Risen - Week 2: "Powerful Grace"
This week we are continuing the sermon series that we started last Sunday--a Sunday that happened to be the Sunday of Sundays in the Christian calendar. We celebrated Easter with style last week. For the second year in a row we had over 800 people experience worship at First Church.
At our casual service, the Crossing we had 100 more people in the room than we did last year. Everyone dressed up, wore hats and looked awesome. Families came en masse, some of them even brought their wayward Uncle Larry, who never goes to church.
And now it's the Sunday after the Sunday.
Most of the snowbirds are gone. Uncle Larry isn't here. It's just us.
Easter is over.
Jesus is risen. Now what?
This feeling that we have today is not unlike what the disciples of Jesus felt after his resurrection. There was joy at first, then elation, then unbelievable purpose and then he left. Jesus appeared to them, he ate with them, taught them some more, commanded them to keep doing his kingdom work and then he left. He "ascended" to God the Scriptures tell us, but more likely he simply stepped from here to there--from being with his followers to being where God is.
And then his followers waited. They huddled together praying in a room, waiting for the next thing, not knowing what the next thing would be.
Then on the day of Pentecost the Spirit of God came upon them and lit them up--quite literally--with tongues of fire and a mighty wind. They went out into Jerusalem to the very place where Jesus had been taken, beaten and executed and they began to preach at the Temple. 3000 people were added to their number that day.
A new community was formed on that day--a symbolic community that embodied the work that Jesus had begun.
Let's read the description that Luke, the author of the book of Acts, gives of this new community:
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. Some interpreters use the word "soul" here, too.
No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. Another interpretation says that they shared everything "in common"
33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. The key phrase for us here is "God's grace was so powerfully at work..." Another way of saying this is "great grace was upon them."
For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
So why did Luke use these particular phrases? What was important about them? As it turns out, these are familiar phrases that most Jewish people would have heard and known by heart. These phrases, "one heart and soul," "everything in common," "no needy person..." These phrases were grounded in the Torah, describing the new community that God was creating in His chosen people.
Which reminds me of the color blue.
Of course, right?
Did you know that the ancients probably didn't see the color blue like we do. In fact, depending on the shade of blue, they might not have seen it at all. There's some compelling evidence that suggests most ancient cultures did not have any real words for "blue" and had no real way to describe it, no frame of reference for it, and no way to truly see the color the way we do.
There was some research that was done in modern times with the Himba tribe from Africa--a tribe that was largely isolated in remote areas of Namibia. The Himba had no word for the color blue. When shown a color wheel that included shades of green and a block of blue, they could not see the block of blue at all.
They did, however, have numerous words for the color green. Because of this, they could pick out minute changes in a color wheel with multiple shades of green while Westerners could not.
There is a connection between naming and having reference for something and truly seeing it.
The community of faith being described in Acts chapter 4 was something so new, so different, so bold and unusual that there were no words to truly describe what people were seeing. The Resurrection changed everything. Jesus changed everything. The people who experienced the Risen Jesus were forever changed, forever transformed. They became something completely new.
So Luke uses words that most of his readers would have understood.
He draws from Deuteronomy chapter 15, which describes the Year of Jubilee. The Year of Jubilee was a celebration that occurred in ancient Israel every seven years--a time when debts were remitted, property was returned to families who may have lost it to foreclosure, and much, much more.
In this passage God declares to His people, "there will be no needy person among you..." Luke is declaring that the Year of Jubilee is underway--that the kingdom of God that it represented is now at hand. The new community that was formed after the Resurrection is now called to show the world what it looks like when God gets what God wants on earth as God does in heaven.
And all of this stands in sharp contrast to the keepers of the Temple Model of worship that had existed until Jesus.
The Temple Model claimed that grace is found in religion. You get grace when you do the right things, say the right things, are born into the right family, worship God in the right places, keep the right rules...
But this new model--the New Covenant Model--that Luke is describing here asserts that grace is found in the Risen Community. When the early Christians had one heart and soul, when they lived as though God's kingdom was on earth right here and now, they created space for grace--and grace happened. People saw God more clearly, understood God's will more fully and loved more completely.
The Temple Model asserted that authority was found in tradition. What mattered was what you did, what you believed what you could quote. It was about doctrine and dogma.
The New Covenant Model, however, embodied true life through freedom. The only rules were these: Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. The early Christians had freedom to be the people God had dreamed for them to be, unconstrained by the past.
No one had ever seen anything quite like this before.
Luke gave language to this new thing so people could see it--truly see it.
So what does all of this mean?
It means everything. The Church is given the task of showing why it matters that Jesus is Risen. We are called to care for one another. To bear one another's burdens. And we are also called to care for others in the same way with the same grace.
Between 250 and 270 AD a plague swept the Roman Empire, claiming the lives of millions of people. 5000 people a day were dying in Rome itself. In cities and villages the bodies were literally being thrown into the streets. Family members of infected people left them to die, fleeing to the countryside.
The only group of people that stayed and ministered to the sick, even at risk to their own lives were Christians. As they cared for and even died next to their neighbors people said of them, "...see how they love each other." One of the Roman Emperors once said, "the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well."
I was reading an article this week from the New York Times that was asking the question, "Who is battling the Ebola crisis in West Africa?" The answer: missionaries, Christian doctors, and volunteers, motivated by their faith, and by the fact that they have been serving there for years bringing the Gospel to the people they have grown to love. These modern-day Christians, like their ancient counterparts, ran toward the plague rather than away from it.
This great grace that abounds in the middle of the New Community is marked by people with one heart and soul---not because we agree with one another all of the time, but because we regard the needs of others as our own.
I remember years ago, in a meeting of our church's elders, we asked ourselves a question: If we ceased to exist tomorrow, who would miss us? Would anyone other than our own members really care that we were gone?
The sad answer that we had to face was: probably not.
We were known mostly for our lovely stained glass windows. In fact, I remember telling people I was the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Eustis, and they would say, "Oh, that's the church with those beautiful stained glass windows..." and I would say, "Yes... that's the one."
Our elders and church leaders decided that wasn't good enough. We were called to be a Risen Community. We wanted to be known as something much greater than an historic landmark.
So we began caring for one another. And our neighbors. And our community.
We discovered a new way to talk about who we were called to be. And our new language gave us a vision. We knew that we were called to know Jesus and show Jesus.
A few years ago, I met someone at a Chamber of Commerce event. I introduced myself as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Eustis. "Oh," they said, "that's the church that does all of that awesome stuff in the community." and then I said, "Yes... that's the one."