The First Presbyterian Church of Blackwood
21 E. Church Street
Blackwood, NJ 08012
Sermon Notes (Sunday, July 16, 2023)
Rev. Dr. Scott Morschauser, Guest Preacher
“RADICAL FAITH-RADICAL CHURCH”
Acts 2: 37-47
“The Chapel bells were ringing/In the little valley town/And the song they were singing/Was for baby Jimmy Brown. . . And the little congregation/Prayed for guidance from above/‘Lord lead us not into temptation/May his soul find the salvation/Of thy great eternal love.’”
Perhaps some of you remember that song. It’s still sung occasionally by religious groups, but it was a popular hit in the 1950s in America. It spoke of the church with the deepest affection and without the least bit of cynicism. The lyrics celebrate the importance of faith throughout life’s journey - from birth to marriage, through death; each step accompanied by the hope of salvation “of thy great eternal love.”
I recently heard this tune on Sirius Satellite Radio’s Fifties Station. It stuck out like a sore thumb against the rock-and-roll culture that was emerging, but especially to our present time.
“The chapel bells were ringing. . . ”
There’s a church about half a mile away from my house, and every noon it would ring its bells to hymn tunes, until one of my neighbors complained. It offended him, he said. Predictably, those chapel bells aren’t ringing any longer for little Jimmy Brown or anybody else in my town.
We might ask what has happened? Why is it that the church which was so present in the lives of so many Americans, now absent, avoided, verbally attacked by some, and sadly enough, physically assaulted by others? Sociologists look at this issue all the time, but it is central to our Scripture reading for today which addresses what the church is to be in the world and to the world.
Some preachers hold up our verses as providing the model of the church, and they even call it, “the Acts 2 church”. They will challenge congregations to compare themselves to what Luke shows us asking, “Are you an Acts 2 church?”
This episode itself can be divided into two parts. The first section presents the impact of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost. The second part shows its application: how the proclamation of the Gospel was put into practice. How the church of the Word is also the church of action - the church of Acts if you like.
Notably, the apostle concludes his address with the counsel, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation,” which would have rung bells among his listeners. It evokes the story of Noah and the Ark, when God instructed the patriarch to build a ship to preserve his family from the moral anarchy, which would unleash a flood upon the world.
The apostle is making the equation that the community of the baptized is, in effect, an ark. Not surprisingly, in the earliest Christian art, the ark is a prominent motif. The church was to be an ark. The church is an ark.
There are some modern theologians who object to this imagery. “No! The church is not to shut itself off from the world!”
Yet Peter’s reference is not to condemn the world, but to save God’s beloved creatures from “this crooked generation.” Again, this is another Scriptural allusion. “Crooked generation” refers to the age that has turned away from God’s covenant and has chosen to embrace the beliefs and practices of the surrounding culture.
But let us make no mistake, this “crooked generation” is not anti-religious, at all. On the contrary, it is as religious as it can get. Everywhere one looks there are monuments to its deities. It extols any god, and all gods, except The Saving God. Disregarding God’s commandments, it holds firm to its tenets, enforcing them with vigor. Rejecting that it is under the gracious lordship of God, this “crooked generation” would declare itself God and seek to shape the world according to its image.
Later on, the apostle Paul will unveil what results from exalting the deities of “the crooked generation.” It is not a pretty sight: immorality, discord, envy, violence, exploitation, greed, and naked ambition. That was their creed, that was their song.
“Save yourself!” Peter and others will counsel. It’s not to lock out those suffering, but the invitation to enter the door opened to everybody, drowning, floundering, sinking, who cries out “What shall we do?” And then, hearing that Christ provides refuge, an ark for those drowning in the chaos of the “crooked generation,” an anchor for those who would be swallowed up in its whirlpool. Hearing what Christ has done amidst the roaring and ranting of the age.
Acts then relates the impact of Peter’s message: “and there were added about 3,000 souls.” Which is matched by the changed conduct of their lives: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching . . . and all who believed were directed toward the same goal, all held everything the same; and they sold their goods and possessions and distributed them to all, as any had need. Day by day, they persevered together in the Temple, and breaking bread at home . . . in exaltation and with singular hearts.”
It's hardly unexpected, that many people today view this passage through a purely economic lens. In fact, Karl Marx took one of its verses, “each according to his ability, each according to his need,” to create a system without God, but would elevate the all-powerful state to the status of deity.
