Tag Archives: Acts of the Apostles

After the Spirit

(a sermon for June 16, 2019, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Acts 2:42-47, 3:1-10)

“…and they lived happily ever after!”  And… Amen!

Now that’s how the story really ought to end, right (?); at least as it pertains to those first few verses of our text for this morning.  I mean, consider the “narrative arc,” if you will, of this part of the biblical story; think for a moment about everything that brought that group of twelve disciples from where they were – that is, as this rather motley assortment of fishermen, tax-collectors, and other assorted outsiders who’d left everything to follow Jesus – to what they are now, the Spirit-filled and Spirit-led Apostles in whom “many wonders and signs are being done,” and by whose proclamation of good news a new church is growing exponentially, to the point where once there were little more than a handful of believers and now – in a single day, no less (!), the day of Pentecost  – “about three thousand persons were added;” and as Luke goes on to tell us, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

And it’s at this point in this sweeping narrative that Luke began in his gospel and now continues his “Book of Acts” that we’re given this incredible description of Christian community as it was truly lived out in the life of this new church.  We’re told that the believers were all gathered together and that everyone was filled with awe about all the signs and wonders they were witnessing; and along with worship and prayers and “devot[ing] themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,” they also gave to one another as any had need, and – I love this part – “ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”  It’s worship, it’s fellowship, it’s compassion: from the very beginning these were the marks of the Christian life and to this day remain our model and the ideal of what the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be.  Or, to put it another way, if I might quote Laura Truman of the Forum for Theological Exploration, “Oh my goodness, it is beautiful.   They are doing theology, they are living together, they are eating together, they are praying together – this is the kind of community that most church leaders would give their left foot for… This story of the beginning of the Church,” she writes, “is just glorious.  This is the Church alive.  This is the Church on the move.”

And so, do you see what I mean when I say that this might well be the place to end the story; that now we’re at the part of the gospel in which we can gaze upon this amazing new church – formed by Jesus Christ himself, crucified and risen, and gathered, led and empowered by his Holy Spirit – and know that from this point on, after everything those apostles had been through and more to the point, through what God had done in the person of the Christ (!) that they could indeed “live happily ever after.”  I mean, if I’m making a movie about this (I guess technically, given it’s about the apostles and their journey after the resurrection, it would be a sequel!), about the time the Spirit has come in all of its power and the believers are “praising God and having the goodwill of all the people,” it would be time to fade out and roll the credits; as I said before, that’s where the story ought to end, right?

Well, if we understand scripture, not to mention the mission of the church, the answer there would be… no.  In fact, it can well be said that “after the Spirit” is when the story begins anew; and in many ways, it’s the place where our story and truly, our mission as believers really comes into focus.

Actually, from a narrative point of view, it’s interesting to note that following this very grand and idealistic view of the beginnings of the Christian church, Luke in his telling of the story sort of pulls back a bit so to tell the story about how “one day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, about three o’clock.”  So, you see, already there’s a routine developing in the life of the church; and I don’t say that as a negative, nor am I in suggesting that the “wonders and signs” done by the apostles were in any way diminishing, because if you read on in the Book of Acts, you’ll know that this is not the case.  If anything, this “going up to the temple” every afternoon tells us that a discipline of prayer and worship was from the very beginning, as it continues to be, essential to the Christian life.

And so it is on this particular day, we have Peter and John on their way to the temple for afternoon prayer – for “prayer meeting,” The Message calls it – and as they pass through the gate of the temple known as the “Beautiful Gate” they encounter a man “crippled from birth,” [The Message] “asking for alms;” that is, begging passersby for any kind of handout they might we willing to offer him as one poor and needy.  Now, we don’t know much about this man: he’s not given a name nor is there much of a backstory about what’s brought him to this station of life; all we really can glean from the text is that being “lame from birth,” he’d been carried to this gate and placed there for the purpose of begging, and that apparently he’d been doing this for quite some time, because later on we find out that all the people who entered the temple by this so called “Beautiful Gate” had recognized this  man as one of “those people” who were always there on the fringes begging for whatever spare change anybody might give him.  And so likely what he was doing that afternoon was what he always did, which was with eyes to the ground and arms extended crying out… crying out again and again and again for alms… for money… for something, anything that might help.

