One hundred and twenty believers are gathered together for a church dinner. The hummus and pita and fish and olives and wine overflow the tables and there is laughter all around the crowded room. The kids are already done and running around after each other, while their parents yell at them to be careful and not knock over Old Ms. Mary, since she’s not too steady on her feet. The risen Jesus is working the room, talking with everyone and making sure that no one thinks that they are left out. Many still can’t believe that it is him, that he is alive! It has been weeks, now, but it is still hard to believe. They glance around the room until their eyes land on him, and find themselves staring at him in disbelief. It is an event filled with joy. But there weighs over everyone’s heads a sense of gloom. Like an anxiety that is hard to get out of your mind. They celebrate, but at the same time feel this sense of foreboding. Jesus won’t be around forever. What is this going to look like?
Finally, someone stands up and says what many others are thinking:
“What happens next, Jesus? We are struggling to figure out who we are supposed to be. We know that things are different now, now that you are alive. But what happens when you are gone? It feels like we are in a new place and not sure what to do or be here. Out there, the world seems at best dismissive of—and at worst aggressive against—our way of being, and we don’t know what to do with that. So give us a timetable. When will we receive the power to be in control? When will others be forced to agree with us? When is that kingdom coming that will put US in power and control? When will the powers that be let us have the say again? Like back in the old days, when David was king and people feared us? When will we stop being the kid that everyone picks on? When, Jesus, when?”
Jesus smiles his most pastoral smile, and gives them the answer that none of them want to hear:
“That’s not the way this works.”
And you can feel the energy leaving the room, like a balloon deflated.
But then, Jesus continues.
“But here’s what I can promise. You will have power. Not the power that you are looking for. Not the power that you might expect. But it will actually be a more amazing power than the one that you used to have…more amazing than even you can expect. It will look different than you expect, but it will change the world.
Here’s what you will have the power to do. Witness. Tell stories. Witness to the truth of the Resurrection and the Gospel truth that I have taught you. Witness to the power of God incarnate in this world. Witness beyond the boundaries of your own political and national identity to an identity that is more expansive and more amazing than you could ever imagine. You will be my witnesses here in your own town. Your own comfort zone. Your own backyard. You will witness to that Resurrection story and the Gospel truth to your neighbors and friends, the people you see every day on the street. The barbers that know the back of your head better than you do and the bankers that know your financial health better than you do. You will witness to them, and show them what true power looks like.
And that will only be the beginning. That witnessing won’t stop here, but will grow past your comfort zone to those who look and sound different than you, to those who you deep down think don’t really deserve to hear the good news. And it won’t stop there either. It will continue to the ends of the earth. To those beyond even your awareness or imagining.
And the good news is that you won’t need the culture to hold your hand anymore, because you will receive a power that will let you stand up in the midst of the crowd. You will receive a power that will strengthen you to speak up when you normally would be silent. You will receive a power that will allow you to be counter-cultural to the simple-mindedness of the culture you see around you. You won’t need the powers that be to agree with you, because your power will come from beyond them and will eclipse them. You will have power.
So buckle up and get ready…it’s time for the next adventure!
Thus begins the book of Acts. Jesus has arisen and has appeared to the group of disciples, about 120 of them. The opening of the book suggests that there is this anxiety among the people about what is going to happen next. There is unrest in the world and there is unrest in their hearts.
And I think we can get that, right? How many of us ask of Jesus some of the same questions that the 120 were asking of Jesus? Part of what I want to do over the next couple of weeks is ask “what now?” In 2020, what is the Church…what is this church…going to look like? Like the first followers of Jesus, some of us are ready to go back to the glory days, wishing the Church would have the same influence that it had when we were younger. When everyone wanted to be a part of the Church because of the power that it held, the cultural assumptions that we made. Everyone goes to church, because everyone is Christian. What happens when we don’t have those same cultural assumptions around us? What happens now? How many of us are asking, “When does everything go back to the old ways, Jesus?”
And Jesus smiles at us and tell us the same thing that he told his first followers: “It doesn’t work that way.”
But I think that what Jesus told his disciples is good news for us, as well. Jesus, ever the teacher, wants to encourage them, but also explain to them what needs to happen next. He actually gives them pretty concise instructions as to their next steps. How to “Come Build a Church.” Three steps that all build on each other. For them…and for us.
One. Be community. You might be wondering where the church dinner picture comes from; it actually comes from the text. The NRSV says something about “while he was staying with them,” but the actual Hebrew phrase used is “while he was sharing salt.” They were eating together. It was a church dinner. We can’t be sure if all 120 were in the same place, and that might actually be a long shot, but it is clear that whomever was at this scene was sharing community with Jesus. Sharing table. Sharing salt. Jesus begins by reminding his followers how important it is to be together. To share community together. To share their lives together. Take care of each other’s kids and listen to each other’s pains and heartache. Cook each other casseroles and show up at each other’s piano recitals. Share salt with each other. Be community to each other.
