Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light: a Sermon on Acts 9.1-18

I was 14 years old, living in upstate NY, trying to navigate a world of many questions and few answers. The fact is, teen boys don’t always have the right answers. But to their credit, they are at least looking. And I was trying to connect the world of eighth grade with the world I was reading about in the Bible. It wasn’t easy and I was not always right. But I do remember when I first heard on the radio the song “Blinded By the Light.” It was catchy and I was certain it was about Saul on the road to Damascus.

Bruce Springsteen wrote this song and I recognize now that he probably didn’t have Acts 9 in mind when he wrote that lyric but I still think about Saul whenever I hear it. The song begins “Madmen, Drummers, Bummers…” and Acts 9 comes with a madman (Saul) and bummers (persecution and murderous threats). Perhaps Ananias was a drummer (playing with the Straight Street Band).

Acts 9 starts out with Saul “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” He is on his way to Damascus to find those who belong to “the Way” in order to bring them back as prisoners.

This is the same Saul who was there at the stoning of Stephen. We do not know if he was an instigator or a collaborator but we do know he was in agreement with what happened that day. Because afterward he becomes violent and begins breathing “murderous threats.” That happens in v.1. It is important to highlight that just 18 verses later he “was baptized.” What happened? Acts 9 says he met someone on the road. And we are told that it was Jesus.

Acts is full of surprises. Nearly every chapter seems to present a surprise of some sort. But who saw this coming? Just when we were ready to hear more about Philip running around in the desert welcoming unlikely and unexpected people into the kingdom, here comes Saul with his murderous threats. We are not prepared for the one who is hunting disciples to be turned so quickly or so convincingly.

In the bigger picture we can see this episode as the latest in a series of attempts to stop the gospel of Jesus. Can a cross or even death stop the gospel? Can the fact that listeners do not share a language with the speaker stop the gospel? Can prison or beatings stop the gospel? Can corruption in the church? Can unworthy people? Can continental boundaries? Can the gospel be stopped by one willing to use violence and murderous threats? There is something about this gospel that propels it through most any barrier – there is something about meeting Jesus.

Acts is full of episodes where people meet Jesus. It is worth pointing out that only once, right here in chapter 9, is someone converted by being blinded by the light. It is helpful to know that Jesus does not meet everyone on the same street. Jesus does not work on every one of us in the same way. You are not less spiritual because you were not blinded while traveling the road to Damascus. We want to be clear that God may perform the same work in each of us but God is under no obligation to do it in the same way twice.

Do not measure your kingdom value by your conversion experience. Do not be manipulated into thinking that those who can share with pinpoint accuracy when and where conversion occurred are more spiritual than you. Do not believe that a television preacher who saw a 60 foot Jesus is better at following Jesus than you are. Rejoice that God is calling you. Rejoice that you have met Jesus. Rejoice that God is so interested in you that He has made plans for you.

Sometimes we read a text like this and want to use it as a bully stick. Read it to someone who is speaking against Jesus and say “maybe this will teach you for messing with Jesus… punk.” But Ananias does not show up and say to Saul “don’t mess with Jesus, next time could be worse.”

Other times we might read a text like this and wish our experience was similar. Such an experience might give us validation. A stronger incentive to do something for God. We would know without a doubt that God does have a plan for us. If all conversions were like this, it would be easier to tell who has been converted.

While it is fact that Acts loves to talk about conversion, it does not share many conversion stories that look alike… and there is certainly nothing else like this.

Here is what we know. The way of God will never include opposing Jesus. The ways of God will never include murderous threats. The ways of God may include strange and miraculous ways, like blinding the sighted or opening eye of the blind. The ways of God may include locating the least likely candidate, even the greatest opponent, and turn them toward Jesus.

Let us picture conversion for what it is. It is heading in one direction and then running into Jesus. It is like a crash in the intersection. It is a change of direction. Conversion suggests we are no longer heading the same way we once were. There are new plans. Things that once seemed so urgent are no longer urgent, and new things suddenly become priority.

