Acts 1:12-15, January 4, 2015
Who doesn’t love a good story? Other than the stories of the Bible, I was raised on a good helping of stories like Paul Bunyan, Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Black Beauty, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Winnie-the-Pooh.
Pop, my grandfather, was a great storyteller. He commanded an audience down at Five Points Store near his home and at Hurst Hardware in my hometown where men with a little time to kill came on Saturdays to sit on a keg of nails and drank a Coke while they visited with whoever happened to stop in to buy some seeds, a tool for their garden, or maybe some tackle for their fishing pole.
Pop would say something like, “Well, Gladys and I were in church as usual last Sunday and the preacher was up there carrying on about how we’ve all sinned and then he paused and he asked, ‘Is there anybody in this world that has ever lived and not committed a sin?’ I just couldn’t help myself and I said, ‘Yep, that would be Gladys’ first husband.’”
Every church needs a good storyteller and every church needs to tell their stories, but most churches are tempted to tell only the stories that flatter their history. They often leave out the ones that remind others of their flaws.
In 1772, a small church in Wainsgate, London was preparing to bid farewell to their pastor. The pastor, Dr. John Fawcett, had already preached his farewell sermon. The wagons were loaded with his books and furniture and he and his family were ready to leave. The members of the church gathered around and with tears in their eyes they begged them to say.
His wife said, “Oh, John, John, I cannot bear this.” “Neither can I,” he said to his wife, “and we will not go. Unload the wagons and put everything as it was before.”1
Now if his church is like most, there was at least one unhappy deacon that went behind the church and had a little talk with Jesus.
But apparently there was mutual joy between this pastor and his church and perhaps whenever you sing these words you will think about Dr. John Fawcett:
Blest be the tie that binds/Our hearts in Christian love;/The fellowship of kindred minds/Is like to that above.
Before our Father’s throne/We pour our ardent prayers/Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one/Our comforts and our cares.
We share each other’s woes/Our mutual burdens bear/And often for each other flows/The sympathizing tear.
When we asunder part/It gives us inward pain/But we shall still be joined in heart/And hope to meet again.
From sorrow, toil and pain/And sin, we shall be free/And perfect love and friendship reign/Through all eternity.2
It would difficult to tell the story of Wainsgate church without telling this story of how John Fawcett and his wife couldn’t bear to leave.
While we are warmed by this congregation’s story, we might forget that another congregation had another story to tell, a story of disappointment, of a pastor they believed God had led them to, and then at the last minute, he changed his mind about coming.
Such a story reminds me of one of my mentors in ministry, of one of Georgia’s great Baptist pastors who died not long ago, Dr. Ches Smith. Dr. Smith pastored the First Baptist Church of Tifton for over thirty years. His first interim pastorate after he retired was at Trinity Baptist in Moultrie. He paved the way for my arriving as pastor and he became a mentor of mine through the years.
During my time at Trinity Baptist I was contacted by the First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Florida as a candidate for their pastorate. I was sent a copy of their church history. The book was written by Dr. Doug Weaver, who was my history professor at Southern Seminary. He also hired me as an adjunct teacher at Brewton Parker College.
About halfway through the book, surprisingly, I came to a chapter entitled, “The Ches Smith Era.”
Dr. Weaver wrote about the one-month pastorate of Dr. Ches Smith at FBC in Gainesville. Apparently, after arriving, Dr. Smith discovered that the search committee had failed to tell him about several of the church’s challenges and “less flattering aspects of the current state of its ministry.” He began to feel an overwhelming sense of remorse about taking the job along with great grief about leaving his former church.
He swallowed his pride and asked the leadership of FBC Tifton if he could return and they accepted him with open arms. He returned and pastored there until he retired.
William Willimon, preaching professor at Duke Divinity School says that “whenever we tell the story of our lives or our church, we can be expected to engage in a good deal of fanciful reconstruction and downright cover-up and deceit. It is a difficult task to see our lives truthfully”3. Surprisingly, FBC Gainesville did not run away from that awkward and difficult time in their church’s history. They allowed Dr. Weaver to tell the story as it happened.
That’s the beauty of the biblical record. It doesn’t shy away from the painful episodes. Rather, it includes them, right alongside the markings of incredible grace given to us by God.
So, when Luke writes, “In those days Peter stood up among the believers,” we think, “Oh, come on, not Peter. Isn’t there a more qualified disciple in the group than the man who on three occasions denied he was associated with Jesus or even knew him?
Just by mentioning Peter, Luke has resurrected those unflattering stories of Peter and reminded us that the church is made up of imperfect people with imperfect pasts.
There is Good News here. Our imperfect pasts do not have to determine the end of our story.
“And Peter stood up among the believers,” is a verse of great hope! It became a new storyline of the early church because Jesus had forgiven Peter of his betrayal and Peter had embraced the grace of Jesus.