Yet, that sort of entity was in existence as Peter was speaking. It assured people that it would take care of you from birth to death. It would provide you with welfare, food, offer diversions to keep you entertained. That was the promise of Rome - “bread and circuses.” All you had to do was to give this state -ever present, all powerful - your allegiance, your loyalty, your soul. Everything.
But if you read these passages carefully, you’ll discover this isn’t the language of business; it’s about covenant. About being bound together in Communion with Christ, and through Him, and because of Him, with one another. Christ is the center of the covenant community, and the first law of its economics is “to love your neighbor as yourself”; that person in need is your neighbor.
However, the whole purpose is for the church - the Acts 2 church - to disentangle, disenthrall, distance itself from the powers and principalities that would claim everybody and everything as their possessions, to be bartered and sold as objects.
The community that has been freed by Christ is the community that is freed from and free of the idols of the state, and free for each other. The community dependent upon Christ and which follows his Way is the community independent of “this crooked generation.”
I just read an article about a letter written by the ancient author, Pliny the Younger. Dated to the early second century, Pliny was a Roman governor in what is now modern day Turkey. He had been asked to investigate a strange group that was called, “Christians.”
Pliny discovered that at their meetings held on Sundays, these Christians read the Ten Commandments, recited an early form of the Apostles’ Creed, sang hymns, and they swore to be honest - not to get into debt, and to pay all debts owed - followed by a meal taken together in the name of this Christ, whom they worshipped.
Apparently, this was an Acts 2 church, in its form and in its function; in its preaching of the faith, and in its faithfulness to its preaching.
Pliny’s letter has been known for centuries, but a scholar recently pointed out that the reason why Pliny had to look into the Christians, was that the temples in his jurisdiction had complained that people had stopped sacrificing to their deities; stopped following the dictates and customs of their cults. They were leaving behind “this crooked generation,” and heading towards the church - to get on the ark which is Jesus Christ.
Despite the fact that these Christians treated one another with simple dignity, that they were honest, and that their behavior demonstrated their belief in their Christ - for Pliny, that was a little too much. The governor was instructed that upon arresting a suspected Christian, he was to offer them the choice of pledging their allegiance to Caesar - to entrust their body, soul, heart, and mind to the ruler of the age. The emperor noted, “A true Christian would not do this.” The choice was simple: rejoin “this crooked generation” and save your life - for a while. Or refuse to abandon the Ark and lose your life - but save your soul.
Pliny was astonished that not many would jump ship.
The theologian and preacher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, having been arrested by Hitler, wrote a series of letters from prison. In one of them, he posed the question, how does one preach the gospel, to “a world come of age.” That phrase has been debated endlessly, but it should have rung some bells. It comes from a writer of the 18th century Enlightenment, and it referred to a generation that had now asserted its total independence from God. The “world come of age” was the mature world, that had cast aside all the wisdom and learning of the past.
The world come of age, took its own path, charted its own course, decided its own destiny. This is the modern world - it is also the “crooked generation.”
How can the church get through to this world, that would close its ears to Scripture; a world to whom God’s Word was more and more unfamiliar and unknown? A world that would seek to silence any and all chapel bells and sing its own songs.
Bonhoeffer concluded two things: one is that to even such a world - this world come of age - this generation wandering a road crooked and lost - even to these Jesus Christ comes.
The second thing is that if the spoken Word has no effect, then the Word lived out, does. That the church - the Acts 2 church - the church whose members hold Christ as their center; the Church that declares its common faith in Christ; the Church that “perseveres in the temple and breaking bread at home” - that in public and private it shows its integrity - that it is integrated into Christ, and that it lives wholly from his claim …
That while the present generation may no longer comprehend the Word of God in Christ, it can see that we do. It can see that we take the Word seriously. And that might get them to think, and begin to listen, and go through the door to the Ark.
One day, some of my students were speaking and yearning about being “revolutionaries,” that they wanted to change the world. I listened quietly and began to smile. One of them asked me why I was reacting in the way that I did. I replied, “You want to be a revolutionary? The greatest act of revolution - the most counter-cultural gesture you can make nowadays - is to go to church.”
When you answer the summons of the chapel bells when they are ringing, when you pray “for guidance from above, ‘Lord lead us not into temptation,’” and rejoice and live by “the salvation of Christ’s eternal love.” You are an Acts 2 church. You are the real radicals; you are true revolutionaries.
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