, as you wonder: Is money really the source of life’s greatest blessings?

We all need some money to live, but while there are some advantages to having money, there are certainly some real disadvantages too.  Having money can isolate and insulate you from what is most important.  In other words, even when you have money, it won’t always buy you everything you need.  For example, money can get you a doctor, but it can’t get you good health.  Money can get you food, but is this food nourishing and can it feed the great hunger of the soul?  While money can buy you some time on earth,  it can’t make life more valuable or give life true worth.  Even the wealthiest people have lived short lives, or have missed finding joy and purpose. 

Jesus himself reminded us about the danger of riches, when he said that it was ‘hard’ for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 19:23).  Jesus didn’t say it was ‘impossible’, since ‘with God, all things are possible’ (v.26), but he did say it would be hard, and by this he meant very hard, as it would be ‘easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the heaven’s kingdom (v.24).  That’s hard!   It was hard to get into the kingdom with money just like it was for those Sadducee and Pharisees, who followed the money rather than obeying God (Matt. 23:6).   It was also hard for the Rich Man who ignored the beggar sitting at his gate every day (Luke 16:1ff).  This Rich man may have had a good life, but he certainly didn’t have a good death.  Jesus said that when the Rich man died, he opened his eyes in ‘torment’ (Luke 16: 23).  While the poor beggar was not resting in Abraham’s lap, the man who lived his life in the ‘lap of luxury’ and did nothing for the plight of the ‘beggar’ sitting right outside his gate, now suffers a tormenting death (Hades, v. 23).   It wasn’t because he ignored Jesus that the wealthy man suffers in these ‘flames’, but it was because he ignored the “Jesus” who showed up ‘in the least of these’ (Matt. 25:45).

I once heard a preacher say that ‘smoking cigarettes wouldn’t send you to hell, but it would sure make you smell like you’ve been there.’   In a similar way, we might say that having money won’t send you to hell either, but can make it very hard for you to enter God’s kingdom, in this life or in the next.  In other words, money is not the ‘root of all evil’, but the ‘love of money’ is (1 Tim 6:10).  When you love money, more than you love your life, or the lives of others, what really matters, or you love money more than you love God, then you can keep your money, but to put it bluntly, Jesus is saying that you will ‘go straight to hell’, because what you can’t keep is your life, or the love, or the enduring purpose life should bring when you ‘sell’ yourself short by valuing money over love and life.

Remember that old Beatles song we sang in our youth; “Can’t Buy Me Love!”  Money can get you a lot of stuff, and give you lots of friends too, but will they be true friends, true family, or are they just ‘gold diggers’?  It’s the same way with the stuff money buys you.  You can obtain a lot of stuff too, even acquiring more than you need, but does all the stuff matter or just clutter up what really matters?  Stuff only matters when you use it for the right purpose or the stuff you have ends up using you and you end up with nothing much at all. 

Years ago, when I visited Rome, I walked into one most interesting Churches.  It wasn’t St. Peter’s, but was the “The Church of Mary” a hill of the city, which seems unkempt on the outside, but when you go in and look up, you see a ceiling of gold.  Our tour guide told us, “The gold on that ceiling was given to the church by Queen Isabella of Spain as a gift from the new world”  If you remember your history, Queen Isabella was the one who sent Christopher Columbus to the West Indies, looking for gold when he discovered America.  It made be wonder if some of that gold didn’t come from some of the Spanish explorers who discovered gold right here in western North Carolina, where there was, in 1567, a ‘gold hunters’ fort.  But what I thought about most, as I gazed at all that glitter, is who didn’t have food and clothing when the Church of Rome was painting this ceiling with gold? (  and (

The poor, you’ll always have with you,” (Mk 14:7), Jesus answered, when the disciples criticized the woman who poured out ‘high dollar’ perfume on Jesus’ body just before he was crucified.  The disciples would have had a good point, except that this money was being used for someone, rather than merely being used by someone.  Isn’t that the difference?  This expense was used to show value to Jesus’ life, who was about to be crucified.  When you use money to show what matters or who matters, then money is serving a purpose, just like it serving a purpose when you feed, help, or care for someone who is in need.  But when you spend, use money, just to have what we want, only for the luxury of it, without having any higher purpose, then the money may be using you, rather than you using the money.

We’ve said enough about money, because in this story, Peter didn’t have any money to give.   What Peter does ‘give’ this crippled person is something that more important than money.   After telling the beggar to ‘look at him’ or pay close attention, Peter speaks some of the most unforgettable words of Scripture, "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." (Acts 3:6 NIV).

Peter’s words of ‘healing’ and ‘wholeness’ raise one of the most important conversations we should be having as churches these days:  ‘What do we have to give people which no one else has to give.’  If first encountered this question from the practical Presbyterian teacher, John Leith, in his book, “The Reformed Imperative: What the Church Has to Say that No One Else Can Say.”   In that book, and others like it, many today are asking, “What Good Is God” (Philip Yancey), or “Why Does Jesus Matter?”   There so many good organizations, clubs, and relief organizations that can do as good, or better things than the church can do.  While our ‘North Carolina Baptist Men (and Women), may be one of the best emergency response organizations of all Christian groups, there are still many more things that government, the Red Cross, and many other organizations and clubs can do better.  

I recently read an article where a fellow was right to suggest that there are many things that churches should learn from humanistic clubs, such as the Rotary Club.  He said Rotary Clubs are great at showing hospitality, even giving visitors recognition gifts.  Rotary Clubs, he continued, are doing great good as they are helping to wipe out Polio, and they also support many other great causes and charities, he added.  Rotary Clubs have values and mission statements that guide everything they do, and they make their members follow these rules and values too.   Most of all, however, he said that Rotary Clubs require commitment.  If you join a Rotary Club you must attend meetings every week, and if you miss one, you must make it up somewhere else.  It is right to say, he said, that ‘the church is not a Rotary Club’, but the church could learn something from clubs. (

Now, let’s come back to Peter’s words, ‘…What I have, I give….’, asking once more, what does the church have to ‘give’in the name of Jesus’ which no one else; no club, no human organization, no relief agency, or no government sponsored program can give?  In other words, what makes “Jesus” still matter, even in our ‘Christ-, or ‘God-forsaking’ world?  What makes Church more than a Rotary Club, a Ruritan Club, Meals on Wheels, or any other kind of Service or Community Organization?

