THE CHURCH: AN ORIGIN STORY
A sermon on Acts 2: 42-47
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
May 3, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
I think that it would be fair to say that one of the more popular trends in the Hollywood film industry over the last couple of decades has been a category of movie known as “the origin story.” This genre of movie sets out to tell the story of how some character from a comic book or fantasy series came to be. Most often, the film maker assumes that the audience has at least some prior knowledge of who the central character is. The movie tells of the development of that character from his or her beginnings through the changes that the character goes through until he or she becomes the more recognizable character that the audience knows.
Let me mention a couple of recent examples of this kind of movie. If you haven’t seen them, then this might be a good opportunity to do so as we all continue to “shelter in place.” I am sure that they are available on one of the popular streaming services.
One of last year’s most talked-about movies was an origin story called Joker. This is a film that tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a mentally-ill, frustrated party clown and stand-up comic. The movie follows Arthur’s downward spiral into madness and how he eventually became The Joker, the arch nemesis of Batman. The film was nominated for eleven Oscars—more than any other film last year—and won the Best Actor award for Joaquin Phoenix as the title character. (It is a well-made movie, but I must confess that I found it more than a little bit dark and creepy. Phoenix’s depiction of Arthurs’s descent into insanity was just too vivid…)
Another recent illustration of an “origin story” movie is 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story. This movie is gives us the back-story of Han Solo, one of the main characters in the original Star Wars saga. It gives us a peek of his years prior to the first Star Wars movie when he was a bit of an anti-authority punk and someone who made his living as a smuggler. Solo is reported to be one of the most expensive movies ever made, coming in at around $275 million. Unfortunately for its investors, its reception was lukewarm from both critics and Star Wars fans. It is widely regarded in the motion picture industry as something of a flop as it made less money than any of the other Star Wars movies. (My two cents’ worth—I liked it okay. It’s not a bad film. It just suffers in comparison to most of the rest of the movies in the Star Wars universe…)
The sermon text for today is from Acts 2. And it tells the dramatic origin story of the church. Some two thousand years into the history of the church, we all have a pretty good idea of what church is about and how it should be done. In order to truly understand the nature of an organization or institution, sometimes it is helpful to get back to the beginning. And that is what today’s passage from
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Acts 2 does. It takes us back to the earliest days of First Church Jerusalem and reacquaints us with how it got started. I am not sure that there has ever been a major motion picture with Acts 2 as its primary subject matter. I dunno. In the right hands, it might make for a really good movie…(!)
Acts 2 begins with the story of Pentecost. As you may remember, the disciples of Jesus were all crowded together in one place in Jerusalem. Suddenly the room was filled with the sound of a rushing, mighty wind. Then tongues of flame appeared over the head of each believer. After that happened, all of the disciples burst out of the room and out into the streets, proclaiming the gospel message to those in the city.
The crowds were from all over the eastern Mediterranean world, but miraculously, everyone was able to hear the message of Jesus in his or her own language. As this was going on, the Apostle Peter stood up in the midst of them to address the people. He preached the message of Jesus and how salvation was to be found by the repentance of sins and faith in Christ. Verse 41 tells us that many people responded to Peter’s sermon and, as a result, about three thousand people were saved that day. That brings us to today’s passage…
Verses 42-47 present us with a snapshot of what life in the church looked like in the aftermath of Pentecost. What does it tell us?
It tells us that the church met daily in the Temple where they worshipped and listened to the apostle’s teaching. They celebrated the Lord’s Supper together. Miracles were done at the hands of the apostles that amazed all the people. Possessions were placed in common so that everyone was taken care of. In addition to meeting together at the Temple, Acts tells us that the believers also met in homes to share meals and pray together. The concluding statement of the passage reads, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” In the time remaining, let me make a few comments about some of what the passage says…
Those first followers of Jesus met in the Temple to worship. While that may seem strange at first glance, they were simply continuing the tradition of worship in the Temple that they had grown up with. We are told in verse 47 that as the believers worshiped and fellowshipped together, they enjoyed “the goodwill of all the people.” That is a remarkable statement that is easy to rush by or gloss over if we are not careful.
Consider with me the trajectory of the story of those first believers of Jesus. We are told that on Easter evening, the disciples were all cowering together in fear, hiding out in a room for fear of the authorities. After the Holy Spirit fell on them at Pentecost, they experienced a radical change. The believers boldly went out into the city proclaiming the message of the Risen Christ. And now here they are, openly worshiping together in public at the Temple and enjoying “the goodwill of all the people.”
But the favor that they enjoyed among the people in Jerusalem would not last very long. Two chapters later, we are told that the Temple authorities came up to Peter and John even while they were
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teaching in the Temple. They arrested them on the spot. After questioning them, the Council discovered that they could get nowhere with Peter and John. Plus the news of the miracles that they had performed had spread like wildfire throughout the city. Figuring that they had no other choice, the council gave the two apostles strict instructions not to teach anymore about Jesus. Then they released them. But their freedom would be short lived…
In chapter five, the persecution begins in earnest. Beginning in verse 17, the apostles were arrested once again and thrown into jail. This time, during the night, an angel freed them from their jail cells. Immediately they went right back to preaching and teaching in the Temple again. And they were arrested a second time. This time, we are told more of the conversation between the apostles and Temple leaders. The confrontation resulted in the apostles being warned again not to teach about Jesus. Then they were whipped for good measure before they were released. It did not make any difference to the apostles. They continued to teach in the Temple and in house to house about the good news of Jesus.
