Take the First Step!
Scripture Readings: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
As I was approaching the apartment complex in my school bus this week to where one of my students lives, I noticed that the police had blocked off one of the lanes of the four-lane street I was driving down. Such occurrences are always a little nerve wracking for bus drivers, for it may mean having to change our route or having trouble picking up or dropping off our kids. As I drew closer, I could see the boy I was about to pick up waiting with his mom. Next door to their apartment is a mini mart that was surrounded by yellow police tape and several officers were investigating the scene. All I could discern was a small white car that looked like the front end had been torn off in an accident.
My student didn’t seem to know what had happened, just saying that there had been a shooting, and that the shooter had come back and shot someone else. When I stopped the next day to pick him up for school, the white car was gone, but the store, parking lot, and the one lane of traffic were still blocked off. There were many police markers around, more officers, and a different vehicle was being towed away.
Police investigations generally don’t take that long in that neighborhood. They are common, but this one was different. Kristen refers to the area as “Crackwood” but is officially named Rockwood. We have an elementary school just a few blocks away, and I have known lots of kids in the area, but it is not a place to go after dark. In addition to being a place known for criminal activity, it is also home to mostly poor families, many of them migrant families. Thinking that my student was elaborating on the true story, I looked it up online later, and found that it was even worse than he described, although few details were available.
A young man was shot and killed outside the mini mart, and a suspect was in custody. The next night a small vigil was being held at the site for the one killed, when a car drove by and shots were fired at those holding the vigil. Then shots were fired from the crowd at the passing vehicle. No conclusions were given in the story that I read, but it sounds like gang behavior to me. Seven people were wounded this time, but none killed. You’d think such a story would get more coverage in the news, with follow-up reports, but such things are getting all too common, and apparently are no longer as newsworthy. The article I read mentioned two other shootings nearby, apparently not related. In one case, two people were shot and seriously injured. Police are asking for witnesses to come forth. In the other shooting, police arrived on the scene after the culprits had left and found over 30 shell casings.
That second day, the mother of the boy I pick up next door mentioned that he was a little out of sorts, having just started back to school and having difficulty transitioning back and all. She didn’t mention the shootings, but certainly they had upset him, too. Who wouldn’t be? He is autistic and excitable, often trying to talk faster than his mouth can keep up. Most of the other kids I have picked up nearby over the years were much younger but just as vulnerable, even those not considered to be “special needs”, growing up in an area most of us would never think of living in. We would all like to help these kids, but most likely don’t know where to start. Many have siblings who are gang members, and parents who work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. They not only live in poverty but endure prejudice and violence. These kids are just as lovable as those who may look more like us and share our background, and serving them is both rewarding and challenging. I wish I could do more for them.
Our Scripture readings today speak about love. We like such passages as they comfort us and make us feel that we are loved. We all like to sing “Jesus Loves Me” and feel like we belong to Him, wrapped in His arms. But what about those who don’t know that love? We are called to love God, that is the easier part. But we are also called to love our neighbors, and that is a difficult road to go down. We love some, but not others. But as followers of Christ, we are to be known by our love, particularly our love in action. The world doesn’t listen to us much anymore, so we have to show them what we believe, through service to others and by what we stand for. We know that God loves us, and are now called to share that love, right?
But what about loving those whom we really don’t like? Those who are always critical, those who never agree with us, even those who seek to do us harm. Do we look at certain people and say: I am a Christian to some people, but I can’t be to them? Maybe not in word, but in deed, or lack thereof. Can we really love all people, or is that just a dream? We can feel sorry for those mourning the gang-member who was killed, can we love the other one who drove by and opened fire on his rivals? How many of us know people who no longer talk to certain family members due to differing political views? How many of us have come to church, of all places, seeking acceptance and love, just to feel rejected and abused? How many of us have known people outside of the church who are more loving than some who are in it? Why should we love others when we have been hurt so many times?
The answer of course is that we are not talking about human love, for we as children of God are to abide in His love. Human love at times is fearful, hesitant, wavering. We love others who love us, unconditional love only comes from God. If we want the love that casts out fear and empowers us to act in faith, we must abide in Jesus at all times, for only His love was obedient all the way to the Cross. As 1st John says:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. (1st John 4:7-14)
Abiding with God, spending time with Him, isn’t that hard for those who love Him. Loving others, putting this love into action, is the harder part. If we don’t let the Spirit take control, we revert to just using our human love, which is often too limited. We know that we are to love others, but often cannot take the first step to doing so. We avoid them, go our own way, do our own thing, in our own little world that they do not have a part in. In doing so, we may ignore the call of the Spirit to witness to a difficult or just plain different person. By ignoring the Spirit, we put that person’s eternal soul at risk, and risk not being faithful to our calling. But we must take that first step, for we are commanded to do so. As followers of Christ, we are expected to love one another and share the Gospel. For some of us, that is the most difficult part of being a Christian. 1st John continues:
So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (1st John 4:15-21)
Abiding in God’s love not only gives us the courage to love in this way but provides us opportunities to do so at the Spirit’s direction. But things are so different now that the miraculous stories of the Bible may be hard to imagine taking place in our time. Perhaps we even think such things don’t happen anymore! This of course is not true: the Bible stories were given in some cases as examples for us, not necessarily as blueprints for what will happen for us today. Our experiences will be similar but still different, as the Spirit is at work in a very different time, at a different place in the unfolding of God’s plan for our world. The examples that we are given in Acts show the Spirit at work at that time, sending early believers into mission, and sometimes preventing them from going to certain places. Bold action was required. How much easier being a disciple would be if this kind of thing happened to us! In Acts 16 we are told:
A vision appeared to Paul during the night: a certain man of Macedonia was standing and pleading with him, saying: ‘Pass over to Macedonia and help us.’ As soon as he had seen the vision, we immediately sought to pass over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to preach the good news to them. (Acts 16:9-10)
How much easier it would be if we had a vision of someone asking us to help them! Or are they, just not in visions, and we just aren’t paying attention? When we are looking to put our faith into action, perhaps we should ask in prayer: “Lord, who can I help? Who do you want me to love?” The answer might surprise you, but maybe not, for it has most likely already put into your heart by the Spirit. Often when we seek to follow Jesus, just asking where to go means starting down a path you can’t see yet. It means taking that leap of faith, not knowing the direction you were meant to jump in. Or you meet someone new, slowly get to know them, and realize that you have been sent to minister to that person. We want to know what the reward for our effort will be, but with God, we often don’t even get a glimpse of what we are to do until after we take the first step.