In writing this storyline, Luke reminds us of Peter’s past– there is no denying it, but like the story of the Apostle Paul that Luke will later tell, Luke is showing us that God can write a new storyline on the annals of our lives.
I remember being told about the day that Don stood up among the believers. Don owns the only gas station in my hometown of 500. Don is one of the hardest workers I know. I remember that Don was never very personable. He’d talk about motors, parts, and give advice about your vehicle and occasionally he’d talk a little fishing and golf because that’s what he did on Sundays. Otherwise, he was working.
Don’s mother raised him in church, but as soon as he had a chance he moved out of her house and he never went back to church. He didn’t have any use for God. Sunday was golf day or fishing day.
However, Don said it became evident to him that no matter how much money he made, no matter how many rod and reels he had or how nice a set of golf clubs he had it was never enough. Growing up poor, Don thought that if he could accumulate enough things in life, that would bring him peace and happiness.
The night that Don stood up among the believers, it came as quite a surprise to everyone. God had changed him, like he’d changed Peter. Don said that God knew that he wasn’t going to listen to “no preacher, no deacon, or even his parents” because he thought he knew everything about everything.
Instead, God sent an Afracan American man to Don’s business to witness to him. He pulled up to get gas one day and he asked Don a question that shocked him. He asked, “Do you know Jesus?” The question went through Don like a knife.
He responded, “Do I know Jesus?” Don said, “You would have thought I was Billy Graham, Jr. I began to tell him how I knew Jesus, how big a church member I was, how many years I’d been to church. I just pure lied to him because I didn’t want him to know that I wasn’t a Christian.“
When he left, Don said to himself, “I’m so proud I got rid of him. I hope he don’t come back.”
Well, in about five minutes he came back. He had a sack in his hand. He said, “I want you to have this sack,” and he left. Don thought he’d brought him some vegetables and so he pitched the sack over in the corner. Later his curiosity got the best of him. Instead, he saw a magazine and on the magazine it read, “Does God Really Care?”
Don said to himself, “Oh, I don’t want nothing to do with this.”
It was middle of the afternoon. His palms became sweaty and he couldn’t get the sack and its contents out of his mind.
He closed up about 6:30. He opened up the magazine and began to read about how God still loved him. But the part that grabbed him was these words: ‘if you want real peace and happiness there’s only one place to find it and that’s in Jesus Christ as Savior.’ Don said he could feel the Holy Spirit in the room with him. He said he looked around to see if there was anybody else in there, because it was pure scary.
Don closed up that night and went home. Before he did he put that magazine back in the sack and hid it. He thought that maybe this was a passing thing, something he’d get over. But the next day it was as if that sack had legs. Somebody kept moving that sack because on more than one occasion, he saw it in a different place.
That night Don knew that he had a choice to make; he either had to choose to live a life for Christ or to reject him.
So, we laugh at my grandfather’s joke, that the only person that’s never sinned was his wife’s first husband, but it’s no laughing matter if we pretend to have it all together when we don’t, or if we present our church as a place where we’ve got it all together and we don’t and never have. The truth is that none of us have it all together and that’s why the church exists and that’s the reason we need Jesus.
For you see, the real stories of the church, the ones that matter the most in the church’s history, are stories like Don Highland’s and stories like Simon Peter’s. They are stories of how God changes our hearts and gives us courage to face our fears, prejudices, pride, and belief that we don’t need God.
And Peter stood up among the believers.
One way to move healthily into the future and avoid repeating mistakes of the past is to name our sins. To not name our sins, to ignore them, to deny they are present, is to ensure that they become engrained in our DNA. A church that is afraid to look in the mirror and afraid to look at its history—all of its history—is a church that will become stuck there, paralyzed by fear, and unable to fulfill her vision given by God.
William Willimon says, “I need some story so coherent, so dependable, so truthful, yet so hopeful that it will enable me to tell my story truthfully”4.
As we near 150 years of ministry in this church, we will ask some of you with some history of this body of believers to reflect on what has made us into the church family we are. But this does little good if we cannot see ourselves as we are, with both our strengths and our flaws.
Either way, gazing at the past will do this church little good if we do not use what we learn to propel us into the future. It does us little good if the gospel is not so current and so real that it is not being shared with people at the gas station and the ball field and wherever we find those who do not know Jesus.
And it does us little good if we hear about the faith of others but we are not moved to faith ourselves and willing to stand up like Peter and Don to give testimony of what God has done and is doing in our lives.
Will you come to Jesus today? Stand before others and say that you need Him in 2015. Ask others to pray for you.
Commit to God to do whatever it is He asks of you this year.
2 “Blest Be the TieThat Binds” John Fawcett. Public Domain.
© Copyright 2015 by J. Michael Helms