The Spirit of Surrender

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A little bit later in the service today, we will be receiving a new member of this Body of Christ.
And we will ask Tom some questions… questions that all of us were asked when we joined this church, questions that our parents and sponsors were asked when we were baptized.
Do we accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Do we put our whole trust in God’s grace and promise to serve him as our Lord in union with the church Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

In light of those promises, I want to invite Pastor Todd to read a statement that Bishop Laurie has invited all churches in Iowa to share this morning:

Many of you have heard about the violence that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier today. White nationalist and other right-wing groups had scheduled a “Unite the Right” rally to protest the removal of Confederate symbols in the city, including a statue of Robert E. Lee. This afternoon a man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring nineteen others. Two others have died. Self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi and hate groups were very open in their intentions to provoke violence, and Virginia’s Governor declared a state of emergency.

The United Methodist Church condemns the evil, hatred, and bigotry that led to this violence, and we ask you to pray for those who have been injured and the families of those who have been killed. We also ask you to pray for the restoration of order and peace for the community of Charlottesville.

At this tragic time, may each one of us renew our commitment by our words and actions to create a world where all people live out the words in this prayer of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.

In today’s scripture from the book of Acts, we find a scene from the early Christian community.
In many ways, those early followers of Christ were trying to create that world in which their whole lives exemplified the teachings of Jesus. In the chapters before this, twice we hear tales of how the believers sold everything they had and made sure there were no needs in their community.
Twice, we have been told of their love and faithfulness and how everyone who joined this community of Christ was full of prayer and devotion and the church was growing exponentially every day.
They were standing up for what was right, willing to die for their beliefs, and always sought to share the love, grace, and mercy of God with one another.

But, living in community is not easy… in fact, to truly commit to living with one another is dangerous.
A community that truly cares for the needs of others is a community where people can share their needs without being embarrassed with them.
A community that heals the sick is a community where people are not afraid to speak the truth about their own disease.
A community that cares for the widows and the orphans and the oppressed is a community where people sacrificially put their own lives on the line for the lives of others.
A community that offers grace and mercy is also a community that speaks the truth and names evil and sin in the world when they see it.

And I imagine that many of us in this room today would hesitate and pull back from that type of life, because there are great risks involved in being vulnerable, open, honest, and accountable to a community.
We might have to take off our fake plastered on smiles and tell the truth about the problems in our lives.
We are afraid of our own tears, afraid of our own weakness, afraid that the community around us will turn their backs if they really knew what was going on.
We are afraid of what those outside the church might think if we took a stand for something that we truly believed in.

In Acts chapter 5, we find the story of this couple who just couldn’t surrender it all to God.
They had seen the acts of sacrificial love and were on the fringes of this community who shared everything in common without worrying about what belonged to whom. And perhaps they were inspired by a man named Barnabas who sold a plot of land and laid the proceeds at the feet of the disciples.
Immediately following his sacrificial act, Ananias and Sapphira decide to do the same… sort of.
They, too, sell a plot of land and bring the proceeds from the sale to the disciples… except they lie about how much they sold it for and keep some of it back for themselves.

In the midst of a community where all are of one heart and mind…
in the midst of a community where everyone cares for everyone else and no one has need…
in the midst of a community – united by the Holy Spirit – where no one says “that’s mine, you can’t have it…”
… Ananias and Sapphira are looking out for themselves.
They essentially embezzle money from the sale and hide it for themselves. In doing so, they reject the community, reject the Holy Spirit, and seek to provide for their own welfare.
Ananias and Sapphira were telling the church – it’s nice what ya’ll are doing, and we want to help, but we’re not going to become beholden to you.
We’re going to stand over here on the sidelines and get praise for our giving but we sure as hell are not going to let you take care of us.
We can take care of ourselves just fine, thank you very much.

What they fail to understand is that the Body of Christ asks every person, every member, to fully participate.
No one is more important than another.
An eye can’t see without a brain to process the information.
A hand can’t reach out to help without an arm to support and extend.
A stomach is pretty worthless without a mouth to bring it food.
For this Body of Christ to work, for it to witness to the world, it asks us each to play our part and to do so with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
We can’t hold back.
And we have to allow others to do their part.

