The Book of Acts: Charting Our Christian Heritage

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Today is a teaching sermon about the early chapters of the book of Acts.  The book of Acts is the story of how the Christian faith actually became the Christian faith.  It’s an important book for Christians, for it progresses from the resurrected Jesus ascending into heaven all the way to the missionary journeys of Paul.  I want to give you some background on Acts because today we read in these few lines one of the most important stories of our faith, when the gentiles receive the power of the holy spirit.

Now to us, it’s not strange that people of any nation can be baptized or receive the holy spirit.  But up to that point in chapter 10, faith in Jesus was really a faith in Jesus as a Jewish messiah.  And the gentiles were not Jews.  I’m not saying the gentiles were not Jews like we might say Buddhists are not Hindus, or religion to religion.  The gentiles are not Jews in the way, for instance, that Germans are not Costa Rican.

This verse in chapter 10 would be like the people of Budd Lake saying, “Okay, so now we think we’ll follow the King of Spain, and we’ll take on the nationality, culture, and religious practices of the Spanish people.  Why not?  We aren’t Americans anymore.  We are now Spanish.  Paella for everyone!”  That’s how crazy it is and how great the book of Acts is!

So the book of Acts begins with a small group of terrified disciples who believed  Jesus was the messiah for the Jewish people.  But instead the Holy Spirit just poured out power everywhere, and Christianity was spread throughout the world.

So how did the Holy Spirit do this?  The first four chapters of Acts give us the pattern for the work of the Holy Spirit in the whole book.  And I want you to keep four things in your mind.

The Holy Spirit:

1. gives power and authority

2. creates a loving community

3. gives healing

4. gives boldness in persecution

These are signs and wonders so that we can witness Jesus to the ends of the earth.  That last part is important because Holy Spirit and witness are always connected.

In chapter 1, verse 8, Jesus teaches his disciples that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses inJerusalem, in all Judea andSamaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Then he ascends to heaven.  Immediately in chapter 2 we have Pentecost.

The Spirit descends, and what happens?  They speak the languages of all nations.  They don’t speak glossolalia or spiritual languages that require an interpreter.  Paul will talk about that later to the church in Corinth.  No in this first descent of the spirit they praise God in languages that Jews from all over the world can understand.  Why?  Because, as Jesus says, “you will receive power and become witnesses to the ends of the earth.”

And we know it’s a sign because as soon as they do that, what happens?   We go from power to witness.  Peter witnesses to Jesus in a big speech to those who have gathered around them and converts 3000 new members.  So already – in chapter 2, we receive the holy spirit and we witness to Jesus

Now remember the disciples  are ordinary men, fishermen and one tax collector at least, from small towns in northern Galilee.  They have no authority or influence.  But it doesn’t matter.  Holy Spirit, power in worship, and authority in ministry.  Peter’s up there witnessing.

This is the heritage of the Holy Spirit still offered to us.  Power and authority—given  in worship—to witness to the ends of the earth.

But there’s more.

At the end of chapter 2, as soon as people repent and become the first converts, they don’t then go off on their own looking for powerful experiences of the Spirit.  Instead they immediately begin meeting together.  They share all things in common. They care for each other, and by doing this, guess what happens:  they witness to Jesus by example.   We know their love is a sign because Acts tells us God continues to add to their number.  So the second way the Holy Spirit witnesses through us about Jesus is through  loving community.   They will know Jesus if we have love for one another

We experienced this yesterday when so many people came to support Chris and Don at Don’s mother’s memorial service.  That is what it means to care for one another in Christian community, and it’s an example of the love of Jesus.

So our heritage expands.  The Holy Spirit in both power and community, witnessing through both word and example.

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So we have our little group of converts and maybe we could just stop there and have powerful experiences of worship and  all just take care of ourselves right?  We don’t have to let anyone else in.  But no.  Right away in chapter 3, Peter heals a cripple begging at the gate of the Temple.  And of course Peter goes straight from healing—to witness.  He says, “it is faith in Jesus’ name  that made this man strong” (verse 16).

So now we have witness by word, by example, and also by ACTION—by the healing we offer to the world, all in the first three chapters!

This is still within the Jewish community, but imagine it this way:

1)  first the inner circle of followers receives the Holy Spirit

2)  then the Jews from all over the world convert and live together in Spirit-filled community

3)  now the Spirit goes to the broken and unclean on the outside of acceptable Jewish community

4)  then the disciples start traveling to different places

5)  then by chapter 10, the gentiles receive the spirit, and in Paul’s missionary journeys it will continue to spread outwards

The Holy Spirit drops into the earth on Pentecost  and then ripples out like water,   by word, example, and action.  In the end, you’re going to hit a gentile.

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So finally the fourth sign and wonder of the Spirit is in chapter 4 is boldness in persecution.  I wonder if maybe in the end it was easier to accept the outside gentile because they themselves had experienced being  outsiders in persecution.  The high priests and the leaders of the people drag Peter and John into prison for preaching about Jesus.   And it is another opportunity for Peter to do what?  Witness to Jesus.  The leaders are shocked that they are “uneducated and ordinary men” explaining scripture and  refusing to stop witnessing to Jesus even under threat of punishment.

But the response of the believers is to rejoice at this persecution, to pray for more boldness to speak, for more healing and for more “…signs and wonders performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  And that is what they will get, until t his sign and wonder in chapter 10 of the gentiles receiving the Spirit.

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Who can refuse them? Peter asks.  We know it’s the Holy Spirit.  And we know we were powerless, uneducated common people and look what that Spirit did for us?

If they themselves had experienced persecution and knew themselves to be outsiders by their own people, then by chapter 10 they will have a hard time refusing the work of the Holy Spirit when they see it in the Gentiles.  They are witnesses to Jesus, after all, to the ends of the earth.

So this is our heritage.   This is where we came from:  a small, very frightened group of powerless disciples, without education, authority or influence.  Our heritage:

Power and authority – given in worship – to witness about Jesus to the ends of the earth.

The love of community – the mission of healing.

Boldness to follow where the Spirit is rippling out in power and to use every opportunity to witness who Jesus is,  in word, example or action into the world.

And to not be too surprised when, at some point, those ripples hit a gentile.   Whoever that outsider might be to us.

The Reverend Sonia Waters
Christ Episcopal Church
Sunday May 13, 2012