It is possible you are hiding your true direction and desires from others. But you are not hiding from God. And God has a specific direction for you. The plan is no different than it was for a man who once breathed murderous threats and then one day was blinded by a light – God’s plan for you is to follow Jesus.

Advertisements

Acts 4.32-5.11: a Written Sermon

“Mission Accountable” – a Sermon from Mike Walters

I once heard Stuart Briscoe say that this story by itself was enough to keep him from ever claiming to have a “New Testament” church!  What pastor is prepared to answer the question,  “How many people died during the offering Sunday?” Passing the offering plates and asking,  “Where’s the rest?” That’s not exactly seeker sensitive.

Along with  politics, music, and flavors of ice cream, “church” is one of those topics about which everyone has an opinion.  Some have mostly contempt for the church.  Their attitude mirrors that of the. British poet Robert Southey, who said, “I could believe in Christ if He did not insist on dragging behind Him His leprous bride.”  Others, ironically some of whom are in the church, separate the church from Christ, seeing the church as a dispensable “add on” to the faith, an optional, even unnecessary aspect of the Christ event.

There was a troubling heresy in the early church known as docetism.  It comes from a Greek word meaning to “seem.”  What docetism argued was that anything material was evil, so that when Christ walked upon this earth, he only seemed to have a body. A sinless Jesus couldn’t have really been a human being.  These days, when I hear people talking about the faith apart from the church, about Christ apart from His body, then I know that docetism is still among us.

The book of Acts aggressively challenges any thinking that would disembody Christ by separating Jesus and His church.  No, they are inseparably and eternally linked.  John Calvin rightly said, “If God is our father, then the church is our mother.”  Contrary to what many people imagine, the primary concern of scripture is NOT the spiritual state of individuals, their holiness, or even their salvation.  The focus is God’s people, His “ekklesia,” God’s new community.  A community that is visible and tangible, which provides a new way of living and thinking for all those who enter into it.  It is Christ’s body, and it is that community that serves as the critical link between Jesus and the mission He began in this world and which He asked us, His people, to continue.

Back in Acts 1, Jesus clearly commissions the church to be his evangelists, to bear witness to the truth of His resurrection and of His kingdom come among us.  What we see in the book of Acts then,  is not just a bunch of stories of heroic apostles facing all sorts of dangers only to be delivered at the last moment by some intervention of the Holy Spirit.  What we see mostly is a community of believers faithfully living out the missional witness to which they have been called.  Even in Paul’s journeys, the primary concern there is always with the establishment and nurturing of churches.

This opening snapshot of the church in 4:32-35, demonstrates that God intends for the mission to be performed and sustained by His people who gather together into the covenant community bearing His name.   Will Willimon observed that when we read that the company of believers were “one in heart and mind” we’re not surprised.. We are used to hearing such pious, even unrealistic claims made about Christian congregations.  Drive around and read church signs: “One big happy family.” No one is going to put on their church signs: “We fight like cats and dogs!”  Does anyone take those signs seriously?  But then he wondered what are we to do with, “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”  You read that and you recognize that we’re not talking about church business as usual.

In Acts, Luke carefully shows us that the church’s witness in the world is twofold. Yes, it involves the external witness of the proclamation of the gospel, but it also involves the internal witness of the Christian community.  Both of these are concrete expressions of God’s grace and both are critically important in minding the mission in the book of Acts.  Obviously, the proclamation of the good news is strategically important in the church’s mission.  And Luke chronicles the lengths to which God is prepared to go in the Book of Acts to protect the proclamation of the word.  Apostles will be sprung from prison, there will be earthquakes and shipwrecks, and all sorts of interventions so that the word may be proclaimed.  Just prior to this text, the apostles have been threatened and essentially told to “shut up” and knock off the preaching. But, God is granting the church courage and steadfastness in the proclamation of the good news. The authorities can’t shut them up.  The external witness is vital.

