Power

Fire!

Acts 2:1-21

What is this Holy Spirit, this flame igniting the birthday candle of the church?

Well, first I have to correct the question’s grammar. Sometimes we slip and say “what” or “it” when we talk about the Holy Spirit, but it’s more appropriate to say “who” or “he.”

The Holy Spirit is God, expressed in a way we can sense directly, and as we might expect, the experience is overwhelming and mysterious. The Holy Spirit is deeply personal, touching us in ways that are provocative and emotional.

Even though God is more than biologically male or female, we use the traditional pronoun “he” because it keeps us in that great, long-running scriptural metaphor of the husband wooing and pursuing his errant, adulterous bride. In the metaphor, God is the husband or groom and we of the church, men and women, are his bride. At Pentecost we see a deep spiritual ravishing, our souls exposed one to another and known in full.

The Holy Spirit transforms. The Spirit sounded like wind and looked like fire on the day of Pentecost. When wind and fire sweep over a place, everything is changed. When we think of natural disasters, the image is frightening. And yes, let’s go ahead and admit it—the idea of the Holy Spirit sweeping over us frightens us as much as the idea of being in the middle of a firestorm.

When we are transformed by God, we may do strange things. We don’t like the idea of seeming strange, of looking different to the world.

If we’re transformed, we may demonstrate a kind of enthusiasm and excitement people haven’t seen in us before. “Nuts!” people may say. “Drunk in the morning!”

We’re liable to find ourselves capable of doing things we did not imagine possible, and with that capability, we may find new demands upon us. Again, the possibility of sudden change is intimidating.

When the Spirit, recognizing our belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, gives us gifts, he doesn’t expect us to tuck them in the closet, however. We should get those gifts out and use them!

The ability to declare who Jesus is, the insight to discern and declare what truth is, the deep desire to help others—We should wear those gifts out! It’s okay to use them up. The Holy Spirit honors faithful use of our gifts by replenishing them.

And besides, left sitting in a closet of the soul, those gifts dry up and crumble. They become useless.

Speak the truth of who God is, of what God is doing through Jesus Christ. Engage with people you never saw yourself among before.

For example, if you’re called to go among youth or children, God will give you the words and actions you need. Or if you find yourself mixing with a crowd that used to frighten you, fear not—God will make you attractive and understandable to them.

The Spirit will not burn you as it sweeps over. The Spirit will refine you, for once you know Jesus Christ, you do have the potential to be holy. Let the Spirit touch you long enough, and you will shine like the purest gold.

The Holy Spirit is power. Sometimes as Christians, we talk about power as if it is a bad thing, as if wanting power is inherently evil. We’re thinking of worldly power when we criticize such pursuits. Seeking God’s power is a different matter entirely.

The latest Star Wars story comes out Friday. I remember seeing the very first Star Wars movie when I was 12, entranced by all those light sabers and this talk of “the Force.” These are not the droids you’re looking for. Oh, to be able to wave my hand and say, “This is not the student who forgot his homework.” And if I could just get my hands on a real lightsaber, swinging it with the power of the Force in me!

George Lucas based the Force on the impersonal energy of certain Asian religions, an energy that supposedly binds all things together, flowing through them. It took me a few years to figure this out, but the Holy Spirit is the real Force, one capable of touching us more deeply than Asian religions or George Lucas ever imagined.

Christians believe in a personal, loving God. His Holy Spirit is the personal, loving Force. When we are open to the Holy Spirit, God’s creative power goes to work in us. The Holy Spirit works in us so that we help accomplish God’s eternal will. Go into the world with power, you Jedi Knights of Christ.

This Holy Spirit marks a new era, one in which we now live. Properly attuned to him, we all are supposed to have a sense of the times, our dreams and visions revealing what is coming. What is coming? A remaking of all things, of course. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross triggered a new order to creation, visibly seen first in his resurrection.

Satan, wielding sin and death, used to be the power broker, but no more. With the Holy Spirit in us, we can tell Satan, “Be gone!” We move through time toward the full, visible return of Jesus Christ. His kingdom is present now, and we make it more present each day by declaring the kingdom to be real, living as if it has fully arrived.

