While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the Word believed, and they numbered about 5,000. The next day, their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders. It has become the cornerstone. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another.
They said, ‘What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them, we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.’ So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge. For we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than 40 years old.
– Acts 4:1-22
Good morning, welcome to worship this morning. What a week it has been! No matter who you are, whatever your political persuasions, I know that this week has been emotional and fraught for all of us. This morning we come to church for the reasons that people throughout history have gathered: to be encouraged, to be reminded, to be encountered, to be challenged and to be re-grounded in the faith that sustains us.
So today as we continue our series on what it means for us to “Be the Church,” let us take a breath and welcome the Spirit who is with us even this morn. Will you pray with me?
God of all life, on this morn, as this gathered people, might we indeed hear the echoes and reverberations of your good news, of your prophetic calling, and of your life-transforming work…that changes not only us, but it changes our community, it changes our nations, and it changes our world. Spirit, might you breathe.
Meet us this morning in the language with which we need to hear You.
For it’s in the name of Christ that we gather.
Many of you know that music is an important part of my life. I was reflecting recently on why this is. I thought back to summers that I spent at my dad’s house while I was growing up (my parents separated right before I turned four). Up until I was in high school, I would spend about a month with my dad each summer. And between voracious reading of books, I would sit next to the stereo and listen to music, CD after CD because my dad has always been one of those early adapters of technology, memorizing lyrics, wondering about different worlds that were possible. I suppose in a way, this nostalgia and the wonder of music I learned from those early days continues with me until today.
So when I come to this text in the book of Acts, chapter 4 … and the sermon title that I chose for today is “Can I Get a Witness?”, given my locatedness and my own history, I was brought back to an experience of being in probably about fourth grade at my dad’s house, listening to a new album from an artist named Enya. The song was entitled “How Can I Keep From Singing?”
Some of you know or can call to mind that song. Others of you are thinking, “That’s the song you went to? You didn’t go to Marvin Gaye’s ‘Can I Get a Witness?’”
Well, as I told you, I was born in the ’80s and I’m a white woman, so—as it turns out—I didn’t have Marvin Gaye on my CD rotation in the ’90s. The lyrics of the song that did first come to my mind though, they speak about the cry of a heart. “How can I keep from singing?” And that refrain is echoed throughout the history of the Black Church in the United States as well in this call, “Can I get a witness?” It’s that call, that sense of after the preacher preaches, and ask, “Can I get a witness?” It’s a call for a testimony, a story about the ways indeed that the gospel has changed real people. And this text in the book of Acts that we just read is no less about the bearing witness of a group of people who were encountered by the Spirit and were transformed…and couldn’t keep from singing. Let’s revisit the text a little bit together.
As we’ve been going through the books of the Bible, seeking to understand what it means for us to be the Church, we thought it was important for us to pause here in Acts. Now, some of you know this book and some of you don’t. Acts follows after the four gospels. So the gospels are accounting the good news of Jesus from different perspectives. Acts then is the moment after Jesus has left, when the people are given the Spirit and a new thing is born in their midst as this community is changed and transformed by the work that Jesus had done. And it was a revolution.
Beginning in Acts chapter 2, we read that the people have gathered and it was folks from all over the world at that time. The Spirit comes and they begin to speak in their languages, filled with the Spirit so that everyone understood. This is the grounding and the beginning of the story of the Church! It’s a story where every single person from every tribe and people, which we might today from every race and every nation and every ethnicity and every gender, they heard the good news and they proclaimed it in their own language!
I want to start here because I think that sometimes when we think about the gospel, we know the language and the ways in which we have heard it ourselves. We proclaim it then in that same language. But the thing is: all of us don’t speak the same language. I mean, let’s break it down. How many of you are in relationships with people who are 1,000% just like you? I mean, I’m not. Sometimes I speak in languages that are my languages. Andy, my lovely spouse, values languages like being on time … (Sorry, babe!) I, however, value languages like being really present, and so I’m left frequently looking at my phone ad exclaiming, “Oops, shoot, I’m late!”
I speak in a different language than you perhaps, but this doesn’t need to be a bad thing.
We live in a world right now, and as we’ve been experiencing in our own political climate, where at times we think that the fact that we have learned different languages means that other languages are completely invalid, but this doesn’t need to be the case.
Because what happens here in the book of Acts is that suddenly the doors get blown open and everyone gets to hear the language that is their tongue they were birthed into. You know what that feels like when God has met you in the language that you speak, in the language that you live in, right?
