When Bodies Become Bridges

Acts 11:19-30

22 people shot and killed in El Paso, Texas. 22 lives cut short by a 21 year-old who had a gun.  

680 people arrested and detained in Jackson, Mississippi. Children made to wonder where their parents are. Asking why mommy and daddy are being treated like criminals.  

In the past week we have witnessed obscene violence targeted against brown skinned bodies. From a distance we have watched trauma endured by people and families who do not possess the right papers.

And here in Chicago, in a city far removed from El Paso and Jackson, I wonder what our proximity is to the violence and the pain experienced there?

I wonder, now that we have heard the news, what should we do?

On Wednesday, Andy DeBoer and I attended a roundtable discussion entitled, “The Immigration Crisis in Central America.” Presenters talked about the violence, the drought, the unemployment, and the fear that pushes El Salvadorians, Hondurans, and Guatemalans out of their home communities and into the dangerous journey to El Norte.

We heard about recent changes to US policy that cut monetary aide to Central America, narrowed the definition of eligible asylum seekers, and further reduced the number of refugees allowed to resettle here.

We heard both heartbreaking and hope inspiring stories about immigrants, activists, and organizations on both sides of the border.

And as I heard the information, as I heard the stories, I wondered what is my proximity to this crisis and to these people? What is my proximity to the PUSH factors experienced in Honduras, to the policy legislated in Washington? To immigrants who have arrived and live in Chicago?   

Our passage today, Acts 9:19-30 explores this concept of proximity. It wrestles with the realities of difference between peoples and distance between communities. It makes us wonder how God will bridge these gaps?

Starting then at verse 19, our Scripture begins with the reminder. A reminder that the people of God were a people targeted and a people persecuted.

While the news reports have died down, Luke, the author of this story, will not let us forget Stephen, the disciple who was killed by self-righteous stone-throwers. Luke will not let us forget the tragedy of mothers and fathers arrested in Jerusalem, families separated, and children made to wonder where their parents were.

Our Scripture starts with the reminder that the community of faith was a community scattered across borders and boundaries. That people have been pushed out of their home communities and have made the journey to el Norte, to the far flung places of Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.

In the next verses, Luke goes on to tell us that as the faith-filled asylum seekers arrive in foreign cities, as they come into proximity with different people, the majority of them stick to themselves. They speak only with other Jews. Forced out of Jerusalem, why should they cross any other social, cultural, or linguistic boundaries?

Now most stick to themselves, but Luke tells us that some of them, some of them step out. Some of them step into the city of Antioch. And some of them speak to the Greeks.

Some of them…only some were willing to step out of the comfortable and step into new relationships. Only some become the bridges by which good news can be carried to new people and new places.[1]

And as they step into the gap, as their bodies become bridges, we are told that the very hand of God was with them. God’s hand is bringing these different people together and God is present in risky, new, uncomfortably close proximity.

We are told that those in Jerusalem heard what God was doing in Antioch. Those at the center of the religious world heard the report that God was now present at the periphery. And you know what, they want to be part of it. They want to be where the hand of God is at work.

So they send Barnabas, a Levite from Cyrpus, to at Antioch. They choose someone of the Diaspora to go out into the Diaspora and see what God is doing there.

Do you catch what is happening here in Jerusalem? Do you see the Holy Spirit movements? There is a hearing, a taking note of what is going on at the margins. And then there is a sending, a sending out of someone who can bridge the distance that separates ‘here’ from ‘there.’

Barnabas, the Diaspora Jew leaves Jerusalem and arrives in Antioch to find Jew sitting with Greek and Greek speaking with Jew. He sees the boundaries between insiders and outsiders blurred and considers it evidence of God’s grace and presence. Barnabas sees this, senses the Holiness of what is happening, and he is glad.[2]

How important is it in these difficult times, in the midst of scattering and sorrow, to be joyful when we glimpse God’s grace and hear good news?

Now, Barnabas is not idle in his joyfulness, but he gets to work in his gladness. He lives up to his name, ‘Son of encouragement.’ He encourages the Greeks of Antioch in their newfound faith and instructs them in a new type of discipleship. Full of the Holy Spirit, Barnabas becomes a cheerleader, community organizer, and teacher. He becomes a bridge between what God had done in Jerusalem and what God is now doing in Antioch.

Antioch was a big city. Like Chicago it was the third largest city in the Empire. Like Chicago, it was a cosmopolitan city and commercial hub[3]. And in this great big city Barnabas cannot do the work on his own. He requests a reinforcement. He needs a co-laborer. And can you guess who Barnabas wants to join his team?

Like the odd pairings of Philip and the Ethiopian or Peter and Cornelius, another strange tag-team is orchestrated in Antioch: Barnabas and Saul.

It is the “Son of Encouragement” and the “Schemer of the Scattering” now working together teaching, preaching, and outreaching. For an entire year they labor together, and slowly but surely a community of disciples takes shape. It is a congregation consisting of Jews and Greeks, women and men, old and young, rich and poor, liberal and conservative…

And do you know what people start calling this queer little church community? “Christians.” 

What does it mean to be a Christian? How will the strange name shape their living and the believing?

These questions are asked as a prophet named Agabus comes up to Antioch with a presentation and predication: famine is coming. Like the famine affecting small farmers in Central America, this famine would devastate poor farmers in Judea. This famine would be the difference between subsistence and starvation, between life and death.

The Christians in Antioch hear this and they act. They collect a special offering. Each person gives as they are able. The wealthy, out of their abundance, give more. Those struggling to pay rent, they offer prayers and letters of encouragement. Each person gives as they are able and the collection is sent to Jerusalem.

Do you catch what is happening here in Antioch? Do you see the Holy Spirit movements? There is a hearing, a taking note of a suffering that is to come. And there is a sending, a sending out of Barnabas and Saul, two bodies that will carry an offering and become bridges between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’

And this is what it means to be a Christian. To hear what is happening in the world. To listen to the cries of the vulnerable. To pay attention to the reports of where God is present.[4] 

But there is more to being a Christian than just hearing. To be a Christian also means to send out and maybe even be sent out. To be a Christian means stepping out of the center, and spending time at the periphery.  

To be a Christian means to be pulled into proximity to the Greek, to the famine, to the places of need. And if you can’t be there with your own body, send resources, send letters, send prayers.

It is not always easy tho, isn’t? Practicing an Antiochene Christianity is difficult because we no longer live in a world where an occasional prophet stumbles into our city every now and then. No, we meet a new Agabus every day. We hear reports of suffering every single day.

How can we possibly speak to each new Greek we encounter, or respond to each new report of famine? How do we respond to the crisis at the Southern border, when there are crises playing out on the borders between Oak Park and Austin, or Hyde Park and Woodlawn?

I don’t think we can resolve these tensions, but I know that we cannot ignore them either. So as we gather as a church community and as misisonal communities, we must continue to listen. And as we hear, we must send as we are able.

As a church community we have sought to be faithful in both our hearing and our sending. As we heard about the refugee crisis, Claire and the Al Sakkas became bridges, bridges that connected a civil war in Syria to a safe home in Chicago.  

As we heard about violence and persecution suffered in Nigeria, we joined a network of churches that have supported and sent out Mike and Victoria Van der Dyke to Jos. Mike and Victoria are bridges that connect the church communities here and church communities there. 

