LIVING IN A NEW REALITY
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If you tried to turn in your Bibles to Acts chapter 29, then you would have noticed that it doesn’t exist. I liken Acts to a Law & Order episode that ends without a proper resolution. For a book that is steeped in detail and stories, the end of Acts comes rather abruptly. We saw throughout the book the process of the fulfillment of Acts 1:8 which says that the gospel will spread to Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. We see that spread happens as Peter, Paul and the many other believers preach Christ to Jews and Gentiles. There are miracles and arrests and miraculous escapes… and then Paul gets to Rome and stays there for two years with no drama. Not exactly the ends of the earth, even as far as first-century Christians were concerned. So why end here? We’re not exactly left with a cliff hanger, but we are left without a conclusion.
What we have here is Luke’s Trilogy. Volume 1 is the gospel of Luke in which the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are chronicled. Volume 2 is Acts – life after the resurrection in which the Holy Spirit descends to the earth and the church is started and spreads. Volume 3 picks up after Acts 28. Which brings us to Acts 29 – the times that we are living in here and now. Acts 29 is the continuation of the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth. It’s the spread of the gospel from the people of Blythwood to our neighbours, friends and our families. Acts 29 is the new reality that we are living in. Another name for this new reality is the age of the Holy Spirit. We’ve spent many weeks looking at what it means to be living in the age of the Holy Spirit. We saw that when the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, the power of the Spirit was unleashed on men, women, and children to proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord. We still have that Spirit with us today and the Spirit is what allows us to live life in Christ. The Spirit is our connection to the Father and the Son. So if you will allow me, I would like to revisit some of the themes we looked at in the book Acts.
I chose Colossians 3 this morning because it gives us a good description of Spirit-led life in Christ. This letter was written to the church in Colossae during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Paul wrote several letters during his imprisonment, but Colossians is the only one that poses the problem of our limited human knowledge. Colossae was a cosmopolitan city with people coming from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions. It was what we would call a pluralistic society. It seems the church had adopted some teachings from various philosophies and religions that were being mixed with Christianity and leading to a lot of problems. The author wants to address these philosophies and fake religions and so he begins where we should always begin, with the gospel. He writes about our separation from God and how Christ came to reconcile humanity to the Father. He writes that Jesus put on human flesh and made himself subject to evil powers that caused him to suffer and eventually die. And then after 3 days, he was resurrected and now sits at the right hand of the Father and because of his actions, you and I have that reconciliation and we are free to live in communion with our Holy God. Because of that reconciliation, we become a new people. Not only do we have reconciliation but we have re-creation into what we were meant to be – God’s chosen, holy and beloved people.
Which brings us to Act 29 – life as God’s Chosen, Holy and Beloved and specifically, life in a community of believers. Dwell on those words as you consider your identity in Christ – you are God’s Chosen, Holy and Beloved. These are words that had once been reserved for the nation of Israel. But as we saw throughout Acts, as the gospel spreads to the Gentiles, those words are now our words. Chosen, Holy and Beloved.
I drive by a synagogue on my way here everyday and they have a really great sign-guy. Their sign right now says “Come as you are, you can change inside”. And that’s the invitation that God puts to us – Come as you are. Come tired. Come broken. Come joyful. Come confused. Come unbelieving. The important part is that you come.
The author invites us to leave to things of the past behind and uses the language of putting clothing off and on. As we come to the cross, we receive power to strip off our old selves that are plagued by self-centeredness and hostility to God and to put on our new selves like a new pair of clothes. The new self is being renewed in knowledge. One might ask, why does our knowledge need to be renewed? I can understand the sin nature or our deceitful hearts, but our knowledge? We have a tendency to think of sin as acts that we commit, but sin is an active force that affects all parts of us; our spirits, our bodies, and our minds. In the Fall, humankind’s reasoning was affected so that while we are still capable of reasoning, the integrity of that reasoning comes into question. Part of that Holy Spirit transformation is the restoration of the integrity of our reasoning. The fullness of knowledge in the likeness of our Creator means that we begin to understand things the way God understands them. The result of our knowledge being transformed is that relational barriers are removed. In Christ, there are no barriers of race, religion, class or culture. And I must add that Paul in his other writings includes the barrier of gender as something that Christ’s has abolished. This was a new way of thinking for the early church. Jewish men even had a daily prayer that went like this: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, who has created me human and not animal, male and not female, Jew and not gentile, circumcised and not uncircumcised, free and not slave.” Barriers were very much ingrained into their society so that segregation was the norm. But it wasn’t the norm in the church. In Acts we saw the early church had women leading, and uncircumcised gentiles sitting down to eat with Jews and slaves being welcomed into the worshipping community. A mind that has been transformed by the Holy Spirit understands that in Christ, all people are equal. And this mind transformation is important because it leads to step 2 of one’s transformation, which is transformation by the relationships we have in the community of believers.