In this text, we might quickly jump to the ‘miracle’  of ‘healing power’ which enabled this crippled person to ‘walk’, as this does get a lot of attention in the text.  We read how Peter spoke the word, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,  (rise up and, KJV) walk (NIV.  “Rise up” is not in the oldest manuscripts, which put emphasis on the fact that the crippled ‘instantly’ (NIV) or ‘immediately’ (KJV) walked, as his ‘… feet and ankles became strong (v. 7) so that ‘he jumped to his feet and began to walk’, then went with them into the temple ‘walking, jumping, and praising God’ (8).  It is easy to get drawn into what happened to this man, as his celebration got a lot of attention.  Still, surprisingly, if you read on, the main point of this story not the what happened to this man, nor was it simply about ‘what’ the ‘name of Jesus’ had done in him.  Peter makes this clear, again, just as he did on Pentecost, as he began to preach about ‘who’ Jesus is, how he suffered, how God raised him up, and how Jesus IS the Christ, God’s true “Messiah”, who, through this event, and through the preaching of the church, now, calls everyone to ‘repent’ and to ‘turn to God’ ( v. 16-20).  

It is not the ‘healing’ or the ‘miracle’ that got Peter put in prison, or brought persecution down upon the church, but it was this unique burden of truth, the burden, the blessing, or the calling, to speak the truth about ‘who’ Jesus is.   This is the one ‘imperative’ the church has been given; the ‘word’ we have to say, which brings to us the ‘new commandment’ , that we, as the church, have to obey.  The church is not in any way a ‘volunteer’ organization; though we have made it such, and have watered down the truth we have been given.  This may be part of why we don’t see the ‘miracles’ too.   The ‘power of God’ is not released to a church of volunteers, but the power of God was released to a church that actually made Jesus, not just their Savior, but their true Lord, of life and of death.

But still, I don’t think the major ‘truth’ of this story, or the undiscovered power of the church is to be able to work ‘miracles’ in the same sense that Peter did when he spoke and the man was instantly healed.  These ‘miracles’ during the ministry of Jesus and in the time of the early church were as much ‘signs’ as they were ‘wonders’.  Miracles were given to the world in this unique time, to point to the truth of Jesus Christ, as God’s Son, and as Savior of the World.  I believe ‘miracles’ still happen today, sometimes as ‘exceptions’ because of faith, but also as new ‘discoveries’ of science.  

However, and again, what the church has to give to the world is not always a ‘miracle’ of physical healing because such miracles are always short-lived, limited and temporary in our physical world.  Even the greatest miracle of humans science, if it comes, which may soon be the miracle to cure Cancer,  will only be a temporary, short-lived, and limited ‘wonder’ of medicine, falling short of bringing ultimate hope and purpose to human and physical life.

‘RISE UP…WALK  (v.6)
So, what does the ‘church’ have to give?  When Peter told this man to ‘walk’, we read how immediately, he went ‘into the temple courts’, walking and praising God’ (v. 8).   What you could overlook, is that as a ‘crippled’ person, he would not have been allowed to go running around ‘into the temple courts’, but should have remained outside, ‘at the gate’, until he had been approved by the temple police.  Instead, against all physical realities, and breaking all religious rules too, he announces to the world that something has ‘mistakenly’ changed.  This change is not only in his body, but it was in his heart and soul.  He now realized that he was no longer a  ‘sinner’  in the eyes of God or people, but through ‘the name of Jesus’, God’s redeeming, saving, and healing ‘grace’ had changed everything.

When the theological ‘dust’ clears in the New Testament, and when all these unique miracles have ceased to dominate the storyline, what remains is exactly this: the knowledge in the human heart that we don’t have to remain ‘sinners’, but that God has come in Jesus Christ to give a unique gift , the gift of the ‘good news’ of the ‘gospel’ that a new reality, a new rule and kingdom of God has come close to us ‘in the name of’ and through the life, death, and resurrection of this one, who is named, “Jesus of Nazareth”.   Jesus is ‘who’ the church has to give, so we can say what no one else can say.  We have this gospel---the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the gospel of God.  We have the good news of God’s forgiving, redeeming, and grace filled love, no matter what else happens or doesn’t happen in this life.

Recently, NBC has released a new TV show entitled ‘Rise’.  The title caught my attention and the plot too, because it’s a show, similar to the recent show “Glee”.  It’s about a depressed, working-class High School, which is about students who are ‘down in the dumps’ until a new teacher comes to town.  Doesn’t this reoccurring theme sound familiar?  In this story, the theatrical group, the school, and even the whole community, is being inspired by the new message of hope coming from the acting, dancing and singing that is surprisingly taking place.  

Of course, this TV Show is fiction, but it’s also a drama of redemption.  It’s drama the circles around the great ‘hope’ all of us have of having our lives challenged and transformed by greater purposes and values in life.  

Recently, I came across an interesting article from a ‘secular’ scholar who warned that if Christians and Churches were not careful, we would lose the ability to ‘inspire’ people and people would stop coming to church.  His point was that since the Bible has less and less authority in the secular world, if we keep trying to prove or argue about the Bible, we will lose an audience, since fewer live as if the Bible has any real authority in their life.  What he went on to say that churches need to do, if they wanted to continue to exist, minister, and make an impact in this world, is to stop using the Bible an ‘authority’, but to preach, teach, and live the Bible to allow the message of the Bible to do what it’s always done best: to let the Bible inspire us to live for greater purpose, beyond ourselves (Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate where I read this).  

While I certainly don’t agree with everything that scholar said, because I do think the Bible has ‘authority’ for some,  I do agree that we Christians, if we are not careful, can misread and misunderstand how God’s truth primarily comes to us today.  The greatest ‘authority’ in the Bible is not what we can ‘prove’ or points we make in an argument, but the inspiring ‘authority’ of the Bible comes through how we live when we ‘rise up and walk’ like we have experience the overwhelming, life-challenging, and life-changing truth of the gospel; the ‘the good news’ of God’s grace that has come into our world through Jesus Christ.  

