Psalm 23: Psalm of Trust, Psalm of Defiance

Psalms of Summer

Psalm 23 is a Psalm of Trust. A Declaration of Confidence in God.

The imagery and tone of the Psalm are peaceful: “green pastures,” “quiet waters,” a restored soul, the promise of God’s presence even when death and darkness are near. The LORD is my shepherd: he provides, he guides, he restores, he is with his sheep, and he comforts.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures.” With God as my comforting shepherd, there is time to rest. Time to stop. Time to be still.

Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission
Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission

Typically a shepherd leads sheep to a pasture where they can graze. The sheep still do work; the shepherd does the leading but not necessarily the feeding. As the Psalm progresses, God as comforting shepherd becomes welcoming host, who sets out a whole banquet for his flock.

Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission
Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission

Psalm 23: It Just Got Personal

Psalm 23 is intensely personal. It’s a prayer of an individual to God; a song from one soul, who recognizes that the ruling king of the universe has taken the time to lead him to a restful spot to get a drink… to rest.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul….

David uses the first person singular pronoun throughout the Psalm. God is the shepherd of each individual who would follow him.

This may seem slightly unremarkable to us. We live in a North American society that already tends toward individualism. Our cultural construction of the self tends to be individually-focused.

The culture in which David found himself was much more communally-oriented. The sins of an individual and the corporate sins of the community were not always distinguished. A person’s sense of self was constructed and informed and shaped in a communal context.

Identity for a Hebrew man or woman had much more to do with being a part of a chosen and called-out community. A chosen people, plural.

Even in other Psalms, when God is prayed to as shepherd, there’s a sense in which he’s understood as a shepherd of a whole people:

For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.

So it’s at least a little remarkable, in the larger context of Hebrew worshiping society, that David begins–the Lord is MY shepherd.

The idea of God as personal shepherd is consistent with Jesus’ interpretation of himself as shepherd. You remember the Christlike image of the shepherd who–even though he has 100 sheep–will stop and go find the one who goes missing.

So it really is okay, and probably even closest to the original intent of this Psalm, to put your own name in there as you read it.

Psalm 23 as Prayer of Defiance

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading this Psalm through the lens of the news this week, but I’m beginning more and more to see Psalm 23 not only as an affirmation of trust and confidence in God, but also as a counter-circumstantial prayer of defiance. It’s a subversive prayer when you compare it to what you see around you.

Verse 4 says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” David seems to just take it as a given that life contains dark and death-filled valleys.

11,002 ThingsI saw in a bookstore yesterday a little book called 11,002 Things to Be Miserable About. It’s a work of satire, mostly, though not all of it is. Here are a few of the things it listed:

  • Exaggerated vows of love
  • Abysses of regret
  • Tipping over backward in your chair
  • The misery of goldfish
  • Heel pain caused by flip-flops

But we don’t need a book to think of all the ways in which life is full of dark valleys.

You’ve been in a dark valley before. Maybe you’re in one now. It can be a valley of darkness and shadows that you’ve found yourself in due to no choice of your own: some hurt or frustration someone has caused you; prayers that continue to go unanswered in the way you’d like to see answered; illness and physical ailment; unexpected and sudden grief.

You could be in a valley of darkness and shadows that is more of your own making, too. Maybe your whole life doesn’t feel like a valley, but maybe you’re aware of your “shadow side” that you wouldn’t dare bring to church, that part or those parts of you that you don’t want anyone to see. Maybe you’ve looked inside and seen something in your heart that—it pains you to see—doesn’t please God.

Or, to see some “valleys of the shadow of death,” you could just pay attention to global events this week. 4 children in Gaza—cousins—playing at the beach and shot dead from the ocean. An Israeli ground invasion into the Gaza Strip. Another Malaysian Airline plane crash full of passengers, this one shot down by a ground to air missile as it was flying over Ukraine.

And if you really want to lose some faith in humanity, you probably have already heard that that airplane had something like 100 of the world’s top HIV/Aids researchers on their way to an international Aids conference.

So, yes, there are plenty of valleys of the shadow of death and darkness that we walk through.

And yet, even though—“even though I walk through through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” “Even though,” David says, in a hope-filled prayer of defiance.

There’s an old story of a young preacher who was preaching in a rural church in Louisiana during the depression. This church had just one lightbulb coming down from the ceiling that gave light to the whole sanctuary. As Pastor Taylor was preaching, the electricity went out. He was a newish preacher and didn’t know what to do in the now-dark sanctuary. But an elderly deacon in the church, from the back of the room, shouted, “Preach on, preacher! We can still see Jesus in the dark.”

“We can still see Jesus in the dark.”

For whatever reason, when I hear “shepherd,” there’s part of me that thinks of a humble, young boy (or girl) walking sheep through beautiful country fields on a quiet, sunny day.  And that’s right. Leading your sheep to serenity is part and parcel of what it means to be a shepherd.

But there’s this fascinating passage of Scripture, Micah 5, which says:

When the Assyrian invades our land
a
nd marches through our fortresses,
we will raise against him seven shepherds,
even eight leaders of men.

Maybe it’s just me, but reading about a coming invasion by an Assyrian superpower, my first reaction is: What kind of a country would send their shepherds out to battle?

But Micah is drawing on a rich tradition in the Scripture—especially in the Old Testament—of using “shepherd” imagery to describe kings, to describe commanders, to describe strong and mighty leaders.

When Micah says “shepherd,” he is talking about a ruling king who goes to battle for his people.

David, as a ruler himself, surely had this aspect of shepherding in mind. The readers and prayers and singers of this Psalm surely saw not just a shepherd to comfort me, not just a host to welcome me, but God as a ruler to protect me. This ruler won’t do away with all of life’s dark valleys—not yet, anyway—but he will be with me while I walk through them.

The Lord is my shepherd, and his rod and his staff—weapons of protection in the hands of a skilled shepherd—fend off that which would attack us.

When Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, we see his gentleness in his willingness to lay down his life for the sheep, and we see his ferocity, his power, his authority over all things when he says, “No one can snatch them out of my hand.”

Even the presence of enemies in verse 5 cannot keep this ruling shepherd from playing banquet host, setting out a feast for the ones he loves.

