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Sunday, June 3, 2018 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
Be My Witnesses!
“A Spirit Revolution”: A Sermon Series on the Acts of the Apostles
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
We are not permitted the luxury of gazing at Jesus’ feet.
No, we must get on with Jesus’ work.
Peter J. Gomes
I realize that for some of you, the scripture reading sounds a bit familiar—like you have heard it recently. That’s because you have. Just a few weeks ago, on the seventh Sunday in Easter, you heard a great bit of this passage from the first chapter of Acts. And today we are indeed hearing it again. This is because we are kicking off a summer sermon series called “A Spirit Revolution” and our primary scriptural resource will be the book of Acts.
Before we dive in though, let’s back up and ask the question: Why Acts? Why might it be important for us, as a gathered faith community, to immerse ourselves in the book of Acts? One basic reason is because we do not typically spend much time in the book of Acts during our weekly worship throughout the year. The Revised Common lectionary typically offers a Gospel lesson—rather than a reading from Acts—and here at Fourth Church we follow the Revised Common Lectionary. So other than Ascension Sunday or Pentecost Sunday, Acts is rarely our primary text.
But a deeper reason for lingering in the book of Acts this summer is to help us all pay more attention to the work of the Holy Spirit for she is the primary character in the book of Acts. And yes, I am using the “she” pronoun purposefully. One reason is because the Hebrew word for Spirit is feminine. But in addition to that, since we often use masculine pronouns (particularly when we read the Psalms) or traditional Trinitarian Father-language, hearing a “she” every once in a while can help keep us from imagining God as male—since God does indeed transcend those categories. Using an occasional “she” is a gentle corrective to thousands of years of “he.”
The second question you might have today is Why are we using the noun “revolution” in the title for the series? I take my cue from Yale Divinity professor Willie Jennings. In his 2017 commentary on Acts, Jennings writes: “the book of Acts speaks of revolution. We must never forget this. It depicts life in the disrupting presence of the Spirit of God” (Willie Jennings, Acts: A Belief Commentary, p. 1). Indeed, this book of Acts is chock full of testimonies and stories about how the Spirit of God actively disrupts many of the norms of one particular ancient culture, as well as the norms of who could be a follower of Jesus—a part of the church of the People on the Way.
Furthermore, we use the word “revolution” because it is helpful to view the book of Acts through the lens of a dynamic movement, rather than through the lens of a static monument. Again, Jennings: “[Acts] is movement thinking, not monument thinking. Monument thinking turns [the stories of the book of] Acts into an ecclesial museum, the purpose of which is to show us the earlier forms of church life, religious ritual, or theology” (Jennings, p. 3). Looking at Acts through monument thinking makes the whole purpose of reading this book about acquiring knowledge of things that happened way back when. But movement thinking “allows us to notice how the Spirit, who joins us in time, shares our space, and partakes in the places we inhabit, is always active where we are” (Jennings, p. 4).
In other words, when we think about the book of Acts as a Spirit revolution, as a movement initiated by God, we collapse the time between this ancient biblical book and us. Thinking about the book of Acts as a Spirit revolution, as a God-initiated movement helps us to both see and to expect that the Spirit who blew freely and wildly in those Pentecost days and in the time following, is the same Spirit who continues to do that kind of founding and re-founding, forming and re-forming work with us, here in these walls—and outside of these walls if we have the eyes to see or the imagination to perceive all that the Spirit is up to.
For the last few months, one of my prayers has been and will continue to be that all of us, including this preacher herself, will become just as expectantly convinced that God’s Spirit is as active in our midst and in our world as those very first disciples were when they gathered in that upper room to await the Spirit’s coming in power. Peter and James, John and Mary, and all the others, waited with certainty to both experience and perceive the Spirit’s power and vision in and among them. They trusted it would happen just as Jesus promised and, indeed, it did. And as Rocky preached on Pentecost, that Spirit created a community they could not have conceived of if its creation had been up to them. But thank God it wasn’t. For we are here, all of these hundreds of years later as a result of the Spirit’s work.
But do we gather in this room with that same expectant certainty that God will make God’s self known with power and vision in and among us, creating ministry and mission that none of us could ever conceive of on our own? Do we? It is my hope that by immersing ourselves in the story of the acts of God’s Holy Spirit all summer long that we might come out on the other side being able to say a resounding “Yes!” to that question. Because that would help us do the work that Jesus gave us to do.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Those were the last words Jesus said that day to the disciples before returning to God, ascending back to the Father from whom he came. “You”—actually it is plural, y’all—“Y’all will be my witnesses,” he said, “telling my story of love and justice and mercy; telling my story of salvation and wholeness and healing; telling my story of how I paid particular attention to all those labeled outcast or nobody; telling my story that death does not have the last word; telling my story of how every single person in all of creation was knit together by my hand and made in the image of the divine; telling my story of how I have claimed your lives; telling that story, God’s story of good news to yourselves, to the people of Chicago, to the state of Illinois, to the nation of the United States, to all the corners of creation.” Those were Jesus’ last words to the first disciples but they are also his current words to us.