But whereas most people going to temple that afternoon sought to ignore the beggar’s cries and probably did everything they could to avoid any encounter with him altogether, we’re told that Peter and John heard the man’s cries and stopped; but even more than merely stopping to hear the request, Luke tells us that “Peter looked intently at him, as did John,” and said to this beggar, “Look here…” “Look at us…”   which, as even you and I in these times, was a pretty radical response!   I remember years ago someone I went to school with describing to me of her experience one summer living and working in New York City.  Now, this girl was not only still pretty young, she was also from Maine; and her first instinct on the streets of Manhattan was to smile and say hello to everyone she passed on the street!  But, she explained, that exuberant spirit was short-lived, as very quickly her more streetwise co-worker informed her that the first rule of walking down along a New York City street was not to make eye contact; this, after all, is not Bangor, Maine!  And we understand that, don’t we; especially as it applies to those in this life and in this world that in all honesty we’d rather avoid: from that person across the aisle at the market who makes us feel uncomfortable to the one who’s standing there with the handwritten cardboard sign on the median of Fort Eddy Road; just keep your head down and keep moving, and there’s no problem.

Sadly, that’s too often our attitude, but not Peter and John; they look this beggar square in the eye and pretty much demand that he look back at them in just the same way; thus treating him and engaging him as a person… as the child of God that is rather than the nameless beggar that the world has always perceived him to be.  And then Peter says something very interesting: he says, in the very poetic language of the old King James Version of scripture, “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.” (Or, if you’d prefer a more contemporary translation, how about this from The Message: “I don’t have a nickel to my name, but what I do have, I give you.”) Either way, Peter then reaches out to this man, this man crippled from birth, pulls him up (!) by his right hand, “and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.”  So strong, in fact, that the beggar immediately starts leaping and dancing for joy; praising God for all he’s worth and, might I add, totally disrupting any semblance of a serious prayer time that afternoon and astonishing everybody who’d witnessed what happened to this now former beggar there at the Beautiful Gate!

This story from Acts serves to tell us that “after the Spirit” came on the Day of Pentecost and filled them up with its power, the disciples’ story begins anew; with their being called to and given the gift of healing in the name of Jesus.  And moreover, writes Craig Barnes, it’s also a reminder that ultimately, in a multitude of ways – not just physical, mind you, or even financial; but also in the emotional, relational, even spiritual sense – “we’re all beggars, and it’s only in the name of Jesus that we’re going to get back up on our feet again” and we, as believers, have the ability, the call, the power to proclaim that name “that gets people back up on their feet.”  But even beyond all that, friends, what this story proclaims is that all of us – you and me and everyone in this sanctuary, all of us who count ourselves as believers – do have this ministry of healing and of life in Jesus’ name.

After the Spirit, you see, there’s the church of Jesus Christ… and we are the church.

In the end, you see, it’s not about the almsgiving, though in Christian love and creativity, we do do that, and we should; reaching out to those in need, however that may happen, is always to be at the very center of our mission as believers.  But it’s not just about that; likewise, it’s not only about the acts of healing, though I know that there are many of us in this very room, myself included, who can tell the stories of how healing prayers and words and gestures and creative, Spirit-led, actions led to the healing of mind, body and spirit.  It’s not even about the miracle, per se: because, you know what, miracles are not always what they at first seem to be, or not to be; sometimes the miracle with that overwhelming sense of the holy in our midst; in that peace Jesus spoke of that the world can neither give nor take away.  In the end, it’s about this Spirit that all of us have been given and this ministry we share; this calling to be witnesses to all we’ve seen and heard and received, sometimes by what we say, but always by what we do.

And the thing is, we never know exactly how that might unfold until it happens:  we’re having this random conversation with a friends or a co-worker, maybe someone we hardly know, but suddenly they’re pouring out their pain and grief in all its intensity and suddenly the “small talk” has become something much deeper and wholly cathartic.  You’re running an errand or taking care of a long-dreaded chore, and all of a sudden you get this idea that what you’re doing in that moment could be helpful for somebody else whose pride has long prevented them from asking for any kind of assistance.  You’ve been wrestling with some sort of big decision in your life, and trying to weigh how what you’ll do changes things for you; but then you wake up in the dawn of a new day and you’re seeing that choice from a different point of view: maybe that of your children or your family or even how it might affect a hurting world.  Or, could be you’re sitting in this sanctuary this morning, you’ve been singing the songs, you’ve prayed the prayers, you’re wondering if the minister’s ever going to wrap this thing up (!) so you can go to lunch… and in that moment you’re inspired… moved, somehow, to call somebody to go to lunch after worship with you, and maybe then invite them to come to church next Sunday….

…who knows? 

Give alms to the poor; feed the hungry; clothe the naked; visit those in prison; love, cherish and nurture all of God’s children; be kind, for Jesus’ sake!  Just know, beloved, that however it takes shape and form this is our ministry, yours and mine together, and that God’s Spirit comes as we do what we do.  And it is in that ministry that beggars become leapers, and that miracles happen.

I hope and pray that now that Spirit has come, we will be bold to embrace its power to do God’s work in this place and time… always in the healing name of Jesus.

