September 24, 2017 – Who Made You Pope?

“Who Made You Pope?”

Pastor John discusses faith practices.


Who Made You Pope?

A sermon by John Strommen on Acts 2:37-47    Sept. 24, 2017

“Who made you the pope?” Ever had someone say that to you? You know, if you were getting bossy or acting like a know-it-all. So, who made you pope? Well, God did, by the power of your baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. I know, I know, we’re not even Catholic, so no one wants to be pope anyway. I’m sure most Catholics don’t want to be Pope either, although we do like being right, and maybe being in control. Before Martin Luther was a Lutheran, he merely wanted to be a faithful Catholic, and Luther famously once wrote that every Christian parent is pastor, bishop and pope in their own home, which meant they had a sacred authority and calling to teach, lead and shape faith in their families. Why? Because the Holy Spirit is at work in them and through them.

And it doesn’t stop there. When we’re at work or play, we’re the pope. Again, not in a power mongering, “I’m infallible” kind of way, but in a “God is at work in me” kind of way. I have a relationship with God kind of way. I may be a pastor, but God is no more at work in me as a pastor than in Sinead as an educator, or Rich as a doctor, or Dave as a butcher, or Jenni as a graphic artist.

As we read in Acts, the Holy Spirit is like a wind that blows onto us, in us and through us! Just like in creation, when God breathed a mighty wind into dust to make you. And as this wind filled believers with the power of God, you had fishermen, tax collectors and businesswomen suddenly filled with the power of God. This is the story of Pentecost, of course, and something that unfolded in a very public way. People noticed that these followers of Jesus were acting kind of strange but also kind of wonderful, so they inquired. Peter obliged with a stem winder of a sermon! And many who were listening believed in what Peter said and asked, “What should we do?”

In matters of church and faith, I think many of us ask that question a lot. What should we do? Tell me what to do, pastor?

Well, Peter, told them what to do, and by the way, he was no pastor. He was a fisherman who was filled with a story, wasn’t he? And a power! So he said to them, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” There it is again. You are a new creation.

So they got baptized. But now what? Well, the book of Acts gives us a wonderful account of what they did next. It says their ranks grew quickly and “they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They practiced generosity to the poor and shared their material wealth with their fellowship. Daily they praised God and ate together with glad and generous hearts.

These are faith practices, all of these. There is the practice of gratitude and generosity. The practice of fellowship is the practice of sharing burdens and building a community given to us by Christ. The practice of prayer is the practice of conversation with the living God, worship the practice of encountering the living God. The Apostle’s teaching is the practice of dwelling in the Word, of interpreting together and wrestling with our teachings. These people were getting after it.

Now, if these early Christians did none of these faith practices, would the Holy Spirit have still been working through them? Would God have still been at work in their lives if they worshipped only at Christmas and Easter and lived lives that were in all other ways indistinguishable from other Middle Eastern folks of that time?

Yes! God would still work through them. Luther believed that God is active and at work in all people who are doing good things that make the world a better place, even people that don’t believe in God or believe in a different God. The Holy Spirit is at work in them.

But it makes a big difference when God says to we people of faith, “We’re working together, you and I, we have a partnership.”

It makes a big difference when we know we are in a relationship with this God and are seeking to understand what God is up to so that we can cooperate and partner with God in this world.

It makes a difference when we understand that all goodness comes from God, not us, and we are agents and ambassadors for something much bigger than us. And this is why we have “faith practices”: to actively partner with the living God as he works with and through us. In many ways, this is “back to the basics” of Christian faith.

Let me make an analogy with two photos.(pic #3) Let’s say with the first one, the captain and crew say to themselves, “We don’t need the sails up and unfurled. We can paddle, really, really hard.”

(pic #4) With the second one, sails are unfurled fully. Which one will get further? What’s the difference? The sails! Both ships have the wind available to them. Only one ship can harness the power of the wind!

We are like a ship and the wind is the Holy Spirit. If faith for us is only an idea, something we learn about but not something we practice, we’re like the first ship, with no sails. Can the wind still push the ship? Sure, by pushing on the hull of the ship, but this is pretty inefficient! A ship where the sails never go up would tell us the captain of that ship doesn’t really understand how a sailing ship works, how the wind works.

The captain understands that the wind is the power here and we need to catch the wind. There’s no mistaking where the power is coming from. But we need to receive it, work with it.

Do our churches today understand where our power comes from? We need to understand, we baptized believers, we popes, that we don’t go to church, we are the church wherever we are.

The key to our strategic plan is faith practices and faith practices are sails that harness the power of the Holy Spirit. Faith practices are about being the church, not going to church. And you can do them any time, any where.

Church Innovations Institute has conducted research over the last 25 years where they ask people in churches from many different denominations all over the country about their faith life. What is it like? What is their experience? The vast majority describe their faith experience in life with no reference to God as a presence that is at work in their life or world. This is trending the wrong direction, by the way. It’s called sailing with sails down! Observers have called this “functional atheism,” people who believe in the idea of God and Jesus, but not their active presence. These are good people who do good things, don’t get me wrong. They’re active church people, too. They go to church.

The truth is, our culture is gradually becoming more and more suspicious of God talk and religion. The important thing, according to our culture, is doing good things or creating a social club to belong to. And that is what many churches are: a social club that tries to do good things. But that doesn’t begin to tell the story of who we are. Our story is a God thing, about wind and sails; about a God who sent his son, who died, and rose again, and is loose among us, by the power of the Holy Spirit!

Brother Lawrence long ago coined a phrase: “practicing the presence of God.” He meant a lot of things by this, but basically he meant sailing, and this phrase couldn’t be more relevant today. If God is present with us always (God is!), what does it look like to “practice” this? To act as though God is really with us and at work in us? For Lawrence, this meant cultivating a relationship with the living God through a set of practices.

The early Christian church described in Acts 15 was practicing the presence of God. You can hear it in verse 28: for it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. Quite simply, a huge decision was made and controversy resolved by making the Holy Spirit a conversation partner. It’s a practice called discernment.

Like the people at Pentecost, you may be asking, “What do we do now?” Don’t wait for me to plug you into my master plan. I don’t have one, nor should I. I do know this, though: It’s time to learn again how to put up our sails and practice the presence of God for the Holy Spirit has been given to each of us. And then get ready, because the thing about the wind is, it takes you somewhere. You don’t just stay where you are. God has big plans for you, me and us. Amen.

 

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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