It’s exciting to see something new start. Whether it’s Opening Day at the Ballpark, the first home football game of the season, a new job, a new house, or a new life, there’s just something exciting about newness.
This has been an exciting time at Cornerstone. If you’ve been with us since the first week you’ve been able to see something brand new begin and start to maybe gain a little momentum. I think the most exciting thing about something new is not just that it’s different, but that with something new you get limitless possibilities. With something new there is literally nothing that isn’t possible. I feel this way at the beginning of every new Rangers season. It’s always exciting because there’s always a chance they’ll do well that year. Usually by this time I’ve given up because there’s no hope and I’m watching whatever football game happens to be on, but not this year. Now we get to watch the Rangers in the postseason for the fourth time ever, so I’m excited about October.
Anyway, this sermon really isn’t about baseball, but the excitement about being a part of the birth of something. We’ve been studying the first half of the book of Acts and observing how first century believers went about starting the church. They didn’t have a manual or any kind of starter guide to help them. They didn’t research the demographics of the area to see if it was realistic to start a new work there. They also didn’t have any consultant come in to give them advice on what to do. They knew the teachings of Jesus, remembered the experiences of the apostles, and most importantly they had the Holy Spirit living inside them.
We can’t discount this. The Spirit lived in them. Have you ever wished God was right next to you telling you what the next step was? Ever wanted to have the perfect words to say to someone who expressed interest in knowing Jesus? Have you ever wanted to know for sure that you were on the right track? If you’re a follower of Jesus, you have access to the Holy Spirit every moment of every day. He lives in you. Why don’t we hear from him, then? We don’t listen. We don’t prepare ourselves to face difficult times before we get to them. We don’t spend time in scripture and we don’t spend time in prayer. If we want to have the right words to say to someone who is seeking, we have to know what the Word says. If we want to know what the next step is, we have to learn to quiet our own minds and listen to the Spirit. If we want to be sure we’re going the right way, we’ve got to get used to listening to the voice of God. If we try to manufacture something on our own, without the guidance of the Spirit, we will fail miserable. Momentum has to come from the God’s leadership, not from man’s desires. All we can do is discover where God is working and join him there.
These first century Christians didn’t know any different. When the Holy Spirit filled them they didn’t have a choice. They were simply amazed at the fact that they could have the very Spirit of God in them. If we think about this for a moment we will find it amazing, too. The Spirit of Holy God lives inside you. Jesus said he would never leave us nor forsake us. He said he’d always be with us. He really is. This isn’t an average thing. We are far too underwhelmed by the presence of God. The Holy Spirit living in us and God’s presence in our midst is always an extraordinary thing!
We as the church need to realize this more. We have available to us all the power and authority of God every moment of every day! Let’s not forget this. If we want this church to grow, we must realize that the resources are there. We simply have to be faithful to use them.
As we finish up this series this week and next, we begin to see a transition in Luke’s writing. The church moved from a group of believers in Jerusalem to a scattered mass preaching Jesus wherever they went, to a more focused and missional organization that intentionally started new congregations just like them.
As we go forward as a church, there are several things we must do
First, we must begin acting like the church. This means we have to be committed to the Gospel no matter where we are and no matter the people we are talking with. We must actively seek to meet others’ needs and minister effectively to the community. We began last week at the homecoming parade. We gave away over 500 cookies and more than 200 bottles of water. While this in itself isn’t anything special, what it did was show people we care about the community.
Second, we must work to develop community within our own ranks. We want everyone to be involved in a home group. These are safe places for you to get to know the other people in this church and to build meaningful relationships with them. Our home groups are going to be the “front door” to our church. We believe it is easier to go to an informal gathering of people in a home than it is to attend a larger, more formal group in a corporate worship setting. Home groups, then, not only serve the purpose of developing community, but they serve as an outreach tool for you to invite your friends.
Third, we must make missions our focus. Our area of effectiveness in this community lies outside the walls that make up our meeting space. If all we do is gather once a week and sing songs and hear a message, we’re not being faithful Jesus followers, we’re being Pharisees. The world outside our walls is in desperate need of a Savior and we have the answer! We must be actively reaching into the community.
This brings us to Acts 10. By way of review we’ve determined the Gospel is for everyone. No one is left out. There aren’t exclusions when we’re talking about Jesus. The Gospel is for everyone. First, the Holy Spirit came to the apostles, then to other Jewish believers. Then the Spirit fell on the Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch. The Kingdom of God is ever-expanding. It is available to all.
In Acts 10 we find ourselves in Joppa with Peter. Peter had been sent for to come to Joppa because a devout woman named Tabitha had died and the believers were mourning. They looked to Peter for comfort and to give them wisdom during this time. Instead of comforting them, however, he sent them out of the room and prayed over Tabitha. He then commanded her to arise. She did. Peter presented her alive to all the saints and they were amazed. Scripture then says that many believed in the Lord.