And in that holy name, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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Integrity With God

Nelson_Sacred_Spaces_Earth_(a sermon for  June 7, 2015, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Acts 16:16-34)

One of the first things you notice about this reading we’ve just shared from the Acts of the Apostles is the unique way in which it begins: “One day, as we were going to the place of prayer…” 

What’s so different about that, you ask?  It’s… we!  This is a story told in the first person! Now, that may seem like a minor thing on the face of it, but take in mind that it’s only in this 16th chapter – the 10th verse, to be exact – that the Book of Acts very abruptly and without explanation shifts from a standard third person narrative to a first person account; in other words, it’s no longer about “him,” or “her” or “them,” but everything is explained in reference to “we” and “us:”  what we saw, what we witnessed, what happened to us as we accompanied Paul on his journeys.

It’s almost as if Luke, in writing this massive two-part work about Jesus and the early church (because, remember, Luke and Acts are meant to be taken together) suddenly realized that the story he was telling was his story, too!  So this wasn’t simply a narrative account suitable for publication in the “Macedonia Monitor” or the “Jerusalem Union Leader;” this represents a passionate witness of what Luke himself had seen and heard and believed.  What we have in the Book of Acts is Luke’s own proclamation of the growing power of the Gospel in his own life as well as out into the world.

And that’s important; because not only is this Luke’s story, or that of Paul and Silas or the other disciples, but ultimately it’s also our story; yours and mine.  Because you and I, like all of those saints who have walked the way before us, are followers of Jesus Christ; and this is our history and our heritage as believers, our “family album,” if you will.  And just as old family albums tend not only to show us how we were but have a way of revealing who we are, these “Acts” of the Apostles – this one-time motley assortment who by virtue of the Risen Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit within them were now men of true faith and integrity unafraid to rock the boat for the sake of what they believed – ultimately end up revealing something of the Gospel’s power for our lives in the here and now!

Take this morning’s story, for instance; the riveting tale of a fortune-telling slave girl freed of a demon, her vengeful owners, and a resulting prison drama complete with an earthquake and a midnight hymn-sing!  But more than simply being the tale of a long-ago people in a far off place, this particular story says a great deal about integrity: the integrity that comes from a faith in Jesus Christ; the integrity of living one’s life wholly focused on God’s principles, as opposed to the ever-changing tenets of worldly culture.  As such, then, this is a story that’s not only about proclaiming a faith in Jesus Christ, but also what it means to live out that proclamation; and unless I miss my guess that’s one plot point that figures mightily in our story as well!

To begin with, understand that Paul and Silas had not come to the “place of prayer” that day intending to cast out demons; in fact, it seems as though this exorcism by Paul had come about as the result of frayed nerves than anything else!  Luke describes it this way:  “We met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination…” (That is, the ability to tell fortunes, which also gave her the ability to make a great deal of money for her owners) and “…while she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’”  This had actually been going on for many days; so finally, having been hounded wherever they went by this loud and obnoxious person, Paul (“very much annoyed,” Luke says!) turns and says to the spirit, “‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’  And it came out that very hour.”

You have to wonder what it was that pushed Paul “over the edge,” as it were; was Paul really that annoyed by her incessant shouting, or was it that her words fairly well dripped with sarcasm and ridicule?  Truth be told, there would have been very few who could have put up with that for very long; but where it might have been tempting to respond out of anger, Paul acted in accordance with his mission.  What we see here that despite this incredible distraction – and belittlement, really – in the end Paul remained true to the Gospel of Christ that had saved him; he acted boldly and faithfully, and kept his integrity… his integrity with God!

I wonder; how many of us latter-day Christians can say the same?

One of the cable networks has recently been running old episodes of the 1970’s era television sit-com, “One Day at Time;” and though I have to say some of those shows don’t particularly hold up all that well, I happened to see one the other night that rang very true.  The story was that one of the two daughters on that show had had what she was calling a religious experience; and she’s running around telling everyone, over and over again in a very pious and self-involved way, “Jesus loves you!” But when her younger sister begins to challenge this new-found belief system, almost immediately the older sister starts reverting back to the old patterns of their relationship; until finally, with perfect sisterly venom, she just says, “Jesus… tries hard to love you!”  And of course, at that moment it becomes clear that there was never any real depth to this faith experience and no integrity about it at all.

And that kind of thing really does happen, doesn’t it?  It’s not that as Christian people we aren’t going to feel annoyed sometimes (even we clergy types can get a little cranky from time to time… believe it or not!); the fact is, we’re human, not at all perfect and each one of us has buttons we don’t want to have pushed!  The question for us is whether amidst all the button pushers of this life we’re able to have Jesus Christ be our only source of truth; and then be willing to make our choices out of that truth.  So no, it’s not about staying quiet and letting people walk all over us, “going along to get along,” or engaging in all manner of passive-aggressive behaviors for fear of stirring up yet another hornet’s nest.  But it is about our acting firmly and assertively out of our faith; that’s certainly what gives us integrity with others, and even more so it shows forth our integrity with God!

