Genesis 18:1-15, Acts 5:12-28
June 15, 2008
Last week we saw how these disciples had been empowered by the Holy Spirit. They were now ready “to boldly go” into the world with the good news of God’s grace. This week I want us to pick up their story in chapter 5, and I want us to think about the courage the Apostles had in those early days of the Church.
Let me start by asking this. “Have you ever been courageous?” Now, I want you to think about that for a moment. I want you to try to remember a time in your life when you would say you showed courage? And please notice, I deliberately said, “showed courage.” Because that’s a lot of what courage is. You see, having courage doesn’t meant you have no fear. I don’t want you to confuse “courage” with “fearlessness.”
Courage is acting courageous in spite of fear. Courage is overcoming fear. And fear is a natural thing! I’m sure that many of the great acts of courage throughout history were performed by people who were terribly scared, but who willed themselves to act courageously in spite of their fear. Either that or they had disciplined themselves to act, despite their fear. Or they had desensitized themselves to that fear. The point is, the fear was there. In fact, as one author put it, “People who have no fear at all are really the crazy ones!” We all have fear. It’s a natural thing. But we are courageous when we choose to act anyway.
Following the tragedy of September 11th, one of the most moving speeches I heard came from David Letterman, of all people. I’ll never forget what he said. He said, “in times like these we have to have courage, or we have to pretend we have courage, because nobody can tell the difference, and both of those accomplish the same thing.” And I remember thinking how true that was! When we act courageous, we are courageous!
Sometimes, though, we’re like the cowardly lion. And we think courage is “something we have,” or we have not, in his case. It’s like it’s a commodity of some kind, or a personality trait. All those things I would do, “If I only had the noive!” And remember what happened when the lion asked the wizard to give him courage. The wizard said, “Where I come from there are men who do all kinds of daring deeds, and they have no more courage than you have! But one thing they do have is a medal!” And he pulled out of that black bag a medal, that said “Courage.” And remember, in doing so, the wizard really only honored the courageous deeds the lion had been doing all along! Courage is not a thing we “have” or we “get,” like some kind of commodity. Courage is a choice we make. And yes it is a choice we need to make in our faith. And sometimes it is a hard choice!
Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, was making his way down the secret tunnel towards the dragon’s lair, alone. But as he neared the end of the tunnel, he started to hear the sounds of the great dragon stirring below. “At this point he stopped.” writes J. R. R. Tolkien. “Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before his eyes ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.” (From “The Hobbit”) I just love reading Tolkien! Doesn’t that capture the nature of courage. Fear is a thing of the mind. Courage is a thing of the will overcoming that fear. Courage is the choice to act, even though the fear is still there!
In the recent movie Evan Almighty, Evan is called by God to be a modern day Noah and to build an ark. I hope you saw it. It’s a fun movie! Well, for Evan’s wife, the ramifications of her husband building an ark in their back yard, and the social ridicule and political oppression they faced, was very frightening! So at one point God appears to her – incognito – and he asks her this. “When you pray for courage, does God give you courage? Or does he show you opportunities for you to act courageously?” Well, I think that’s true. But I believe that’s only half the story! (Hey! You can’t expect Hollywood to get matters of faith completely right! Can you?) Yes, God does show us opportunities to act courageously, but then he gives us guidance and strength (especially strength!) – through the Holy Spirit – so that we can make the choice to act courageously!
I think these Apostles showed exactly that in the book of Acts. They showed that courage which comes from the strength given by the Holy Spirit. There were amazing things happening in Jerusalem in those days. And with those amazing things, there was also great danger. And these men knew it. They weren’t naïve. They knew what they were up against. They knew the very people who had crucified Jesus were now “up in arms” against them. They had been arrested once already, and they had been put on trial before the council. We read that story last week.
Yet, despite all that, we find them here again, worshipping, and preaching, not only in Jerusalem, but in the Temple itself!! And to give us some idea of how dangerous that was, Luke tells us this in verse 13. “None of the rest dared join them, [even though they] held them in honor.” It was scary what they were doing! It was scary to stand in the Temple and speak the name of Jesus after being threatened not to! However, look at the next verse! Scary though it was, “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.”
That’s the courage the Apostles showed in those days. But, do you think in their heart of hearts they were scared? I think there’s no doubt of that! But(!) they chose, though the power of the Holy Spirit, to act in ways that were bold and courageous, knowing that was what God wanted them to do!
Such is the nature of this life of faith, my friends. There are things that our faith challenges us to do, there are things that our faith calls us to do, that require courage. Paul told the Hebrews that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 1:1) And in that explanation, there is an element of courage.
Look at the hymn we started with today, “Faith of Our Fathers.” That’s a hymn you almost have to sing on Father’s day. But I want you to see what it says about the faith of our fathers. “Faith of our fathers, living still. In spite of dungeon, fire and sword.” That refers to our fathers in the early days of the Church, and it refers to many other difficult times in history. Down through the ages, God’s people have been called on to have a faith that includes this thing called courage. Each week at the close of the service, I challenge you to “Go out into the world in peace.” And “Be of good courage…” Do we think about that courage after we go through those doors? And what does that courage look like in our lives?
We probably won’t have the need, in our faith, the courage to face dungeon, fire, or sword! We probably won’t face the persecution the Church faced in it’s first three centuries. Practically thinking, our opportunities for showing courage will probably be more in the area of defending our faith in a “politically correct” world, or speaking out about our faith with non-believers. Maybe you can think of others. But(!) will we even do those things?
Sometimes it takes “good courage” to do the other things I say in that challenge. Think about them. I say, “Hold on to what is good.” “Return to no one evil for evil.” “Strengthen the fainthearted.” “Support the weak.” “Help the suffering.” “Honor all people.” Those things take courage, don’t they? I had them printed at the bottom of the bulletin so you could see them, and take them with you. Those are the things God calls us to do, aren’t they? They are Christ-like things! And they take courage!
So, when we have these “opportunities for courage” – and others – what do we do? The easy thing is always simply to keep silent. But I don’t think God would want that, do you? I think God wants us to choose to act courageously! (Don’t you agree?) So how do we do that? The first order of business is to pray for strength. The Apostles were in constant prayer, and God gave them the strength through which they could act with courage. And he does the very same with us, if only we will ask, too.
The next order of business is to make the decision to act! And that again is an act of the will. It is a conscious decision we make to be bold and courageous followers of Jesus Christ, even if our actions are not the most “popular” or the most “politically correct” to the rest of the world.
So that’s it! That’s a pretty simple formula. Pray for strength, and then act. But know this. There is a great joy in deciding to follow the will of God – no matter how fearful it might be. When we are drawing closer to God, when we are showing our love for him by keeping his commandments – which is Jesus’ definition, you remember – we will know that great joy of being God’s people. That’s the joy we have when we strive to be people who do his will.
So, God bless you in your choice to follow Christ. And God bless you in your continuing choices to live the life of faith – courageously and passionately. May each choice you make in that regard lead to other similar choices as you are changed from one degree of glory to the next!
Lord, help us to feel the power of your Holy Spirit in our lives. Give us the strength we need to have the courage to live our lives for you. In all our decisions, help us to choose to act as Jesus would have acted – as you would have us act. And we give you the glory and honor and praise, now and forever, world without end, Amen.