In the last question we will ask Tom as he professes his faith, we invite him to confess Jesus Christ as his Savior, to put his WHOLE trust in his grace, and to serve him as his Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.

The reason that we, as Christians, as baptized members of the United Methodist Church, have to look out on the actions of white nationalists and Christian hate groups and denounce their words and actions as sinful is precisely because they go against everything we proclaim in that profession of faith.
As Bishop Trimble wrote, “naming hate, injustice, and the sin of “-ism” is the only way for us to tackle the forces that would divide us and that would have any of us believe that there is less opportunity to reach our highest God-given potential because of one group of people or another.”

I used to think that the greatest sin of Ananias and Sapphira was the fact that they lied to God and the community about how much money they had sold their land for.
But the more I put this story into the context of this community of believers who relied upon a spirit of trust and vulnerability and risk in order to be united, I realized that their sin wasn’t so much that they lied, or stole the money, but that they believed they could follow God without relying upon the rest of the community.
They thought they were better than everyone else.
They thought they had the right to stand apart.
They were not just clinging to their money… they were clinging to their ideology and trying to carve out a space in their life where God and God’s people couldn’t exist.
And in the process, they were denying others the opportunity to reach their “God-given potential.”

We are asked to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.
We are to become “living sacrifices.”
Jesus Christ died for us and he wants our whole selves in return.

And here come two people who want to be a part of the community and want to walk with Jesus, but who don’t want to dive all the way in.
They pretend that they do – they want the prestige, they want to be a part of this awesome new movement, but they just are not ready to commit ALL THE WAY.
And you know what is really sad – they didn’t have to. They could simply have said that. They could have been up front with Peter and said “Hey, we want to support the church and see what you guys are doing and maybe someday we’ll be at the point where we can do what Barnabas has done and really place ourselves in community.”
Peter even reminds Ananias that the land was his to do with as he pleased and he didn’t have to sell it and he didn’t have to give it to the church…
but when they did so, and when they lied and pretended to really surrender themselves, when they hid who they were, they were actually putting the whole community in danger.
They were acting directly against the Holy Spirit and the unity it brought to the church.
In their act of holding back their resources, of refusing to fully give in to the power of God, in their lack of surrender of their ideologies and power, Ananias and Sapphira let a Spirit of Discord into the body of Christ.
They said with their actions, “it’s okay God, I’ll take care of myself.”
And God’s response… well – this is the difficult part of the story.
First, Ananias and the Sapphira fall dead.
I find this so troubling because I sometimes hold back, too.
We don’t always let God have our hearts and minds and soul.
We are timid with our faith.
We surrender some… but not all.
This passage makes me uncomfortable, because I realize that I’m really no different than Ananias and Sapphira… what on earth prevents God for striking me dead, right here and right now for holding back, myself?
What we learn in the story of Ananias and Sapphira is that we still worship a holy, awesome, and fearful Lord.
In a world full of grace, we do not simply have a free pass to act however we want.
God is still righteous and just and has every right to punish sinners by death or other means.

We are tempted to simply believe that grace covers all and to run through this life as if our actions do not matter.
We are tempted to rest in the love of God and not consider what the consequences of our sin might be.
And, we are tempted to sit back and not speak out when we see the words and actions and beliefs of others in our community or neighborhood or world… we are tempted to not hold one another accountable for the sin and evil that is perpetuated out of fear.
And yet the consequences of sin in the world is real.
Three people died yesterday… communities and families can be destroyed… when we allow sin to run rampant in this world than we have essentially turned our back on God.
Christ demands all and we give some.
We hold back and don’t fully let the Holy Spirit build up this Body of Christ.
We refuse to surrender and therefore we deny the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts, this church, and the world around us.
We might not be struck dead here in this place at this moment, but what do we stop from growing and living and thriving by our blatant denial of the Holy Spirit?
This path of Christian faith is not easy.
While the book of Acts has begun with all sorts of joyous accounts of healing and transformation and triumph over the powers of evil, these passages remind us that discipleship is hard.
It is a warning to those who are considering this faith: think twice.
Think about the price you are being called to pay.
Think about what is being demanded of you.
But also think about the joy and the possibility and the abundant life that awaits if you are willing to let go of what you think and what you believe you deserve in order to embrace what God knows you need.
Are you willing to let go?
Are you willing to dive in?
Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit transform us into the body of Christ?