As we heard about the water crisis in University Park, we collected a special offering, we gave what we were able, and we sent $300 dollars to Rev. Dr. Reginald Williams. Rev. Williams became our bridge to that community.

And as people have heard about the bridge building work God is doing here at Loop Church, people want to be a part of it.  As our newsletter went out, checks have come in. Even next week a Church in Hammond, Indiana will be taking a special offering for us.

Jerusalem and Antioch. Chicago and Hammond. It is surprising, but it is happening!  

And so we rejoice in what God is doing. We are joyful because God is faithful, God is present, and God is using people to people bridge the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and to bridge the distance between ‘here’ and ‘there.’

God is using people like Rachel and Joseph; calling them out of Chicago and into Iowa. Such a move is not easy, it comes with a certain amount of loss: the loss of proximity, the loss of Rachel’s piano playing in worship, the loss of Joseph’s fresh baked bread at the communion table. Make no mistake, Rachel and Joseph you will be sorely missed here at Loop Church.

But we rejoice in what God is doing. We are filled with joy because as you go, the very Hand of God will go with you. As you step out of this faith community, you will step into a new faith community. And in the stepping out and the stepping in, you will become bridges. Bridges between Chicago and Des Moines. Bridges between what God is doing there, and what God is doing here. And for that, we can all say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.

Sermon title inspire by Jennings question, “How can bodies become bridges?” asked on page 116 in, Acts: A Theological Commentary.

[1] Willie James Jenings, Acts: A Theological Commentary, 121.

[2] Willie James Jenings, Acts: A Theological Commentary, 123.

[3] Robert E. Goss, Acts, New Interpreters Bible Commentary, 174.

[4] Willie James Jenings, “Acts: A Theological Commentary”, 125.

A sermon preached on Sunday, August 11, 2019 by Derek Elmi-Buursma


A God who Crosses the Line

Acts 11:1-18

Visions and Voices.  Wild Beasts and Reptiles. Circumcised and Uncircumcised. Oh My!

There is a lot going on in this passage, so much in fact, it takes Luke two chapters to get through it all. And by the end of it we are left wondering: What just happened?  & What does this mean? 

And so this morning we will explore these two questions, in two parts, of one Brunch Sunday sermon.

So here we go, part 1. What just happened here?

The four-word answer to this question is: God crossed the line. In this passage of vision and voices, wild beasts and reptiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, God crosses the line and blurs the boundaries that separated Jew from Gentile, clean from unclean, us from them.

And I would wager, that this line crossing, it is the climactic moment in the book of Acts. Everything we have heard so far in this story: the tongues of fire at Pentecost, the church scattered in Samaria, the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch, the calling of a criminal named Saul; all these moments have lead up to and prepared us for this most scandalous moment in which God crosses the line to commune with unholy, uncircumcised, unlawful Gentiles.

God’s sets the stage for this pivotal moment with two characters, two visions, two callings, and one scandalous encounter.

In Acts chapter ten we meet our first character, Cornelius. We are told that Cornelius is a Centurion. He is a military man, a Roman, a foreigner occupying the Holy land.

Willie Jennings describes Cornelius as both an aspiration and an anomaly.[1]  Cornelius is an aspiration for he has attained all the world has to offer. He is a man of power, prestige, and influence.  And he is an anomaly, for despite his power he is also a God-fearer. He is a slave-holder and a generous giver. He is a man of war and a man of prayer.

Cornelius is an anomaly because he prays to the God of Israel, but he is not an Israelite. He is a gentile. He exists outside of the Covenant. His practice of prayer and generosity make him a God-fearer, but without a proper conversion, without circumcision, he could never be called a Jew.

As a Gentile, Cornelius would be allowed in the temple’s outer courtyards, but he would not dare bring his unclean, uncircumcised gentile body inside the Holy place. The punishment for crossing that line was death.  

And so Cornelius does not pray at the temple, but he prays at his home in Caesarea, and while he is praying he receives a vision and he hears a call: “Cornelius!” The God of Israel, the God of the Covenant, calls him by name and says, There is someone I would like you to meet, his name is Simon Peter. Send for him.”

And so this leads us to our second Character, Simon Peter. Simon unlike Cornelius was a Jew, a Galilean, living under the occupation. Simon, like Cornelius was a bit of an anomaly, for he was the disciple whom Jesus gave the powerful name of Peter, meaning Rock. But he was also the disciple who cowered in fear and denied even knowing Jesus when the going got tough…

Yet, for all his flaws, Peter remains part of the chosen people and part of the persecuted minority of Jewish Christ followers. It was because of this persecution that Peter was staying in Joppa. And in Joppa, while saying the noon-day prayers, Peters stomach starts to growl, his head begins to feel faint and in his hunger he receives a vision.

The vision is strange and radical. In the vision, a sheet comes down from heaven to cover the four corners on the earth. The sheet is expansive, it holds animals of all kinds, wild and domesticated, appealing and revolting, desired and despised.[2]

God tells Peter to get up, to go amongst the creatures and to make sacrifice; kill and eat. No need to make a distinction between the animals.

Is this a test? Like Abraham who was told to sacrifice his Son, the command goes against everything Peter knew about God. For his whole life, Peter has observed Kosher dietary laws, it is what made him Jewish, it is what set him a part from the gentiles, it was a reminder that he was a part of God’s chosen people. Why should he cross that line now?

After the Vision, Peter hears a call. It is the voice of the Holy Spirit saying to Peter “There is someone I want you to meet, so I am going to need you to get up, and go and meet this person.” And as the Holy Spirit finishes speaking, Peter hears a knock on the door…

Peter and Cornelius: Two Characters, Two visions, Two callings, and one God who is willing to cross the line. One scandalous God who wants to bring what has been separated, together.

The moment of illicit encounter between our two characters, this divine matchmaking of Jew and Gentile, it will happen in the intimacy of a home and around the warmth of a dinner table.[3]

At the table, Cornelius and Peter will be brought together, clean and unclean brushing shoulders with one another. At the table the Jew will break bread and hand it to the Gentile and the law abiding and the lawless will share one common cup.

And it gets even more scandalous because half-way through this unlawful encounter, God’s Holy Spirit will be poured out on all the unholy people who sit at the table.[4] At the table, we have Pentecost all over again, as God touches Gentile tongues and the message of scandalous love and divine desire is heard in wild symphony of languages.

Part one of this sermon ends here at the table; the table where God has just crossed the line. And it is fitting on this brunch Sunday to end here. To end at a table full of food, and a room full of hungry people.

And this is where God wants us. God wants us Hungry.[5] Because hungry people get invited to the table. Because hungry people are happy to eat, and in the sharing of food and drink, that the lines that separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ can be crossed and God’s Spirit can be poured out.  Amen.

Part 2:

We have arrived at Part two of this sermon. Part two where we ask ourselves what does all of this mean? What is the significance of this scandalous encounter and border-crossing God?

And again, we must look at our two main characters in this story, Cornelius and Peter, because this is a life-changing encounter for both of them.   

First, lets take Peter.

Peter knows that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with a Gentile. Peter knows that if he accepts the invitation to enter Cornelius’ house, if he sits next to him at the table, he will be crossing the line. And so Peter stands at the threshold of Cornelius’s door, and needs to make a decision: Do I step inside?

