This is sermon number four of a five-sermon series on the book
of Acts. We have talked about Jesus’ promise to his disciple
to send them the power of the Holy Spirit, and how that Spirit came
upon them on the day of Pentecost, allowing each person gathered
to hear about God’s deeds of power in their own language.
Last week I shared the story of Peter and Cornelius, and how Peter,
a faithful Jew and follower of Jesus had a conversion experience.
Peter is now a faithful Jew who has had his vision of the church
expanded to include the possibility of non-Jewish believers, and
a follower of Jesus who is willing to accept Cornelius, a Roman,
as a brother in Christ. Peter is including possibilities which the
church had never considered before. Remember this logo? [Speak Possibility
slide] It’s been a visual reference for the past three weeks,
and it’s still displayed in the Gathering Area.
The book of Acts is a record of the work of the Holy Spirit in
the lives of the apostles and the first converts to Christianity.
It is the Holy Spirit that created the church and directed its mission
and vision. And sometimes that mission created disagreement and
tension. Remember last week I pointed out the word Change which
is an inevitable part of creating possibility: whether or not we
name it. There were certainly outside forces creating stress on
the new church: persecution, imprisonment, and even the martyrdom
of the first leaders. But Acts chapters 10 to 15 -- beginning with
Peter’s vision and encounter with Cornelius and ending with
the Council of Jerusalem -- are focused on the internal struggles
of the church and how it dealt with creating the possibility of
change. These were huge and hotly contested decisions for the church;
decisions which set the course for the rest of Christian history.
And that’s why I want to talk about golf today.
What we talk about determines what we focus on; what we focus on
determines what we imagine; what we imagine determines what we do;
what we do determines our future. Athletes know that there is a
mental as well as a physical component to their training and performance.
Studies have repeatedly proven that a positive approach leads to
better performance. Mental rehearsal involves visualizing successful
performance and rehearsing it in your mind. The athlete who introduced
this to a large audience was golfer Jack Nicklaus in his book Golf
My Way. Instead of focusing on avoiding mistakes by thinking “Don’t
slice it,” or “don’t hit it into the trees,”
Nicklaus said that 50% of hitting specific shots is the mental image
he forms during the set-up. When he was asked how he got to be such
a successful putter, Nicklaus said, “I’ve never missed
a putt in my mind.”
You may have heard the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
It means that what we expect is what we get -- because that is the
reality we have created for ourselves. If we expect people to be
negative, we become defensive, and people respond to us negatively.
Our projection of what other people think actually creates the reality
which we experience. When that projection is negative, “Nobody
ever listens to me,” “I don’t think I can do this,”
“Nobody cares about me,” this creates the downward spiral
that Ben Zander talked about in the video many of you saw last week.
It made me think of this Far Side comic by cartoonist Gary Larsen
[Slide: Roger screws up] I didn’t put the name Roger in there,
by the way. It could be any of us who are so focused on not messing
up that we have already sabotaged our success . I speak from personal
experience: nothing derails a sermon quicker than thinking, I sure
hope I don’t mess this up. This also fails to honor the inspiration
and power of the Spirit. Visualizing success is not a substitute
for preparation -- I’m sure Nicklaus hit plenty of practice
putts -- but getting rid of stinking thinking which focuses on what
might go wrong instead of what could go right, is a significant
change in focus.
Creating possibility by imagining the best from ourselves, those
around us, and our organization, is not just a good idea. It does
happen to be a good idea which costs us nothing except the effort
of self-awareness, and a willingness to monitor and change our own
thinking and speaking., which will inevitably change our focus.
But more than that, I think creating possibility is a theological
imperative. Which is a fancy way of saying something God wants us
to do. We are expected to create possibility for ourselves and others,
because that is the attitude with which God sees us. This is amazing,
because God knows us; who we are, the things we’re ashamed
of and all the stupid and hurtful and selfish and sinful things
we have done. Sometimes we’re not even sorry. Some people
don’t think God has anything to do with their lives, or even
that God exists. God still loves those people -- and we are all
those people. Who are we to think we can judge people where God
I’m going to use another golf metaphor, from a book I discovered
in the Creekside library. I’d read it before, but it kind
of literally fell in my lap when I was filing books last week. It’s
called The Mulligan by Ken Blanchard and Wally Armstrong. A mulligan
is, in friendly play, permission granted a golfer by other players
to retake a flubbed shot, especially the first shot of the game.
