Sunday, June 22, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Three Thousand"

Acts 2:37 to 47

When the crowd heard this, they were deeply troubled. They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.” 40 With many other words he testified to them and encouraged them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” 41 Those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized. God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day. 

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (Common English Bible)

“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week One

Being the devoted alumnus that I am to my undergraduate alma mater, Lewis & Clark College in nearby Portland, I reliably read the alumni magazine that shows up on my doorstep once a season.  Not only is it a good way to keep abreast of what is happening there (did one of my favorite professors just retire?), but it is also a good source of stories to be inspired by, as the magazine often uses its feature space to highlight the humanitarian or adventurous work that its students and professors are currently doing.

One such story appeared in its pages of last year’s spring issue, and I have sat on this story for over a year, waiting for the right message to include it in, because what the story is about is, in effect, how the Bible was written, and how the very earliest church was created: through oral tradition, and oral history.  The stories that you tell your family around the dinner table.  The memories you recollect over a cup of coffee or tea.  Because the vast majority of people in Biblical Israel were not literate, they could not write down themselves God’s revelations…they relied on scribes to do that for them.

And so, deep in the rural wilderness of the Qinghai province in western China, a Lewis & Clark professor and student set out to collect what they called “oral histories.”  Basically, the memories and recollections and stories of people.  Your own personal story.  Your own personal testimony.

Believe it or not, that is how the Bible in its final form most likely was written down: those who received God’s revelation directly eventually transmitting it to a trained scribe for immortalization.  And so it is with the Pentecost story as well: while Peter, as a fisherman by trade, was almost certainly not literate, Luke, the writer of Acts of the Apostles, obviously was (or he wouldn’t have written it, amirite?).  And so while Luke himself was not present at the birth of the church as depicted in Acts 2, you can almost imagine him and Peter talking together over a glass of wine or some water and Peter (or perhaps one of Peter’s followers) sharing with Luke this story that begins, “Did I tell you about the day when 3,000 people were converted to the Way of Jesus Christ?”

This is another brand new sermon series for us, and it is a sermon series that we begin today for two reasons.  One is that the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles) fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s now officially summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off, and we do precisely that here today, when Peter follows up with the crowd who has just heard his first ever sermon by telling them what it is that they should do…his sermon’s “action steps,” if you will.

And the instructions themselves that Peter gives are honestly pretty straightforward and require little further glossing: repent and be baptized.  What he emphasizes here is that the repentance must be genuine.  It must be authentic, it must come with a true change in one’s nature and actions, and it should be accompanied by the sacrament of baptism, of being dipped down into water and then lifted out just as Christ Himself had been by John the Baptist.

Traditionally, many of us in the church refer to what Peter outlines in these verses as “the plan of salvation,” which means, in a nutshell, what a person must do to be in right relationship with God.  “Plan” though, is a very 20th century way of putting the whole thing, and the term I have come to prefer to use is the term that Jesus’s early followers actually refer to themselves as: The Way.

The way of salvation.  That’s a little more accurate for what we are trying to do here, as a church, right?  Because it is one thing to simply hand someone a checklist of items, a to do list, and say, “if you do these things, you’re good to go,” but it is entirely another to say to someone, “what we do here is an entire way of being, of acting, of coming closer to God.”

In other words: a plan has a finish line.  When you execute that plan, you are done.  A way has no such finish line.  It is ongoing, it is perpetual, it is for forever (as opposed to, you know, diamonds).

And that’s what we have had here, in many ways, with our congregation, our community of believers.  We have a way, something that was built and designed to be ongoing and for forever.  Clearly a church building of this size and grandeur is not meant to be a temporary home.  It is meant to last through the ages.  And yet the community within it hasn’t.  When I arrived here, many of you told me about the golden years of the fifties, sixties, and seventies when this church was packed, when there was always something going on, when it felt alive here inside these walls.  These were your stories, your testimonies, your oral histories, that you gave to me over many weeks of coffee and sermons and lessons and outreach.

From the beginning of my time here, I have taken as my mandate helping you to rebuild this community to that previous level of excitement: not necessarily with the same activities and missions of the past, but restoring that level of energy with new activities, new missions, new callings from God.

And that mandate, I have learned, is not a plan forward for the church.  It is a way forward for the church.  It is a way that is perpetual and ongoing.  When we are fully sustainable, we do not get to breathe a deep sigh of relief and sit on our laurels, no, we get to look eagerly around at our community and ask, “What’s God’s calling us to do here next?”

And that’s whether we have a packed sanctuary or not.  We might look with envy upon the 3,000 converts that Peter, with God’s help, brought into the church on that day, but if you look at it within the context of the crowds that Jesus Himself engaged, well, you notice something.  Jesus fed the 5,000.  He also, separately, fed another crowd of 4,000.  And here is Peter with a measly crowd of 3,000.  That’s a 40 percent decline from the crowd Jesus was able to attract!  (And, as the Gospels hasten to note, that’s only the men.  Who knows how many women and children were also present for Jesus’ message that day.)

But neither Peter nor Luke, the writer of Acts, turns their noses up at the 3,000 who join them.

That *only* 3,000 join, as opposed to 4,000 or more, is not seen as cause for lament, it is seen as cause for celebration.  Nobody…at least, Luke doesn’t convey anybody…is sitting there griping, “Remember when Jesus would get 5,000 people to these things?!  Harrumph!”  That isn’t part of The Way.

And that’s part of our challenge here today: in building this grand church up to the proverbial 5,000, well, you are mathematically required to pass 3,000 and 4,000 along the way (there’s that word again…the way!).  Which means that when our 3,000 arrives, in the form of so many of you who have heard about us, been told about us, discovered us, were led to us, and felt called and comfortable enough to say, “This is my spiritual home,” that means that each of you, too, are cause for our celebration.  You are worthy of our celebration.  You are more than enough for our celebration.

Because each of you comes with a story as well.  A testimony.  An oral history.  Whether you know exactly what yours is yet or not…or even whether it is fully written yet or not…your story has become a part of our story, a part of the church’s story, a part of the world’s story, a part of God’s story.

And that is a story that continues to be written with the ink of love, with the quill of community, upon a completely blank sheet of paper placed before us that can bear any message that you choose for it.

What shall that message be?

May it be, for each of us, a message proffering, as Peter does, the way of salvation, of achieving and restoring a right relationship with God, for ourselves and for all of those who also become, by chance or by design, a part of your way, and thus a part of our way, towards full communion with the divine.

So was birthed, nearly 2,000 years ago, the Christian Church.

And so it continues, amazingly enough, even here, halfway across the world and across two millennia of years.

Like I said, The Way is ongoing.  It always is.  And God willing, it always will be.

Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview Washington
June 22, 2014

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