This is what Willie Jennings calls a moment of risky faith.[6] It is a risky because Peter is about to cross the lines that have been laid out by Scripture and tradition. It is risky because Peter is stepping out of the orthodox and familiar and he is stepping into the unknown and the illicit.[7]

But as he walks into the home of the gentile, he not only encounters Cornelius, but he also finds God waiting for him there.

And this is significant. This is life-changing.

For as God is willing to be present with supposedly “impure” people, Peter understands that there is no one whom he can call impure, unclean, illegal, or unacceptable.

As God chooses someone outside of the chosen people, Peter recognizes that this God does not play favorites or show partiality according to ethnicity or appearance.  

As the Holy Spirit is poured out on unholy, uncircumcised, gentile flesh, Peter realizes that they nothing stands in the way of their baptism. If the gentiles have received the invisible grace of the Spirit of God, why should a little foreskin prevent them from also receiving the visible sign of the water?

And so what started out as an illicit dinner party between Jew and Gentile eventually turns into a sacramental pool party. Basins of water are filled, children and adults are dunked in, and the outsiders are baptized into the life and death of Jesus Christ.

And for Cornelius this is significant. This is life changing.

For this immersion into the holy will lead Cornelius to an inclusion that does not require assimilation.[8]

Cornelius is a gentile, and God accepts that way. He doesn’t need to change his name, his diet, or his body…, but what changes is his identity. Cornelius the marginal God-fearer, is now Cornelius the Christ follower. Baptized into a new way of life, Cornelius can no longer follow the way of empire, but he must follow the way of the cross.

When the Apostle’s back in Jerusalem heard about this scandalous encounter between Cornelius and Peter, they too began to wonder: what does this mean?

This joining of Jew and Gentile is unlawful and it makes them uncomfortable. Their first reaction is to criticize and resist it. They are not ready to accept an uncircumcised Cornelius. They are not ready to step out in risky faith.

And I must admit, it is hard to blame them for having this reaction. Like the Apostle’s we too are made so uncomfortable by this line crossing God. We get nervous with a God who speaks and who keeps on speaking. We fear what this God might say.

Like the apostles, we worry that this God may just push us out of our comfort zones and pushes us into new relationship with people who are not like us. Entering into unfamiliar homes is risky; eating at unfamiliar tables is awkward.

We enjoy eating brunch with our friends, with people who are like us … and I wonder if we are hungry for anything more than this? Are we hungry enough to invite a single stranger to come eat at these tables with us? Hungry enough to reach out and invite the university student?

Are we hungry enough to sit at the table with Cleo, one more time? Hungry enough to cross the line, and actually sit with the people who experience homelessness?

Are we hungry enough to keep eating with the Alsaakas? Hungry enough to not only to eat at their table, but also invite them to the tables in our own homes?

How hungry are we?

Friends, we cannot control this scandalous God. We cannot stop this God from getting into a chariot with a queer eunuch. We cannot prevent this God from claiming a criminal named Saul. For every time we try to make boxes and boundaries for this God, the Holy Spirit always ends up crossing the line…

And while we cannot control this God, we can control our hunger.  

So part two of this sermon also ends at the table. It ends at the table after the food has been eaten and the plates are dirty… it ends after we have been filled with brunch food and fellowship. And it ends with the prayer that we may become hungry once again.

And in your hunger, may you hear the call of God: Hey, there is someone I would like you to meet… . When you hear that call, it is my prayer that you will be hungry enough to step out in risky faith, to get up….to go…. to find your seat at the table. Amen.

[1] Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 103.

[2] Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 105.

[3] Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 109.

[4] Robert E. Goss, “Acts,” Queer Bible Commentary, 576.

[5] Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 105.

[6] Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 108.

[7] William Willimon, Acts, 98.

[8] Robert E. Goss, “Acts,” Queer Bible Commentary, 576.

A sermon preach on Sunday, August 4, 2019 by Derek Elmi-Buursma.

Saul and a Scandalous God

Acts 9:1-9

Inhale… Exhale… Inhale… Exhale…

Our Scripture this morning begins with breathing.

Inhale… Exhale….

The breathing we hear this morning, is not God’s Breath of life that animates all creation, but it is the breath of death. It is a greedy inhaling that threatens to consume everything in its path and a violent exhaling that threatens to destroy anything that gets in its way.

The breathing we hear this morning, it is the breathing of a killer.[1] It is the breathing of Saul.

Inhale… Exhale….

We met Saul a few weeks back in our series. Do you remember him? Saul came on stage as a part of the lynch mob that would stone a disciple of Jesus named Stephen. Standing off to the side, Saul held the coats of the stone throwers.

The author of the book of Acts doesn’t tell us much about Saul.[2] Doesn’t mention where he is from, what degrees he earned, or who his parents are. All Luke decides to tell us is that Saul is a young man who approves of Stephen’s killing, a young man who goes on to ravage the church.

We learn who Saul is by what he does: he raids homes, detains children, and arrests their parents.

Saul is the deporter-in-chief. He is the person behind the persecution of the church. Saul is a complex character for he is both an abuser and a zealously religious man. Someone who thinks they are serving both God and country as they oppress the vulnerable community who are considered a threat.

Saul is a complex character, but Luke’s blunt descriptions leaves us no doubt: Saul is an enemy; in fact he is The Enemy of the church community.

And so our Scripture opens, with Saul, enemy number 1,[3] breathing murderous threats against Jesus’ disciples. Not satisfied with forcing the church in Jerusalem to scatter, Saul wants to stamp it out completely. Saul want to take away the breath of anyone who claims to follow the way of Jesus, the Crucified Christ.

Such a desire to destroy sacred and holy life needs religious sanction. So Saul goes to the high priest for approval. He goes to the priest and he leaves with a letter that gives him the power and authority to bind up, arrest, and even kill in the name of God.[4]

Letter in hand, Saul walks down the Damascus road as a trailblazer for the Christians crusaders who will conquer under the sign of the cross, as a preview of the Christian slave traders who enslaved bodies in order to save souls, and as a foretaste of Christian colonists who would wipe out indigenous populations in order to build a city on a hill, one nation under God.

As Saul travels down the Damascus road relentlessly pursuing the disciples of Jesus an ironic twist of the tale occurs: Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God, relentlessly pursues Saul.[5] With a flash of lighting the Divine catches up to Saul and a loud voice arrests him:  “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me??”

In this moment of divine capture, the road to Damascus is turned into a courtroom; the trial of the enemy begins with accused being called out by name: Saul, Saul! There is no confusion about who stands accused, no uncertainty about who the responsible party is.

Next the accusation is made: “why are you persecuting me?”

We are a bit surprised because the question is not masked by legal language or jargon. This accusation is intimate and personal: Why are you hurting me?[6] Why are you abusing me? Why are you taking advantage of my vulnerabilities to cause me pain?

This is a #metoo moment. A moment in which we are confronted with the fact that power has been abused and wounding, wounding of the body and the spirit, has occurred. This is a scandalous moment because God is saying that for each body that was assaulted, for each instance of emotional trauma, for every person harmed; you were harming Me too.

This is the God who is not only present with the people who are being persecuted, but this is the almighty, who actually suffers with them! As their bodies suffer, God suffers! And a suffering God, is a scandalous God.

Against this accusation of persecution and abuse, Saul has no defense. He does not try to justify his actions. He doesn’t try to explain it away. He does not even reach for the High Priest’s letter of consent.