Spirit of Discipleship

How many of you understand the Holy Spirit?  How she works, where she blows, what exactly God is doing in our lives through the Spirit’s power?  Raise your hands…

Notice, my hand isn’t raised either 😉

The Holy Spirit is hard to pin down… the power of God, the fullness of God, moving among us, empowering us, advocating for us, and yet never really in our grasp.

We know so little about the Spirit and yet we also spend so little time studying and exploring this amazing gift and presence that Jesus promised us.

This summer, with a new vision of our church in hand (reflect the light of God slide), we are going to watch as the Holy Spirit moves and transforms the early church.  You see – they too, are coming to a new understanding of what it means to live as people of God in community with one another.  They are growing and changing and learning to live out the Kingdom of God in all that they do.  And every step of the way – they are empowered by the Holy Spirit.

As we walk with them, we will ask how we also can follow the Spirit’s prompting and learn together about the amazing things she can do if only we allow her to move. Each week, I want to invite you to ask the question – What could happen in our church if the Holy Spirit moved among us?

Our first stop on our journey is not very far from our experience of Pentecost two weeks ago… In fact, it is the end of Peter’s sermon on that amazing day.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, this ordinary guy gives an extraordinary sermon and three thousand people are converted and become believers on the spot.

Now, that in itself is amazing.  We don’t have 3,000 people even IN Marengo… 😉  But what I believe is more amazing is what happens next.

These folks are filled with the Holy Spirit.  They don’t pray the Sinner’s Prayer and then go back to live as it was.  They don’t experience the mountain top moment of a retreat and life as usual sneaks in… No – they actually commit themselves to living out the fullness of what it means to be the people of God.  Their entire lives change.  They are the body of Christ.  They are disciples.

While I was at Annual Conference last weekend, we had an opportunity to participate in teaching sessions.  One of them I went to was with a guy named Ken Willard and he talked about how we make disciples in our church.  That is afterall the overall mission of the United Methodist Church – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  And it was a part of our mission statement here at the church for years – the command to go into the world and make disciples from Matthew 28.

But the sad truth is, we almost never talk about being a disciple in the church.  We talk about membership and we have ways of measuring the number of baptisms and professions of faith in our congregations.  But we rarely paint a picture of what it means to be a disciple.  And when we don’t speak about discipleship in a concrete way, then you and I do not have clear standards to evaluate ourselves by.

And too often, that means that wherever you were on your journey of faith when you became a member of the church is where you have stayed.  Not because of anything that YOU have done, but because we, as the church, have never helped one another to grow beyond that. We have not challenged one another to grow into the fullness of discipleship. We have not provided resources and tools to help one another deepen our faith AND we have often left the Holy Spirit completely out of our churches.

I was reminded of an important lesson last weekend and I want you to hear it:  membership in our church is not the same thing as being a disciple in Jesus Christ.  We have a lot of members who are just beginning to become disciples… and we have some folks here who are working on their discipleship but have never recited the membership vows of our church.  We are talking about two separate things.

I believe that if we want a clear picture of discipleship… our passage from Acts this morning is the place to start.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, these three thousand plus people were living out their faith in the best possible way.  Even though we are merely at the beginning of this book of the Acts of the Apostles, we are shown here a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, of the end goal of our striving… here is a list of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Let me read the second half of the passage again… this time from the Message:

That day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.

In no particular order, I want to dissect this list and lay out for you 10 marks of discipleship that we see in these early Christians… 10 things that we should stive towards in our own discipleship.