So good shepherds are not to be trifled with, because they protect their flock. They walk with them through darkness. The Good Shepherd is a ruling king, and he keeps our modern-day enemies—shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, the accusations of others, stress, hatred… he keeps our modern-day enemies at bay. Even though life is full of valleys of the shadow of death, tens of thousands of things to potentially be miserable about, Jesus the Good Shepherd is a ruling king who STILL is sovereign over all he has made, no matter how fouled up it gets.

“We can still see Jesus in the dark.”

So—when you’re riddled with doubt and self-loathing, or just questioning your worth? Say this Psalm.

When you hear about wars and rumors of wars, say this Psalm.

When your best friend gets sick, say this Psalm.

When someone in your family grieves you by their seeming lack of care for you, say this Psalm.

When you don’t know what the next year of your life holds, say this Psalm.

When you have to do the hard work of reconciling with someone you have hurt or that has hurt you, say this Psalm.

When you can’t pay your mortgage on time, say this Psalm.

When you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, say this Psalm.

When you get scared of the dark, say this Psalm.

As a holy act of defiance against the darkness,
as an affirmation of trust and confidence in Jesus,
when you come up on one of life’s dark valleys,
get ready to walk through….and say:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.

He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
forever.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached today. Scripture quotations are from the 1984 NIV. See my other sermons gathered here, including the first Psalm of Summer sermon here.

Change Your “Pas5w0rd,” Change Your Life

Psalms of Summer

This summer we’re going to delve more deeply into the Psalms. “The Psalms of Summer,” I’m calling the preaching series. (Or, as a pastor friend of mine called it, the Psalms of Psummer.)

We’ll find ourselves here in these poems and see our heart’s desires expressed in the Psalms. Some days we’ll walk out of church with new prayers to pray: prayers we’ve been longing to pray and have already been feeling, but maybe couldn’t put words to.

We’ll seek, too, to be shaped and formed by these prayers.

Psalm 1 as Preface, and Picking a Password

Psalm 1 is, as one early church theologian called it, the “foundation” of the house. It sets up the whole book of 150 Psalms. You could almost even think of it as a sort of “Psalm 0.”

The ones who are blessed, this Psalm says, the ones with the richest, most God-filled lives, the ones who flourish, are the ones who meditate on God’s word. Over and over.

Blessed are those… who delight in the law of the LORD and meditate on his law day and night.

I found myself this week being redirected to an article on NBC’s Today Website, because I had to click on the link that said, “How a password changed one man’s life for the better.”

And how can you not click on that, you know?

Mauricio Estrella had just gone through a painful divorce and was depressed. He says:

One day I walk into the office, and my computer screen showed me the following message:

“Your password has expired. Click ‘Change password’ to change your password.”

His work required a change of password every 30 days. He writes:

I was furious that morning. A sizzling hot Tuesday, it was 9:40 a.m and I was late to work. I was still wearing my bike helmet and had forgotten to eat breakfast. I needed to get things done before a 10 a.m. meeting and changing passwords was going to be a huge waste of time.

As the input field with the pulsating cursor was waiting for me to type a password — something I’d use many times during every day — I remembered a tip I heard from my former boss.

And I decided: I’m gonna use a password to change my life.

He reasoned like this–he has to type in his password several times a day–when his screen saver came up or his lock screen kicked in when he was away from his desk for extended periods of time.

So, freshly wounded from the divorce, he set a password: “Forgive her.”

Except he had to have at least one capital letter, one lowercase letter, one symbol, and one number, so it was “Forgive@h3r.”

Every day for a month he wrote, “Forgive her.” And Estrella said:

That simple action changed the way I looked at my ex wife. That constant reminder that I should forgive her led me to accept the way things happened at the end of my marriage, and embrace a new way of dealing with the depression that I was drowning into.

A month later, his password expired, so his new password–reflecting a new mantra he wanted to take on–became: Quit@smoking4ever.

It was a great article–a little self-help-y for my tastes, and it is true that we find ourselves in way too many situations that we can’t just positive think our way out of. But Mauricio Estrella knew what the writer of Psalm 1 knew–what we meditate on has the power to transform us. 

Two Ways

Here is one way of outlining Psalm 1:

What are the two ways? (Ps. 1:1-2)

What are they like? (Ps. 1:3-4)

What do they lead to? (Ps. 1:5-6)

This Psalm tells us, especially, that what we meditate on has the power to transform us.

What are the two ways? (Ps. 1:1-2)

Ps 1:1    Blessed are those
who do not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,

2 but who delight in the law of the LORD
and meditate on his law day and night.

Or, get this–I’d never read Psalm 1 in this translation until this week:

Happy the man
who did not walk by the counsel of the impious,
and in the way of sinners did not stand,
and on the seat of pestiferous people did not sit down.

(Stay away from the pestiferous ones!)

Walk… stand…sit. There’s a progression into wickedness here. At first you might be walking on by, just taking a look at–thinking about–going down a road you shouldn’t. If you slow down enough to stand there and look at the way of the wicked–that’s worse… when you stop to sit in the chair of those pestiferous people, well, then… you’re done for. Because what we meditate on has the power to transform us. And the ones that we spend time with also have the power to transform us, for better or for worse.

These are the two ways: the way of the wicked, the way of the righteous.

Righteous ones “delight in the law of the LORD and meditate on [it] day and night.”

Remove@clothingm1ldew?

Later Psalms will echo this. In Psalm 119, verse 97, it says, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” Then in verse 103, the Psalmist writes, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”

I suspect that this idea of loving the law of God can sound a bit strange to us. We all see the value in laws and rules and regulations, sure, but to love somebody’s laws more than the summer season’s first ice cream?

We hear the word “law” and might think about some of the detailed instructions given in, say, Leviticus, regarding physical hygiene and ritual purity, such as Leviticus 14, which is about cleansing from infectious skin diseases and what to do when you notice mildew on your clothes.

So your new computer password becomes: Remove@clothingm1ldew.

Or we hear the word “law” and think of it as opposed to “grace.”  They were living under “law”; we are living under “grace.”

So what’s the Psalmist talking about?