What’s important about this passage is that God used this miracle to further his Kingdom. I’m sure it wasn’t just because Tabitha was such a wonderful person. Because she died and because she was raised back to life, more people believed. Remember that these are still the early days of the church. Not many knew about the power of this Jesus. This event helped to spread the word. Many chose to follow him. Miracles and mighty works must always point to the Father. I think often we want to see miracles happen so that we can feel good about ourselves. We want to see people healed so we won’t have to go through the pain of loss. We want to see financial situations change instantly because we just want more money or we don’t want to have to go through the pain of growing. God doesn’t do miracles to make our lives easier. He performs miracles to bring attention to who he is. He does miracles to further his Kingdom, which was the second purpose in this situation. If Tabitha had not died, Peter might not have ended up in Joppa, which was exactly where God needed him to be.
In Caesarea there lived a centurion named Cornelius. Scripture says Cornelius was a devout man who feared God, gave alms to the poor, and prayed continuously. Because of his devotion, perhaps, Cornelius was granted a visit by an angel. This angel told him to seek out Simon Peter who happened to be staying at the home of Simon the tanner in Joppa. The angel told Cornelius that Peter would be able to answer all his questions.
Back in Joppa, Peter was spending time in prayer on the roof of Simon’s house. It was around lunch time, so Peter was getting hungry. As he prayed he fell into a trance and saw a vision of a sheet being let down from heaven with all kinds of animals on it. Then he heard the voice of God telling him to get up and eat. Now what we know about the Jews indicates that there were certain animals which were okay to eat and others that were unclean, unhealthy. Every good Jew (and most bad ones) knew the food laws and kept them. It was just a part of daily life. One didn’t eat pork if one was a Jew. Peter (who had failed plenty of times) perhaps thought that this was a test to see how faithful he was. He was not going to let God down. He refused, saying he had never and would never eat anything unclean. Bless his heart he just never seemed to get anything right. God rebuked him saying, “What God has made clean do not call common.” So now Peter was really confused. The amusing (or sad) thing was he had to go through this whole thing two more times! (What is it with Peter and threes?)
Verse 17 says that Peter was inwardly perplexed. Why did God do this? Why change the rules all of a sudden? I think it served a couple of purposes. First of all, and most importantly, God was showing Peter that everyone would have the opportunity to hear the Gospel. Cornelius, a Gentile, had dispatched men to bring Peter to him so he may hear what God had for him. God was showing Peter beforehand that it was ok for him to go. For so long Jewish law prohibited fraternization with Gentiles. Peter had to be convinced that it was ok for him to go with Cornelius’ men. Secondly, I think this vision served the purpose of changing the rules. The Jewish Christians were still so consumed with the law that they couldn’t get past little things like this. They had a hard time with new things even after Jesus spent so much time breaking Jewish laws (working on the Sabbath, eating with “sinners,” etc.). God was trying to get through to Peter that the law was not what was important, but the Creator of the law.
So often we spend our time being amazed by creation. Whether it is the stars in the sky, majestic mountain peaks, or that attractive member of the opposite sex, we spend all our efforts praising creation and not the Creator. Even in church we often focus on what God has done rather than on who he is. Does that make sense? Our lives as Christians are often consumed with what God has done for us or what we want him to do for us. We hardly ever talk simply about him. We hardly ever praise him. We praise his works, but not him. I think a lot of our frustration with God has to do with our impatience with him. We think if he would only do this or that we would be happy. God’s desire is relational. It always has been. If God is being too slow and not answering your prayer quickly enough for you, take a moment and step back. Look at the situation a little from his perspective. Is God really slow or are you asking for him to do something and not just for him. Let me put it this way: if your conversations with your wife or husband are all about asking them to do something for you, how healthy do you think that relationship is going to be? Women want to be romanced, guys, and men want to be needed and supported, ladies. Stop trying to get something out of them and just let them know that you want them. Yet that’s how we treat God. We don’t want him, we want his stuff. We want his blessing. God wants us to want him.
So Peter has just been rebuked again. God has made it clear that he’s the boss and he’s what is important, not tradition. So the Spirit led Peter to go with the men back to Cornelius. Upon his arrival in Caesarea, Peter found not only Cornelius, but his entire family as well as other relatives and close friends. Apparently Cornelius had been waiting to hear from God for a long time and he is looking forward to hearing what Peter had to say. He was so excited to hear from God’s messenger that he fell down at Peter’s feet and began to worship him.
