Messages, Meditations, and Musings on the Life of Faith by Rev. Dr. Scott E. Olson, Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Keeping the Faith" Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

Keeping the Faith
Easter 3 (Narrative Lectionary 3)
April 14, 2013
Acts 6.1-14; 7.44-60

We are making something of a narrative leap today, temporarily bypassing Pentecost and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Since September of last year, we have traced the biblical story from creation through the Old Testament to the birth of Jesus. Then we walked with Jesus as he was preaching and teaching about the new kingdom of God, setting his face to Jerusalem, fulfilling God’s mission to love the world and reconcile it to him. We have gone from the cross on Good Friday to the empty tomb of Easter and last week to the presence of the risen Christ who walks with us on our journeys of faith. Now we are in Acts.

We will return to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost in due time, but for now we are with the gathered community of faith who are trying to figure out what that means to be Jesus people. The early church is literally making it up as they go along and, although the book is called the Acts of the Apostles it would be better termed the Acts of the Holy Spirit because the Spirit guides it throughout. A salient thread woven throughout the story is that the early church will be beset by conflicts. These pressures will come from both within the community and from forces outside of it.

Today’s reading is a good example. The newly formed church is growing rapidly and diversifying. Greek speaking Jews who had left Jerusalem in the dispersion have returned and it seems that their widows, who have no means of support, are being neglected. Because new contexts demand new forms of ministry, a new type of leadership is implemented to address the community’s needs. Yet, there are some Jews who aren’t as easily convinced about the Jesus story. When one of these new leaders, Stephan, cannot be bested in debate, the ruling council seizes him and charges him falsely.

Accused of standing against the Jewish tradition, Stephen responds by reciting the salvation history of God’s work in their people, from Abraham through Moses, David Solomon, and the prophets. The council members are right with him until Stephen reminds them that their shared history also includes poor treatment of prophets who bring new words from God. And when Stephen relates a vision of Jesus standing at God’s right hand, it is too much for them; they take him out to be stoned. Stephen sees God differently than they do, and they are threatened by this vision of a new thing.

The book of Acts is incredibly important for us, not only as the history of the early church, but also because we continue to be like that church, trying to figure out what God through the Holy Spirit is calling us to do, making it up as we go along, and not always getting it right either. Today’s reading reminds us that in the story of the cross, empty tomb, and Spirit-led community, God continues to do life-saving work in us and in the world. It’s work that challenges us to faithful living. It is also work that causes conflict with the status quo, unsettling us in the process.

I understand something of how that feels. When I graduated from seminary I believed strongly that Communion should be available to all the baptized, regardless of age or affiliation (and I still do). Yet, I also believed that baptism was the entry point for Communion; one should not commune if one is not baptized. However, I have come to believe that Communion can be a gateway to baptism and the church, not just the other way. Our story, both as the Christian church and this congregation is one of being jolted by people like Stephen who see the new things God is doing and challenging us to see where that leads.

Most recently, we have been responding to the various ways people have been seeing God, most notably with our Sunday morning convergence (blended) worship and Wednesday evening programming. These kinds of new ministries in new contexts can be unsettling, because we want church to be that one place we can count on that is reliable. I understand. But no matter how much our ministry changes, the most important thing is that the center we hold onto, Jesus Christ, will not change.

Your leadership, the church council, has been working on new core values, which are just about ready for discussion with you. One of those says that we are a community of faith who are deeply rooted. We are steeped in a biblical and theological tradition that connects us to historical Christianity, but it also says that same tradition enables us to explores ways the Holy Spirit may be moving, freeing us to address our changing context in new ways. So, our text today challenges us to ask ourselves if we are going to live up to this core value. Are going to pick up spiritual stones and lob them at the Stephens in our midst or are we going to try to seek together how God through the Holy Spirit is moving in, with, and through us? I believe it will be the latter because Christ is risen, and his presence enables us to move with the Spirit in wonderful ways. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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