I learned to drive a stick shift in a Pinto. A Ford Pinto. It was a two-toned car—yes, like the horse—that was the coolest car my parents owned. They did not own cool cars. But I knew it would be good to know how to drive a stick shift just in case I was ever in an emergency and it was the only kind of car around and I could jump in it and be the hero that could drive someone to the hospital or away from danger because our lives depended on it. (I had a vivid imagination as a teenager.)
I drove that Pinto around the neighborhood. It bucked and jumped until I finally got the hang of it and drove it as smooth as a tamed pony. We had a few inclined areas on our street that I would intentionally stop on so I could learn how to get the car moving without it dying on me.
One day I had returned from a trip and my dad was in the driveway. “Did you do OK on the drive?” he asked. “Yep. Like a pro now Dad,” I responded. “Did you forget anything?” came the next question. I ran through a mental checklist:
- “Parked in the correct space in the driveway? Check.”
- “Made sure the stick shift was in gear? Check.”
- “Got the keys? Check.”
- “Locked the doors? Check.”
“No Dad. I don’t think I forgot anything.”
“Did you set the hand brake?” “Umm…no, I didn’t. Why do I need to do that?” I asked. “Because it is a good safety measure in case the transmission ever slips out of gear,” he answered.
“Silly Dad,” I thought. “This is West Texas. Flat as a pancake.” And so I heard what he said but never put that piece of advice into practice. But it was good advice.
Sometimes that’s how we approach church. We listen to the words of Scripture and take it as good advice. Advice that we can take or leave. A lot of people are leaving it today. For the first time in the history of the Gallup polls there is now a new category called the “nones.” Not the kind who wear a habit. “N-o-n-e-s.”
“Nearly one in three Americans under 35 today are religiously unaffiliated, meaning they do not identify with any formal religious group. As a whole, these ‘nones’ comprise the second largest religious group in the U.S. behind evangelical Protestants,” so writes Antonia Blumberg in the Huffington Post.
You don’t have to prognosticate to see into the future. The church will increasingly decrease in numbers and fall far behind the growth of the communities around it. In 1948 about 91 percent of Americans identified as Christian. From 2007 to 2014 alone, the percentage of Americans who identified as Christian fell from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. How did all this happen in just a short time?
One writer reports that the top two reasons young adults list for leaving church are: 1) they stopped believing in their religion’s teachings (60%) and 2) their families were never that religious when they were growing up (32%).
The author offers these reasons for the decline in religious affiliation:
- We have failed to take the spiritual formation of children and adolescents seriously.
- We have not stressed the importance of faith formation in our families, nor have we helped them think in a concerted fashion about how that might be done.
- We have neglected our own formation and the task of examining the relationship between what we believe and the way in which we live our lives.
- And, quite simply, we haven’t offered our children convincing reasons for our participation in the life of the church, which—of course—would have only been convincing if they had shaped our own participation.
Our own formation helps form the next generation. And apparently the lack of impact in our lives has led to a negative impact on the next generation. That’s a picture of the church in America today.
But it’s not a picture of the church in the first century. They were “devoted.” And the first devotion we discover in the story of the church in Acts is that they became “devoted to the apostles’ teaching.”
Why would they devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching? NT Wright answers that question best when he says: “… that first generation answered the question of why they were Christians with a straightforward answer: because Jesus was raised from the dead.”
They had not expected Jesus to be raised from the dead. That was not the picture of a Messiah they held onto, that of a crucified Messiah that would even need to be raised from the dead. But it is the picture that Peter painted for them in the first sermon. He said:
Fellow Israelites, listen to these words: This Jesus of Nazareth was a man attested to you by God with miracles, wonders, and signs that God did among you through him, just as you yourselves know. Though he was delivered up according to God’s determined plan and foreknowledge, you used lawless people to nail him to a cross and kill him. God raised him up, ending the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by death.
The people that day were confused at what all had happened. There was a “sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven.” They saw “tongues like flames of fire that separated and rested on each one of them.” And then “they [the Apostles] were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues.”
Those things might get your attention. And so the people had asked, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12). Peter knew a teachable moment when it presented itself so he presented Jesus to them. Surely many knew about Jesus. They had either been in Jerusalem when he was crucified or they had heard about the event after they arrived.
But they didn’t know Jesus. So Peter teaches them so they could know him. Here’s what he wanted them to know:
He wanted them to know that Jesus performed miracles, wonders and signs and these were a proof that he had come from God. Even outside of the New Testament there is attestation that there was a man named Jesus who performed “startling deeds.” Josephus (37-100 AD), the non-Christian Jewish historian, says this about Jesus:
Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, Section 3)
Scholars debate whether all of the larger passage about Jesus is original to Josephus. But they mostly all agree that this line about his works is the original. Early Christian witness talks about Jesus’ miracles in a day where there were still living eyewitnesses. And his works were apparently a matter of public record (see Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 48).
We believe what Peter taught by faith. But we also have historical records on our side too.
He wanted them to know that Jesus died on the cross. The people knew that. They had heard the story or witnessed it themselves. What they didn’t know is that God had a beautiful plan in the midst of such a horrific event. Peter wanted them then and us now to know the lengths God had planned to go to in order to serve as a final sacrifice once and for all for the sin of the world.
He wanted them to know that Jesus rose from the dead. Peter believed it. He had not at first. He had to go to the tomb and find it empty. Even then he thought someone had stolen the body. But when Jesus appeared to him and the other disciples—not once but multiple times over a period of forty days (Acts 1:3)—he believed.
Jesus did not only appear to the Twelve. Later Paul says this event is “of first importance” and that
… he [Jesus] appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me. 1 Corinthians 15:5-8
Anyone hearing Peter’s words that day could have run out to the tomb and checked for a decaying body. But no one did. And anyone hearing Paul a mere twenty years later could have talked to eyewitnesses to corroborate Paul’s claim. But as far as we know, no one did.
“What does this mean?” turned quickly into “What must we do?” Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.” The people did and as part of their change of mind and direction, as part of their being immersed in the life of God, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
You can see “why” now, can’t you? If the resurrection is true, then everything changes. Our thinking changes. Our behavior changes. Our direction changes. Everything now is pointed in the direction of Jesus.
The people then missed their opportunity to know Jesus so they wanted to hear from the ones who did know him. They had a burning desire to hear his words and let those words shape their lives.
 Antonia Blumberg, American Religion Has Never Looked Quite Like It Does Today at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/american-religion-trends_us_570c21cee4b0836057a235ad
 Frederick W. Schmidt, 4 Choices Boomers Made That Are Killing Mainline Protestantism https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/4-choices-boomers-made-th_b_12588088.html
 For more see http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=J.%20AJ%2018.3&lang=original for the Josephus passage and Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (Harper One, 2012) 61 for where scholars agree.