April 21, 2013

A Bold Movement

Do you remember the first time you got burned?  I don’t necessarily mean physically burned.  I mean, do you remember the first time something happened to really shake your confidence?  Noah loses all his nerve around dogs.  He had some experiences with dogs when he was even smaller that have led him to the conclusion that all dogs are bad.  He’s followed through with this conclusion and has been lobbying Lisa and me for a cat which neither of us wants.  Part of the reason for this is that I have a mild allergy to cats.  Not to be deterred once he’s set his mind to something he informed me that I need to pray and ask God to take away my cat allergy so we can get one.  He even practiced some accountability on me: “Have you done that yet, Dad?”  We’ve gotten him to concede that maybe a small dog wouldn’t be so bad, but I’m still holding out for a full-sized model.  We’ll see.

A bit more personally, when I was six my parents took me on a mild roller coaster ride at Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO, called “Fire in the Hole.”  The idea is that you are on a mine train that keeps nearly crashing into a burning building.  At each such junction the train makes a quick drop and turn.  I was always kind of a cautious kid and as we were waiting in line I began to lose my nerve.  My parents were presented with a choice to make: give up the ride entirely, have one of them take me on the chicken exit while the other enjoyed the ride they were both looking forward to riding, or take me on the ride over my increasingly insistent protests in hopes that I would see that it wasn’t going to be so bad as I thought.  They didn’t know it and indeed almost no parents recognize this in the moment, but this was one of those parental judgment points where there’s really not a right answer, but whatever you decide is probably going to have lasting implications.  They decided to go with the last option on that list.  When the terror-ride finally ended I was traumatized.  As I bawled my eyes out I swore to myself that I would never again ride a roller-coaster or anything even remotely like that.  I got burned and I wasn’t about to reach my hand back out there again.  My nerve was shot.

This morning we are continuing our look at the Greatest Story Ever Told.  As we saw last week, this story comes out of Jesus’ closest followers trying to figure out exactly how to go about following the instructions He left for them after He left them for the final time until His eventual return.  Their wrestling with “now what” gave rise to the church and the world has never been the same.  The story is found in an ancient manuscript written by the same guy who wrote the Gospel of Luke whose name was…Luke…known as Acts, or more formally, The Acts of the Apostles.  In other words, this is the story of what the people Jesus personally sent out into the world to continue His mission did.  What we saw in the first part of the story is how the disciples—and by the way, that’s the title that Jesus’ followers originally used to describe themselves; the title “Christian” didn’t come about for a few more years and was originally an insult—began picking up the pieces and moving forward after Jesus left.  The Jesus movement kind of exploded onto the Jerusalem scene after God filled the disciples with the necessary power to do their job by taking up residence inside them through the person of the Holy Spirit.  When this person and all of His power filled up the original 120 men and women who were gathered together awaiting His arrival, the leader of the group, Peter, went out into the streets and preached this incredible sermon—the first sermon about Jesus ever preached—that saw 3,000 people respond by committing themselves to be disciples of Jesus as well.  Luke finishes telling this first part of the story by describing the incredible, loving, attractive community the disciples had together.  In fact, as we saw, people connect to Jesus through the work of powerful words, loving actions, and an attractive community.  Connections happen through word, deed, and community.

It would be tempting to think at this point that the Jesus movement had a smooth journey from obscurity to the largest, fastest growing religious movement in the world.  This would be a misleading temptation, though, because no sooner did the movement start walking on its own legs than did trouble start to come.  The church stuck its hand out and got burned in some pretty serious ways both outside and in.  And yet, they kept going. The question I want to wrestle with this morning as we look at the next part of the story is how.  How did they manage to keep pushing forward in spite of all the obstacles they faced?  If you have a Bible, open it up to Acts 3 and I’ll tell you this next part of the story.

At the beginning here, we find Peter and John going to the temple at about 3:00 in the afternoon.  While we think in terms of Christianity and Judaism being two different religions today, the Jesus movement began as simply another in an already crowded field of Jewish sects.  There were the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes, the followers of the Way as the Jesus followers called their movement, and so on and so forth.  Peter and John were going to the Temple for the hour of prayer like any good Jews would.  Indeed, they considered themselves to be good Jews.  They entered the Temple by way of the gate called “Beautiful.”  Let me give you a sense of what this would have been like.  The actual name for this gate was the “Corinthian Gate,” which led into the court of the Women—the deepest women could enter into the Temple.  Unlike most of the other gates which were merely 45 feet wide and 60 feet high (to give you some perspective, minus the wings, this entire room all the way up to the steeple would fit inside that space), the Beautiful Gate was 50 feet wide, 75 feet high, and completely covered with gold and silver plates all polished to a gleaming brilliance.  It would have stirred the hearts of most people as they entered.  The effect was to get people marveling about how great the God whose temple this was must be.