But as Saul is confronted by the broken, wounded and suffering body of Christ, any and every reason for violence, abuse, and persecution falls away. All Saul can do is ask: “Who are you? Who is the one I have detained and disfigured? Who are you Lord?”

And the voice says, “I am Jesus. I am the One whom you are persecuting.”

It is the moment of great reversal. Jesus, the One who was accused, the one condemned as a criminal and crucified now stands in the position to condemn. And Saul, the one who had the power to persecute, is now rendered powerless.[7] The mighty Saul is made low, crawling on the ground on his hands and knees he is helpless and blind.  

Is this the moment of judgment? The moment when the earth will open up and swallow Saul in a fiery inferno? Is this the moment when Jesus will heap burning coals on Saul’s head? Rather than sending Saul straight down to hell, Jesus says to him: “Get up. Go into the city. I will tell you the punishment, I will tell you what you need to do there.”

The Verdict is guilty, but the sentencing is postponed.

As an audience we are on the edge of our seats. Ever since Saul started terrorizing the church, we have been holding out and hoping for this moment of Justice. We said, ‘Oh Saul, just you wait, judgment is coming for you! You will reap what you have sown! You will get what you deserve!

By the time Saul makes his way into the city, and we get to verse 15, it is with gleeful anticipation that we listen to the judge, the God of justice, begin the sentencing: “Saul, for the crimes you have committed, you will be my chosen instrument, you will proclaim my name and you will also suffer for my name.”

The sentence is given and we the audience, watch with horror as the handcuffs are taken off of Saul’s wrists, as the scales fall from his eyes and his strength is restored. Rather than being locked away in a prison, Saul is placed in God’s custody and released on parole.

Is this what justice looks like?

Like the Elder brother who watches his father embrace the prodigal Son and throw the disobedient child a party, we cry out: “This is not fair!” Like the weak sentencing of CPD officer Jason Van Dyke we protest! No Justice, No peace!

We wonder why God is calling this enemy into the special role of apostle? Why is the persecutor being promoted to preacher?! Why does God want to claim the criminal as God’s own?

Our Scripture this morning and the story of Saul confronts us with a scandalous God. A God who operates outside the neat lines of our expectations. A God who is radical and upsetting; a God who says, “No one is off limits to me.”

Already in the book of Acts we have seen this God break the boundaries between Jew and Samaritan, claiming the unorthodox and religiously suspect. Last week we saw God claim the Ethiopian Eunuch, claiming those whose sexual and gender identities are considered queer. And this morning God shatters any last bit of certainty we had about who is in and who is out, by claiming the criminal and the enemy.  

“Saul, Saul, I have called you by name, you are mine!”


And I wonder: Can we worship such a scandalous God? Can we submit ourselves to a God who does not condemn the criminal but claims them? And if we are willing to accept such a God, are we also willing to accept the enemies this God has and will save?

Just imagine with me what it must of looked like for Saul to step into, to join the faith community he was once hell-bent on destroying? Can you imagine what Stephen’s wife, Stephen’s widow, must of felt when she saw Saul in the pulpit week after week proclaiming God’s name? I imagine that would be hard. That would be triggering and traumatic.

What do we do with such a scandalous God?

As both a Church and a denomination we have been exploring what it means to be a Safe Church. How do we become a church that takes accusations of misconduct seriously, how do we provide pastor care for both claimant and the accused, how do we seek restitution, restoration, and reconciliation in the wake of abuse?

As a church we have set up a safe church committee to try and answer some of these questions. We have begun writing a document that sets up guidelines about how to respond justly to allegations. And this is hard work; this is complex and multi-faceted!  

How do we seek justice for Stephen’s family and accept Saul into the community? How do we seek justice for women and children who have been sexually abused and promote rehabilitation rather than incarceration for the accused? How do we create a Safe church and submit ourselves to a God of scandalous grace?

Perhaps the work of Safe Church is so hard and so complex, because there is a little bit of Saul in each of us.

Inhale…. Exhale….

Like Saul, we are breathing beings. We inhale and we take in something of the divine, the Spirit of life. But in the very next moment, we exhale and what comes out are murderous threats, angry words, death. We are people who both accuse and who stand accused, people who have been hurt and hurt others.

And so, Saul may be enemy number one, but each one of us who has sinned is an enemy of our Holy God. Each one of us, if we listen closely can hear Jesus call out our name on the Damascus road: Derek, Derek, why do you hurt me? Why do you stand and preach while my people suffer?

Do you hear Jesus calling out your name?

And what can we say, like Saul we are guilty. We have no defense We are complicit in systems of suffering and oppression. But for some scandalous reason Jesus is not done with us yet. For each accusation comes with a calling, do you hear it?  “Derek, Derek, get up! Go into the city. Go amongst the suffering people, and I will tell you what you must do.”

Like Saul, we may open our eyes and not be able to see clearly, we may grope about for restorative justice and come up empty. And in those moments we must pause and take a deep breath.


Despite our blindness, despite the complexity of it all, we cannot stay on the ground. We must reach out and cling to God’s scandalous grace. For even though we are enemies, we too have been claimed by God! We are God’s chosen instruments; called to proclaim God’s name by building safe churches, safe schools, safe workspaces, and safe households in God’s Kingdom of peace and justice. Amen.  

[1] Willie James Jennings, Acts, 90.

[2] William Willimon, Acts, 75.

[3] William Willimon, Acts, 75.

[4] Willie James Jennings, Acts, 90.

[5] Willie James Jennings, Acts, 91.

[6] Willie James Jennings, Acts, 91.

[7] Robert W. Walls, Acts, 151.

A sermon delivered on Sunday, July 28, 2019 by Derek Elmi-Buursma

A Church Scattered and Sown

Acts 8:1-4

So we are coming up to the half-way point in our sermon series Acts: Stories, Scenes, and Spirit. And while the show the Holy Spirit has been putting on has no intermission, it may be helpful for us as an audience to pause and reflect on what we have seen.

The director set the stage in the shadow of the cross and the new light of resurrection. And as the resurrected Lord Jesus ascends into heaven, the Holy Spirit comes on the scene and starts forming a community that will become Christ’s body on earth. And this is what the story of Acts is really all about; it is the story of the Holy Spirit and the church.

So we see the Holy Spirit pulling people from every nation into this new fellowship where hearts, lives, and lifestyles are changed. People who were left on the outside are being brought inside, resources are being shared, and needs are being met. This is what resurrection, this is what new life in Christ looks like!

But for every life-giving and unifying movement of the Holy Spirit, we also see death-dealing and dividing resistance to the Spirit. Last week, we saw how this resistance occurred internally within the community. People wanted to share some of their possessions, but they did not want to share all of them. Minority members of the community were being overlooked. Issues are clear but living out solutions is messy….

We see that it is not easy being church, and to make things even harder, the community is about to face external resistance, external threats of violence, arrest, and imprisonment. Today, we will watch powers and authorities outside the community do everything they can to stifle the Spirit and obstruct the faithful witness of the community.