He’s talking about his equivalent to our Bible. The Torah–the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This is “the Law”–it’s “God’s Word.” And not just the laws part of God’s law–but the revelation of God that it brings, the story that it tells of a compassionate God who is, in fact, slow to anger and eager to show compassion on all he has made.

In meditating on God’s law–God’s very words–the Psalmist is meditating on God: his guidance, instructions, blessings, love, character.

And I think Psalm 1 is self-referential, too–those who meditate on these Psalms will be blessed, will experience the favor of God.

What are they like? (Ps. 1:3-4)

3 [The righteous] are like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

4
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.

Those who meditate on God’s word are rooted, strong, nourished, bearers of good and visible fruit to all who walk by them. The wicked–in this case those who ignore God’s truth and go their own way–they are the chaff that has fallen to the floor. The grain is kept and preserved, the chaff just blows away. No roots, no fruit, no nothing.

What do they lead to? (Ps. 1:5-6)

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will be destroyed.

Then in verses 5 and 6 there is what one interpreter calls a “parting of the ways.” God watches over them. What we meditate on has the power to transform us, so the righteous one now is a rooted and well-watered tree, bearing fruit like it should. She or he receives God’s blessing, God’s preservation.

The wicked one has been transformed by the bad company he keeps, so he just floats away with the next wind, on his way to judgment.

It’s God who does the planting and watering and blessing here, but it’s the righteous person who has done his or her part to meditate on God’s word. And that meditation has caused a transformation.

Scripture Memory

Over the last month or so I’ve gotten back into Scripture memory. I have these little cards I bring in my pocket with verses on them. The pocket is a great place for them because I might reach for my phone to check for messages, and I’ll feel the little packet of cards instead. This is a prompt for me to either pull a card out and learn a verse, or if I already know it, to try to say it and pray it.

There are many ways to meditate on God’s Word. We’re going to try one particular way this summer, and that is Scripture memory….

[AKJ note: Here we looked at some Scripture memory cards I made up for Psalm 1:1-2, as a way to put into practice what this Psalm preaches. Make your own, using this document, if you want!]

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached last Sunday. Scripture quotations are from the TNIV. See my other sermons gathered here.

Before and After #NoFilter

A sermon on Romans 6:1-11, on the day of ocean baptisms.

I’ve always been a little suspicious of Before and After photos. It’s as if Before photos are bad on purpose, and After photos do everything they can to try to enhance the actual improvements that have taken place, whether the subject is a human body or a newly improved, re-stained back deck.

I just found an article about a Before and After set of photos of an Australian fitness trainer. On first glance the After photo looks like about three months worth of exercise and nutritional improvement, compared to the Before.

Before and After

But, in fact, one scrolls down past the Before and After to see a note: “Check out my transformation! It took me 15 minutes.” Meaning, the Before and After photos were 15 minutes apart.

A paragraph accompanying the photos goes on, in part:

Wanna know my secret?  I…. smothered on some fake tan, clipped in my hair extensions, stood up a bit taller, sucked in my guts, popped my hip, threw in a skinny arm, stood a bit wider…pulled my shoulders back…Zoomed in on the before pic, zoomed out on the after and added a filter. Cause filters make everything awesome.

It seems that actual transformation–whether it’s of our bodies or of our inner selves–is elusive. We often try to short-change the process, or make things look better than they really are. And yet it’s a burning human desire to be different, to look better, to grow, to change.

Paul’s Before and After

The apostle Paul understands that. He speaks in Romans 6 of true transformation, a fundamental shift in the selfhood of the one who believes in Jesus. There is no doctoring of Before or After photos needed, because the picture of transformation that Paul paints is the most real kind of personal change there is.

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

When we give ourselves to Jesus, we understand that sin does not rule over us. We are free from having to sin. We are free from the inevitability of it.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Even as we are being sanctified, we’re far from sinless–and the next chapter in Romans will emphasize this frustrating reality. But we are to consider ourselves dead to sin, or, we might say, that sin is dead to us, because we are “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

This is “Before and After” for the child of God:

Before: living in a body of sin, slaves to sin, an old, listless, aimless self.

After: dead to sin, alive to God, united with Jesus in his death, and so united also with him–and other Christians–in his resurrection glory, in new life.

This true transformation, the Christian’s inward change, Paul points out, is marked by baptism:

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

The old self walks to the edge of the water, wades in, is dipped under–washed in the ocean of God’s love and forgiveness–and the new self comes up, freed to live a new life in Jesus.

Or as God’s prophet Ezekiel so eloquently put it:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

What Baptism Is

Baptism is a physical, visible, experiential sign of this inward transformation that takes place when a person says, “Yes,” to the gift of God’s grace.

In just a few moments I will ask our candidates, “Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?” They will say, “I do.” Before: we were slaves to sin, afraid to even try to cast off the “powers of evil.” Or maybe we didn’t want to. After: we have renounced those powers. We celebrate our freedom. We have new life in Christ.

Also in just a few moments, all of us, as a congregation, will say: “Out of the waters of baptism, we rise with new life, forgiven of sin, and one in Christ, members of Christ’s body.” We affirm this “Before and After” that baptism represents, and we do it in a larger, communal context. We are “one in Christ, members of Christ’s body.”

Ancient Baptismal Pool (Source: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary)
Ancient Baptismal Pool (Source: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary)

As we’ve gone through our high school confirmation class last month and this month, we’ve been talking about baptism and confirmation as a multi-faceted commitment. On the one hand, baptismal candidates and confirmands are themselves making a public commitment to God in the presence of us, the church. And on the other hand, we promise our commitment to them as they seek to carry out their baptismal vows. Ultimately, the waters of baptism signify God’s commitment to us to continue and one day complete his work in us.

So please do support these young people who are about to be baptized, as best you are able. When they go out of state for college and then come back on breaks to worship here, ask them how they’re doing–not just in school, but in their relationship to God. Seek them out during coffee hours in future Sundays. Commit to pray for them. You might even pick one or two of the folks you see being baptized today and decide that you will pray for them by name, for the next month, six months, two years.

Identity

We began our confirmation class with a short teaching video and discussion centered around the question, “Who Am I?” How do I understand my identity as a person? We watched and discussed a short video by a teacher from Grand Rapids, Michigan named Rob Bell.

