Harold grew up in the Episcopal Church. He even served as an acolyte, but never paid much attention. It has been years since he attended a service. Harold is not a bad person, but church is not for him. He has one passion – the ponies. One day at the track Harold is surprised to see the local Episcopal priest, outfitted in full liturgical garb. Before the first race, the priest approaches one of the horses – a real nag and a long-shot – and gives it a blessing by tracing the sign of the cross on its forehead. Playing a hunch, Harold places a small wager on the horse and sure enough... it wins the race and pays off handsomely. The priest blesses an entrant in the second race, Harold bets on it, and once again wins. Well, this pattern repeats itself through the first eight races.
Harold watches intently as the priest approaches a horse before the ninth and final race and proceeds to pray over it with an elaborate series and gestures and motions. This pony is the longest shot of the day and Harold decides to bet all his winnings on it. If it pays off, he’ll nab more money in one day than most people do in a year. Well, sad to say, Harold’s horse comes in dead last and all his winnings are lost. He is mystified and little more than angry at the priest. Harold tracts down the reverend and lets him have it. “How could you bless eight winners and then have the last one do so poorly?” The priest puts a hand on Harold’s shoulder and says, “My son, you need to come to church more often.” “Why,” says Harold, “so God won’t play such cruel tricks on me?” “No,” the priest replies, “so you can learn the difference between a blessing and the last rites.”
During the Easter season the Lectionary replaces readings from the Old Testament with passages from the Book of Acts. This affords us the opportunity to hear the earliest sermons and missionary activities of Jesus’ first followers. With everything else going on at this time of year, it is easy for these readings to fall through the cracks so allow me to provide a brief recap of what we have heard over the last seven weeks.
On Easter Sunday we hear a portion of one of Peter’s sermons. In it, he puts forth a succinct summery of Jesus’ story; touching on his baptism, message of peace, healing ministry, death, resurrection, and appearances to his followers. Peter concludes by remembering how Jesus commissioned his followers to testify he was ordained by God.
On the Second Sunday of Easter we read about Peter and John being brought in for questioning by the same council that condemned Jesus to death. Even though they have been told not to speak of Jesus they continue to preach, “filling Jerusalem with his teaching” according to council.
By the third Sunday harassment has given way to all out persecution. Its most rabid proponent in a Pharisee by the name of Saul. Travelling to Damascus, which lies just north of present day Israel, he is confronted by the Risen Christ and blinded by the encounter. Three days later, a church leader named Ananias prays with him, leading to the restoration of his sight. Saul becomes Paul, an effective missionary of the early church.
On the next Sunday we find Peter being called to meet with disciples in Joppa, a port city on the Mediterranean coast west of Jerusalem. A woman in the town is very sick and the disciples there ask Peter to pray for her. The text tells us her name is Tabitha and adds “which in Greek is Dorcas.” It is a tidbit hinting these early believers are culturally diverse with associations cutting across ethnic divides. Peter prays over Tabitha and she recovers.
By the Fifth Sunday of Easter Peter has returned to Jerusalem to report to fellow disciples what happened to him in Caesarea, a city some twenty miles to the north of Joppa. He was called there to visit a Gentile family. While with them, the Holy Spirit fell upon the members of the household and they began to speak in tongues, just as the disciples did on the Day of Pentecost. Peter, sensing God’s movement, baptizes everyone present and they become the first Gentile converts to the Christian faith.
The Sixth Sunday finds Paul in Asia Minor. He has a vision of a person in Macedonia (a region in northern Greece) calling out to him. Paul travels there and settles in the city of Philippi. He meets a woman named Lydia, who is a merchant and a follower of God. Paul tells her the story of Jesus and she decides to be baptized, becoming the first convert on the European continent.
Today, on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, we learn of the impact of Paul’s preaching and ministry. An enslaved girl is freed of a tormenting spirit and a man who profits by her is enraged. Paul and Silas are imprisoned, survive an earthquake, and convert their jailor and his family.
This unfolding drama hints at the growth of Christianity; how it begins in Jerusalem as a sect of the Jewish faith and expands across a geographical region and ethnic divides. The Book of Acts focuses primarily on the growth of the faith in the northwest Mediterranean, an area spanning Jerusalem to Rome. At the same time, other faithful followers are taking the message of Jesus to Egypt, the Southern Mediterranean, and parts of Africa including Ethiopia. Still others travel the Silk Road and proclaim the faith in Persia all the way to India.
One thing is clear. These early followers do not experience the faith as a private enterprise. It is Good News to be lived and told. They can do nothing but share the love and joy made known to them in Jesus Christ. No court order, no cultural divide, and no geographic barrier stand in their way.
Last Sunday I worshipped at an Episcopal church in an area known as the West Hill in Akron. While parts of the neighborhood are being resettled by urban pioneers, much of what surrounds the parish still maintains its rough edges. People with resources live side-by-side with people in need. The Sunday congregation reflected this. It was a diverse lot who shared a common love for Jesus and one another.
In the pew in front of me sat a young family with two small, reasonably busy children. An elderly man in a wheelchair occupied a space across the aisle from me. Several times during the service one of the parents rose to take the smallest child to the back of the Nave and more than once a person was called to tend to the elderly man. No one seemed to mind any of this and none of it eclipsed my ability to pay attention.
At the announcements several people spoke of community events in which they were involved and encouraged others to join them. The Junior Warden thanked folks who participated in a work day and the building – 123 years old – was well maintained. They welcomed me with great warmth and invited me to their Pizza Lunch in the Parish Hall after the service. They have a food pantry and Panera Bread delivers leftovers to them for distribution. Several people encouraged me to take a loaf, but I declined. I met a boy from the neighborhood who started coming to the church a few weeks ago when he learned about the bread. Everyone seemed glad he was there.
Two things struck me about the parish. First, in their own way, the people reminded me of the early Christians in the Book of Acts. There is no containing their love and joy in the Lord and they are open to extending it to their neighborhood in a great many of ways.
And second, the people there reminded me a lot of the people here. Here at St. Paul’s we take our faith into the world and welcome the world into our church. I felt the same warmth there I feel here, and that does not always happen when I visit other churches.
It is tempting to listen to the stories from the Book of Acts and sense a disconnect between their faithfulness and ours. The main figures of the early church gave much, travelled far, and risked all to share their faith. Compared to them, it feels like we here do so little. And yet we share something crucial in common with them. Like them, our belief in Christ overflows with love and joy. We cannot help but express it as we worship God, as we greet one another, and as we move throughout our community.
Our hearts, like those of the people I worshipped with last Sunday, are made alive by the presence of God’s Spirit in all we say and do. You can feel it. You can hear it. You can see it. Those who know us know it. No matter who they are, they know God loves them because we love them with the love of Christ. God’s Spirit – so active and vital in the Book of Acts – is active in and through us here at St. Paul’s.
This is what I thought about and felt last Sunday as I worshipped with the good people of the Church of our Savior in the West Hill neighborhood of Akron.