Acts 2:29-42 (or 49)
This is the final sermon in a five-part series we have offered here at the monastery during Eastertide. Throughout this series, we have sought to offer hope by examining the experience of resurrection in the early Christian community, as recorded in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, and by applying its lessons to our own time. Each sermon has focused on a key word. Tonight the key word is “believe.”
Following Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, the disciples were a broken and downcast lot. We see them huddled in hidden places, fearful for their own lives, clinging to one another in the midst of broken dreams and shattered hopes. They are weighed down with sorrow and confusion, lacking direction and purpose, like sheep that have lost their shepherd. With heavy hearts they gather to console one another, seeking to make sense of the tragic events they have witnessed. Their hope is gone; their faith is crushed.
And suddenly, unexpectedly, he is among them again! Alive! Risen! Mysterious, yet unmistakable! It is unfathomable! incomprehensible! mind-bending! Faith and hope are re-awakened. They believe— and their lives are utterly transformed!
Fear falls away, and courage and boldness take appear in its place. Sadness lifts, and a deep and radiant joy springs forth. Despair is swept away and replaced with hope.
They cannot keep silent. They proclaim him in the synagogues and shout their good news in the public squares! “This (crucified) Jesus God has raised up,” they declare, “and of that all of us are witnesses!” (Acts 2:32).
Their faith is contagious, and within days thousands are added to their number. Wonders and signs accompany them. “Awe came upon everyone,” we read, “[and] all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:43-47).
The power of believing! Lives are transformed, communities are renewed, the poor are helped, God is praised by glad and generous hearts! There is new life, new hope, new joy, new freedom, a new love for one another! Such is the power of believing.
And yet there are many who never experience that life and power, who never find that joy, who never discover what it is to truly believe! “The most common understanding of the word ‘faith’ in modern Western Christianity,” writes New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, “[is] that faith means holding a certain set of ‘beliefs,’ ‘believing’ a set of statements to be true, whether cast as biblical teachings or doctrines or dogma… Most people today, in the church and outside of it, take it for granted that Christian faith means believing a set of Christian beliefs to be true” (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p.25).
“This preoccupation with ‘believing’ and ‘beliefs’ has a crucially important effect,” observes Borg. “It turns Christian faith into a ‘head matter.’ Faith becomes primarily a matter of the beliefs in your head – of whether you believe the right set of claims to be true” (Borg, p.26)
How far removed this is from the faith experience of those early Christians! For them, believing opened the way to new life! Faith ignited a life-transforming power within them; believing was the source of their joy and their hope! Believing meant much more than simply assenting to certain claims about Jesus; it meant being united with God in an even deeper way, sharing in the risen life of Jesus, living in the power and joy of the Spirit, trusting in God for all things, and joining with others in a life marked by fellowship and support, compassion and generosity. To believe in Christ was to share in the new life Christ was offering to the world.
We need to rediscover that kind of faith today. We need to challenge the popular notion that ‘believing’ is a matter of the head, and that it has chiefly to do with giving intellectual assent to statements of doctrine or creed. Faith is a matter of the heart. True faith engages us at the deepest level of our being. It is a life-transforming power that connects us with the very life of God. It is the source of the new life that God gives, that eternal life which has been promised to us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Listen to the testimony of early Christians bearing witness to their new life:
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (I John 1:1-3).
Isn’t it obvious that the faith of these early Christians was something more than mere intellectual assent to doctrines and statements of faith? Isn’t it obvious that believing was a matter of the heart as well as the head, that it meant engaging fully with the new life that God was bringing into the world? Isn’t it obvious that believing was grounded in the realities of their lives, that it had to do with seeing and hearing, looking and touching, living and experiencing – and not just with thinking or reasoning?
The writer of John’s gospel concludes his testimony by admitting that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written,” he says, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
Our ‘beliefs’ about God will change over time. The God we know when we are forty may bear little resemblance to the God we knew when we were five. The changes and chances of this live continually challenge and stretch our understanding. Life has a way of shattering our safe and comfortable images of God. Over and over again we are driven to search for a deeper understanding, for a renewed and deeper relationship. We will never know God fully in this life; the fullness of the Mystery will always be beyond our comprehension.
And yet, for those who believe, who have come to see and touch and know God in and through the person of Jesus Christ, there is eternal life – the same life that the Father shares with the Son and with the Spirit, the life that is imparted to us in our baptism and strengthened in us through our participation in the Eucharist. That life abides in us. It is the source of our joy and our hope and our love.
Many of us have been holding in our hearts the memory of our recently-departed and much-beloved Brother Paul Wessinger. We have come to know him as a man of faith. We have seen how God’s light and life can shine forth in one who believes.
Just a few years ago, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, Brother Paul spoke quietly and humbly of his faith in God. It is clear that his “beliefs” had changed over the years, but that the life that flowed from believing had only deepened and become richer. God’s life shaped and transformed him – and transformed us who had the privilege of knowing him. He said,
“At age twenty-four, when I came to SSJE just out of seminary, I had a very clear definition of God. I feel much closer to God now, but I certainly can’t in any way describe who God is, other than to say, ‘through Jesus I experience God as love.’”
Paul believed – and because he believed he knew himself to be a beloved child of God. He had received and, to his final days, abided in that love. “To those who believe God gives the power to become children of God,” writes the author of the Fourth Gospel (John 1:12). Children of God, channels of God’s love and blessing in the world, fountains of hope and joy and peace. That is what we are! (I John 3:1)
Believe with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and that life will be yours as well.
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