A Faith for Past, Present & Future

Acts 21:17-26

First Baptist Church Laurens

April 21, 2013

Except for 79 days in 1985 when the world was introduced to and quickly rejected a product called “New Coke”, the formula for Coca Cola has remained virtually the same.  With the exception of the move from pure cane sugar to high fructose, for over a century, an ice cold coke has had a fairly consistent taste.  If you think about it, it truly is amazing.  Whether on the front porch of your home roughly 20 years after the Civil War or while sitting on your patio this very afternoon, the taste of the carmel colored soft drink first served in a pharmacy in Columbus, Georgia has remained constant over all of these many, many years.

What has changed quite a lot, however, has been the packaging and marketing of coke.  The bottles have evolved from all glass to mostly plastic and from 8ozs to 16ozs or more in most serving sizes.  In the same way, as celebrities and times have changed so have the means and methods of advertising and encouraging the latest generation to both discover and purchase this long time part of our American culture.

If you think about it, a bottle of Coca Cola really is a profound symbol of the old and new working in concert with one another as a timeless taste and contemporary package come together in unison to complement each other.

In essence, something similar was happening in the early church as we pick up the story of Paul’s journeys midway through Acts chapter 21.  Without question the beloved Apostle had helped usher the early church in a brand new direction as a significant part of his ministry focused on introducing the Gentile world to the life and message of Jesus.  In a profound way, Paul had called the early church to see Christ as being available to not only the Jewish population but to all human beings.

The leadership of the early church, housed in Jerusalem and led by Jesus’ own brother James, strongly affirmed the direction of Paul’s work.  At the same time, as Paul visited them in chapter 21 and as they celebrated his accomplishments, the Jerusalem church leaders shared with him a deep concern that was developing.  According to the leaders, there were those in the early church who suggested that in embracing Gentiles that Paul had also rejected his Jewish roots and the traditions of his Jewish faith.  In turn, while in town, they encouraged him, to take some concrete steps, to reaffirm his commitment to his Jewish roots and to once and for all put these accusations to rest.

In a nutshell, what Paul and the church leaders were wrestling with is again what we find in this little bottle.  They were dealing with the hard work and hard questions that always arise when we as people of faith seek to be both faithful to the past and open to the future.  In their struggles, however, they remind us of something profoundly important and that is that both are incredibly important.

What they affirmed in their meeting with Paul and what this story from Acts continues to highlight is that the traditions and historical roots of faith must never be lost or forgotten.  But, at the same time, they also affirm that the questions, struggles and hard work related to following the Holy Spirit’s guidance for today is equally important and essential.

In turn, in a day and in a world where we are prone individually and collectively to either live in the past with little focus on the future or to live in the future with little focus on the past, being who God wants us to be in the present means always keeping an open mind, heart and ear to both past and future in equal measures at all times.

What we are doing here as we worship in this place on this day is in and of itself a strong example of what I am talking about.  At the heart of our service today, is a story from the life of Paul that is roughly 2,000 years old.  Likewise, we have sung hymns that have been treasured by the people of God for over a hundred years and our congregation this morning includes elements and people who have been a part of the community of faith here in Laurens for a long, long time.  It goes without saying that tradition runs deep and is important part of every occasion that we gather for worship.

At the same time this morning, we have sung hymns that have been written in recent years, and we have used technology that is more a sign of the present and future than of the past.  Similarly, my preparation to speak about this text was influenced by books and authors who are newer rather than older voices in the church and among our leadership this morning have been staff and laity that are both long term and quite new in terms of their involvement in the life of our congregation.  In other words, this very service is an amalgam of new and old, past and future mixed together in the present.

So, why is all of this important?  The reason is that just as was the case in Paul’s day, the past and the future must always, always, influence our present work is the mission and ministry of the church in general and this church in specific.  Said another way, as we seek to reach out to our world and to care for people, we must be faithful to our roots, to our traditions, to the sacredness of scripture and to the way that people have understood God over the centuries.  But, at the very same time, we must never fail to ask ourselves how we must change and in what ways sharing this message must change if we are going to be relevant and effective in the days and times in which we live.

Quite frankly, I don’t think there could be a more critical time for this dual focus on past and future for our present work.  Think about it for a moment.  It really is easy to simply dismiss the craziness of our modern world where bombs go off at a marathon, where children are shot in public schools or where tragedy and uncertainty feel as though they are just around every corner.  In such a time it is easy to label the world as on the verge of going off a cliff and to respond by disengaging or by throwing up our hands in despair.  It is easy to want to withdraw from the world, to build a wall around ourselves or to reject these times a no longer worthy of our attention, energies and concern.  But, as people of faith, I would challenge us that this is the last thing we should do.

Rather, our response must be that this ancient faith and these traditions of our lives remain the hope, and the direction for the world.  Instead of giving up, significant questions must always be at the forefront as shapers of our lives.  Questions such as, how do these traditions translate into our times?  How does this history still have meaning for our future?  How do these ancient words of scripture remain living words?  Certainly, we must be open to allowing the packaging to be open to change just as we insist that the substance of our message must remain the same.

We must remain convinced and firmly rooted in the belief that the heritage of our faith and the realities of the future held in tension with each other and in conversation with each other is the way that you and I offer our world the hope that it so desperately needs in the present.

This past week, children in 4th and 5th grade at Laurens Elementary brought to class show and tell items related to World War II which they have been studying.  For this time, I sent over a couple of books.  The books were devotional guides from my library prepared for both Jewish and Christian soldiers in the War.  In essence, the books represented the desire of soldiers in that conflict to carry into an unknown and new world the ancient words and hope of their faith.

All these years later, we are called to do the same.  Amen.