Bell talked about our tendencies to compare ourselves with others, to measure ourselves against those around us. As he talked, the camera followed a cast of actors who had t-shirts with a single word printed on the back: baker, consultant, double degree, Southern, apathetic, ashamed, listener… single words that can define how we think about ourselves, especially in relation to others.

But Bell says:

We need to be saved from all the times we haven’t been our true selves. All the times we’ve tried to be someone else.

All of the lies we’ve believed about who God made when God made us. All the times we’ve asked the wrong questions:

‘What about him? What about her? What about them?’

And we’ve missed the voice of Jesus saying, ‘You, follow me.’

To those who are about to be baptized, I want to say, this is who you are: one who is loved dearly by God, one who is saying “yes” to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. You are choosing to not miss that voice. You are saying, “Yes, I will follow.”

Your decision to be baptized means that you are affirming your identity in Jesus–as one who is “forgiven of sin, and one in Christ with the members of Christ’s body, the church.” “The old has gone, the new has come,” as Scripture says. Baptism is a physical sign of the ultimate “Before and After” transformation.

Remember Your Baptism

This Baptism Sunday is also a chance us who have already been baptized to remember our baptism. We know that we at times wander away from God, but we can never be un-baptized. We always come back to our fundamental identity as ones forgiven by God’s grace, and given new life.

So, whether your baptism was years ago or is about to happen today: remember your baptism.

Whenever you look at the ocean, may God remind you of the cleansing, washing power of his forgiveness.

May the vast waters call to mind the immensity and intensity of Christ’s love for you.

Remember who you were before you said “yes” to following Jesus, but especially remember the new life to which you are now called.

Just as Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again, “In the same way, Paul says, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Scripture quotations above are from the 1984 NIV. See my other sermons gathered here.

Because I Said So

We fathers and mothers learn early on, in our roles as parents, that “Because I said so” isn’t usually enough to get a determined child to change course and listen.

It’s the same thing your parents said to you, that you swore you’d never say as a parent. At the same time, you do want your own children to know that you have authority over them, as a parent.

Whether this ends up being an effective parenting move or not, it’s difficult, especially in moments of desperation, to not just point to our own authority as parents. “I’m the dad, you’re the son, you listen.”

Jesus’ Authority–“Because I Said So”?

rublev trinityIt’s fitting that on this Father’s Day, today in the liturgical church calendar is Trinity Sunday.

The so-called Great Commission in Matthew 28 includes an appeal to baptize disciples in the three-fold name of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To be a disciple of Jesus is to enter into communion with a God who is one God, three persons. To be a disciple also means to learn Jesus’ teachings, and then pass them on to others to follow.

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

As many times as I’ve heard this passage, growing up in the church, I was especially struck this time around by the single word, “Therefore.” “Therefore” is a word that points ahead to what’s next in the sentence, but it also points back to something. X is true. Therefore, Y and Z.

Therefore, Jesus says, “go and make disciples.” On what basis is Jesus calling his disciples to go make more disciples, to essentially replicate themselves?

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19 Therefore go….

It would be easy to read this as the sort of move that fathers and mothers make when we want to try to ensure that we’re going to be obeyed.

“Because I said so….” “Because I am Jesus.…” “Because I have authority, you need to listen to me and make disciples….”

Matthew does tell us, after all, in verse 17

17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

What’s especially disheartening about this is the fact that the sum total of disciples who are with Jesus for this important commissioning is… 11. Judas has committed suicide at this point, so they’re down a guy… they’re short-handed. And then, how many doubted? 2? 3? 5?

Maybe, since Jesus knew of their doubt, maybe he had to say, “Look–all authority has been given to me. So you need to listen to what’s next.”

Some of you grew up in an era in which our country was experiencing an allergic reaction to authority. Some of you, no matter when you were born, may recoil a bit at the very use of the word “authority,” especially when it shows up in a relational context.

I wonder, too, especially about those doubting disciples–usually for those who are doubting, second-guessing, wondering, calling into question… usually for somebody like that, an appeal to authority goes nowhere fast.

Jesus’ Authority–He Goes Before Us Through the Holy Spirit

I’m not convinced that’s what Jesus is doing here. His disciples were spiritually dim-witted at times, like we can be, but I’m not so sure he’s appealing to his authority just so that they will listen to him.

See–Jesus knows he’s about to give the disciples a tall order. He knows before he commissions the disciples, that even two thousand years later, some Christians will have a hard time with the “d”-word: discipleship. Or the “e”-word: evangelism.

Jesus has doubters in his midst, among the 11. And he’s supposed to start a worldwide missionary movement out of them!

The Mission to the World by JESUS MAFA (1973)
The Mission to the World by JESUS MAFA (1973)

Preacher and writer Tom Long puts it like this:

Telling this little band of confused and disoriented disciples that they were to herd all the peoples of the earth toward Mount Zion in the name of Jesus would be like standing in front of most congregations today—many of them small and all of them of mixed motives and uncertain convictions—and telling them, ‘Go into all the world and cure cancer, clean up the environment, evangelize the unbelieving, and, while you are at it, establish world peace.’

Long goes on:

That is the point, or close to it. The very fact that the task is utterly impossible throws the disciples completely onto the mercy and strength of God. The work of the church cannot be taken up unless it is true that “all authority” does not belong to the church or its resources but comes from God’s wild investment of God in Jesus the Son and the willingness of the Son to be present always to the church in the Spirit.

Jesus’ mention of his authority isn’t a power play–it’s an encouragement, a life-giving reminder, a move that enables his disciples to go.

Jesus’ authority has just been established by his resurrection from the dead. Alfred, Lord Tennyson once wrote, “Authority forgets a dying king.”

But Jesus was no dying king. Or, at least, he was a dying king who didn’t stay dead. He is the Risen King!

If Jesus has power over death, he has power over all of life. And if he has power over all of life, he has power and influence over all who are living. And if he has power and influence over all who are living, there is nowhere his disciples can go that he has not already been.

There is no heart that God cannot soften. There is no human being that is beyond the reach of God’s saving love in Jesus.

Jesus has authority over all people everywhere. As Ephesians would later put it, God the Father “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”

Because of Jesus’ authority, his power, his rule… disciples who are commissioned to draw others into the life of faith do not have to be scared to do it.

