Series on the Book of Acts
May 15, 2016
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the First reading from the Book of Acts, which was read a few minutes ago.
For the last year or so the ladies of the Monday night Bible study and I have been working our way through the book of Acts. The book of Acts begins with Jesus’ ascension into Heaven and His instructions for the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit and it ends with Saint Paul under house arrest in Rome. In between these two events, in the intervening chapters, we see how the first Christians came together, carried out Christ’s instructions to witness and baptize, and adapted to the meaning of their name “Christian”.
Since today is Pentecost Sunday, the day that the Holy Spirit came as Jesus promised, it’s a fitting day for us to begin a sermon series on the book of Acts and the Church. You might be surprised, or maybe you won’t be, to see that Acts doesn’t give us a picture of perfect Christians. In many ways they were just learning what it means to believe and follow Jesus. They may not be perfect, but we’ll see that they yearned to be and do what Christ called to be and do. What Jesus was demanding would be impossible on their own, so the Holy Spirit gave them the guidance, power, and forgiveness they needed to be the Christians they had been called to be. While I hope you find this sermon series interesting, I hope you also see what we are to do and to be as members of the Church.
The Holy Spirit doesn’t get much recognition when we talk about God so we generally think about Him as we learned in confirmation class. If you remember, Luther said in the Small Catechism, “the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” Without the Holy Spirit we cannot say “Jesus is Lord” with any sorts of sincerity. The Holy Spirit is the one who bestows faith on us and who keeps us in that faith. Some church bodies teach that an individual has to make a decision for Christ, they have to bring themselves to faith. It doesn’t work that way though because we can’t bring ourselves to faith, it’s the Holy Spirit who does the work in us.
The Holy Spirit has to do the work because the idea that God became man, was crucified for our sins, was raised from the dead, and ascended back into Heaven is easily seen as ridiculous. Paul says in I Corinthians, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.” Paul knew from personal experience that the Good News of Jesus Christ, who loves sinners so much He died that they would be forgiven just doesn’t compute. It’s more logical for God to expect that we sinners would somehow make it up to Him, that we would do all we can to make things right. This is what makes sense! The problem with this line of thinking is that it makes some people work very hard in an attempt to satisfy God with their good works, which will never work. Instead, as foolish as it may be, we believe that God loves us so much so that He sent His only-begotten Son to die for our sins, so that we can have forgiveness and a new relationship with Him.
This is why Jesus told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Helper. With the departure of Jesus, the disciples would be alone and they wouldn’t be able to do what Christ wanted them to do. He knew that they wouldn’t be able to argue anyone into believing their message. He knew that the story of redemption through His life and death and resurrection wouldn’t be widely accepted. They would need help and the Holy Spirit would provide all the help they would need to spread the Gospel of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit would lead the disciples to change the world, but first the disciples had to be changed. They had been timid and fearful, hiding behind locked doors, but by the power of the Holy Spirit they became bold witnesses. They weren’t educated in philosophy, debate, or world culture, but suddenly they became eloquent, persuasive speaker who could counter every argument that was thrown at them. And everything started, not just with their native language, but with languages from all over the Mediterranean world. Luke writes, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” This Pentecost miracle was intended to shake the people up, to get their attention, and to open their ears to what the disciples had to say, and it worked. Luke tells us, “The multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” The Good News of Jesus in their own languages grabbed their attention and from there the Gospel began to spread around the world.
I think Peter’s sermon on the first Pentecost is the greatest ever, outside of Jesus’ sermons, of course. It’s a short sermon and yet, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter said all that needed to be said. He pointed to Jesus’ special life as God’s Son who had been “attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs.” He pointed out that Jesus was “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men,” including the people listening to him now. And instead of leaving Jesus in the tomb, Peter declared that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead “because it was not possible for Him to be held by it.”
There’s that foolish message again. But that foolish, illogical, unreasonable message had its effect, for the Spirit gave power to its proclamation. When Peter ended his sermon we’re told the people “were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children.’” And Luke says “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
The Holy Spirit changed the disciples, in the way that only He could, and we need to be changed just as they were. Think about it. We’re often too timid to share what we know and we just keep to ourselves. There’s this common attitude among people that we should just let people believe what they want to believe, that it’s not our job to convince them otherwise. But that’s not all what God says! He says, there is no other name under Heaven by which men are saved. Only by believing in Jesus does someone get into Heaven. To reject Him is to trade eternal bliss for eternal agony. We need the Holy Spirit to stir up faith and confidence in us, we need Him to lead us to ask “What shall we do?” And what we do is first of all to repent of our sins. Repent of our selfishness which keeps Jesus in our hearts but not in our mouths. We need to repent of our failure to love others by withholding Jesus from them. We need to ask for help to be His ambassadors.
And the Holy Spirit, who is the Helper, will help us. He won’t suddenly give us the ability to speak foreign languages. That was a rare event designed to build up the confidence of the apostles and to reach people who had come to Jerusalem from all over Roman empire. While the Holy Spirit doesn’t miraculously give us foreign language skills, He gives us the words we need to proclaim Jesus. Just like we need the Holy Spirt to create faith in us, so also we need Him to speak through us, and He will.
We, who are Emmanuel Lutheran Church, who believe Jesus Christ and see our calling to be His witnesses trust the Holy Spirit to work through us. Through the Holy Spirit we seek to remove any obstacles that might keep people from hearing the message. We believe that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” this means that people must hear message of Jesus Christ or there’ll be no new Christians, they must hear the Word if they are to believe and be saved.
The Holy Spirit will give you opportunities to share Jesus, and with His help you will take advantage of them. It can be hard to know what to say, but Peter said that we are to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” So remember that you don’t have to get into heated debates or deep theological discussions, just say what you know, believe, and trust. Speak about Jesus, and the Holy Spirit will do His work.
It may be foolish in the world’s eyes, this message of Christ Jesus, our Savior and Lord, but Paul said, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.” And because it is from God it is for us “who are being saved it is the power of God.” This foolishness is what saves, for it comes to us through the Holy Spirit who gives us faith and keeps that faith alive in us. But the Holy Spirit also leads us to fearlessly witness to the world so that He may plant that same faith in others. What a glorious day it is today, for on this day, Jesus sent the Helper He had promised to send and the world has been changed by the foolish message of Jesus and His cross.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen