Then, he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must befulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”Luke 24: 44-49
Last week we learned how the disciples went from the joy of seeing the risen Christ to the complete joy of learning where life was ultimately heading. This week we are moving farther into the post-Easter story by looking at how the disciples began to learn about being the church. They were to go into the world to proclaim repentance and forgiveness with power from on high.
That Easter power propelled the church into being. But we may ask ourselves, is the power that was given to the disciples the same? Has it lost energy over time? Or is the Easter momentum still very much with us? I believe it is- even though it has passed through many generations, the same power that lifted those first disciples is available to lift us. The same source from God that brought our church into being so long ago continues to give us our mission of “Growing our Community of Faith.” We recognize members of our church who have given so much of their time and energy to help the church community expand its ministries. These are our pillars of the faith that built a wing of the church, that established new outreach endeavors, that supported the church throughout the years. I would bet you could name several church leaders in the history of our church who have given what I consider an almost sacrificial support, not only financially but spiritually, and when one of these saints passes away, it sends shock waves through the church. But consider this- you may be called to continue that presence, that ministry, that power in the church that you admired so much. God is always calling new generations forward to serve in creative ways.
But we can always feel that generational gap, can’t we? There was no way to miss the lottery news recently. Each morning before school the news was bigger as the jackpot grew bigger. My children even asked me if we had bought a lottery ticket. I tried to explain that I thought it was pretty futile since the odds were so great, but they could not understand odds, of course, and could only see the number of dollars in that jackpot. One of my friends sent me a utube link, an advertisement to the California lottery, in which a family sat down in front of the television to watch the results. The father and mother were glued to the screen celebrating as their numbers were picked, but the son and daughter seemed bored. Finally the father and mother jumped up as their number was picked. The children stood, still bored and uninterested, and began to walk out of the room as they ejected a VCR tape that was labeled, “The Day We Won.” Then the father said, “That never gets old,” and the camera pulled back to reveal a small replica of a living room within the foyer of a huge mansion. The family had been re-playing the day they won the lottery.
At times we may feel like those children, as if we are replaying the Easter power. I am certain that the heart of our church, like the early church, is driven by a spiritual power that is just as potent as that first Easter morning. In Acts 1:14 the early church is described as: “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” We are still very much a church of prayer. That is our powergenerator. Recently I met with Martha, the chair of our prayer circle, a group who meets to pray for individuals in our church and our friends or family in need around the world. She told me about what happened to her at a recent name tag Sunday. She looked over and saw a name tag on someone sitting next to her. “Jeff,” she said, “I know who you are, I’ve been praying for your friend.” His friend had a skiing accident in Switzerland and was on his death bed. Can you imagine how he felt at that moment? When we enter God’s house, we enter a place that is literally filled with the power of God’s Holy Spirit, a power that is fueled by prayer.
It may take a while for that power to truly change our lives, but the church must keep reaching out in prayer. CNN’s John Blake’s interview “A preaching ‘genius’ faces his toughest convert” describes how Fred Craddock, one of the most famous preachers of our time, was raised in a family in which his mother loved the church but his father didn’t. His father was known to tell the minister, “You don’t really care about me, all you care about is another pledge and another member.” Once Fred’s mother told him, “You need to go see your father,” she said. “He may not live longer.” Radiation treatments had burned him to pieces. He couldn’t eat or speak.
In his father’s hospital room, he noticed that it was filled with flowers and a stack of get-well cards 20 inches deep besides his bed. Every card and every blossom came from Craddock’s childhood church in Humboldt, the church his father scorned. When he saw his son, he picked up a Kleenex box and scribbled on it a line from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.” “What is your story, Daddy?” His father’s eyes welled with tears. He wrote: “I was wrong.” His father confessed that he was wrong about the church and the people in the pews. They didn’t just want a name and a pledge. They wanted him.
How can we realize the power that is present in the church? The disciples learned that God’s power was creating a church that caused people like Fred Craddock’s father to feel “born again.” Attending church regularly reminds us that we need to be born again and again and again. We get re-charged to go into the rest of the week as renewed disciples.