Jesus empowers his followers, by his authority, to fulfill the Great Commission.

Furthermore, after the Great Commission there is the promise of Christ’s presence:

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

This is an upgrade. Jesus was not actually “with” the disciples “always” before he said this. He often went off by himself to pray. He didn’t engage everyone who wanted his attention. He wasn’t with the disciples always.

But now, there is this new promise, a promise we saw fulfilled in our Acts passage last week, when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is present with us always, and will be present always with his disciples until the end of time.

All authority is his, and he is always with us. Therefore, we can preach.

Jesus empowers us, by his authority and his presence, to fulfill the Great Commission.

Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus goes ahead of us. God works on hearts before it even occurs to us to reach out to another. If we want to use the language of “witnessing” to others about our faith, that’s fine, but only if we remember that we are really the second witness.

The Holy Spirit is the first witness, preceding us everywhere, making it possible for us to witness to the goodness of God in our own lives.

We can call to mind again the idea of evangelism and disciple-making as “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” We ourselves are not the bread, but we know where the bread is found.

And so, undergirded, strengthened, and equipped by Jesus, we can say, “Come, taste and see. Come and see what I have found.”

Don’t Be Great, Just Have a Great Message

Jesus empowers us, by his authority and his presence, to fulfill the Great Commission. He equips us to do what he calls us to.

And we don’t have to be “great” to go out in faith to try to build a kingdom of disciples for Jesus.

It’s reported that Graeme Keith, a lifelong friend of evangelist Billy Graham and treasurer of the Billy Graham Association, was once riding in an elevator with Billy Graham. Another passenger got in and recognized Graham: “You’re Billy Graham, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” said Billy Graham.

“You’re a truly great man,” the guy said.

“No, I’m not a great man,” Graham replied, “I just have a great message.”

Great or not, courageous or not, fully comfortable with what this passage calls us to or not–we have a great message. And Jesus empowers us, by his authority and his presence, to deliver it, near and far. Because he said so–because he ultimately has authority over every living person, because he goes before us, we can go and witness to our God.

It would be daunting to share the good news of God’s love with others if we had no backup, if we were cutting a new trail. But Jesus promises to go ahead of us and walk beside us, always.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached on Matthew 28:16-20 today. Scripture quotations above are 1984 NIV. The second image in this post is used and covered under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Holy Spirit Power

With the omission of the Holy Spirit and demon monkey dream I described having in college, the below is adapted from the sermon I preached on Acts 2:1-21 today. (Message me if you’re curious about the dream.) You can read the Acts text here. Scripture quotations below are 1984 NIV.

Surprise Birthday Parties

Party HornIf you’ve been to a surprise birthday party, you know how much fun it is. Whether you’re the one lying in wait for your unsuspecting friend or family member, or the one about to be surprised… it’s hard to match the buzz of a room waiting to yell, “Surprise!”

There’s some nervousness and jitteriness involved, too. You’re gathered to celebrate someone who could walk in at any moment, but you’re not sure when. She’s here–oh, wait. That’s just a late arrival.

Waiting for God to Come

The disciples in Acts 2 had gathered on the day of Pentecost–“all together in one place,” the text says.

They had gathered, in part, to celebrate a Jewish festival. Pentecost was the Greek name for the Feast of Weeks, one of three major yearly celebrations the people of Israel observed. It came 50 days after Passover. In this Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, the people offered God their gratitude for the crops that had come in.

Jerusalem was hopping. There were lots of pilgrims there, a whole host of international visitors, to observe the feast.

Jesus’ followers, who were Jewish, were gathered, “all together in one place,” for this festival of Pentecost.

But they had convened to worship for another reason. They were waiting for something–waiting for someone.

The disciples must have felt that same anticipation you have when you’re waiting to blow your party horn, but your expected guest is still maybe a ways off.

The disciples were waiting for the Holy Spirit.

In Acts 1, the risen Jesus–as he was about to ascend into heaven–had said something rather provocative to them. He had made an intriguing promise:

Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit….

[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

A baptism with the Holy Spirit–you will receive power, and the result would be an international witness, to the ends of the earth.

So the idea of a birthday party at Pentecost is fitting. Except the Holy Spirit wasn’t the one born then. The Holy Spirit has been with the Father and the Son from all eternity. The Christian church as we know it was born on Pentecost. On that day the church received a special gift for which it had been waiting: The Holy Spirit. As presents go, it doesn’t get any better than that.

In the power of the Holy Spirit, the church began its mission of preaching the Gospel to all nations.

The Ultimate Power Source

“[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you….”

Talk about power. It says:

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Though Scripture speaks elsewhere about speaking in tongues as possibly being its own sort of heavenly language, in this passage, the disciples actually start speaking other languages!

It’s like an instant upload of Pimsleur into their brains and mouths.

And the Holy Spirit came “suddenly,” Acts says. The disciples didn’t conjure God’s Spirit and make him appear. The Spirit just came.

This reminds us of what we usually know, but often forget: our lives can change in an instant. In a second, God can descend on you, infuse you with the Holy Spirit, and set you on a completely new course. He may not choose to work this way all of the time, but it is possible–well within his power.

As the disciples spoke a catalog of languages, a bewildered crowd asked:

Are not all these [people] who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?

The Linguistic Territory Acts 2 Covered (Source: Zondervan Atlas of the Bible)
The Linguistic Territory Acts 2 Covered (Source: Zondervan Atlas of the Bible)

Presumably, this rag-tag, humble, scared, not highly educated gathering shouldn’t know this many languages between them. They’re not world-traveling, cosmopolitan polyglots!

But…

[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

When the Holy Spirit comes on you, you receive a new power that allows you to do what you couldn’t do before. The Holy Spirit is the ultimate power source, the provider of strength to even weak and confused Christians.

We who have accepted Jesus’ invitation to walk with him, by virtue of our new life in Christ, receive the Holy Spirit that the church received on Pentecost.

Being a Christian means you have the Holy Spirit living in and with you.  And with the Holy Spirit comes supernatural power.

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you may prevail against what Ephesians calls “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you may be strengthened in the core of your being (Ephesians 3:16).

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, “so that you may abound in hope,” Paul would later write, “by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you can produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23): “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you will have the right words to say in a difficult conversation that would otherwise stump you.