And yet—in order to tell the story, we must first pay attention. And in order to pay attention, we must first expect it to happen. If we do not actively expect to see God’s Spirit at work, blowing around and in us—as we heard last week she did with Nicodemus—then we might actually miss what is happening. We might not see what God is doing and as a result, we won’t be able to tell anyone anything.
Let me ask you a question: When was the last time you saw God at work? When was the last time you had an experience that caused you to catch your breath, or that left you with a taste of mystery; an honest to goodness sense that God was up to something in your life, in this world? Is that a difficult question for you to answer? It’s okay if it is. I imagine for some of us it might indeed be a difficult question to answer. And perhaps that difficulty comes because some of us are in a season of life when we have a stronger sense of God’s absence or lack of work in our lives than we do God’s presence and energy in our lives. That happens. It is not something to be ashamed of. It is not something that is unfaithful. Even Jesus experienced the pain of God-forsakenness. So please don’t feel badly or judged if that is your first internal response to my question. And if it is, please know that that season will not last forever—even when it feels it might. You will learn to walk in the dark until the light dawns again.
But for others of us, perhaps the question is a difficult one to answer because we are simply not used to thinking about it. Those are Sunday kinds of questions, not Monday realities, we might decide. Thus we don’t intentionally go about our days on the lookout for God’s presence in our midst, for God’s acting in and on our lives.
Neils Bohr, the physicist and father of quantum mechanics, once said that the first inkling he had about the nature of the universe came when he was a child gazing into the fish pond at his family’s home. He would lie beside the pool for hours on end, watching the fish swimming around in the water. One day he realized that the fish he was watching did not know they were being watched. The fish were unaware of any reality outside of the pond. Sunlight streaming in from the outside was, to the fish, simply an inner illumination contained within the pond. Even when it rained, the fish saw this not as an event from the outside but only as ripples and splashes enclosed in their environment. Bohr wondered if humans were like the fish in this regard, being acted on in multiple dimensions of reality but aware of only our limited frame of reference (Thomas Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian). Tying his revelation back to our questions: just as the fish did not swim around looking for Bohr’s watchful presence, we do not necessarily live out our daily lives looking for God’s presence either.
Fourth Church friend Tom Long has made an additional connection between Bohr’s childhood awakening and the experience we have in here every week. “What if Sunday worship were the chance to lie down beside life’s pond and to realize that what often looks and sounds like a Monday-like event contained within the pond are actually interventions from another realm? What if Sunday allowed us to get up on Monday morning and to see and hear what is hidden from ‘Monday-only eyes and ears,’ that God is present and at work in every corner of life?”
“If that were to happen,” Long concludes, “we wouldn’t talk about Sunday morning as a separate realm from the rest of the week, the rest of our lives. Rather we would know that Sunday morning shows us what is really happening, what is really true. . . . So we would come on Sunday mornings not to ‘escape from the real world,’ but to see and experience the real world. Worship would be the place and time when we could hear and see what is genuinely true, unmasking the illusions of the world outside” (Long, p. 42).
Indeed, our experience of hearing the biblical text, singing the hymns, praying, listening, and wondering—all of what we do in worship can give us the kind of vision we need so that outside of worship we might go through our days expecting to see God’s Spirit at work in and among us; expecting to notice God’s power and vision surrounding us; expecting to pay attention to all of those holy moments that happen every single day.
Then, we could be God’s witnesses, tell Jesus’ story, help proclaim the ever-widening, always merciful reign of God that is already making this world—making us—new, starting here, starting now. Collapsing the time between the people whose stories are told in the book of Acts with these people, with us, whose stories are still being written.
It is my deep hope that over the next couple of months, as we are immersed in the book of Acts, we will become so drenched with the expectation that God is at work in our lives and in our world—just as God was at work in the early church and in their world—that we cannot help but see all that God is doing; notice the myriad of ways God is present not just to us, but to all people; and recognize all of the founding and re-founding, forming and re-forming God is bringing about in this congregation and in our world.
And then, after having seen, we will start to tell. So that when someone asks us “When was the last time you saw God at work?” or “How have you experienced God’s acting on and in your life lately?” the stories will just roll off our tongues in response. And as they do so, we will notice how we are being transformed—changed—by what we are seeing and telling.
For even though “the world is full of stories . . . those billions of stories are searching for the one, true story, the story of a God who knows and loves us, the story of a God who brings justice and healing to a broken world” (Long); the story of a God whose Spirit blows wherever she wants, however she wants, whenever she wants, in order to make all things new. You all will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth, Jesus said. Now go and expect to see, and then hurry to tell. For a revolution is afoot. Amen.