Growing Pains: A Sermon from the Book of Acts

This sermon was preached for Winthrop Evangelical Covenant Church on October 23, 2022, as part of a series on Understanding the New Testament. A video of this message is available here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s an honor to be with you today, as you continue your journey through scripture to discover God’s great plan of redemption. God is on a mission to redeem the world, and God is fulfilling that mission through the church, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, to recap the last few weeks, or bring you up to date if you are joining us now for the first time, we know that:

  1. Jesus fulfilled the major promises of the Old Testament, and
  2. Jesus has given us a mission to accomplish. A couple of weeks ago, you took a careful look at the Great Commission, when Jesus told his disciples to “go, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” And then Jesus offers a promise: “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20) And you learned that Christ keeps that promise through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
  3. God’s Spirit works in people in a new and powerful way. The prophet Isaiah says, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19) The Holy Spirit is at work.
  4. Last week, we saw how that work is reflected in the early church by the quality of their practice of worship and fellowship, the way they handled their possessions, and their piety as they met together, ate together, and praised God together. Acts 2:47 tells us, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

The church of Jesus Christ is growing. It’s growing organically. It’s growing rapidly. And just like a child’s legs in the middle of a growth spurt, it’s experiencing some growing pains. But here’s the thing you need to know, and if you like to take notes, this may be the only one you need to write down today.

When the Holy Spirit leads the church, the church grows.

Growth means change, and change almost always means pain.

Let’s pray.
Holy God, you sent your Son to save us from ourselves, and to establish your kingdom once and for all. As we ponder your Word, open our hearts and our minds to the ways you want us to grow deeper in love with you, and join you in your mission to make disciples of all nations. Pour out your Holy Spirit on us now, and lead us where we need to go. We pray this in the strong name of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

A lot has happened to this growing band of Jesus followers since we left them at the end of Acts 2 last week. Not only has the number of believers grown exponentially in a short amount of time, the church’s geographical boundaries have expanded. Let me give you a quick tour through the next few chapters.

Chapter 3 tells about Peter and John healing a crippled beggar at the Beautiful Gate, and chapter 4 describes what happens when they are called before the Sanhedrin to explain themselves.
Listen to Acts 4:8-10.

“Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them:’ Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.’”

Acts 4:8-10 (NIV)

So, one of the first challenges to the early church comes from a healing miracle. But notice that Peter does not speak out of his own wisdom. He is “filled with the Holy Spirit.” And he gives credit for this healing miracle to the crucified and risen “Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” You see, when the Holy Spirit leads, challenges can give rise to growth. The Holy Spirit gets us through the growing pains.

Chapter five gives us the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who try to have their cake and eat it too, by selling some property “for the good of the community,” but lying about the personal profit they made on the sale. They pay for their deception with their lives. Luke writes in Acts 5:11 that “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” Luke goes on to describe more healing, and more persecution from the religious leaders, who tell the apostles to stop preaching and healing in Jesus’ name. Notice they are now described as apostles – or “sent ones,” not disciples, which means followers, or students.

But Peter and the other apostles say they must obey God, rather than men, and they are compelled to proclaim their personal experience of the resurrected Christ. They tell the religious leaders, “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (5:32)

Do you start to see a pattern here? Every time this group of believers is challenged, it’s by the current religious leaders. And every time, they meet the challenge by proclaiming the gospel of Christ crucified and risen, depending on the power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, some theologians have said this book should be called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” rather than “The Acts of the Apostles.” Because when the Holy Spirit leads the church, the church grows.

So far, the church is still centered in Jerusalem. But it is not limited to Jewish believers. Gentiles are also becoming a significant part of The Way. And in chapter 6, we begin to see how welcoming these new believers brings a new set of growing pains.

In Acts 6:1-7 we read,

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:1-7

There are a couple of important details to notice here. First, all seven of these servants have Greek names. The believers chose representatives of the Greek-speaking segment of the church, since that’s where the complaint had come from. And it’s interesting that Luke gives even more detail about Nicolas, who had already converted to Judaism and came from Antioch. Luke is setting us up to be ready for what will happen in chapter 15.