And this is a pivotal moment in the plot line. This is a turning point that opens up the scope of this story centered in Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. So far we have seen what this community is willing to live for, but now we will see what are they willing to die for.[1]

So I invite you to turn to our Scripture this morning, Acts 8:1-4, to see how the Holy Spirit responds to these outside threats and external resistance:

Saul approved of the Lynch Mob’s execution of Stephen and that day a severe and systematic persecution began against the church in Jerusalem. Everyone except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. And as they wailed, Saul was ravaging the church and destroying the community. He was entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, and he committed them to prison. But those who were scattered, they went from place to place proclaiming the word. – Acts 8:1-4

Our Scripture today opens with the words, “And Saul approved of their killing him.” It is a sentence that marks a transition between scenes and chapters in this story.

The “him” refers to Stephen, a member of the new church community that was elected to the newly formed office of deacon. As a deacon, Stephen was chosen to care for the widows and the other vulnerable members of the community. As a deacon, he was responsible for equitably redistributing the community’s resources so that everyone had enough.

We are told that he was full of God’s grace and power. Stephen moved in step with the Spirit. But as he advocated for justice, as his compassion was embodied in care for the poor, opposition quickly arose. Stephen’s grassroots organizing caught the attention of the powerful, they saw him as a radical, and they arrested him. They charged him with blasphemy. They accused him of trying to destroy their country and change their cultural heritage. 

It was a potent mix of fear, religion, and nationalism. At the trial the crowd was whipped into frenzy. The chants of “Lock him up!” soon turned violent. Stephen was seized and deported. And as the crowd dragged him outside the city limits, God-fearing and pious people began picking up stones….

As the rocks rained down from the sky, Stephen fell to his knees and said one last prayer: “Lord, do no hold this sin against them.”

What we are watching play out, is a scene in which people are willing to kill for God and people are willing to die for God.[2]

This is intense. This is graphic. This is real…and this scene is playing out today. The fear and the frenzy has not changed… but we have traded the rocks for automatic rifles and explosives.

As Stephen’s blood soaks into the earth; as blood covers synagogue floors and soaks into the mosque’s prayer mats, we, the audience, are left to wonder, what does faithful witness look like?

Does faithful witness require one to pick up stones and launch an unyielding defense of familiar doctrine and customary practice?

Does faithful witness require one to kneel, vulnerable and exposed, as the rocks are being thrown, offering a prayer of forgiveness with a dying breath?[3]

Does faithful witness allow one to stand off to the side, to silently watch from a distance and hold the coats of the people who throw the rocks?

Standing off to the side, Saul enters this story as the main antagonist and enemy of the church. He does not throw a stone, but his nonintervention betrays which side he is on. With he silence he offers his approval of Stephen’s killing.

When the lynch mob disperses, when the fathers who threw the stones go back home to play with their children, all that is left on stage is Stephen’s body.

It is a broken body. It is limp and lifeless. Bloodied and bruised. Like the broken Body of Christ, it appears God forsaken. Where are you Lord?!

Just as holy women who went to anoint Jesus’ dead body with perfume and spices, a group of holy men anoint Stephen’s body with Holy tears.[4] They grieve, they cry out, and question. God why did you allow this to happen?

Like a seed planted in the ground, they bury Stephen’s body in the earth hoping for new life and resurrection…  

While Stephen’s killing leaves an irreparable crack in the community, the movement he was a part of was still very much alive. The church still represented a threat to the old order, their faithful witness undermined the imperial forces of greed and assimilation. They needed to be stopped.

So on that day, a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem. It was not like the chaotic violence of the lynch mob that murdered Stephen, this was a planned program of persecution. This was systematic and structural. This persecution required the writing of new policies, the creation of new institutions, the building of new infrastructure.

It was a program of mass incarceration devised to destroy the community and restrain the movements of the Spirit.

And this persecution would require more than Saul’s tacit approval, it necessitated his full participation.  Saul’s faithfulness would now be seen in his willingness to raid houses, round up women and men, and lock them up in prisons and detention centers.

As this program of persecution is implemented the whole community suffers, but the suffering is not equally shared.[5] Most are forced from their homes and flee, but a few remain in Jerusalem. Some are arrested and others never know the feeling of handcuffs. Some become martyrs while others enjoy long-life.

And as an audience we wonder why was this suffering so uneven; was the witness of some members of this community more threatening to the Empire than others?

Was the supposedly new life of some members so indistinguishable from their old lives that the Empire deemed their faith harmless and inconsequential? 

As an audience we wonder why this suffering is still so uneven today: Why are pastors being kidnapped in Northern Nigeria, why are Coptic churches and Sufi mosques being blown up in Egypt, and why were pastors beaten to death and arrested during the civil rights?

And why has white Christianity grown so comfortable in the American Empire?  Why is white Christianity so comfortable with the American Empire?

Saul’s program of persecution effectively causes the community to scatter, but it could not stop their witness. The detention centers were overcrowded but the church’s desire for new life was not dampened.  The prisons were newly built with the claim of maximum security, but the work and the movement of the Holy Spirit could not contained, constrained, or locked away.

Saul tries to destroy the church, but the Holy Spirit is at work amidst the violence forming a caravan of faithful witnesses who flee Jerusalem for Judea and Samaria.

It is a church of the Refugee and Asylum Seekers. A Church God is using to cross the religious borders that separated Jew from Samaritan. And as caravan moves, as they transgress the boundaries between “us” and “them,” new beginnings are made possible, new relationships are formed, and the community of life grows. 

And this is what we in the Reformed tradition call providence.[6]

Providence is God’s willingness to be present in the persecution.  Providence is the Holy Spirit being broken open and sent with a people forced to scatter. Providence God’s word of life that will not be silenced by violence, but it will be sown in new lands and new communities and it will not return empty.

Providence is God taking a church in Chicago that has not experienced religious persecution, a church of 40 that has not been scattered, and using them to help a Muslim, Syrian family, resettle and have a new beginning.

Saul and the ‘powers that be’ they do their best to close the curtains on the Holy Spirit and this new community, but our providential God is able to do better. With God as the director, the Show will go on…

And the show has gone on. We see today the Powers that be planning new programs of persecution, and at the same time we see and experience powerful new examples of God’s providence. The show goes on and we are invited to step on the stage, to play our part, to live and even die as faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] William Willimon, Acts: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching, 64.

[2] Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary, 73.

[3] Jennings, Acts, 74.

[4] Jennings, Acts, 74.

[5] Jennings, Acts, 76.

[6] Jennings, Acts, 76.

A sermon Delivered on Sunday, July 14, 2019 by Derek Elmi-Buursma

“Division, Provision, and Diaconal Vision”

Acts 6:1-7

This morning we will continue our summer sermon series on the book of Acts. Last week we finished chapter 4 of this book where we were given a snapshot, a photograph, of the Jewish community of Jesus followers called church. When we look at this portrait we saw a community bearing the marks of repentance, redistribution, and resurrection.

We saw people selling their land, liquidating their investments, and sharing their possessions, so that ever person in the community had enough, everyone’s needs were met.

This picture of the early church made us wonder if this is what ideal community was supposed to look like, was this image of communal ownership practical, was this portrait of life together even possible?

But the repentance, redistribution, and resurrection found in Acts chapter 4 is short lived. In the very next scene of the story, Acts chapter 5, we see death and deception mar the community portrait. The scene opens with a  couple, Ananias and Sapphira, who try to live into this new way of community and they sell their land. It was a lot of money, nearly their entire lifesavings. They place most of the money at the Apostle’s feet, but the thought of an empty bank account was too much too bare. They couldn’t give all the money away.

