SERMON: Three Slaps of Reality (Acts 1:6-14)
For many people, life can be a bit of a struggle. Reality at times can be too difficult to face. Yes, there are some who seem to breeze through life, apparently facing no difficulties at all. But there are others who seem to cop one thing after another—whether it’s ill health, a souring relationship, or just bill after bill—and there can seem to be no way out of the situation at all.
Because, whilst some find the difficulties of life easier to cope with, others can take them too much to heart. And, as a way of coping, some like to dream of a better life, and find themselves speculating of the possibilities of the future. Others tend to daydream, and plod along in their own time and at their own pace, somehow immersed in a whole new world of their own. And, others still don’t cope very well at all. They fill in their time speculating about why everything that could happen happens to them, what they have done to deserve it all, and what hope (or lack of it) they have for the future.
Now, sometimes we all need a bit of escapism, there are times when we all need to dream. And self-examination is important too. But to dwell on the extremes of escapism or self-analysis is not a healthy thing. It can be very helpful in those situations, then, to be faced with a good healthy dose of reality.
B. THE DISCIPLES
Now, one such group of people who’d been through a hard time, and got themselves so caught up with dreaming and speculating about the future we can read about today. They are the disciples of Jesus.
1. The Rough Patch
Now the rough patch they’d been through was the result of a number of factors. Firstly, they’d left their homes, jobs and families, to be with Jesus. They had spent two to three years following him from town to town, only to be hit with the bombshell that he was leaving. Secondly, they hadn’t done much to be proud of. Because even after Jesus had told them he was going, and why—and had made promises about sending “another counsellor” to be with them—within less than twenty-four hours they had betrayed him, denied him, or run away. And thirdly, we mustn’t forget their political and spiritual background. Politically they were Jews—a conquered people living in a land occupied by another nation. And even though spiritually they were waiting for the Messiah—someone who would establish Israel as a nation to which all other nations and peoples would be subservient—that expectation had been going for hundreds of years. And their expectation, as far as they were concerned, had still not been met.
2. The Speculation (1:6)
So, you can imagine the combination of feelings they would have felt when Jesus told them he was leaving. Because, whilst there may have been relief following the resurrection of Jesus, they would probably have been filled with confusion too. After all, he may have appeared before them several times in the previous forty days, but there was nothing very permanent about his appearances. They may have had continuing sorrow about their betrayal, denial and desertion of Jesus at his moment of greatest need—and they would have had some time to consider their mistakes—but certainly not enough time to have made them forget them. And regarding the hopes of Israel? Well, Jesus had visited them many times in the last forty days, but there were still many questions that they wanted to be answered, like: “Did his appearances mean that he had come to stay?” And, “Was he the political Messiah they were looking for?”
So, not backward in coming forward, the disciples when faced with Jesus just one more time asked the most natural question in the context of their situation: “How soon was it before the end was going to come? How soon would it be, until his kingdom would be established on earth?”
3. The Slap of Reality
And like us when we’re struggling, and when we dream, and we speculate that two and two make five—and we need that bucket of cold water thrown over us to bring us back to reality—that is exactly what happened to the disciples. Only they didn’t just get one bucket of cold water, they got three.
a) Jesus (1:7-8)
Because the first dose of reality was provided by Jesus himself. He told the disciples, in no uncertain terms, that when the kingdom would be established was God’s secret, and God’s secret only. In other words, there was no room for human speculation in that regard. On the contrary, he suggested, that instead of spending time indulging in wishful thinking or apocalyptic speculation, what they needed to do was to prepare themselves for the task ahead.
They were to be witnesses to him, telling the world what he had said and done. That is what they should have their minds on, not on dreaming of the future and speculating about what might be. Rather they needed to prepare to share their faith with the world, as they awaited the gift of the Holy Spirit who would help them in the task.
b) The Ascension (1:9)
The second dose of reality was the Ascension itself. Because the next thing that happened was that Jesus was lifted up and taken away in a cloud. Now this may have indicated the pattern for his ultimate return to earth, but for the disciples, this was a message that his continual visits had come to an end. Indeed, it indicated that there was going to be a gap between his Ascension and his Second Coming. A gap which needed to be filled with something. And that something was what Jesus had told them, a period of witness and mission by his disciples.
c) The Angels (1:10-11)
And the third dose of reality? Well as the disciples continued to stare into the sky after Jesus, longing for his reappearance or some other such spectacular event, two angels appeared and gave immediate commentary on what they had seen. And they reproached the disciples for dawdling there and for their longing for Jesus. And they told them that the time of dreaming and speculation was over, and it was now time to get on with the task that they had been given.