So what happened? Why did things go south so quickly for the fledgling Jesus movement? How did the “goodwill of all the people” suddenly turn into arrests, nights spent in jail, and beatings at the hands of the Temple leaders?
Acts gives us a couple of clues. The first one is found in Acts 5:17. That verse tells us that “The high priest and all his associates…were filled with jealousy.” As the disciples met together in Temple to teach about Jesus, many were coming to hear them. They were even pulling in those who were outside of Jerusalem. They came to hear the teachings and to see the miracles and healings that the apostles were performing. Consequently the number of believers in Jerusalem was dramatically increasing. The Temple leaders were jealous of this upstart group of unlearned men attracting a crowd and being popular with the people. And the growth of the Christian community was not just limited to the citizens of the city. Acts 6:7 tells us that even a number of priests became obedient to the faith. That no doubt caused further resentment among the leadership…
Second, the Temple leaders were angry. In Acts 5:28, they accused the apostles of “filling Jerusalem with your teaching and of being determined to make us guilty of this man’s [i.e. Jesus’] blood.”
The gospels make it very clear that theTemple leaders had indeed been responsible—at least in part—for conspiring with the Roman authorities to do away with Jesus. And the disciples were not shy in telling others of this secret—a secret that the Temple leaders wished to keep quiet. This is evident from the beginning when Peter’s Pentecost sermon accused them of killing God’s son. 1 And it was a probably a theme that was repeated in the apostles’ teachings in the days that followed.2 The Temple leaders were not about to let the apostles pin the death of Jesus on them. Good religious people that they were,
1 See Acts 2:23.
2 See Stephen’s speech to the Jewish leaders in Acts 7:52-53 for another example.
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they would not want to be accused of having the innocent blood of God’s son on their hands…And good Jewish patriots that they were, they would not have wanted to be seen as colluding with the pagan Romans in the death of a man many considered a prophet…
My guess is that when the disciples began to be persecuted for their faith in Jesus, they recalled our Lord’s words to them in Luke 6:26 and 28. There Jesus told his disciples,
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets…Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”
As they recalled these words of our Lord Jesus, they must have quickly realized that the goodwill of the people in Jerusalem could not last forever…Whenever and wherever God’s truth is spoken and acted upon, there is going to be some push-back from somewhere…Count on it…
It seems to me that the main takeaway from this consideration of the church’s origin story found in Acts 2 is that, from its very inception, the church of Jesus Christ was profoundly countercultural in its outlook and in its actions.
At first, the disciples continued to meet in the Temple as a separate group. This was not surprising. There were a number of different sects in 1st Century Judaism that often met in different areas of the Temple, often worshiping and teaching at the same times as other groups. Jesus’ disciples did this until the antagonism of the Temple authorities eventually made it impossible. Their teachings about Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah ran counter to the traditional beliefs. Therefore they were considered to be heretics and driven out of the Temple all together…
Today’s passage also tells of how “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Verse 45) Not all New Testament churches followed the example of First Church Jerusalem in this regard, but this is how they understood Jesus’ words when he spoke about the two great commandments. He said that all that God required was to Love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That ran counter to the prevailing concept of having to offer sacrifices, follow all 613 laws contained in the Old Testament. It’s a stark contrast to how others believed one became right with God.
But the life of the church is also countercultural in the way that one’s devotion to God is expressed. Perhaps no clearer description of that is to be found than in Jesus’ opening words of “The Sermon on the Mount.” You’ve heard them before. They are usually referred to as “The Beatitudes.”
20th Century Quaker author Rufus Jones described them in these terms:
“The Beatitudes” furnish one of those extraordinary pin-hole peeps through which the inner world of the Spirit can be seen. Here, in a few lines, loaded with insight, the seed-spirit of the Kingdom comes into full
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view. We are given no new code, no new set of rules, no legal system at all. It is the proclamation of a new spirit, a new way of living, a new type of person…The goodness portrayed in the Beatitudes is different. [It is not about trying to attain righteousness by stringent laws.] The beatitudes attach rather to those who hunger and thirst for goodness. The aspiration—not the attainment—is singled out for blessing. Poverty of spirit, meekness and mercy and peace-making are high among the qualities that characterize the inner spirit of the Kingdom…These traits belong to the inmost nature of God and, of course, those who have them are blessed. 3
Acts 2 lets us know that the First Church Jerusalem had these kinds of characteristics in abundance. It was descriptive of their fellowship. And because they lived in such a manner, then the church‘s actions and teachings ran counter to the prevailing culture. Being newly created by the indwelling Holy Spirit inspired a new way of living for these first believers. And they turned the world upside down for it…
And so it is two millennia later. When our lived as the 21st Century church show how our lives have been changed and how we are guided—not by rules—but by the passionate desire to be transformed into Christ’s likeness, then we will be following in the footsteps of those first believers . We will be the church as it was first constituted.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
THE CHURCH: AN ORIGIN STORY