They hold some of it back.

They can’t live fully into this new way of life.

They resist the movements of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit of life leaves their bodies.

They fall down dead right there at the Apostle’s feet, lifeless corpses that need to be buried.

And the marks that mar this new community don’t end with death and deception,  our Scripture this morning, Acts 6:1-7, introduces the mark of division tear at the community that was supposedly of “one heart and one mind.”

Now during those days, while the number of disciples was increasing, the Greek-speaking Jews complained against the Aramaic-speaking Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of resources and services.

Acts 6:1

Our Scripture this morning opens with two pieces of information. The first thing we are told is that the number of disciples is increasing.

Hey, that’s good news! That is something we can relate to as a Church who has been welcoming new members. And as small church of 50 to 60 people, an increase in the number of disciples is something that makes us excited!

Now, there is nothing wrong with being a small community, in fact there are some really special things that happen in a smaller community, but most of us wouldn’t mind if a few more new faces showed up on Sunday mornings. I don’t think any one would complain if our missional communities pulled in a few more regular attendees…

So we wonder why was the number of disciples increasing? What was so special or different about this new Jewish community of Christ followers in Jerusalem? Was it their praise band, their meeting space, or the Apostle’s preaching that attracted new people to join the church and become disciples?

The only thing we know for sure is that the Holy Spirit is behind this bumper crop of new members. The Holy Spirit is moving through the city in such a way that people are being drawn into this community, they are being irresistibly pulled into new relationships, and new ways of life.

And as this happens, as the number of disciples increases, we get our second piece of information: “Widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food and resources.”

Now, this is not so good news. In fact, this is down right disobedient.

Care of the poor is foundational to this Jewish community. Throughout the Scriptures God has commanded that the widow, the orphan, and the undocumented immigrant be cared for.

So we wonder why are these widows being neglected? Was this an issue of supply and demand? Now that there are more members, are there less resources to go round and the widows are simply the ones who grab the short straw?

Our passage makes the claim that this not an issue of economics. The resources are available, but the people who needed those resources are being overlooked. The eyes of the leaders are blind to the needs of the widows. Something is causing their hands to be held back, rather than equitably distributing the resources.

Our passage argues that this neglect was rooted in cultural difference. The church community was divided into two groups along ethnic and linguistic lines. We have Hellenists and Hebrews, Greek speaking Jews and Aramaic Speaking Jews, those of the Diaspora and those who never left Israel.

And it is the group of migrants from the Diaspora, the Greek speaking Jews, who complain that their widows are being overlooked. It is the minority, who speaks up and speaks out and confronts the community leaders with a question:

“Who will care for us? Who will care for our most vulnerable? Who will meet their needs?”[1]

And if you turn your attention to Acts 6:2 we get an answer: 

So the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, sisters and brothers, carefully select from among yourselves seven people of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom. We will put them in charge of this necessary work while we will continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word”

Acts 6:2-3

Confronted by the question; “Who will care for us?” The leaders answers, “Not Us! We are busy with ministry already. We have enough on our plates, we don’t have time to wash the dishes too! Do you know how many hours you got to put in to write a good sermon?”

Now the Apostle’s response is a bit shocking when we first hear it. But they don’t simply dismiss the question the minority group is asking with excuses. They think it is a valid complaint.  They think the care of the poor and the widow and orphan and the refugee are all necessary tasks.

But they will not be the ones who do it. And maybe this is where we can return to the economic concept of supply and demand.

The apostles are people, they are finite. And their limited supply of time and energy is limited cannot meet this growing communities demand for pastoral care and provision.

So the apostles decide that a division of labor is required. The tasks of ministry will be divided and new leaders must be selected. The Apostle’s will continue to serve the God’s Word, and newly elected deacons will serve God’s People. The Apostles will provide Spiritual nourishment  with preaching and prayer and the deacons will provide a physical nourishment with material resources.

The Scripture picks up again at verse 4.

This proposal pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. God’s word continued to grow. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased significantly. Even a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:4-7

It is hard to read this list of names, the names of the seven people elected to this new ministerial office of Deacon, because they are all Greek names.

The solution the Apostle’s come up with to the complaint the Greek Speaking Jews make is to elect Greek Speaking Jews to positions of leadership and power.[2]  

And at first glance this seems like a really novel and thoughtful and progressive solution. It takes those from the Diaspora, the outsiders, the marginalized and it brings them to the center of this community. It takes the people who are feeling low and powerless and it lifts them up to positions of power.

I love this idea! I love that this community was willing to engage in structural institutional change, so that marginalized groups would be represented and disempowered groups would be empowered! And it appears that this is an idea that works!  

The Scripture closes with the Good news that the number of disciples continues to increase, the community grows, and the growth is significant! This is the happy ending we have been looking for. Where we can say, this is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

But as I look more closely at this ecclesial reform I wonder if things are a bit more complicated than they appear. I begin to wonder, is this election of the minority leaders, a case-study in tokenism.

Are minority leaders being given leadership positions so that the appearance of diversity is provided, but nothing else really has to change? After this election are the Apostle’s just gonna go back to business as usual?

I wonder, is the creation of a new church office enough? Is this reform simply paying lip-service to the needs of the most vulnerable, or is power and resources actually gonna get redistributed?

Is the creation of the diaconate anything like the creation of IPRA, Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority? Where complaints of police brutality were made, a new organization was created, but since it was not given power or authority to cultural, or institutional change occurred, people who abused power were not held accountable.

These questions are raised in my mind because we arrive at the end of this passage and we are given the names of seven Greek men newly elected to positions of power, but we do not know the name of a single widow in this community.

This is a passage about widows being overlooked, that is the complaint. And the solution the church comes up with, seems to overlook the widows again!

The Scripture is oblivious to the root problem of patriarchy that leaves the widows vulnerable and powerless in the first place. And the solution of electing seven men, seems to reproduce and reinforce this patriarchy….

And this seems to leave us with a much more complicated picture of the church community than most of us would like… But I think it is a more accurate reflection of church community and ministry.

For the reality is that ministry is messy and our communities are imperfect. We can usually see the problem easily enough, we usually don’t have an issue with making a legitimate complaint, but it is the work of finding and implementing solutions that is so difficult.

It is this work of justly redistributing resources and power that requires the ongoing movement of the Holy Spirit. We need the Holy Spirit to continue moving us to hear the complaints being made against the church. We need the Holy Spirit to push us to elect new leaders to power and create new programs. And although we step into this work imperfectly, the Holy Spirit will not give up on our community, the Holy Spirit will continue to blow, and we will keep striving to become a clearer image of beloved community. Amen.

[1] Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary, 65.

[2] William Willimon, Acts, 60.

A sermon delivered on Sunday, July 7, 2019 by Derek Elmi-Buursma

“The Cast and Crew Share the Props”

Acts 4:32-37

We will continue our series on the book of Acts, but before we read our Scripture this morning, lets do a brief recap of what we have seen and heard the past few weeks. We are four chapters into this story and so far we have watched Jesus ascend into heaven commissioning the disciples to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

We have watched the Holy Spirit come upon the disciples, touch their tongues and transform their speech.  We heard the disciples begin their witness in different languages.

