Raven Cannon, Children's PastorAugust 19, 2019
How can we elevate our lives to the best that Jesus has for us?
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We’re continuing our theme we’re calling Rise. What we’ve been exploring here together is the rise of the early church. This revolutionary movement was radical in many ways. We’re going to see that in a moment in human history that truly turned the Roman Empire and the known Western world at the time upside down. It was something so powerful, it left an impression on those who experienced it in real-time and for generations afterward. They would look back on the launching of this movement with awe. It would impact them and be something they draw life from. In fact, even today, here we are, two millennia later doing the exact same thing. That’s how truly powerful this launching point of the early church was. What I’d like us to see is that the early stages of this community show us something.
I have to say something on the front end here. It is that this was all centered around Jesus. What we’re going to see was all about Jesus. Jesus is the best humanity has ever seen. Truly is no one better. He is the gold standard. He’s higher than that. There’s no way to truly describe. He is the best humanity has ever experienced. No one has elevated above His expression of what it’s like to be human and to attach ourselves and engage in life with Him, you know what it’ll do? Jesus will comfort us. He will come and meet with us. He will meet us where we are. Do you know what He will do? He will then challenge us to contend for the best to rise up out of us. He is the one who will challenge us to say, “Don’t stay where you are. You have so much more in you. It’s supposed to erupt with life-giving force.” He doesn’t let us be, actually.
The bottom line is humanity; what does it look like when it’s at its best? I think at its core it looks like people choosing to give rather than take. Fundamentally, at its core when people are at their best, they’re thinking about what to give and how to contribute, not what to take. This is a choice because you know, Jesus never came to us seeking to take anything from us. We know that. He came to us. He comes to us seeking to give and give and give and give. To those of us who have experienced His grace in our lives, He then says, “All right, out of what you’ve received, will you be one who contributes?”
That choice, He doesn’t force it. He inspires it. He motivates it. He lets us make the choice for ourselves. This is one of those things I think we love to think about in theory. Especially if someone is being generous or giving toward us. To be on the other side of that is a fantastic feeling. It’s so nice. It’s rather challenging to be that person, to step into that place. Sometimes because we are in our own pain, difficulty, and challenge, it requires much. Sometimes there’s a bit of sacrifice attached to it. Some of that is due to our own limited, narrow way of viewing things. Some of that, I think, is due to the culture we live in. It’s difficult to appreciate the intensity of the waters we are swimming in today. It’s really hard for us not to see how affected we are by the culture we live in. But we truly are. There’s no question about it. All of us are impacted by the culture we are swimming in.
This reminded me of something that I experienced a number of years ago. My wife and I got a chance to spend a couple of days in Hawaii. We went to one of the islands there, Kauai. My wife discovered snorkeling for the first time. Later in the day, that evening, she said, “You know what I want to do tomorrow?” I said, “What do you want to do tomorrow? This is our time. What do you want to do?” She said, “I want to go snorkeling all day.” I said, “Oh, okay.” She said, “Yeah, I just want to float on the top, see the sun, see all the fishies and the turtles.” I said, “That’s what you want to do all day? All-day?” She said, “Yes. What time does the sun rise? Let’s get out there.” I said, “All right, honey, let’s do it, you know, this is our vacation, let’s do it.”
I tried hard. We went out and she was so happy. She was just in awe looking at all the colors, pointing it out and everything. I tried hard to be there, but I need a little more than just watching fish I can’t touch because it’s illegal, and turtles I can’t swim with because I’ll get thrown in jail or fined. I’m just sitting there and doing my best. I did my best. I hung there for maybe an hour. Then I said, “You know what, I need a little more adventure.” I didn’t really say; I just decided, “I’m going to make this for me. I’m going to try and see, how long can I hold my breath? How deep can I go?” I went up, took a huge gulp, and I went down there. She was like, you know, “Bye.”
I went down there, I’m exploring, and I’m seeing all these things. I may have tried to catch a few. I’m trying to do all this, and I’m looking at that. I go back up and back down. Now I’m enjoying myself. As I’m doing this, going up and down, up and down, I realize that I’m not really recognizing my surroundings. I don’t really care, I’m okay. You know, I can do this, it’s fine, this is fun, I got fins, I could paddle out of the ocean, it was all right. I’m just thinking, “It’s all right.” So I’m going up and down, up and down, up and down, and then I see a little glimmer off in the distance. It looks like a little tunnel. So I make my way, and I’m paddling and kicking. I went, and I got into it and kept pushing. I keep pushing, it gets a little brighter, a little brighter.
