The following is the sermon manuscript I used on October 1, 2017, the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. It will vary in places from the actual sermon preached.
For more on this series, see our Introduction.
Sermon Text – Acts 18:24-19:10
The Holy Spirit of God is not tame. And that should humble us.
We are at a transition point in Acts, one that begs us to consider what it means to be instructed by the Scriptures, what it means to be baptized in the name of Jesus, what it means to be touched – to be in fellowship – with our sisters and brothers in Christ. At the center of this three-fold working of water, word, and touch is the Spirit of God pointing us to Jesus in power. The Scriptures are important, but if the Spirit does not use the Scriptures to point us to Jesus, then we have no knowledge. Repentance and baptism are important, but if it is not done with the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus, it is not a holy moment, a sacred moment, a sacrament. The intimacy of community is important, but if that intimacy does not come from shared, humble communion by the Spirit in the name of Jesus, it is not a congregation.
At the extremes in this passage are, on one end, Apollos and twelve newly baptized. On the other end are the unbelieving people of the synagogue at Ephesus. In the center are Priscilla, Aquila, and Paul being worked by the Spirit to overturn worlds. At one end are people who are close to the kingdom in fullness; at the other, people who think they are close push themselves further away. At one end, people who have knowledge – who really do have an understanding of the truth – humble themselves to receive more accurate instruction; at the other, people who think they have knowledge allow their stubbornness to reject the truth at the cost of their salvation. The Holy Spirit is at work, moving where the Spirit wills to move. Those who are following the Spirit follow further. Those who are rejecting the Spirit push themselves further away.
When we last left Paul, he was in Athens. He was in the middle of what’s known as his second missionary journey – that’s in the book of the maps there at the end of some your Bibles. He’s been moving up from Antioch in Syria, the place where the first Christian community outside of Israel was visited by the apostles, northwest up into modern-day Turkey and into Greece. Athens is not too far from the port city of Corinth, which you may remember from the letters Paul wrote to the church there, where Paul meets Priscilla and Aquila. This is the missionary couple who had fled to Greece from Italy as refugees when the Roman emperor Claudius was persecuting the Jews in Rome. In Corinth, Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila all make tents. All three preach the gospel. And all three sail from Corinth east across the Aegean Sea to Ephesus. Paul leaves Priscilla and Aquila to return to the place where this missionary journey started – Antioch in Syria – and the passage today marks the beginning of Paul’s third and final missionary journey before he is imprisoned and sent to Rome to die.
Derek and I have been leading you through this story, this history of the book of Acts by describing it as one Act of the Holy Spirit revealing the person of Jesus Christ to the whole world through many movements of the apostles and disciples, advancing the Kingdom of God to the ends of the earth. Derek and I have counted 85 such movements through the highly scientific process of counting ESV section headings. If you’ve been counting along with us, and I know you haven’t because even I had to look this up on the worship plan we made, these are movements 59 and 60. The geography is important – it marks real places where real people lived who were saved into a real community of Christians by the very real Holy Spirit in the name of the very real, resurrected Jesus Christ. The movements are important, because it involved real disciples proclaiming the real good news in real time periods of real history. The movements involved real work, real danger, real sacrifice. But the numbers of the movements or the geography aren’t what I would ask you if I were to quiz you on this book. I would want you to remember the number one – One Actor, the living God. One Lord, Jesus Christ. One Act, the spread of the gospel to the world.
And the Actor is not tame. The Spirit of the living God moves us, not the other way around. And this should humble us.
We all have that friend on Facebook – some of us still have that friend in the real world. That friend who is as stubborn as the day is long . . . but not just stubborn – wrong and stubborn. Boy did last year bring these folks out! I don’t care who you voted for, you know what I’m talking about. And I don’t care what issue you take today, what side you take (or if you take any side at all) – from Trump to the National Anthem at a football game to the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico – you know that friend of yours who is absolutely wrong and no matter how much you try to convince him he’s not going to change his mind on it!
