This is the text of a sermon I preached at Camelon Parish Church based on Acts 2:38-47.
The reading we have all heard this morning is, essentially, the birth of the Church, coming, as it did, at the first Pentecost. All of the things we remember so well about the story of that day, the tongues of fire, the speaking in different languages and Peter delivering the first sermon in Christianity, have all gone before.Now what we see is the reaction from all of those watching and listening to those amazing events. What we see is the first reaction of people hearing the Gospel being told in its entirety – until now we had seen Jesus teaching folk himself, drawing them to him during his time on Earth. Now, however, Jesus has been crucified, been resurrected, ascended into Heaven and his disciples, for the first time since they started following this charismatic teacher from Nazareth, fully understand what it is they have been witness to for the past three years. They have seen the Son of God himself take on human flesh, walk, teach, eat and drink among ordinary people, and then saved all of humanity with the ultimate act of love, sacrifice, and victory.
Now, armed with the knowledge and understanding of all those sayings and actions which have sat as real mysteries in their minds for the last three years, they find that the only thing they can do with it, the one thing they have been told to do with it, is to share it with as many people as possible. Immediately. Urgently. Passionately and fervently.
And that leads us to where we find ourselves at the start of this morning’s reading. The crowds have heard Peter deliver one of the finest sermons ever preached and it has, as some translations have it, cut their hearts. And they cry out “Brothers, what shall we do?”
How Peter answers, and how the crowd responds is a model for us. It’s the example of how to respond to and live with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The one thing Peter tells them, and the first thing they do, is to repent and be baptised. Our first response to the Gospel, and the first thing we tell people who are looking to be saved by the Gospel, is exactly this. Our sins are what separated us from God, so we need to turn away from them, put them aside and allow ourselves to be changed completely by this good news we’ve heard.
Sometimes I think the Church and the people in it, myself included, worries about telling people to repent of sin. We worry that we will come across as killjoys, negative and judgemental. But Peter does none of that, despite the uncompromising language. Firstly, although he tells people to repent of their sin, he doesn’t then go on to tell them all exactly what they are doing wrong, they all already know. Just as I know you sin and you know I and everyone else here sins, but we don’t necessarily know what sins each other are carrying out, but we certainly know in our own hearts what sins we commit. We don’t need someone to list them and tell us why we’re wrong for that, we already know.
But, although this may sound a bit on the negative side, the really important thing comes next. Peter says that if you repent you will be forgiven. And, in being forgiven you will receive the Holy Spirit. And this promise is for everybody.
This is an amazing thing for the time. For a Jew, a notoriously insular people, to come out and say that this news is for everybody and it comes freely as long as you repent is a radical claim. No more is God’s favour limited to one race, or dependent on strict forms of washing and sacrifice, because that’s already been done for us.
Because that is the true reason for telling people to repent, not to spoil their fun or tell them they’re bad people, but because the gift we have been promised if we repent and are baptised is so much more wonderful than any earthly pleasure we can find for ourselves.
And this message works. It worked then, adding 3000 people to the followers of Jesus – 3000 in one sermon!! – and it works today. The Gospel is simple, powerful and it really can change lives.
After the call to repent, however, must come a response. And the response here, although we might not necessarily see it at first, is worship. Pure, unrestrained, wholehearted worship.
Sometimes we have a very restricted view of what worship is – many people would think of a Sunday morning in Church, or praying, or singing – but worship is so much more, so much deeper. What we see from those first followers of Jesus, from the early Church, isn’t an hour on Sunday and maybe a short time of prayer and Bible reading every few days. No, they immediately devoted themselves to teaching and fellowship. They wanted to hear about Jesus, to talk about him with others, to share their time and their possessions with others because of him.
Their worship was daily, it took over every aspect of their lives, transforming them and the world around them. The Kingdom of God wasn’t just close, it was here.
Can we say the same now? When we worship, do we limit it to this time on a Sunday? Do we allocate slots in our lives to it? Do we put it in a little box marked “worship” which is kept entirely separate from other aspects of our daily life? Or do we turn our lives into acts of worship, letting the Holy Spirit direct us in everything we do, say and think?
These first believers sold their possessions and gave to others according to their need. Think about that. In this age where material wealth is a symbol of status. In these times when we hear people regularly bemoan paying taxes to help the poor and vulnerable in society. In a society where “charity begins at home” and we are encouraged to think about our own needs ahead of others. Can you imagine a Church where people sold their own possessions to give to those in need? And I’m not talking about raising money through coffee mornings or selling old, unwanted possessions at jumble sales; as noble and good as those things are. I’m talking about taking those possessions which, when we are totally honest with ourselves, we don’t need, we just want, and using them to help others. I’m talking about those with more money than they need to live on just giving it away. I’m talking about people sharing everything so that, regardless of social status or salary, everybody has what they need to live!
And you may think I’m just preaching a form of socialism. But that’s not what this is. This isn’t a political ideology, it’s a pure, spirit-led, worshipful community of believers who love each other more than material possessions. It is a group of people who realise that, ultimately, everything they have comes from God and they have a responsibility to use it for the furthering of the Kingdom of God – by lovingly caring for those in more need than themselves.
And we hear people wanting to contribute less to foreign aid, to pay money to countries whose people have nothing. We hear people complain about welfare payments being made to working aged people. We hear people who live comfortably bemoaning an extra few pounds on their tax bill. And we hear that we live in a Christian country!
This passage shows what real Christian living is. Spending time with each other. Eating in each others’ homes “with glad and sincere hearts”. Meeting every day, praising God and enjoying the favour of all of the people. Not just periods of worship, but worshipful lives which radically alter the way in which we do everything.
How many of us go to Church on a Sunday and have come away thinking “that was a nice service” or “that was lovely”? I have and I know folk here have because you’ve said it to me. That’s great! It’s fantastic to be told that it’s gone well; but I do wonder whether worship is really meant to be nice or lovely. Look at the way in which these early believers lived! Worship is meant to be radical, earth shattering, life changing, world altering! It’s done in a spirit of love, fear and thankfulness that, as sinners, we can come to Jesus, repent of all of those sins and be forgiven; that we can, as Peter said, “save ourselves from this corrupt generation”. We get too cosy, too safe, in too much of a comfort zone. Do we come before God out of a sense of duty, or do we come out of a sense of wonder and of hunger to learn more, to join in real, loving fellowship and to give glory and praise to God? Because if we do, that’s when amazing things can happen. That’s when 3000 or more people can come to faith in a day from one sermon. That’s when the number of believers will be added to daily. That’s when the Spirit of God moves across towns and nations, transforming lives and hearts. When we worship with our very lives we let God in, and through him all things are possible.