This is more important than ever today. For us to be church in 2020, it means we have to double down on relationships. We have to share salt! Church is about showing up on Wednesday nights and youth breakfasts and mobile food pantry and Sunday mornings. And not just showing up, but paying attention to each other. Checking in on each other. If you don’t see someone for a couple of weeks, give them a call. If you know they are going to have surgery, ask what you can do. If it seems silly or shallow to talk about church in terms of relationships and participation and being there, take it up with the Bible. It was no accident that Luke, who also wrote Acts, talked about the importance of table fellowship so often. Jesus got in trouble for hanging out and eating and drinking too much! Community is Gospel, and Gospel is community.
Last Wednesday, we gathered in this room to remember Dan Sawyer. Dan was a member at First Baptist a long time ago, and found us again a few years ago. In some profound ways, we became Dan’s community. His family. He loved showing up for biscuits and gravy with the youth, and talking with Michaela at the table on Wednesday nights, riding with Neal back and forth to church. He loved his family here at First Baptist. And on Wednesday, a long-time friend came to remember him, and thank us. “Looking back,” he said, “the last few years of Dan’s life were some of his most vibrant in his whole life, and that is because of his involvement with you all.” That’s because you showed up. You cared. You made him a part of the family.
Show up. Share salt. Be community.
Two. Be quiet. Jesus tells them that they need to wait. To listen. To be patient. To trust. They were ready to spring into action, but Jesus told them before they could do anything, they needed to be. To pray. To wait. I think what Jesus’ instructions here presume that there is a two-part trust happening. There is trust of community – listen to each other in the sharing of salt—and there is trust of God. The question that gets asked there in verse 6 is one of mistrust. “We want to know what all of this is going to look like. Give us the timetable. Give us the answers. When do we get the power?” But Jesus answer is that they need to trust that God will give them what they need when they need it. It might not look like what they are used to, but if they are quiet, if they listen, if they pray, if they wait, then they will receive what they need. And they will receive it in the context of community.
Listening and waiting together as the people of God is always tremendously powerful activity. It is something I have become more convinced of during my sabbatical. Why do you think that every sermon since I have been back has been about prayer and listening and looking with new eyes and perceiving the Spirit in our midst? I think if we are not listening, we will not hear the Spirit. And we will not hear the Spirit speaking through each other.
I am reading a book called Mindful Silence, by Phileena Heurtz. In it, she talks about the justice ministry that she was a part of, and eventually burned out of. She discovered in hindsight that Christians are often the grumpiest people around, often do better taking care of others than they do of themselves, and are especially prone to burnout. Her response? To found a group called Gravity: The Center for Contemplative Activism; she and her colleagues found that contemplation…prayer…waiting…being quiet and listen to God and one another centered them and gave them strength for ministry. In the same way that it did for Jesus. And in the same way that Jesus commanded the Church. Wait. And the power will come on you.
Three. Be bold. That one seems contradictory to the first one, doesn’t it? But it is actually a logical conclusion. That boldness must come out of a place of quietness. Of listening. Of prayer. Of hearing one another. Once they do that, they will be prepared for the boldness that comes next. Jesus hints at that boldness in verse 8. “You will be my witnesses…” This three-part sending—Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth—is critical to understanding what Jesus is doing. Instead of giving his followers what they think they want: security, a return to the glory days, the certainty of a timetable and a strategic plan, he is giving them what they really need to get through the next days. Boldness. Courage. The ability to stand up and speak. To share the story that they had inside of them. The strength that they had inside of them. And many of us know the next page of this story. A mere twenty verses later, we are reading about the story of Pentecost. Their waiting is fruitful and their chance to be bold arrives, just like Jesus said it would. At a festival in Jerusalem, there were gathered this wide diversity of believers from all parts of the world, speaking all kinds of languages. At the most opportune time, the Spirit shows up and invites boldness from the followers, invites them to be the witnesses that Jesus called them to be. And they do! They speak in these various languages to all those gathered and it is the first domino to fall in the process that Jesus lined out in verse. 8: Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then the ends of the earth.
So what does bold look like today. Here is a tough one. The year 2020 is going to be a year for being bold. But not in a good way. In this election year, people are going to tell each other all over the place who is right and who is wrong. Christians will not be exempt from this, but will likely be some of the loudest voices to say that the only way to be Christian is to agree with them.
So how can we be different? How can we be bold in love? Be bold in welcome? Be bold in patience with each other? Be bold in the willingness to really listen to each other? Be bold in silence…to listen to what the Spirit is leading us to be and not just our own perspectives. Be bold in the counter-cultural telling of our stories and not just waiting for the world to agree with us. If we are going to be Pentecost-driven people, we don’t really know what it will look like. We know in rough terms how to get there—be community, be quiet, be bold—but we know that we have to trust the Spirit to be our guide.
The text doesn’t say, but we could conclude rightly that the same person that asked about going back to the glory days was also in that upper room when the Holy Spirit showed up. She or he was empowered to speak with tongues of fire. She or he rushed out of that room with a story to tell, a Gospel to witness to, and a Jerusalem to save.
The same is true for us today. Are we ready for what God is going to do in 2020? Are we ready to be community? To be quiet. And to be bold? Buckle up, it’s going to be a ride!