September 19, 2004

The Love of Christ Compels Us
To be the Church
Acts 1:8; 6:7; 9:31; 19:11-20

I remember well the night I first decided to follow Jesus. I was sitting on an old wooden bench at a camp meeting near Allentown one August evening listening to an evangelist preach a sermon from the book of Judges. When he was finished, several of my friends and I—all juniors and seniors in high school—ran front to the altar as fast as we could. What a night it was, and it marked the beginning of a significant revival of sorts among many of the teenagers in my area. Within a few months, our youth group at Bethany United Methodist Church grew from 30 or 40 to 120 or so, and our junior and senior high Sunday School classes were so large that we began meeting in a separate building. A few of us also organized a Bible Study that met before school in one of the high school classrooms, and within weeks, students and even teachers were sitting on the window sills. Just thinking back on those days and experiences stirs my soul. We prayed. We sought the Holy Spirit. We witnessed the transformation of many, many lives.

I’ve thought a good bit about those days lately as I’ve made my way through the book of Acts. I’ve sensed a similar excitement almost leaping from these pages, pages that tell at least part of the story of the early church as it begins its journey through history. In sensing such excitement, I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not the book had been misnamed—the name “The Acts of the Apostles” wasn’t given to the book until years after it was written. “The Acts of the Apostles?” Many of the apostles are hardly mentioned, the writer choosing instead to focus primarily on Peter and even more so Paul. And while it is true that the disciples rarely stand around twiddling their thumbs in the book, the writer calls regular attention to the leading and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Any actions attributed to the apostles are first and foremost attributed to God. So perhaps we should call the book, “The Spirit-empowered acts of some of the apostles and other early followers of Jesus!” Well, we can hardly rename the book now, can we?

The book of Acts, as you perhaps know, is really the continuation of the Gospel of Luke—they form a two-volume set. In his gospel, Luke elegantly recounts the birth, life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ earthly life was in Luke’s mind a fulfillment of God’s promise to bring salvation to the entire world, and his disciples were in turn entrusted with the task of calling people to genuine repentance. The Gospel of Luke, however, ends with the ascension of Jesus into heaven. What happened next? What did the disciples do? Did their initial passion—“they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy (Luke 24:52)”—soon wear off, leaving them sliding smoothly back into their previous routines? Not according to the book of Acts. The momentum is just beginning. Bible Studies are forming. Youth groups are growing. The love of Christ is compelling the Church into existence.

The book of Acts is, more or less, arranged geographically. Christ’s promise to the church and his assignment for the church are both clearly spelled out in 1:8. “The Holy Spirit will empower you,” the disciples are promised, “and you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” From that point on, Luke recounts the story of the early church’s movement from Jerusalem outward. All along the way, he provides brief summary statements or progress reports that enable us to sense the excitement.

In Acts 6:7, as the first wave in this ripple effect, Luke informs us that the “Word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem…” The earliest followers of Jesus caught his vision, proclaimed his message, and witnessed the life-changing effects—in Jerusalem.

Now contrary to what you might think, the church in this earliest phase, as Luke describes it, was not some infallible community unfamiliar with many of the problems and issues that we today face being the church in the world. Quite the contrary. A simple flipping of the pages suggests an assortment of situations that we might think are unique to us in the modern world. The early Christians certainly knew what it was like to wonder what lay ahead. They experienced as well the uncertainty and even tension that comes with undergoing change. Their entire paradigm was in transition; Jesus, with whom they had literally lived for several years, is now gone. They surely sensed the unknown as they sat and waited for the promised Holy Spirit to come.

These same Christians dealt also with some of the internal issues that often pop up in contemporary churches. They needed to recruit volunteers to organize such ministries as food distribution, and they went through a process of filling “leadership” positions. Matthias, you will recall, was selected to replace Judas on the church board (1:21-26). They faced the ever-present matter of caring for the poor and needy among them, often sharing food and other resources (2:45; 4:32-37). They dealt with murmuring among the members, as when the Hellenists—Greek-speaking Christians—in the group complained that their widows were being neglected whenever food was distributed (6:1). And they faced the challenges presented by outright misconduct within the ranks. Ananias and Sapphira, you will recall, lied about their financial resources and withheld funds from the congregation (Acts 5). The early church was hardly free of such internal issues. These believers were not perfect. The church, in fact, was noticeably human.

These early followers of Jesus experienced a wide variety of external challenges as well. They were often at odds with the religious leaders of the day, for example. On one occasion the temple authorities brought them in for questioning and ordered them to refrain from sharing their faith. A short time later, the Sadducees had some of them arrested and placed in prison. And, needless to say, these disciples struggled regularly with the challenge that we are so familiar with—how to contextualize the Gospel of Christ so that it can be understood by various listeners. People of all shapes and sizes, not to mention nationalities, were soon to hear. Issues like these, once again, are not unique to us. The church has faced these and other matters from the very beginning. Yet Luke, who makes no attempt to hide or conceal these struggles, offers this summary: “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem.” “And a great many of the priests,” Luke adds, “became obedient to the faith.”

