This Sunday we finally got back together. At long last we were able to worship in the same place rather than scattered all over the community and beyond. It was something wonderfully new in a season that has gotten pretty stale. Appropriately, then, we started a new teaching series. For the next few weeks as we rediscover what it means to be the church, we are going to immerse ourselves in the story of the very first church to see just what wisdom we can glean from their experiences for our own. In this first part we are reminded of just how big the task before us really is. Fortunately, that’s not the only reminder we get. Read on to find out about the next one.
A Big Task
When the first Frozen movie came out a few years ago, it was an unexpectedly big hit. The mixture of compelling storytelling, classical Disney animation, not one, but two new Disney princesses for young girls to idolize, and truly terrific music (“Reindeers are Better than People” was my personal favorite) turned out a film that became one of the most successful animated films of all time. As a matter of fact, only one animated film has done better than it did in terms of box office receipts: Frozen 2.
The remake did better than the original by almost $200 million, driven mostly by just how hotly anticipated it was. Most reviewers agreed that while the storytelling and writing were overall better than the first movie, musically, Frozen 2 never quite reached the heights that its predecessor did. But there was one song in the movie that grabbed my attention from the start as lyrically far superior to anything the first film had to offer.
The song is called “The Next Right Thing.” The scene is that Anna has been separated from Elsa and Kristoff and Sven and Olaf. She’s sitting at the bottom of a cave completely demoralized and clueless as to the next thing she should do. After reflecting lyrically on the dark place she finds herself in, she encourages herself by resolving to do the next right thing. If she can only take one step, then she’ll take that step. Once she has taken that step, then she’ll concern herself with taking the next step after that. The message is that when are at a point in which we are feeling completely overwhelmed by life and the task that stands before us, we move forward by finding and doing whatever is the next right thing.
This morning, we are in a place not so entirely unlike where Anna found herself at the bottom of that cave as it might seem. But how can that be? She was alone and scared. We are together at last and excited about the prospect of moving forward from here. Yes, but even as we are excited to be here and not there and there and there and there and everywhere in between, if we will set down the emotion for just a minute, it quickly becomes clear that we can’t just sit here. Now that we’re here, we actually have to do something.
Pandemic raging or not, our economy and the country with it is starting to move forward again. We are beginning to emerge from our bunkers even as the storm is still blowing around us at varying strengths depending on where you look. And the question that seems to be on the minds of every astute observer is this one: What do we do now? What does life look like on the other side of all of this mess? Well, in the church we are asking a similar question: What does it look like to do church on the other side of this pandemic? As we talked about the past couple of weeks in our last two truly digital services, we have all been changed by this. All of us. And institutions are made out of “all of us” meaning they have changed too. So, what do we do now that we’re here? Doing what we did before isn’t going to work. That world has passed. The season has changed. We may not like it, but it’s where we are all the same.
Fortunately, we’re not the first or only ones to be standing together on the precipice of the future, unsure of how exactly to get started. Our precipice isn’t even the largest. And as we begin a new journey together as a church this morning, I thought it would be entirely appropriate to spend a few weeks together reflecting on the story of the first time the church stood on the cusp of a new world which they didn’t know exactly how to traverse. This story is found in the book of Acts and in a new series called, Telling Our Story, we are going to see if we can’t find in the story of the church of the first century the wisdom we need for moving forward in the 21st century. This morning, we are going to start right at the beginning of the story and journey for the next few weeks to see just how the church got started, how it grew, how it overcame the various challenges it faced both internally and externally, and just what all of this means for our own story here as we begin to emerge from our pandemic bunkers.
Acts was written by Dr. Luke, the same Luke who wrote the Gospel bearing his name. It is clear from how he opens the book that it is intended to be the sequel of what came before it. Listen to this from Acts 1:1: “I wrote the first narrative, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up, after he had given instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.”
Because it follows so directly on the heels of where Luke’s Gospel ends, the author doesn’t waste time on any other introductions. He jumps straight into the action. We find Jesus and the disciples—a group which included many more than the original 12—gathered on the Mount of Olives with Jesus giving them some final instructions. Listen to this starting at Acts 1:4: “While he was with them, he commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. ‘Which,’ he said, ‘you have heard me speak about; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a few days.’” They were going to need help for what came next and Jesus knew it. He had already told them, in fact, that He was going to send help for them. In truth, He was so enamored with the help coming that He had actually told them that His leaving would be ultimately to their advantage.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, though, the disciples had revealed themselves to be a pretty dense group. Every time they got to one of those moments that really mattered, they managed to screw it up by being dumb. This one was no exception. After all Jesus had said and done and been through and taught them, they still didn’t understand what His plans were. They were still thinking about the kingdom of God through the lens of the cultural assumptions they’d been raised with. As they were all there looking at each other and waiting for Jesus to do…something…one of them spoke up: “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” After an epic facepalming that Luke didn’t bother to include, Jesus shook His head and set before them the task that He was giving them. Look at this in v. 7: “He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.’” In other words, quit worrying about what’s coming down the road. You’ve got enough on your plate right now. But, you’re not going to face this alone. Verse 8 was so important in terms of setting out the rubric they were to be following from that point forward. Listen to this: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
So, what does Jesus do here? He sets out what they are to be doing. He gives some shape and scope to the task that lies before them. Friends, this is still the task that lies before us. Now, these words have been analyzed endlessly. They been preached, studied, lectured on, written about, and explored in every possible detail and nuance. We don’t need to dive into all of that this morning. Instead, I want to make this very simple for us. Jesus was calling His followers—once they had received the Holy Spirit—to bear witness to who He was, what He said, and all that He did. And they were to do this starting in Jerusalem—that is, in their own hometown. But they weren’t to stay there. They were to begin branching out from there until their whole neighborhood and community had heard. And when that was done, they were to set their sights on the world at large. No big deal, then, right? Just bear witness of the risen Savior to the whole world.