Maxie Dunnam tells how about Alexander Ervine's beautiful novel entitled, My Lady of the Chimney Corner.  In it there is an incident in which the lady went to comfort a neighbor whose boy lay dead.  As gently as Fall to an Autumn leaf, she laid her hand on Eliza’s head, “Ah woman,” she said, “God isn’t a printed book to be carried around by a man in fine clothes, nor a cross dangling at the watch chain of a priest.  God takes a hand wherever he can find it, and just does with it what he likes.  Sometimes he takes a bishop’s hand and lays it on a child’s head in benediction.  And then he takes the hand of a doctor to relieve pain, and the hand of a mother to guide her child.  And sometimes he takes the hand of poor creature like me, to give comfort to a neighbor.  But they’re all hands touched by his spirit, and his spirit is everywhere looking for hands to use.”  

Isn't this what the church has to ‘give’ which no one has to give?  We have been given the gospel of God’s redeeming grace and the saving hope that comes through the power of Jesus Christ and the resurrection power of God, who through love, overcame sin, the devil, and this broken world when God raised Jesus from the dead.  Who is given the charge to take this message to the world?  If not us, then who?

When we ‘rise up’ and we ‘walk’  differently in the world, ‘with the newness of life’  (Rom. 6:4), as Paul put it, the world we live in also comes to know the truth of what we preach, not just through words, but also with deeds.  But even these ‘deeds’ only make a difference because of the different kind of life we actually live by living the truth of this Jesus we know and we serve.  This is the ‘inspiring’ truth of the gospel we always have to ‘give’, whether the miracle comes in this world, or whether the miracle must wait on that world which is still to come.   Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

"...Everything In Common?"

A sermon based upon Acts 2: 42-47
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
22st Sunday in Ordinary Time,  September 9th,  2018 
(3-14) Sermon Series: Church: Then and Now

At the height of the Cold War, Billy Graham visited communist Russia to meet with their political and religious leaders. Many conservatives in the United States believed that the Soviets were using Billy Graham, and criticized him for not taking a more prophetic role.  One organization even accused Billy Graham of setting the church back 50 years. Graham responded, "I am deeply ashamed. I have been trying very hard to set the church back 2,000 years" (Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace?, 264, as quoted by Greg Breazeale is pastor of Metro East Baptist Church, Wichita, Kansas at “”).

While we should not over glamorize the biblical picture of the early, young, church, since it was in no way a ‘perfect’ church, it was indeed a ‘Spirit-inspired’ thriving church, where 3,000 people were ‘added’ to its ‘numbers’ in one day (v. 41). Such ‘experiences’ of church growth are rare, but this biblical picture of an exciting, explosive early church continues to challenge us to evaluate the life of our own churches.    

What is particularly challenging in this text, is not just that the church was thriving and growing, but it was what they were doing with their ‘property, possessions’ and the ‘proceeds’ from selling them (CEB, v. 44).   In the middle of this ‘picture’ is a church that challenges most everything we hold dear as American Christians---our right to ‘private property’ and our American right to pursue ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.

What I’m talking about here is this picture of the early church “having all things in common.  Selling their possessions and goods… (giving) to anyone as they had need” (44-45).  This is exactly the kind of church that would not grow in most of our affluent communities.  It sounds more like a cult, led by “Jim Jones”, who led his people to drink poison Kool-Aid, than something the Holy Spirit would lead us to do.  Who would want to be a part of a church where people ‘sold everything’ so that the proceeds where given to those who were in ‘need’?  Would you go first?  A pastor friend of mine recent was renting a home, and the landlord sold it out from under him.  At 63 years of age, he and his wife had to move into a hotel and they are thinking of buying an RV and moving into a local Camp Ground.  Would you want to join a church where everyone ‘had all things in common’ and lived in a kind of commune?
Back during the 1940’s, even before our country started dealing with Civil Rights and Segregation, a prominent pastor and Ethics professor at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, decided to develop a planned ‘farm’ community where Black and White folks ‘had all things in common’ and lived together on a ‘farm’ known as Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia.  Clarence Jordan wanted to build a community that intentionally looked like ‘the kingdom of God’ on earth, as it is in heaven.  Year’s later, Habitat for Humanity joined forces with Koinonia Farm, and the Farm is used to provide shelter for refugees from war-torn countries, as well as, provide a training center for people to learn how to reach out to the hurting and hungry.  But of course, as a normal, everyday, this ‘kingdom of God’ experiment is impossible to sustain as a way of life. (

This ‘dream’ of ‘communal living’ has returned among many younger Christians.  Not too many years ago, I attended a Seminar outside of Raleigh, and some younger Christians were telling us about moving into inner city areas, setting ‘house churches’ and experimenting with radical types of community and communal living.  Just recently someone wrote in to Focus on the Family, raising questions about living in ‘community’:
“What do you think about the current emphasis on communal living in some Christian circles? We're seriously worried about a couple of close friends of ours. Over the past year they've become increasingly obsessed with the idea of creating "community." Now they want us to sell our home, move with them to a rural area, and help them start a Christian "commune." We're really struggling with this. For one thing, the idea sounds "cultic." For another, we have a feeling that they're motivated to do this primarily because they have problems with authority, especially in the local church. They also seem to want to escape the responsibilities of modern life. Are our concerns off base?”

Listen to how Focus on the Family made a very balanced response: “It's easy to understand why you have concerns about your friends interest in starting a Christian "commune." From a contemporary American perspective, this is a rather strange and unusual idea. Nowadays most of us tend to associate the word "commune" with left-wing political extremism or abusive and theologically misguided cultic groups. This perspective isn't unreasonable….  Nevertheless, the connection isn't necessarily valid. We'd suggest that you won't be able to think this question through clearly until you realize this. AS A MATTER OF FACT, EXPERIMENTS IN COMMUNAL CHRISTIAN LIVING CAN BE POSITIVE, BENEFICIAL, AND GOD-HONORING IF THEY'RE CARRIED OUT IN THE RIGHT WAY. Everything depends on the people involved and their reasons for doing what they're doing.

