Psalm 66:8-20
Acts 1:1-5

Today begins Book Two. The sequel, if you will.

But before we start today we have to go back to the beginning of Luke’s gospel. So, if you will, take out your bibles and flip back to page 56. Luke, chapter 1, verses 1-4:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

There is a decent amount of scholarly debate about who Luke is – the bottom line is we don’t know for sure and can’t know.[1] But one thing almost everybody agrees on is that whoever wrote Luke also wrote Acts, around the year 80. Both books are addressed to the same name, Theophilus. Some think this name, which means “lover of God,” is more symbolic, others assume – in a way that was consistent with the time, that Theophilus, most excellent, was a person of some social standing in the Roman Empire. Books like this were often addressed to powerful people, hoping they would promote them. It seems like by this time the church was making some headway into the middle and higher ranks of society, seeking broader support.[2]

How Luke tells the story is so important. He makes clear that he has looked into the matter thoroughly – he must have been aware of the other gospels – to give an orderly account. What I have to say here, he says, is what you need to know. It’s extraordinary.

We get more backstory on Jesus’ birth than anywhere else, meeting Zechariah, who becomes John the Baptist’s father, then Elizabeth, a relative of Mary. Mary meets the angel, and sings her glorious magnificat. The baby Jesus is presented in the Temple, as well as the only story of Jesus’ childhood that we have, of him huddled with the teachers in the Temple during Passover, increasing in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

After John’s ministry begins, Jesus is baptized and tempted, walks right into the synagogue in Nazareth, reading from Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he says, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, the year of the Lord’s favor.

There are an amazing number of healing stories in Luke, of all sorts of people, a leper and a paralytic, a Centurion’s servant and a widow’s son. Jesus calms storms, casts out demons, feeds five thousand. We encounter grace in the finding of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost brother, the prodigal son. Jesus has strong words for the rich and the rigid: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, he says, than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. After the full events of Holy Week, and long teaching sections in the temple, three appearances after the resurrection – as we’ve talked about in recent weeks. A walk to Emmaus, an appearance where he reaches out to them. Then, last week, a blessing, as he is carried into heaven.

THAT. Whew. And so much more, is Book One. Today begins book two. It can work on its own, but like any good series, is best understood in partnership with Book One. Luke, says so at the beginning. Back in my first book, he says, I told you about all Jesus did and taught – how both his actions and his words mattered – from the beginning. From his birth, being a smarty pants boy in the temple. Remember? All the way to the end, after that final blessing, you know, don’t you? Then he said to them, WAIT. Wait here. The Spirit is coming.

But the thing that most interests me is how Luke tells the story. He shapes and crafts, adding things you don’t see in other places, leaving things out that Mark, that John, loved. We all have our own perspective, our own experience, our own way into this story. The Holy Spirit takes all of this and weaves it together – I love that we have four gospels and not only one “authorized version.” But that also invites us to think about our version, our telling of that story. How would each one of us write our own story of faith? How did you first learn about this person named Jesus? Who told you? Where? What was that like? This gets into rather terrifying territory for most Presbyterians, namely that of this off thing called evangelism, from the Greek for good news. Sure, we’ve all had people rub us the wrong way by being too forward, preaching at us and not with us, threatening us or others with hell, or even worse, with a rigid and vengeful God who doesn’t much resemble the God we meet in Jesus. How we tell the story matters.

Richard Niebuhr, in his essay, “The Story of our Life,” claims that the Christian community has always used what he calls a “historical method”:

We can imagine that early preachers were often asked to explain what they meant with their talk about God, salvation, and revelation, and, when they were hard pressed, when all their parables or references to the unknown God and to the Logos had succeeded in only confusing their hearers, they turned at last to the story of their life, saying, “What we mean is this event which happened among us and to us.” They followed in this respect the prophets who had spoken of God before them and the Jewish community which had also talked of revelation. These, too, always spoke of history, of what happened to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of a deliverance from Egypt, of the covenant of Sinai, of mighty acts of God. Even their private visions were dated, as “in the year that King Uzziah died,” even the moral law was anchored to a historical event, and even God was defined less by his metaphysical and moral character than by his historical relations, as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.[3]

Our faith is grounded on concrete events, Niebuhr argues, rooted in history – actual people in actual places who encountered the Living God. We tell stories to express our faith, and to try and understand it and to share it with others, to give it shape and coherence. This storytelling also gives the church its mission. “The church’s compulsion [to tell these stories] arises out of its need – since it is a living church – to say truly what is stands for, and out of its inability to do so otherwise than by telling the story of its life.”[4] This is also the place where the story of the Gospel and the story of a particular people come together. In worship we bear witness not only to the God who has moved throughout history, but who continues to live and move among us.

So now I’m going to ask you to take your bulletin out. This is the awkward part of the sermon for Presbyterians. Don’t worry, I’m not going to make you talk to each other – not yet, though I think I’m going to this summer a little. I want you to think about how you find your way into the larger story of Jesus in the world.

Take your bulletin out.

  • What are your first memories of learning about Jesus? Who are some people who taught you important things about God?
  • Describe a time when you felt God was near.
  • Describe a time when you felt God was absent.

At some point this week I want you to tell someone a few of these things. At home over dinner you could talk about it. A couple of you could go to lunch. Doesn’t have to sound fancy, doesn’t need to be fully formed. These stories are never fully formed, never complete.

The church is, in every generation, in danger of extinction. This all could go away in an instant. Yet we keep telling the story. Some of it is awfully repetitive. EVERY December we tell about Jesus being born. EVERY Easter, if you’ve noticed, it’s the same story. And while we have all of these wonderful confessions and creeds, and I know plenty of people who love the rich theology of our tradition, I don’t know many people who come to church, who still come to church, or God forbid someone who started coming to church who didn’t before because of a creed. It’s the story. One person saying to another. This happened to me. I think it was Jesus. It changed everything.

All praise be to the God who formed it all in creation, and continues to shape all sorts of amazing stories among us. Amen.

[1] I rely heavly on Justo Gonzalez’s “Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit,” (Orbis: Maryknoll, NY, 2001), pages 1-12.

[2] Also Gonzalez, 13-15.

[3] H. Richard Niebuhr “The Story of Our Life,” in Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and L. Gregory Jones (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997), 22-23.

[4] Niebuhr, 23.