4. The Response of the Disciples (1:12-14)
It was quite a slap in the face that the disciples received. A wake-up call for reality. And bearing in mind what they’d been privileged to witness with Jesus—the teaching, the training, the example that Jesus had been to them, the miracles that they had witnessed, the compassion of Jesus that they had seen—in a sense, the necessity for such a slap is quite surprising.
But the disciples did get the message. And of course, the disciples went and did as they had been told. They returned to an upstairs room in a house in Jerusalem where they had established themselves, and they used the time between the Ascension and Pentecost to prepare and pray for their work of witness in the world.
5. The Result
And the disciples, broken of their unhealthy speculation of the future and being encouraged to put the past behind them, with their minds focussed very much on the job that God had given them, some ten days later, beginning at Pentecost, went out, and did what Jesus told them to do. And they were used by God to do some amazing things.
Now, it’s a fascinating story. A story of a group of people who’d been through a very rough time. But as part of their way of coping, remained stuck in their dreaming and in their speculation of the future. But they got through that, thanks to a healthy slap of reality from Jesus himself. And as a consequence, there are a number of lessons for us in this story of New Testament life.
And the first is, that when we’re feeling down and low, and when we’re going through rough times, we need to remember that we are not alone. Indeed, lots of people could equally say “Been there, done that”—the disciples included.
So, when we’re dreaming or speculating about the future, when we’ve made mistakes, or we’re punishing ourselves for the things that have happened, we can be assured that the disciples went through the same things in the period following the arrest of Jesus. Their behaviour at the time was not something to which they would have been particularly proud. They didn’t handle the situation well. And that is something we can probably all relate to.
Secondly, we need to accept that in life there will always be an element of mystery, an element of the unknown. And that’s not going to change no matter how much we want it to.
In Jesus’s words to his disciples, there was a reminder that not everything that happens—or will happen—will be explained or revealed by God during this present life. And not everything that the disciples wanted to happen was either going to happen or happen in the way they wanted either.
As a consequence, like the disciples, we might be keen to know the future. We might want to map out where we are heading and what’s in store for us in detail. We might have hopes and dreams of the way we want things to go. But the reality is, that in this life, we may never know, or experience things, the way that we want to experience them. And we can waste valuable time and energy speculating about what might be.
Yes, it may be good to have an enquiring mind. But to be consumed in trying to work out all the mysteries of life can be a pointless exercise.
So instead, thirdly, rather than live in our own world, we need to ground ourselves in reality. And in particular in the task that Jesus has given us to do.
Now Jesus, during his earthly ministry, had told the disciples many times what he expected them to do. He pulled them aside on many occasions and focussed on the preparation they needed for the time he would no longer be around. He even sent them out into the towns to help him in his ministry, but as a kind of a practice run for the future too.
So, when it comes to the matter of faith, we need to ground ourselves in the task that Jesus has given us to do too. Now Jesus’s command to his disciples was to go out and make disciples, to let people know the good news, and to teach them what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It was a task the early disciples began but is still not finished. It’s a job that still has a long way to go and needs our part too—not only overseas, but in our own backyard as well.
And, fourthly, we need to accept that from time to time that we will need wake-up calls too.
Now the disciples needed more than one wake-up call to get them back on track. And my guess is that each time they received a wake-up call they modified their position—and probably then considered that they were back on track. However, nothing could have been further from the truth. Indeed, in this one story alone, they needed three such wake-up calls before they were ready to go and prepare for what Jesus had planned. And these weren’t the first wake-up calls they would have received, and they probably weren’t the last. As a consequence, we shouldn’t be surprised if we need wake-up calls from time to time too.
But then isn’t that the way that many of us have experienced how God works? A wake-up call as he deals with us, one issue at a time. And as each time an issue is dealt with—or is at least well in hand—we get another wake-up call raising another issue which we may not even have known needed dealing with.
