There is a village in the mountains of France called Le Chambon. It’s not very big, but the people there accomplished something enormous during the Second World War. A minister and his church there managed to lead the entire village—everyone who lived there—to participate in hiding Jews from the Nazis and French collaborators for most of the war. They shared their food, their homes, and their lives with these strangers—because it was their calling—because it was the right thing to do.
When the pastor was ordered to give up the names of any Jews hiding in the village, he said:
“Even if I had such a list, I would not pass it on to you. These people have come here seeking aid and protection from the Christians of this region. It is not the role of the shepherd to betray the sheep.”
The soldier laughed at him and said that he would be punished if they found proof of his crimes. “Besides,” he said “your resistance is useless.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
Now it may seem strange to start a series on the Acts of the Apostles with a story from World War Two and a passage from the Gospel of Luke, but there’s a reason for that. Luke and Acts originally went together—it was Luke’s two-volume account of the ministry of Jesus and the rise of the church. Our text this morning comes right at the end of volume one—it’s a sort of cliffhanger ending before the rest of the story unfolds. Le Chambon is one of those powerful reminders of what the church can do and be, when it lives out its faith in the world.
Besides, it’s too easy sometimes to see the church as useless in the face of the real world, just as that soldier said, and that’s just not right.
So what happens in Acts, and why is it relevant for us today?
Acts is our record of the explosive growth of the early church. It gets started with Pentecost, and moves into the first real evangelistic sermons of the Christian era. Peter, who blundered his way through Jesus’ ministry and was left crying on the beach, all of a sudden can preach sermons that bring people to faith by the thousands. There are trials, beatings, imprisonments—in one powerful story the first deacon of the church is hauled before a court and ends up being stoned to death, but not before one of the great closing arguments of all time. We’ll see how the Apostle Paul came to faith and took the gospel to the Roman Empire. Mostly what we see is how the church learned to connect with the culture in a way that shared and lived the good news of Jesus.
Acts is important because it’s the historical foundation our church is built on. There are lessons there for how our church—every church—should behave and teach and serve and grow. Acts is a reminder that the church is designed for service, for the calling of sharing the message of Jesus with the world.
The Book of Acts offers us a profile of what the church should be. Over the next weeks we’ll define the church as a community that is engaged in the world, grounded in Scripture, and alive to the Spirit. That’s what a real church—a church that is firing on all its cylinders, looks like.
That’s why the bravery and goodness of the people of Le Chambon are so important for us still—they show what a church and community might do when faced with some intense real-world situations. They were a community of faith that was anything but useless.
There are other examples from church history. Not many people know that the three most important social revolutions in 19th century America were led not just by churches, but by evangelical churches. The abolition movement, feminism and the fight for voting rights for women, and the development of programs and institutions that serve the poor. All of those were led by churches that had a biblically-grounded faith in Jesus Christ, the belief that the gospel had something for every person on earth, and passion for making society a fairer, freer, more Christ-like place.
But it’s not even major social movements. Just before we moved to London we had a celebration at our home church for a missionary who was retiring from the field. Our church had supported her for 25 years while she translated the New Testament into a tribal language that hadn’t even been written before. We dedicated that Bible to God’s service, and three young people from that tribe came to Southern California to thank the people of our church for bringing them the good news of the gospel.
These churches aren’t perfect—not one of them. But what they have in common was their desire to be engaged in the world, grounded in the Scriptures, and alive to how God’s Spirit wanted to work within and among them. What made these churches and gatherings of churches special was their desire to be God’s arm—Christ’s body—in their cities and towns and nations. These churches saw the needs of the world around them, and acted.
We’ve just survived another awards season…did you notice?
Oscars and BAFTAs and Emmys and Grammys. Every industry gathers at various times to pat themselves on the back—entertainers just do it in front of the world. One of the required questions as people walk down the red carpets is strange the first time you hear it, but later it starts to get familiar and even sound normal. The celebrity is walking toward the theatre, trying to look aloof but secretly praying that the cameras will find them, until a reporter sticks a microphone in their direction and asks: Who are you wearing?
It’s a very strange thing to ask. Who are you wearing? Of course we all know that what they’re after is the name of the designer who created the dress or the suit or the tuxedo. Who have you partnered with to look the way you do? What are you trying to say? Who are you trying to be? Who’s getting the glory here?
In our passage today Luke tells the Christian community to gather together, to remember the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, and to be witnesses of these events to the world. They were confused, but he encouraged them by saying that they should wait—not forever, but until they were ‘clothed with power from on high.’
In the sequence that brought about the early Christian church, the ministry of Christ was followed by the gift of the Holy Spirit—God’s comforter, the one that gave the early believers what they needed to spark the faith revolution that became the church. But in between those two great events, they waited for the Spirit to fill them and push them and strengthen them in their work.
In both of our passages today we see the image of a garment, of clothing, used to describe how God’s power makes us into the people he calls us to be.
My friend Cameron preached an amazing sermon a few years ago. He was talking about the passage where Paul calls the church to ‘put on Christ’: there’s that garment image again. He talked about that everyday moment when each of us stares into the closet to see what we’re going to wear for the day. That it’s important—but that it’s also routine, something we do so often that we might not even think about it all that much.
But in the spiritual sense it is important. Choosing to put on Christ—to be clothed with power from on high, is a part of being a Christian—part of being the church. In that spiritual sense, choosing what to wear—choosing how to look—says a lot about who we choose to serve.
Over the next weeks and months we’re going to be looking at the Acts of the Apostles to see what that book can teach us about who we are and how we look and who we serve—what it can teach us about being a real-world church.
During this time the working definition that we’ll share about the church is this: A Real-World Church is a community of faith that is:
engaged in the culture,
grounded in Scripture,
and alive to the Holy Spirit.
That means we’re going to continue to do some things around here that are challenging and hard. We’re going to pay closer attention to what God is teaching us about the church in Scripture. We’re going to step out in faith a bit to see what God’s spirit might want to be doing in this particular church. We’re going to continue to learn new songs, even when it’s hard for us—because it’s important to stretch ourselves and learn new language for worshipping the eternal God.
And we’re going to continue to incorporate current events and history and politics and movies and the arts into what we do together, because that’s what it means to be engaged in the culture.
In our Old Testament reading today Isaiah said:
I delight greatly in the Lord,
My soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation,
And arrayed me in a robe of righteousness.
Who are you wearing today? Who are we wearing as a church, as a community of faith? My prayer for us is that as we continue to grow and come together as a church—as we continue to hear God’s call in our lives individually and as a community, that we will be clothed with power from on high, with garments of salvation and robes of righteousness, and that we’ll take our place in the line of churches that have made a difference. Churches with a real message about a real savior who has good news for the real world.
Who are you wearing? Who do you want to wear? Let’s take that journey together over the next weeks and months. And through all of it, to God be the glory for the great things he’s done. Let’s stand and sing that together. Amen.