If you study history, you'll discover that there has always been communal expressions of the Christian life... This tradition has solid biblical roots. It goes all the way back to the early Christian community in Jerusalem (Acts 4:32-37). It has manifested itself again and again over the past twenty centuries in an almost endless variety of forms. It has found expression in everything from the primitive monastic communities of the ancient Desert Fathers to the early American Shakers to the present-day Hutterian Brethren. Catholic monks and nuns live in community. So do certain groups who are heavily involved in inner-city ministry, such as Sojourners and Harambee House, or outreach to the rural poor, such as Rev. John Perkins's Mendenhall Ministries. IN AND OF ITSELF, THE DESIRE TO CREATE A STRONG, VITAL, AND VISIBLE COMMUNAL DEMONSTRATION OF WHAT IT MEANS TO LIVE AS BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN CHRIST (CAN BE) A WORTHY GOAL…The downside to all of this, of course, is that it's very difficult to make the dream work in the real world…ANYONE WHO HAS EVER ACTUALLY TRIED TO DO WHAT YOUR FRIENDS ARE PROPOSING WILL TELL YOU THAT IT'S EXTREMELY HARD TO PULL IT OFF SUCCESSFULLY. That's the way it is when sinful, fallen human beings attempt to live together in close proximity…IF YOU'D LIKE TO TALK ABOUT THIS AT GREATER LENGTH, CALL OUR STAFF OF PASTORAL COUNSELORS.

I think Focus on the Family makes a valid point that this kind of spiritual community is ‘hard to pull off successfully’ in a ‘sinful, fallen’ world.  So what do we do with the ‘challenge’ of this sharing, caring, and daring human community?  How do we respond to the Holy Spirit’s call to be church in ways that challenge the division, the separation, isolation and the social alienation that still exists in our world today? Isn’t our God the God of reconciliation and fellowship, who makes even the impossible, possible?  What happens when we give up on the ‘challenge’ of living God’s dream?  Living God’s dream of human ‘fellowship’ and ‘community’ is more possible in smaller churches, but it is still not ‘automatic’.

The first church that the young pastor Fred Craddock served was a tiny, rural one near Oak Ridge, TN.  During his tenure, the community exploded with laborers brought in to work at the newly developed nuclear plants. The young pastor wanted to attract the workers to his church; there was just one problem.  The church didn’t want them. At all.

Soon after the state of Tennessee became home to the research and development of the country’s first nuclear bomb, Fred Craddock began noticing recreational vehicles, trucks, wagons, and tents dotting the landscape. Since his church was nearby, the young preacher naturally began thinking about reaching out to the workers who’d migrated to the area.

After services one Sunday, he called a meeting of the church’s leadership and presented his plans. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they’d fit in here,” one church member said. “They’re just here temporarily, just construction people. They’ll be leaving pretty soon.” Rev. Craddock countered with another plea to his church with a reminder of their spiritual obligation to reach out, but time ran out at the meeting, and it was decided that a vote would be made on Sunday.

At the outset of the meeting, one of the church members said, “I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county.” It was quickly seconded and passed.   Years later, that same pastor – now a nationally-renowned preacher and professor of preaching– returned to the area with his wife and wanted to show her the church where he’d once served. The countryside had changed over the years, along with the roads, but Dr. Craddock eventually found the little white building and stopped the car.

The parking lot was full; cars, trucks, and motorcycles surrounded the old structure which now sported a sign that read “BBQ: All You Can Eat.” Unable to resist, the Craddocks walked inside and saw the old pews lining a wall, and the organ pushed into a corner. The space was filled with different sized tables which were filled with people filling themselves on pork and chicken.   Dr. Craddock leaned over to his wife and whispered, “It’s a good thing this isn’t still a church…otherwise, these people couldn’t be in here.” (Craddock Stories by Fred B. Craddock. Chalice Press, 2001, Pages 28-29).

I don’t think any of us want our church to become a Restaurant or a Museum, either. We want our church, this church; the church where we were raised, the church that nurtured our souls, the church where our ancestors worshipped, and where we still worship and serve God, to thrive and live on, not just in our hearts and minds, but as a vital ministry in our ministry and in the world.  But the question is still before us today, especially in these challenging days of church decline: how do we continue to live out God’s dream of ‘koinonia’, of community, and for fellowship, without becoming a cult, communistic, or worst, become a ‘failed’ church?

One thing for sure, what is going on in this text is spiritually motivated, and is not materialistic.  In other words, this is not ‘communism’ which was primarily motivated by ‘materialism’ forcing people to give up private property and material possessions, living on equal terms.  What we all know now, is that ‘communism’ not only didn’t work, but it doesn’t work.  The only exception is in China, where communism still survives because it made economic adjustments based on economic realities, not just socialistic dreams of a more equal world. (

One thing I don’t want to do with this message, is get into a discussion of politics, because I have seen the failure of communism in Europe first hand.  I have seen how bankrupt ‘communism’ can be, but I’ve also witnessed the possibilities and potential of capitalism, even with all its flaws and weaknesses too. I’ve seen first-hand, the possibility of a more community based, capitalistic, “Christian” and even socially responsible democracy, that does refuses to force communal living, but does govern with eyes open toward both social and economic realities.  But the question for us is, is not purely political, but spiritual: Where does the ‘church’ fit into all this?  In Europe, the official State Church is ‘spiritually’ and statistically dead, except a lingering ethical influence on its governments.  In America, our churches still have some spiritual life, but politically they are separate from the affairs of government and state, so what kind of spiritual, social, or ethical impact can we have?

In our text, I believe we can still find our place as churches that exist in the ‘real’ world, without having to either become ‘communal’, ‘socialistic’ or ‘political’ on the world’s terms.   The ‘spiritual’ motivation of a church that still makes an impact on it’s own communities, is a church that will continue to ‘connect’ to it’s community by responding to real, human need.  Isn’t this what gave the church its spiritual connection?  It was a church that was inspired by the spirit to ‘get real’ in a way that it did not hold back from making generous and genuine response to ‘all’ as ‘everyone’ or ‘anyone’ ‘had need’ (KJV).

Most every thing we see happening in the ‘young’, ‘new born’ church was not sustainable.  Pentecost is not sustainable, it happened only once.  The coming of the Holy Spirit with ‘great power’ is not sustainable, it happened only once, and only happens now occasionally in limited ways.  People speaking in ‘other languages’ is not easily attainable or sustainable, just like having over three thousand people join the church on one day is not sustainable.  It is also not ‘sustainable’ to have ‘believers’ so ‘united’ that they ‘share everything’, ‘sell their possessions…and their property’ and distribute the proceeds.  Also, meeting in the Temple every day to worship wasn’t sustainable either, just like always sharing ‘food’ with ‘gladness and singleness of heart’ (KJV), isn’t sustainable.  You just can’t continue repeating what the Spirit did, nor can you continue living ‘on earth’, what it might be like to live ‘in heaven’, can you? We must live in this world. We are not in heaven yet. 

So, what is sustainable?  What is humanly possible, or is the kind of ‘miracle’ or prayer that God still freely answers?  What is more than something we can do once in a while, but what is the ‘spiritual’ way we can live that is not only sustainable, but is the very way we can tap into the ‘spiritual power’ of God’s Spirit which can ‘empower’ and continue to ‘sustain’ us as Churches, and as Christians, both spiritually and physically, while we live out our ‘faith’ on earth, before we reach the heavenly world to come?

A few month ago, Solus Christus, a home for women struggling with Addiction, was introduced to us, as a viable, Christian, effective way of connecting with human need.  We heard not only how these women were being helped, and how courts were ‘ordering’ women to go there, but how these women were being helped by gaining and growing faith in Jesus Christ.  It is a ministry that reminds us that human need is still there, and that community in Christ still saves. 

But what about us, as a church?  In a world were even our own families, and sometimes our own children have less need of the life of the church, how do we become churches that not only meet human need where the crisis is, but that we are sustained ourselves for the ministry and mission of the church?  The question that is alive and well out of this text is simply this: How do we connect with the real needs of people which are just as real in our world, as they were in the world of the very first Christians?  Can Solus Christus, or other social ministries be examples of how we are again ‘empower’ for life in the Spirit?

I have a book in my study, entitled “Excellent Protestant Congregations” which tells the stories of how certain churches, big ones and small ones, have found ways to respond to the needs of their communities.  I got to hear the pastor of one of those churches, Kevin Cosby, in a meeting recently.  In that meeting he spoke of how he took over a church in Louisville that was barely alive in a dying, difficult community.  The relatively small church. St. Stephens, was surrounded by crime and criminals.  On one side of the church were houses of drugs and prostitution, and on the other side, were bars, night clubs and strip joints.  But as the church began to minister to the people in those ‘dirty’ places and communities, and respond to real needs, loving the sinner, while hating the sin, the bars started emptying, the night clubs closed, and prostituting stopped.  The church didn’t stop them, the Spirit did.  The Spirit stopped them when the church met the needs of the people in those troubled places head on.  For you see, it’s hard to keep all these ‘sinful’ destructive places open when the sinners ‘are being saved’ and have better things to do with their lives. 

Now, where those bars, strip joints, and men’s clubs are gone and have been replaced with homes, families, reputable businesses and even more churches.  How did this happen?   It happened when the church, filled with the spirit, met the needs of those people head on.  They didn’t close down all those degrading places, but they gave ‘hope’ to the people.  As one grandmother used to say in eastern North Carolina, the church didn’t just go out there and ‘help’ somebody, but they went out there and ‘hoped’ somebody  (  They didn’t just oppose the prostitution, the drinking, or the dancing, but they introduced the people to ‘hope’ and gave them ‘help’ and lived together with them ‘in the Spirit of Christ’ so they needs were met and lives were changed.    

I don’t think that other churches serve as good patterns for us, but the biblical pattern, though impossible to implement on our own, does reveal to us what it takes be a church becomes so ‘devoted to the apostle’s teaching’ about Jesus, that we too are guided by the Holy Spirit to genuinely respond to actual human needs around us.  We are called to be churches that are empowered by the Spirit of Christ, not just the do good, not just to meet physical needs, but go out there and ‘hope’ somebody.  

“AND THE LORD ADDED …” (v. 47)
What does a real, genuine, spiritually practice response to ‘human need’ get us as a church?  That may be the wrong question.  It is more biblical to ask, what can we ‘give’ to become a church that is spiritually responsive to human need around us?  

I think this is an important question for us, because there is a part of the spiritual reality of the early church that is ‘repeatable’ in our lives, if we would be respond more seriously and intentionally to God’s gifts of goodness and grace.  Not only do we see here in Acts a church that was vital, alive, as it dared, shared, and cared in the power of the Holy Spirit, but we also see a church that was growing and thriving, as ‘the LORD added to the church daily those who were being saved.’

Two things need to be said in conclusion.  The text clearly states that the growth of the early church was not connived, plotted or manipulated by human ingenuity or invention.  The text clearly says that it was ‘the LORD’ who ‘added to the church’.   This ‘growth’ was not manufactured or programed, manipulated by humanly devised ‘strategy’, but this was God’s divine strategy given as a gift resulting from a church recognizing and respond to real human need around them.  This was not communism, but it was real community; a spiritual, actual, and immediate human response, perhaps unsustainable, but real and heartfelt.  It was a ‘generous’ response to reach out to the needs of their community where the church lived.  We shouldn’t follow them as a ‘pattern’ for everyday life, but we should follow the same ‘spirit’ who can motivate us to respond realistic to both the physical and spiritual needs of our own world.

The second thing I see in this ‘growth’ of the church is that the people who were ‘added’ to the church where not always immediately saved all at once, but they ‘were being saved’ as they also responded to and continued to follow Jesus Christ in obedience and service.  God’s  gift of salvation was immediate, but it had to be continually unpacked to have a lasting, real, impact in life.  Salvation was a journey of life, not a destination in life.  

A great example of how God still adds to the church, beyond what we can do, but also through the community we must be is found in the story how a very messed up fellow became a member of a church in Denver, Colorado.  It is est that you hear this story of community in Christ directly from the pastor:

"It was Rick’s first OPERATION TURKEY SANDWICH. He’d been looking forward to it, as the event suited his manic personality.   It was his chance to be involved in our church action to feed the homeless.
Six months prior, Rick had come to us himself as a homeless, bipolar, pathological liar. Now, half a year later he was OUR homeless, bipolar, pathological liar…..

Two years earlier, in the summer of 2009, the FBI investigated an Iraq War veteran named Rick Duncan. Duncan had been seen in TV ads endorsing political candidates and telling his story as an antiwar vet who had also been present at the Pentagon on 9/11. He had started a nonprofit fund dedicated to helping returning war veterans receive their benefits.