But just because that is the language that you have saturated yourself in, it doesn’t mean that their languages aren’t true. One of the things I’ve always loved about Jeff is he’s always been generous to me here. I am this punk, 30-something who becomes a part of this wonderful community just about almost three years ago in January. He and I are super different and sometimes he’s like, “Really? What? What are you even talking about?” But he gets curious, and he asks me questions. I remember early in my time being in the community, he said to me, “Hey Sara, I noticed you always call Andy your spouse. Why is that?” And I had the opportunity to share with him what it means for me to use the language of spouse.
To name my relationship with Andy as that of “my spouse,” is to counter the legacy and norms of the kind of relationships that I grew up bearing witness to where being a wife in my community meant you didn’t matter as much. Our relationship is based on equality, and the word “spouse” better captures that we don’t live by traditional gender roles. By naming Andy my “spouse” it also allows a more expansive place for all people to have themselves and their relationships, their love, recognized. After I explained all of this to him, Jeff thought about it for a second and was like, “Hmm, that’s interesting.”
Or another example from early in the life of my being here in the community, one of ya’all … I don’t know who it is because Jeff’s good like that, said, “I like that new minister, but could she just get that thing out of her nose.” And Jeff replied, “Sometimes you got to let the young people do what they’re going to do.” Because even though sometimes, because of our generational differences, because of our backgrounds, because of our stories, we speak and we hear different languages, it’s still good news.
It seems to me that as we think about Being the Church and part of the beauty and the power of what happened here in Acts that continues to happen up to this day, is that God speaks in languages that all of us can hear. We don’t have to always understand each other’s languages, but can we hold space for the languages that each other are speaking? We do this while also challenging and wrestling with each other because it no matter what language it should always be good news, for the gospel should always be good news no matter what language. It isn’t good news if someone else’s language just gets excised. This good news needs to be good news for everybody, for every person, for every language, for every tongue. And sometimes at first it doesn’t feel like good news, especially if you’ve been used to thinking that your language is the only one that really counts. I mean, think about all the people who went to Jerusalem from around the Roman Empire…they had to either have translators or figure out how to understand the language of Aramaic that was being spoken in Jerusalem.
And perhaps, maybe for some of the folks who had spoken Aramaic their whole lives to suddenly hear these languages from the far outer reaches of the Roman Empire, they thought, “What? Are you kidding me? Those people must be drunk.” I’m referencing Acts chapter 2, in case you’ve forgotten. That was a charge levied against them, that they maybe were drunk to which Peter replies, “Come on, it’s only 9:00 in the morning.” That’s one of the first things we learned about Acts, is that when the Spirit comes, the Spirit speaks in languages so that all of us can understand. This good news then is good news for all of us! So part of our invitation then is to sit in that space where we might not always understand the language, but we honor the reality that the good news has indeed been spoken through our siblings who are new in this faith. We are all part of one body and one movement of the God of all love.
I know that’s hard in our times, but if we could just take a breath … which is another word for spirit, ruach, I think we get to tap into that invitation and that space for us to Be the Church to honor others even as they speak languages we don’t understand, and to seek to listen for how the Spirit might be bringing good news, even if it looks different than we thought.
As we continue forward then through chapter two into chapter three, God continues to add to their number. The community is growing, they’re sharing with one another. But here’s the thing: the Roman Empire isn’t super into it. These new Christians are a threat both to the established religion of their time, but they’re also a threat to the Roman Empire…at least that’s what the empire thinks. Because here they are telling about this King who is not Caesar, but this King is Jesus. A king who came riding on a donkey, proclaiming good news and a Kingdom that didn’t look familiar.
Some of you will remember, from this Spring when I talked about Zacchaeus being called down from the tree. And you know that there were people who were like, “What? He’s not supposed to be included in the good news here.” But the way that Jesus brings about revolution is that he speaks the good news through every language for each of us to understand. And then it’s a language which includes the cacophony of wonder that is each of us, that each part and each voice might be equally honored. This, in its way, is actually incredibly dangerous to the Empire because it breaks apart the divisions in their world and in ours. It opens up the possibility that the things we think are Republican or Democrat, that those are important things for us wrestle with yes, BUT we wrestle with that as a people who remember that we aren’t the enemy. No. We are a people who, whatever we think, whatever languages we speak, we are called to cultivate space for every tribe and tongue, for every race and person…in their own body to be able to both hear and proclaim and live the good news that is spoken in their language.
And so, we come to chapter four. What happens is some folks don’t like what’s going on very much and they get angry. So, the temple guard and the Sadducees, they come up to the apostles who are addressing the crowd and who are talking about the resurrection from the dead and Jesus, which again, wasn’t totally cool with him either. And then what happens is the leaders are trying to get them basically to be quiet. They’re like, “What are we going to do with these folks? Here they are, they’re talking about this Jesus and they’re proclaiming that He is Lord, there’s no salvation except for under Him. What are they even talking about?” And they were so self-assured, it tells us in verse 13, because even they were uneducated and of no social standing, they were people who had been with Jesus. I love that! They were self-assured because they had been with Jesus. What does it mean for us to also be a people who are rooted in, because we ourselves have walked and journeyed with Jesus?
