Message preached on
May 13, 2018
First steps. That is what we’ve heard this morning from the continuing good news story of Jesus and his followers, as told by Luke in the book of Acts. “Acts of the Apostles” is the grand title we give this New Testament work. Makes it sound very official. Of course, since it’s about people, we need to hear and read it with a bit of humility. These were real people, not cardboard cut-ups on a bulletin board. They were flesh and blood, and prone to mistakes like us. Of course, they were also able do great things along the way. Just like us?
I appreciate the title Clarence Jordan gave to this book in his CottonPatch version of the Bible. “Happenings,” he called it. Things “happen,” sometimes planned, other times not. Just like with us. At times it “happens” because we have put in all sorts of organization and labor to make it come about. But then are the times when things just “happen,” and we are as surprised as anyone else. Yes, bad “happens,” but so does good. In my life, some of the best “happenings” came about through little thought and effect on my part, sometimes even in spite of my planning or labor.
The story of the “church,” which is what we’re talking about, both in this book and in why we are gathered here today, is a tale of what happens when imperfect people look beyond themselves to a God who is working among them – regardless of whether they are fully on board what is happening or not. The good news is that, planned or unplanned, good things do happen. Unforeseen things. Surprising things. Right when you think it’s over, a page is turned and a new story just happens.
That’s the shift we just read about in this morning’s scripture. The beginning of the book of Acts is the ending of the good news story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The gospel of Luke, written by the same author as the book of Acts, ends with the story of Jesus being “carried up into heaven” (24:50-52). This “ascension” (the big title we often give this event) is repeated by Luke in the first chapter of what “happened” next, a story we repeated earlier this morning. The “what” that “happened” after Jesus left to be with God (the continuation we also read) were the first steps on their own of the followers of Jesus.
First steps… As you may be aware, my road to recovery has taken a detour recently. I was making excellent progress in physical therapy, getting my left leg back into working order following surgery. Then something “happened.” Not sure exactly what. It may have had something to do with riding the lawn mower, which does a number on your body. Or mowing may have just contributed to whatever “happened.” Regardless, my recovery took several steps backward. Walking became a problem, though it is getting a bit better (thanks for all the good “mom” advice).
Getting from point A to point B for me has involved a 3-step process. First, I have to rise from my seat. Laugh, if you will, but that is the important first step. I find that I have to stand in place for a bit before I can actually move. The muscles have to settle into being upright. Only then can I begin to become mobile. It’s helpful to have something to lean on at this point. Once one foot starts getting in front of the other, and a pattern starts, it’s easier to walk, to get past inertia, to break through pain. Movement become easier, that is, until I need to change direction, which is the third step, (even if it’s many strides away). You see, the distance between point A and point B is rarely a straight line. So, getting from chair to kitchen, for instance, involves a) rising, b) momentum, and c) turning.
I pondered this 3-step process last Monday as I gathered with a group of pastors for our monthly Anam Cara. The name for this clergy spiritual wellness day comes from the old Gaelic words “anam” (which means “soul”) and “cara” (which means “friend”). We are 3 Baptists, a Presbyterian, a United Church of Christ, a Unitarian, and myself, led by 2 Quakers – gathered as “soul friends” at a Catholic retreat center… With leg pain again on my plate, I was led during a time of silence last Monday to see a spiritual process through it.
In the midst of what happens in our lives, for good or for ill, we are empowered to rise (step 1). Rising is good. You’ve to stand before you can get anywhere. We need to rise in the face of whatever happens to us in life. However, as Jesus often said to those he helped, “rise and walk.” That “and walk” is not an afterthought. It takes a lot to go from being inert to being in motion. Once started, momentum keeps you going – spiritually as well as physically (step 2). Along the way, though, course corrections are necessary. You have to turn, which is not easy. For me, physically, this is the step that most often leads to pain, as I can trip or put weight on my bad leg for which I wasn’t prepared. This is true spiritually as well (step 3).
There are good, Biblical words that go along with these 3 steps. When we exit the waters of baptism, we are rising to new life in Christ, experiencing resurrection as we die to sin. The encouragement is to revisit this daily as we stand in the face of whatever happens (step 1). However, this life is more than just standing. We walk the Way Jesus has shown us. It’s not easy to move, however. We need the dunamis (the Greek word from which we derive dynamite), that is: power from within as well as beyond us. Momentum keeps us keeping on (step 2). Metanoia (Greek for Repentance) is all about turning. It doesn’t necessarily mean a complete about face, though sometimes it does. More often repenting/turning involves slight course corrections as we listen for God’s leading (step 3). Rising. Momentum. Turning.