Rick was incredibly helpful. But his name wasn’t Rick Duncan. It was Rick Strandlof. And RICK STRANDLOF HAS NEVER SERVED IN THE MILITARY. He admitted all of this in an awkward interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper in July 2009.  Soon after the interview, he was charged with violating the Stolen Valor Act, a federal statute prohibiting the unauthorized wear, manufacture, or sale of any military decorations and medals.

On July 16, 2010, a federal judge in Denver ruled the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional because it violates free speech. In other words, a federal court determined that when Rick Strandlof lied about being a decorated war hero, it may have been reprehensible, but it was legal. All charges against him were dropped since it ends up that, unlike most con artists, Rick never deceived others in order to steal money. He just wanted to be liked. And he just wanted to be helpful.

WHEN RICK STRANDLOF SHOWED UP AT CHURCH in August of 2011, my first instinct as pastor was to try to get rid of him. YOU KNOW, LIKE JESUS WOULD DO.   But the real Jesus keeps on showing up in people, even when we’d like to keep him out of our nice church business.

Now that Rick Strandlof has found our church,  as church that accepts not just saints, but also sinners, Rick is trying to be a real person for the first time in his life and he doesn’t really know who that person is anymore.  But he sees a glimpse of it at the communion table. He sees it in the eyes of the person serving him the wine and bread, saying, “Child of God, the body of Christ, given for you.” That’s his way to repentance.  He sees both who he is and who he isn’t in being loved anyway.

It’s still hard to love people like Rick, at least at first.  Left to my own devices, the pastor says, I would never welcome the likes of Rick Strandlof into my life or my church. I hate being lied to (have I mentioned that?) and I mistakenly trust more in my ability to protect myself from others than I trust in God to change my heart to love them. But I really do love Rick, the man who wants to, but can’t change himself.  Loving someone like Rick is just one more thing that makes me believe in God.

HOW DID RICK BECOME PART OF THIS CHURCH COMMUNITY?  The first time we met for coffee and about ten minutes after my latest spiritual heart transplant, I said, “Hang out at House for All Sinners and Saints and just be Rick Strandlof.  You’re a mess, so I plan to love you, to try to keep you honest, and to keep an eye on you, but seriously, Rick,” I warned, “you’ve got to take the edge off that crazy. Go get some help.”
He agreed to this. We now call it “the Plan.” So for the first time in his adult life he is just being Rick Strandlof. But being Rick Strandlof is more painful than being Rick Duncan or Rick Gold because the real Rick has a history of childhood neglect, mental illness, and alcohol abuse. “It hurts a little, being loved for who I really am,” he told me recently. Rick has been sober now for six months, he is getting help for his manic depression, and recently moved indoors. He is also one of the loudest people I’ve ever met and is so spastically hyperactive that I often wonder if he’s lying about taking his medication. He could be lying about everything, but that’s true of everybody. All I know for sure is that HE’S STILL UNBELIEVABLY HELPFUL at every church function and that he is loved and wanted at House for All.

In the fall of 2011, during the Occupy Denver actions, he organized and oversaw all of the food distribution at the hub of the local protests. “Distributing food at Occupy Denver is awesome!” Rick chirped to me over the phone. “Everyone is fed. It’s doesn’t matter if you are a homeless guy who is scamming and doesn’t even care about Occupy or a lawyer on a lunch break.” He pauses. “THE ONLY PLACE I’VE EVER REALLY SEEN THAT IS AT COMMUNION.” As we hung up, I tried to pretend that I wasn’t crying.
 (BOLZ-WEBER, NADIA. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (pp. 190-195). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.). 

So, what about us?  Where are we in this spiritual calling and adventure of ministry as the people of God on earth?   Are we still challenged by this immediate surge of the Spirit in the lives of those first Christians, so that we also respond in ways that are needed in our own communities?  Again, we need not ‘fear what is happening here.  This is not communism, but it is a call to live in a SPIRIT DIRECTED COMMUNITY IN CHRIST.   When we come to faith in Jesus Christ, we join a club of THE ELITE, but we are to be a fellowship that dares, cares as it shares what it is to meet the spiritual and physical needs of its own community.    Being such a daring community is the true evidence that our lives too, have been invaded, and changed by the love of God and the fullness of God’s Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

“...Filled With the Holy Spirit!”

A sermon based upon Acts 2: 1-24; 37-42
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
22st Sunday in Ordinary Time,  September, 2  2018 
21-14) Sermon Series: Church: Then and Now

Fred Craddock, late Professor of Preaching at Chandler Divinity School in Atlanta, tells of being interrupted by a student at the start of a lecture he gave on the West Coast. The earnest young man asked Craddock … are you a Pentecostal?  The room grew silent. Craddock looked for someone from the school that might moderate and ask the student to hold his question until the end of the lecture, but Craddock got no help.
Realizing he was on his own, Craddock respond to the student: Do you mean do I belong to the Pentecostal Church? The young man said, No, I mean are you Pentecostal? Craddock said, Are you asking me if I am charismatic? Again the student said, No, I am asking you if you are Pentecostal. The great preacher was getting a little frazzled by the student. Craddock said, Do you want to know if I speak in tongues? The student was adamant, I want to know if you are Pentecostal. Fred Craddock said in surrender, I don’t know what your question is. The student said, Obviously, you are not Pentecostal. He left the lecture hall. [Story cited by Brent Blair in his sermon, Are You Pentecostal,, May 19, 2013]
So, let me rhetorically ask you this same ‘loaded’ question, are you, are we Pentecostal?”  ‘Pentecostal’ means different things to different people, but in our time it’s often like asking: Do you speak in unknown tongues?  Do you pray in the spirit?  Are you a member of a Pentecostal church?  Do you clap, shout, or jump up and down during worship?  Is this really what it means to be Pentecostal?

In our text today ‘Pentecost’ was not like this. First of all, Pentecost was the Jewish festival held 50 days after Passover when Jews returned to Jerusalem to celebrate their heritage and to offer thanks for the ‘first-fruits’ of their harvest.  But for the first disciples of Jesus, Pentecost took on new meaning, becoming a day to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit into the world with so great a power that it gave birth to the church.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that God’s Spirit wasn’t at work in the world before, but this was a unique moment when God’s power to save and to bless was being received in a new, dynamic and dramatic way. 