Last week, we saw Peter and John encounter a person who was paralyzed, a person sitting outside the Temple gates. And through an intimate stare, resurrection expectations, and a helping hand, the Holy Spirit moved into the scene and lifted the person who was down-and-out back to their feet. It was a moment of healing and restoration, it was another witness to the new life and new possibility in Jesus Christ.

As the person who was once paralyzed enters into the temple walking, leaping and praising God, Peter wants to offer the astonished crowd yet another witness. He begins to preach. He tells the story of Jesus, the story of death and resurrection, the story of crucifixion and restoration, the story of an accused criminal who God has made king!

Peter preaches and it doesn’t take long for the religious authorities to have him arrested, handcuffed, and incarcerated. The scene that opened with praise in the temple courts is now ending with prayer in a prison cell. Wondering what will happen next, we turn to Acts 4:32-37 to see where this story takes us after Peter and John are released on bail:

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” – Acts 4:32-37

After watching scenes of miraculous healing, bold preaching, and imprisonment; the story now shifts to the ordinary, the mundane, and the common. It is a scene of common people coming together and creating a new community.

Our Scripture this morning offers a snapshot, a picture, of what this new gathering, this new community of people looks like. So rather than looking at the Scripture and seeing black text on a white page, I want you to envision this passage as a photograph. I want you to see a portrait, of the new community that will soon be given the name church.

We are people who love photos because they help us remember what happened in a particular moment. Photos provide us a window into history, an opportunity to be transported into the past.

We hold on to photos. Old black and white portraits of great-great grandparents become family heirlooms because they allow us, in a way, to meet our ancestors. We look at these pictures and we notice the posture, the clothes, the eyes, and the smile of the people in them. We notice these features and listen to the stories they tell.

We study the features of the photo with the hope that we will come to know the people in the photograph more closely.  And, at the same time, we hope that we will come to know ourselves more closely, where we came from, and who we can become.

So this morning as we hold up this Scripture like an old tattered photograph, we see a portrait of the church. And if we study the photo closely, if we hold it up to the light, we see three features, three marks, that whelp us better understand who this church was, who we are as a church, and who we can become as a community.

The first feature of this snapshot of Church is repentance. The photograph helps us see that this is a repentant community.

So far in the book of Acts Peter has given two speeches and in each speech he has commanded the crowds to repent. To change their hearts, to change their minds, to change their lives.

And as we hear the call to repent, we wonder what repentance actually looks like in reality? How can repentance be practiced in daily life and lived out in community?

Having grown up in an evangelical Christianity culture, I grew up believing that repentance took place in my own personal relationship with Jesus. Repentance looked like prayers spoken in private places, closing my eyes and personally confessing my sins to God. Repentance was something I practiced as an individual, a choice I needed to make, a change that required self-determination and self-will.

But this photo Luke takes of the church shows us that repentance is not something we can do on our own. Repentance requires community.

Our passage this morning begins with the words, “All the Believers, the whole group of believers, were one in heart and mind.” Hearts and minds were changed together. It was change that required the accountability of the group and the support of the collective. It was change that took place in the gathering of the congregation on Sunday, and the coming together of small groups and missional communities throughout the week.

Our passage this morning shows us that repentance is not simply a spiritual matter. It is not a reflection of one’s piety or prayer life, but repentance is tangible. It touches every part of our lives; it reaches into the everyday and mundane. Repentance is reflected in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, and the homes in which we live.

Repentance will change hearts and minds, but it wont stop there. Repentance will transform entire economic systems and social structures.

So as we hold up and look at this old photograph found in Acts 4, the second feature of the church we see is redistribution. Material goods and physical resources are redistributed throughout this community.

In our passage we read, “no one claimed private ownership of their possessions, no one said ‘this is mine!’ but they shared everything they had, all property and possessions were held in common.”

In our passage we see the wealthy selling the extra plots of land they have acquired, we see the middle-class putting their homes on the market and downsizing, we even see a few people living below the poverty line holding garage sales in order to raise money for those who needs are more acute than their own.

We look at this photo and in disbelief we start to ask ourselves, did people really live like that back then? Why does this church look communist? This practice of redistribution really isn’t possible or practical today, right?

As a congregation and denomination who have done quite well for themselves in our current capitalist economy, this aspect of the photograph, the redistribution, makes us a uncomfortable.

We are born and one of the first word we learn to speak is “mine” and it becomes a word we use often. We grow up with the American dream of home ownership, of having a place to call your own, a piece of earth you can claim as “mine.”

We live in a country where the wealthiest three people own more than the bottom half of the population.[1] We live in a city where median incomes can change by more than $100,000 depending on the block or neighborhood.[2] We know that our current economy breeds inequality, but as long as we are a part of the top half, as long as we live on the right block, we do not think redistribution will be necessary. 

If we look closer at this photograph of the early church, we realize that the feature of redistribution was not born from a governmental policy, it was not devised by Bernie Sanders, nor was it forced on people with the threat of penalty or punishment.

This community called church it renounces private property and it practices communal ownership, because, looking at verse 33, “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.”

The practice of redistribution was born out of divine desire and divine abundance. God’s grace, God’s goodness, God’s generosity had been poured out over this new community and they could not help themselves but sell the houses and share that money with the community.

The practice of redistribution that seems impossible to us, it was made possible by the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that touched the disciples’ tongues, the same Spirit that touched the Paralyzed person’s legs, was now touching the wallets, assets, and bank accounts of this community. And just as uneducated disciples were able to speak new languages, as a paralyzed person was able to jump for joy, we now see wealthy people letting their possessions go, letting other people redistribute their assets and investments. 

Now lets be clear, God does not call for sacrificial giving because God wants our possessions or needs our donations.[3] God calls for sacrificial giving because God wants every person to have enough. God desires a community in which needs are met, hunger is satisfied, asylum is offered, and shelter is provided. And God does not want this for just some, or for most, but for all. Until “there would be no needy persons among them.”

As this redistribution takes place, as Barnabas sells his field, as the money is used to meet felt needs in the community, we look at the photograph and we see the third feature of this church: resurrection. This is a community whose life together, offers the world witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Resurrection is God’s great desire.

God wants situations of death and despair transformed into situations of new life and new hope. God desires people to be lifted up out of poverty, empty pantries to be filled with food, and the utilities that were once shut off to now be turned back on. 

God desires the economic divisions that separate the rich from the poor, the haves from the have-nots, the Oak Parks from the Austins to be bridged!  God desires people to be gathered up and connected, God wants reparations to restore relationships that are broken.  

Repentance and redistribution are simply the prerequisite steps that lead to resurrection.

Wanting the world to see and feel and experience resurrection, God gives the world a picture of new community, a portrait of the church.  

[1] https://inequality.org/great-divide/bernie-3-billionaires-more-wealth-half-america/

[2] https://www.chicagobusiness.com/static/section/chicagos-wealth-divide.html

[3] Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary, 39.

A sermon delivered on Sunday, June 30, 2019 by Derek Elmi-Buursma

“Stepping, Walking, and Leaping on Stage”

Acts 3:1-10

This summer here at Loop Church, we are studying the book of Acts. Well, studying may be the wrong word; we are watching the story of Acts. Like an audience at the theatre, we have been gathering each week and watching a different act of this story, the story of the Holy Spirit, unfold. We sit back and we watch the Spirit move in the world and move within people to form a new community called church and usher in a new reality of justice, peace, and resurrection.

