Acts 5:12-20, Revelation 1:4-18, John 20:19-31
Focus: God changes us through the death and resurrection of his son.
Function: that the hearers pray to see the ways that Christ is already working.
Many times when one thinks of churchly success, numbers come to mind -- packed pews, generous bankrolls, and growing membership, or, looking back at the early Church, one might think about miracles and speaking in tongues. However, we see in our readings in the coming weeks that these are only effects of a deeper change. What makes Christianity so extraordinary is how in the midst of hundreds and thousands coming to faith in the book of Acts, it’s the Holy Spirit working in each and every individual life that brought about lives changed.
What changes lives? What do changed lives look like? What is the Gospel, and what does it look like when gospel comes in and does its work?
Two thoughts on the first question and one on the second question.
What changes lives? First, it’s a “Who,” not a “What.” Jesus changes lives. For the Christian, the peculiar and particular answer is that Jesus is the one who changes lives. In the book of John’s Revelation, Jesus speaks to John saying, “I hold the keys of Death and Hades. I have died and behold I am alive forevermore. I am the first and the last.” It’s his work, not yours. It’s his plan, not ours.
In these days, the most often-repeated advice that I hear is, “Enjoy every moment with your son, because those moments go way too fast.” And the second most often repeated is, “Don’t push him to start walking, because once he starts, he’s not going to stop.
And when I think of that, I think of tummy time. Itty bitty Benjamin enjoys tummy time far more now than he did a few months ago, but that’s not really saying much. Just the other day, I put him on his stomach and he was trying to flip onto his back, and he just wasn’t getting his legs around – I mean he knows how to do it, and I’ve seen him get it right before, but he just didn’t want to do it – and he started to cry, because even though he had his arms in the right places, but his legs just kind of didn’t do what they needed to, I told Laura that it was so hard not to just do it for him. I just wanted to push him over the rest of the way, but I couldn’t. It was his task to do. He didn’t need me to figure it out for him; he needed to figure it out for himself. In fact if I had done that, I wouldn’t have helped Benjamin; I would have kept him from what he needed. My role wasn’t to do his task for him; my role was to be there while he figured it out himself.
I tell you that to tell you this: every time a messed up marriage comes through my office, I have the temptation to think that I can fix it. I am tempted to think I can save their marriage for them. It’s easy to start thinking that I’m the fixer, and the survival of their marriage is on me. That’s not true.
Jesus Christ is the only one who can fix them. Jesus Christ is the only one who can pay for their sin. Jesus Christ is the only one who can bear their burdens for them, and he did that already, before they were born, when he exchanged his righteousness for their sin, when he died a sinner’s death, when he did all of this without our approval, without our knowledge, for the sole purpose so that he could keep on holding out this grace won for us.
He is the only one who holds the keys to death and Hades. There is only one way of salvation, and that’s through Jesus Christ. And, for the Christian, every solution in the world must work forward from this fundamental truth.
The kingdom of God is like a mom and a dad wondering where they went wrong, why their kid wandered so far. They wish they could go in and take away all the pain, right all the wrongs, fight all the battle, but they can’t. No, their task is to watch and pray, to love and to trust with eyes that look for the way Jesus is working.
Second thought on the question, “What changes lives?”, and this has to do with the “where.”
Where does Jesus change lives? Jesus changes lives in community. Our Gospel reading finds the disciples with their doors and their hearts shut tight with fear. They huddle together, except for Thomas. He had been out on his lonesome, and so had missed when Jesus appeared to the disciples.
I read an article recently on addiction and its affect on lab rats, and it referenced an experiment where rats were isolated in cages and given a choice between water and heroin-laced water. Nine out of ten would succumb to addiction and overdose.
Another scientist saw this experiment and added an element – what if the rat wasn’t in a cage by itself with nothing to do except eat and drink? What if they changed the environment and gave it a community? They created what they called “Rat Park” – complete with exercise wheels, toys, tunnels, and most of all community. “The rats obviously tried both water bottles,… [but] the rats with the good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it.”
Now, the Christian knows that his addiction to sin goes deeper than the physical, than even the emotional – it’s a problem with the relationship of our whole self to our God. But if community matters so much in this earthly problem, how much more does this allow us to see the reality that our faith put us in community with one another – a community called the Body of Christ?