As a result of their triple reprimand, the disciples locked themselves away and prepared for the future. When given their focus, they went up to the privacy of their upper room and spent time in preparation and prayer. However, ten days later, filled with the Holy Spirit they were out and about, and telling all and sundry about Jesus.
And in this is another warning. Because so easily can an unhealthy focus on speculation or dreaming or over analysing be replaced by an unhealthily period of preparation—where the preparation never ends, and the evangelism never begins. But the disciples had ten days and ten days only, and then they were out and about sharing their faith. And that’s the kind of timetable that we need to work to too.
When life becomes a bit of a struggle, then, and we seem to have lost the plot, we have story, a true story, that should give us great hope.
It’s a story of how God took the eleven remaining disciples—disciples who were down, who had gone through a very rough patch and were beginning to get so tangled in their hopes for the future that they’d lost track of reality—and got them to face reality and get on with the job that he had given them to do.
Jesus restored the disciples to be the kind of people they were meant to be—living in this world and telling others about him. And that is exactly our task to do today. The mistakes that the disciples made, we’re probably not something of which they were proud. But to combat the dreaming and speculation of better times, they needed that slap of reality.
Now, we all make mistakes, and bad things happen to all of us from time to time—and we all have our own way of coping in such situations. But sometimes we need a slap of reality too. And for a Christian part of that slap may well be a reminder to stop dreaming, to stop speculating, and to get on with sharing the faith.
That’s certainly the lesson that the disciples learnt. But is it a lesson that we have learnt too?
Posted: 28th July 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: A Cameo of the Church (Acts 2:42-47)
Ask any group of people what they think the church is – or should be – and you will come up with a variety of responses. Indeed it can seem, at times, that everybody has a different idea about what the church is all about.
Some think that the church is the building. That its presence is important as a focal part of the community, or because it represents some connection with the past. Some think that the church is the people. But not necessarily just the people who go to church regularly. But it includes anyone who in anyway feels connected. And some think that the church is the people. But only those who have a full relationship with God. And by that definition, it does not include everyone who goes to church.
Now, depending upon what we think the church is, or what it should be all about, will reflect our attitude towards it.
For example those in the first group, who see the church as a building, as the focal point of the community, with some sort of connection with the past, will more than likely have a focus on preserving the structure, and have a strong emphasis on maintaining historical values.
Those in the second group, who have a very wide interpretation of who belongs to the church, will more than likely want to encourage a variety of expressions of beliefs. They will be keen to maintain the building’s presence, so it is there when people feel the need or for those special occasions.
And those in the third group, who believe the church is about people who have a full relationship with God, well this group will be represented by people who want to emphasise the church’s role in terms of the importance of worshipping God, and in terms of sharing and caring within the Christian community. Indeed they may not have any real attachment to a building at all.
Three different groups, then, with three different attitudes to what the church is, or should be all about (and of course there are all sorts of shades in between). But the question is, “Which one is right?” Or are they all right? Do they all encapsulate elements of the truth?
B. A CAMEO OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH
Well, to answer the question of what the church is, and should be all about, I’d like to refer to the book of Acts (Acts 2:42-47). Because Luke records for us a cameo of the early church. And in comparison with modern attitudes about the church, Luke makes some very interesting observations indeed.
1. Four Elements of Christian Gathering (42)
And the first feature is, the extent of the devotion of all those involved.
For example, we’re told that the believers were keen to hear the teaching of the Apostles, who were noted as the guardians of the faith. Indeed they were keen to meet and be taught as often as possible, and they hung on to every word that was said.
We’re told that the believers were devoted to having fellowship with one another (and in those days that meant “sharing” with one another in a common religious experience). They met together regularly to build each other up in the faith.
We’re told that the believers broke bread together. In other words they shared meals together, at which they remembered the Lord’s Supper.
And we’re told that the believers sought every opportunity to pray together. And prayer was a regular part of their meetings.
2. Public Reaction (43)
The second feature that Luke records about the church is, that the public, those outside the church, were filled with a sense of fear or awe.