As the passage continues, folks keep trying to get them to be quiet and they’re threatening to throw them into jail. And Peter and John, they answer in verse 19, “Judge for yourselves whether it’s right in God’s sight for us to obey you rather than God.” And then verse 20 is what I based this sermon title off of, “Surely, we cannot help speaking of what we have heard and seen.”
Can I get a witness?
This is the call and the invitation to bear witness, to tell one another in our own language about the ways in which God has shown up and changed and transformed us. This is where the earliest Church starts and begins: when the Spirit comes, the breath comes and changes and transforms them so that they hear the good news in their own language and then they honor that each of them are speaking different languages and different tongues, and they create space within their community for each of them so that they gather together, and they share everything that they have, and they make sure that everyone is cared for.
They live in a way that truly does turn the world upside down. And every time this earliest Church thinks that the grace of God in Christ doesn’t quite go that far, the Spirit shows up again and invites and challenges them to live this good news in a way that bears witness.
This is one of the elements that I love in thinking about the Spirit’s showing up in their community and the call that we have as a people to be born again. This is not something that just happens one time, “I was born again and that’s it.” Because there’s no more story then! No, the call to be born again is to be born again, and again, and again, and again. To be born anew so that we live as a people, not of flesh or of ego, but as a people of Spirit.
A people who hear God’s speaking in languages we don’t understand and we know it’s still good news. And we create space for one another, just as we ourselves have space that has been extended to us to join the table and find ourselves as the beloved ones of God.
This is part of what I love about our core value of Welcome Beloved. It’s a sense not just that, “Yeah, you can hang out here.” No, it’s supposed to be a call for us to love, that each of us are seeing, that each of us are heard. And that we hold that space and recognize that even though sometimes it’s hard and it’s challenging, the grace and the love of the Spirit continues to expand the invitation. This call to bear witness, “Can I get a witness?” is the invitation to each of us to actually name the good news that we ourselves have lived and have experienced. Indeed, how can we keep from singing?
For me, this encounter and this good news began when I first heard that God was love. This love of God in Christ, it saved my life in so many ways. It kept me grounded, and no matter what happened throughout my childhood. And this has continued to be the call and the invitation of my life. And yes, it’s been upended and looks different than it did when I was a kid. Yes, I wrestle with, and sometimes I don’t want to be a part of it…yet love remains and it continues to call me even this day to be born anew and to continue to discover that the work of the Spirit and the bearing of witness is a lifelong journey and a lifelong testimony for each of us. The call for us to be the Church then, is a call for us to be a people who move in rhythm with this God who speaks in the language of each of us. It is a call to create space…even when we don’t necessarily understand each other’s languages. It invites and challenges us to be sure that what we’re living and preaching and holding to is truly good news for everyone. To Be the Church is to be a people who are continually encountered on the roads of our lives by Jesus that we might see even more fully and clearly than we did yesterday.
To Be the Church is to be a people who, in the midst of whatever empire, whatever is going on, we are a people who live stories of goodness and grace…that is for all of us. The church in Acts functions inside of the world and its time just like we do. And might we be a people who similarly are so sure about the call and the invitation for us to follow Christ, that it becomes a space of transformation for us as we live in the world. So, in the midst of this election season, in the midst of our time and our political climate, might we remember that the call to Be the Church is one that calls us, as we learn from Acts, to be a people who move in concert with God’s Spirit, listening the beauty of this cacophony and chorus, as we each speak and bear witness to the good news that we each know in our own skins. And might we then be a people who from this place where we cannot but help to bear witness, also actually bear witness to one another’s stories that we might honor them.
And just like this early church in Acts, Being the Church might mean that some of the ways we show up are counter to the norms and the assumptions of our culture and our political time. For indeed throughout this book, if you read it, they get thrown into jail and all sorts of stuff happens, but God keeps showing up and the gospel of grace keeps being heard in more and more languages…and it’s a gospel of life. This has been present throughout history going back to Acts up until this time, people have written notes, and told the stories, and born witness just like Martin Luther King did from the Birmingham jail, just like Peter and Paul do in acts, just like we ourselves are called to do.
Might we give witness.
Can I get a witness?
Might we bear witness.
And might the Spirit blow and speak in all of the languages, through all of our stories. And might all of our encounters with this God of love truly change us that we might then Be the Church and be a people who love God with all that we are, and then truly love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Might we be a people who bring about this Kingdom, where there is room at the table for everyone.
Speak the languages we need to hear.
And then, my friends, let’s bear witness. For how then can we keep but from singing?