Monday, April 21, 2008

Loving God: The Sequel

Acts 1:1-5

It’s almost a rule that sequels are never as good as the originals. Even a genius like Mark Twain got it wrong: Tom Sawyer is a great kids book—it’s aimed at boys who are 10-15 years old or so. But the sequel to Tom Sawyer was Huckleberry Finn, which is a major piece of literature, with a darker tone and more serious themes. Even back then they didn’t know what to make of it: it wasn't a bad book, it was just the wrong sequel. A lot of great books or films were diminished by lousy sequels—think of Gone With the Wind and the sequel titled Scarlett. Never heard of it? I rest my case.

Occasionally, though, someone gets it right. You don’t have to be a Trekkie to know that Wrath of Khan was better than the original Star Trek movie. Most film buffs would agree that Godfather II is not only a little better than the original, but that it might be one of the best movies ever made.

Sometimes sequels come out of a desire to hold on to a story that’s already ended. It’s a way to prolong the limelight—to keep some characters alive—to make more money.

But sometimes, and this is where the really good ones come from, sequels emerge because a great story isn’t quite finished. There’s more to say. There’s more to do.

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

‘In my former book, Theophilus’: Luke wrote his two-volume epic to someone with a very interesting name. It means, literally, God-lover. Whether there was actually a person by this name or not isn’t really known. It was a common name for children of religious families back then, so it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. But it’s a great way to start this important book about the rise of the early church. As Luke moves from the story of Jesus’ ministry to the story of his church, this is who he’s addressing: those who love God—the God-lovers.

The point of these first few verses in Acts is to introduce the story that is about to come. It talks about the appearances of Jesus after the resurrection, how he continued to teach them about the Kingdom of God, and promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit.

What Jesus was preparing them for, as Luke tells the story, was the rise and growth of the Christian faith—the explosion of the church into the 1st century world. As we’re going to see in the next weeks and months, Luke has a point of view for how the church should be defined. In Acts, and eventually in the rest of the New Testament, the church is a community of faith that is engaged in the culture, grounded in Scripture, and alive to the Spirit of God.

All of this is following Luke’s brilliant re-telling of the Jesus story in his gospel. From the birth of Jesus—we get a lot of our Christmas story from Luke—to his slightly different perspective on the Sermon of the Mount—to the parables and on to Jerusalem and the crucifixion and resurrection. Luke tells the story of Jesus like a pro—he’s called a physician in the text but Luke is also a great historian, catching important details and never losing sight of the main point.

Luke’s gospel is a love story—of God’s love for us and the call to us to return that love to God. We talk a lot about how much God loves us, but we don’t always mention the call on our lives to love God—to be God-lovers—and to share that love. One of my seminary friends, Tod Bolsinger, wrote a book called It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian, and in it he reminds us of how central our love for God is to the life we’re called to live. He writes that in the Bible,

‘Ministry begins with expressing the love of God to the family of believers. This is so elemental that 1John tells us to assume that if someone does not show love to Christian brothers and sisters, then we are safe to assume that they do not know God at all.’

Luke’s gospel is the story of how that love was taught and modeled by Jesus, but it’s a story that wasn’t quite finished, though. There was more to say. There was a lot more to do.

And so the Acts of the Apostles is a worthy sequel to Luke’s first book. It’s the story of how God empowered a weak, bickering, selfish and contentious group of people to become the catalyst for the communication of the gospel to every corner of the earth. The rest of the story of Jesus, that begins in the gospel accounts, is found in the Acts of the Apostles, the history of the church, the Body of Christ.

Paul Harvey was a radio personality in the States. He was known for his quirky delivery and his ability to track down interesting stories with surprise endings. He had a program called 'The Rest of the Story' that played in markets all over the world for years. The stories were great. Here are a couple of examples:

Al Capone’s lawyer was one of the wealthiest men in Chicago. ‘Easy Eddie, as he was known, kept Capone out of jail for years, and was paid an obscene amount of money to do it. Eddie and his family lived in a fenced-in mansion that took up an entire city block in Chicago. At some point in his career it occurred to him that he loved his son more than he loved the money and perks of working for the mob, and he had a crisis of conscience. He worried about what he could leave to his son that was of value, and realized in order to do the right thing for his son, in order to teach him what integrity meant, he would have to do something pretty dramatic.

Without being asked he went to the police and offered to testify against Capone. It wasn’t long before he was gunned down—in his pockets he had a crucifix and a poem to his son about integrity and the preciousness of life.

In the same show Harvey told another story: This one was about a WWII hero, a pilot named Butch O’Hare. He was out on a mission when he realized that his fuel tank hadn’t been topped off and so he turned around to head back to his aircraft carrier. On his way he found a squadron of Japanese bombers heading for his ship, and he took them on alone. He was so disruptive to them that they turned around and he saved the USS Lexington. He was the first Naval pilot ever to win the Medal of Honor. He was killed the next year at the age of 29.

This is where Paul Harvey would step in and say, and now for the rest of the story. You can see Butch O’Hare’s medal in the airport that’s named after him: O’Hare Airport in Chicago.

But the real kicker is this: Butch O’Hare was Easy Eddie’s son—the one the father loved so much that he gave himself up to show his son a different way of living.

Those stories remind us of the redemptive possibilities in every life. From disgrace and humiliation and despair, the people in these stories—real life people—changed direction and experienced a measure of redemption in the process. These stories remind us, especially in these weeks just after we’ve celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus, that we have a God who gave himself up, to show us a very different way of living.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of second chances—of redemptive possibilities—of changing direction—of really great sequels. These are the kinds of things that happen in the real world, and in a real-world church. God works in us to give us a new way of seeing our lives—a new way of living our lives, and we a drawn to change—to live differently, to spend differently, to serve in new ways.

In his new book, Everything Must Change, Brian McLaren writes this:

‘A revolution of hope is not just a matter of reading a book or hearing an inspiring sermon. True, a book or a sermon or personal encounter may be the vehicle through which hope wins our hearts. But a revolution of hope makes radical demands of us. It requires us to learn new skills and habits and capacities; the skills of a new way of seeing; the habits of a new way of thinking; the capacities of a new way of living.’

In our lives we’re always on that border between our past and the sequel, the rest of the story, a new way of living. As the saying goes: it’s not over until it’s over. As long as we have life and breath and a sense of God’s call in our lives, we can grow and change and serve and improve. The good news of the Christian message is that it’s never too late—no matter what we’ve done or said or even believed—God waits for us, ready to help us start the next chapter—the next volume of our lives—our sequel.

The key—as individuals and as a church—is to be a true community of faith—to be engaged in the culture, grounded in Scripture, and alive to the Spirit of God.

What’s the rest of your story? What’s the sequel to the journey of faith you’ve lived so far? That may sound like a sort of abstract question, but it’s rooted in the very heart of what it means to be a real-world Christian—a real-world church. The story of this place isn’t anywhere near finished yet—there’s more to tell—there’s more to do.

We start with the challenge to be like Theophilus—to be lovers of God. To care and share and participate and serve, and to listen for God’s direction in all things. We build on that foundation—we create a church that’s listening to the world around it and to God—and waiting on the Holy Spirit to empower us and lead us where we’re called to go.

I heard someone described one time as being so heavenly minded that he was no earthly good. That’s not what we’re talking about here. The adventure we’re about to see in the Acts of the Apostles is as real-world as it gets. We’ll take this journey together: engaged in the culture, grounded in the Scriptures, and alive to the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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