As a result of their devotions, God was able to do some wonderful things. Indeed, many signs and wonders were done through the Apostles. Something that not only would have encouraged the believers, but at the same time created a certain apprehension amongst the non-Christian population, in whose midst these supernatural events took place.
3. Christian Community (44-45)
The third feature of the church that Luke describes is, the distinctive way in which the believers lived. They practiced some kind of joint ownership of possessions. Indeed, people sold their possessions so that the proceeds might be used to help the needy among them.
Of course our first impression may be of a community whose members lived together and had everything in common. However, what really happened, was that each person held his goods at the disposal of the others for whenever the need arose.
4. Meeting Together (46)
The fourth feature of Luke’s cameo is, that the religious devotion of the early church was a daily affair. They met together in the temple, and joined in the daily worship at the temple. That is in addition to meeting together in their own homes, for religious gatherings and for common meals.
5. Church Growth (47)
And the fifth feature of the early church is, that they put their beliefs into practice. They praised God and shared their faith with those who didn’t know Jesus. As a result the church grew. And it grew at a phenomenal rate.
C. CONTRASTING IMAGES
Now that is Luke’s cameo of the early church… the church in its infancy, as yet untainted by other influences.
So getting back to our modern day images of the church, and there were three of them, how do they compare?
Well, firstly, to the idea that the church is a building, the focal point of the community or that it has some sort of historical connection with the past, that whole idea is quite foreign to the image of the church as portrayed by Luke.
Indeed, Luke’s description of the church is of a living organic being made up of people, and people only. Yes, the early Christians may have gone to the Temple to meet (and they may have even worshipped there), but they then returned to their homes, where they had fellowship or other meetings. In other words the Temple was not the be all and end all of all their religious devotions.
Further, with their attitudes towards selling possessions, and for the priority of helping one another, one can easily conclude that the idea of a building being the church would have been quite alien to their beliefs and practices.
Secondly, to the idea that the church is about people who have a wide variety of beliefs, which include the idea that it is not necessary to worship on a regular basis, the church of the New Testament would have found that completely foreign too.
Because not only did they meet very regularly, some daily, but they knew nothing about an all-inclusive, all embracing church. Indeed, meeting together only occasionally for rites of passage, or for some other reason, was not part of their beliefs or practices. Rather the frequency and regularity of meeting together, and the purpose – to worship, to be taught, to share and to pray – were the essential features of the church’s life. Indeed they were keen on being taught, so they got it right. And they went out of their way to share their particular beliefs with others.
And, thirdly, to the idea that church is about people, not buildings, and about people who have a full relationship with God, and that caring and sharing is what it’s all about too, well, that would have to be the closest description of the three to the New Testament church that we can get to today.
Because that is exactly what the New Testament church was all about. It was all about taking the faith seriously. It was about maintaining the awe and wonder, the things that God wanted to do for his people. And it was about going out and sharing the faith with any who had not yet responded to the good news of Jesus, not keeping it to themselves.
2. What Makes The Church Tick?
Now obviously this cameo of the early church poses a real challenge to the modern church. Indeed it poses a completely different view of the church than most people believe in or practice today. So why the difference? Well, we can only speculate.
a). The Early Church
But for the early church the resurrection was a current reality. It was something that the people were excited about. Consequently their commitment to Jesus and to the life of the church was very real. And because it was real God was able to be very active in the church. Indeed the things that he did, and the way he blessed his people, was something to be seen. And because of the excitement, and enthusiasm, the faithful couldn’t help spread the word. And as a consequence the church grew at a phenomenal rate.
The reality of this cameo is that people not only believed in the resurrection, but they understood what it meant for their own lives. Yes, that meant a completely new life style, and sometimes great sacrifice, but they did so, knowing what it was that Jesus had done. And they were blessed because of it.
b). The Modern Church
In contrast however, if we look at the church today, the difficulties the church faces reflect the fact that the resurrection for most people is no longer a current reality. It’s no longer something that really grabs them. As a consequence, the commitment to Jesus, and the commitment to his people, is something that many people are no longer prepared to give. As a result God is not able to be very active in a church that is not being faithful. And, what’s more, the church finds it harder and harder to grow. Indeed, in the western world, the church for the most part is headed in the opposite direction.
