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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
May 15 2022
Grace and peace to you from our risen Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I mentioned a little bit ago that we’re already two-thirds of the way through the Easter season. Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard stories about the risen Christ appearing to the disciples, and their experiences of coming to understand what had happened and what it meant for them and the world.
Alongside those readings, we’ve also heard stories of the early church and how it came to be. And reading about it 2000+ years later, it sounds like it was a really exciting time and I’m sure that it was. Thousands of believers receiving the gift of faith in an instant; the church growing by leaps and bounds with nothing seeming to interfere with that.
And it’s tempting to want things to happen like that in our own congregation. Because we remember what it was like before – the “heyday” when Sunday School classrooms were at capacity, and standing room only at worship services. What we don’t tend to remember, though, is the work that it took to make all of that happen.
So when we look back on things, like the history of a congregation, it’s often a good idea to look back further than recent memories because it gives a more complete picture of how things actually were. Like what we read in the book of Acts. Because where we are today as a church starts there.
The book of Acts records the beginnings of the early church, and the formation of it wasn’t an easy road to travel. There were divisions, particularly along cultural lines. Many of the people in it still saw themselves as Jewish, and the religious leaders considered it to be a sect of Judaism. And what all of that means is that the purity laws were still important.
And that’s important because today’s reading is a continuation of the story of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius was a Roman centurion – which made him a Gentile – but he and his household believed in God and prayed constantly to God.
And one afternoon, Cornelius had a vision of an angel of God, who spoke to him and told him to send for Peter. The next day, Peter had the three visions about food and God saying, “What God has made clean you must not call profane.”
It was shortly after that that Cornelius’ men arrived to take Peter with them. After Peter arrived at Cornelius’ home, he spoke the words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” and then baptized Cornelius and his entire household.
Which is where the story picks up today. Peter is back in Jerusalem facing some pretty stiff pushback for what he’d done, and he was basically on trial for ignoring the purity laws.
So Peter explained, step by step, what he experienced in his visions and in Caesarea. And that while he was with Cornelius, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had blown over the waters at creation.
And remembering that John baptized with water, but that he – Peter – was baptized with the Holy Spirit, he then asked, “…who was I that I could hinder God?” Not only was Peter’s heart renewed through this experience, so were the hearts of many others who believed. It was a turning point for the formation of the church.
This entire story is full of references of God speaking to people, in visions, and through the Holy Spirit. And all this talk of visions and voices, and angels and dreams, and responding to the movement of the Holy Spirit can seem a little weird to us, even in the church, because it isn’t language that we use very often today – at least not in Lutheran settings.
But when we read through the book of Acts and see how often people were actively moved by the Holy Spirit, we also see how much God was at work renewing people’s hearts and lives. It was constant. And God hasn’t stopped renewing people’s hearts.
There has been a lot of talk lately by me and others about all of the changes that are happening in the church – not just in our congregation, but in the church as an institution. We know that a lot of the trends we’re seeing have been in motion for decades, and that Covid has accelerated many of them – like declining worship attendance, financial issues, that kind of stuff.
And it’s easy to get caught up in the way things used to be and get excited about the idea of things being that way again. It’s fun to look back on those times, and the memories they bring.
But if we get stuck there, we miss what God is doing in our church now. The opportunities that we have and the renewal that’s going on in the life of our congregation and in our own hearts. Because this is a time of renewal, and it’s every bit as significant as the one that happened in the early church.
Yesterday, several of our congregational leaders gathered for a retreat in Fellowship Hall. We spent time talking about what it means to be the church, the importance of our congregation’s core ministry values; we looked ahead at what each of our ministry areas might look like in 1-3 years, the opportunities for experimenting with new ways of fulfilling our mission statement, and the things we want to continue.
We also offered ideas for ways to thrive, the resources needed to move forward, and the challenges we anticipate.
We didn’t come away with any hard-and-fast answers – and we didn’t expect to. In fact, we left with a list of questions for our ministry groups to discuss and work through over the next few months. So, if your involved on any of the ministry teams, be ready. Because renewal doesn’t just happen with the snap of a finger. It’s a process that takes time, and patience.
And when we talk about God renewing our hearts, that renewal is more than just an intellectual acknowledgment of the events that happen in our lives. It’s an experience of God that draws us into deeper relationship and community with one another.
Regardless of how it starts, though, God doesn’t stop at the beginning of any renewal. The Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit, is always at work. From the beginning of creation, to restoration after the flood, to the return of the Israelites after exile and the rebuilding of the Temple, to the birth of Jesus and his ascension, to coming down at Pentecost and expanding the church beyond anyone’s imagination…
…to us here today, God’s Spirit is at work daily renewing our hearts so that we can continue sharing the good news of the risen Christ.
When I offered the opening prayer at the retreat yesterday, I closed with “…let us leave room for your Spirit to move and work in us” and that’s a risky prayer to pray. Because, as a friend of mine says, “That Holy Spirit – she’s a wily one.”
Living in such a way that we’re knowingly continually renewed by God’s Spirit is a vulnerable way to live. It leads to encounters with the risen Christ in unexpected people and places, it makes us look at the way we do things, and who’s included – or left out. And many times, it changes us in ways we couldn’t have imagined.
But God’s constant work of renewing our hearts is part of who God is and what God does. God’s nature is renewal, and it’s renewal that comes out of love for the sake of the world. Alleluia! Amen.