William Barclay, in commenting on Thomas in John 20, puts it so well that I quote him at length: “[Thomas] made one mistake. He withdrew from the Christian fellowship. He sought loneliness rather than togetherness. And because he was not there with his fellow Christians he missed the first coming of Jesus. We miss a great deal when we separate ourselves from the Christian fellowship and try to be alone. Things can happen to us within the fellowship of Christ’s Church which will not happen when we are alone. When sorrow comes and sadness envelops us, we often tend to shut ourselves up and refuse to meet people. That is the very time when, in spite of our sorrow, we should seek the fellowship of Christ’s people, for it is there that we are likeliest of all to meet him face to face.”
It was precisely “where two or three or more were gathered in [his] name” that the risen Jesus shows up. It was precisely when two walked down the road to Emmaus that Christ accompanied them. It was precisely when the people of God gathered that Jesus shows up among them. It is precisely when the people of God gather around to receive the sacraments and hear the Word that the God comes in his might and in his mercy.
God shows up where God has promised he’ll show up, and when he does, we see him do what he’s promised to do. We see the Father showing up to act like a Heavenly Father that gives all that we need to support this body and life only out of his divine fatherly goodness and mercy; we see the Son distributing the salvation he purchased and won on the cross through the body and blood bread and wine; we see the Holy Spirit blowing a fresh wind of forgiveness and life whenever the called gathered enlightened and sanctified Christian church daily and richly forgives sins.
The kingdom of God is like a bunch of young people putting down their phones and looking each other in the face. It’s like a bunch of older folks taking the time to enjoy, really enjoy some teenagers, and even when they don’t enjoy them, to learn about whom they are. It’s like a party thrown in someone’s honor where the honored guest suddenly shows up and starts serving everyone their punch. It is a risen Savior appearing among his gathered guests and saying “Peace be with you.”
Now we turn to our second question: what do changed lives look like? We turn to our reading from Acts. Do you see this in the lives of the apostles? They are being blown along by the Spirit of God. They are setting their minds to the tasks laid before them. They are seeing something bigger than themselves – the working of the Holy Spirit – move them along into God’s grand story. The lives of the apostles and disciples were like this: the extraordinary mingled with the ordinary. The unbelievable mingled with the mundane. Joy mingled with sorrow. Success mingled with suffering. Jesus changes lives and we are along for the ride.
In other words, divine Appointments, or as Greg Finke puts it, “How is God messing with you?” You see, it presupposes that God is in control and that you are not. Finke tells a story from his time working on an oilrig with an angry, mean man named Joe. “I got to spend 12 hours every night with Joe drinking coffee and hearing what he was angry about. At first I just tried to endure it. Then, I started listening more carefully… Eventually, I figured something out. Joe was a person… over time, Joe found out I was someone who followed Jesus… early on I realized that I couldn’t fix Joe…” but he could listen and pray and befriend. At the end of that summer he saw that Joe had made progress becoming less bitter, but he ends this story by saying, “I never saw Joe again after that summer. I don’t know if he ever came to trust Jesus or not… The work wasn’t complete, but the stone was thrown. The yeast was inserted. The kingdom had come to him and started him on his journey of redemption and restoration.”
Joe was in Jesus’ hands long before Finke met him, and he will be in his hands long after Finke left him. It’s not our place to inform God about what’s happening but rather to suss out how God has prepared the ground, how he is working in the present, and pray that his kingdom which already comes and his will which already being done, might come and be done through us and among us also.
Can we take a moment to appreciate how remarkably mundane the exchange between Finke and Joe was? On Finke’s part, it isn’t anything extraordinary. It isn’t anything incredible, and yet, when you think of this one thread in Joe’s life, you see how God’s work in our world is a tapestry of interactions, of little moments, of nudges of the Spirit, where God’s word works and it works through his people in ways they know and in ways they don’t. And all we are to do is ask, “God, what are you doing and how can I join?”
The kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town that has stopped asking the question, “How do we get more butts in the pews?” or “How do I fix all the stuff that’s wrong in my community?” and increasingly asks the question, “What is the Spirit of God already doing? How can I join in?” And as they ask this question together, they start to see the great bounty of good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do.
How are lives changed? First, we remember that Jesus is the one who changes lives. Jesus, not us. Second, that Jesus shows up with his power where he promises to – and he promises to do so in the sacraments, in the preaching, and in the gathering of his people. What do changed lives look like? It looks like a bunch of Christians praying that they get in on what God is doing in their community. It looks like a church searching for Christ behind the faces of all who are needy, longing to be along for the ride. Amen and amen.
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