Pastor Jon Alexanian
As you are grabbing your seats I’ll remind you that for the last few weeks we’ve been trying to get a handle on the Holy Spirit – who he is, what he does, and why he continues to matter today. In a way today, I want to both recap much of what Pastor Chris has already covered, and at the same time build on it to show how the Spirit has continued to sustain his work through the 2000-year history of the Church often despite our greatest attempts to thwart it.
In a way today’s sermon is a bible study, history lesson, and theological reflection all rolled into one. So it should be a lot of fun.
Now to begin we need to go back to the beginning – the beginning of the church that is, when the Spirit first showed up and was poured out on all people some 50 days after the death and resurrection of Jesus – the day is referred to as Pentecost and the events are described by Luke in Acts 2. (SLIDE)
Luke tells us:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
First off can you just imagine what this must have been like? You got a group of Christians, little more than a week removed from the ascension of Jesus just chilling in a room – then all of a sudden a violent wind tears through the house, followed by flames of fire that then settle on them, and all of the sudden they start speaking in other languages. It’s crazy.
From here we’re told the believers spilled into the streets, and that the people of Jerusalem were completely confused by what was going on – sure some were amazed by what they saw and heard, but others were just convinced these Christians were drunk. Then we’re told Peter boldly stands up in front of these people, the same people who nailed Jesus to a cross 50 days earlier, and declares that, first the believers were not drunk (apparently that was important to clarify), but moreover that what was happening, what was taking place in the streets before their eyes was the long awaited fulfillment of God’s promises. Peter goes on to say, this is the day of the Lord. This is the day the prophet Joel, among others, spoke of when he said God’s spirit would pour out onto all his people, no longer was the spirit just reserved for a select few, no Peter says, now the Spirit is available to all believers, all who trust in Jesus as their Lord, their king, and their messiah.
Soon after Peter’s speech we’re told, some 3000 people are cut to the heart and the church balloons from 120 believers to over 3000, and as you know it was only just getting started.
From here, through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the Church continues to experience explosive growth in places like Ethiopia, Greece, Rome, Spain, what the book of Acts refers to as the ends of the earth.
And 2000 years later, what started as a group of 120 people has grown into the largest religion of the world, spanning every continent and within the borders of every country on the planet.
Its an incredible story. (BLANK SLIDE)
And yet, if you are familiar with our story, if you’ve ever studied church history you have to wonder – how on earth did the church ever survive?
I mean let’s be honest, we as humans have continually tried our darndest to blow this thing up – both intentionally and unintentionally. And yet despite humanities greatest attempts to thwart the work of the Spirit – the Church continues. How is that possible?
Well in the book of Acts there is this super interesting observation by a brilliant theologian. And this theologian I’m talking about is not a Christian, never was as far as we can tell, but he was clearly a man respected by Christians. The man I’m talking about is a Jewish theologian named Gamaliel. (SLIDE)
By his own people Gamaliel was recognized as the greatest theologian of his day (which is roughly 25-50 AD). In fact, upon his passing one Jewish scholar remarked that it was as if “the glory of the law ceased and purity and abstinence died [along with him].”
In other words, he was deeply respected and revered – and believe it or not, he actually pops up a couple times in the book of Acts. Once in chapter 22, where Paul refers to Gamaliel as his personal mentor and teacher in the ways of Judaism. But Gamaliel also pops up in Acts 5, where we’re told he interrupts a trial of the Apostles to share some brilliant insight with his Jewish colleagues. Insight that I believe is just as relevant, just as important for us to consider today.
See if you look at the story in Acts 5, we discover that early in the church’s expansion, the apostles were dragged before a Jewish court, the same court that voted to kill Jesus, and before this court they are told to shut their mouths – stop preaching about Jesus. But the disciples respond, “yeah… see we obey God not you.”