All of a sudden, it gets all murky. Like all the sand and everything just fills the water. I can’t see what’s going on. I get to the end of the tunnel and I can’t see what’s out there. So I just keep pushing, pushing and pushing. It’s just a dead end. I think, “Oh man, I’m really deep right now, and I’m running out of breath. I better kick my way out of there.” I crouch down and go up. I’m immediately up above the water. I’m on the shore. There were these children just watching me like, “Dude, what are you doing?” I’m sitting there, and I realize I was pushing under the sand of the shore, thinking that was some amazing cave that I was about to discover and tell the world about. I’m sitting there thinking, “Oh gosh, this is embarrassing.” I just do my walk backward with the flops and get away from there as quickly as possible.
Now, I thought about that because it’s one of those things that reminded me of something. Life in our culture can feel like such an adventure, especially in the city, in this part of the world. The success, the pursuit of something exciting, can grip us. It’s so easy. There are so many experiences to pursue and gravitate toward. Only to discover that we have actually been playing in the shallow end of what life has to offer. We thought we were caught up in something amazing, never discovering true beauty that exists in the deeper places.
I thought about that as I was seeing what was going on here. I was reading this book by David Brooks called The Second Mountain. In it, he described our obsession with the shallow side of life in amazing clarity. He’s an observer of culture, and I thought I’d share what he said. He said, “Our society suffers from a crisis of connection, a crisis of solidarity. We live in a culture of hyper-individualism. There is always a tension between self and society, between the individual and the group. Over the past 60 years, we have swung too far toward the self. The only way out is to rebalance and build a culture that steers people toward relation.” He’s basically saying we need to leave behind the selfish pursuit. We need to pursue another, one another. He says we need “to build a culture that steers people toward relationships, towards community,” and then the scariest word of all in 2019, “commitment.” He says that is the deeper side of life. That is the place where true beauty abounds.
This is what Brooks is saying. He says, “The things we most deeply yearn for are there: relationship, community, commitment. But they’re undermined with our hyper-individualistic way of life.” We get caught up in the shallower pursuits of life, and then feel completely alone and disappointed. It’s called The Second Mountain because his whole thesis is that he’s witnessed people in life get caught up. He says, “You know what we are trained to do? We are trained to pursue a mountain of our own ego making.” When we get to the top, he says, “Some people get there; some people spend their entire lives there, never reaching the top. But when they get there, they get disappointed, not fulfilled. And the second mountain,” which, by the way, I don’t even think he’s speaking from a Christ-centered place, he’s just observing, and he says, “You know, the people that pursue a life that is actually satisfying, you know what they do?” Because their entire lives were about taking. He says, “But then they discovered, ‘No, this is not what I wanted.'”
What do they do? What is that second mountain? The second mountain is about, what can they give? What can they contribute? What can they leave to others? He says those people experience true fulfillment, which is an amazing thing, because we are trained to think life is all about acquiring, accumulating, and building as much as possible for ourselves. It’s all about our own ego. But life with Jesus is radically different. We need to know this. It invites us to the great adventure, truly a great adventure. We will decide if we will be people known as takers or givers? Will we become the best of humanity today in our generation? This is a decision each one of us has to make. Because Jesus is the best humanity has ever seen. But to attach ourselves to Him is to let Him contend to pull out the best of us, individually and as a community.
It’s how He approaches us. It’s what He invites us into. In fact, this is why I believe this account of the early church is so moving because if you open up your handout, we’ll take a look at this in Acts 2. It’s a remarkable point in human history. We’re told in verse 42 that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They devoted themselves. Who are they? They are the ones who believed what Peter said. Peter is addressing a large contingency of people, seeing something of God’s Spirit move, and he decides to tell them about Jesus. Many believed and ended up being baptized. Publicly, they said, “I believe, I want to be a part of this.” They added to the church that day about 3,000 in all, in one day. They. “They” was made up of people from different parts of that part of the world. So many of them went back, but there was a group of people who remained. They, those who remained in Jerusalem, we’re told, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching,” that is, the teaching about Jesus. Fellowship and breaking bread together, remembering what Jesus had done for them on the cross. That is a celebration of Communion, having meals together, and praying together.
We’re told in verse 43 that as they’re doing this, “awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common.” This sense of something special, unique occurring in human history starts to emerge among them. I don’t know if you’ve ever been a part of something that you think within yourself while it’s happening, “Take note. This is special. Appreciate it. Sit in it.” It’s almost as if they were experiencing something so remarkable that within them, there was a sense of awe. “Is this really happening? Is there so much joy in life here? So much wholeness erupting.” They become reverent. They want to take it in, not move to pass through it. They’re not cavalier about it. They recognize something: This is sacred.