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you will have patience–supernatural patience–when you’re at your wits end.

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you may heal the brokenhearted around you, with the healing power of God’s love.

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that you can share the good news of Jesus, even if the thought of mentioning Jesus by name to somebody else makes you a little squeamish.

After all, if the Holy Spirit can give fluency in languages to the disciples, so they can praise God in dialects that others understand… the Holy Spirit can surely give us words to tell other people about Jesus.

You … receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, so that we can transform this world more into the place God wants it to be.

Desire the Holy Spirit

Did the disciples fully understand what Jesus meant when he promised “the Holy Spirit”?

I’m not sure. But they were waiting for the fulfillment of that promise–not passively, but proactively. After Jesus’ ascended into heaven, Acts says, “They all joined together constantly in prayer.”

They desired the gift of the Holy Spirit. They wanted that power, so that they could be God’s witnesses near and far.

This Thursday our almost-four-year-old son had his closing program at his pre-school.

Everyone in his class with summer birthdays had received a birthday pin earlier this week. It’s a dove with a cross behind it. “A Holy Spirit pin,” they call it.

The closing program this last Thursday was every bit as cute and funny and well-performed as you’d expect from a well-coached group of exuberant pre-schoolers. Our son seemed to enjoy the program until we were talking afterwards, when he realized… he couldn’t find his Holy Spirit pin.

So he said: “I want my Holy Spirit! I want my Holy Spirit! I want my Holy Spirit right now!”

We knew where the pin was–not there with us. So we consoled him with this fact and gave it to him later, at which point he happily showed his big brother: “my Spirit!”

He sure desired that Holy Spirit pin and all the significance that it held for him.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.

The Holy Spirit has come, giving birth to the church at Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit is with us here, as we gather in one place to seek the Lord.

The Holy Spirit lives inside each one of us who has acknowledged Jesus as Lord.

We who have the Holy Spirit have the Holy Spirit’s power. Power to hope. Power to bear good fruit, to live lives of exemplary Christian character.

We who have the Holy Spirit have the Holy Spirit’s power to speak words of wisdom at just the right time. Power to be patient when we least feel able. Power to heal. Power to love. Power to prevail over the forces of darkness and evil.  Power to proclaim the good news of Jesus to people from all nations, vocations, and walks of life.

We receive power from the Holy Spirit–power that comes even and especially in our weakness. Power to face each new day.

Let us desire the Holy Spirit. Let us want the Spirit and his power. Let us admit to each other and to God our need to live lives that are wholly directed by the Holy Spirit’s power. Let us pray together, in this sacred space, “Come, Holy Spirit.” Let us pray when we are apart, every hour of every day, “Come, Holy Spirit.”

As we wait for God–even if we’re not sure of what might happen when we pray this way–let us say, as Christ’s gathered church: “Come, Holy Spirit.”

Becoming a Living Martyr

The below is adapted from the sermon I preached on Acts 7:54-60 today. You can read that text here.

The Stoning of Stephen

As the mob closes in, Stephen is distracted, beautifully distracted, by a vision of Jesus. “Look,” he says, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Usually when we hear about Jesus at the right hand of God, he’s seated, as on a throne. But it’s as if Jesus stands up to receive his servant Stephen, to welcome him into an unmediated experience of God’s love and presence, for all eternity.

The Stoning of Stephen, Gustave Doré (1832–1883)
The Stoning of Stephen, Gustave Doré (1832–1883)

His angry listeners thought they were hearing blasphemy, and so covered their ears. This Jesus who died was to them a heretic, rightly crucified under God’s curse for claiming to be something he was not. And Stephen says he sees this Jesus standing next to the one God! So bad was this blasphemy that they had to rush him out of the city of Jerusalem. The holy city should not be subject to such absurdities.

Verse 59 says that as he was being stoned, “Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’”

This should sound familiar to us. Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, also records Jesus saying on the cross, “Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

“Then [Stephen] knelt down,” Luke writes, “and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’”

More familiar words. Luke also records Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Stephen is remarkably like Jesus in his death. He is able to ask for forgiveness for those who are unjustly killing him.

Stephen makes death by stoning look easy. Luke says in the NIV that he “fell asleep”…. It was actual death, obviously. But so smooth, so easy, so forgiving and loving, so peaceful was the way in which Stephen faced his execution, that he simply “fell asleep.” And he entered into God’s presence.

“The Blood of the Martyrs…”

An early church theologian named Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Even on that day of Stephen’s death, there might have been a small seed planted in Paul’s heart, as he collected coats from the crowd.

Stephen was the first Christian martyr after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Before Stephen there was John the Baptist. After Stephen there were James, Peter, and a host of other apostles and church leaders. A number of means were used for martyring someone. Some of them quick and sudden, others slow and painful.

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” because we marvel at the courage of our sisters and brothers in Christ who stand for Jesus, come what may. Books of the lives of martyrs have long been popular among Christians, for use in private devotion and in public worship, to inspire, encourage, and exhort the body of believers to persevere in their faith.

I’ve been reading about one such martyr lately.

Catholic Archbishop Óscar Romero made it a hallmark of his ministry to stand with the poor, the marginalized, those who were on the other side of power. Romero, in what would be his final recorded sermon, gave a litany of the recent deaths of peasants and students in his El Salvador, even naming some by name, so that unjust violence and oppression would not go unnoticed. These victims have names, he insisted. Amazingly, his sermon concluded with an appeal to “the National Guard, the police, and the military” who were responsible for the killing. He said,

I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.

As he was preparing the Mass in a service of worship the next day, he lifted the chalice high, and was shot in the chest, falling at the feet of the crucifix.

“May God have mercy on the assassins,” he said, echoing Jesus and Stephen. Like Stephen, he committed himself into the hands of his Lord Jesus.

Martyrs Today

Most of us will never stare a martyr’s death in the face, but today, throughout the world, Christians do. Some of their stories are known, many others are unknown.

Sadly, we don’t have to look very hard for martyrs in 2014. Just this last week in Sudan, a 27-year-old woman, Meriam Yahia Ibrahim, received a death sentence for not recanting her Christian faith in favor of Islam. She has a 20-month-old son and is 8 months pregnant.

