If you’ve joined us in worship over the last few weeks, you know that we’ve been walking through the book of Acts as we pray for God’s guidance and empowerment. The full Greek name of the book of Acts is best translated “The Acts of the Apostles.” Preachers smarter than me have sometimes called the book by a different name: “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” I like that informal renaming because it so beautifully describes the heart of the book of Acts.
Now, of course, most immediately it is the Apostles—the “sent ones” of God—whose actions are described in the book. However, you will find as you read though the many narratives and discourses of the book that it is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God, who is working through the Apostles. When they go somewhere, they are drawn or even driven there by the Spirit, just as Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit (Mark 1:12). When they speak, they are filled with the Holy Spirit, and it is therefore the Holy Spirit speaking in them and through them. When people of all ages, nations, and races receive the gospel with joy and come to faith in Jesus Christ, it’s the power of the Holy Spirit that has caused this, and the Holy Spirit falls on them with power as they in turn witness to the freedom found in God’s Son.
I believe we, like the apostles in the time between Christ’s ascension and the arrival of the Spirit at Pentecost, are at a critical time in the life of the Church. I don’t just mean FUMC Decatur, though it’s true here. And I don’t just mean the UMC, though there’s no doubt it’s true of our denomination. I believe we’re at a critical time in the life of the universal Church of the Lord Jesus Christ all over the world.
Over the last three years, we’ve seen how fragile our human institutions really are, and how the relationships involved in those institutions are equally fragile. We’ve seen the fragility of the economic system. We’ve seen the fragility of the political system. We’ve even seen the fragility of the human side of the Church. We’ve seen people walk away from church during the pandemic. We’ve seen fellowship break down as congregations pulled away from denominations. Most importantly, we’ve seen confusion over the role of the Church in human society, confusion about the message the Church was created by the Spirit to preach, teach, and demonstrate to all humanity.
What do we do at this critical time in the life of the Church? How do we respond to the fragility of our human institutions and the confusion of our society? Do we just shrug our shoulders and give up? Do we break off fellowship with people whose ideas are in some important ways opposed to our own? Do we go looking for the latest and greatest revitalization strategy that promises amazing results with minimal effort, all for the low, low price of…whatever it costs?
To all of these questions, I have one answer: We must look to God’s Word. We must look to the final words of Christ to his disciples before he ascended to the right hand of the Father. We read that Jesus “ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). And what was that promise? He said to them, “you will receive power when my Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It was a promise of divine presence, power, and perseverance for the great task ahead.
Since the Day of Pentecost two millennia ago, God the Father has given the Holy Spirit to dwell within every human being who wholly entrusts him- or herself to his Son, Jesus Christ. Every person who has found new life in Christ has received the gift of the Holy Spirit. And yet there are times when God sends down an extra measure of the Spirit’s power, giving his servants a special divine strength and wisdom for a specific task or season.
The Apostle Peter, though he had received the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, was “filled with the Holy Spirit” again when confronted by the ruling council in Jerusalem. This extra filling of the Spirit gave him remarkable boldness, wisdom, and eloquence as he told them the truth about Jesus Christ (Acts 4:8-13). Stephen, the first deacon of the church in Jerusalem, was again made “full of the Holy Spirit” when he in turn preached Christ to the council. This infilling with the Spirit gave him divine peace, supernatural faithfulness, and all-forgiving love in the face of certain death (Acts 7:54-60). These are just two of many such incidents detailed in the book of Acts.
What was true for the first Christians is true for us today. When we put our whole trust in Jesus Christ, the Spirit comes to dwell in our hearts. And to those who continually seek God and seek to live out his saving mission in the world, he continues to give special further outpourings of the Spirit. So what does God’s Word say? How do we, the people of FUMC Decatur, face the challenges of our day?
We remain in Jerusalem and wait upon the promise of the Father. We stay rooted in our community, our Conference, our concern for the lost and hurting world around us. We do what the first disciples of Jesus did as they waited. We worship God with hearts full of joy and mouths full of blessings (Luke 24:52-53). We devote ourselves to prayer and to loving fellowship with one another (Acts 1:14), asking God to empower us with his Spirit again and trusting that he will do it. We open the inspired, trustworthy, authoritative, never-failing Word of God and seek the will of the One who breathed it out (Acts 1:16-20). We apply our minds and efforts to meeting the many needs within our church (Acts 1:21-23) and in the community outside our walls.
And the rest? We entrust the rest to God. We trust that he will give us a fresh measure of his Spirit to guide us (Acts 1:24-26). We cry out to him to open the eyes of the lost, to put his words into our mouths, and to strengthen us for the work he’s preparing us to do. He is good. He is faithful. He is generous with his Spirit. Just you wait and see.
Dr. Nick McRae
Senior Pastor, First United Methodist Church of Decatur