Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Signs of the Presence

Acts 3:12-19[1]

What we’re learning from our study of Acts during this Easter season is that the example of witness that the early church set for us was a combination of words and deeds that promote God’s renewal and a life that gives evidence of that renewal. The gospel that the early church proclaimed was that God was in the process of fulfilling the promise to restore all things.[2] Those first believers saw themselves as a community—a community in which the Spirit was making that good news a reality. They saw themselves as a community already experiencing the new life of the resurrected Jesus.

But, as we’ve seen, what made their witness so effective was the combination of their message with their life. Our lesson from Acts for today recounts for us a story in which that work of renewal took a very tangible form. It is a story of the Apostles Peter and John healing a man who was crippled from birth, so that he “jumped up” and began “walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:8)!

Obviously that kind of thing would make a great stir. But what we should not overlook is the fact that their life together in general was one that promoted healing in a broader sense of the term—a restoration of wholeness to life.[3] When they devoted themselves to their fellowship with one another, it was a healing thing. When they shared their possessions with one another to meet the needs among them, it was an act that promoted God’s restoration of all things. When they lived and worked in the harmony of “one heart and mind,” it was a manifestation of the renewal of the Spirit.

Many will debate the truth of a miracle story like this. But I think to do so is to miss the greater truth: their whole life together was a demonstration of the faith that in Jesus the Christ God was fulfilling all the great promises of restoration and renewal. Their very existence served as evidence that the “wonderful times of refreshment” were already coming “from the presence of the Lord” and that “the final restoration of all things” that “God promised long ago through his prophets” was already in the process of being fulfilled (Acts 3:20-21, NLT).

Miraculous feats of healing remain problematic for us today. There are still those who claim to be able to work such feats of healing. While I tend to be skeptical, especially when it is something that is very public and that seems intended to draw attention to an individual healer, I certainly would not to rule out the possibility that God’s Spirit is still working to renew all things and that sometimes that might mean physical healing. I’m afraid, however, that when we focus only on the dramatic feat, we may miss the miraculous nature of what is going on all around us. We may miss the fact that the Spirit of the Risen Lord Jesus is giving new life to us all, everyday! We may miss the promise that the presence of the Spirit brings wholeness to every aspect of our lives.

In the Book of Order we say that we believe we are called to be “a sign in and for the world” of the “new creation, a new beginning for human life” that has occurred in Jesus Christ.[4] It seems to me that this provides us a significant part of the answer to what will make our congregation thrive. Our congregation will thrive when we become a place where it is evident that God is in the process of making all things new in this world. What will attract others to join with us is our becoming a community where the Risen Christ is demonstrating the truth of God’s restoration in our lives. What will most effectively bear witness to the people around us is the combination of our words and deeds with our life as a group of people among whom the Spirit is making God’s redemptive promises a reality—promises of wholeness and healing to all of life.[5]

But that’s not something that just happens automatically. What we’re talking about is making our relationship with God the primary focus of our lives. Like any relationship, it’s something we have to cultivate. We do so by engaging in kingdom disciplines, “resurrection practices,” signs of the presence of God. What these are is no great secret—we cultivate the presence of God in our lives by doing the same things the early church did—devoting ourselves “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), working together in “one heart and mind” (Acts 4:32), meeting the needs of those around us, welcoming all we meet with the grace that God has given us. We cultivate the renewing presence of God in our midst by practicing our faith together.[6]

We do these things not simply to perpetuate the tradition. We do them because that is how people of faith have cultivated the presence of God throughout the centuries! Make no mistake about it, if our congregation is going to thrive, it will be the work of God’s Spirit, not the result of our clever strategizing. But there is much we can and should do to cultivate the Spirit’s presence and work in our midst. And we do it in the hope that when others visit us they will declare, “God is really among you” (1 Cor 14:25), and they will want to join with us to experience the quality of new life that we demonstrate.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/26/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall, Called to be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day, 74; see further, Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, 110-111, where she speaks of shalom as “God’s dynamic wholeness” that is the “central vision” of the Bible.

[3] Cf. Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 105, 111-12.

[4] The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0200.

[5] Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 82, speaks in a different context about our calling to be living icons of “God’s wholeness.”

[6] See Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 112; cf. also H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 349-52; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 52, 191, 198, 294-95.

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