Famed theologian John Wesley describes this in his 1872 sermon, The New Birth: “Before a child is born into the world he has eyes, but sees not; he has ears, but does not hear. He has a very imperfect use of any other sense. He has no knowledge of any of the things of the world, or any natural understanding. To that manner of existence which he then has, we do not even give the name of life. It is then only when a man is born, that we say he begins to live. For as soon as he is born, be begins to see the light, and the various objects with which he is encompassed. His ears are then opened, and he hears the sounds which successively strike upon them. At the same time, all the other organs of sense begin to be exercised upon their proper objects. He likewise breathes, and lives in a manner wholly different from what he did before. How exactly doth the parallel hold in all these instances! While a man is in a mere natural state, before he is born of God, he has, in a spiritual sense, eyes and sees not; a thick impenetrable veil lies upon them; he has ears, but hears not; he is utterly deaf to what he is most of all concerned to hear.”
Part of the repentance the disciples learned opened their eyes to compassion. They realized that there was need right in front of them. They began to help the people in their midst. One of our members realized how the economy has affected our own community. People between jobs are experiencing great stress. “Can I provide support to people who live right here?” It was a holy moment! When our members reach out in compassion like that, it is proof of the power of the Spirit in our midst. And as Kathy Ragnar presented this morning in our moment for mission about the homeless ministry, Sarah’s Circle, there are opportunities all around us to serve if we only were aware of them, if our hearts were opened to them.
I once heard a pastor’s story that as he was on his way to speak at a convention, his cab from the airport stopped at a red light. A homeless man who had crossed the street fell down. The pastor opened the cab door but he hesitated, he paused and thought about his new suit and how helping the man might ruin it. Others quickly helped the man, so he closed his cab door and went to speak at the convention, but in the back of his mind he wondered how he could be such a hypocrite. I wondered if that story was true but after considering being in a different town, a new suit, on the way to speak, I realized it probably was true, most of us would have hesitated, too. The church began to grow with that power of compassion.
In the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., there is a plaque that says, “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” Abraham Lincoln said, “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Within our arms reach, right here in our pews, there is need. And all the way into the city, there is need. And we have the power to address it.
When Jesus told the disciples that they would have power over repentance and forgiveness, it could be that the disciples needed to forgive the Romans and their fellow Jewish brothers if they were to go out into the world proclaiming God’s peace to them. It had to come from their hearts. It had to be part of who they were- a deep forgiveness- so that God’s message would truly shine through them.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was preparing his speech to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, he and his aides worked through the night preparing those words, and in the morning they distributed the speech to the media. But when he began to give the speech, he slowly read through the first two prepared paragraphs. Then you will notice, he pushed the manuscript aside and said, “I have a dream today.” He began to speak that glorious speech right from his heart.
The disciples needed to speak from their hearts. They needed a clean start. They had to create a church without the baggage of hatred tied to what had just happened to Jesus on the cross. And it meant taking a step forward in forgiveness. Have you seen the movie Clint Eastwood directed, Invictus? It chronicles the way Nelson Mandela used the World Cup Rugby match to unify South Africa’s division of racism. Mandela had been imprisoned for opposing apartheid for almost three decades. Then when he was released and elected President, he wore the cap and jersey of the white elite rugby team, the Springboks, and proclaimed to the country that they needed to support the team. Less than 20% of the country was white and supported the team, the other 80% supported whoever played their team. The coach of the Springboks took his team to visit Robbens Island where Mandela had been imprisoned and told them that they had to win to honor his vision, and they did, and that night South Africans of both colors danced in the streets for the first time in many years, unified by that victory.
The church’s victory at Easter still gives us cause to celebrate. It gives us an opportunity to forgive others and ourselves. The disciples had a load of guilt upon themselves that they had to unload before they could enter into a life of prayer and service. They had to realize that they really had been made new. The story of Betty Hutton is told in James Moore’s book, Some Things Are Too Good Not To Be True. In the 1940’s and 50’s, Betty’s movie fame and box office attraction was at its height. When family problems, emotional challenges, and bankruptcy destroyed her life, she hit the bottom of the barrel. But she was able to forgive herself and begin her life again. She began to turn her life over to God. She must have felt born again, because when she appeared again in the Broadway production, Annie, her picture was in the playbill along with the other actors and actresses, but instead of a long description of plays and experiences, like the others, under her picture it only said, “I am back, thank God.” If you were flipping through the program and you read that, you would realize that something very deep had happened in her life.
When the disciples began their lives again, they drew “their breath in pain” and told their story. They had new lives. They were filled with compassion for others, with forgiveness, and with new power within themselves. Just like Betty Hutton, what really matters in life is that God can pull us up from wherever we have fallen. God not only sets us back on the right track, but propels us forward into new life. That is the only power we need- and it never runs out, even when we try to run away from it- it never gives up on us. It is the power of God’s love. The disciples felt it. May each of us feel that power!