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. (Acts 8:26-27a)
Philip hasn’t been told why he is leaving, he just goes. He knows God has something for him to do and responds in faith. And then a couple of verses later we read:
Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.”
How many Phillips are amongst us? Who would just get up and go? We want a clear path, we need clear steps. We want to know the costs and the rewards. We want to see the end before we even take the first step! But with God, it usually doesn’t work that way. There often isn’t any time for planning, so we have to prepared to answer the call when it comes.
We don’t get any hint that Phillip is planning his next move, or that he even has some overall design for his career as an evangelist. This one chapter from Acts is the only time we get to see him in action, he usually is only noted by name for being present in other stories. We really don’t know anything about him except that he was obedient when the Spirit called him. He was ready for action. He runs toward this man he doesn’t even know, who most likely was a rather imposing figure riding in his chariot, something only a person of the highest standing in his society would do. After Phillip talks with the man and baptizes him, we are told that:
When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. (Acts 8:39-40)
Phillip obeys. He does what he was sent to do, and then moves on. What he did next, we aren’t told. We only get the one story, but it is a glorious one. What will you be remembered for? What will your next step be? The man asks Phillip: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Even though now an important man, as a eunuch, he certainly has known humiliation and rejection. Some in the religious community of Jerusalem would have shunned him, and being a foreigner serving a different ruler didn’t help, either. But this is the person the Spirit calls Phillip to help, and it brings an expansion of the Kingdom of God into a new territory, to new people.
The story of course is much bigger than just this one scene. The Book of Acts tells of the rapid spread of the early church, starting in Jerusalem with the Jews, then spreading to other nations and ethnicities, bringing in Gentiles and all others. In the beginning of Acts, Jesus tells his disciples: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8) This story continues with us today, as we are not there yet, and we too are called to save the lost, no matter where they are from or what they look like. When the Spirit provides an opportunity to reach a new person for Christ, we need to be prepared to respond. That means loving our kids (not just our own) and providing a future of hope for them, even those kids living in places we try to avoid. It may mean reaching out to gangbangers and drug dealers. It may mean standing with the victims of crime and violence. Or it could mean praying for the police officers who responded to yet another shooting, doing their best to keep us safe. Wherever the Spirit leads us, we need to be prepared to respond, ready to take the first step.
I work with a man who kind of reminds me of Phillip. Wherever He goes, he proclaims the love of Jesus to those he meets. Too often, we leave sharing the Gospel to the “professionals”, the pastors and missionaries, even though we have all been called to share the Good News of our Risen Lord. My friend has never gone to Bible college or any other college, but He knows Jesus deep in His heart and can’t keep Him there even if he tried. He doesn’t plan out his next step with Jesus, he follows the guidance of the Spirit the moment he hears it. He may not be a Bible scholar, but he has more wisdom gained from experiencing Christ at work in his life than most of the so-called experts of faith. He loves the Lord and answers His call, ready to take that next step at a moment’s notice.
I started this sermon asking myself how we are to love those that are difficult to love, but as usual, was led in different directions. I had hoped to offer some advice for this divisive time we live in. But as in most other things, in the end, I can only sound like an ad for Nike: “Just do it!” Act in faith, follow the Spirit, let Jesus grow and shape you by the experiences He provides. Love others simply because Jesus tells us to. Certainly, doing great things is something we all want, but what God wants even more is our obedience. Do what He tells you, not out of obligation, but out of love for Him and all of His children.
Something pastors often like to say because we can’t think of anything better is that we are to plant seeds, rather than expecting to harvest fruit before the seed even sprouts. We want results now! But we are to plant the seed, and wait patiently, for the Spirit provides the growth and fruit. Sometimes we see the fruit, sometimes not. Sometimes the evil one gets in the way, coming like a thief in the night to sow weeds in with our veggies. Sometimes he comes in the form of an evil hungry bunny, eating all our tender pea plants because the neighbor’s cat had kittens and hasn’t been prowling our garden, and now I will have to go to Lowe’s and buy some plants. But we keep planting seeds anyway expecting a crop, it just will come in God’s timing, not ours.
So take that first step, even when you are afraid. Love others because God first loved you. Try loving someone new, someone who until now may have been invisible to you because they don’t look like you. Take the first step, even when you don’t know where you are going. Jesus will get you there.