As you can imagine this went over real well, and the court irrupted in anger. It’s in the midst of this that Gamaliel then steps up, and specifically in verses 34-39 – we see Gamaliel go on to recount how over the years there had been many men who claimed themselves to be the Messiah – the long awaited savior of Israel, there were many men who claimed to bring revolution and each of them in their time gained a following. But as Gamaliel rightly points out, all those dudes died. And soon after they all died, all their followers scattered. Their efforts came to nothing.
And then Gamaliel gives this brilliant piece of advice to his Jewish colleagues, he says (vv. 38b-39): (SLIDE)
[My advice is this] Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
See Gamaliel was a wise enough man to know that fads come and go, but the work of God, well the work of God is unrelenting, the work of God is unceasing, the work of God is unstoppable. And if you try to fight it, you will lose every time. Its not something you want to be on the other side of.
Now we stand at an interesting point in history. See when Gamaliel spoke these words, the church was at best only a couple years old. But 2000 years later, we have an incredibly rich history to look back upon. And as we do, we discover his words continue to ring loud and true – If this Christian thing is from God, nothing will be able to stop it. If it was purely a human endeavor this thing should have failed long ago. And yet it still stands. (BLANK SLIDE)
And that’s not to say humans have not done their best to thwart the work of God. From the false teachers talked about in the later letters of the New Testament, to the Greek critics of the 2nd and the 3rd centuries, to corrupt egotistical church leaders and popes, to modern day biblical criticism. The church has constantly been under attack.
And again it’s not just from the outside, in fact the greatest threats have always come from within. See, when those in the church follow their own ego, follow their own flesh, when those in the church prefer to play God rather than follow God, rather than follow the Spirit – the Church makes horrible decisions – The crusades, the enslavement of others, the treatment of those different from us – all are examples of what happens when we follow our ways, rather than God’s ways. And when we do that, it leaves a horrible stain on the Church’s record.
In Romans 8, Paul makes it very simple, he says that when we don’t follow the Spirit, we follow our flesh, our egos. That me-first part of ourselves. And whenever we do that, whenever we elevate ourselves above God, whenever we choose to not follow the Spirit’s leading – the Church does stupid things.
A contemporary example of following our ego, of putting ourselves first, is seen in the silly worship wars that continue to exist in churches today – hymns versus contemporary songs, guitars versus the organ, what Bible translation to read from, to what we call our churches, or even what the pastor should wear. These are the silliest fights that both tear us apart and weaken the Church’s primary objective.
And yet hear me on this – while we often do our best to weaken the work of the Church – and we do need to own that and repent of it. We also need to remember that no egotistical Christian, nor catchy religious philosophy, nor scientific discovery, nor tyrannical regime has ever or will ever stop the work of God through his Church.
Because as Gamaliel insightfully declared – the church’s existence is not an act of humanity, but the very work of God in the world. And because it is God’s Spirit who sustains, and works in and through the lives of believers in the Church – when the Church is fully submitted to the Spirit’s leading the church accomplishes some incredible things.
I mean just think about it, the Church has accomplished or at least been on the forefront of most of the greatest improvements human society has ever seen.
I don’t know if you know this but think about it, from its inception, the Church is the single greatest proponent of human rights the world has ever seen because of its insistence that all people are made in the image of God. From caring for the poor, the needy, and the outcasts. To the building of hospitals, soup kitchens, hospice care facilities – the church has continually strived at the forefront of humanity to restore dignity to all people everywhere. Clearly that was the Spirit’s leading.
And its not just the poor who have benefited from the work of God through the church. From its inception the Church has been at the forefront of improving the status of women in society. As Tim Keller, brilliant and well known pastor in New York, points out in his book Reasons for God, (SLIDE)
“It was extremely common in the Greco-Roman world to throw out new female infants to die from exposure, because of the low status of women in society. The church [however] forbade its members to do so. Greco-Roman society [also] saw no value in an unmarried woman, and therefore it was illegal for a widow to go more than two years without remarrying. But Christianity was the first religion to not force widows to marry. They were supported financially and honored within the community so that they were not under great pressure to remarry if they didn’t want to.”