But what I want us to see is that in the very same way, Acts also shows us how seriously God takes this business of the internal witness of the community.  God wants His people to live in such a way that it attracts the attention of people outside the church.   In Acts, salvation begins with a conversion experience, and it may even be accompanied with signs and wonders, but sustaining that conversion experience, enabling that conversion to become salt and light in the world requires the formation of a people.  A people who are decidedly different from any other people in the culture. More than any other church activity in Acts, what marks that early church off from the rest of the culture is the way it cares for its poorest members.  That practice bears an unmistakable witness to the claim that these are truly God’s people.. Luke says that Gods’ grace was powerfully at work in these people. The KJV says simply that “Great grace was upon them all.”  The reality and power of God’s grace upon this church enables it to live out its public life in such a way that captures the attention of outsiders.  This sharing of goods is not the result of any command, or obligation laid upon them.  No, it is a response to the great grace that was upon them all.  You know that in order for people to let go of anything, but especially money and possessions—-they must have taken hold of something else.  That’s the case here. The sharing of goods occurs as an outgrowth of the  “great grace upon them all” and the result is a brand new kind of community that gets the attention of the culture.

It’s the Spirit at work! In Acts 2, the Spirit enabled the same Peter who had denied knowing Jesus, to bear powerful witness to Jesus in front of the whole city of Jerusalem.  In Acts 3 that same wonder working power of the Spirit makes a lame man walk.  And now here, this gracious Spirit has inspired a man named Barnabas to sell his field and to give the proceeds to the Apostles.  In the power of the Spirit, this church takes care of its own, and in so doing, it bears an unmistakable likeness to the Jesus they claim to represent.

I was interested to note that this text from Acts  is the lectionary text for the Sunday after Easter.  What has this to do with Easter?  It’s all about money!   Well, in Luke’s mind, everything in this text is connected to this church’s belief in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  It is the resurrection that makes true generosity and counter-cultural living possible.  Because Jesus is alive, everything is different, including our values and our attitudes about money.  Karl Marx claimed that nearly every human attitude and action could be traced to economic sources.  Luke isn’t a Marxist, but he is a realist.  He knows that there’s a real good chance that where our possessions are, our hearts will be there also.  In fact, a surprisingly large amount of Acts deals with economic issues within the Christian community.

I think Luke is on to something. Nowhere is the authenticity of the Christian community more evidenced than in how its members view possessions.  Nowhere is the witness of the church more vulnerable than at the point of the church’s willingness to provide for its weakest members.  It’s a powerful witness to the reality of the gospel.  In Australia, where the church is not generally well thought of,  one group there is nevertheless constantly affirmed by the unbelieving culture and that is the Salvation Army–the Salvos as they are called there. The internal witness of the church gets the world’s attention!  Why do you think that the work of World Hope International has captured the imagination and affirmation of so many?  Because it’s easy to see that there is an authenticity in the care of world’s little ones that cannot be assigned to anything other than the reality of the Kingdom of God.  When I read of local churches caring for their people in tangible ways, then I know that Acts 1:8 is being incarnated among us.  It’s more than proclamation, it’s also incarnation. It’s living out the kingdom of God in front of our neighbors.  Bill Hybels is famous for saying, “Church is a beautiful thing when it works right.”  It is, and, it is a powerful witness.  “No needy persons among them.”  What would that look like in your church?  What kind of witness would that be?

And I’m not implying that this is simple to do.  All of you already know that the church isn’t some idyllic gathering where everyone sits around sipping tea, eating finger sandwiches and talking about the latest trends on religious televison.  No, the church is real, with real people. And that means that the church can be “messy.”  It’s not perfect, but I’ll tell you what it is—it is God’s chosen instrument in the world to accomplish His purposes.  And, first and foremost is God’s intention for the church to bear witness to the reality of a living Jesus, simply by living as Jesus lived.  Treating others the way Jesus treated them.  As they say, “it’s not rocket science.”  That’s what this early church did.  It wasn’t heroic, or spectacular, but it clearly lived in a way that showed that they were different.  It’s the Spirit! We see the same power which raised Jesus on Easter, and which thrust multi-lingual apostles into the streets at Pentecost, and empowered one who was lame, now empower a community of believers to release the tight grip of their personal possessions.