I thought of these steps in relation to the story we received this morning from the “Acts of the Apostles.” A page has turned. Something new is happening. Here are the disciples after Jesus has physically left. The risen Christ, who surprised them on Easter, is no longer with them. Even if they had inklings of hope from all he had said, his leaving has no doubt put a damper on their spirits. Remember the last time Jesus went away, after his arrest? His followers fell apart, especially the men. They went and hid. The women at least had the courage to stand at the cross and later head to the tomb.
Here they are, in the story as we’ve received it this morning, all gazing up with mouths ajar. What now? What do we do? Where do we go from here? Back to Jerusalem, apparently, which wasn’t far from where Jesus ascended – about the distance you were allowed to travel on the Sabbath (a little over half a mile, around a kilometer). That detail, by the way, leads me to wonder if this – Jesus ascending - happened on the Sabbath… Anyway, what do you do when you don’t know what to do? You rise (step 1). They returned to Jerusalem, to the upper room in which they had been staying.
We showed that video reenactment of this scripture earlier to help us visualize what happened. What I like about it is that it shows a mixed group of men and women in the same room, which is what the text says. Furthermore, it’s not just a bunch of individuals in this place. Jesus had pulled them together to be anam cara, soul friends. When you rise, it good to have something/someone to lean on. They were in this together, unlike the first time Jesus was taken from them. They rose (literally – they were in an upstairs room), they rose to the occasion to face it as one body. How do you gain what is needed to move forward from this point? That “umph,” that dunamis, that inner power necessary to take first steps – how would they gain it? Well, the text says they “joined together in persistent prayer.” They didn’t just pray. They kept at it.
The scene then shifts in this first chapter of the “Happenings,” and Peter rises to the occasion, the first time he takes on a leadership role. Those gathered are ready to move, and are taking their first steps beyond just standing there. No doubt many were wondering who would be the one to speak up. Yes, Jesus did mention that Peter would be the rock upon which he would build this new thing called “church.” But Peter also carried a lot of baggage, something that would be with him for the rest of his life – denying Jesus 3 times when it mattered the most.
I wonder if Peter’s own brokenness weighed on him when he stood and spoke of Judas. Once there had been the 12 disciples. Betrayal had made them 11, an incomplete number which revealed an open sore that still needed healing. Would bringing that number back to 12 by calling another disciple lead to recovery? That’s what Peter thought, and so he spoke. “One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” That’s what Peter said.
“One of the men…” With those words, he left out the other witnesses on that day – the women who had faithfully stood at the cross when Jesus died, and who first saw the empty tomb through their tears. If I had been that Peter, would I have spoken other words? Would I have lifted up someone like Mary Magdala to complete the 12? I’d like to think I might have, but we are all products of our times, and that’s not what happened. Perhaps it wasn’t yet time for women in leadership. I’m glad it is now.
Regardless, back then these followers of Jesus - men and women together - had risen and were walking as one body, but there needed to be a course correction, as Peter saw it. They needed to turn from Judas’ betrayal, and start fresh. Maybe Peter needed a bit of turning himself to put his 3-times-before-the-cock-crowed denial behind him. And two men we brought front and center in order to restore the number to twelve. They just needed to pick one. And so they did. “The lot fell on Matthias, and he was added to the eleven” who were now called “apostles.” So ends the first chapter, in which the followers of Jesus took their first steps toward spiritual maturity. The next chapter is a dozy, which we’ll remember next week. Be prepared.
Before I finish, let me briefly revisit the 3-step process I mentioned earlier that are part of our walk with Christ: rising, momentum, and turning. When things happen, sometimes all you can do is stand in the face of them and get yourself ready to move. This may take a while – and that’s okay. I/you/we all need to remember that we’re not in this alone. We rise together. We lean on each other. We pray together. We are persistent together. We take our first steps together. We gain momentum together. We may not always agree on the direction in which we are headed, but we face into where we hurt, where we are broken together, and we pray for the wisdom and the courage to change course, if needed, even if it’s painful to do so. Because that is how we get from point A to point B (which is rarely a straight line). And together we trust that God is guiding us, no matter what happens, even when we don’t know where our next step will take us.
I don’t know about you, but I believe it’s time to rise and sing some steps. Will you join me?