D. THE SOLUTION
Of course the solution to the modern day problem is obvious. We need to return the church so that it’s like the early church described by Luke in the New Testament . The question for us today, though is, “How do we do it?” How do we get back to that ideal? How do we move the many obstacles in the way, not least of which are all the wrong ideas about what the church is all about?
Well, the simple answer is we need to learn to let go, and let God. We need to let go of our own ideas, and our own wants and desires. We need to let go of the things that we love, and hold dear. And we need to let God, through his Holy Spirit, guide us, and take us on a journey we probably don’t want to go. (And having this passage from Acts, we should have a fair idea of where that journey will take us.) Ironically the way we to reform God’s church, is to turn back the clock. We need to pick up the features of the early church, and we need to apply them for ourselves.
That means, firstly, we need to begin with the need for teaching. The church isn’t about what we want, it’s about what God wants. Consequently we need to know what God is like, what he wants, and how he thinks. Teaching, reading the bible, and study therefore are all important aspects, essential for Christian growth.
Secondly, we need to take seriously the need for fellowship. The need to meet together and to share common religious experiences. Indeed the need to meet together to encourage and build up one another in the faith should be an essential element in the life of every believer.
Thirdly, we need to break bread together (that is, share meals together). Because the more formal aspect of meeting together is one thing, but we mustn’t forget the social aspect of living as a community too. As Christians we are adopted into a new family, a family of believers, and we need to take our family responsibilities seriously.
Fourthly, we need to pray. Because the need to meet regularly to pray is an essential feature in the life of the church. Now prayer involves many things. It involves adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and petition. But most importantly it’s about having a dialogue with God. Because whilst we can learn much about God through other means, there is no substitute for talking to God directly about things of a community concern, as well as those which are of a personal concern.
Fifthly, we need to build up a sense of community. We need to care for one another, and look after one another’s needs. And I might add, using the early church as an example, we need to be prepared to do this no matter what the personal cost.
And, sixthly, we need to share our faith with those around us. And dare I say, if we got the first five features right, then this would not be the hard task that some find it is today. Indeed, it would come very easily, because it would be the natural result of getting all the other basics right.
And if we were committed to all those things, with God’s help, then God could bless us too, as he did to the early church.
Now, as I said at the beginning, ask any group of people what they think the church is, or should be, and we would end up with a variety of responses. However, as we’ve seen today, many of them are just not true. The idea that the church is a building is not true. And the idea that the church is a sort of all-embracing description for a wide variety of beliefs and practices, which includes the need for a building to be there for special events, is not true either
Indeed, the church is the people of God; it is the body of believers. It is the group of people who have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation.
The dilemma the church has today, then, is, how to turn the church, as it has become with all the corrupt views, into the kind of church described in the Acts of the Apostles. A church that shows God’s people in action. A church that illustrates God’s response to his faithful people. And a church that is growing at a phenomenal rate.
So yes, today as a church we have a problem, a big problem, and yet the solution is so simple:
Teaching, fellowship, breaking bread together, prayer, a sense of real community, a commitment to meeting regularly together, and the need to share the faith with others, were all aspects of the early church, a church uncorrupted by other influences. And they should all be aspects of the church today as well.
But is this a model we would like to see in our own churches? And just how far are we prepared to go to turn back the clock, so that our churches can be as God intended?
Posted: 2nd June 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: A Cameo of the Church (Acts 2:42-47)
Ask any group of people to define what the church is, and you will end up with a variety of responses. Some will say that the church is the building, and that it represents the focal part of the community, or a connection with the past. Some will say that the church is the people, but it includes everyone who in some way feels a connection (no matter how tenuous) to the buildings past. And some will say that the church is the people, but only those who have a right relationship with God. The question today, though, is which one is right?
Well, to answer the question, we should perhaps go back to the cameo of the church that is described for us in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Because what we have described for us is a church bubbling with life. The people were totally involved in being taught about the faith. They cared for one another, they shared meals in each other’s homes, they prayed together, they worshipped regularly, and as the need arose they supported one other financially. So much so, that they were a beacon in their community. They didn’t have to go out and tell others about their faith. Their beliefs and actions said it all. And as a consequence people came flocking to them.