God places us in communities because that is where transformation happens. I was sitting with a gentleman at Out of the Cold the other week. We were eating dinner and he was telling me how he ended up living in a tent downtown. He attributed the downward spiral of his life to his drug addiction. He said that he wanted to come back to church, back to God but he felt he had to lose his habit first, and he felt he had to do this on his own. I’ve heard this more than once from an addict, whether the addiction is drugs, alcohol, pornography or the internet. There is this idea that I can will myself into recovery. But addiction isn’t about one’s will, it’s about transformation. Much of the research that is coming out about addiction is showing that as humans, we are meant to bond. We’re meant to be in relationships. If we don’t have people to bond to, then it is likely that we will bond to addictive substances. We’re seeing this too with the over-connectivity of teens and young adults whose main source of connection with people is social media. They are getting a false sense of intimacy from these platforms and their longing for connection is being left unsatisfied. This is leading to a mental health crisis. And while loneliness is a problem across generations, it’s definitely becoming more and more common. We are made to be in community. And not just any community, but a covenanted community of believers.
Living in Acts 29 times isn’t just about living at peace with God. That’s one part of the equation and maybe even the easy part. The other part is living in peace with others. There’s something about the cultivation of our upward relationship, that is, our relationship to God, that affects and determines our outward relationships. Because when you are at peace with God, the natural response is to work toward a peace-creating society. This begins in the church and it flows outward. The passage uses words like compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. These are the words that should describe our relationships with each other.
We’ve seen that for Paul, Christians meet together regularly – that’s what they do. The implication is that transformation occurs as a result of being in a community. Faith isn’t just between us and God. It’s also between us and the church we are in. And we get details of what we need to do in order to see this transformation happen. Love! Paul instructs that we should put on love, but thankfully then goes into more detail because I’m sure we all agree that we should love each other, but we may have differing views on exactly how to do that. The word ‘Love’ is used a lot and it’s often meant as acceptance without question. This view is a cheapening of the love that God calls us to. If we are loving each other as God loves us, then there are specific ways we have of relating to one another.
We are to bear with one another (bear joys and sorrows and boredom).
We are to forgive one another.
We are to let the word dwell in us richly.
We are to teach and admonish one another. We saw the word admonish back in Acts 20 when Paul say he admonished the believers with tears. It means to instruct and warn and implies that you are admonishing someone to obey the word of God. It’s probably not a coincidence then this follows the instruction to let the word dwell in us.
And finally, we are to sing with gratitude.
This is how the church is different from any other group of people. This is how God calls us to live as his chosen, holy and beloved children. This is how God instructs us to love one another. This is worship. And this is how we are transformed into who God wants us to be. By bearing with one another, by forgiving each other, by having the Word as our foundation, by teaching and admonishing one another and by singing our thankfulness. These are difficult things in relationships. They can be painful. Which is why it’s so important that we meet together regularly because if we only see each other on occasion – the above won’t happen and we won’t get the fullness of the blessing that God has for his chosen, holy and beloved people.
Speaking of the ends of the earth, I drive in from Scarborough every day. Something I do to help make the commute more enjoyable is listen to podcasts. I found one recently by a history professor from the States. Her name is Kate Bowler and she started the podcast when she was diagnosed with stage four cancer at age 35. She has conversations with people about what they’ve learned in dark times. I was listening to her interview with Dr. Vivek Murthy who is a former Surgeon General of the United States. He set out to determine what the greatest health crisis was affecting America, and after his research was done, he found that the biggest problem was loneliness. Kate confessed that she had a hard time admitting publicly that she was lonely. She realized she had to be intentional about the people she had in her life. She had three questions she asked: does this person bring life? Does this person bring meaning? Does this person bring food?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Christianity is always…responsible, obedient, action, the discipleship of Christ in every situation of concrete everyday life, personal and public.” We’ve seen throughout the book of Acts how obedience to God’s calling can change everything. We saw how Paul’s obedience to Christ set the spread of the gospel in motion so that it could reach the ends of the earth. We saw people like Cornelius and Lydia and the Eunuch being obedient. We saw house churches being formed and growing.
We are God’s chosen, holy and beloved people. This should be where loneliness comes to die. As we sing together and eat together and meet together regularly, we will be transformed and we will transform the society we live in. And if you feel like you’re not quite there yet, that’s okay. Come as you are. You can change inside. We’ll do it together, helping each other by the power of the Holy Spirit.