Sunday, April 03, 2016

Who Are These Who Are Believers Now?

This morning I will look briefly at the texts from John and Revelation, and then reflect more fully on Acts 1 to 5, using the text from Acts as a window. I am asking these texts a question that arises naturally from Luke’s account in Acts: “Who are these people that we call followers of Jesus?” The answers to this question give us insight into who we are as God’s people today.

Today is the Second Sunday in Easter in the church year. The resurrection was one of those events that you cannot comprehend in a day, or in a brief weekend. Those who have lost a loved one, or gotten married, or had a baby, know that life is never the same afterwards. The Resurrection is that kind of life-changing event. The day after the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples did not say something like: “Well, that was quite an experience! Back to work!” They had to find out what life meant now. They had to learn to live in a new normal. These passages help us discover what the new normal is after our lives have been completely changed.

John 20: 19-31
We begin with John. Verse 19 lets us know that this passage takes place still in Resurrection Day. That evening the disciples were back together wherever they were staying. We don’t know exactly who was there. We know that Thomas was not there. We don’t know if they had heard from Mary and the other women, or from Peter and John. We do know that they were not yet convinced that Jesus was alive. Rather they lived in fear for their own lives. Then Jesus appeared, removing their doubt and filling them with joy.

In verse 21 Jesus gives them their commission: He sends them into the world as his followers and representatives. Then in verse 22 Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into them. I would not try to harmonize John and Luke here, to systematize the way that followers of Jesus receive the Spirit. To make any pattern normative goes beyond the text. Verses 24 to 29 give the interaction with Thomas, who needs stronger proofs than a vision in order to believe. Verses 30 and 31 then give the purpose of these stories and of the whole gospel account: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Revelation 1: 4-8
The book of Revelation is a letter from John to some churches in modern Turkey. John calls these believers a priestly kingdom (verse 6), echoing the language of God’s words about Israel in Exodus 19. They were—and are—God’s people, his representatives on earth who serve as priests mediating God’s presence to the world and interceding with God for the world. Here we could preach a sermon on mission, but we leave it for another time. Today we note simply this identity, “kings and priests to God”, which is the destiny of the first group of disciples whom we met in John 20. So to the book of Acts.

Acts 5: 27-32
First we set the stage of Luke’s larger work here.
Acts 1: Jesus spends 40 days with the disciples after his resurrection. This is an important point. Sometimes we think that Jesus rose, met the disciples, and ascended—all in the space of few days, but Luke (who is the most careful of the Gospel writers with historical details) tells of an extended period of time. This was an extended and significant period of time. It lasted long enough to make it clear that the resurrection appearances were no mass hallucination. They took place in Jerusalem and in Galilee. They included dramatic meeting and ordinary times of eating together. They made it clear that Jesus is alive. We say not only, “Jesus has risen”, but also “Jesus is risen!” Like saying “Jesus is a Jew”, or “Jesus is God’s Son”: Subject—verb—complement. Risen-ness is the quality that describes Jesus. He is the Risen One, who calls us also to walk in the resurrection.

Then Jesus tells the disciples to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. In Matthew’s gospel they had gone up to Galilee to meet Jesus. Now they return to Jerusalem to wait for the promised Spirit, after which, Jesus says, they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the whole earth. This verse (1:8) provides the outline for Luke’s description of the Acts of the Apostles. I have heard preachers use it as an outline for our call to witness to Jesus. Jerusalem is your home, and you move out from there. I suppose for us Jerusalem is Winnipeg, Judea is southern Manitoba, Samaria would have to be Saskatchewan, and Toronto may as well be the ends of the earth! But I think that this equation misses an important point.

Jerusalem is the city of God, and in this outline it represents not the disciples’ home—Galilee was their home, but rather the place where they met God. Jesus might say to us, “Wait in the space where you meet me; wait there for my Holy Spirit; and then be my witnesses from there to the ends of the earth.”