The other important detail is the criteria used to select these servants. They must be “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” The Holy Spirit was at work in these Gentiles, just as the Holy Spirit was at work in the Twelve, through their ministry of the Word. And what is the result of this conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit? The number of disciples in Jerusalem increases rapidly, and even a large number of Jewish priests join their numbers.

Stephen goes on in chapter 7 to preach his great sermon to the Sanhedrin, which gets him stoned to death, and that brings us to Acts 8, and Philip’s witness to the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza.

But let me give you some background. First of all, this Philip is not the disciple Philip. The disciple was from Bethsaida (Jn 12:21) and this Philip is from Caesarea. This Philip is one of the seven “deacons” – or table servers – chosen by the apostles back in Acts 6, to take over the daily distribution of food. Later on, (Acts 21:8-9) this Philip will become known as Philip the Evangelist, and we will learn he has four unmarried daughters who prophesy. But right now, Philip is only recognized as one of the Seven, full of the Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3). Just before the events of this story, he has been preaching the good news throughout Samaria, and many have come to believe in Jesus.

And when I say “just before the events of this story” I mean the beginning of chapter 8. It’s important to see the relationship between Acts 1:8 and Acts 8:1.

Acts 1:8 gives us Jesus’ final words to his disciples before he ascends into heaven. He says:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

By Acts 8:1, we learn how this happens. It’s the day Stephen is stoned to death, and Saul (who will later be known as Paul) approves of Stephen’s death. Then Luke writes, “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.”

So yes, the gospel spreads, but it does so because the believers are scattered from Jerusalem, into Judea and Samaria, due to persecution … and this brings us to Philip’s conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza. Luke adds the comment that this is the wilderness road. In other words, we are heading into “the uttermost parts of the earth.”

We are heading into the unknown. Philip is being drawn into the post-resurrection wilderness by the Spirit’s power. And his conversation with an Ethiopian eunuch revolves around four questions. Philip asks the first one: do you understand what you are reading? And the eunuch answers with a question of his own: How can I, unless someone explains it to me? Is this prophet talking about himself or someone else? (Could that someone else maybe be me?) And finally, What is to prevent me from being baptized? It’s a question of belonging. Can I, a Gentile, a eunuch, belong to the Body of Christ? Philip baptizes the eunuch, and then disappears, caught up by the Spirit and taken to a new location.

We often focus on what happened to the eunuch, but we need to pay attention to what happened to Philip. He has undergone a conversion of his own. He’s been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Persecution may have driven him and other believers out of Jerusalem, but it hasn’t kept him from becoming even more vocal about his faith in Christ. As he traveled through Samaria, preaching about Jesus, he was still in familiar territory. What possessed him to head out for an unknown destination, insert himself into this stranger’s life, and welcome that stranger into the family of faith?

Philip put himself at the Holy Spirit’s disposal, and when he heard the Spirit urge him forward, he didn’t hesitate. He went. He opened his mouth. He went down into the water, and when he came back to dry land, he found himself – not on the road to Gaza any longer, but back up the coast in Azotus, where he continued to share the Good Jesus News on his way back home to Caesarea.

And that brings us to chapter 9, where we read about the conversion of Saul. You may know this one well. The Holy Spirit is at work again.

In Chapters 10-11, we read the dramatic story of Peter’s dream, and his visit with the Roman Centurion Cornelius. As Peter preaches to Cornelius and his household, an amazing thing happens. Luke writes, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:44-47).

First some Hellenistic widows in chapter 6, then an Ethiopian eunuch in chapter 8, and now a Roman centurion and his whole household – what is going on here? If you were part of that Jerusalem church, you might be asking, “Who are these people taking over ‘our’ church? What are we going to do about all these Gentiles, horning in on our place at Christ’s Table?”

And yet, the church continues to grow, not only in numbers, but in understanding of what it means to be church. And at every turn, when things seem to be getting out of control, the Holy Spirit is leading in a new direction. It’s leading into change, and change means pain. But when the Holy Spirit leads the church, the church grows.

