Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Three Thousand Voices of Unity

Lord's Day Message
May 15: “Three Thousand Voices of Unity”
Poquonock Community Church, Windsor, CT

Epistle Reading: Acts 2:14a, 36-47 (NIV)
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd:
  “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
  When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
  Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
  With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Matt Church, a business and life coach and mentor who lives in Sydney, New South Wales, recently wrote in his blog, “Stories are old school, really old school. It's the first way you learned right and wrong, it's how most great learning occurs. Think back to your favorite school teacher and I reckon that at some level they were a great storyteller. They bring the dry and academic alive through the artful use of story.

“Stories bypass the logical,” Church says, “and get inside an audience’s head.  The real power, he says, is in “letting others tell you their stories. If you want to get inside the world of someone else and understand what drives them, then become an engaged audience.”

The Power of Narrative
All communities that last for any period of time have their stories, good and bad, humorous and affecting, sometimes tragic and hard to hear.  The most successful communities are those that are able to absorb the narrative of their own story, no matter how difficult, and learn from it. 

On the day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter tapped into a very powerful and recent piece of the narrative – of the story – of the people of Israel.  The sentence that makes up Acts 2:36 is actually the final sentence of what Peter said to the crowd that day.  This verse provides a brief context to help us understand where we are and who is there.  But before we can understand anything about what happened next, this sentence compels us to go back and discover something about how the stories of community are passed on. 

Every community that is rich in tradition, rich in culture, rich in history, and looking to move forward has four types of people present.  It has the narrative or stories told by the prophets of the community, the narrative or stories told by the people of the community, the narrative told by the psalmists or poets of the community, and the narrative told by the patriarchs of the community. 

When Peter stood up on Pentecost, he wasn’t acting in the role of rabbi.  If he had been approaching these people with theological training or commentary, he would have gathered them around him and sat down to speak.  All teaching in the synagogues was done ex cathedra – from the chair.  Clearly, Peter isn’t offering a sermon.  What he’s doing is reminding them of the community they belong to and of which he himself is a member.

The Prophet’s Narrative
If you have your Bible it may be helpful to open to Acts 2 and follow along, beginning at Acts 2:17.  “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”  Peter begins by reminding them of something one of their Prophets, the Old Testament prophet Joel, had said.  The prophets of a community always step up first and are rarely around when the story concludes.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the prophets of the American civil rights movement, and he did not live to see it come to full fruit. 

Next comes the witness of the people.  You would think that the prophets would be followed by the poets, or by the patriarchs of a community so the people would have a rich depth of story to draw on, but in a living community the prophets speak and act and the people respond and write the story with their own flesh.  After that, the poets of the community write their poems and their songs, and finally the Patriarchs tell in their old age of what the community had once experienced, so that the community will not forget the lessons of a generation past.  There is a raw immediacy to the people’s response that does not permit the time for poets to ponder and for patriarchs to distill. 

The People’s Narrative
In Acts 2:22, Peter, speaking prophetically in the immediacy of the critical moment says, ““Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—“ This isn’t something that went on years and years ago.  This was something the people standing in front of Peter at that very moment had experienced.  They were living through the events together.   

So often what a Prophet says hurts the community deeply.  And yet it is a wound to action, that makes the members of the community want to do better than they are being told they have already done.  In Acts 2:23 Peter says, “This Jesus you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” 

Ouch.  There it is, the story of the community in naked relief. 

The Poet’s Narrative
Next Peter draws on the writing of a poet from an earlier chapter in the story of Israel to help them grasp the seriousness of what they have done.  He quotes David, not only their greatest king, but also one of their most prolific poets.  Verses 25-28 quote David’s poem that we know as Psalm 16, “For David says concerning Jesus, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.  You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

The Patriarch’s Narrative
Finally he reminds them that David is also a Patriarch who is offering wisdom to them yet from the Grave.  ‘For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’”

The Prophets of any successful community tell the story to point the people in the right direction.  The People respond and live the story and so build the rich narrative of the community.  The Poets sing the story the community is living.  And the Patriarchs remember the story and tell it to a future generation.  Each of them has a unique role to play in maintaining, and mastering the story of the community.  These, working in concert together and yet not in any organizational way, build The Narrative that Brings Unity.   Regrettably for Israel, the Narrative Peter spoke of some 50 days after Jesus was crucified was a painful thing to listen to.  But communities need to listen and need to learn from their own mistakes.

Because of this, there is a Response that Brings Unity that we need to pay attention to.   Peter said, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”  At that moment Peter, a common fisherman, became the next prophetic voice speaking to the community.  “Let all Israel…” he said.  He is not excluding one single man, woman, or child either from the indictment against them or from the blessing that followed.  “Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified (that’s the indictment), both Lord and Messiah (that’s the blessing).   Neither the sin of their hearts or their act of murderous treachery against God could prevent God from exalting Jesus to the highest place, far above all power and dominion and rule and authority.

The people speak a united response that is absolutely galvanizing to the community.  The Response that Brings Unity, in this case, is the united experience of being cut to the heart.  At that moment a deep, pain-filled repentance came over the entire crowd.  “Brothers, what shall we do?”  They cried. 

You know, I think the people in the crowd that day were absolutely ready to throw themselves on the authority of Peter and the rest.  I think they were expecting the Eleven surviving Apostles to mete out executive justice against them.  “Tell us our punishment.  What shall we do?  What are you going to make us to do to make up for the crime we have committed?” 

But Peter has listened to the story.  Peter has lived the story.  And Peter could tell the story he had lived.  He could tell them how just 50 days earlier, he had warmed himself by a fire and denied three times he even knew Jesus.  That is a powerful piece of narrative in Peter’s life.  He could tell them exactly how Jesus’ face had looked that night when he turned and looked at Peter at the very moment the rooster crowed.  Peter could tell them how he had run to the tomb and looked in and had seen the grave clothes folded neatly in the tomb.  He could tell them how, when Jesus appeared to the Eleven in the upper room the evening of his resurrection there had been no mention of Peter’s crime; only the joy of reunion and restoration. 