Peter and Cornelius traded vision stories and it became clear to Peter that God wanted him to preach the Gospel just as he had done with the Jews, that God showed no partiality toward any group of people. This was a scandalous thing to think because the Jews had known for thousands of years that they were the chosen people. To find out that God loved all people and had chosen all people was a bit of a shock, I’m sure. In fact, Peter went on to say “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
As he went on, Peter preached the Gospel of Jesus and the good news about salvation to Cornelius and his whole family. Then something truly amazing (from Peter’s standpoint) happened. Cornelius and his whole family believed and the Holy Spirit fell on them. The whole group began to speak in tongues and extol the works of God. When the Spirit takes over a life amazing things happen. People are healed, the word of God gets preached with boldness, and lives are changed. Peter and all the Jewish Christians who were with him were amazed at what had happened. This was truly confirmation that salvation was available to all, that anyone who believed would be accepted by God. Peter then baptized them all in the name of Jesus and stayed with them several days teaching them more about Jesus and encouraging them.
After Peter got back to Jerusalem, he was confronted by some of the other Jewish Christians. I keep saying Jewish Christians because at this point that’s what they were. They were Jews who still kept the Jewish law, who still went to Temple, who still offered the sacrifices, but who also believed in and followed the example of Jesus. Because they were Jews they also still maintained the covenant of circumcision. They were angry with Peter because he fellowshipped and ate with uncircumcised Gentiles. He had defiled himself according to Jewish law and they reprimanded him for it. So Peter had to recount the whole story of what had happened to him. As he got to the climactic scene (the Holy Spirit falling on Cornelius and his whole household) he asked the others “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” And the rest were silenced. They then glorified God and said, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
This scene is a little amusing if you really look at it. Here were some devout Jewish believers who obviously felt like the gifts of God were only for them. Upon hearing Peter’s remarkable story they decided to get together and have a committee meeting. You can almost hear the debate raging. “The Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles? Can God do that? Can Gentiles be saved too? I don’t know that doesn’t seem right. The Spirit really did fall? They spoke in tongues?! I guess God really can save Gentiles. Who would’ve thought?” Indeed, the Gospel really is for everyone, even uncircumcised Gentiles!
God really is amazing! He really does want all to come to know him! The Gospel really is available to any who would follow him. It remains, then, that the only thing standing in the way of some following Jesus is the fact that they don’t know about him. They’ve never heard. While we spend our time preparing to debate political motivations with other believers there’s a world outside our walls that cares nothing about political clout, they’re just dying. They care nothing about the U.S. economy they just want a clean glass of water. They have no thoughts on universal health care they just want medicine to combat diarrhea. They don’t have any thoughts about retirement they just want someone to take them home and love them. The Gospel is only good news if we tell people about it. The love of Jesus is only far-reaching if we demonstrate it. We are the body of Christ. If we don’t physically do things, Jesus doesn’t do them either.
As we close chapter 11 and enter chapter 12 we find that the persecution of Christians has caused the dispersal of the believers far and wide. The Gospel was being preached more and more to the Gentiles. Thousands of people believed and the disciples had to figure out what to do to educate them all. They sent Barnabas to Antioch to observe the situation. When he got there he encouraged all the believers and shared with them wisdom. This was a great learning opportunity for all the believers and Barnabas sent for Saul, who was in Tarsus. Barnabas always had an affinity toward Saul. He stood up for him in Jerusalem in front of the apostles. He encouraged him in his preaching. Now he was going to give him practical ministry application. He and Saul stayed for over a year in Antioch preaching and teaching the believers there. Luke says the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. These disciples began to look so much like Jesus that everyone there began to call them by his title.
This short passage is important because it gives us an example of apprenticeship. So often in church life when we find someone who possesses some talent or maybe has extraordinary ability in a particular area, we toss them into the fray. We put them to work. We have them teach a class or lead a team or serve in some other way, but this is not a biblical model. Scripture gives us evidence that we train people to lead. We show them how to lead and give them easy opportunities to lead alongside us. By doing this we not only multiply their chance for success as a leader, we also minimize their opportunity for failure and burnout. This is a model we’re adopting at Cornerstone. That’s why we keep pleading for people who want to serve. We need willing people who will come alongside us and learn by doing. Apprentice is not a patronizing title, either. We want to give you opportunities to serve and we want you to be successful at it because we want you to train other leaders down the road. We need you to serve! We need you to host a small group or possibly lead one. We need you to help us with children’s ministry or possibly to show up early to greet people and make them feel welcome. You have something to offer. We need you!
As we close today, we look at Acts 12. The persecution of Christians had multiplied because not only were the Jews upset, but the Roman officials were beginning to take notice of this movement. Herod especially began to take part in the persecution. He had James the brother of John killed and when he saw that it pleased the people he had Peter imprisoned.
This is another one of those odd prison escape stories that involved an angel. Instead of evaporating through walls, however, an angel came to Peter while he was chained between two guards with sentries sitting outside his cell. The angel kicked Peter in the side to wake him up and caused the chains to fall off his arms and legs. Peter, thinking it might be another vision, went along with the angel as it led him out of his cell and outside the jail. When they got outside, the angel vanished. Coming to himself and realizing that he really was outside, he made his way to Mary’s house where the believers were gathered praying for him.