But, not completely.   Acts 5:1-11 is surely one of the most unsettling stories we have in scripture.  It probably shouldn’t surprise us that the first crisis to hit the young Christian community involves money.  If anyone thinks that the material question is a small issue, this incident proves otherwise.  It is literally a matter of life and death.  What’s this about?  Ananias and Sapphira probably saw the selfless act of Barnabas, noted the admiration it evoked from the people, perhaps saw his standing the community begin to rise, and they thought, “we’d like that too.”  So, they sell off a field and instead of giving all of the money from the proceeds to the apostles, they secretly agree to keep back part of the money for themselves.  Nothing particularly wrong with that, except that Peter knows the truth.   And he confronts Ananias about it. Peter’s rebuke of Ananias centers around, not that he kept back part of the money, but that he did so in such a way that the community was deceived, and even worse, that he attempted to deceive the Holy Spirit. And upon hearing the charge of lying to God, Ananias drops dead, as does Sapphira a few hours later when the same deceitful scenario unfolds.  Listen carefully to what is being said here: in lying to the church, Ananias and Sapphira  have lied to God.  Let that sink in for a moment.  This man and woman weren’t simply lying to the church, they were lying to God.  You still think Church isn’t serious business?  In Acts 9, on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus and his murderous persecution of the church is stopped literally in his tracks by the words of Jesus saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Apparently,  God’s just a bit touchy about this business of His church.  He takes it real personal.

Ananias and Sapphira were possessed by a ‘divided heart,’ their decision making process was caught between dual loyalties. James would say they were “doubleminded.”  They wanted to be part of the community, but  they also  wanted the security of their own hands.  They wanted to have their cake and eat it too. This is in stark contrast to the ways of the church who are described as being of one heart and one mind.  What this story shows us is that there is an ongoing battle between Satan and the Holy Spirit for the heart of the community.  We see Barnabas demonstrate the possession of the Spirit, while Ananias and Sapphira demonstrate a heart dominated by evil.  Maybe more than all the other evangelists, Luke seems to be acutely aware of how money gets between people and God. Only Luke tells the story of the Rich Fool, the man who put all of his hope in his possessions.  Luke is convinced that Jesus’ words about the inability to serve both God and money are true.

Let me “meddle” here a bit and suggest some ways in which we might apply this passage.   First off, this text is hard on Americans.  We have such a strong sense of individualism.  That can be a strength in some cases, but it’s tough on community.  The idea of putting the group, the community, ahead of the individual is hard on us.  But without community, its just so easy to revert back to the pre-conversion attitudes and values.  And it seems to me that the failure of authentic community is what accounts for so many American “Christians” living lives that do not bear witness to much of anything other than the fact that they claim to know that they are going to heaven when they die.  Other than that, there is absolutely no difference between them and their unbelieving neighbors.  It is within the parameters of the community of faith that we can be possessed by the Spirit of generosity allowing us to turn loose of those things which otherwise would bind and control us in ways that are counter to the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is part and parcel part of the church’s commission to be witnesses for Jesus. Robert Wall said, “The most eloquent testimony to the reality of the resurrection is not an empty tomb or a well-orchestrated Easter pageant, but rather a group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that Jesus is alive!”

The question for today’s church is this: Why don’t we look more resurrected?  Why don’t people look at us and our corporate lives and exclaim, “Wow, Jesus must really be alive?” Perhaps it’s because we have neglected this internal witness of the community.  Maybe it’s because so many of us are trying to serve both God and money.  The paradoxical insight of the gospel about money is that we will never have enough, no matter how much we have; the only way to have “enough” is to give it away.   That’s what Barnabas discovered.

The death of Ananias and Sapphira may seem surreal to us, but in a true sense their death sentence was already contained in their own decision to cut themselves off from the community by means of greed and deception.  The dropping dead part was simply making real and outwardly evident the cancerous spiritual condition of their hearts.

I suspect that some may be thinking: “I didn’t come to hear another sermon about money. Why can’t we talk about spiritual things?  Things that are really important?”  Luke would insist that we are.  Luke would say that in getting to the matter of money, we are revealing our hearts, and we are determining, with some degree of certainty, how well the mission might progress. Some years ago now, I met the Romanian dissident Josef Tson.  Josef was a Baptist pastor who had been arrested, imprisoned, even tortured by the Communists government of Romania until they finally exiled him from the country.  He was a visionary Christian leader and upon the fall of the Communist government in 1990 immediately returned to Romania to continue his ministry.  I met with him and a group of pastors one day in Rochester, NY and Josef was responding to questions by the different clergy who were present.  One asked this: “If you wanted to start a vital spiritual renewal in America what would you preach?”  We all anticipated his answer but were shocked when he said it.  “I’d preaching tithing.”  When asked why, Josef Tson said, “Because if you can’t get them to turn loose of 10% of their money, you’ll never get them to let go of the really important things.”

Beyond the way that  money and possession tend to reveal the true intentions of our hearts, I’m also fascinated with Peter’s approach here as the spiritual leader of this community.  I wonder how many churches would actually confront Ananias and Sapphira the way Peter did here?  More likely, “Look, they are our biggest givers, go along!”  But, Peter knows that there is no price tag that can be put upon the integrity and the witness of God’s people.  Being the church isn’t easy.  It’s serious business.

There’s one more thing about this text that sobers me, mostly because it reminds me of me.  What Ananias and Sapphira were doing here was essentially “playing church.”  They were making a good show of being devoted, of being supportive when, in fact, they were outwardly imitating Barnabas for all the wrong reasons.  Ananias and Sapphira wanted people to THINK they were fully committed when they weren’t.  How easily we do that!  We talk the talk.  We do all the right things, say all the right things, in such a way that anyone around us would say, “that Walters guy is all in, all his chips are in the center of the table.”  But then, I know how often  I have hedged my bet.  This text says that those actions may fool the people around us, but they don’t fool God, and God takes that very seriously because He knows that our deception will invariably take a toll on the health and vitality of this community that He loves.. I never think about this without recalling M.Scott Peck.  In his haunting book, People of the Lie, he wrote that the “est place to find really evil people is at church. It’s a good place to hide out.”  Ananias and Sapphira  were hiding out. Karl Barth observed that “church is where people go to make their last stand against God” And, Eugene Peterson reminds us that “religion is one of the best covers for sin of almost all kinds.  Pride, anger, lust, and greed are vermin that flourish under the floorboards of religion.  Those of us, who are identified with institutions or vocations in religion can’t be too vigilant.  The devil does some of his best work behind stained glass.”

So, what we have here in this odd narrative is a cautionary tale.  A reminder that church is exceedingly risky business. I think its significant that in the ending of this story, Luke uses the word “church” for the very first time.  Here, in struggling with money, the community first experiences itself as a the disciplined community of truthfulness.  I wonder if there could be a “Barnabas” here, someone with a huge future for God, but who might need to let go of something precious?  I also wonder if there may be some who have been playing the game— who have outwardly done and said all the right things, but inwardly your still trying to control it all.  Such an approach to Christian faith is walk on the edge of an abyss.

 

The ancient Didache, one of the earliest teaching texts of the church, begins with these words, “two ways there are, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.’  Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira personify this.  One is totally committed to the church and goes on to be a powerful instrument of God. introduces the converted Saul to the church. salvages John Mark, who wrote the second gospel, and so on.  Ananias and Sapphira are primal examples of church discipline and accountability, poignant testimonies as to the dangers of “playing church.”   We are called to mission, and that mission is accountable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preaching the Activity of God

Luke wants us to see a bigger picture. He finds events to be significant, but he does not consider all events equal. Luke is aware that things are taking place. He does not ignore them; he prefers to mention them as part of his historical monologue. Yet, he never makes them more important than they are intended to be. He desires that we acknowledge the content of what goes on around us, but does not wish for us to make it the main subject. Luke reminds us that we are participating in history. So he writes about this God who intervenes in history. He wants us to know that everything that occurs is part of this bigger story about God.

The Gospel reveals that Caesar decreed and the Acts that Herod gave a speech. But both Luke and Acts want us to know that political intervention is weak and short-lived in comparison to the intervention of God. In fact, these things appear to take place in order to halt the work of God in history. Instead, they become part of a series of events that are deemed powerless in comparison to the Gospel news.

The Gospel is a book that encourages the reader to pack for Jerusalem. The Acts is a book that tells the reader that what happens in Jerusalem does not stay in Jerusalem. Jerusalem seems to be important for Luke on account of the significant events that happen there. The undeniable intervention of God that is evident at crucifixion, resurrection, and Pentecost.

In a sense, Gabriel’s words to Mary could be seen as a text for both volumes as we see them proven again and again. “Nothing will be impossible with God.” In Acts, this is evidenced by the structure as the word continues to move and spread and the church continues to grow despite the barriers presented along the way.

At 6.7; 9.31; 12.24; 16.5; 19.20; and 28.31 we find summaries that remind us that the Good News of God will not be stopped by barriers of any kind. Simply, we may suggest the following; we encounter a language barrier, apostles are jailed twice, there is evidence of an imperfect church, and neglect of the Greek widows. Still, “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.”

There is a death by stoning, murderous threats, ethnic barriers, even magic, yet “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.” Then dietary restrictions, political power, death by sword, and an unbelieving church, but “the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.”

The barriers continue as we find geographical barriers, lobbying, thrown in jail again, magic, economic barriers. Still we are told that “the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.” Finally, we encounter yet another arrest, a dangerous voyage, shipwreck, snakebite, trial, and disagreement but the book ends with “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.”

It is important to see that all along the way, the content never becomes the story. The people never become the story. Luke wants us to be aware of things going on around us. Even more, he wants us to be aware of the bigger story that God invaded the planet in history and nothing can stop His news.

Acts sets a precedent that nothing is able to stand in the way of the good news that God has intervened in history. Acts does not list every potential barrier but does bring up a number of them. These include every major barrier of the first century; language, geography, ethnicity, politics, magic, other religions and philosophies, even imprisonment and death. These have not disappeared and other barriers have emerged. But our preaching can still reflect the bigger story that nothing is able to stop the activity of God.

The Activity of God in History

Acts is an account that insists on the activity of God in history. Acts is convinced that the Spirit is able to overcome any barrier, no matter how impossible. So whether we encounter a beggar at the temple gate or hungry widows, Stephen’s death or Peter’s imprisonment – none of these things are exempt from the Spirit’s activity. Whether the scene is an upper room in Jerusalem or a road in the desert, a prison in Caesarea Maritima or a ship sailing in dangerous waters – the Spirit is not absent from any of these places. Even catastrophe cannot limit the work of the Spirit or stop the spread of the good news.

I cannot read Acts without getting the impression that conflict, persecution, and catastrophe are opportunities. This is counter intuitive. We would like to believe that peace, comfort, and worry free moments are the times that we can best organize effectively and therefore prosper. Acts may suggest that times of comfort and prosperity bring with them a lack of urgency and intensity and priority. Without apology, Acts continues to present challenging situations. Without exception, Acts reports that the good news continued to spread. Acts leaves us with the impression that our writings, stories, and growth are strengthened during less fortunate situations.