We actually find another example of this later on in the story; in how Paul and Silas react to their imprisonment.   What’s interesting is that these two are arrested not so much because of Paul’s having cast out the demon; but rather it comes as the result of the owners of this fortune-telling slave girl suddenly finding themselves without the considerable income this girl was providing!   So they go to the Roman authorities with false accusations of these two being Jewish rabble-rousers, which is more than enough to get Paul and Silas beaten, stripped, chained, shackled and locked in a jail cell with little hope for any kind of vindication.

But what do Paul and Silas do in the dark of the night in what almost certainly had to be a cold, dark and dank prison?  They sing!  They sing hymns of faith and joy with voices clear and strong; and I know in my heart, just as my grandmother Lowry used to say, not “the slow, draggy hymns either!”  They sang hymns of victory even amidst what seemed like complete defeat!

Friends, again I ask; how many of us can claim the same level of certainty, confidence and utter joy in our faith?  Way too many of us who carry the name of Christian will let ourselves be filled with fear and agony and even doubt at the first hint of trouble; I confess that I let that happen in my own spirit sometimes.  And that’s the great irony, isn’t it?  Because when you talk to people who have been through great challenges, or who have endured great suffering or unspeakable tragedies in their lives, so often what they’ll tell you is that it was faith, and faith alone (even faith the size of a tiny mustard seed!) that got them through.

It’s one thing for us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God” (Colossians 4:16) when all is well, and we’re celebrating the abundance of our blessing; it’s another to sing when the world has seemed to have come crushing down on top of us.   But that’s just what Paul and Silas did; they sang, and their singing came out of an understanding that the same God who is the Lord of clear and sunny days is also the Lord of dark and painful nights.  To live out of that conviction “all night, all day;” to hold firmly to the assurance of hope and to praise God no matter what; that takes integrity of faith, which is an integrity with God.

And there’s one more example: of course, you know the dramatic climax of this story comes in an earthquake, “so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken,” the doors flew open and all the chains of the prisoners come loose.  It’s a powerful miracle of the Holy Spirit, but it has an unexpected effect on the jailer, who as it turns out, had been sleeping throughout the long night.  Luke tells us that that when all this happened, the jailer “drew his sword and was about to kill himself,” assuming that the prisoners had escaped on his watch, and the penalty for such a mistake was death. But Paul, rather than grabbing Silas and making a run for it, reaches out to the jailer, calming his fears and offering him an answer to the most important question he could ever ask:  “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

And Paul and Silas tell him – and everyone else around them in the now open prison – about Jesus, about salvation, about life that is both abundant and eternal; and the jailer is so moved that immediately his fear turns to joy.  Luke tells us that “at this same hour of the night” he proceeds to wash the wounds of these two men who’d previously been his prisoners, and from that moment his life shifts in way that would last… forever.  And this all came about because first, Paul had integrity with God; that at that pivotal moment, Paul found more interest in the salvation of this one jailer than in the possibility of his own escape.

And yet again, oh that we could say the same!  Maybe you’ve seen the cartoon that’s done the rounds in a lot of church newsletters, in which one man is saying to the other, “I know we’re supposed to be marching in the army of the Lord, but mostly I just feel like I want to be in the Secret Service!”  The sad truth is that most of us are far more willing to talk about jobs, family, politics or the latest scuttlebutt rather than even mention that which is the most precious thing of all, our relationship with God in Jesus Christ! I ask you: is a Christian faith unexpressed and unshared really that much of a faith?  As disciples of Christ, we have been commissioned to spread the good news of the Gospel; to do so with boldness – to let our faith in Jesus Christ speak to the concerns and challenges we face in this life – is to have integrity with God.

And here’s the thing; so often it’s our integrity with God that makes all the difference in a world that rife with conflict, uncertainty and despair.

For even now, beloved, in the extended circle of friends, family and co-workers, even amongst those who we barely know, there are those who are crying out to receive what we have to share; because whether they’re saying it or not, they’re worried, and stressed, and scared about this thing called life; and because maybe, just maybe, we can be that first word of comfort and the means to opening the door to a new life; and because our story might be the start of their story, too.

I pray that the stories that we tell this week, by what we say and in what we do, serve as a true reflection of our integrity with God.  May the Spirit move in new and exciting ways as we continue the journey of faith begun so long ago; and may our thanks and praise be unto God as we do.


c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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