Monday, May 28, 2012

"The Difference" sermon by Rev. Pete Vecchi

The Difference

Acts 1:15-17; 20-26; 2:1-8; 13-18; 21; 36-41

An elementary school teacher was teaching her class about subtraction and said, “If Billy has 9 pieces of candy, and he gives Johnny 3 pieces, what’s the difference?”  To which little Georgie answered from the back of the room, “That’s what I say—what’s the difference?

Today, I want to share with you about an event that truly did make a difference.

The Scriptures we read today were excerpts from Acts chapters 1 and 2.  I used excerpts because I wanted to focus on certain parts of the Scripture that specifically go along with this message.  In fact, I want to start by going back earlier in Chapter 1 than where our readings began today.  The setting for our Scripture passages today took place in and around Jerusalem 40 to 50 days after Jesus rose from the dead.  We know this because Acts 1:3 tells us that Jesus appeared and spoke to the disciples for 40 days after His Resurrection, after which time He was taken into Heaven.  In verses 4 and 5, Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem, and that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a few days.  This baptism occurred 10 days later, as recorded in chapter 2, verse 4.  So with that as the background information, let’s look at some things regarding, Jesus, His disciples, and the Holy Spirit.

First, I want us to remember who these disciples were, and what we know about them from Scripture.  They were all fallible human beings.  They all had their own unique personalities.  Generally speaking, they usually wanted to do the right thing.  There is speculation by many people about the possibility that even Judas may have thought he was doing the right thing when he betrayed Jesus, but I’m not going to get into that debate now.  But whether or not Judas was trying to do the right thing brings up another fact—sometimes the disciples did the wrong things because they relied on their own human understanding.  Luke 9:54 tells us that James and John wanted to call down fire to consume people who didn’t want to welcome Jesus.  The Scripture tells us in Matthew 16 that when Jesus told the disciples He would be killed in Jerusalem, Peter actually rebuked Jesus (at which point Jesus responded with the famous words, “Get behind me Satan!”).  In Mark 14, we’re told that this same disciple denied three times that he even knew Jesus.  John 20 records that even after 10 of the disciples had seen the Resurrected Jesus, Thomas refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.  All of those are examples of specific apostles choosing to do the wrong thing.  But even though the Bible doesn’t give specifics about every one of the apostles, in Matthew 26:56, the Bible shows us that every one of the disciples deserted Jesus and ran away after He was arrested.

To be sure, after the disciples saw the Resurrected Jesus, their faith was strengthened.  For instance, even though Thomas didn’t believe the other disciples when they told him that Jesus was alive, once he saw Jesus, Thomas believed.  And for 40 days after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples, but then He was taken up into Heaven.  The Bible tells us in Acts 1:12-15 that after Jesus ascended into Heaven, the apostles were among a group of about 120 people who waited in Jerusalem, as Jesus had instructed them to do.  Shortly before Jesus’ ascension to Heaven, He had told the disciples that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.”  

The lack of specificity when Jesus said “not many days from now” is fairly typical for something that Jesus would say.  On a number of different occasions, He stressed to His followers the importance of being ready at any time.  That holds true for us today, as we are supposed to be ready for Him to return to this earth at any time.  I don’t know just when that time might be, but I do know that Jesus will return.  

Not knowing the exact time of Jesus’ return is similar to what was happening in Acts 1 after Jesus ascended into Heaven.  I believe that after the group of about 120 believers had seen everything that happened to Jesus, from His death, Resurrection, the different times Jesus appeared to them after His Resurrection, and witnessing His ascension into Heaven, the disciples truly believed Jesus when He said that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit in not many days.  If they hadn’t believed it, then they probably wouldn’t have all been together and waiting as Jesus had told them to do.

But here’s where the humanness starts to set in.  We know from Acts 2:1-4 that the baptism of the Holy Spirit happened on the day of Pentecost.  We know that the Day of Pentecost was 50 days after the Jewish Passover.  We know that Jesus ascended into Heaven 40 days after His Resurrection.  So that means there were about 10 days between Jesus’ ascension and the disciples being baptized by the Holy Spirit.  The Scriptures we read today starting with Acts 1:15 began sometime during that 10-day period of time.

The scene was this.  Jesus had ascended, and wasn’t around to give the disciples direction.  From some of the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry, Peter had emerged as more or less the de facto leader of the Apostles.  And now, here was this group of about 120 people gathered together, just waiting. Maybe it was after a day or two passed when they started to wonder what to do while they were waiting.  They’d had Jesus to guide them before, but now He had left.  And so they waited some more, but nothing was happening.  They probably seemed directionless, and as a matter of course, they probably looked to Peter, because he seemed to be the most logical leader in the absence of Jesus.  And let me tell you that sometimes one of the most frustrating times for a leader is when there’s nothing specific that needs to be done at a certain point in time.  But the people were probably growing restless, and Peter was a man of words and actions.  So in verse 15, we saw that Peter stood up to address the other believers.  The following verses tell about how Peter discussed the fact that Judas was no longer with them, and that they should probably consider what to do about that.

