Isaiah 49:1-6, Acts 2:43-47
May 25, 2008
A few years ago I was in Kansas City for a Christian Music Festival. We took a group of young people there every year. And this one year, as we were approaching the box office to buy our tickets, we walked by a group of people who had signs and banners and seemed to be protesting something.
Well, I was curious, wondering who would be protesting a Christian music concert. I thought they might make me upset, but I couldn’t help looking closer. It was sort of like gaper delay” on the highway. “Gaper delay” happens near the scene of an accident when people cause a back up on the opposite side of the road, because they’re slowing down to look.
Well, as I approached this group, I noticed that they had some Christian verses and slogans on their signs. So I went closer and started to talk with some of them. And it was very odd. Very quickly, I got the message they were conveying, and it was this. “If you’re not living in a communal arrangement like the people in the book of Acts, then you’re not following God.” They thought we all should be living like the people in the passage we read this morning. I told you it was odd.
That’s what they were doing. They were living in a community patterned off of these verses at the end of Acts 2. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But, the conclusion they drew from their experience is that everyone should be living in that way. And if someone isn’t, then they were not following God’s will. Well, I couldn’t help thinking at the time that they only had about a hundred and fifty million more people to convince! (I wonder how they’re doing?)
Well, I often think about that group when I read this last part of Acts 2. Certainly these people in the early days of the Church believed they were living as God wanted them to. And that group in Kansas City believed that, too. But, should we all believe that? Should we all be living this way? “And all who believed were together, and they had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all as any had need.” That’s how they lived! What do you think? We often gloss over that passage when we come to it. Or we ignore it altogether, because it’s uncomfortable. But I want us to look at it today, especially since part of it tells us the “the Lord was adding to their number day by day.” They were being blessed in that community!
Let me make an observation or two. The first is more of a concern or a caution. We should be very careful when we take our experience as being universal. That’s what the Kansas City people did. God works with different people in different ways. And sometimes it’s hard for us to understand how God works with others in different ways. But that doesn’t mean those ways aren’t valid.
For instance, I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a hard time understanding how God worked with Jacob. Remember him? Jacob was quite the scoundrel! He cheated his brother out of his inheritance. And I can’t help wondering why God honored him. I find myself thinking, “God doesn’t work with people who do such things!” Well, God obviously does. Jacob became Israel, and he became one of the patriarchs of the Jewish religion. The lesson there is, that we can’t know the mind of God. His thoughts are beyond us. We can never claim to know everything about how he works! That’s the simple truth.
I’ll never forget sitting at the dinner table in seminary one day. And there was a guy at table I didn’t know. And he was obviously from a different Christian tradition. I remember him plain as day saying, “I wish the Holy Spirit would start working on this campus.” I remember that really bothered me! He was implying that the Holy Spirit wasn’t working on campus. And I know it was! But then it occurred to me what he was really saying. He was saying, “I wish the Holy Spirit would start working on this campus in the way I’ve always experienced the Spirit working.” And I was sad about that. I was sad that he only saw the spirit working when it was working one way – his way. It occurred to me then that whenever we think we have the understanding about how God works, then we’d better think again! God works differently with different people.
So, for this group in Kansas City to say that everyone who call themselves Christians should be living in a community such as theirs, or they’re not following God’s will, is very troubling to me! And while I applaud them in the way they’ve shown their devotion to God, I question their understanding of a God who loves and honors and blesses many more people in this world than just them.
That’s the concern. Now, before we dismiss them entirely, let me say this. That Kansas City group really had it right – sort of. They understood, along with the people of the early Church, that the message of Jesus Christ is life changing! In both cases, it caused the people to live differently. Sometimes I wonder if we get that message. Being a follower of Jesus Christ does mean that we are called to live differently! So, let me change that group’s statement slightly. Let me say it this way. “If you’re not living in a life changing relationship with God, then maybe you need to ask yourself whether or not you’re following Jesus Christ.”
The more I think about it, the more I pray about it, the more I am persuaded that God doesn’t want us only to follow principles, or ethics, or even commandments. Or in the case of those people, God doesn’t want us only to follow a certain living and working arrangements – even though it might appear to be biblical. Those things are fine. But above all, God wants us to be in relationship with him.
Am I starting to sound like a broken record on this? If I am – Good! That means you’re remembering! While you’re at it, remember the words of the prophet of Hosea which we read a few weeks ago. Through the prophet, God proclaimed this. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, I desire knowledge of me, rather than burnt offerings.” In other words, I don’t want you only to know about me, or to learn about me. I want you to know me! And the word “know” that’s used here is not one that means “learning about,” like you know who the first President was, or you know the names of the stars. It has the greater meaning of “intimacy with.” In fact, it’s the same word that is used elsewhere in the Bible to denote the intimacy between a husband and a wife!
God wants that kind of relationship with us! He even refers to the Church as the “bride of Christ.” Paul says, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave his life for her.” That’s the kind of love God has for us. His love for us is as “intimate” as it is “infinite.” And when you love someone like that, you want to be with them! Don’t you? That’s why God came to live among us in the person of Jesus Christ. That’s why he did all he did for us on Good Friday and Easter and Pentecost! He did it all to bring us back into that close, intimate relationship. And all that is more than just good news! All of that is life changing!
So I’d like you to think today about how your life has changed. How is your life different than it would be if you never chose to be a follower of Christ? And of course, the tougher question is, have you been changed? And when you think about this, I don’t want you to take the “easy answer.” I don’t want you to say, “Oh if it weren’t for Jesus, I’d be a criminal.” or “I’d be a drug addict.” or “I’d be doing this or that ‘anti-social’ thing.” No, those are easy answers! The truth is that most of us probably wouldn’t be any of hose things. We’d probably live a fairly normal life.
I want you to think about the hard answers. I want you to think about the answers that come when we ask if we have become, or are becoming, more like Christ. Are we loving others as he did? Are we living the full, victorious, and joyous life he calls us to live? Are we changing “from one degree of glory to the next?” Many Christians forget all that. Many who call themselves Christians are living lives that are mundane, boring, and unfulfilled, and the fact is they’re no different than anyone else in the world. Many of the followers of Jesus wouldn’t be noticed as being so, by anyone! Is that you? Or are you changed by him?
I hesitate to use a cliché expression here, because that’s the one you’ll probably remember! But I’ll take the chance. Because there’s a great old cliché that asks this. “If you were accused of being a follower of Jesus Christ, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” What do you think? And that’s not just saying you go to Church. It’s asking how your life has changed because of Christ. Can the people you meet on the street tell you’re a Christian, even before you say you are? (If indeed you even bother to mention it?)
As you think about that this week, I encourage you to re-read these stories in the book of Acts. These are powerful stories of that time when all this was new. And I think that always helps give us perspective on our own life in Christ. This was the start of something big. The stories here are characterized by God’s power in people’s lives. And that doesn’t necessarily mean they live in this kind of communal existence. It means that their lives were changed. They were, as Paul says, “New Creations!”
So, I ask you today to think about your own decision to follow Christ. How has it made a difference in your life? How should it make a difference? Was it for you “the start of something big?”
Eternal God, your love for us is infinite and life changing. Help us to know that following our Savior means that we are new creations. Help us to know that the past is finished and done, and behold the new has come. Help us to grow closer to you, and in doing so to be changed from one degree of glory to the next. Help us to be conformed to the image of Christ our Lord, and to live his glorious and victorious life. For we pray in his name, Amen.