Sermon series, “Don’t Leave Before the Miracle” Sermon title, “A Commitment to God and to One Another” Acts 4:23-35

June 1, 2017
Today is the last sermon in our series “Don’t Leave Before the Miracle”. We’ve been looking at what the early believers did in the days between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Next Sunday is Pentecost Sunday and the Transition Team is planning a special service for next week. We’ve been meeting and talking about what OCMC needs as we transition to new pastoral leadership and the team felt that the congregation needed the opportunity to express grief at Pastor Leonard’s leaving. For some, you may be feeling that you are ready to move on and get on with things but for others, you may still be feeling sad or confused or disoriented that Pastor Leonard and his family are no longer here. It is a loss for us and we want to give time to process this loss together and begin to dream for the future. So next week the Transition Team will be leading a special Service of Lament and Hope.
In some ways, this season in our church life mirrors the experience of Jesus’ followers after his death, resurrection and ascension. It was a disorienting time for the disciples as this is now a disorienting time for us. That’s why we’ve been looking at what were the commitments the disciples had that kept them together until the coming of the Holy Spirit and then, once the Spirit came and they were empowered, what did they do? We’ve looked at their commitment to stay together, to pray, to study the scriptures together and to give public witness to all they had experienced with Jesus. Last week Nes talked about Peter and how, even though he had some great moments of failure in his relationship with Jesus, Jesus was still generous towards Peter in reaching out to him, giving him another chance, not holding the past against him or even bringing it up, but giving Peter the commission to feed my lambs. Jesus displays a level of generosity that few would be willing to go to.
Jesus was the injured party in this relationship. He’s the one who suffered from Peter denying him. He’s the one who died. Yet he’s sensitive to the hurt and shame that Peter is carrying. We know that Peter bitterly regretted failing Jesus. So Jesus is generous towards Peter in extending grace and entrusting Peter with the leadership of the future church. This changes Peter. He steps up. And when he receives the Holy Spirit, he becomes incredibly bold and gives powerful witness to Jesus in front of the religious authorities. This generosity on Jesus’s part cements a deep commitment in Peter.
When we fail someone and they are generous enough to forgive us and give us a second chance, we don’t want to fail them again. We want to prove that we can be a good friend or a good employee or whatever. People respond to generosity. We appreciate that someone thinks enough of us to give of themselves to us, whether that generosity is with their time, their affections, their prayers, their expertise, or their material resources. The cross provides us with a picture of extreme generosity in the face of failure. It is that great generosity that results in reconciliation. In our mission statement, we state that we want to be people of reconciliation, carrying the message of reconciliation out into our world and living reconciliation in our relationships with each other. That takes an extreme level of generosity such as we see in the cross.
Jesus was generous to the extent that he divested himself of his divine glory and put on human flesh. He contained himself within the very thing he had created. He subjected himself to a finite life and repeatedly gave up his time and his energies to those around him. He gave up the traditional life of a Jewish man of his time, not marrying and having children, not staying in his home village to participate in family and community life, but rather went out into the world, teaching, preaching and healing with no place to call home. Then he gave up even that by dying on the cross. When we see Jesus on the cross, we see both the God and the man who has emptied himself for the sake of others.
This generosity of love is what draws people to Jesus. In him we find the grace and love that doesn’t hold our past and our failures against us. We find forgiveness for our sins when we repent, as Nes preached last week. We find hope for our future. We find empowerment for living as kingdom of God people. We are not written off because we’ve failed in the past. Like with Peter, Jesus is generous to us and entrusts us with what is precious to him, which is feeding his lambs, telling those around us about him.
In Acts 3 and 4, Peter and John had gone to the temple and encountered a man who was crippled from birth. Peter healed the man in the name of Jesus. This caused a commotion and Peter ended up preaching to the crowd that gathered, witnessing to the death and resurrection of Jesus in whose name this crippled man had been made well. He called the people to repent and turn to God so their sins could be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come (v. 19). Peter knows that his own sins and failures towards Jesus have been wiped away and he can declare this to his people. Many who heard him believed and become followers of the Way that day.
But the priests and the Sadducees were upset because Peter and John were proclaiming the resurrection of the dead so they put them in jail. The next day they were brought before the rulers, the elders, the teachers of the law, the high priest and members of the high priest’s family, the same people who had questioned Jesus at his trial and then handed him over to the Romans to be crucified. These people wanted to know by what power or by what name did they heal the crippled man. Peter gives a very clear and distinct answer: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead that this man stands before you healed. He is the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”(vs. 10-12) It took some guts to say this. Just a couple months earlier these same authorities had been questioning Jesus and Peter was out skulking in the courtyard trying not to be noticed. Now he is standing up to them and being completely clear about who Jesus is and not shying away from the fact that these people are responsible for Jesus’ death. Peter now has an unshakable commitment to Jesus. Why? Because now he knows exactly who Jesus is, he knows he is forgiven by Jesus, and he has been empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The great generosity of God that crossed the boundary between sinful humanity and holy God and brought forgiveness, the great generosity of God that caused God to pour out the Holy Spirit upon all people, this great generosity has resulted in these disciples being totally committed to God. They are all in. They are holding nothing back. In just a few chapters we will see that they are even willing to die now for Jesus.
In the New Testament, this relationship between holy God and forgiven people is compared to the marriage relationship. In a marriage relationship both parties have to be all in. You can’t hold back part of yourself from the commitment or it won’t work. I remember years ago Vandy and I did a series of marriage workshops when we were church planting. There was a woman who came who hadn’t been married very long, less than a year I think. She shared that her husband was still going out with an ex girlfriend. He used the excuse that they had made plans before he married her so he still needed to keep his word to the ex. No! When you marry someone, you renounce any past relationships and cut them off. You don’t keep dating old partners. You have to be all in. That’s what we are seeing now with the followers of Jesus. They are all in. This is called covenant relationship. Jesus is all in to the point of dying and being resurrected for us. We have to be all in as well.
After Peter and John give testimony to Jesus, the religious leaders don’t know what to do. Everyone knows this crippled man has been healed in Jesus’ name. But they don’t want this to get out of hand. So they threatened Peter and John and forbid them from preaching or teaching in Jesus’ name. But Peter and John replied “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (vs. 19-20) They then go back to the rest of the believers, tell them what happened, and everyone prays for more boldness and more opportunities to speak about Jesus. They ask God to stretch out His hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of Jesus. They pray that God would do more of the very thing that got them in trouble. They know this could very well lead to their deaths but they ask for it anyway. Why?
Because they are all in. Jesus died for them and if they have to die for Jesus, then so be it. Was this easy for them? I don’t think so. I think this must have been a very hard prayer to pray in many ways. We know that, later on when persecution comes, the believers had to scatter, many of them leaving Jerusalem. Many of them were put in jail, both men and women. It was a hard life. They all had families and jobs and responsibilities. But they put everything on the line in order to tell others about Jesus.
These believers weren’t just committed to Jesus though. They were equally committed to each other. Acts 4:32 says “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” Because they were all in with Jesus, they were also all in with each other. And this commitment to each other resulted in great generosity. This same thing is stated in Acts chapter 2, after the Spirit came at Pentecost and Peter preached to the crowds and about 3000 people become believers, we are told that “…all the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” So we see the great generosity of God in loving and forgiving and empowering His people results in a great generosity towards each other. The grace of God cannot be contained.
In order to really get at what is going on here with this sharing of goods and taking care of each other, we need to unpack some things. We see a level of equality here among the early believers. They were one in heart and mind or soul. The heart is the center of all physical and spiritual life. The mind or the soul is the seat of desire. They had the same drive, same purpose and aim. They were united in what they were doing. There was an overarching thing that kept them together, working and doing life together and that was ultimately Jesus. Their experience of Jesus and their desire to share that experience brought commonality in spite of any other differences.
In the early church both men and women were leaders who taught and preached and served. We see that in Paul’s descriptions of the churches he planted where he names both men and women as leaders. We know that Jesus included women in his early band of followers. There are several women named as traveling with Jesus and contributing from their own money into the common purse. Jesus invited both rich and poor to follow him. He ministered to Jews and non Jews. He set an example that the kingdom of God is for all and there is no hierarchy among his followers.
In sharing economically, there is an equality established. No one considered that their personal belongings were exclusively their own. If there was a need in the community of believers, then those who had extra gladly shared what they had with those who had a need. This takes an incredible amount of cooperation but these believers could do this because they were of one heart and mind. Plus they see themselves as equally sinners who have been forgiven by the same generous grace of God. We look at this example and think it is wonderful. It would be so great if, every time we had a need, we could just come to the church and take up an offering and meet that need. None of us would be in debt. But let’s think about the reality of that.
If everyone of us were to bring our paychecks to church and put them all in a common purse and then pay everyone’s bills for the month, we would all have our bills paid. No one among us would worry about how they are going to pay a certain bill because I’m assuming, from all our collective earnings, we’d have enough. The problem is that some have more bills than others. Some people have cable or internet service and some don’t. Some have higher mortgages or rent than others. Some have childcare expenses that others don’t. Some have medical expenses that others don’t. So we would see some households getting more money and others getting less. But everyone would end up in the same place with all our bills paid. And what if we then took the money that was left over and distributed it evenly among each person, including the children. Households that have 4 or 6 or 8 people would get more money than households with 1 or 2 people. But each person would get the same. For some, it wouldn’t feel like equality because, if we kept our own paychecks and paid our own bills, we would end up with more than we do by sharing a common purse. But for others, it would be a great blessing because we would end up with more than we would if we were just depending on ourselves.
Now we can begin to see what had to be overcome in the early church for there to be this extreme generosity. Those who had more had to be content with less so that all could have enough. Now for us today, put that into something other than economic terms. Put it into terms of status, or authority, or influence. Some of us have more of that in certain areas than others. How do we share that in such a way that others truly benefit and gain more? What about if we put it in terms of education or expertise? How can we share that in such a way that others have what they need? What about if we put in terms of relationships? How can we share relationships so that no one is lacking?
We live in a polarized society and one that is increasingly putting people into separate boxes, maximizing differences and perpetuating inequalities, while at the same time people are speaking out more against inequalities and trying to bring hidden problems into the light. It’s not until we begin working on creating this type of mutuality that we see in Acts, that we begin to see all the problems and how hard and complex the work is. But this is what it means to be people of reconciliation. You see the disciples defined themselves as being followers of Jesus. If you believed in Jesus and he had forgiven you, then you were a member of the family and joined the covenant relationship. In Acts 10 we see that being extended to the Gentiles which was a huge leap for these Jewish believers to make. But they did it. The generosity of the believers came to include the Gentiles as well. We see in Paul’s writings where there is a sharing of economic resources among the various churches as people in one place were in need and people in another place took up an offering for them. In Acts 15 we see this generosity extended to not requiring circumcision for those Gentiles who were turning to Jesus. The leaders in Jerusalem decided this would be too much of a burden. That was a huge decision for the Jewish believers to make and it was extremely generous.
This generosity also extends to forgiveness. Jesus showed this great generosity on the cross when he asked God to forgive the ones crucifying him because they didn’t know what they were doing. Just this week, Coptic Christians in Egypt were killed by ISIS. Our Egyptian brothers and sisters have been targeted because of their faith. On Palm Sunday, two Coptic churches were bombed. In 2015, 21 Coptics were beheaded in Libya. Yet families of those killed in these attacks offer forgiveness to the ones committing these atrocities saying that because God forgives, they also forgive. This is incredibly generous. We profess this same belief in God’s forgiveness but are we actually living that out? Do we actually forgive those family members, church members, co workers, neighbors or friends who hurt us in deep ways? If we are to be people of reconciliation, we have to be generous towards those who hate us or cause us harm.
We can see why the empowering of the Holy Spirit is needed in the Church. This level of generosity of spirit is not possible on our own. We have to first experience the miracle of the generous love and grace of God that forgives us and makes us a member of God’s household before we can extend such generosity to others. We have to experience the healing grace of God that can heal the hidden wounds of our hearts, before we can extend this generosity to others. The reality of what God has done for us in Christ needs to be fresh in our minds every day and we need the empowering of the Holy Spirit to help us walk in a generous reconciling love towards others. It is a wonderful thing, but it is hard, hard work.
Today we are celebrating communion when we remember the generous love of Christ that took him to the cross on our behalf. As the worship team comes, let us pray together that the reality of the cross and all that it stands for would be manifested in our hearts and minds, that we may be one and that we may be generous to each other and to the world.