Luke next informs us, in 9:31, that “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up.” Clearly, the waves that began in Jerusalem continue to ripple further out. Judea. Galilee. Samaria. The call of Christ in Acts 1:8 is being fulfilled.

But again, these 1st century Christians experienced such vitality, not without questions and difficulties, but in the midst of them. As the church continues to grow, further issues emerge. Stephen, who preached a rather “in-your-face” sermon to the high priest and his associates, became the church’s first martyr. They stoned him to death because of his faith in Christ. Luke quickly informs us that such treatment was not limited to Stephen, describing in Acts 8 a persecution that forced the Christians to disperse throughout the region. Just a short time ago many of these believers were profoundly disappointed when Jesus died. Now they are facing the real possibility that following him could lead them to the very same fate.

Yet Luke, without skipping a beat, assures us that these scattered Christians “went from place to place, proclaiming the word (8:4).” This dispersion, in fact, brought to the forefront an issue only partially dealt with earlier—sharing the Gospel with very different groups of people. Now, Philip and other Christians—Jews who have accepted Jesus as the Messiah—find themselves face to face with the dastardly Samaritans, the people who have long been avoided by every Jew on earth. You talk about paradigm shifts! Frustration. A steep learning curve. “Jesus,” these believers are learning, “isn’t just for us. God doesn’t only care about Jews. Church isn’t a closed club. Even the Samaritans are welcome, and even the Samaritans are worthy recipients of the Holy Spirit!” Theological boxes are being destroyed, and barriers between people torn down. These are not easy days. The challenges facing the church are significant.

Yet Luke, once again, informs us that “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up.” Peace?!? Built Up?!? In the midst of persecution and radical paradigm shifts? Yes. Even Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor par excellence, became a believer. Nothing could stop the church from carrying out her mission.

Jerusalem. Judea. Galilee. Samaria. And to the ends of the earth, Jesus said in 1:8. So Luke continues to describe in the remainder of the book the rippling effects of the church as it, compelled by the love of Christ, moves further and further away from its home base. These early believers share their story with increasingly large numbers of new and different people in increasingly distant places—Antioch (in Syria), Ephesus (in Turkey), Corinth (in Greece), and eventually even in Rome (in Italy). Accompanying this exciting expansion are, as you might guess, a whole host of questions and issues that must be considered. Where to meet? What does worship involve? Who will serve in what roles? And you thought these were modern questions!
One of the most perplexing questions facing the expanding church at this time focused on Jewish rituals. The first Christians, as you know, were Jews who accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah. When they became Christians, they continued to follow their Jewish customs and traditions. They avoided certain foods that they considered to be unclean, and they purified themselves through ritualistic ceremonies. These are just the beginning. So now, what was expected of the new Gentile believers? Were they required to become Jewish first, so to speak? Did they need to follow these same rituals in order to be genuine Christians? It was an issue of enormous significance. In fact, the church held its first general conference in order to discuss and debate the issue (Acts 15).
What does it mean to be true Christians? they wondered. What is required of us? Fortunately, Paul’s side came out of the debate on top. Otherwise, we might have asked you to bring a goat with you to church this morning!

Questions. Challenges. Issues. Luke makes no attempt to hide any of them. And yet, as he describes the reception of Paul’s preaching of the Gospel in Ephesus, Luke informs us that
when this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. Also many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices (19:17-18).
“So the word of the Lord,” Luke continues, “grew mightily and prevailed.”
“…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” Jesus said to his followers in Acts 1:8. And like a boat roaring through the water, the church moved ahead, sending ripples—no, waves—in all directions. The book of Acts provides us with just a sampling of such stories. And how did these early Christians do it? What enabled them to overcome countless obstacles and issues, both within the community and without? Luke sums it up rather nicely in 9:31: “Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it (the church) increased in numbers.” What led these Christians forward? They feared the Lord—they lived their lives with a deep sense of reverence for God. They depended on the Holy Spirit—you read about him everywhere in Acts. And they prayed like crazy!

Jerusalem. Judea. Samaria. All the earth. The book of Acts tells us the story of the early church moving out in faithfulness and obedience to their risen Lord. But like the gospel of Luke, which begged for the type of “Part 2” that Acts provides, so too does the book of Acts long for another volume. And another. And another. The book of Acts, as William Willimon points out, has no ending. The story of the church continues to be written to this very day, in gatherings all over the world. In Africa. In India. In Japan. In Europe. In Cuba. In Venezuela. And yes, in Grantham.