Things start to happen. We’re told that “all who believed were together and had all things in common.” That’s the best description Luke comes up with to describe that there was a spontaneous, not compulsive amount of generosity. No one demanded it. No one coerced it. No one manipulated it. No one called anybody to do it. Spontaneously, things occurred, and people started to share all that they owned together. We’re told in verse 45 that “they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” It’s almost as if people there were moved by what Jesus did in their own lives to the extent that they start gathering together, wanting to be together, and they want to look for reasons to spend time together.
As they do that, something occurs in their midst, and they start to discover the needs that other people have. Then people spontaneously, nobody stood up and said anything, nobody taught anything from any platform, everyone just kind of spontaneously recognized, “There is a need, and I have the means to meet that need.” Some people decided to sell their possessions and say, “You know what? I want to now be a giver, because of what has happened in my own soul.” There was no guilt trip about it. There was nothing coercive about it. Luke, by the way, is not prescribing this. He’s doing his best to describe it and to say, “No, I don’t know how else to tell you, Theophilus. It was amazing.”
It was amazing because something occurred that was unlike any other point in history. At that point in history, people groups were defined by their ethnicities, class, education, rank, or gender. That is who one connected with. For the first time in history, it was by religion. Whatever it was, for the first time in history, all of those walls started to crumble down. We might take it for granted today, especially in a city such as ours, so diverse. It’s one of the reasons it’s so beautiful. But we have to understand, that started because for the first time in history, people could connect with each other outside of those lines. There was one thread that connected all of humanity, and His name was Jesus.
That is what started to break down the segments, the compartments, the classism. That. Luke says, “I don’t know how to describe it, but day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread,” in verse 46, “in their homes,” they started inviting each other over to their homes, “they received their food with glad and generous hearts.” It’s almost like the atmosphere had changed, “praising God and having favor with all the people. The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” It makes sense to me what Luke is saying here. This account reminds me, by the way, of the power of small things with God should never be underestimated, never. This was a movement that a small contingent of people filled with passion to honor Jesus was able to transform their own lives, families, environments, neighborhoods, and even society at large. Make no mistake, though they were small, everyone watched.
It makes sense that people would want to be a part of that, day by day, those being saved. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a gathering of people having truly a good time. You feel compelled. “What is that? I want to know more about that.” Do you know what the difference between this and most of those was? It is that there is no regret the next morning out of these gatherings. No one’s getting used, no one’s getting manipulated, no one’s getting fooled, no one’s getting taken advantage of, no one’s coming out worse than they came in, no one’s getting hurt. All of a sudden, a safe, fun, joy-filled, generous gathering? “Why are you doing this? I want to know more.” People started to say, “Oh, because of what Jesus did.” “Who’s Jesus?” “Oh, He was a man who lived and said some amazing things. In fact, we’re going to talk about it tonight at my house over dinner. You want to come over?” “Yeah, I don’t have anything to bring.” “Don’t worry about it; everyone brings something. You’ll be fine. Just come and receive.” “Really?” “Yeah, just come.” “All right.”
That person would go back and say, “You know what? I just experienced the most amazing thing. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s this group of people, they really like each other, and they like me. Do you want to go? It’s fun. It’s life-giving.” Maybe they don’t say that word, but you know what I mean. They started getting more people, more people, and more people. Who doesn’t want to be a part of that? It was the best of humanity erupting right there in their midst. It was a remarkable point in history.
In fact, Rodney Stark, a Christian historian, said that there were, at that time, at the highest estimate, about 7,000 Christians in the world. Scholars believe, theorize, that the world population around the same time frame was between 200 and 300 million people worldwide. If we do the math, do you know what that means? The percentage of followers of Jesus is .000035. What is that? I don’t know, tiny. Insignificant. Easily ignored. A blip, less than a blip. Maybe in the entire world, maybe the size of a mustard seed. Oh, but Jesus said something about mustard seeds. Jesus said that if God puts life into something as small as a mustard seed, it has the ability to erupt, flow, and give life. It’s remarkable when God is in the midst of something. Never underestimate small things with God.