Especially not on Facebook where it’s easy to forget that the person who’s arguing with you in a flesh and blood human being with hopes and fears and wants and dreams just like you. People are stubborn. We’re especially stubborn when we think that we’re right about something. I joked about giving a quiz earlier, but chances are if I did give a quiz, and you got some answers wrong, some of you would argue with the question! I know because I’ve done the same thing before!
At heart, we all have what’s called a confirmation bias. So many of the things we’re convinced we’re right about, we’re only convinced because we’ve only looked at sources that confirmed what we already thought was true. We only look for evidence that we want to find, and if we do find evidence that’s contrary to what we think is true, we often dismiss it before we understand it.
We must value the truth and hold that truth does mean something – I’m not arguing for the opposite of that or for relative truth. But what I am saying is that you may be wrong. I may be wrong. And we all need to be corrected.
This confirmation bias doesn’t happen just in secular culture or politics. We celebrate this month the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the movement started by Martin Luther that led to Christian groups to move away from the Roman church. In that time period, something like 30,000 Protestant denominations have started. That’s 30,000 groups that differ in either doctrine, history, or geography – or some combination of the three. For us and our sister denomination of Cumberland Presbyterians, it’s a separation that started as segregation because of race.
The Holy Spirit does not move in 30,000 different directions at once. We do. And while there is much to celebrate this month about the Protestant Reformation, there is also a lot for us to be convicted about, too. We are not a humble people, willing to listen to instruction by the Spirit. Instead, we prefer to argue, to split, to sue, and to separate.
No, the Holy Spirit of God is not tame. And that should humble us like it humbled Apollos.
Apollos was an educated man who allowed refugees to teach him the Scriptures more accurately. As a man, he was a Jewish leader – and in that very patriarchal society he learned from a woman and her husband who had a better understanding of the Scriptures than he did. He was a bold, passionate man – but, like Jesus, he did not see humility as something that made him weak. He was led by the Spirit, and he had surrendered himself enough to know that the Spirit was leading him into community. This was not just Apollos and his Bible, and his only interaction with other people was not simply telling them how wrong they were! The result of his humility was greater boldness! The result of his humility was greater intellectual prowess! But these things were only tools used by the Spirit to convince people that Jesus is the Christ. Only the humble allow themselves to be moved by the Spirit in this way. Only the humble can be convicted by the reading of the word in the presence of community and find a changed life to God’s glory.
The Holy Spirit of God is not tame. And that should humble us like it humbled the twelve in our passage who were baptized.
Notice, I did not say re-baptized – that’s not what’s going on here. There is no magic formula. The reason their first baptism was insufficient (good as it may have been) was not because of the pattern of a ceremony, but because of a person. They were baptized in repentance that led the way for Jesus. Now Jesus had come. And they needed to share in his baptism. They needed to share in his death. They needed to share in his resurrection. And they go humbly.
In quiet humility, they are led by the Spirit through Paul into baptism. The result of their humility is boldness – they receive the Holy Spirit in power. In an echo of the twelve apostles at Pentecost these twelve foreign disciples are touched by the Christian community in the hands of Paul. They speak in tongues, and they prophesy.
Too often, we get this so wrong. We think baptism is about us. I see people who were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit get re-baptized all the time. This may seem like an act of humility – someone is admitting that they themselves or someone else didn’t get it right the first time. I confess that I cringe whenever I hear someone tell a newly baptized person, “Congratulations!” or worse, “I’m so proud of you!” In this lack of humility or faux humility we make baptism about us! Brothers and sisters, baptism is about Jesus. That’s why, and it’s the only reason why it has any affect at all! The difference in this text is in the name of the community into which the person is being baptized. It has nothing to do with the people being baptized. And if you are ever tempted to doubt your baptism, do not look to yourself, to the age when you received it, or to the one who performed it. Look to the name that was pronounced over you – look to the name of Jesus.
Do not be stubborn, like the people in the synagogue. Do not reject the Holy Spirit and find yourself isolated from the touch of the community, the water of your baptism, the word of God proclaimed in the congregation. Instead, as Paul proclaims in Philippians 2, look to Jesus and in humility learn from him:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.