I hear the word “Pivot” quite a bit these days. From a business or organization standpoint, a pivot is a fundamental change in the product or service or perhaps in the way that product or service is delivered. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, over the last two months all organizations, including business, schools, non-profits, and churches, are pivoting. We are changing the way we deliver our products and services. Some organizations are making new things like ventilators and hand sanitizer. Many non-profits and churches are pivoting how we go about our mission.
As we at ECC explore the book of Acts in our current series, we see that the concept of pivoting isn’t new to the church at all. In fact, it was part of God’s original intent for the church in Acts. In his introductory sermon in our Acts series, Pastor Stacey identified the six panels and summary passage in the book of Acts. These six passages are connected to one another by five brief summary verses of the spread of the gospel message and the growth of the Church. Those summary passages are found in Acts 6.7; 9.31; 12.24; 16.5; and 19.20. In one sense, these six panels follow the outline Jesus gives us in Acts 1.8, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” As Stacey stated, that outline and those six panels are a model for our ministry as the Church still today. When you think about that verse and the context of the first century church, how can the disciples accomplish such a thing without some significant pivots?
The book of Acts is loaded with preachable content, and there are more important stories than we can preach over the Sundays available this summer, so we must jump over some. One of the events we are jumping over this week is Stephen’s sermon and his subsequent martyrdom. It is one of the pivotal points in Acts. As you may recall, as the Jerusalem church grew, it was necessary that overseers were chosen to care for and feed widows. One of these, Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, performed great wonders and signs, which in turn created opposition from Hellenistic Jews from outlying areas. Events unfolded leading to a trial. And not unlike Jesus’ trial, false witnesses were drummed up, and Stephen is accused of “blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
All this leads to Stephen being seized and brought before the Sanhedrin. Side note, since Jesus' trial in front of the Sanhedrin back in Mark 14, the Sanhedrin has been quite busy dealing with Peter, John, and the apostles on at least two recorded occasions so far in the book of Acts, and their frustration must be mounting. People are repenting and believing the gospel, the apostles continue to preach despite threats, and even jail cells will not hold these disciples. Now for the fourth time since Jesus paraded into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Sanhedrin are confronted once again with another follower of “The Way” who is disrupting their world.
Stephen delivers the longest recorded sermon or speech in the book of Acts which is captured in chapter 7. This speech is a history of Israel that encompasses Abraham's call and God’s covenant promise to create a great nation of people, the patriarchs including Joseph saving his people from the famine, and Moses and his call to lead the Israelites out of slavery including Moses's prediction that God would some day raise up a prophet like Moses from His own people. At the end of the lengthy speech, Stephen turns the tables on his accusers demonstrating that they are the “stiffed necked” people just like their ancestors who have killed prophets and now they have killed the “Righteous One.”
Well, that did it. Those word pushed the mob over the edge. The mob act as judge, juror, and executioner, and Stephen is stoned. He cries out to Jesus to receive his spirit, and in true Christlike fashion, forgives his persecutors, and…the church pivots. The young Greek speaking, Roman citizen, self-proclaimed “Pharisee of Pharisees” Saul watches the cloaks of those who do the dirty work. Saul, who was also possibly a member of the Synagogue of the Freedmen mentioned in chapter 6, that drummed up the false charges and killed Stephen, is empowered by this event and goes on a rampage as a great persecution breaks out.
But what looks like a pivot in the favor of the Sanhedrin is actually the pivot necessary for Acts 1:8 to be fulfilled. From this point, Luke, the author of Acts, will write very little about the activity of the church in Jerusalem. Instead in the subsequent chapters, he turns his attention briefly to one of the other servants, Phillip, who we will look at the next two Sundays, and then ultimately to Paul (Saul) and his mission. This is a major pivot. A pivot Jesus predicted. A pivot for which we are all thankful because the gospel has reached us. What was the catalyst for this pivot? Persecution, hard times, seemingly unexpected opposition, and obstacles.
Sound familiar? Perhaps there is no better time for us as a church to be walking through this fantastic book of Acts. We as a church have already had to pivot in terms of how we conduct corporate worship, how we minister to our children and youth, how we care for those in need, and how we make and deepen disciples to name a few. We aren’t done pivoting yet. As we look to the future for what reentry looks like, it is clear to me that we will not be the same. Much of my and my colleague’s thoughts are currently focused on what worship and church will look like when we start to open back up and return. Some of the things we have added are here to stay. Some things we aren’t currently doing may not come back. We will pivot again. Just like our first century brothers and sisters did. Just like the church has done in the years that have followed. We pivot…for the sake of the gospel.