Monday, January 05, 2004

Faith on Fire, The Friendship Vision:
A Witness of Infectious Joy
Acts 2:1-21, 37-42

(shared with the people of Friendship Church, January 4, 2004)

A story that may or may not be true. At a church building one day, a fire broke out. The volunteer fire department was called. Sirens blaring, they arrived to put out the flames. The pastor, standing by, concerned, recognized one of the volunteers. “Jim,” he said, “I haven’t seen you in worship in a long time.” “Well,” Jim answered, “there hasn’t been a fire in the church for a long time.

Today, we begin a series of messages on the vision of Friendship Church. Above all, the vision for this congregation from the very beginning has been and remains that it would be a group of people who are on fire for Jesus Christ. This morning, I want to talk about the first aspect of being a church on fire for Christ.

Our Bible lesson is well-known to most everybody here, I imagine. It’s a passage I’ve talked about many times in the past and as long as God keeps me on this planet, will do so many times in the future. We usually read it on Pentecost, but along with a number of other Lutheran congregations across America today, I've decided to focus on this passage. It recounts the events that happened ten days after the risen Jesus ascended into heaven, fifty days after He rose from the dead. A portion of the early church, about 120 believers in Jesus, huddled together in a locked room, terrified that the people around them who had murdered Jesus fifty-three days before might come after them as well. There also existed in them a small ember of expectant, hopeful faith.

And so, in their time of big fears and little faith, they gathered together and they called out to God. After that, the Holy Spirit came to this pathetic pack of praying people like tongues of fire resting on each believer and then sent them out into the Jerusalem streets. In the city at that time, there were Jewish believers from throughout the world. But the Spirit made it possible for Jesus’ mostly uneducated people to speak in the languages of all these foreigners so that all the foreign visitors could understand the Good News that God wants all people to live with Him forever by turning from their sin and receiving Jesus Christ as their Lord, Savior, and God. God set a once-afraid band of Jesus-followers on fire and by their contagious faith, they brought 3000 other people to faith in Jesus that day.

At Friendship Church, we believe that God’s Holy Spirit is still alive and still working in the lives of those who in desperation and faith, ask for God to work in their lives, who are willing to let God use them pass the Good News of Jesus onto the world. Our Bible lesson gives us the blueprint for how our congregation and each one of us can be used by the Holy Spirit to change the world and ourselves the way the church was used by the Spirit on the first Pentecost Day two-thousand years ago. It boils down to three key words which I want to ask you to jot down somewhere this morning.

The first word is desperation. People who want to be of any use to God, the world, or themselves must be desperate. They have to realize that, as Jesus said, without Him we really can’t accomplish anything that matters, certainly nothing that can last for eternity. We need God.

Richard Whetstone’s church had a weekly prayer time. People arrived on Tuesday evenings, the pastor gave everybody lists of prayer requests, folks found a quiet place by themselves to pray, and then, each participant went through the lists, asking for God’s help.

One night, the prayer list was rather sparse and Richard had prayed for everyone and everything on the list...twice. There were still fifteen minutes left in the sixty allotted for the prayer time. Richard thought, “There has to be something more I can pray about.” Then, his son Teddy came to mind. It had been twenty-seven years since Richard had seen him. There had been a divorce and Teddy had been taken by his mother to another state. Several years later, Richard’s ex-wife remarried and her husband wanted to adopt Teddy. “I agonized over the decision,” Richard says. But fearful that a custody battle would destroy any chance his son might have for a stable life, he waived his rights. Some time later, Teddy’s mother effectively disappeared, leaving Richard without a forwarding address. During the minutes left in his prayer time, Richard remembered his son and the ache that had existed in his soul all those years. He prayed simply:

“Lord, my son is a grown man now. I love him and I miss him. Please just let me know what kind of man Teddy has turned out to be. Anything more than that I leave in your hands. In fact, Lord, I don’t even know where to start looking for him, so I am truly leaving it all up to you. Please, let me know my son. Amen.”