Even more than that, throughout the bible and church history we see women being lifted up into positions of leadership. We take so much of this for granted, but all of this came about because the Church followed the Spirit’s leading in all these areas and that allowed these huge changes to occur. (BLANK SLIDE)
But let’s keep going, did you know that the Church with its emphasis on making sure everyone could read the Bible, has benefitted society as a whole by being a leader in education around the world for centuries. Did you know, all but one of the first 123 colleges in colonial America were Christian institutions. And while many of these universities have lost their Christian identities, it is interesting to read the founding statements of these schools. (SLIDE)
Harvard, for example, was founded on this statement: Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life. Education was seen as a way of growing in our understanding of who God is and who we were created to be. (BLANK SLIDE)
Another example of the Church’s benefit to society is how many of the world’s languages were first set to writing by Christian missionaries who wanted to make sure everyone could read the Bible.
And I could go on and on about the incredible influence and benefit the Church has had on the world from Arts, Music, Literature, ethics, the care of children and families, to governmental structures.
But you know all this, the Church has had a profoundly positive influence on the world as a whole.
Through the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the world continues to be immensely blessed. And that, brothers and sisters is what we celebrate today on this Reformation Sunday. That God’s Spirit is continually at work in the world, in and through us – his Church. (SERMON TITLE SLIDE)
For that is who we are- his church; the body of Christ in the world. Not by our power, not by our volition, not because we thought it was a good idea – but because God himself chose us, and God himself continues to guide us, influence us, and shape us to accomplish his good purposes in our world.
The truly amazing thing is, as we continue to allow God to work in our own lives, as we continue to submit to the Spirit’s work – the Spirit’s guidance in our lives – God will continue to bless the world through us.
In other words, if Church history teaches us anything, its that we’re invited to play in his Kingdom building work here on earth – and I’ll to you, that’s exciting to me.
So I guess my great encouragement for you today is this –
don’t give up on the Church.
I know we’re not perfect. As we’ve reflected on this morning, the church is full of people like you and me – so of course it does stupid things. But while the Church is full of sinners, its sustained by a holy and good God – through whom all things are possible.
Remember, as Church History teaches us – when we submit to the Spirit together, when we are willing to start from the premise that maybe we don’t have all the answers, maybe we don’t have it all together, maybe we don’t know what’s best, and that we desperately need help – When we’re humble enough to confess – Lord we need you – that version of the Church is powerful, and beautiful. And in that state, nothing is impossible for our God.
And guys that’s what the Church is supposed to be, that’s what Church is supposed to look like. A group of people desperately clinging to the Lord for wisdom, guidance, and salvation.
The problem is, like Paul says, submitting to the Spirit means denying the flesh – denying the me-first attitude that exists within each and every one of us. And that is hard. You all know that. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.
But while its hard – it’s not impossible. As I’ve said already it starts from a place of humility, and a simple prayer – Lord I need you. Lord I don’t know what to do here. Lord show me if I am in the wrong here. Lord help.
And from there submitting to the Spirit, is simply about taking him at his word, trusting him. Listening to the wisdom of scripture and actually putting it into practice – or doing what he says. Being willing to turn the other cheek, even when you are the one being wronged. Being willing to step out in boldness to share your faith with others, praying big prayers, doing something for the Kingdom.
Christianity is really not all that complicated – as Jesus says, it’s just about loving one another, as we have been loved.
Receiving from the Spirit, and then responding to the Spirit.
And when we do that church, when we approach the Lord with humility, when we’re willing to receive from him, and we’re willing to step out in bold faith – as Gamaliel observed long ago, and as Church history rightly shows us – the work of God in and through the lives of his people is relentless, its unceasing, its unstoppable.
More than that, it’s something you and I are invited into today.
So Church let us grab hold of that invitation, let us receive the Spirit, and respond to the Spirit’s movement in our lives.
Let us be continually reformed as the Spirit sees fit.
Lord, we ask that you would have your way with us.