Well, as is often the case today, when people’s hearts and minds are focused on a God who is described in ancient Scriptures as merciful, folks who deem themselves in need of mercy in some form—usually money—are going to gather in hopes of prying some change from the hands of the faithful.  In this case, Peter and John are confronted by a man who had been lame since birth who asks them for some money.  Peter responds that they have no money, “but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”  All of a sudden, the game changes.  No longer was this group of folks proclaiming that the guy most of Jerusalem knew had been crucified by the Romans a few weeks before as a political revolutionary was alive again simply gathering together and doing some good works for their neighbors.  Now a lame man was walking.  A miracle had happened.  Miracles attract attention on a bit wider a scale than simply giving out free money.  True to expectation, a crowd gathered.  And true to form, once they had an audience—in the Temple of all places—Peter began to preach again.  He covered the same basic topics as before, but understanding that in the Temple, his crowd was going to be a bit more concerned about and knowledgeable of the Law of Moses and Jewish heritage, he cast Jesus in the light of Moses and Abraham.

Then, as if the attention of a crowd in the Temple weren’t enough, a group of the religious elite came by and overheard some of Peter’s sermon.  This fool was proclaiming the man they had successfully seen crucified by the Romans had come back from the dead.  If you are wondering, by the way, why they apparently hadn’t heard about this Jesus movement before, keep in mind that Jerusalem was a shade under a half mile in total area at this point in history and Peter’s first sermon came at a time when there were hundreds of thousands of people crowded into the city.  As a matter of perspective, Dinwiddie County is 507 square miles with about 30,000 people—that’s over 1000 times more space with 300 times fewer people.  An event happening in one corner of even a small city that crowded was not likely to attract all that much attention.  In any event, upon hearing Peter’s message, Luke writes, they were “greatly annoyed.”  I suspect that doesn’t quite capture the full extent of the emotion they were feeling.  They had no doubt felt certain that their actions of a few weeks before would spell the end of this heretical Rabbi’s movement.  Yet here were these two fishermen who had traveled with Him proclaiming that God had raised Him from the dead and further that He should now be embraced as Lord and Savior.  This was not going to continue.  They had the two apostles arrested on the spot.  Still, in spite of their quick work to stop the nonsense, over another two to three thousand people responded to the message of the resurrected Christ and joined the movement.

After letting them sit in jail overnight, a group of the most powerful religious leaders in the city gathered to question Peter and John over what happened to the formerly-lame man.  The leaders want to know how this happened: “By what power or by what name did you do this?”  Peter responds directly: “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.”  Talk about an in-your-face response.  The religious leaders were awestruck.  Luke writes in 4:13: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished.”  In other words, “How are these rednecks lecturing us ivory-towered elite?”  Check out the next part, though: “And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.”  Awesome.

The examination went on for a bit longer, but at the end of the day, they realized there wasn’t anything they could do.  The apostles hadn’t broken any law and the crowd was jazzed about the lame man getting healed.  And in a crowded city, officials always have to watch out for things that might get the crowd upset.  So they let them go with a warning to keep quiet about all this resurrection stuff.  Needless to say, the disciples were pretty floored by this outcome.  It served up a huge boost of enthusiasm to the community.  It also gave a big boost of excitement to the sick and the lame in Jerusalem.  Word began to spread that these men who had been with Jesus were performing some of the same healings He had done.  You thought a single healing attracted a crowd?  Try a whole bunch of miraculous healings.  Instead of one man healing people, now there were 12 doing the same thing.  And in the Temple!  This was a bridge too far for the religious leaders.  How dare they perpetuate this Rabbi’s blasphemes in the holy temple of God!

Filled with a decidedly unrighteous indignation, the Sadducees—the most politically connected of the religious elite—had the apostles arrested again on the spot, planning to see justice served the next day.  That night, though, an angel came and opened the cell.  This included, by the way, somehow keeping the guards from seeing anything.  The angel let them out with instructions to return to the Temple and preach.  The next morning, when the ruling council sent to the prison to have the apostles brought before them, the guards sheepishly reported that they had found the prison securely locked with the guards in place, but the apostles were nowhere to be found.  Twelve men had broken out of a locked, guarded cell and apparently no one was the wiser.  Then word arrived that these men were standing in the Temple preaching and teaching again.  The priests were furious, but the guards who were tasked with bringing them back in were wise enough to recognize that popular opinion was behind them.  Rather than arresting them again, they politely asked if they would accompany them to another part of the city.