But the Islamist courts and government that have handed down her sentence cannot destroy her faith in Jesus, or even the Church of Jesus, to which she belongs, with us.

Like Stephen, she has committed himself into the hands of her Lord Jesus.

A Christian’s death because of his or her following Jesus continues to inspire the Church to grow.

A hip-hop artist in El Salvador, 30 years after Romero’s death, reflected on the former Archbishop’s ubiquitous cultural presence in that country. “What [Romero’s] killer did,” he said, “was to keep three generations thinking about him.”

How did they do it?

How did these men and women face death so calmly? So peacefully? How did Stephen and Romero both ask, with their last breaths, for God to forgive the ones who turned them into innocent victims?

I’m convinced that by the time a Christian martyr is confronted with death, she has already died a thousand deaths, by living for God.

In the moment that a disciple of Jesus looks the end of life in the face, he has already died to himself, many times over, by accepting Scripture’s call to follow Jesus.

When Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me,” he says, do it daily. Take up your cross in life, in your everyday life. Not just in death, but in life.

Which is a funny thing to say, if you think about it. We’ve got a rather sanitized view of the cross. It’s a thing we might wear around our necks, or a centerpiece in some church sanctuaries. But it’s a symbol of death. For Jesus, it was a means of martyrdom.

A Call to Be Living Martyrs

The call to “take up our cross daily,” then, is a call to martyrdom, maybe in death, for some… but for sure it’s a call to be living martyrs. We who follow Jesus have a call to die to ourselves, each day.

Two years before his death, Archbishop Romero paraphrased Jesus a bit, though I think he captures his meaning well. He said,

“Let those who would follow me deny themselves”…repress in themselves the outbursts of pride, kill in their hearts the outbursts of greed, of avarice, of conceit, of arrogance. Let them kill it in their hearts. This is what must be killed, this is the violence that must be done, so that out of it a new person may arise, the only one who can build a new civilization: a civilization of love.

Stephen, when he came to the day of his stoning, was already dead to himself. He was already fully alive in Christ, living for God alone. His whole being was consumed with imitating Jesus.

At his dying he said the same things Jesus said in his death, “Father forgive them.” “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” And so, mind-boggling as his final prayers are, they are not anything you wouldn’t have already expected, if you knew him.

Those kinds of prayers were already part of his daily life. Prayers like,

Father, forgive those who do wrong to me. Jesus, have mercy on those who mistreat me, who misunderstand me, who fail to give me the benefit of the doubt, who take advantage of me. Please forgive them.

And, prayers like,

Jesus, into your hands I commit this day; I give you my work. I devote my time to you. I lift up my children and my family to you—they are truly yours and not mine, so I commit all of us into your care.

Stephen fixed his eyes on Jesus as the crowd started to pick up heavy stones. But this sort of “looking up,” this sort of steady gaze on the person of Jesus, was already an ongoing posture in Stephen’s life.

We must die to our carnal desires that make an empty yet compelling promise of life. We must live instead to the will of Jesus.

We must die to the values of this world, a society that tells us that newer is better, that less is worse, that power over others is something to be procured and preserved. We must live instead to the values of the kingdom of God, where the pure in heart see God, where we are satisfied not with buying or getting more stuff, but where we are satisfied in God when we hunger and thirst for righteousness.

We must die to arrogance and greed, and live instead to humility and generosity.

We must die—as we are able—to our impatience with others who insist on taking our time and attention, when we’d rather keep to ourselves.

We must die to our desire for revenge, and live instead to show mercy to even the merciless who don’t deserve it.

We must die to any impulse we may have toward violence, and live instead to make peace.

We must die to ourselves, and live to Jesus, losing our lives for his sake.

Like Stephen, we must commit ourselves every day into the hands of our Lord Jesus.

“Beautiful is the moment,” Romero said, “Beautiful is the moment in which we understand that we are no more than an instrument of God; we live only as long as God wants us to live; we can only do as much as God makes us able to do….”

Into your hands, Lord Jesus, do we commit our spirits.

Into your hands, Lord Jesus, do we commit our lives.

Into your hands, Lord Jesus, do we commit our desires and dreams.

Into your hands, Lord Jesus, do we commit our whole selves.

Portrait of a Thriving Church

As my wife and I continue to raise our three young children, we try to think about the values we want to instill in them. It’s not just about how we want them to behave, although we let them know that, too, but we have a certain ethos we are trying to cultivate in the family. We find ourselves saying things like, “That’s how we act in this family,” or, “This is not how we talk to each other in this family.”

What about our other family—our church family? How do we act? How do we treat each other? What sorts of things should we do? What are the values of this family?

The lectionary reading (Acts 2:42-47) provides some serious inspiration, some robust answers to that question. It gives a portrait of a thriving community of Christians.

The Four Things They Did

Acts 2:42    They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.

There are four repeated activities listed in verse 42, that the earliest church was practicing together regularly. These are all things that they devoted themselves to… they gave themselves wholly to these things.

1. The Apostles’ Teaching

The first thing to which the early church devoted themselves was the apostles’ teaching.

The Apostles Preach the Gospel, Gustave Doré (1832–1883)
The Apostles Preach the Gospel, Gustave Doré (1832–1883)

Earlier in this same chapter, Acts 2, Peter, one of the apostles, addresses a crowd who is amazed at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on this early community of believers.

He speaks of the life of Jesus, his death, and his resurrection. As one summary formulation of the Christian faith says, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” The apostles did us the great favor of writing down their teachings and the teachings of our Lord… so that we, too, can devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, just as the early church did.

At our own church we “devote [ourselves] to the apostles’ teaching” any time we gather to hear God’s Word read and proclaimed, when we study our way together through a book, or in a small group setting. We do that when we remind ourselves of the truths contained in Scripture, how the teachings of the Bible make available to us a fuller life than we could have ever dreamed of.

A thriving church devotes itself to the apostles’ teaching, to their words preserved for us now through the Scriptures.

2. The Fellowship

Second, they devoted themselves to “the fellowship.”

This term “fellowship,” that the author Luke uses, was also used in his day to describe the sort of close relationship that exists in a healthy and intimate marriage.