This second-chance shot is not allowed by the official rules of
golf. And a mulligan, my friends, is one of the best ways I’ve
found to understand the book of Acts and the mission to share Christianity
with the Gentiles. The official rules of Jewish law had become paralyzing:
either you didn’t even try, or you became caught up in the
trying to comply with the fine print, and were constantly trying
to don’t mess up don’t mess up don’t mess up.
Or maybe you were a Pharisee who delighted in pointing how other
people were breaking the rules. We can’t have that -- wrong,
wrong, wrong. God changed that game. It doesn’t mean there
are no rules any longer, and we can do whatever we want -- that
would be chaos. What God did is create the possibility that we could
still be part of the game, even if we can’t do it perfectly.
God gave us the promise of success rather than the condemnation
That gift is grace, the gift which is offered to each one of us
because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus
was the only perfect person -- he never even missed a putt -- and
here’s the good news of Christ’s grace: not that we
can be perfect (we can’t be), but that we are freed from the
tyranny of other people’s expectations, and free to live into
the possibility of who God wants us to be -- who God created us
to be from the very beginning. That is what God wants for each one
of us, and because of Jesus Christ we can get as many mulligans
as we need to help us get there. The good news we can share with
others is that Jesus died for them, God loves them, and we’re
not going to invent rules where God offers grace. Amen? Jesus didn’t
just give us a second chance, Jesus offers the possibility of freedom
from the downward spiral of negativity and failure where we imprison
others and ourselves.
Peter -- God bless Peter, he’s so honest about not getting
it the first time -- is talking to fellow Jewish believers in Acts
11. These Jewish Christians are pretty skeptical about including
Gentiles in the church. Peter tells them about his vision from God
and going to meet Cornelius and preaching to his entire household.
The apostles aren’t buying it; after all, Peter is talking
about changing their understanding of thousands of years of Jewish
law and who’s in and who’s out. They are not about to
give those Gentiles a mulligan at the beginning of the game. And
Peter says, as I spoke to the household of Cornelius in Caesarea,
the Holy Spirit fell upon them -- just like it had on us at Pentecost!
And I remembered John the Baptist saying ‘I will baptize with
water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ And
I realized, if God gave those Gentiles the same gift God gave us,
who was I to stand in the way of the Holy Spirit? It’s an
awesome Aha! moment; and the apostles are silenced. I take it by
your silence that you agree.
I believe that the power of the Holy Spirit which is woven into
the Acts of the Apostles is the power of possibility. It is the
power to be open to the Spirit’s possibility for us, but also
the power to create possibility for other people to be free to live
into God’s will for their lives. Who are we to stand in the
way of the Holy Spirit? We ought to be in the business of creating
goals: of seeing visions and dreaming dreams that challenge us to
succeed for the sake of God’s kingdom. We ought to be anticipating
and expecting the best from one another. We ought to be handing
out mulligans right and left -- because we need to break those spirals
of negativity which sap our energy and leave us discouraged and
keep us fixated on how we have messed up, instead of freeing us
to live into the possibilities God has for us.
I got an email this week that made my day. It was from someone
at Creekside. This person hadn’t been critical of me, but
it was still a mulligan of sorts, and I was touched and encouraged.
I shared a phrase with you at the beginning of this series, and
it was great to have someone send it back to me. It was as if .
. . I don’t know, someone had actually listened to something
I said. Maybe you’ll remember this phrase: If it isn’t
fantastic . . . that’s because God isn’t finished. We
serve an awesome God, who has great plans for us. We have been given
the grace of Jesus Christ, who died so that we could free from our
sin. We are promised the power of the Holy Spirit to create possibilities
for God’s mission and to proclaim the coming of the kingdom
of God. If it isn’t fantastic, that’s because God isn’t