Many years have passed since that first Pentecost. Times change.  We change.  Life changes.  The meanings of words change. The world is always in motion and time moves on.  What Pentecost meant then is not what it means now.  So, what should Pentecost mean now?  Are we supposed to be Pentecostal Christians?  What would it mean if we were?

My favorite way to answer this question is not with an answer, but with a story. Some years back, New Testament scholar Gordon Fee, who is a noted and greatly respected Pentecostal Christian, was sitting with other attendees at a workshop talking about the power of ‘story’. The speaker was Eugene Peterson, his faculty colleague. Peterson mentioned a moment in which his four-year-old grandson jumped onto his lap and demanded, “Grandpa, tell me a story, and put me in it.”  Upon hearing this account, Gordan Fee, the Pentecostal, began to weep, overwhelmed by the fact that this is precisely what God has done for all of us. At Pentecostal God was empowering the church to tell God’s great story, inviting all of us to be part of His story.   (Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful : A Biblical Vision for Education in the Church, by  Parrett, Gary A., and Kang, S. Steve. Westmont, US: IVP Academic, 2013. ProQuest ebrary.  Web. 26 July 2017)

In this story about Pentecost, God invites us into His great story.  This story is about  God being at work in the Jewish and Christian Faith by given his disciples the spiritual power to take the message of God’s love into the world.  Pentecost is an important part of God’s story because God did not stop revealing himself with Jesus Christ, but God continues to reveal himself through those who wait, pray and allow themselves to be guided by the God’s Spirit.  We too, are being invited to be ‘put’ into God’s story.

At the heart of this story, the ‘wonder’ of Pentecost was the Spirit of God coming with the dramatic sound of violent wind, with fiery tongues setting on the disciples’ shoulders, and the Spirit filling the souls of all those who were waiting, praying disciples (v.2-4).  All this drama led to the culminating main event that they ‘began to speak in other tongues’ or languages (v.4).   After this, a good question is posed by those who experienced this miracle: “What does it mean?”  That’s the question that still begs to be answered by us too.

The first time I was confronted with the ‘Pentecostal’ question was in high school.  I was a member of a Christian student group called ‘the Bible Club’, which came together regularly to support one another, to pray, and to hear testimonies and lectures about our faith.  One particular year, around Easter, we had a young man come to talk to us about his faith in Jesus and the meaning of the cross for our lives.   He made a very moving talk and after the meeting I went up to thank him for his moving words.  He invited me, and a few others, to come to a home to learn more, so I went.  I recall the talk was about the ‘filling of the Spirit’, which is a ‘second blessing’, as he called it.  After the message, he started to pray, and he began speaking some unknown language.  After his prayer was over, I asked him what language it was, and he said it was ‘angelic’.  He explained that this was a special work and gift of the Holy Spirit only for those who were in a deep, close and most personal relationship with God.

While I don’t doubt the sincerity of that man,  the ‘miracle’ going on in this text was not intended to be anything special only a select few.  The intent of the ‘Pentecostal’ miracle is that ‘all’ can be filled (4), and that ‘each one heard’ (6) and understood God’s message.  The truth in this story is not that God comes in special ways, but that God takes his message to all.  One of my teachers wisely asked a very important question: ‘Was the Pentecostal miracle one of speaking different languages, or was it that ‘each one heard them speaking in their own language?’   In other words, was this a miracle of speaking or a miracle of hearing, available to all who want to hear?

Echoing what happened at Pentecost, the apostle Paul wrote, ‘Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17, KJV), or as a more modern translation puts it, ‘faith comes from what is heard’ (NRSV).  The emphasis of Pentecost is not on the one who does the talking, but the true emphasis should be on the power given to everyone, through the truth about Jesus Christ, to listen, to hear, to understand and to respond to God’s message of truth.  And at the heart of Pentecost’s message about Jesus and from Jesus is that ‘all’ people belong to God, and God belongs to all people.  Pentecost is the beginning of the universalizing of God’s love to the whole world (CK BARRETT). 

Remember that fellow who came to Jesus saying: “Teacher, What must I do to gain eternal life?”  Jesus’ answer reduced all religion down to two simple rules: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' (Lk. 10:27 NIV).  “Who is my neighbor?” became the most important question from someone who was listening and hearing, not just what Jesus said, but what Jesus meant.  Then Jesus told the unforgettable story about the Good Samaritan (Luke 1O: 30-37). 

At Pentecost Jesus’ story of loving God, loving neighbor becomes the ‘Pentecostal’ story inviting ‘all’ to speak and ‘each’ to hear the universal language of faith, hope, and loveThe miracle of Pentecost was both speaking and hearing, through God’s Spirit who constantly speaks to human hearts in the language that everyone needs to understand; that we belong to God, and we also belong to each other.   

But this message of God’s great truth of ‘love’ cannot be sustained without ‘knowing’ ‘believing’ and obeying this truth.   This brings us to the second part of the Pentecost story, where Peter addresses the crowd to explain ‘what’ Pentecost means (14-41).  Peter claims that Pentecost is the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s dream in the world, expressed first through the ‘prophet Joel’ (16), who hoped that one day ‘God…will pour out his Spirit on ALL people’ (17).  Why does God ‘pour out’ his Spirit?  The gospel answer Peter gives is so that ‘whosoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (21).

The contains the wonderful ‘whosoever’ messages of ‘whosever’, which make it an invitation to all, but this offer of God’s saving power through Jesus Christ doesn’t come without facing the truth, which can sometimes be difficult to face.  True love, God’s love is freely given, but it still costs dearly.  God gives a great invitation to the world, but this invitation includes an RSVP.   This RSVP of the gospel of love is to face the difficult ‘truth’ about ourselves.  Peter told those Jews from Jerusalem a very difficult truth.  Peter told them that ‘this Jesus, through whom God worked ‘wonders and signs’ is the very Jesus ‘you crucified and killed…’ (23).  Ouch!   God’s truth is not only compassionate truth, but true compassion that cares confronts us with the truth.  When people really love each other, they don’t run from the truth, hide from the truth, but they face the truth that is revealed to each other in their relationship, so that they can get better at loving, caring, and understanding.  But this message of ‘confrontation’ is not simply a message that points out how low humanity can go, but it is a message that culminates as it also speaks to how ‘high’ God can go, because only God is about the counter and overcome the worst evil with good.  This is what Peter underscores as the most important ‘truth’ of all, when he says: “Therefore, let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified (36).” 