Peter quoted two different verses of Scripture from two different chapters of the book of Psalms.  Peter likely believed that Psalm 69:25 referred to Judas and seemed to indicate that Judas’ home and his property should remain empty.  Peter also believed that Psalm 109:8 referred to Judas, and showed that someone should take over the position of leadership that Judas had once filled.  As recorded in Acts 1:20, the verses said, “Let his dwelling become desolate; let no one live in it;” and, “Let someone else take his position.”  In other words, “People should stay away from Judas’ personal property and not looking to inherit it; don’t bring honor to his memory by trying carry on his legacy.  But the position or office of Apostle in which he served—that position of leadership—should be filled.

So Peter decided that it was time for the group to come up with someone else to be one of the 12 Apostles.  But how should they choose the person?    Well, Peter set down some qualifications, as recorded in verses 21-22:

“Therefore, from among the men who have accompanied us during the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us—beginning from the baptism of John until the day He was taken up from us—from among these it is necessary that one become a witness with us of His resurrection.”  

Let’s look at those qualifications for a moment.  From the point of view of someone in Peter’s position and circumstances, the qualifications seemed to make sense.  He said that the Apostle should be a man—not a woman—since in that culture and at that time in history, the testimony of a woman wasn’t even accepted in a trial.  This would have been an important qualification in Peter’s mind since one of the primary purposes of being an Apostle was to bear witness to other people about Jesus and His Resurrection—something that Peter mentioned after he’d given the list of qualifications.  Peter felt that it would also be important for the Apostle to have been a follower of Jesus since the days John had been baptizing.  That would basically cover the entire spectrum of the public ministry of Jesus.  From Peter’s perspective, this all made sense.  And honestly, if we look at it strictly through the human logic available to Peter at that time and in those circumstances, those qualifications do make sense.  Then verses 23-26 say this:

So they proposed two: Joseph…and Matthias.  Then they prayed, “You, Lord, know the hearts of all; show which of these two You have chosen to take the place in this apostolic service that Judas left to go to his own place.”  Then they cast lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias.  So he was numbered with the 11 apostles. 

This tells us how Matthias was chosen as the person to take the place of Judas as an Apostle.  That sounds pretty logical, doesn’t it?  But let me bring this back to the humanness of it all.  You see, a lot of that makes sense from a human perspective. But where did that leave God in all of this?  I find it quite interesting to look at the order of how they did things.  First, Peter looked at the situation and decided that someone should be chosen to become the 12th Apostle.  Then, he outlined the qualifications a person must have in order to hold that office.  Third, he opened up the matter for discussion amongst the other believers, and they chose two potential candidates.  Finally, they asked God to show them which one of the two men God had chosen, and used a method that had traditionally been used in that culture for making choices, believing that God would cause the outcome to turn out the way He wanted it to be.

Did anyone catch the problem with all of that?  It looks to me that by the time they prayed about the situation, they had already used human logic and reasoning to narrow down the field to two candidates.  I submit that it was likely not God’s will that Matthias take the place of Judas.  Actually, I see a lot of evidence in the Bible that the person God chose to fill that role didn’t meet the qualifications that had been set down by Peter.  That’s because the person whom God likely chose to fill that vacancy wasn’t even a believer yet at this time.  In fact, God’s likely choice was someone who was still to become an enemy of Christ and His followers, before suddenly having a miraculous encounter with Jesus several years later and becoming a believer.  I believe that the Apostle whom God designated to take the place of Judas was a man named Saul, who later became known as Paul.

So, why did the apostles get it wrong?  Were they trying to go against God?  I believe just the opposite—they were trying to do what they believed God wanted them to do.  The problem was that they didn’t know what God wanted them to do, and they instead relied on their own human logic and understanding because Jesus wasn’t there to tell them what God wanted.  With Jesus no longer walking and talking to them, how would they know God’s will?

The answer is that they needed the Holy Spirit to live within them, and that’s what happened on the Day of Pentecost.  Jesus had told the disciples shortly before he was arrested and killed that He was going away, but that it was better for them if He would go away so that the Holy Spirit would come to them.  In John 16, the following words of Jesus are recorded:

It is for your benefit that I go away, because if I don’t go away the Counselor will not come to you.  If I go, I will send Him to you. When He comes, He will convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment:  About sin, because they do not believe in Me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see Me; and about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears. (John 16:7b-13a)

The difference was made when the Holy Spirit came to dwell within the believers at Pentecost.  Suddenly, the Holy Spirit was leading the believers as to what to say.  When Peter stood up to address the crowd on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave Peter just the right words.  Before Pentecost, Peter and the other disciples made a seemingly logical decision that gave the appearance of showing leadership but that in reality merely maintained a group of about 120 people in a large room in a building in Jerusalem.  But when the believers were filled with the Holy Spirit, the message about Jesus began to spread quickly. Acts 2:37 tells us that when the people in the crowd heard Peter’s words, the people came under deep conviction.  This is what we just read about in John 16—that the Holy Spirit would convict people of sin because they did not believe in Jesus.  Peter replied to their question of, “What should we do?” with the words recorded in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized, each of you in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

And we are told in Acts 2:41 that by the end of that day, instead of the believers being a group of about 120, the number of believers had become about 3000.  The Holy Spirit made the difference.

That’s what Pentecost is about.  That’s why the Holy Spirit is important in our lives today.  We can make decisions that we think are good and logical, and humanly speaking, they may very well be.  But whatever we do apart from the guidance of the Holy Spirit won’t amount to much in the end.  As Christians, we should strive to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in all we do.  If we do that, we can be used of God in mighty ways.

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