September 7, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE STORY OF THE CHURCH: BEGINNINGS
The first in a series of six.
The first Sunday after Labor Day kind of feels like the first day of school. There is excitement in the air. It is not the same old same old. It is the beginning of something new. So in anticipating this Sunday, we wanted to do something new and unexpected. Like one combined worship service. Like a meal for all of us after we are done. And like the beginning of a series of sermons to launch us into this new church year.
I’ve started my fifth year with you. That doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true. This is my 199th sermon here. We’ve had 22 baptisms. We’ve received 76 new members. We’ve had 42 funerals. And there’s been one wedding here in this sanctuary. I would have preferred 42 weddings and one funeral. (Don’t ask me which one.)
On Sunday, August 22, 2010 we had a worship attendance of 172. On that same Sunday four years later, August 24, 2014 we had a worship attendance of 172. Not the same 172. Quite a few have left. Deaths, people no longer physically able to get here, moves, and also people who just decided this wasn’t the church for them. Quite a few have come. Some have been born into our church family. Not many. A number have moved to our area. And some have been living here awhile and just decided to check us out. Or you invited them to come. They liked what they saw and they stayed. So this is not the same church I came to in 2010. No church ever does stay the same.
But statistically we are pretty much the same. Our average worship attendance so far this year is 191. Our average worship attendance for 2011, 2012, and 2013 combined was 190. We’re not in decline. But neither are we growing. I think we’re ready to grow. I’ve been feeling for some time that we’re on the brink of some significant growth. A number of you have told me the same thing. But the honest truth is that we could go in the other direction, too. About the only thing we can know for sure is that we won’t stay the same. God will do something amazing here or God will do something amazing somewhere else.
So the series I have felt led to preach this fall comes from a book in the Bible that tells the story of how God did some amazing things in a church. It’s called The Acts of the Apostles. Or just Acts for short. The Book of Acts.
Acts is the second of two books written by the same author. The first of these two books is Luke. You’ve heard of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are the four gospels. They are the four original sources we have that tell the story of Jesus. Of the four, only Luke kept on writing. He wasn’t done when he finished telling us the story of Jesus. He wanted to continue with the story of the Church.
How do we know Luke and Acts have one author? One way we know is the way they begin. They both mention a mysterious man named Theophilus. Both books are written for Theophilus. Luke begins by saying that he is writing, “for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (Luke 1:3-4). And then Acts begins, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach . . . ” (1:1).
An obvious question: Who is Theophilus? We don’t know. He might be a high Roman official. That might be why he is addressed, “most excellent Theophilus”. (I’ve been trying for four years to get you to call me “your excellency”!) Or, more likely I think, it is Luke’s clever way of saying these two books were written for every one of us. Theophilus is Greek for “lover of God”. If you love God, Luke is writing for you.
The very first verse of the book gives us a key word that unlocks the meaning of the whole book. The word is “began”. “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach . . . ” In other words, Jesus isn’t done! Not after he was nailed to the cross, not after he rose from the grave, not even after he ascended to heaven. He’s not done. His three years of ministry on this earth was only the beginning. The story of Jesus continues.
If you don’t get that, this book will make no sense. And by the way, Luke was not the one who gave the book its name. Luke never would have called this book “The Acts of the Apostles”. Because it’s really not about what the apostles did. It’s about what Jesus did, through the apostles. “The Gospel According to Luke” is part one of the story of what Jesus did. “The Acts of the Apostles” is part two.
And it is a story. Acts is often referred to as a book of history. Church history. I would disagree. History is the study of the past. It is the preservation of what we can know about the past. There are historians who are able to tell history in such a way that the events of the past come alive for us in the present. They are the ones who write the books people want to buy. They are not the ones who wrote the books assigned for the history classes I took. But even those who are the most gifted at making history interesting, are still describing something in the past that has already happened.
Acts is not like that. You get the sense reading Acts that the story is unfolding as you read it. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’ve read Acts many times and I still get surprised. Good story tellers tell stories in such a way that you can’t predict how it’s going to turn out. And good story tellers tell stories in such a way that you enter the story. You feel like you are there. You care about the characters. You want to know what happens to them.
Parts of the story of Acts are told using the pronoun “we”. Luke says, “We did this. We did that.” He was there, living the story. And Acts ends in a strange way. It just ends. There is no attempt to wrap it all up with a neat bow. The story just ends. Which means the story continues. You can’t wrap up something that is still happening. Luke can’t tell the rest of the story because the rest of the story hasn’t happened yet.
And that’s one reason I think this is the perfect book for this church right now. Because we are right in the middle of our story. We don’t know what is going to happen next. We are living the story. What “Jesus began to do and teach” continues right here in NampaFirstUnitedMethodistChurch. This series is “The Story of the Church”. That’s a double entendre. It’s the story of the first church we read about in Acts. And it’s also the story of this FirstChurch.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that when a sequel to a movie comes out, they usually use the beginning of the sequel to review what happened in the first movie. Luke does something like that as he starts Acts. Luke and Acts overlap. Luke ends with Jesus on the top of the Mount of Olives and ascending into heaven. The last verse says, “[The disciples] returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God” (24:53).
Acts begins, after the dedication to Theophilus, with Jesus still on top of the Mount of Olives. We have an expanded version of his ascension into heaven. Jesus gives the disciples instructions not found in Luke. He tells them to wait in Jerusalem. To wait for God’s promise of the Holy Spirit. To wait for the power that will come with the Holy Spirit. That power will make it possible for them to do what they never could have done on their own. “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (1:8). This little band of believers is going to become a worldwide church. Jesus has said so. But first comes the hard part. They have to wait.
Then Jesus leaves. He goes to heaven. Angels tell the disciples he’s coming back. But they aren’t told when. Jesus had told them to wait. But he hadn’t told them how long. It’s hard to wait. It’s hard when you know how long. It’s harder when you have no idea how long the wait will be. Luke ends with “great joy.” The disciples make the short walk from the Mount of Olives to the Upper Room in Jerusalem and they are filled with joy. I picture them carrying on like football players in the end zone who get those excessive celebration penalties. They are so excited! This is unbelievably wonderful!! This is totally awesome!!!
“Great joy” is the Bible’s understated way of describing it. But I wonder how long the “great joy” lasted. I’m guessing not very long. As it turns out, they had 10 days to wait. There are 10 days between the Ascension and Pentecost. But they didn’t know they had 10 days to wait. All they knew was they had to wait. I’m sure it seemed like an eternity. I’m sure the “great joy” didn’t last. As it says in that song, very soon “the thrill was gone.”
Their waiting was made harder by something Jesus had said that confused them. I’m sure they were going over and over what Jesus had said and debating what Jesus had meant. They had asked him a question. They wanted to get one thing straight before he left them: “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?'” (1:6) They were confused. There was some unfinished business. Jesus was leaving them and the world was still a mess. How could that be? So essentially they were saying, “Jesus, aren’t you going to wrap things up in with a neat little bow and give us the perfect world we’re pretty sure you meant to give us?”
And Jesus gave this cryptic answer: “It’s not for you to
know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (1:7). What did that mean?
Their confusion was only made worse by something else that was said. They were watching Jesus go up into heaven kind of like we might watch a helium balloon for as long as we possibly can. Then we are told that two men in white robes appeared and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (1:11).
So what does that mean? He’s coming back. That’s good. But we weren’t told when. That’s not so good. So we still don’t know if or when Jesus is going to write the happy ending to this story in which we find ourselves.
You see, Luke like a master story teller is setting the stage for what is to follow. He gives us a huge hint at the beginning. He told us the first book he wrote was about “all that Jesus began to do and teach”. Hint. Hint. The story is about to be continued. But the disciples waiting in the Upper Room don’t get it. They think what Jesus did is done. Or should be done. Or soon will be done. Why isn’t it done? Why didn’t he restore the kingdom to Israel before he left us? They think what Jesus did is done. They are about to discover that what Jesus did is only beginning. They think the book on Jesus has already been written. They are about to discover that the book has barely started and that they are the ones who will figure prominently into the story of what is going to happen next.
They did what they were told. They waited in the Upper Room. And yes, the room where they waited is the same Upper Room where Jesus had shared with them the Last Supper about six weeks earlier. Come to think of it, that’s not a very good name for it. Because it wasn’t the Last Supper. It was the First Supper. Christians have been doing what Jesus commanded and celebrating that Last Supper ever since. As we will today.
I wonder if the disciples shared in communion while they waited. The Bible doesn’t say. I’m curious. I wouldn’t be surprised. What the Bible does say is that they prayed. “They all joined together constantly in prayer” (1:14). And it wasn’t just a men’s prayer meeting. We are told specifically that women were there, too. It was the congregation of a new church waiting to be born. Kind of like us. An old church waiting to be reborn.
Waiting is hard work. Hard work is often easier than waiting. We want to get busy. We have a million and one ideas about what we need to do to turn this church around. There’s no time to waste.
Let’s learn from Acts. The hard work will come soon enough. And it’s not going to be us who will be doing the work. Not by ourselves anyway. It will be Jesus working in us and through us. But Jesus works in and through people who don’t get out ahead of their leader. In the first Church they began by waiting and praying. That’s where we need to begin too, in this FirstChurch.
This is a great day, God. It’s your day. It’s your gift to us. As we gather on this day as your church, we want you to know how fervently we want to be part of what you are doing right here and right now. Revival comes to a church not by our getting real organized and working real hard. Revival comes from the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit comes as we believe that it’s real, as we pray to receive it, and as we humbly and gratefully offer ourselves to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen. iH
I miss seeing Phyllis Case in worship. She and Charles didn’t miss a Sunday for years, but now Charles has passed on and Phyllis has a hard time getting out. But she does read my sermon each week. And she does go to the service provided at Sunny Ridge. And I do get to see her at least once a month as I have lunch with the Sunny Ridge United Methodists and share a communion service with them.
Last Tuesday, after communion, Phyllis shared with the group something from the Sunny Ridge pastor’s sermon. I’d like to share it with you right now:
“When we pray, we often tell our God about our troubles. But why don’t we tell our troubles about our God?”
Isn’t that good! Troubles can almost become our God. They can be all we think about, day and night. They can take the joy right out of living. They can turn us into bitter, self-absorbed individuals. Or, we can make sure God is our God! God is bigger than our problems. God cares about our problems. God can deliver us from many of our problems. And if not, God can give us the strength to endure and to continue doing a work of grace in us. “Though my outward nature may be passing away, my inward nature is being renewed every day” (II Corinthians 4:16).
We may have troubles, but do our troubles have us? Or, is God Lord of our lives, and Lord even over our troubles?