Here we are, as of 2011, there are 2.19 billion followers of Jesus in the world. Sociologists estimate by the time we get to 2050 there will be three billion. What’s our current population? 7.7 billion. A small movement, all but unnoticed, except by those around them. Here’s what happened. It was inescapable how rare and special that community was, and it elevated. It was a community ignited by the Spirit of God working toward the same end. United around the sacrifice of Christ and His teachings. Whether it was small or large, the contingency was able to revolutionize their society. It still does today. I believe there’s so much here for us because God still wants to see humanity at its best. The expression of His communities is His means of doing it, to elevate, to rise to the best.
How do we do this? I want to suggest a couple things. I want to say that we elevate to our best when we commit ourselves. This is what they modeled. Commit to a life that is free to do, rather than free from. So many times, we confuse this faith journey about what we are supposed to avoid, which is fine, there’s a place for that. But a life that is free to do is one that chains itself to virtuous habits so it can be something meaningful and do something meaningful. We know this to be true at any other place of life that’s worth pursuing. It requires us to commit ourselves to a discipline, to an ethic, and to learn it.
I remember one of the first times I recognized not all things are made easy. When I heard a saxophone player, I thought, “Wow.” I think I was maybe seven, eight years old. I thought, “I want to do that.” My dad said, “You want to do that?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “All right, let’s sign you up.” I went and got my saxophone. I took it home. I played it, and it didn’t sound like that guy. I kept trying, and it just didn’t happen. It didn’t happen for a degree of time. I ended up not playing the sax. But we have somebody in our community who does, and I remember telling him, “Man, I love hearing you play. You sound so good.” He said, “Yeah? You ever try to pick it up?” I said, “Yes, but I wasn’t that good.” He said, “10 years, and you would’ve been.” I said, “Huh. Where were you when I was eight?”
If we chain ourselves to disciplines, this is true in sports and skills and performance, in the qualities that we admire, then there is a learning curve where it is not easy, natural or something we readily do by second nature. If that is true in every other area of life, it’s true with our faith journey, no question about it. What did they do? They committed themselves to knowing and learning the teachings of the apostles, that is, His words. It’s all about Jesus. They wanted to know Him. They committed themselves to gathering together. Do you know what they didn’t do? I’m going to say this, and I mean this as kindly as possible. I don’t think they missed many Sundays. I don’t think it was a convenient thing. No, I think they said, “We’re making this priority. We’re committing ourselves. We’re gathering.” They signed up for a group, and they showed up to that group. When they were there, they showed up and were present.
I’m just saying, this is what happened. Do you know what occurred? They committed themselves to celebrate what Jesus had done for them. There was a new rhythm of life. This is a starting point, Luke says. This is what they did. All that work and discipline, do you know what it produced? It didn’t constrict them, it didn’t restrain them, it erupted them. All of a sudden, they were capable of living in a broken and dark place, filled with life, hope, strength, and courage, where that was an absolute famine in the land. They anchored themselves so that they could actually enjoy life.
This is why spiritual disciplines matter. They’re not meant to snuff life. Especially in a culture and city such as ours. Why does it matter that we connect with the Rise and Shine? Why we should read at least a verse a day? At least, why we should develop a habit of praying? Why we should develop a habit of attending and gathering? Why? So that we can be less lively? No. So we can actually enjoy life without being corrupted, injured, or destroyed by all the elements in our water.
Tim Keller said, “Freedom is not about removing all restrictions. It’s about holding oneself to the right ones.” We do that, we are able to discover what Paul told the Philippians. There is so much about life on the deeper side. Forget what you’re giving up. Focus on whatever is true. Focus on whatever is honorable and just, pure and lovely. Do you know how much “whatever” is? It’s a lot. Focus on whatever is commendable. If anything is excellent, go there. If anything is worthy of praise, anything, enjoy it. Go there. You’re free to do that. But only if we discipline ourselves so we can be strong enough to actually enjoy it regret-free.
They also show us that we elevate to our best when we commit ourselves. I’m just going to say it straightforwardly, Christ-centered relationships and Christ-centered friendships are different from any other relationship we might have. It’s meant to be spiritually satisfying and strengthening. They’re different from normal friendships in that they share the common bond of faith in Christ. I have friends, right now especially, my Golden State Warrior friends, and man, are we in pain. I have friends from my school days I stay in touch with every once in a while. Some of them are in our midst even now. I have friends that share hobbies and interests. It’s so fun. It’s good. It’s nice. All those friends are great. It’s not about abandoning any of them. You know what it is? It’s the fact that I have friends I share this faith journey with. I’ll tell you what, it’s not by intention, it’s magnetic. Those are the strongest bonds in my life, because Jesus is stronger than any hobby, team, event, affinity, or interest. It’s not to say those are unimportant; it’s just to say that there is no stronger bond than the one to share our faith with.
