Preached at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church on June 23, 2013 on Acts 7:53-8:11 & Acts 11: 1-18 as part of a series on journey and transformation that is personal and lived out corporately in the life of our congregations. This sermon is dedicated to our three youth who were confirmed this Sunday.
I know that after last week’s story from Acts and now this one it might seem like I am taking the congregation through a journey of “trauma in the early church!” Don’t worry I’m not! But they did have their fair share of difficult times and stressful events. They struggled to find the right spot for their ministry to take hold and they were living in a very difficult situation. Our stories today in Acts open with the story of the stoning of Stephen who was put to death because of his teachings about Jesus that were in contradiction with the stringent religious teachings of those in the Temple (much like the issues Jesus tended to have during his ministry). Here is one translation of the last part of Chapter 6, the things that Stephen said to the leaders that is the last things he says just before he is condemned to be stoned:
The Most High, however, does not live in shrines made by human hands….You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are uncircumcised! You always resist the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors did before you! Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute!? And you killed those who announced in advance the coming of the Righteous One—and now you have betrayed and murdered him. You received the law at the command of angels, but you didn’t keep it!
Stephen didn’t hold back. He told the Temple leaders three things, all of them probably the truth, but also very offensive—because he aired their dirty religious laundry in public:
- He mocked their ritual circumcision (a very important marker in the time for who was a “good” religious person and who wasn’t) by saying that they had souls that were “uncircumcised” which meant that they were not 100% serious about the practice of their faith, only in outward signs, but not the inner life
- He suggests they are more in love with their buildings and their “stuff” than their faith
- He says that they have not followed through with living out the law of God that isn’t theirs to begin with, it is a gift from the angels of God.
As a result of the stoning of Stephen; the members of the early church scatter and run for the hills. Who could blame them? Isn’t this what most of us would have done if we were in their position?
Our reading for today then skips a few chapters to Chapter 11. By this point in the story, the early church has undergone a change. Out of the shock of the death of Stephen and the flight of the early church out of Jerusalem, they end up in many different places, talking to new and diverse groups of people they had previously not had contact with. Most of the time the members of the early church end up telling these people their religious story, and in the process and with the help of the Holy Spirit, many become Christians. Because of its scattering, and its connection with new groups of people—the early church grows! Fast forward to Acts 11 and Peter finds himself back in the Temple, to explain once again to the Temple leadership what this new experience with people who had previously been considered “out of bounds” had meant to him and how the Holy Spirit had intervened not just in their lives, but in his. Peter shares with them a vision that God offered him, and a prophesy within it that whatever God’s Spirit invites us into is “clean.” Peter reminds those in the Temple leadership that Jesus made the statement that his baptism would be by the Holy Spirit—so who are we then to interfere with the work of the Spirit?
What is most fascinating to me about Acts is that over-and-over again the Spirit of God moves and shakes up the world of the early church and the people and communities they come into contact with. It is unpredictable, it is unreliable, and it does not follow the direction of anyone. Because of the Spirit, the early church grew, changed, evolved and became a beacon of hope in a broken place.
Today we are celebrating confirmation, which is a celebration of the Spirit of God as it works in the lives of those who are affirming today the promises that their families made in their baptisms many years ago as they were dedicated to God.
When parents present a child for baptism, there is an element of control isn’t there? Babies don’t have a lot of free will, and as parents and as a church, we spend a lot of time early in our children’s lives taking them to church, teaching them about God and offering them our insights and our perspective. But confirmation is something very different. Confirmation is like the Spirit—it’s unwieldy, messy, and probably will go in directions you and I do not anticipate. At confirmation we say “yes” to the promises our parents made for us. We say “yes, I want to go on that ride with Jesus and the Spirit. I want to be in the drivers seat with God for my journey of faith.” Who knows where that journey will take Matthew, Jamie and William? Is it up to us any longer? Yes and no. Yes, it is still up to us in that we still must be community for them and for each other—just like we always are. We need the underpinning of our community to ground and to guide us. And no, we cannot control what will happen for them and what the Spirit will do with or through their lives any more than we can control it for each other. This is the moment to let go—and to let them experience the Spirit—and see what new and unexpected things God might do with them.