As he knocked on the door a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer it. When he asked to be let in she recognized his voice and got excited. What they had been praying for had come true! Peter was free! Instead of opening the door, however, she ran back into the house to tell the others. They didn’t believe her, though, because Peter wasn’t with her. She’d left him standing at the door. You can imagine Peter’s confusion at this point. He was still standing at the door knocking. He was probably trying to knock softly as to not draw attention to himself late at night…in the street…when he was supposed to be in prison. Rhoda finally convinced them to come to the door to see for themselves and they found Peter there knocking. And there was great rejoicing…Yea!
While no one likes persecution and while there are agencies that work to protect Christians around the globe, it’s important to note something. Persecution is what has moved the church forward countless times. If you think about it, it makes sense. Joy doesn’t change us. Peace doesn’t bring momentum. We grow because of trial and tribulation. We change because of pain. Even in birth there is difficulty and pain. As we grow physically there is pain. Why would we think any different about life or maturity? It’s the difficult times in life that cause us the most heartache that also push us forward the most. If you think about a movie, you never find a movie without any conflict. There’s never a movie in which the protagonist doesn’t go through a struggle. There’s not a movie in which people don’t change. When you think about it, though, such a movie would be terrible. If all Frodo had to do was throw the ring in the hearth fire, there wouldn’t be much of a story. If Romeo and Juliet were able to just get married we might be happier at the end, but it wouldn’t be as memorable. Stories are only good if they cost something. Our lives are the same way. Our lives are only good if it costs something. In fact, the most memorable stories are ones in which the lead characters either die or face death.
Persecution was moving the church forward. It turned mild-mannered Jews into passionate followers of Christ. Why? They had to be. You can’t stare down death and not mean it. You can’t be killed for your beliefs if they’re not real. Why are we seeing such a decline in church attendance in America? It doesn’t cost us anything to be Christians. Why is the church exploding in North Korea and China? Their faith is real.
I’m not saying that our faith isn’t real and I’m not praying for persecution. Maybe, though, we should take following Jesus seriously. Maybe we should pursue a relationship with Christ rather than just asking him to give us stuff. Maybe we should live out our faith rather than simply go to church.
We want to be a church that impacts the community. We want to be a church that meets people’s needs. We want to be a church that shows the love of Jesus to everyone. There are at least 11,000 people in Kilgore who are unengaged with a church. They likely don’t know Jesus at all. Maybe they’ve been hurt by the church or they just don’t want anything to do with Jesus. When you think about how far some of you are coming, the number grows. We have people who’ve been coming who live in Longview, Marshall, Shreveport, Hallsville, Gilmer, Tyler, Henderson, and Jacksonville. This is an area in which 300,000-500,000 people live. We don’t need one church; we need upwards of 200-300. We need you to get involved. We need you to serve.
As we enter into October there are going to be several ways you can get involved in Cornerstone. The first is to join a small group. We are going to launch our small group ministry the week of the 17th. October 17th is small group Sunday. Small groups are going to be a way you can engage other people like you. They may be further along in the journey or they may be just starting. They may have the same hurts that you have or maybe they’ve been through what you’re going through. We want everyone to be involved in a small group. Even if you don’t live in Kilgore we want to you be in a small group. Perhaps you start one in your home and invite your friends to come. These are an opportunity to fellowship and simply build relationships with others. We think relationship is one of the most important things about being human. No one was designed to live alone. No one was designed to do life alone. We need others. Please join a small group.
Another way to get involved is to start serving. We need people to help in the children’s ministry and nursery. We want to develop a rotation so no one has to serve every week, but to do that, we need people. When we launch our small group ministry we’re also planning on launching student ministry. Luke is going to be leading out with our middle school and high school students and he needs help. We need people who have a love for students and who are interested in helping to join him.
Finally we want you to get involved as a member. We’ve spent several weeks talking about who we want to be and how we want to engage the community. If you feel like that’s you, we want you to covenant with us in membership. We ask that you go through a membership class that simply informs you of the procedures and structure that we follow as a church, why we do what we do, and how we make decisions. We’re going to hold this class on the last Sunday in October immediately following worship. Lunch will be provided for you and the class will be led by our staff. We also want you to know that if you’re just not sure yet about membership or don’t know if you can commit to what we’re asking that you can continue to worship with us. You can still join a small group and you can still serve. We don’t want you to feel obligated, we just want you to know that if the Spirit is leading you, we would love to have you covenant with us in membership.
We love you all and thank you so much for being a part of the beginning of our new church. We hope we meet your needs and minister to you effectively. We’re going to enter again into a time of worship. If you have any questions or would like to talk with someone about anything, please find Tim or me. If you need to spend time in prayer, please do that. As the Spirit leads, you follow