Psalm 118:15-29, Acts 4:1-22
June 24, 2007
We’re taking a trip back again to the very beginnings of the Church. Just think about it. When you walked through those doors this morning and gathered here as the Church of Jesus Christ, you were part of this very thing that started over 2,000 years ago, the beginnings of which we read about from God’s Word today. Just think of it! Peter, James, John, Jerusalem, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Eddington. We are the Body of Jesus Christ on Earth!
Well, as we go back to those beginnings, we find, as I said last week, that there was a big controversy looming here in the beginning of the Book of Acts. The Holy Spirit had come upon the Apostles on Pentecost, and now they had begun to do the “Greater works” Jesus said they would. And the first of those works was the healing of this lame man at the gate of the Temple. And that sparked a controversy that would go all the way through Chapter Five.
If you remember, I gave you an assignment last week to read through the end of that chapter. So, now I’d like you to take out a piece of paper and number down the side from 1 through 20. We’re going to have a “pop quiz.” (Wouldn’t that be funny if we actually did?!) Really, though, I do hope you had a chance to read this story as a whole. If not, I’ll give you an “extension” on your assignment. (But just remember, it could affect your final grade!)
As I said last week, this controversy was growing, and it was becoming more wide-reaching the further we go through the Book of Acts. And it eventually it would contribute to the separation between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish community from which they came. Soon there would be a new movement that would be referred to as “Christianity.” And it all started here with this man who was healed at the Temple gate.
As I mentioned last week, some of the main characters – the main players in this drama – were none other than the very high priests who just weeks before were embroiled in this controversy surrounding one Rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus. Among the high priests named here in Acts are these two men we remember from reading the Passion story. They are the high priests Annas and Caiaphas.
Just think of what all this must have been like for these guys! Think of all they had gone through. Think of how they had put their reputations on the line. Think of how their status before the people had been jeopardized. They put themselves in the tenuous position of having to silence this Jesus, who was extremely popular among the people! They knew it could all blow up in their faces if they didn’t handle it just right. I know we don’t like the fact that they opposed Jesus and all, but just think about the difficult position they had put themselves in!
In recent years, I’ve found myself giving these guys the benefit of the doubt. I sometimes wonder what I would have done – as a clergyman – if I were put in their shoes. How would I react to a person like Jesus? And I’m thinking more and more that, somewhere within them, there was a belief that they were doing the right thing. They felt they were “saving the faith.” This Jesus, they thought, was leading people astray. If you think about their story, you’ll see that they were jeopardizing their status and reputation, by going against this man Jesus, who was very popular! And now, there were some more miraculous things happening in the name of that same Jesus! His followers hadn’t given up! This thing had not “gone away.” And very quickly it would seem to have gotten worse.
So here we find those same priests, now in the Book of Acts, and they were in another very awkward position! And they’re asking the same kinds of questions they asked in the controversy about Jesus. “What do we do about this? This man is growing in popularity. And now after his death it still continues!” In verses 16 and 17 we read about this conference they had among themselves. Again, I’m sure this was a much longer meeting, but Luke gives us the gist of their discussion. And by the way, do you wonder how we know about this conversation. Was Luke there during this meeting? Was he listening in somehow?
However he got their words, their conversation the gist of their conversation centered around this dilemma. “These men have performed a miracle that we cannot deny. What shall we do?” Again, they are in a difficult position. The people were impressed by what happened. They were responding to the message of Jesus. And as far as these priests were concerned, they were still being led astray! So after much discussion, I’m sure, their answer was, “Let us charge them not to speak any more about Jesus.”
Now remember here, there was no “separation of Church and State” in this society. Despite the occupation by the Roman Empire, there was still a certain level of civil authority. And this was a “theocracy.” The religion was the state. And these priests held that civil authority over the people. For them to charge the disciples not to speak, was like our legal authorities saying, “We’re issuing a restraining order.”
Look at this picture then. Think about what was going on here. These priests had witnessed the same miracle as everyone else. They had seen the same power at work as did the disciples. But their reaction was the opposite! Instead of being amazed at God’s power working in their midst, they said, “We’ve got to keep this thing contained. We’ve got to end it. We’ve got to silence it.” In contrast, the disciples reaction was, “We cannot but speak…” And in answering the priests “order” they are even so bold as to make this very insightful statement, “You judge whether we should listen to God or to you!” I know it sounds more flowery and “profound” in “Biblical language,” but that’s what they’re saying. “You’re telling us not to obey God.” Do you see the irony as the disciples saw it?
I think that picture is clear to us. Yet, with all that in mind, I want us to think about our own lives. Are we ever faced with such a dilemma? Do we ever find ourselves caught between conflicting voices? Do we ever feel like someone or something is telling us we are not to speak about our faith in Christ? This is not so easy, is it?
It’s clear that there are people in this world who are telling us the same kinds of things. There are people in our world who would have us not speak about our faith. There are those who take offense at the things we believe. And in an attempt “not to offend,” we find ourselves compelled not to speak about, or even to use the name of, the Son of God! The greatest event in the history of this world was when God himself came to live among us. The Creator of the world came into the world, but we are being compelled not to talk about it!
I hope you see the irony of that, too. But that’s the nature of the world in which we live. And I think we should ask ourselves the same question these Apostles asked. Who should we be listening to? Should we obey the voices in the world around us, or the voice of God? Are we to speak, or not to speak?
Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not talking about “picking a fight” with the world. I’m not talking about alienating anyone. As the guy I used to listen to on the radio in Kansas City used to say, we’re to “love people into the kingdom, not browbeat them.” But I am saying we are to be ready to speak about our faith. We should not be afraid to mention our savior. We should be prepared to present what we believe in a compelling way. Peter wrote in his first letter, “Always be ready to give answer to anyone who asks for the reason for the hope that lies within you. But do so with gentleness and reverence.” (I Peter 3:15)
Now, that won’t always be easy! Peter’s words come in the middle of a chapter about “suffering for the faith.” He’s telling his readers some harsh realities about the world in which they live. A couple of verses later, he tells them, “It is better to suffer for doing right, if that be God’s will, than for doing wrong.” (I Peter 3:17) Is our world that bad? Probably not in the same way. We aren’t persecuted for the faith the way they were. But we have our own version.
Years ago I heard someone say something that has stuck with me all this time. He said, “If you don’t feel some conflict between what the world calls you to do and to be and what your faith calls you to do and to be, then you’d better ask yourself if you’re taking your faith seriously.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I believe the call of our world is becoming more and more divergent from the call of our faith! There has always been some conflict there. And I think there always will be. Both Paul and Jesus told us that “we will be persecuted for our faith.” That probably doesn’t mean physical persecution. But there will always be some conflicting voices. And I hope we will be able to hear the difference!
The question then is, “to speak, or not to speak.” When we are compelled, for whatever reason, not to speak about what we believe, what will we do? Whose voice will we listen to and obey?
Eternal God, grant us the courage and strength we need to speak about our faith whenever the opportunity arises. Give us the love and compassion of Christ our Lord, that we may see others through his eyes. Help us always to be ready to speak of the Gospel, of which we have been made ambassadors. For this we pray I Jesus’ name, Amen.