This week I read an article that I believe gives voice to what the early church went through, to the journey we celebrate today that Matthew, Jamie and William are embarking out on, and to the church of the future that we are thinking about in these eleven weeks during this series on journey and transformation. It comes from Jim Wallis, who heads up Sojourners—a Christian non-profit in Washington DC that advocates for social change based on the teachings of Jesus. Jim is promoting a new book he’s just written and in this article he writes about an experience he’s been having these days while on the road talking to various audiences and publicizing his work.
The experience is with what Jim calls the “religious cynic.” He or she says something like this, “Well Jim, this is all well and good but the reality of the situation is such and such and I just don’t see how we can ever get beyond this.” Does that sound like something you might say? Cynicism has pervaded our lives in many ways, especially in how we relate to institutions. And since the Church is an institution, many people have stopped believing that this can be an avenue and a place for us to seek out transformation in the name of Jesus. Jim said he has started giving this response when he encounters the cynic during his public talks:
Skepticism is a good and healthy thing, I [tell] every audience. Be skeptical and ask the hard, tough questions about our institutions — especially Washington and Wall Street. But cynicism is a spiritually dangerous thing because it is a buffer against personal commitment. Becoming so cynical that we don’t believe any change is possible allows us to step back, protect ourselves, grab for more security, and avoid taking any risks. If things can’t change, why should I be the one to show courage, take chances, and make strong personal commitments? I see people asking that question all the time.
But personal commitment is all that has ever changed the world, transformed human lives, and altered history. And if our cynicism prevents us from making courageous and committed personal choices and decisions, the hope for change will fade. And this is where faith comes in. Hebrews 11:1 says it best, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And at every stop on the tour, I found myself repeating my personal paraphrase of that biblical text, “Hope means believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.” Faith enables us to act in hope, despite how things look, and that’s what can help make change finally occur and change how things look.
The early church could have easily gotten stuck in cynicism about their present-day situation and the seemingly intractable religious leadership they had to contend with. But they didn’t. And God’s Spirit pulled up alongside them and allowed them the opportunity for personal and community transformation; even though the road never actually got easier, and it kept on landing them back at the Temple not to plead their case, but to explain what God’s Spirit had been doing in their lives. Like the leaders of the early church 2000 years ago, leaders in our church today must guard against cynicism. Where there is great change and uncertainty, cynicism can become a large part of who we are and what we spend our time responding to. In fact, it is the thing we should give the least amount of our energy to—because God’s Spirit is not taking us in a confrontational direction with the institution—but instead a new one.
Our three confirmands; Matthew, Jamie and William will in their lifetimes see and have the opportunity to participate in the “new thing” the Spirit is doing to the Church—not the institution but the movement of people who follow Jesus. When the Spirit has moved us through this next stage, this Church—(and I do not mean just Watchung Avenue), will no longer be recognizable. It won’t be an institution anymore. I believe it will, with the aid of the Spirit be transformed back into something like the early church.
We will have let go of our buildings.
We will be back to the house-church or base-community model.
We will not be aligned with political or social power anymore.
We will be agitators who stand against unjust power and serve as prophets who speak the truth of the Way of Jesus.
The “church” of the future will not be recognizable to those of us who have lived our lives as part of the institution. But the church of the future will be your church Matthew, Jamie and William. And it is your generation, with the help of the Spirit that will breathe new life back into it. Our job is to keep our level of cynicism down. To not be like the early Temple leaders. To keep our minds open even as the sand beneath us shifts and it feels like we have lost all control. Our job is to have faith, and to trust in the God who in great love created all of this, and all of who we are.
So, no pressure! Confirmation is a big deal, no matter what. But I believe that you are being called to like the early church of 2000 years, take us into new, different and uncharted territory to places we never thought we’d go. God’s Spirit is resting upon you and upon all of us today as we celebrate your confirmation and as we celebrate and give thanks for the new place to which the Spirit is leading our beloved Church. Thanks be to God! Amen!
 Eugene Peterson. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002.
 Jim Wallis in Sojourners Online. Accessed June 15, 2013. http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/06/20/post-cynical-christian