We can think about some of the marks of a good marriage: spending unhurried time together, taking a slow walk to just talk, sitting down for a meal and conversation, learning what makes the other person tick, trying to understand how to speak their love language. Happy marriages are not devoid of conflict, but have at least some established patterns for dealing with conflict when it inevitably arises. They’ll stop and carve out the time to work together on building the relationship.

My college roommate and I had so many post-conflict, relationship-clarifying talks our first year living together, that we often talked about how ready we were both going to be for marriage… how lucky two women were going to be to find such well-formed, emotionally mature men such as ourselves, who knew how to work through disagreements and differing life perspectives.

One kind of fellowship
One kind of fellowship

The analogy breaks down, obviously, and I’m not suggesting we think of ourselves as married to this church, per se. But there is something to be said for a repeatedly investing yourself in a close fellowship with others. It takes effort. And, you may have heard it said, sometimes to have a friend, you need to be a friend. Fellowship doesn’t just happen by all showing up in the same place together each week.

One writer puts it this way:

There are churches that view themselves as friendly and welcoming, but within which a visitor will not be drawn into conversation—where even members can suffer silently, unknown and unloved. Devotion to fellowship means nurturing the habits of hospitality—and it takes work: It takes courage to notice a newcomer, helping him or her find the coatrack or a classroom. It takes initiative to invite someone to lunch or a cup of coffee after worship…. It takes creativity to start a regular gathering where a small group can begin to know and care for each other.

A thriving church devotes itself to the creative, proactive work of building fellowship. Members of such a church make efforts to intentionally cultivate relationships.

3. The Breaking of Bread

Third, this early, thriving church devoted themselves to “the breaking of the bread.”

Alister McGrath writes about the passing of his aunt, barely 80 years old when she died. As he and some others were cleaning out her house, they found an old photograph of a young-looking man, someone his aunt had been in love with, but the relationship had come to an unexpected and premature end. His aunt was never married—this young man she had loved, and him alone.

Why did she keep the photograph, so many years after the relationship ended?

McGrath writes,

As she aged, she knew that she would have difficulty believing that, at one point in her life, someone had once cared for her and regarded her as his everything. It could all have seemed a dream, an illusion, something she had invented in her old age to console her in her declining years — except for the photo. The photo reminded her that she really had loved someone once and was loved in return. It was her sole link to a world in which she had been valued.

In the same way, McGrath goes on,

Communion bread and wine, like that photograph, reassure us that something that seems too good to be true—something that we might even be suspected of having invented—really did happen.

Jesus, you will remember from last week’s reading, was made known to two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, in the breaking of the bread.

Breaking bread together is a way we remember and reinforce the content of the apostles’ teaching: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” When we break bread and drink from the cup together, we remind ourselves that something “really did happen.”

4. Prayer

Fourth, this early, thriving church devoted themselves to “prayer.”

praying handsHere, too, devotion and initiative are needed. It takes dedication to remember to pray not just here, not just today, but throughout the week for each other. And it also takes devotion to have the guts to share something vulnerable, to ask others for prayer for specific things we are in the middle of. But as we do, we find ourselves growing together into a closer fellowship of Christians.

A thriving church devotes itself to prayer.

One More Thing They Did

And there’s at least one more thing this early church did, that still stands out as an example to us. That is in verses 44 and 45.

44 All the believers were together and had everything in common.  45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.

This passage and these verses in particular have inspired many an intentional community to actually move in and live together as disciples. Churches are a little bit different, in our context, but part of a deliberate devotion to fellowship is making sure we care for our own, especially when they are in need.

One other translation says that “they sold from time to time,” implying that this was not just a one-time event, but an ongoing solution that the church offered to the financial challenges its members faced.

With Determination, With Glad and Sincere Hearts

Luke twice mentions the devotion that the church had in working together to build a healthy and faithful community. In verse 42, “they devoted themselves….” In verse 46, “Every day they continued to meet together.”

It was continually, with perseverance, over and over, time and time again, that the church persisted in coming together. They worked at it, and they didn’t stop working at it.

But lest we think it was all work and no fun, Luke also says, “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” They were truly happy to be together. They thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.

Come, Devote Yourself to the Church….

“It is not good to be alone,” we hear, very early in the Bible.

Loneliness is a sort of pre-existing human condition, and the church is its best antidote.

Do you feel flat, dull, or stale in your walk with God? Come, devote yourself to church, and have your faith renewed by worshiping with others who want to love and know the same God you do.

Are you listless, directionless, or looking for wise counsel as to how to live? Come, devote yourself to the teaching of the apostles, and we as a church will dwell on God’s Word together.

Do you feel despondent as you eat another quiet meal alone? Come, devote yourself to the fellowship of the church, where we spend time in meaningful conversation with each other, often with food and drink in hand.

Have you forgotten who you are, and who Christ is? Do you need to remember again just how much Jesus loves you, precious child that you are? Come, devote yourself to the breaking of the bread, and know Jesus—and taste his love—in the physical reminders of his body and blood, given for us.

Are you facing a scenario that is far beyond your capability, that has you throwing up your hands in surrender? Or have you experienced a recent joy, the excitement of which is so great you have to tell somebody else? Lean on others who will mourn with you, who will rejoice with you, and who will pray with you and on your behalf. Come, devote yourself to prayer, and find renewal and strengthening from the prayers of others.

God, Who Makes it Grow

The last verse in our passage says, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Ultimately it was God who grew that young church.

mulberry treeWhether it’s numerically or in other ways—spiritual depth, strength of fellowship, vulnerability of relationships—it is God who adds to the health and vitality of a fellowship of believers. We are planters, though, and we can dig out a small hole in the dirt and drop in a few seeds. We can cultivate what we’ve planted by watering it and protecting it from pesky garden predators—those forces that would prohibit growth together. We can nurture this organic, living body we call our church through our perseverance, our continual commitment to be together, and with glad and sincere hearts.

Come, let us devote ourselves to the work of nurturing this church: through learning the Scriptures, through fellowship, through the breaking of the bread, through prayer, and through sharing with each other when we are in need…. And as we work, let’s watch God move among us and make us grow.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached on Acts 2:42-47 today. All Scripture quotations come from the NIV (1984) or TNIV. See my other sermons, if you desire, here.