Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

The Fruit of Discipleship: Wonders and Signs (It’s a God Thing)

Sunday, October 29, 2006

 

 

Acts 2: 41-47
Hebrews 2: 1-4

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

The Acts 2 church experienced awe because “many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” (Acts 2: 43)

 

What do we make of this?

 

Hebrews 2 says that signs, wonders and miracles are ways that God gives testimony to the truth of the gospel. (Hebrews 2: 2-4)

 

What are we to think about signs, wonders and miracles?

 

I’ve had friends who, when something good happened in their lives in an unexpected or surprising way, would explain it by saying: “It’s a God thing.”

 

Just what do we believe about signs and wonders and miracles…and God things?

 

Do we believe that God watches each one of our individual lives and manipulates reality around us, so that sometimes God chooses to perform wonders, signs and miracles in our lives? Is every stroke of good luck an act of divine intentionality? This past week when I was late for a meeting and I really needed to find a parking space and suddenly there was one…was that a God thing? When we get sick or well is that a personal decision by divinity? What about accidents and hurricanes?

 

The biggest problem with thinking that God manages the universe this precisely is articulated by John Updike in his novel A Month of Sundays. The novel is about a Protestant minister who has a nervous breakdown of sorts and is sent for a month to recover in a facility for distressed and demented clergy.

 

The minister is supposed to do nothing but therapy and rest, but he is so addicted to sermonizing that he secretly writes a sermon every week. The sermons that Updike writes for his character have bizarre twists and endings, but otherwise they are actually pretty good sermons.

 

One of the sermons is about Jesus’ miracles. The problem with Jesus’ miracles, the sermon says, is not their plausibility but their selectivity.

 

“If these few, why not all the ailing? Why not all the ailing from the beginning of human time? More, of animal time? Why, indeed, institute, with vitality, pain and struggles, disease and parasitism?”[1]

 

In the sermon he uses the example of the woman who had an issue of blood for 12 years, who surreptitiously touched the hem of Jesus’ garment. “Doesn’t this make us angry?” Updike’s preacher asks. “Angry that this plucking, this seeking out, this risk of humiliation was demanded of her, when Omnipotence could have erased her pain as automatically as stony ground lets wither its weeds?

 

Updike’s strange preacher has a point. If we assume God sometimes chooses to intervene in human life with wonders, signs and miracles, then when God decides not to intervene in the face of gross human suffering, isn’t this cruel and perhaps even criminal? What kind of God is this?

 

There is a passage in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus is quoted as saying that God causes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and that God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5: 45) God is not selective, Jesus is saying, but has put into place processes that are consistent.

 

The universe operates by laws and principles. We all live under the same circumstances with the same possibility of being blessed and the same vulnerability to suffering and pain. And, the amazing thing that Jesus says about this in Matthew 5 is that this consistence is evidence of God’s love, and models the way that we ought to love one another.  

 

And yet the Bible itself is full of wonders, signs and miracles. What are we to make of them? Should we reject them as the primitive thinking of a pre-scientific people?

 

And what about the signs and wonders and miracles that happen in our world today and in our lives? Fred Buechner writes a paragraph in one of his books I identify with:

 

“I happen to believe in God,” he writes, “because here and there over the years certain things happened. No one particularly untoward thing happened, just certain things. To be more accurate,” he continues,” the things that happened never really were quite certain and hence, I suppose, their [uncanny] power.”[2]

 

I can echo Buechner: It is not that there is one big inexplicable miracle in my life that I cannot explain except by crediting the hand of God; it is instead a sense that the events of my life are not purely random and arbitrary, but there is a perplexing hint of a thread of meaning that I may not always fully discern or understand but perceive to be there in a profound way.

 

Even the failings and foolishness and the defeats and the times I have chosen cowardice over faithfulness, somehow it all adds together with the instances of courage and competence to have some sort of meaning, as though I am fulfilling some sort of possibility that is larger than my own little life. You know? Don’t you sometimes sense this?

 

So how do we understand wonders, signs and miracles?  Are they figments of our imagination? Are they intentional divine interventions in the natural world? If so, how can we possibly understand it when the Divine does not intervene in the face of great pain, suffering and injustice?

 

I do not want to over-promise by pretending I can provide a clear answer this question which people of faith have been wrestling with for centuries. I think things happen in our world that we are never going to fully understand.

 

But I want to suggest that putting the question of wonders and signs and miracles within the context of discipleship may help.

 

We have been talking during September and October about discipleship as it is described in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. This is an emphasis of our Bishop John Schol: Acts 2 discipleship has five components: learning, koinonia (a Greek word that means community or fellowship), worship, mission and evangelism.

 

Being a disciple means that these five things are part of our lives. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means we participate in these five activities in some way or another.

 

Acts 2 congregations – our bishop says – organize our lives together on the five components of discipleship: education, koinonia, worship, mission, and evangelism.

 

Acts 2 congregations bear fruit. Look at the idealized description of the church in Acts 2 and you will see that Acts 2 congregations reach new people, Acts 2 congregations help their members grow in maturity and faith, Acts 2 congregations feed and care for people in need, Acts 2 congregations win the respect of the world around them.

 

And another fruit of Acts 2 discipleship is wonders and signs. When Acts 2 disciples are faithful in study, koinonia, worship, mission and evangelism, an extra dimension of ministry manifests itself – and this is what Acts 2 and Hebrews 2 call wonders, signs and miracles.

