A few years ago, a friend and I went to hear the writer Annie Dillard speak at a church on Mercer Island. At the time I knew her name but not much about her. What caught my attention that day was what she said about worship…it’s out of her book Teaching a Stone To Talk.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
I remember kind of half paying attention to the lecture up to that point but the concept of crash helmets in worship drew me in. Fast forward and that quotation found its way onto my laptop the other day when I was writing about Reformation History…
No matter how many times the reformers worked to put out fires and slow things down, the cause eventually took on a life of its own and I think much of the good moments of that time were the work of the Spirit. You can’t control the Holy Spirit, much as we would like to sometimes. Annie Dillard’s statement that day felt a little overdone until I thought about Pentecost and some of my own experiences of the Spirit. Right before she says that in her book she asks this question: Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? That’s a pretty incredible thought isn’t it?
The book of Acts…it’s such a great read... an action-packed narrative filled with everything you could want—earthquakes, shipwrecks, angels, riots, murder plots, political struggle, courtroom drama and more and its starring character—this same Holy Spirit.
We learn a lot about the power and persistence of the Spirit by reading it. It starts out as calm and quiet and then explodes at Pentecost. And Luke works hard to show us some interesting parallels between his gospel and the book of Acts. In his gospel the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus as he prays. In Acts, the Spirit descends on the disciples as they pray. Jesus heals the lame in the Luke’s gospel; Peter does in Acts. Religious leaders attack Jesus in the Luke and attack the apostles in the Acts… and the mirroring continues. A centurion invites Jesus for dinner in Luke, and one invites Peter in Acts. Jesus goes to Jerusalem, Paul goes to Jerusalem.
Luke is working hard to make some connections all leading to one conclusion -- the life and mission of the church is to be a reduplication of the life and mission of Jesus that we saw in his gospel and it’s important to hold on to that.
In the passage we read this morning, Pentecost has just happened and Peter has just finished explaining it. They weren’t drunk, he tells his listeners, it was the Holy Spirit. The result was an instant explosion in number of the early church. Something incredible drew them in. People were filled with awe and wonder.
Luke’s account of Peter’s sermon includes some Hebrew Scriptures, not to make them fit Jesus’ life and ministry but to show how Jesus’ life and ministry fit them. This passage is often looked at as the founding of the Christian church, but if we look at Luke’s description more closely, this is a successive story. This is the story of the people of Israel; it’s a continuation of the covenant made with them starting with Abraham. Listen to the language in v. 39 — “For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Familiar words… A promise/covenant made to you and to your children.
And then Peter says — save yourselves…but another translation of that Greek verb is — allow yourself to be saved. These folks have just experienced Pentecost; he had to confirm for them that the people weren’t just drunk; they were literally, powerfully and profoundly affected by the Holy Spirit, and Peter’s challenging them to let go and live into it. Just let it happen to you… allow yourself to be saved, to be profoundly changed by the Spirit of the Living God. This is some hard stuff. And I get some serious compassion for the audience at this point… while exciting, they’re being asked to surrender all control and do the trust fall of a lifetime.
But they do it… and their numbers just explode, and they create community, and here’s where that successive story really matters. Our passage today tells us that they create the kind of community that the bulk of Scripture tells us God has consistently and persistently been calling them too.
I love that the lectionary pairs this Acts passage with the 23rd Psalm. Luke has already connected us back with Hebrew Scripture, reminding us this is a continuation of the covenant story but also of God’s ability to provide for us… even amid scary trust falls like the one this community has been challenged to let happen. Even though I walk through the valley of death, I won’t be afraid because You’re there… You’ve really got me. And the table is prepared by You, and there is so much abundance that my cup literally overflows.
And when this community in Acts lives into the Holy Spirit’s call, there is abundance. Today’s passage says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” And they had all things in common and they shared with one another as folks had need. “They spent time in the temple, they went to each other’s houses to eat together and their numbers grew.”
Yesterday I went to the REACH leadership retreat, and Maggie did a really lovely job explaining ecumenism and the common table to everyone gathered. Some of the words were new to people at the table with us. They asked a few questions, and after some clarification the understanding around our shared table there was that, despite our differences, we come together as brothers and sisters in God. And we talked about what that meant and what gifts we each bring to the table.
What I found incredibly holy about our conversation together though, was the willingness folks had to own what they can and can’t do, to admit when they are tired and need a break, to admit where their limits get reached and the importance of saying, I need some help here. Most importantly was when the discussion moved to the place where everyone around that table agreed that part of being in relationship with one another and in the Name of Jesus means that we have to come alongside one another when we need those breaks, or when it just gets too heavy to hold alone. By naming and claiming the truth of our ministry, allowing the Spirit to be at work in this community, we suddenly had all these things in common, just like today’s text.
There’s power in what Peter asked of his audience that day… leaning in to the Spirit’s call and just letting it happen, allowing yourself to be saved. In this story, the God of Israel is again demonstrating God’s faithfulness to the covenant and simply pouring forth the Spirit upon the people. What happens in their community is a result of their response to this outpouring of Spirit. They took care of one another…not because it was some kind of socialist state, but because how could they not? It became natural. They were touching on something about the nature of our interconnectedness with one another and with God. They were responding to what God had been calling for since the very beginning… to take care of one another, not to leave anyone out, not to build fences of exclusion, but to do that trust fall of faith and just let it happen. Have your heart so filled with the love of God that caring and sharing and breaking bread together is the natural response.
You and I live in a culture that prizes self-reliance. It’s a personal nemesis of mine. But I don’t think these six verses in Acts are only to reflect their community… this way of living is for us too… not just in this church but in the larger church and in our ability to be church with one another. Verse 46 says “all who believed were together and had all things in common…” This passage is telling us that we’re called to dwell in scripture, called to worship, but we are also called to break bread together and not just at this table but in one another’s homes. We are called into fellowship with one another, but not just any fellowship, one that causes us to be so deeply vulnerable and open that it produces wonders and signs.
The Holy Spirit doesn’t stop being at work in the world with Pentecost, the rest of Acts is filled with more stories of the Spirit at work. Our lives today represent stories of the Spirit at work. God is persistent, the Holy Spirit is right here in this place.. the same Spirit that was at work in the lives of the community in this story.
Maybe we should all be wearing crash helmets, like Annie Dillard said. I don’t really know. But this passage focuses our attention exactly where God wants it to be focused, on the community, on each of us, on those around us in this journey of human living. That's why Luke uses the references to Hebrew Scriptures in the passage just before this one... to connect us to what God has been saying and saying over and over from the beginning... we are called to care for one another.
And it’s why Luke makes the connection that the life of the church is to be modeled on the life of Jesus… who ate with people in their homes, who knew studied Scripture, who talked to those who were normally ignored, who touched and healed and connected with people who had been excluded from community, and who knew when he needed rest. For Jesus, the reaction to the Spirit at work in his life resulted in no exclusion and that’s our call, too.
All those things we find most comfortable, especially those of us with privilege, like self-reliance and staying in control… the Holy Spirit is not going there… the Spirit has come to shake us up, challenge us to let go, and truly be the church.
St. Andrew Sermons