A word of reminder… this list is not meant to shame you or make you to feel bad about yourself if you aren’t doing these things yet…  maybe for the first time, it is sharing with you a picture of what we could become through the power of the Holy Spirit. These markers are like a measuring stick… a way of seeing where you currently are and where you might have room for growth.

1. Worship:  Worship is the act of praising God and in verses 46-47, we are told that every day the disciples met together in the temple. Every day they worshipped!  And while our private worship and time of devotions are important – so is our communal experience of praise to God. A disciple is someone who joins the community in worship at least once a week.

2. Prayer:  From verse 42, we are told the believers devoted themselves to their prayers.  Prayers for healing, prayers for empowerment, prayers for understanding, prayers for signs and discernment.  As 43 continues – awe fell over the people and God performed many signs and wonders in that time.  In the scriptures we read: Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and ye shall find… our times of prayer communicate our desires to God… but prayer also helps align those very same desires with God’s desires.  Disciples of Jesus Christ pray daily for one another, for the church, and for the mission field.

3. Evangelism  – unlike the pre-Pentecost church… this community of believers was present in their community.  Through those wonders and signs, through stories and scripture, but also through the living witness of their community.  Disciples share the good news about what God has done in their life through words and deeds.

4. Bear Fruit – this follows closely on the heels of number 3 – but I want you to hear that it is different.  While disciples are called to evangelize – to tell the good news, we do not always get the response that we want.  Sometimes our evanglism simply creates enemies who are offended by God and the proclamation that Jesus is Lord.  But in spite of opposition, we continue to share. We do not give up even though the work is hard and sometimes the days are long.  A farmer knows that to bear fruit takes patience.  Our verses tell us that people began to notice what the disciples were doing. And they liked what they saw.  Verse 47 tells us that every day the Lord added to their numbers.

5. Know and Apply Scripture – The disciples devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles.  They listened as the scriptures were opened up to them and then they applied those verses to their lives.  All of these marks of discipleship come from the scriptures we share together.  Disciples today spend time in the scriptures – both on their own and in community – and seek ways to live out what they read.

6. Serve the Body – In verse 44-45 we are read about how the disciples put the body of Christ ahead of their own desires.  They shared their resources and made sure that everyone in need was cared for.  Disciples see and respond to the needs of other people… especially their brothers and sisters in the church.

7. Communion – twice in this passage a shared meal is mentioned.  Breaking bread together unites us in our faith, but it is also a reminder of what Christ has done and centers us in relationship with him. John Wesley talked about the duty of constant communion… of coming to the table as frequently as possible to remember Christ’s death and to recieve grace.  Disciples share in the communion meal as often as they can.

8. Fruits of the Spirit – implicit in these verses are the fruits of the spirit that we know so well.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.  They were devoted and united, they shared with gladness and simplicity, they were kind and good to everyone they met.  Disciples live in such a way that these characteristics are evident in all they do.

9. Give Financially (Tithe) – These early disciples sold their own property and possesions in order to support the work of the church and one another.  They gave not only because God commands it, but also because they trusted that God would provide for them as they provided for one another.  Their giving demonstrated their willingness to be interdependent – to live in a community where the need of one was the need of all.  Disciples of Jesus Christ give at least 10% of their income to the church – the Body of Christ.

10. Love Others – this last mark of discipleship is a bit harder to see in these verses, but it describes where this group is going.  They shared God’s goodness with everyone verse 47 tells us… but as we will see in the coming weeks – who is welcome and what will be required of them is sometimes up for debate. Even the earliest disciples had places to learn and grow, but we know that a Disciple loves other people and shares the love of God with them – wherever they are, whoever they may be.

Remember that question I asked earlier… the question that will guide us throughout this summer:  What could happen in our church if the Holy Spirit moved among us? What could happen if the Holy Spirit turned us all into disciples?  I want to invite you to take a minute or two and ponder what would happen if we all worshipped and shared communion weekly – if we all tithed – if we prayed together and studied the scriptures more – if we let the Holy Spirit help us to love and live and speak.  What could happen?  I invite you to write down your answer on the slips of paper in the pews and to offer them up to God as we pass the offering plates in a few minutes.

Amen… and amen.