Let us follow Peter’s exhortation. Let us call on the name of the Lord and be saved, and let us be sure all those around us have the same opportunity. The Spirit will sweep over us as a church once again, the fire will burn, and we will be comforted and strengthened for eternity.

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Gloria Party 2

Acts 2:43-47
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.


Stay with me on the subject of tithing, and the party’s potential will only increase.

Last week, we looked to the Old Testament for guidance regarding God’s intent for tithing. In Deuteronomy, we found something out of sync with modern notions about tithing.

Even as part of the law, a joyous celebration was key to the tithe, along with a deep concern for the people in society lacking resources. Tithing created an atmosphere of abundance, driven by a general belief that God’s people working together in harmony could create a glimpse of heaven on earth.

I briefly spoke about what a modern tithing community could look like. Mostly, I gave you some numbers to consider. At Luminary, we easily would be working with an extra $240,000 a year. With our fixed operating costs currently covered, pretty much all of that would go toward ministries.

I invited you to imagine what would be different about our church if we were to achieve such community-wide levels of commitment. I got some great feedback during worship at Luminary today about what people saw as possibilities, all ministry-related.

I tend to see things in relation to what I call Matthew 25 ministries. Down deep in that chapter, starting at the 31st verse, we see a scene of judgment, where we learn Christ assesses the hearts of his followers based on how they have treated the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the strangers, the sick, and the imprisoned—basically, the people of Jesus’ day living on the margins of society, just barely hanging on to life. This scene certainly seems to be the starting point for ministry in any culture.

First, if we were a tithing community, I see some of the things we already do being done in a bigger, much more effective way. Why could our food closet and our Wednesday night community meal not morph into a full-time feeding ministry, a place where all, rich or poor, could find physical and spiritual sustenance together?

In a tithing church, our clothing and furniture ministries could be so much more, operating in the heart of Ten Mile and Meigs County rather than up here on the hill. And our outreach to people in the community who feel like strangers, for one reason or another cut off from circles of friends and families, could be more organized and effective.

Here’s another one: Why just an annual one-day health fair? Why not a regularly accessible health clinic somewhere in the Ten Mile area?

Within a couple of years I think we would certainly finish this building, debt-free, and perhaps build new ones or refurbish old ones, all with expanded ministries in mind. Our second floor would quickly become a place of community for all ages. Our presence could be truly in the community rather than just in this one location. And I’ve not even begun to describe ministries our community probably needs but we don’t offer. (See, you’ve not even given the money, and I already have it spent.)

The picture I see is starting to look a lot like the church in our Acts text, and all we’ve done so far is discuss the effect of tithing. The early Christians quickly put tithing in their rear-view mirrors. They were living the kingdom of heaven on earth, if only briefly. Tithing wasn’t enough of a commitment, in their minds. Yes, Christ freed them from the law. He freed them to go further in areas tied to love of each other.

They were so excited about salvation through Christ that they began to practice a kind of holy communism, something very different from the political communism we have seen in the 20th and 21st centuries. Modern communism is imposed by the dictates of tyrants; the early church’s communal life was inspired by the feeling of solidarity the Holy Spirit brings to a group. And again, it all played out like a party, one where everyone’s needs were met.

I get excited thinking of what one local church committed to tithing could do. I get giddy thinking of all of Christ’s church returning to a commitment to joyous tithing, the kind designed to celebrate our Savior and ensure no one is left out.

Imagine churches linked together from community to community—oh, wait, we’re the United Methodist Church, we already have that going for us. Now imagine us working with real tithing power, families tithing into ministry-minded local churches and local churches tithing toward our broader operations globally.

We would still have a stewardship issue, of course, but instead of scraping by, our main task would be ensuring the abundance is not wasted on fraud or luxuries that don’t benefit our Matthew 25-type ministries. Using our abundance to pursue vision and mission is a much more exciting task than begging our way through the year, wishing we could do more.

Tithing even impacts politics, but in a way where normally divergent interest groups find common ground. If you’re a Christian political conservative and you don’t like big government, tithe. The arguments in favor of big government will go away as churches deal with most social needs faster than government ever can.

