Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
From 3rd to 1st Person
Acts of the Apostles, a sermon series for the Easter season, preached May 22, 2022 at the 930am worship
Easter is big for the church, but the days AFTER Easter are even bigger. That’s when the church was born. This Easter Season, Caitlan and I have been reading and preaching from the Acts of the Apostles, stories of how the first disciples were sent to birth the church after the first Easter.
We’ve heard apostles set free from prisons to tell everyone about the new life. We’ve seen disciples go toward the enemy and love them through unimaginable change. We’ve heard the compassion, courage, and humility of lady disciples who ached and sacrificed for resurrection. We heard the early church at first resist change, then learn from Peter’s example and celebrate welcoming new people and new ways.
Today is our last Sunday in this series. Let’s listen for the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Acts 16:6-15
6 They (meaning Paul and Timothy) went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.
9 During the night, Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When Paul had seen the vision, WE immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called US to proclaim the good news to them.
11 We therefore set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.
13 On the Sabbath day, we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
This is the word of the Lord… (Thanks be to God)
Sermon From 3rd to 1st Person
There’s a moment in a person’s faith journey that can change everything, and when it happens it likely changes others around them too. It doesn’t have to be all that special of a moment. There doesn’t have to be lightning bolts or tears. It doesn’t have to be in church, a baptism or communion, a wedding or a funeral. It doesn’t have to happen only once, some unique eureka, aha moment. It can happen again and again and again. It’s amazing when it happens for the first time, and when it comes back around. There is something consistent about the moment, beautiful, and as a pastor I love to hear stories about those moments from people’s lives. If I don’t hear a memory of that moment in someone’s story, I look for ways going forward to include them in something I trust God is doing so it might happen in them as well.
What is that moment? Well, let’s talk about today’s scripture a bit more and see if you notice it.
The author of Acts is the same person who crafted the gospel we call Luke. We don’t know if Luke wrote Luke and Acts, but we do know whoever it was that wrote Luke also wrote Acts, so, we will just say Luke wrote them both.
In the first volume, the gospel, Luke wanted to tell the world everything he had discovered about Jesus, from birth to death and Jesus’ miraculous reappearance alive and in body. Luke worked hard to collect any stories or writings about Jesus, interviewed people, quoted reliable sources. He couldn’t put everything together perfectly on a provable timeline. There was no way for Luke to know exactly in what order all the stories and moments fit together. But one day, Luke sat down with all the stories about Jesus, sayings of Jesus, parables of Jesus, interactions with Jesus, and did his very best to assemble them in some order that was possible and made sense, that moved Jesus from his earliest days in ministry in Galilee gathering disciples and followers, toward Jerusalem where he would be challenged, confronted, crucified, dead, and buried. Luke was like a top-notch New York Times reporter or Washington Post journalist, asking lots of questions, tracking down sources, taking copious notes, trying not to get too editorial, but to craft an extended news piece with journalistic integrity.
The Gospel of Luke is this kind of collection of bits and pieces from others. In the gospel, Luke never breaks character but remains the narrator, the editor of all these stories he’s collected from others. “So they said… then Jesus said… Some women came and asked them…” Luke plays the role of messenger, passing along what others witnessed and shared, what happened to them or in their presence.
Now, the Gospel according to Luke was assembled and edited maybe 30-40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, so it’s probably that Luke wasn’t there in person. Luke came to know and love Jesus later, somehow, not directly but through others, and then became fascinated with these stories. Maybe it was through the church when Luke first heard these stories of Jesus.
That’s why church exists, by the way. Church isn’t a place where people who believe in Jesus come together. Church is place where we retell the stories of Jesus to anyone who will listen, in hopes we all grow in our belief. None of us were there in person. So we tell these stories, for those who have never heard them and for those who have heard them many times, waiting for these stories to do something in us similar to what they did for Luke.
The reason the church exists is to share the stories of what God has done. All the stories of scripture are from people who somehow, at some point, believed God had been doing something, and then they shared the story of what God had done. In sharing it, new people began to hear what God had been doing, and the really good stories got retold and remembered and written down so they can be shared wider and further through friends and family, and through the church. That’s what church is, the place we commit to retelling these stories.
Why? Because they are true? Yes, we have a commitment to telling the truth. Because it’s important for people today to know what happened before? Yes, in remembering what happened before, we can see the great arch of God’s push towards wholeness, peace, justice, and love, and we can hold onto hope that evil is not winning, will not win, death does not win. From these stories, we notice breadcrumbs of faith on the path from the stories of the past through the troubles of the present toward the glorious days ahead when war is no more, racism is no more, hatred and violence are no more, assault rifles are no more, poverty and hunger are no more. Those stories are retold here in church to spark us to naïve hope, to passionate faith, and to risky love. That is why church exists.
When Caitlan and I are really on our game, we retell a story and pull yall up so close to it, it might feel for just a moment that you yourself are in it, and then you might make the connection between what God did for them in the story long ago, and what God is doing today, for you, for us, in our lives and in our world.
Then, when worship is over, we know you will go home and start feeling the distance again between the people and world of the story and you and this world. The farther we get from these stories, the more that feeling of being outside of them grows. The stories drift away from us in time and space, and become something that might have happened to them long ago, but feel less relevant to us today.
So what is the moment in a faith journey we pastors ache for? What is the moment I look and listen for in each of you individually, and in this church as a community? Did you notice it?
“THEY went through Phrygia and Galatia… THEY were blocked from going to Asia. THEY tried to go to Bithynia, but instead THEY went to Troas. HE, Paul, had a vision: a man pleading with HIM, saying, “Come.” When HE saw the vision, WE…”
WE… there is the precious moment, the holy moment that changes everything on someone’s faith journey, the moment the story about God changes from third person… he, she, they, them… to first person, I, we, us. See, it doesn’t have to be a super special occasion, or happen only once in a lifetime, or happen at church. The special, precious moment we pastors long for is when we see others no longer outside the story listening to it, but find our people inside the story living it themselves.
“WE crossed over to Macedonia. WE were convinced God had called US there. WE sailed from Troas to Samothrace to Philippi, and WE stayed there. On the Sabbath, WE went down by the river to pray, and WE met some women. WE met Lydia, and WE told her the stories, and WE saw the Lord open her heart, and WE baptized her, and she invited US into her home.”
Luke saw the precious moment happen in Lydia. Seeing it happen in her brought him into the story himself. He was no longer the editor and narrator of the story of God through Paul and Timothy and others. Suddenly, he was living in the story himself. His precious moment came from her precious moment, and together, they found the story of God in Jesus Christ to no longer be something listened to and documented from outside, but something they close and personal, something they could witness about from inside.
What are these stories for you, these stories of what God. They were written down by someone who believed they tell us what God has been doing since the beginning of time, what God has now done in Jesus the Christ, and give hope we will see God continues to do these things by the power of Holy Spirit. Are you watching them, as if you are in the audience of a play? Do you listen to them as if they are a book-on-tape or podcast playing at you through speakers? Or do you feel the thrill and pressure of being called for a role on the stage? If you retold the story of God, would you talk about them, or about you, about us?
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; and one (person) in (their) time plays many parts”
That is the precious moment, when we find ourselves no longer watching and listening to the stories of God, retelling them in 3rd person, but realize we are in them, find ourselves gladly playing our part, and tell the story of God in 1st person. What is your role in the great story of God? That is why church exists.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever more, amen.
Now, blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night this moment and forever more. Amen.