“Compelled”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 14, 2014 – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture:  Acts 4:13-22

 

If you were paying close attention, you may have noticed that last week’s scripture reading and this week’s passage come from the same book of the Bible. This is not a coincidence. In fact, we’ll be reading together from this book, the Acts of the Apostles, for the next several months.

The Book of Acts, as it is known, is the story of the earliest church. It was written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, so that Luke and Acts together are two volumes of one cohesive whole. Luke tells the story of Jesus—his celebrated birth, his vibrant life, his surprising teachings, his remarkable ministry, his terrible death, his startling resurrection. Acts tells the story of the followers of Jesus as they sought to live as their teacher and friend had taught them. It tells of their successes and of their failures, their transcendent moments and their ordinary days. It is the story of Christians like us, trying to figure out their identity as followers of Jesus—what precisely they were called to do, and who precisely they were called to be, and how precisely they were called to live together in community.

Over the coming months, we will be embarking together on a journey of vision and discernment. Through conversation and study, through engagement with all ages and all facets of our congregation, through connections outside of the church, with prayerful attention and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will dream together about who we might be, what we might do, where we might go. We will seek to discover what call God has in store for us next.

And as we take this journey together, we will spend some time with those earliest Christians. Each week in worship from now to Thanksgiving, we will hear a different story from the Acts of the Apostles, and we will listen for what they might teach us, what we might learn from their experiences. As we seek to discern who we are called to be and what we are called to do, we will look to their example—at the ways in which they heard God’s summons and tried to respond as faithfully as they could.

Which brings us to today’s scripture.

 

It hadn’t been very long since the life of Jesus had come to its terrible conclusion. A couple of months or so had passed since the shame of betrayal, the horror of torture, the despair of death, the shock of the empty tomb, the elation of resurrection. The raw emotions had eased some with the passing weeks, but the power of those experiences still bubbled right beneath the surface.

The apostles didn’t know much yet about what it meant to carry on this ministry in the aftermath of that first Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter. They didn’t have a carefully-formulated mission statement or an eloquently-articulated vision plan. They hadn’t formed any committees; they hadn’t established a budget; they hadn’t had an annual meeting. They didn’t have a Board of Deacons or a Board of Trustees or a Board of Outreach. They didn’t have a building, a sanctuary like this one, all their own. They were a motley, ragtag bunch with no formal education, no proper training, no official authority or sanction or approval. They had one thing, and one thing only: their story.

The one and only thing those apostles had to unite them, the one and only thing they had to offer to the world, was their story, the story of Jesus. But what a story it was.

They had the story of a man whose birth was foretold by prophets and heralded by angels. They had the story of a man whose very presence brought healing to broken bodies and afflicted souls. They had the story of a man who filled thousands upon thousands of hungry bellies. They had the story of a man who touched the untouchable, saw the invisible, loved the unlovable. They had the story of a man who showed them that mercy is stronger than hate, that justice is stronger than greed, that peace is stronger than violence, that love is stronger than fear. They had the story of a man who confronted unarmed the full force of the Roman Empire, the story of a man who faced down death itself and somehow came out on top.

It was a compelling story, in the sense that it compelled the apostles into certain ways of life. It was a story far too bold to be told timidly. It was a story far too communal to be whispered privately. It was a story far too powerful to be lived demurely. It was a story that made them strong to the point of recklessness, and courageous to the point of foolishness, and generous to the point of extravagance. It was a story that made them gather up what money they had and give it to the poor. It was a story that made them gather up what food they had and give it to the hungry. It was a story that made them gather up what love they had and give it to the despairing. It was a story that made them teach, and heal, and pray, and share, and give, and sing of the glory of God with all their heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.

It was a story that made Peter and John, in the chapter that precedes our reading this morning, stop and talk with a man who was begging by the temple gate. When they learned that he had been unable to walk for more than forty years, they were moved by compassion, and they lifted him up, and set him on his feet, and sent him running, skipping, leaping into the temple to praise God.

It was a story that made them do things that people could not help but notice. It was a story that made them notorious. It’s not that the apostles taught, and healed, and prayed, and shared, and gave, and sang in order to be noticed—it’s that they were so filled up, so compelled by the good news they had received, that they could not help themselves. They were compelled to live out that gospel message. They didn’t worry about what people would think, they worried about what God would think, and they shaped their lives accordingly. They could not keep from speaking—and acting—about what they had seen and heard.

 

It is this same story, this same compelling force, that has inspired generations of Christians to live lives shaped by the good news of God’s realm of love and justice. From abolitionists to educators, from suffragettes to surgeons, from artists to entrepreneurs, from counselors to carpenters—countless Christians down through the centuries have spent their lives in selfless service.

There are the ones we know of—Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, and Sojourner Truth, and Oscar Romero, and Rosa Parks, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Desmond Tutu, and Dorothy Day—the ones whose words and actions were noticed on such a scale that they made it into our history books. And there are many, many, many more whose names we’ll never know, but whose words and actions also played a part in the dawning of God’s new day.

 

And so, as we embark on this season of discernment and vision, I wonder—what is it that the gospel story compels you to do? What act of healing or helping, feeding or forgiving, teaching or touching, leading or loving… How is the story of Jesus, that story that dwells in the deepest, truest part of your heart—how is that story shaping your life?

What seemingly crazy thing would you do if you were not worried about what people would think, but only about what God would think?

What seemingly foolish decision would you make if you let compassion overrule rationality, if you let love override fear, just this once?

What issue or situation grabs hold of your soul in such a way that you cannot keep from speaking about what you have seen and heard?

What part of that gospel story compels you to tell it, in your words or in your actions?

And what are you going to do or say about it?

What part of the gospel story compels us to tell it, in our words or in our actions? How is the story of Jesus shaping our life together as a community? What is it that the gospel story compels us to do?

 

It might be something small, something that nobody but you and me will ever see or hear or know about. Or it might be something big, something that could someday land us in the company of Martin and Nelson, Rosa and Sojourner, Dietrich and Desmond and Dorothy.

It might be something relatively innocuous, something that most people would agree is a good idea. Or it might be something controversial. It might be something that ruffles some feathers, that rocks the boat, that offends someone or makes someone mad. It might be something that makes us notorious.

It’s not that we will teach, or heal, or pray, or share, or give, or sing in order to be noticed—it’s that we are so filled up, so compelled by the good news we have received, that we cannot help ourselves. We are compelled to live out that gospel message. Because the call to be a Christian is not always a call to be nice and polite and inoffensive. It is a call to be faithful, to follow the example and the teachings of Jesus—the one broke all the rules, the one who was so offensive to the powers that be that he ended up on the cross, the one who changed the course of history forever.

 

When Peter and John healed that man who had been unable to walk for more than forty years, the authorities said, “It is obvious that a notable sign has been done through them.” What might we do that will elicit a similar response? What might we do that will make people talk, that will make it blindingly obvious that God is alive and well and active in our midst?

Because make no mistake, friends—God is doing a powerful thing in this place and in this time. In the rainbow on our sign… in the solar panels on our roof… in the ideas and questions in our minds… in the deep connections in our hearts… God is alive and well and active in our midst, telling the story of Jesus to us and in us and with us and through us. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what the next chapter will bring.