 

Let me tell you one way I understand this. Robert E. Quinn is a social scientist, the professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

 

Quinn has been studying organizations that make dramatic changes toward improved performance – businesses, non-profits, branches of the military. He’s written two books about what he has learned, one entitled Deep Change and another entitled Building the Bridge as You Walk on It.

 

In most of the organizations he has studied where there has been what he calls deep change, the change has happened, he says, because of a deep change within the life of a leader in the organization.

 

Here’s how he describes it: Most of the time we live in a state of normalcy. We are comfort-centered; we are externally-driven (we do what we need to do to please others because we get our sense of self-worth from others’ opinion of us); we are self-focused (putting our own personal interest above the interest of the collective); we are internally-closed (we stay in our comfort zones resisting change).[3]

 

In organizations where there has been deep change, Quinn says, it often has happened because an individual within the organization left the state of normalcy and entered what he calls “the fundamental state of leadership.”  

 

In the fundamental state of leadership, leaders become less comfort-centered and more purpose-centered. They stop asking “What do I want?” and start asking “What result do I want to create?”

 

They become less externally-driven and more internally-directed, more concerned about their inner values than the opinion of others.

 

They become less self-focused and more other-focused.

 

They become less internally-closed and more externally-open (open to change and experimentation).

 

Often these leaders move from normalcy to the fundamental state of leadership either because of a crisis in their lives or because they are inspired by another leader.

 

When people make this shift, Quinn’s research suggests, almost miraculous things happen in organizations and in people’s lives. When people give up their insecurity, selfishness, and lack of courage, he says “seemingly impossible accomplishments [begin] to happen in an almost effortless way.”[4]

 

He calls it “becoming aligned with the dynamic universe.”[5]

 

I think that what Quinn calls “the fundamental state of leadership” is what Acts 2 would call “the fundamental state of discipleship.”

 

When disciples of Jesus Christ give up being comfort-centered to become purpose- centered; when we give up being driven by the opinion of other to being driven by inner values; when we give up being focused on self and become other-focused; when we give up being internally-shut down to being open to change; then we become aligned with something dynamic within the universe, what Acts 2 would call the Holy Spirit, then wonders, signs and miracles happen.

 

Unexpected things begin to happen. “Seemingly impossible accomplishments begin to happen in an almost effortless way,” Quinn says.

 

It is a God thing, but not a God thing in the sense that God intervenes and manipulates reality but that God moves through disciples who have been set free from their insecurity, self-centeredness, and lack of courage to turn the world upside down.  

 

Quinn says, “No one remains in the fundamental state of leadership continuously, but it is possible to learn how to enter it more and more frequently.”[6]

 

None of us remain in the fundamental state of discipleship continuously, but it is possible to learn how to enter it more and more frequently.

 

This is what learning, koinonia, worship do for us – they help us enter the fundamental state of discipleship more and more frequently, and then, when we take the risk of engaging in mission and evangelism, we will see wonders, signs and miracles happen. We become aligned with the dynamic Holy Spirit. This is the God thing – when God does through us more than we could ever imagine ourselves doing.

 

One of the people Robert Quinn writes about is General Eric Shinseki, former chief of staff of the army. Listen to what he says:

 

“Shinseki’s vision for the transformation of the army was one of the most ambitious undertakings of any chief of staff since General Gorge Marshall. The vision called for a dramatic shift to a lighter and faster army.

 

Although Shinseki had a vision, he did not have a map telling him how to negotiate his way through all the required changes. The early years…were very difficult. Shinseki did what he had to do. He pushed on, taking one step at a time.

 

Shinseki’s role became punishing. He experienced many dark nights of the soul. With each big, symbolic move, he came under intense criticism. He was privately criticized by those on the inside and publicly attacked by the media.

 

What was particularly remarkable about Shinseki was that he never displayed any ego needs. Shinseki was fearless. He was not concerned about looking good.

 

[Eventually] commitment spread from [Shinseki] to [a small group of people who worked with him] and then to larger and larger groups, including some of the people who were initially very resistant.

 

Eventually the army transformation reached a point of “irreversible momentum.’

 

Quinn says this about leaders like Shinseki:

 

“Since they are taking the organization where no one has been before, no one knows how to get there. No one has the necessary expertise. Furthermore…[in these situations] the traditional principles of good management no longer work. Since there is no safe path, no way to be in control, they are forced to move forward one blond step at a time. They then experience exponential learning about self, others, and the organization.”

 

Exponential learning. Exponential things happen. Wonders, signs and miracles.

 

We are the church. We are the ones, above all, called to walk by faith not by sight. We are the ones who have been entrusted with the vision of eternity. Why are we so timid? Why are we so scared? If we get out there where God is, where there are no road maps, exponential things – God things – will happen.

 

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[1] John Updike, A Month of Sunday, pp. 103-107.

[2] Quoted in The Healing Fountain, edited by Betty Thompson, p. 177.

[3] Robert E. Quinn, Building the Bridge as You Walk on It, pp. 19-25.

[4] Quinn, Building the Bridge, p. x.

[5] Quinn, Building the Bridge, p. 25.

[6] Quinn, Building the Bridge, p. 11.