Last week, we watched Peter deliver the opening speech of this story. Peter told the audience that God had made Jesus, Lord and Messiah and now a new chapter of the story was about to being written. Peter invites the audience to step into this new direction with the Spirit, to repent and to be baptized into a new way of life.

And Luke tells us that a great many people took Peter up on this offer. That people were baptized and formed a new fellowship, shared their possessions, cared for those in need. They broke bread together in their homes and they continued to go out and pray in the temple.  

And it is at the temple, the temple in Jerusalem, that the next Act in our story begins:

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man crippled since birth was being carried in. Every day, people would place him at the temple gate known as the Beautiful Gate so he could ask for money from those entering the temple.

The narrator begins by introduces us to the cast list: we have Peter and John, two Jewish disciples of Jesus, two leaders in the new church community. And there is also a third actor, we don’t know their name, but the narrator describes them by their condition: this is a person who has been paralyzed from the waist down since birth.

Unable to walk on their own, we see this character being carried on stage by others. It is a picture of dependence and humility. At this point in the story, the person who is paralyzed is quite literally a burden, they are dead weight that others must pick up and carry, every single day.

They are also not only a burden, but they are, quite literally, an outsider. Everyday, this person is carried to the Temple, and placed outside at the gates.

We watch as the person who is paralyzed is gingerly lowered to their mat, given a plastic cup and cardboard sign, and offers up a prayer to each person that walks by: “Can you spare some change, can you help me eat today?”

We watch as able-bodied people walk past the person who is paralyzed and walk through the gates. We watch as people step inside the temple, to worship and offer up their prayers to God.

As we watch the scene unfold, the narrator continues telling the story:

When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John and said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.

This scene opens with a question. The question is: will you help me?

The question is asked from the lowly place of the mat on the ground.  It is a question that carries the fear of rejection and holds the faint hope of new possibility.

Will you help me?

Seeking to catch the people who pass by, the question is thrown out like a lasso, and it lands on Peter and John.

Will you help me?

Now, the question itself carries no real weight. Without thought or effort Peter and John could easily brush off the question and walk into the Temple and go about their worship.  

But Peter and John do not ignore the question. They let themselves be wrapped up in it and allow themselves to be drawn toward the person who asked it. They even risk eye contact.

And it is no side-ways glance either, it is an intimate stare.  They look straight ahead into the eyes of the person who is paralyzed and they say, “Look at us!” In this encounter, Peter and John demand “Optical Reciprocity.[1]” They want to be seen, and not as saviors or patrons, but as fellow human beings.  

Staring at each other, the three characters of this act collide.  In the shadow of the temple, the three are tangled up in the reality of real need and limited resources. This encounter catches Peter and John between the command to Love God and Love Neighbor. Caught by the question, “will you help me?” Peter and John must respond:

Then Peter said, “I don’t have any money, but I will give you what I do have. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk!” And Peter took him by the right hand and helped him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk and he entered the temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God.

Now, the person who was paralyzed, they woke up that day with very little expectations. They expected many people to pass them by; and of the few people who stopped, they expected many to apologize and give nothing. They expected their persistent begging would earn them a pita, enough daily bread to get through the day and do it all again tomorrow…

And when the person who was paralyzed looked up and saw Peter and John standing there in patched up cloaks and sandals hanging on by a thread, any fanciful expectation they had for a donation quickly vanished. When the two rather rough looking disciples said, “sorry we don’t have any money,” the person who was paralyzed was not at all surprised.  

But the next line out of Peter’s mouth was one they never could have expected: “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth stand up and walk.”

The person who was paralyzed since birth knew that it was irrational and unreasonable to expect they would ever stand on their own two feet and leisurely stroll down the street. They had dismissed that expectation a long time ago….

But Peter and John, they had a different set of expectations. Ever since Easter morning, death, disease, depression, and addiction could not dampen the disciples’ expectations for new life, new healing, new relationships, and new beginnings.

After watching the lifeless corpse of Jesus be raised by God to live and breath again, Peter wouldn’t have been surprised if God had this paralyzed person dunking by the end of the week.

Peter had the expectation of resurrection, but he knew that outrageous expectation would not be enough on its own. Peter needed to go a step further and needed to take a step closer. Peter does not pray, encourage, or invite the person to walk at a distance, but he offers a helping hand and a healing touch. It is a moment of encounter, a moment of faithful witness, and God enters in to it; God chooses to act. 

As Peter and the one who is paralyzed hold hands, the radical reversals of God’s reign break into reality. The one sitting on their mat, is raised to their feet. Ankles that were weak become strong. The one who was carried now walks. The one who had to wait outside the temple, now steps inside, walking, leaping, and praising God.

It is a moment of resurrection, a moment most people never could have expected.

When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the same one who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

Inside the temple, the hushed and mumbled prayers of the faithful are interrupted by shouting: “Halleluiah, thank you Jesus!” 

The person who was once paralyzed enters through the temple gates with no regard for the proper reverential posture of bowed heads, folded hands, and bended knees. They enter the temple courtyard with cartwheels and step into the sanctuary sprinting.

The other worshipers are surprised and amazed to see the one who was paralyzed from birth now walking, leaping, and dancing. 

Filled with wonder they ask themselves: Isn’t this the same person who sat outside at gate? The same person we walked by each day? How are they now walking? Were they faking it all these years?

Questions swirl around in the congregation’s head as the scene comes to a close.

As an audience, we too are amazed at the story we just saw play out. It is a story with plenty for us to wonder about:

We wonder why Peter and John were going to the Temple anyway? Wasn’t their personal relationship with Jesus enough? We wonder why they didn’t invite the paralyzed person to their church community? With no cash in their wallets and no money to give the needy, we wonder how Peter and John survived without a personal bank account?

We ask ourselves these questions while we are at church, while we are inside the sanctuary, and so we wonder: who has been placed outside at the temple gates this morning? We wonder if we will stop when we step outside and stranger asks for help? Will we look them in the eyes, reach out our hand, and say, “Stand up and Walk?”

We wonder and we are filled with doubt, we start to feel inadequate and overwhelmed. And so it is at this point of wondering, that we must remember the fourth character in this story.

Now the fourth character is not listed as a part of the cast in your program book, but if you pay attention you will see the fourth character shows up all throughout this story.

If we look closely, we see the fourth character walking amongst the nameless group of people who wake up early everyday and carry the person who is paralyzed to the temple gates.

We see fourth character sitting on the mat with the person who is paralyzed. And as this person begs for money, we hear the fourth character say: “whatever you do for the least of these, you do unto me.”

We see the fourth character help the person who was paralyzed to their feet, when Peter and John stop and offer a helping hand. And as the person who was once paralyzed stands, and steps, and walks inside the temple, we see the fourth character, stepping, and walking, and leaping with them.

It is when we see the fourth character, when we see Jesus Christ on stage as Lord and Messiah, that this story starts to make sense. It is when we recognize Jesus in this Act, that we remember the Script is being written by a living Word, and we are only called to the role of supporting actors.

And if we are faithful to the script, our lives may just offer a witness to the fourth Actor, Jesus Christ. If we are willing to risk encounter, the Spirit may just enter into the story and those on the outside might just be brought center stage, walking, leaping and praising God. Amen.  

[1] Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary, 41.

A Sermon delivered on Sunday, June 23, 2019 by Derek Elmi-Buursma