Pentecost, then, is not only a message of God’s love for all, but God’s message to be made clear is that this love is given to the world ‘by grace, through faith’ (Eph. 2:8).  It is the ‘gift’ of grace given to save us from ourselves, so that we can take the message of grace and mercy to others.  This is why God Spirit comes to us.  This is why we have something worth believing.  Peter tells the crowd, ‘with the help of wicked people, you put him to death by nailing him to the cross.  But God raised him from the dead” (24).  Only God can overcome the deceit, the denial, the defeat and the death we human bring upon each other.  Only God has the answer, and God ‘by grace, through faith’ God wants to put the ‘message’ in you, so you can take the answer of grace to others. 

One of the largest, and most respected churches in the United States is based on the ‘hard’ truth, and not ‘easy believism’.  That church is located in Kansas City, MO, is the largest Methodist Church in the country, and one of the largest of any denomination.  Adam Hamilton is the founding pastor, and the well-connected church has a membership of over 20,000.   And do you know where this church was started?  It wasn’t started in a suburb or a Country Club, a home or a basement, but it was started in Funeral Home.  Yes, this church, named “Church of the Resurrection” was started by facing head on one of the most difficult truths of all; death.  Its continuing purpose is to bring hope so that people can find ‘eternal life’ now.

Jesus said ‘the road that leads to life is narrow, and few are those who find it’ (Matt. 7:14).  One angle on what Jesus meant is that it is not easy for people to face the truth.   A good example of that is what happened in Charleston, South Carolina, several years ago, when Dillion Roof choose what he wanted to believe about Black people, rather than what he should have known, and he went into that historic church during a Bible Study and shot and killed innocent people.  Dillion Roof choose the kind of reality he wanted to see, know, preach, and live and die for.  But it was Dillion’s truth, not God’s truth.

What kind of ‘truth’ we allow ourselves to face and receive will either take life away from us and others, or it will be the kind of ‘truth’ that gives an opportunity for more life, abundant life, which the Bible calls ‘eternal’ or ‘enduring’ life.  We all know too well that people still decide the kind of ‘truth’ they want to know or believe.  When the German public was confronted with the ‘truth’ about the Holocaust, they did not want to learn the most difficult truth about themselves and their society.  When the South the Civil war, there were those who still want to believe in White Supremacy?  The ‘truth’ can be a very hard ‘pill’ to swallow, but if we will swallow it, ‘Pentecost’,  real ‘power’, that is ‘spiritual’ power can come into the human heart.

Not long ago, about the same time as people were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., a report was made about a new Memorial and Museum being opened in Montgomery, Alabama to remember all those Black people who have been ‘lynched’ in American history (4,000 or so).  There are some tragic stories in that museum.  One is about a Black man being lynched just for showing up late for work.  Another was lynched for passing a note to a white woman.  Another major part of the exhibit chronicles the lives of those who have been falsely convicted and incarcerated, some who were later exonerated after spending decades behind bars.  This not only happens in America, but the late Chuck Colson, spent the rest of his life, after being found guilty in the Watergate scandal, helping those who were behind bars, and learning just how many ‘innocent’ people were there.

What I like about the goal of this “Lynching” Museum, which has been established by the Lawyer and Justice Fighter, Bryan Stevenson, is how he explained the goal of the museum: “We are not trying to be divisive’, but “our goal is just to get people to confront the truth of our past with more courage...  Why?  Because ‘all our survival is connected to the survival of everyone“.(

In other words, my survival is connected to your survival because we are in this ‘together’.   Pentecost is one moment when some people heard God’s truth, even the hard truth, which paved the way for the possibility of a more compassionate world.   

The outcome of the ‘truth’ Peter preached at Pentecost was not condemnation, but the building of a new community based on God’s Spirit.  God’s Spirit, in contrast to the spirit of this world  (Eph 2:2), is a spirit of grace, compassion and hope, rather than a spirit of hate, violence, and condemnation.  

So, if you wonder what kind of ‘teaching of the apostles’ the early church ‘devoted’ itself to, you don’t have to guess.  Pentecost makes it clear that the Spirit of God is building a new community based upon ‘the repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38, 5:31).  For a community that is willing to confess its sins to one another, and lives a spirit of repentance and forgiveness is a community that can be rightly called ‘Pentecostal’.
What all this means is that God’s church, is Pentecostal when we are a people who ‘belong’ to Christ and to each other, who are willing to be challenged and changed by the truth they are willing to believe, and who are devoted to becoming the kind of people God has created them to be.  This is the true ‘spirit’ of Pentecost; not speaking in ‘unknown tongues’, but speaking the new language of the Spirit, which points to Jesus Christ as the source of faith, hope, and love.

On an ABC News Special titled “In the Name of God,” Peter Jennings interviewed the founder of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, John Wimber.  Wimber did not grow up in church.  He said after he read the Bible and decided to enter a church for the first time, he expected dramatic things to happen.  But after going to church for three Sundays, he became frustrated.  

Following the service, he talked to an official-looking man and asked him, “When do they do it?”  
“Do what,” the man replied.
“The stuff,”  Wimber answered.
“What stuff?”
“The stuff in the Bible.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, multiplying loaves and fish, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind. That stuff.”
“Oh,” the man replied apologetically, “We don’t do that. We believe in it, and we pray about it. But we don’t actually do it.”  (From William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 27, No. 1.). 

Do we ‘do’ the stuff?  Of course, we can’t repeat the ‘miracles’ of the New Testament, since Jesus said we’d do even greater works than ‘these’.   Do we speak, live, and witness to this ‘new’ spirit of love, truth, compassion and community?   Are we ‘devoted’ to a spiritual way of living, loving, and doing that goes against the grain of this world?   You will know that we are truly a ‘Pentecostal’ church when people visit and start asking the same kind of questions that were asked on Pentecost: ‘What does this mean’ and ‘What should we do?  If people aren’t asking, then we need to do more waiting, praying, and become more ‘devoted’ to the teachings of the Spirit that wants to create a new community of faith, hope, and love through us.  Amen.