The witness of the Book of Acts describes the real life effects of the great explosion of joy created by the resurrection of crucified Jesus. At the end of the first recorded Christian sermon, Peter announces, “There is no doubt now, this Jesus whom you have killed on a cross, God has made him Lord and Christ." So stunned by this news, the response of the crowed was to cry out, “If this is true, then, what should we do?”
Being the good preacher that he was, Peter had an answer, “Turn to God and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and your sins will be forgiven. Receive the gift of God’s Spirit which is promised to you, and to your children, and many others who are far away.” In other words, this is good news for you but not only for you, the people of Israel; this news is for all the nations of the world. Luke tells us that 3,000 people were added on that day, and that the presence and power of the risen Jesus was so real, so palpable among them, that it caught the eye of friends and neighbors who liked what they saw and heard. He describes this with one of the loveliest phrases found in Scripture—praising God with glad and generous hearts—so much, in fact, that God’s goodness spilled over and out into the world. As a result, writes Luke, everyday more were being added to their number.
When I hear folks, especially fellow preachers, talk about this picture of the first Christians and the effects of the first Easter, they almost inevitably make a beeline to the numbers. “3000 were added on that day, and more were continually added to their number daily.” From the get-go, from its very beginnings, church is primarily a numbers game; it's about who has and who can get the most, just like every other aspect of American culture. Reality is what can be counted and quantified. But that’s not enough; it must also be commodified and marketed, so that it's results can be measured according to the terms set by consumer driven religion. After all, the customer always knows best.
During twenty years of pastoral ministry, the questions I was most often asked were, “How large is your church”? or “How big is your budget?” or “How many did you have on Sunday?” or “What was your net gain last year?” In other words, “What’s your bottom line?” And I don’t need to tell you that there are huge religious operations springing up all over America that have staked their whole reason for being on being able to compete for and win their share of the religious market.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life just released a major study indicating that only 47% of adults in America claim to have an intentional religious affiliation. This means there is a very large number of former and ex-Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, Catholic, Pentecostal, and non-denominational Christians in this country. At the same time, what we are seeing in America today is an enormous leap in privately constructed expressions of faith, spirituality and religious experience. If you don’t like what the Bible says, ignore it or tear it out: if you don’t want to say the Creed, say it’s a dry, irrelevant ritual; if you don’t like the liturgy, label it boring; if you don’t want to listen to a pastor or priest, find a way to have her or him removed, or find one you who will make you happy, since all these things represent a kind of wisdom, tradition, understanding, and most of all, authority, we can do without.
What a different vision than the one given in the Book of Acts, where the risen Jesus and the church, his disciples, are publically reconciled and inseparable. It is not that Jesus and the church are identical; they are not. He is the Lord; we are his Body. But the risen Lord and the people he raises up cannot be separated, so that whatever you think Jesus may be good for cannot be detached from what many may see as the “good for nothing” church which belongs to him.
In the Book of Acts and in our time as well, the risen Jesus continues to call and create a community of believers who, in life and death, are gladly willing to join together in staking everything on Him as the One whom God has raised up and made Lord and Christ of all things. And what Acts seems to show is that such a commitment is not simply a matter of personal choice, like choosing a pair of running shoes, or a new type of computer, or changing to a different brand of coffee, or shopping for a particular kind of car. It’s much more a matter of being chosen, called, and claimed by God through the person and work of Jesus who, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, continues to do what he did according to the witness of the Gospels.
And this is why, in the Book of Acts, the followers of Jesus, upon hearing God had raised him from the dead, immediately began to order their life publically in a whole new way—a way that would soon be called the Way, a way that shares in and shows forth the love, joy, peace, and goodness of Jesus through the life of the Spirit, the very life of God taking form in the world through the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.
What they did, and what we still do by following the teaching and example of the apostolic wisdom and authority they have been given by Jesus, cannot be determined by personal preference, the market place, opinion polls, or committee vote. The pattern of our life as church is the pattern of Jesus and his whole ministry, which is God’s presence in the world, the Body of Christ. In fact, the things we do together—listening to Scripture in order to hear his voice, sharing a meal together with him as a sign of God’s kingdom arriving, ministering to each other in his name, praying to and praising God because of him—are what characterized the whole life and ministry of Jesus in the story of the Gospel. This is what the Spirit, the Spirit freely and generously given to us by the risen Jesus, the Holy Spirit of God causes to happen through our glad and willing participation in being the church together which is the most important thing we can be and do for the sake of the world God loved so much that “he did not spare his Son but freely gave him up for us all.” Thanks, be to God. Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed!
Dr. Michael Pasquarello III is Methodist Chair of Divinity and director of the Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute at Beeson Divinity School.