Now, is this a picture of the kind of church to which we belong? I don’t think so. Because it seems to me that there is a great gulf between the cameo that we have described for us and the reality of our churches in Tasmania today. What this cameo does, however, is to clearly demonstrate that the church is not the building, and it’s not necessarily everyone who comes to “church”. Rather it is the people who have committed their lives to God, and who are devoted to learning more about their faith, and who care and spend time with their fellow believers.
Now imagine belonging to a church like that.
So is this the kind of church to which we like to belong? And if so, what are we doing (if anything) to reach this lofty goal?
Posted: 17th February 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Reading Books Can Be Dangerous (Acts 8:26-40)
Do you like reading books? I hope you do. But if you do, has anyone ever told you that reading books can be dangerous?
Well, obviously, in the past, people have got themselves into trouble because they’ve tried to read the wrong books—books that have been banned because they were considered “dangerous” for political, cultural or other reasons. But that is not the only reason that books can be dangerous. Because books can be a challenge to one’s lifestyle and one’s whole way of thinking too.
Take the story of an important official, traveling from Jerusalem to his home in Ethiopia—a distance of at least 2,500 kilometres. Now he was probably in a covered wagon drawn by oxen, and in need of something to pass away the time. So, what was he doing? He was reading a book. But not just any book, but one of the books of the Old Testament—the book of the prophet Isaiah. And although we don’t know how much of the book that he had read, we do know that he had read the part of the book that foretold the crucifixion of Jesus.
And what was the official’s response to what he read? Well he not only wanted someone to clarify what it meant—and Philip described Jesus sacrificing himself for the benefit of others—but he then insisted on being baptized. Talk about books being life changing.
Now the Christian faith teaches that only those who have lived perfect lives, who have not made one mistake, will inherit eternal life—which doesn’t sound too good for us. And, yet, the Christian faith also teaches that to get around this problem, God sent his Son to pay the price for our mistakes, so that those who believe in him can have their mistakes wiped clean.
And that is what the Ethiopian Eunuch finally understood as he read from the prophet Isaiah, as he talked to Philip, and as he stopped his wagon in order to be baptised. He understood that baptism was about acknowledging that we are totally dependent upon God for our eternal welfare, and that we need our record of mistakes washed clean.
Reading books, then, can not only be dangerous, but life changing. And there can be no more dangerous book to read than the bible—the handbook of the Christian faith. It certainly made a difference to the Ethiopian eunuch, and it should make a difference to us too.
Posted: 30th June 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: The Structure of the Church (Acts 15:1-23a)
How the church should be structured, today, is often a matter of debate. Indeed, it is not unusual for some people to advocate one model over another—one denomination over another. And, of course, each model has its virtues.
Today’s models, however, are in stark contrast to the early church. Because, in the book of Acts, we have a description of a single unifying body (based in Jerusalem), but which allowed a diversity of structure to meet local need.
Now it seems to me that we have lost much in our modern approach. We have lost that unity. We have also lost that diversity to some extent—structures are imposed which do necessarily meet the local need. As a consequence, there are many things that we can learn and apply from the principles of the early church, no what the structure of our church or denomination today.
And the Council of Jerusalem is an example of how things should be done. Because when we read the story, we can realise at least four things:
Firstly, when the early church had an issue to debate, they created a forum to talk through the issues, to air their views, and to seek God’s mind on the subject.
Secondly, they created a situation where all views were considered. Yes, there were divergent views, but everyone had the chance to talk, before a decision was made.
Thirdly, the forum concerned itself primarily with the spiritual life of the church, not just then nuts and bolts issues.
And fourthly, the whole focus of the meeting was to grow the church, to remove all stumbling blocks—and not just to hold on to tradition.
Now does all that sound familiar? Because it should do. Because no matter what the structure of the church or the denomination that we belong to, those principles should remain the same.
Unfortunately, that has not been my experience. Indeed, my experience has been that people generally try to avoid spiritual debate. And when spiritual issues do arise, invariably one or two dominate the debate, not everyone has their say, and maintaining the status quo remains the priority.
The structure and example of the early church, then, creates a real challenge for the modern church. Not least of which is to realise that we need to go back to New Testament principles and apply them in our churches today. And we should do that, no matter what structure or denomination that we enjoy.
Posted: 24th February 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis