Pastor Kyle Bitter - The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, August 16, 2020

Text: Acts 2:42-47

Watch Service Video

Today’s sermon directs our attention to Luke’s description of life in the early years of the Christian church as recorded in the book of Acts. Luke describes believers: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possession and goods, they gave to everyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47 – NIV84). Have you ever found yourself listening to a description like that, or other similar ones in other parts of Acts, and having a sense of longing? It all sounds so simple, so loving, so good. Even though you know it wasn’t quite that simple, it’s not hard to long for such clear-cut unity in the face of persecution that threatened to divide, for such generosity and care for others, despite their own poverty! For such amazing numeric growth in the church that they had the privilege of being a part of! If only some of that could carry over to today! Now, you know as well as I do that it wasn’t quite that simple – there were certainly things in first century Christianity that involved struggles and persecutions that you and I can be incredibly thankful we have been spared by the grace of God. But, when you read little descriptions like these, it can still be easy to think – I wish more of that were around today! 

And maybe that desire comes about because so many of our experiences with churches and other Christians, aren’t completely satisfying. And I don’t say that as a specific criticism of our congregation or any other, but just as a general observation that really shouldn’t be shocking: places and ministries and organizations founded by sinful people and existing in a sinful world are always going to disappoint at some level. It’s always going to leave you wanting more. Sometimes that’s easy to see. Over the last couple of months under the restrictions of a pandemic, how hard has it been to appreciate a sense of shared Christian community? Online church is certainly a blessing that makes the current situation a lot easier to navigate, but it’s just not the same! And the pandemic isn’t the first time that you may have found yourself wishing for something a little better. You don’t have to look all that hard or be a part of a group all that long to figure out that Christian people as a whole are sinful people too – and there are times when that causes struggle and strife even within a community of believers! Sadly, we all have to admit that there have been times when we are the problem – sinfulness is something that characterizes far more of our lives than we’d care to admit!

When you take a closer look at the first century church though, you start to realize that for as good and wonderful as this description from Acts sounds, perhaps things weren’t as different back than as it might seem at first glance. Alongside the generosity and selflessness we see here, we find a few chapters later the account of Ananias and Saphira and their misleading attempts to make a name for themselves among the Christians. Alongside the unity and camaraderie we see described here, we find record of times when early Christians were bitterly divided over worship practices and the role of Old Testament ceremonies in their lives.  Alongside the rapid growth of Christianity, we find no shortage of people who were completely familiar with Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah to come, but wanted nothing to do with Jesus as Messiah! All that, when coupled with the formal persecution that was prevalent in the first century, serves to highlight the miracle of what we see described in today’s sermon text. Listen again to Luke’s description: “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:43-47 – NIV84).

So what made it possible for such blessings to still be present among God’s people even amidst so much sinfulness and so many struggles?  It’s not as though these are some “special” Christians who are innately better than anyone today – we already talked about their struggles. And it’s not as though this is an example of Luke looking back at the past with rose colored glasses and remembering fondly something in a far better light than what the reality had been. No, the blessing we see here is an example of what we confess to be true in the first part of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed when we confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit, and Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, and the forgiveness of sins. 

A Place of God’s Presence

A quick look back into some of Israel’s history provides a unique perspective on that. About 1500 years before Jesus, worshiping God had centered around a movable sanctuary called the tabernacle. This tent was the place where God interacted with his people through the priests. The tabernacle was the place where the promise of the Messiah was proclaimed through sacrifice and ritual. And it was the place where God’s presence could be found – symbolized by a pillar of fire that rested on the tent. A few centuries later, about 1000 years before Jesus, God had used a king named Solomon to build a permanent temple in Jerusalem – a splendid building ornately decorated with gold! Once again, this would be the place where God interacted with his people through the priests. This would be the place where through sacrifice and ritual the work of the Messiah to come would be proclaimed, and this would be the place where God’s presence would be found – symbolized, again, by a pillar of fire that filled the temple! 

After Jesus completed his work of living and dying in payment for sin, God’s presence once again filled his temple during a festival called Pentecost – only this time it wasn’t a building! It was a group of people – apostles, prophets, servants of the Lord. Tongues of fire descended on their heads, displaying God’s presence in his new temple, a temple (to use the words of Peter), made of “living stones…being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5 – NIV). Because Jesus died on the cross and paid for sin, God’s people were no longer separated from his presence! Instead of dwelling in a temple and approaching his people through a priest, God sent his Holy Spirit to dwell directly in the hearts and lives of his children, and that’s what brought about the blessings Luke describes in the early church! This was the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of God’s people, working through the gospel message in word and sacrament to bring about tremendous blessing! That’s why it all starts when the early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42 – NIV84). A message once proclaimed at the temple had now been turned loose into the daily lives of ordinary people, and by the power of the Holy Spirit God brought tremendous blessing to his church!

A Place of God’s Work

When we confess in the Apostles’ Creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, we confess that God works in the exact same way today. We confess that the Holy Spirit still dwells in his temple today, just as he always has, and still today his temple is made – not of bricks and stones, but of flesh and blood, of ordinary people like you and me who have been brought to know Jesus as our savior. We confess the Holy Christian Church. God’s presence isn’t confined to a building or a congregation; to a church body or a society. Instead God’s Spirit works though the hearts and lives of all of us, no matter what our background, race, or history might be. We confess the communion of saints – a community of God’s children knitted together by the power of God and the good news of Jesus. A community that can’t be destroyed by a pandemic; a community that won’t be defeated by the shortcomings of it’s members. Why? Because we also confess the forgiveness of sins, and that’s what this is all built on. Jesus already made the sacrifice to pay for our sins, washing us clean and making us perfect and holy in God’s sight – exactly the kind of place where God sets up his dwelling! Like the early Christians, we see all that happening when we devote ourselves “to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42 – NIV84). The Spirit still works through the gospel message in word and sacrament.

We can see that today too when you look closely enough. Times have changed since the first century, so the appearance might be a bit different, but God still does the same things despite our shortcomings and struggles. Consider a few examples. God still fills the hearts of his people today with generosity, and we’ve seen that lately despite the challenges of the pandemic and related chaos. As the board of stewardship notified you recently, our offerings collectively have remained relatively stable during these challenging times. God is at work, living in the hearts of his people, and motivating generosity and care for his work! During the recent lockdown, in talking with members, Pastors found so many people offering to help that we couldn’t even match them all up with others who were in need! God is at work, living in the hearts of his people! Even though online worship services are not nearly as enjoyable as coming to church in person, we have seen strong participation in our online services and bible studies, because the Holy Spirit is still living in his temple, working in the hearts of his people to produce a thirst for the word of God! We certainly do have our personal shortcomings and there certainly are struggles of all sorts in a world damaged by sin, but despite all of that we can boldly confess our belief in the Holy Christian Church – the Holy Spirit living in his temple in the hearts of his people, accomplishing his will for the world and pouring out his blessings. 

So take that confession with you as you leave today, even amidst the chaos and uncertainty of pandemic and social upheaval. Trust that the Holy Spirit still dwells in the hearts of his people to carry out his will and offer his blessing, and look for the chances he gives you to be a part of it! Look for places where God puts you in a position to be generous, whether with financial resources or with time spent in reaching out to others who might be isolated and lonely. Look for opportunities to be generous in prayer for one another and for society! Listen for opportunities to share your beliefs with those who need to hear about Jesus for the first time, or maybe for the first time in a very long time, and then the Spirit dwelling in you will do as he has promised and give you the words and the courage you need. Just a few of the blessings that we can enjoy based on our confession that we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, and the forgiveness of sins. Amen.