Richard says that he went on with his week, almost forgetting his prayer. On Saturday, he ran into his pastor at the post office where he was picking up his mail. As he and the pastor spoke, Richard scanned his mail and found an envelope from an unknown address. Curious, he absently opened it as he and the pastor chatted. As he read the letter inside with rising interest, tears rolled down his face and he found himself incapable of speaking. “Are you okay?” his pastor asked. Richard was okay because the writer of the letter was Teddy. The son had been writing Richard Whetstones from all over the country. “Are you my father?” Teddy wondered. “Then,” Richard says:

"...I noticed the postmark: It was dated Wednesday, the day after my Tuesday night prayer. This wasn’t a coincidence. This was a direct answer to my prayer."

If you and I are to be a church of contagious witness for Jesus Christ, we begin, like the church on the first Pentecost, with desperation. We must desperately seek God in prayer. When we do, we must prepare ourselves for God to do what we can't do by ourselves!

In response to our desperation, God will next give us inspiration, our second key word. On Pentecost, the first Jesus-believers who, a few moments before had been afraid of their own shadows, left the room in which they were gathered, inspired to be bold witnesses for Christ.

In his book, Conspiracy of Kindness, Pastor Steve Sjogren, the inventor of modern kindness outreaches, talks about being with a friend on a neighborhood outreach one day, giving gifts as a sign of God's gift of love and forgiveness from Jesus. They happened to meet a woman just as she was arriving at her house. Steve and his friend gave the woman whatever gift they were using for the outreach and they all began to chat. As they did, Steve noticed a car seat in the back of her vehicle. Steve is a very practical fellow, not one to usually have what might be called mystical experiences. But he had a feeling. Silently, he asked God if he should proceed on his hunch and felt compelled to do so. “Did a child recently die in this household?” he asked the woman. She was stunned and then began to cry, explaining that her baby had just passed away. Steve and his friend were able to share the comfort and the hope that we have through Christ with this woman and subsequently, she became part of his congregation.

When the desperate early church prayed, God inspired them with His Holy Spirit, making it possible for them to speak the languages of people who needed the hope that only Jesus gives. At Friendship, we try to speak the languages of people of today, sharing the story of Jesus through the stories we tell in worship, the songs we sing, the service we render, the prayers we offer. To be witnesses who attract others to Christ, we need God’s inspiration. We need to let God inspire us to be free from the selfishness and laziness that often causes churches to do things for their own comfort, rather than the comfort of our neighbors!

God's inspiration can lead then to our third key word: proclamation. When our son Philip, now twenty-two, was in the first grade, a little boy in his class had no connection to Christ or the Church. During recess sometimes, Phil would tell the boy about Jesus. There on the playground and at other times during the school day, Philip, inspired by the Holy Spirit, told his classmate about Jesus and the church, the fellowship where God fills people up with hope. When Friend Day came along in October of that year, Philip invited the boy to worship with us. The interest this little boy showed in Christ and the Church caused his parents to start attending a church closer to their house. After we moved to Cincinnati, we learned that the boy, his sister, and his mother all were baptized. Our Bible lesson for today makes clear that God wants all people to follow Jesus and so have everlasting life. And God wants to use us to proclaim the Good News of Jesus to the world around us.

God wants Friendship Church to be, as we say in our mission statement, “a welcoming and caring people who seek to share the kindness of God so that all metropolitan Cincinnati may grow in the faith, hope, and love of the living Christ.” Into our very human hands, God has entrusted the awesome responsibility and privilege of sharing Christ so that our lives and the lives of those we touch can be changed forever. But it won’t happen automatically. We need the power for living and loving that only the Holy Spirit can give to Jesus followers.

So, how can we be the exciting, magnetic, contagious church that God wants us to be? How can we be a church on fire with faith? It begins with desperation that leads to inspiration and results in a joyous, attractive proclamation of the Good News of Jesus. May these always be elements of the life of Friendship Church!

[The true story of Richard Whetstone and his son Teddy is told in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living Your Dreams. The true story of Steve Sjogren's kindness outreach is told in his book, Conspiracy of Kindness. The fictional story at the beginning of the message comes from the staff of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota, who have partly inspired the series of messages I'm currently doing.]