And then He left them. Verse 9: “After he had said this, he was taken up as they were watching and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Now, put yourself in their sandals for a minute. Jesus had just set before them an incredible task. They were to bear witness to the whole world. Their numbers had swelled in Jesus’ final days and they were all gathered there together, but still, the world? Jerusalem was going to be hard enough. After all, that was the locus of the power that had just seen Him crucified 43 days earlier. And just forget about all the people in Judea and Samaria. In Jerusalem, most everyone was like them. Once you left those safe borders, though, the world got a whole lot bigger really quickly. That’s where there were Gentiles and Samaritans. They weren’t sure they even wanted to bear witness to people who were so unlike them. We will come back to that point of tension more than once as we move forward in this story together. And then the whole world? Right.
Friends, our task is no smaller than theirs. There are more people today who have never heard the Gospel message than the entire population of the globe then and by several orders of magnitude. What’s more, we live in a culture that is increasingly not like us. And by “us,” I’m talking specifically about church people. In this culture, while it really hasn’t been the case for some time, church people have generally felt like we are in the majority. This is because we have tended to live close to other people like us, hang out with people like us, and otherwise stay away from people who aren’t like us. If we’re going to follow Jesus’ instructions here properly, we’ve been called to take the Gospel not simply to people who are like us, but to people who are nothing like us and may not even like us. In other words, we have an enormous task. As a church, we are to bear witness to the risen Christ to the whole world. We can’t do that on our own.
Ah, but you see, we’re not on own. Not even close. Pay attention to the text. We focus in so much on the part where Jesus commissions us to bear witness that we forget sometimes what came before it. He said we would bear witness “when the Holy Spirit has come on you.” Our task may be great, but our God is with us. Our task is great, but our God is with us.
And yet, still, even having the assurance of our faithful God’s guiding presence, standing on the cusp of actually getting out there is scary. It feels overwhelming. Consider our challenge: We are in the midst of a lost and racially divided community. And I don’t mean that in the sense that there is necessarily tension, but in the fact that there is just so little contact between black, brown, and white folks in this community. That’s not what the kingdom was designed to look like and it’s not what it will be like. Then there’s the constantly encroaching threat of the pagan-secularism hybrid that has become the controlling narrative for much of our culture and which is increasingly intolerant of orthodox Christianity even if the law happens to be pretty firmly on our side. That’s what’s waiting for us in our Judea and Samaria and we haven’t even started talking about the ends of the earth. That and we’ve only barely scratched the surface of our Jerusalem! And in a world that is no longer familiar to anyone. Our task may be great, and our God may be with us, but what are we supposed to do?
Just what Anna did. Just what the disciples did with a little prodding. Verse 10: “While he was going, they were gazing into heaven, and suddenly two men in white clothes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen him going into heaven.’” In other words, quit standing here and get moving. Friends, we can’t stay where we are. Okay, but what do we do next? Well, what did the disciples do? You can read this for yourself when you get home in the rest of Acts 1, but let me give you the summary. They went back to Jerusalem and started praying. Then, Peter suggested that they go ahead and replace Judas Iscariot who had betrayed Jesus to the Jewish authorities and killed himself afterwards. He justified this suggestion by appealing to the wisdom of the Scriptures.
Sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it? Yeah, I don’t really think so either. They prayed and found a guy to replace Judas so they had a full group of 12 once again. Not really setting the world on fire there. But it was the next right thing. They couldn’t tackle the whole thing just yet. They couldn’t really even get started on much of it because the Holy Spirit hadn’t come yet. But they could do the next right thing. And so they did. But notice that we don’t simply do the next right thing. We prayerfully do the next right thing with the Scriptures as our guide.
Okay, that sounds good, but it’s abstract. It is, so let me give it some structure. We start with prayer. We commit ourselves as a community to diligent, consistent, faithful prayer. That must undergird everything else we do. None of it has even the remotest glimmer of a chance to succeed without that firmly in place. From there, we do just exactly what we’re doing. We reestablish a rhythm of community worship that reflects the season we are in. As it becomes safe, we next add back in in-person small groups. But, we don’t just stop with the groups we already have. We look actively, with missionary eyes, at when and where we can train new leaders and start new groups so that new people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. Then, we start looking out. We start looking out for ways we can proclaim the Gospel in word and in deed out in our community. We look for practical opportunities to serve the least, last, and lost in our midst. We look for and even create opportunities for us to gather with fellow followers of Jesus who don’t look like us so that a divided culture can see that differences can be reconciled and people can be united by something more than what otherwise divides one person from another. And we still have a new building on our horizon. The timeline has changed a bit from what we thought it would be six months ago, but our need is just as pressing and so we press forward. And then, there’s a whole world waiting to hear the Gospel message—a need we are going to play a part in meeting. That’s a lot, yes? Our task is big, there’s no question about that. Our task is big—just as it was for the first church—but our God is with us. Our task is big, but our God is with us. Let’s get going. Let’s do the next right thing.