The Sunday after Easter found the saints in Crafton Heights trying to do the same thing that the first followers of Jesus did: explore the process growing from being merely “disciples” (students) who were a step behind Jesus for three years to being “apostles” (those who are sent) carrying the Good News of the reign of God into the world. Our scriptural basis was Acts 4, selected verses.
Who was the best captain of the USS Enterprise? Are you a fan of Captain Kirk? Or do you go with Jean-Luc Picard? Which Star Trek is your favorite? The original? The Next Generation? Deep Space Nine? Voyager? Enterprise?
I’m thinking about spin-offs this morning. In television, a spin-off is defined as a series in which some characters, setting, or ideas have come from an existing show. We met Dr. Frasier Crane on Cheers, but he had a much deeper character after he moved out to Seattle with his own show. The Oprah Show has spawned Dr. Oz and Rachael Ray, and just think about all the different Law and Order or CSI programming that fills the airwaves.
This week, we’re going to begin looking at certain aspects of a sequel that we find in the Bible. Our New Testament contains a two-volume set that features an exploration of who Jesus was and the effect he had on his world. We know volume I as the Gospel of Luke, and it introduces us to Jesus of Nazareth: his birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. The same author wrote volume II: the book of Acts, a spin-off that focuses on the ways that the Holy Spirit moves in and through the community that came together after Jesus left this earth.
Like any good spin-off, much of the story line remains the same. Many of the characters and settings look familiar. But just as The Jeffersons moved on and up from Archie Bunker’s All in the Family, there are some significant differences in the plot lines and character development between Luke and Acts. There are two differences that strike me especially this morning.
First, when Luke’s gospel tells us about the people who associated with Jesus, they are usually called “disciples”. The Greek word for that, mathetes, most often means “learner” or “apprentice”. But when the action shifts over into the book of Acts, these same people are called “apostles”. An apostle does not merely follow along, like a disciple, but is sent out on a specific task, or with a message. Something happened that caused a change in the ways that these men and women saw themselves and were viewed by the world – there was a deepening of character, an enlargement of mission, and a heightening of responsibilities.
And the other thing worth noting this morning is that all of the action in Volume I (Luke’s gospel) takes place in Galilee or Jerusalem. Jesus and the disciples lived and worked and taught in a fairly small area of a rather remote part of the world.
And yet the book of Acts describes a group of apostles who travel the entire Roman Empire as they seek to carry out their calling. The Gospel shows us the church in training, and Acts shows us the church on the move.
The lynchpin in this, of course, is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. That is, I believe, the seminal weekend in human history – and it changed reality for the disciples and the rest of us.
I am fascinated by the shift from disciple to apostle, and for the next few weeks we will be considering the characteristics of this community that grows among and around these early Christians. How are they transformed from a frightened group of tentative followers and learners to being self-assured, confident agents of the risen Christ? What changes them from a group of deniers and betrayers to a community that was known for its willingness to die not only for its convictions and beliefs, but for each other? I believe that much of the groundwork for this change took place in the time between the first Easter and the festival of Pentecost, which was seven weeks afterwards. We will mark “the birthday of the church” on Pentecost Sunday, June 8, this year, and between now and then, we’ll look at the places that the early church went and consider how they were able to grow into the ministry that Jesus gave to them.
Today, we find the apostles in Jerusalem, just a few months after the resurrection of Jesus. Peter and John have emerged as the public “face” of the Jesus movement, and they are preaching to a primarily Jewish audience. There is some real receptivity to the message, and we read of great miracles and mass conversions that take place. There are three thousand new believers in Acts 2:41, and the number has climbed upwards of five thousand by the time we get to Acts 4:4.
The author of Acts presents us with a dynamic tension between the leaders of the establishment religion and the new Jesus way. Peter and John are “uneducated, common men”, while the leaders of the people are “rulers and elders and scribes…”
This isn’t the first time in the Bible that we read about a conflict between someone who has some measure of earthly power or prestige and someone who has been given a charge or a story to tell. The scriptures are full of accounts that describe what happens when someone who is commissioned to tell of God’s new thing is forced to deal with the status quo. And here’s a tip: in the Bible, whenever there’s a choice between someone who has a title and someone who carries a testimony – always bet on the testimony.
Last week, we had the privilege of hearing Tony Campolo preach. A long time ago, Tony taught me that Pharaoh had all of the prestige and the power. He carried the title. But Moses had the testimony and the presence of the Lord. Ahab, Nebuchadnezzar, and Xerxes had titles. But Elijah, Daniel, and Esther had the testimonies. Pontius Pilate, according to those in the know, had all of the best titles. But Jesus had the real power, didn’t he? And now, once again, we see the powerful and the titled seeking to limit the presence and authority of those whom God has sent. If you have any familiarity with the way that the Bible is written, you know who is going to come out ahead in this exchange: God makes a way for those who testify to what he is doing.
But how do you get a testimony? How does one go about obtaining that kind of authority? It seems to me that the church in Jerusalem teaches us two things about living into that kind of faith.
In verse 20, we read that Peter and John stood up to the authorities by saying, “Look, we’ve got to obey God, not other humans.” As they say this, we are given a glimpse into a fascinating pattern in the book of Acts regarding the relationship between God’s words and human response. Throughout this book, there is a strong correlation between God’s moving into the community and God’s speaking truth and then the apostles and other faithful believers pointing to that truth with their actions.
We see in this episode the imperative of knowing God’s word – of studying scripture and digesting it, of savoring it, of understanding what the intentions of God are in the world – so that when it is time for action, the church is not groping blindly, but rather doing exactly what God would have us do. And the only way that we can know what we ought to do is to be alive with the Word that is from God. As the church moves in Jerusalem, it is a church characterized by obedience – even when that kind of obedience winds up costing the church something, as it clearly does when Peter and John wind up in prison.
And when that kind of trouble comes to Peter and John, I’m fascinated by their response. If you or I were to be arrested or taken away, I think that I would join the early church and pray. But I confess that my prayers would not sound like those we read a few moments ago. I think that I’d be praying for safety or for deliverance or for protection. I’d ask God to guard you and make sure that nothing bad happens to you.
But that’s not how the Jerusalem church prays, is it? The prayer of the earliest church is, “Lord, make us bold.” Help us to do that which is right – even when it scares us.
Can you imagine the disciples – even at the Last Supper – praying a prayer like that? But somehow, the power of the resurrection was such that it changed these men and women into a cohesive group with a common testimony – that Jesus Christ is lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Can you imagine me or you praying a prayer like that? How can we grow from mildly interested, sort-of-religious people who don’t mind getting up early on Sundays as long as there’s free coffee and the knucklehead up front lets us sing at least some of the music we really like into a body of believers who boldly proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in acts of healing, love, sacrifice, and joy? I mean, that’s an amazing transformation, isn’t it? Or wouldn’t it be? Is it possible for us to grow from being disciples to being apostles?
It is, if today we are attentive to the places where God is speaking. If we are willing to dive into the scripture and ask God to help us interpret it truly and rightly. If we are willing to sit with our sisters and brothers and hear from them what they think the Bible might be saying, and be willing to share a word as to what we think God is up to.
And we might grow into apostles if we are willing to ask for boldness to walk in God’s ways – and then to set our directions and go in those ways. For some of us, that might mean standing up for someone who is being bullied; it might mean drawing attention to an injustice that needs to be corrected; it might mean that we commit ourselves to providing some resources that others may need to experience God’s best in their lives. Those are frightening steps for some of us, but ones to which we may be called.
For others, though, it may be that there are some bold steps that need to be taken that will cause us pain or discomfort. Perhaps you are in a relationship that is toxic to you, but you can’t bring yourself to end or change it. Maybe you need to come out from behind a lie, or own up to something in your life that is not right, and ask God (and each other) to help make things different. Maybe you need to be bold to ask God to help you do what you feel you cannot do – and cannot even desire doing – on your own.
In either case, there’s a warning to be found here. When Peter, John, and the Jerusalem church practiced obedience and boldness in their faith, they were not transformed into superheroes or celebrities. They were still “ordinary, uneducated men”. But because they were willing to act with such bold obedience, the world around them saw God better.
The scenery is different, and the characters have changed. But the plot remains the same, my friends. Let’s do a spin-off right here – let’s move First Church, Crafton Heights, from a church full of disciples to one populated with apostles. Let us commit to walking obediently and praying with boldness to the end that we might be given the opportunity to testify to what God desires in his people and his world. Thanks be to God! Amen.