If we are to become the best humanity is supposed to witness, then this is huge. This is why they were able to do what they did. It doesn’t mean, by the way, simply replacing those who don’t know Jesus with those who do know Jesus. Or doing the same things we did with those who didn’t know Jesus. It’s not really about that. No, a Christ-centered friendship with other people is about having intentional conversations about our journeys. How are we actually doing? It’s about learning how to ask questions and listen to each other. It’s about sharing struggles, doubts, fears, anxieties and taking the risk of being vulnerable. It’s about praying for one another.
It’s not meant to be some holier-than-thou thing, or some weird, unnatural thing. It may not be normal. But you know what it looks like? It looks like having a conversation with someone who shares the same faith, and in the middle of the conversation, saying, “You know what? Why don’t we just invite God into this? I hear you, but why don’t we just say… Nothing elegant, nothing decorative. Hey, just take a minute, let’s pause. Hey, God? You’re in on this conversation; we just want you to be a part of it, and we ask for you to inform these words and our thoughts, in Jesus’ name, amen. Now, what were you saying?”
I’ll tell you what, it changes things to be intentional, to actually share in this bond of faith. It’s about carrying burdens for one another. It’s about learning how to receive help by asking for it. Investing in actual friendships with people. Letting people see us, and we see them. Investing in them, and letting them invest in us. It’s about reaching out and saying, “I’m in trouble, and I need help. I’m somewhat embarrassed I’m in trouble, but will you help me get out?” I’ll tell you what, that will save. That will save more than you have any idea. That will prevent so much damage. That will prevent so much mayhem. That will protect so much.
It’s about defending each other. I personally can tell you, my friends, they have been amazing in my times of need. Helping me remain anchored, remembering God’s goodness. There have been times I’ve gotten to play that role. But this is how we contend because the best of us doesn’t always want to come out. We need someone else to say, “Hey, you’re way better than this. You can do it. I believe in you. We got this, you and me together.” One person, by the way, changes everything. One, two, or three, now we will rise. Now we will rise to our best because we will rise. We will elevate to our best when we commit ourselves to an ethos of generosity and grace.
By the way, it’s kind of in vogue right now, and so I’m going to use it this way. I really believe we’re all environmentalists in one regard or another, that we have the capacity to impact the environment around us in a profound, profound way. One individual has the ability to transform a culture and atmosphere. We know this. We know what it’s like for somebody who is carrying toxic attitudes. One person releasing that changes the environment. The opposite is also true. The opposite is true.
When we commit ourselves to learning how to be free to enjoy this life when we commit ourselves to learning how to connect with one another and abandon our own selfish ambitions for the sake of protecting, helping, strengthening, investing, loving one another, and praying for one another, then something within our soul starts to change. The environment within us starts to change, and life starts to erupt. All of a sudden, we become people who are marked by grace and generosity. We become the people who step into an environment. Because we’re special? No, because the One who loves us is there, and He wants not just to elevate our own soul, He wants to cause the best to come out of everyone we are around. We’re the thermostat. We’re those, wherever we go, we’re meant to be the people known by choosing to give of ourselves rather than choosing to take.
We’re the safe harbors for others to latch on to. We’re the ones who will strengthen others. We become, our community becomes the safety net. We become the comforters and the strength-givers, the ones who restore, confirm, strengthen and give life to others. That’s us. That’s what we’re supposed to be. This is not a movement locked in 2,000 years ago. It’s one Jesus wants to create in our very own midst. When we recognize this, then the environment of our friendships, home life, work-life, and neighborhood starts to transform. God wants to elevate us to the best expression of humanity.
This is His desire for us, because He loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. Anyone who would receive Him would receive everlasting life. Oh, may we be the ones who say, “Lord, wherever I am, elevate, change, and transform that place because of your love. Cause the best to come out of me. Cause the best to come out of those around me.” May that be the case. It is what He longs to do.
I wonder, generations from now, who knows? Maybe people will write about, in its unique, beautiful way, not exactly like this, but somebody might say, “You know what? There was a moment in time, I don’t know how to explain it, but there was something special happening in the heart of San Francisco. All I could say is it was inspiring and awe-giving. It was beautiful, these people. They were the best.” May that be us.
Lord, I thank you. I thank you that you are one who loves us, who gives to us beyond anything we deserve. I thank you, God, that you invite us to reflect your generosity, your grace, and your goodness. I pray that you would cause, even in our own midst, the best of us to rise, and that you would continue to transform us individually. Transform our community, neighborhoods, homes, and the city we love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.