There is a temptation for preachers to preach about a language miracle, or healing, or call to ministry, or prayer, or persecution or any other situation that arises in the narrative. We certainly do not want to ignore these contexts, but neither do we want to miss the message being pushed forward by the narrative. Why would we want to focus on the barrier and make it the main point of the story? I propose that it would be no different than preaching a sermon about surviving shipwreck or snakebite. In every chapter, rather than focusing on the barrier, our focus should be on the Holy Spirit who overcomes the barrier.

Preaching Acts is proclamation of the ongoing activity of God. Acts sets a precedent. Our barriers may be different, but there is an implication that the Spirit may be at work in any conversation, in any location, and during any activity. Acts insists that despite a host of barriers, the result continued to be “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.” Acts insists on the activity of God in history. It is no different for us.

Our Story and the Jesus Story

Luke the historian lets us in on his plan from the start. He has compiled the results of his investigation and gives us an account about the things that were “accomplished among us.” Luke is a collector of stories and what he finds is that all other stories intersect with the Jesus story. Perhaps this is why he gives us a genealogy, a historical context, and quotes from Isaiah the prophet. Luke wants us to realize that his news is connected with everything else. It may be obvious that the cross is connected to the Jesus story, but Luke wants us to know that Isaiah’s songs and Caesar’s decrees are as well.

Perhaps this is why Luke went on to compose a second account, just to make sure we realize that the Jesus story isn’t over. In the book of Acts, the reader continues on adventures that began in the Gospel. At some points, Luke even appears to join in some of the travels. This may be evidenced by the “we” passages. As an investigative historian, he might have been an eyewitness of some of the events he records. Perhaps Luke is an itinerant doctor who sometimes traveled along as one of Paul’s companions.

This makes it at least a possibility that Luke was there when they encountered the fortune-telling slave girl in Philippi and when Eutychus fell out of the window during Paul’s midnight sermon. He may have experienced the warm reception from the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. He may have been there for the shipwreck and when Paul was snake bit while on the voyage to Rome. Whether he was or not is not as important as the fact that he wants us to know that these stories are a part of the Jesus story.

Luke may be interested in the same questions that interest us. Is there reason to keep telling this story? What are some of the things that happened during the retelling of this story? Did these things have any influence beyond Jerusalem? Does this story have anything to do with beggars or widows? How about kings or Caesars? Does this story have any impact on the world scene? He spends the Gospel taking us to Jerusalem that we might discover events that were world-changing. He spends the Acts taking us out, into the uttermost parts of the earth.

Acts concludes by connecting both the Jewish story and the Gentile story with the Jesus story. This comes as no surprise as there is a strong implication throughout that no matter where the story leads and no matter what occurs, all stories join the Jesus story.

Implications for Teller, Story, and Listener

Luke is full of implications for preachers, the message, and the listener. Perhaps Luke is especially interested in such conversation since he seems to go out of his way to report on the spread of the Gospel no matter what gets in the way. With that in mind, we had a kind of short course this weekend to discuss some of these implications. As with any short course, there is risk of over simplification but at the very least, it served as a starter for our conversation.

For a look at the teller, we examined Luke chapter three and the preaching of John the Baptist as a text.

Implications for the Teller, Messenger, Preacher
1. the teller is part of a larger story; one bigger than here, bigger than now
2. the teller is not assigned to coddle or flatter, not to amuse or entertain
3. the teller emphasizes and highlights what God is initiating and is bringing to pass
4. the teller is a participant in the activity of God, the teller is a participant in God’s intervention
5. the teller calls the audience to change, it is time to act differently, the way things are is not enough
6. the teller points to One who is greater

We examined an episode from Luke chapter four and the preaching of Jesus in Nazareth as a text to explore the story.

Implications for the Story, Message, Gospel
1. the story is not new, it started long ago, we are not making this up
2. the story is presented into a real situation, one that is close and familiar
3. the story will disrupt lives, it may raise intensity, it may receive unexpected or unfavorable results
4. the story demands things to be different from this time forward, things can never be the same
5. the story will not make things easy on the teller, in fact the opposite may be true
6. the story is the battle plan for a new kingdom, this will undoubtedly draw resistance from adherents of the current kingdom

We examined a portion from Acts chapter eight and the preaching of Philip in Samaria as a text to explore the situation of the listener.

Implications for Listeners, Audience, Congregation
1. listeners may include people that were never expected to receive an invitation to the new kingdom
2. listeners are looking for something greater than themselves
3. listeners hear competing stories and are invited to make a decision between other claims of greatness and the Good News of the Kingdom
4. listeners may be amazed by the Gospel yet not understand its implications
5. listeners may be tempted to use the Gospel for their own benefit, to their own advantage
6. listeners may not grasp the seriousness of the matter and be concerned only with their own well being

A Sermon Starter: The Power of Church and State

Herod Agrippa I had power. Acts chapter twelve describes how he used his power for an assault on the church. He believed that he had the power to limit or even stop the spread of the Gospel. Even during Passover, as the people celebrated the power of God to deliver. In fact, I find it interesting that he wanted to bring Peter out after Passover. Was he thinking that God could slip one past old Pharaoh, but he cannot deliver under the watch of powerful King Herod Agrippa? From the perspective of the young church, it appeared that he was right. Acts tells us that he killed James and had Peter arrested (12.2-3).

In a sense, this is Peter’s last “act.” For although he does make a brief appearance in chapter fifteen, we are not told anything else about Peter. In Acts, the fate of Herod is more important to the story than the fate of Peter. In light of his imprisonment, what can the church do? How can the church be taken seriously when Herod has all the power? Should they hire a lawyer with a reputation of representing minorities? Should they begin to leave propaganda in conspicuous places in the hope that others will join their side? Should they begin filling out petitions to protest Herod’s treatment of Christians? Should they join with other opponents of Herod to fight for proper social action? Should they re-package themselves so that government might see them as a benefit to the kingdom? What should the church do?

Acts wants us to know that the activity of the church during this time was prayer (12.5-12). This is important because prayer admits that we are unable to cause change on our own. This cannot be overemphasized. This episode in the life of the church cautions us from taking things in our own hands.

On the surface, prayer may appear to be an impotent force against the power of Herod. Yet, as the story continues, one begins to realize that there is a power greater than Herod. Peter is delivered from prison. The news is almost too good to be true. Peter arrives at the house of those who are celebrating the power of God to release slaves (that is what they do in Jerusalem during Passover) to find that they do not believe that he had escaped. This may remind us that God’s power is greater than the expectations of His people.

Throughout this entire episode, neither Herod (as we realize later at 12.23) nor Peter (after 12.17 he is gone) are the main player (or the main power). Acts wants us to understand that the main player throughout is the one who delivered a nation from slavery, the one who delivered Peter, and the one still able to deliver.

Acts loves to record speeches. Peter, Stephen, and Paul each give speeches that are recorded in Acts, some of them in detail. As Herod prepares to give a speech (12.21), one wonders what a government official like Herod will add to the speeches of Acts. The king must have performed well, for his audience declared that this was “the voice of a god, not of a man.” Surely such a speech is worthy of recording. But where is this power speech? Acts does not care. Herod gets a thumbs down, his words do not matter. Nevertheless, he receives much flattery and refuses to give the glory to God. At that point, Herod the king is eaten by worms. Chapter twelve is a reminder that while government officials are temporary (just ask Herod), the word of God continues to increase and spread (12.24).

What a complete reversal of the church’s situation in just one chapter. At the beginning, Herod is on the rampage, killing James and arresting Peter. At the end of the chapter, Herod is dead, Peter is free, and the word of God is increasing. Herod will not speak again, but God’s words will continue to be heard.