If you’re a Christian political liberal, tithe, and lead the stewardship effort by bearing the standard for the outcasts of the world, ensuring ministries happen according to Matthew 25 principles.

Why ask others to do what we can do ourselves? We have the power to feed, clothe and heal the people around us, no election needed. And the word of salvation through Christ will spread.


I have to acknowledge that many people don’t know how to respond to a sermon like this because they are overwhelmed by debt. How do you tithe when you’re struggling to pay your debt service each month? There are several good Christian programs that can help people bring their debt under control and begin to handle their finances in a godly way. Any good pastor should be able to help someone find such a program.

 

Take Thou Authority

Mark 1:21-28

Mark’s gospel tells us that early in Jesus’ ministry, our wandering Messiah and his band of followers went to a synagogue, a Jewish house of worship, and began to teach.

We don’t know what part of the Jewish Scriptures Jesus might have referenced, or if he had a particular topic in mind while in Capernaum, a little fishing village along the Sea of Galilee. Mark is typically spare in the details provided. The story instead focuses on the reaction the worshipers had to Jesus.

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” Mark 1:22 tells us. In other words, the truth and power of what Jesus taught seemed rooted in the man himself, more so than the words on the parchment most likely in front of him, words they could have a scribe read to them any time.

Their reaction to Jesus happened even before the next, more tangible event, the entry of a possessed man into the synagogue. The “unclean spirit” within the man seemed to fear Jesus would destroy it and its kind, and it also declared through the man, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

With a very direct command—”Be quiet, and come out of him!”—Jesus exorcised the evil spirit, freeing the man from the possession he had experienced. And of course, the witnesses were astounded.

For nonbelievers, the story sounds anachronistic, rooted in a worldview of mysticism and evil spirits that a rational person should no longer accept. And even for Christians oriented to the idea of a spiritual realm, the story can seem distant, another tale of what Jesus did by way of his divinity a couple of thousand years ago.

It is my prayer, however, that I can convince you this is a story for today. Understood as part of the larger Bible story, it is evidence of the power available to Christians now.

My argument is fairly simple: Jesus was a convincing source of truth and power while on earth because he is God; the church as a whole has the same authority because the people who make it up are empowered by God. It is a very scriptural argument.

John’s gospel captures Jesus promising as much in John 14:12: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Jesus also promised power for his followers in Acts, after his resurrection and just before his ascension into heaven. And we see that power come, the Holy Spirit falling on Jesus’ followers and allowing them to spread the word.

The stories in Acts show those followers matching Jesus’ signs and miracles, up to and including the raising of the dead. We see healings so powerful that the sick need only fall under Peter’s shadow, and like the story of Jesus in Capernaum, we see even the evil spirits having to acknowledge the power now present in the world in Christ’s followers.

This doesn’t mean that all who come to the church for healing of one kind or another will be healed today; if you read carefully, you’ll see that wasn’t the case even in the early days of the church. And it doesn’t mean physical healing is permanent—we sometimes forget that everyone Jesus physically healed eventually died, as far as we know. Universal, permanent physical healing is a promise for the future, a mark of Christ’s final return and our entrance into eternity with our Savior.

We should have confidence as a church in our ability to show the world signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us, however. We should seek healing for people who are physically, emotionally or spiritually ill, praying that such healing will be a sign for those who need to know Christ.

We especially should look at the story of Jesus in Capernaum for clues about what our role in the world is today. He does a couple of very special things.

First, he takes Scripture and somehow shows people that it is alive and full of God’s power. Do we know the Bible well enough, and are we filled enough with God’s Holy Spirit, to show people how it applies in every moment of every day?

Second, he engages with evil so powerfully that what is evil already knows it is doomed. Are we confronting evil everywhere we find it—not just shaking our heads at it, but confronting it, rebuking it, calling it out?

When I was ordained, the bishop said something interesting as part of the ordination ritual. He told me to take authority, instructing me that I am supposed to draw on the power God has given me to do the particular work pastors are called to perform. The traditional words in the service of ordination are “Take thou authority,” spoken with booming conviction by a bishop.

Every Christian needs to hear those words. Every Christian needs to live those words. All of you, Take thou authority, using the spiritual power God grants you until such time as Christ returns.