Peter tells them to do just exactly what he had done in the overwhelming moments and days that followed the resurrection:  “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sin.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children,” do you hear the narrative being passed down in the community?  “The promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 

The Response that Brings Unity is always A Response from the Heart.  The text says they were cut to the heart.  Otherwise the rest of what happened would have been mere play-acting.  But the sincerity of people who have together had the same heart response is deeply unifying. 

The Response that Brings Unity is also A Repentance from Sin.  There is nothing worse than being present for a deeply affecting event and then doing nothing with what you felt. 

Writer Fred Craddock tells how, when he was in seminary at Vanderbilt Divinity School, he used to take late-night study breaks at an all-night diner. One night while worrying about his New Testament oral exams, he happened to overhear an exchange between the man behind the counter and a ragged, down-on-his luck customer. 

Craddock says,  'I noticed a man who was there when I went in, but had not yet been waited on. I had been waited on and had a refill, and so had the others. Then finally the man behind the counter went to the man at the end of the counter and said, ‘What do you want?’ He was an old, gray-haired black man. Whatever the man said, the fellow went to the grill, scooped up a little dark patty off the back of the grill, and put it on a piece of bread without condiment, without napkin. The cook handed it to the man, who gave him some money, and then went out the side door by the garbage can and out on the street. He sat on the curb with the 18-wheelers of the night with the salt and pepper of the street to season his sandwich.

I didn’t say anything. I did not reprimand, protest, or witness to the cook. I did not go out and sit beside the man on the curb, on the edge. I didn’t do anything. I was thinking about the questions coming up on the New Testament exams. And I left the little diner, and went up the hill back to my room to resume my studies . . . And off in the distance I heard a rooster crow.'"

There is nothing worse than being present for a deeply affecting event and then doing nothing with what you felt.  It is to deny the work of Christ in you. 

But Peter challenges them not only to repent of their sin.  He also challenges them to come to Christ and receive the promise of the Holy Spirit.  And that is exactly what they did.  Their newly found sense of unity drove them to A Repentance from Sin and it also drove them to A Receiving of Promise.  Please, please understand that just because you have sin to repent of individually and in your community that in no way disqualifies you.  The promise of the Holy Spirit is for people like you.  Without it you would quickly fall back into the very things Jesus died to save you from.  In the power of the Holy Spirit you have a resource greater than any comfort he may give you.  You have the very presence of God empowering you to do what you have no natural ability to do. 

The Action that Brings Unity came in the days and weeks that followed that huge moment in the life of the community.  Remarkably, there is no further mention of their sin.  Nor is there any mention of it anywhere else in all the writings that follow in the New Testament.  Those who were there when the church began repented.  Do you hear it?  They repented.  And sometimes a piece of the narrative of a community needs to be left behind in order for the community to return to health.  In the forgiveness of Christ it is right that we forget the lapse in judgment that was repented of; that we forget the affair that was dealt with and abandoned and remember to pray for the marriage that was restored.  It is right that we embrace the individual who has repented as a full member of Christ’s body.   That is The Action that brings Unity.  The sin may have been public and profound.  The depth of the waters of forgiveness must match and exceed the height of the mountain of the sin itself.  If the mountain is allowed to stand just below the surface, the community will ultimately strike it, and sink like the Titanic. 

People who have been forgiven and have forgiven at that level always experience what the earliest believers did.   They experience A Devotion to the Spirit.  Verse 42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”  There is no talk about acts of penitence, because they felt no need for them.  All they wanted to do was to dive in gratefully with both feet. 

The Action that Brings Unity is also always attended by A Demonstration by the Spirit.  Verse 43 says, “Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.”  Did it ever occur to you that the reason most Christian communities don’t see signs and wonders, the reason they lack the power of the Holy Spirit may be because they have abandoned the practice of grateful forgiveness and have instead offered forgiveness grudgingly?     

There’s another kind of Demonstration by the Spirit that happens when the community is united.  And it is downright fun.  It is A Distribution in the Spirit.   I’m not talking about writing checks to the church.  That’s the barest minimum of tithing, and frankly, you can write checks your whole life and never experience unity in the Spirit. 

These people, the text says, were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”  No one had to set up a church welfare program to find out who was in need.  These people were together and they knew all to well who was in need, and they did something about it without anyone having to tell them to.  They distributed what they had because the Love of Christ drew them to it, and because the Unity of the Spirit drove them to it.

Finally, there is A Determination of the Spirit that he brings upon people who are united this way.  They become determined to gather for worship and praise instead of just meeting together when they have nothing better to do or when bad weather doesn’t prevent it.  They meet together because it is such a joy to them and because they have practiced gratitude, forgiveness, and grace, and frankly because there is nothing quite like standing shoulder to shoulder with sisters and brothers with whom you are writing the narrative of community and with whom you are worshiping God.

These people’s worship didn’t end when the “time of worship” was over.  It overflowed as “they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

You have been writing your own narrative here at Poquonock Community Church.  You’ve been doing it for years.  I want to challenge you: Open your hearts over the next months and listen to that narrative with fresh ears.  Rejoice in what God has given you as a community to rejoice in and repent of what you need to repent of and then leave it buried deep in the sea of forgetfulness.  Place Christ, whom you also crucified, who died and was raised again because death could not hold him, at the center of all you do, and Christ himself will bring about the Unity you seek.  You may not be 3000 voices of Unity, but If you do as these early disciples did, God will add to your number daily those who are being saved.


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