In chapter 2 this filling comes, and their witness begins. Chapter 3 to 5 gives the miracle (and its aftermath) in which Peter and John heal the lame man in the gate of the temple, followed by a sermon from Peter, who emerges as the primary spokesman of the first believers. He states the message clearly: God sent Jesus to give you life. You killed him, but God raised him from the dead. Believe in him and receive forgiveness and life. The Sanhedrin arrests the apostles, and Peter repeats his message. They tell the apostles to keep quiet, but they continue preaching and healing. The High Priest and Sadducees then arrest them and put them in prison, but an angel frees them.

The Sanhedrin then questions them in the passage we read. In verses 27 and 28 they say, “Stop this! You are shaming us!” In verse 29 Peter and the apostles say, “You imprisoned us, but God set us free. We will obey God rather than you!” Again they repeat their basic message: You killed Jesus, but God raised Jesus and has exalted him to bring us repentance and forgiveness. Then verse 32: We are God’s witnesses through God’s Spirit.

My Question
I asked at the beginning: Who are these people? The Gospels raise the question about Jesus: Who is this man? The Book of Acts raises the question about the apostles: Who are these people? John tells us that they are Christ’s messengers (like Paul’s image of Christ’s ambassadors). Revelations tells us that they are the chosen people, God’s priestly kingdom. Acts connects their beginning identity with their ultimate identity: They are filled with God’s Spirit to be God’s witnesses in the world.

A Polish Easter carol (in the Mennonite Hymns for Worship, #270) says it like this: “Who are these who are believes now? These are they who have been shouting ‘Hallelujah!’ They have seen the Saviour and have been filled with splendour. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” That is indeed who they are. It is also who we are.

We celebrated the Resurrection last Sunday. This is not simply a day in the church’s calendar, so that life continues afterwards as though nothing had happened. Resurrection Sunday changes everything: “We have seen the Saviour, and have been filled with splendour. Hallelujah!” I add this: If you have not met the Saviour, if you do not know God, if you have not discovered God’s presence in a way that changes everything, I invite you to do so.

Two Examples
You may recall an event several months ago in Kenya. Last December a militant group of gunmen stopped a bus travelling in northern Kenya. They started to separate the Muslims from the Christians in order to execute the Christians, when the Muslim passengers took action. One man stood up and said that they were all brothers and would not separate. The Muslim women on the bus started to give their hijabs to the Christian women so that the armed men could not tell them apart. The gunmen shot Salah and two other men and then they fled. Salah later died of his wounds.

This is a wonderful story of Muslims and Christians pursuing peace together in the midst of conflict, but there is more to the story. The day before this man had a difficult series of conversations with relatives and neighbours in his home village. He declared to them his intention to follow Jesus as Lord and Saviour. In a written testimony he stated his willingness to die for Jesus. He is one who had seen the Saviour and was filled with splendour. In his case, this encounter led to his death, following the way of peace.

Encounters with Jesus are all around us. I think of a friend of mine, awkward in the extreme, but shining with goodness. When a friend of his said that he could not believe in God, because life is too difficult, my friend—whose life has been much harder than mine—said something like, “God loves me, and I love God.” His friend was quiet for a moment and then said, “I’ll have to think about that.” My friend has seen the Saviour and has been filled with his splendour.

We live in a world that causes us to give up hope. Into the darkness of political machinations and the corruption of business dealings comes the risen Jesus. Into the bluster and bombast and barrage of hate and fear that surround comes the risen Jesus. Jesus invites you and me to wait in his presence.

I can’t say what this process looks like. We try to turn it into a system, to make certain that God will answer our call, but we cannot control the process. We open ourselves to Christ, and we wait. Perhaps in the communion service that follows this sermon, perhaps as the choir is singing, perhaps as you are walking home, God appears. I invite you to spend time daily with God, to read your Bible, to pray and sing—alone and with others. Invite the Risen Christ to live in you, individually and corporately. We are they who have seen the Saviour and have been filled with splendour. Hallelujah!

Grace Bible Church
3 April 2016
Texts: John 20; Revelation 1; Acts 5

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