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

Acts 11:19-26

Do you see what happens when the church is led by the Holy Spirit? The Lord’s hand is with them, and great numbers of people are brought to the Lord. All kinds of people. People not like us. People who will challenge the rituals and practices we follow as we worship and serve.

And that’s exactly what happens in chapter 15, when a group of Jewish believers starts telling the Gentile believers they have to become Jewish before they can be called “Christians.”

Back in Jerusalem, when there was a complaint about the distribution of food, the Twelve received that complaint with respect. They saw the situation as a problem to be solved, not a conflict to be resolved. They met together, they talked it over, they prayed about it, and they came up with a solution that gave authority to the ones who were being left out.

Now, in Antioch, when the tension rises between Jewish and Gentile believers again, there is a precedent for dealing with the problem. Let’s go back to Jerusalem, and see what the Apostles and the elders say. So they send people who have had first-hand experience of the Holy Spirit’s leading among the Gentiles. And as they head back to Jerusalem, isn’t it interesting that they stop along the way and continue to share the good news with others.

The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

This isn’t a contentious cohort. These are believers who are seeking God’s will, but they aren’t sure how to navigate this new territory to which the Holy Spirit has clearly sent them. They don’t know how to deal with their growing pains.

But the Holy Spirit does.

Now, next week, I’m sure Pastor Gary is going to go into deeper detail, and he will show you how the church meets this challenge. He will probably talk about the process they follow, identifying the problem, hearing both sides, listening to one another without interrupting, and I love the minutes of this meeting, where Luke writes in verse 7, “after much discussion….” Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on that wall? Then the leaders of the Jerusalem church – Peter and James – summarize for the whole group what they’ve heard, and what they will do about it.

Peter reminds them of the yardstick Jesus gave them to measure by – it isn’t following a set of ancient rules, it isn’t jumping through a bunch of unnecessary hoops. In verse 11 Peter says, “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

In other words, as Paul will later write to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)

There is no reason to place unnecessary restrictions on those who would belong to Christ’s body, the church. All are welcome. All who want to belong, can belong.

But I wonder how often we make it difficult for people outside the church to come into the church. How often to we expect outsiders to conform to our mold, in order to feel like they belong. We don’t do this intentionally. We think we are welcoming and friendly, right? I’ll let you in on a little secret –every church thinks it is welcoming and friendly. But the way we behave when guests show up might paint a different picture.

When Bruce and I visited this church back in June, you all acted surprised to see us. You weren’t expecting company. A few of you introduced yourselves, but you immediately wanted to know who we were and why we were here. You were polite about it, but you were clearly not anticipating anyone new to come through that door, and when we did, you were taken a little aback. You suddenly put on your “nice” faces and shook our hands and quizzed us. It was almost as if you were asking “Why on earth would you come to worship here, of all places?

When the Holy Spirit sent Philip over to talk to the eunuch, Philip didn’t put him through the third degree – he only asked how he could help. When the Holy Spirit sent Peter to Cornelius’ house, against Peter’s better judgment and everything he’d been taught about keeping himself clean, Peter didn’t second-guess the Holy Spirit. He went, and he learned a few things. He discovered just how indiscriminant the Holy Spirit is, when it comes to welcoming new believers into the family of God.

When the Holy Spirit leads the church, the church grows. The growing pains become a blessing, as we open our hearts to what’s possible. Let’s pray.

Almighty and loving God, we confess to you that, even though we say we affirm a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit, too often, we depend more on our own experience and our own limited understanding. We think we know how to do church. But you are asking us to BE church. You ask us to welcome guests as you would welcome them, without hesitation, without qualification, because you have welcomed us through grace alone.

As we go into this week, open our eyes to the strangers you want us to welcome as friends. Teach us to ask, not “who are you and why are you here?” but “how can I help you come closer to Christ? How can I show God’s deep love to you?” Guide us as we join you in your mission to redeem the world, through the saving grace of Jesus, and the by the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us be a Holy Spirit-led church, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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