Delivered at Ames UCC on April 10, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Remember how last week I said that in light of Jesus’ death and the Easter mystery, the disciples are now trying to find and make meaning of Jesus’ work, life, and death, as well as their own? That’s not how the Acts of the Apostles actually reads. I believe it is true. I believe that they had to have had a crisis of faith after Easter, one that made them rethink everything. But we don’t get to hear those words or attend those meetings. What the author of Luke–Acts, again about 50 years after Easter, offers is a lot of public action.
Here is what has happened up until and just after today’s passage:
PENTECOST AND ANTI-SEMITISM
Upon Jesus’ ascension—that’s the story about him floating off to heaven after his final message to the named disciples—Peter takes the lead in teaching. That teaching is all about how the messianic prophesies of the Hebrew Bible have come true. In chapter one, Peter’s evidence is a rather gruesome story about Judas and his death.
In chapter two we have Pentecost. Pente- means fifty, and fifty days after the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the faithful would gather again for Shavuot, a harvest festival. On this particular Shavout there is a massive, collective experience of the divine. Peter preaches again about the fulfillment of prophesy, quoting Joel:
and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. (Acts 2.17b)
At that time, 3,000 people, the author claims, are baptized and become followers. They become students of the apostles and lived in common. So begins a system of instruction, communal living, worship, and care for others.1
Just to clarify the timeline, Jesus made his triumphal entry at the Passover feast, was killed a few days later, then a few days after that, he came back. He continued to appear and teach for some time.
Within 50 days of his Passover entry, and maybe 40 after Easter, the Holy Spirit allows pilgrims from all nations to hear and understand each other in their own language and the Jesus movement receives a massive influx of adherents. Those adherents completely upend their lives to be together in community and service. It is a beautiful and inspiring moment.
The Pentecost also marks the beginning of one of the major themes of Acts: Peter yelling at his fellow Jews. “You people, you Jews, killed Jesus,” he says, “and must repent, be baptized, and receive the divine.”
BLAME AND FLOGGING
So today, in chapter three, we have Peter continuing in his evangelism, now at the temple. He uses the healing of this man as further evidence of Jesus’ divine role.
Immediately after that beautiful and inspiring moment, Peter again rails against the Jewish people. Yes, they were ignorant of who Jesus was and, yes, it was all part of God’s plan. However, their ignorance was no excuse. They should have known what God was up to in Jesus and will therefore be condemned without repentance for that sin.2 For Peter, not even the will of God could excuse his own people for their actions during the week we now call holy.
In the next two chapters—four and five—Peter and the disciples have a series of clashes with the religious authorities; heal more people (but let one die because she seems to have tested God); experience an earthquake due to prayer; and an angel liberates them from jail.
Then another 5,000 people join the Christian commune.
Chapter five ends with the religious authorities deciding that if the disciples’ movement is of man, then it will fail of its own accord. But if it is of God, they dare not stand in God’s way. They still flog Peter and company, but the disciples are glad for that suffering because it was a result of their devotion to God through Jesus Christ.
There is a lot in these stories that both bothers and excites me. I truly despise the way our scripture can be used to foster a universal and apparently eternal hatred of people who are Jewish. That is unforgiveable and anti-Christian, to me.
I love the idea, though, of thousands of people walking away from the known and into a radical community in the name of God.
But I find I have a hard time believing it. I have a hard time believing that is not just an exaggeration made by the author of Luke/Acts as part of his pro-Jesus agenda. There is ample evidence of Christian communes in the early church, communes of both the rich and the poor. Communal living, worship, and care for others does sound like the appropriate response to Jesus’ message. It does sound like the beginning of the beloved community that Jesus lived for unto death.
But if they really happened, and to this degree, why didn’t they last? And why didn’t they provide a permanent, lasting change to the world as we know it? And, finally, if they could sustain themselves back then, right after people first encountered the Christ, how in the world can we make them happen now?
Recently I was talking to a gentleman whom I had never met. I shared that I pastor at this church. He lit up and told me about his ministry of service in his previous city. He then told a story that gave me goosebumps.
This gentleman had taken a job on the caveat that his schedule be set around that of his ministry. He always gave his supervisor his church schedule six weeks out to leave lots of room for accommodation and planning.
But after a time his supervisor got sick of it and told him he would have to work whenever she said so. She added, “You are salaried, so we own you.”
His immediate response, one that came instantly and with conviction, was, “The one who owns me has no flesh. You have my two weeks notice.” Meaning, only God has claim, or ownership, over this gentleman’s life and he refused to stay in a place of employment that didn’t respect his faith commitments or his own person as a child of God.
He had no other job lined up. He didn’t know he would be quitting his job that day. He had only the strength of his loyalty to God above and before all others. And he did not pause a moment to consider what that loyalty might cost him. His faith was that complete.
The Acts of the Apostles doesn’t show us the inner workings of the disciples’ hearts and minds. And we have no testimonies from the 3,000 and the 5,000 converts. What we have is their actions in response to God’s presence in Jesus: pooling their resources to live together, learn together, worship, and serve the needy.
In the coming weeks we will read letters to early church communities. These letters give voice to the complexities of human communities formed in faith. Some of them read like church Council meeting minutes, frankly, as they struggle to understand who should do what and where God is in the midst.
Taken together, the pairing shows that living our faith is a combination of both reflection and action. But not just any kind of action: It must include radical, public rejection of the easy and familiar.
I don’t know that we are called today to recreate the early Christian communes, per se. But if the commitment to God held by the gentleman I met tells us anything, it is that it doesn’t matter of how many years are between us and Jesus. All we need is faith. A faith that strengthens and emboldens us to truly change our world.
Our church’s story will never be collected as scripture for teaching others about God’s yearning for us to enter into beloved community, but let us live together, in worship and service, as if it will.
1Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 203.
2ibid., p. 204.