When the apostles were once again before the priests, the first order of business was figuring out why they hadn’t listened to instructions from last time.  I love their response: “We must obey God rather than men.”  And when we hear this, we think in terms of our judicial system that, at least compared to every other system in the world is by far the most fair, impartial, and just.  This was not what the apostles were facing.  The religious leaders were smart, politically connected, and knew how to control a crowd.  They held the power of life and death over the apostles.  To look defiantly in the faces of men who hate you and everything you stand for and further have the power to do something about it takes a level of courage most of us don’t have.  In fact, were it not for the wise intervention of a Pharisee named Gamaliel—who may at that very time have had a young man named Saul as one of his students—who observed that perhaps it would be better to let this little movement play out as it would and either let Rome solve the problem or else stay out of God’s way than get any more involved than they already were, the apostles would almost certainly have been put to death then and there.  Instead, they are again released, albeit this time with a beating, and told again to keep quiet.  The final statement in this part of the story reveals that they were as poor listeners this time as they had been before.  They continued to boldly proclaim the message of the resurrected Christ everywhere they could.

Every time the Jesus followers stuck themselves out there in obedience to Jesus’ command to bear witness there were the Jewish leaders to smack them back down.  You would think this would be enough of a challenge.  And you would probably be right.  But it was far from the only challenge facing the believers.  You see, when a group of people with a really focused mission and vision like the disciples had starts experiencing persecution, they often respond by doubling down and striving even harder to see their vision realized.  No, what often ends up taking down groups like this are internal issues.  As if the devil was happy to oblige, the disciples had to sort through some of these as well.  The release of the apostles after their first arrest only served to confirm their words in the minds of the disciples.  Their elation spilled over into even more radical acts of generosity.  One man named Barnabas sold a perfectly productive piece of property and brought the entire purchase amount to the apostles.  Think about this: real estate is one of the safest investments today.  It was everything back then.  In a day before banking existed people didn’t have cash sitting around for thieves to take.  They had land.  Land was the only way to guarantee a future income for you and your family.  And this guy sold some of his land and gave all the money to the apostles.  This would be like sinking a bunch of your retirement in an IRA and then after ten years cashing out and giving the whole amount to the church.  Through the lens of the kingdom this man was rightly celebrated.  He was celebrated so much that there were some other folks who wanted a piece of the action.  In particular, a couple named Ananias and Sapphira purported to do the same thing.  In reality they held some back for themselves.  Here was the test: is this new movement going to be about people getting glory for doing great things, or people sacrificing of themselves for a greater cause regardless of any recognition they might or might not receive for their efforts?  The answer is really hard for us to swallow and we don’t have time to get into it now, but when the couple is called out individually and independently on this lie they each drop dead on the spot.  Talk about a potential momentum killer!  And yet look what happened.  The church continued to grow and expand.

The church continued to move forward regardless of the obstacle.  Whether the obstacle came from external sources or internal ones, the church pushed through, kept to the mission Jesus had laid out for them, and continued connecting people to Christ.  They got burned over and over again.  They faced experiences much like Noah with dogs and me with thrill rides that under normal circumstances should have broken their nerve.  How did they do it?  What was it that enabled them to stay the course with such tenacity?  The answer comes in a little part of the story that actually lies right in the middle.  Everything that comes before this section points to it and everything after flows from it.  Look with me in the story starting at 4:23.  “When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them.  And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God.”  In other words, when they heard what had happened to the apostles, they prayed about it.  And what did they pray?  They prayed: “Oh Lord, thank you for keeping our leaders safe.  Thank you for guarding their lives against the threat they were facing.  Lord, things are starting to heat up around here.  We need you to protect your servants.  We can’t withstand attacks like this on our own, but you can.  Keep us safe so that we can continue working toward the goal you left for us to pursue.  Help us spread your word in wise and winsome ways and help us do it for a long time.  In Jesus’ name we ask all of this.  Amen.”

You know what?  I suspect there are some folks in here who don’t currently have their Bibles open and who don’t know this story all that well who think I just read you the next part of the text.  You know why?  Because that’s exactly what we would have prayed had something like this happened.  Lord keep us safe.  When Lisa traveled to Missouri and back last weekend my prayer was, “Lord keep her safe.”  You know why?  Because I like having her around.  And because most of the time, I value life more than I value the advancement of the Gospel.  When we think about sticking ourselves out there for the sake of the Gospel—and with the direction of our culture, that’s not such an unimaginable future as perhaps it once was—we break out in cold sweats and start looking for ways we can be faithful without risks.  Why?  Because we value our lives and our luxuries more than we value the advance of the Gospel.  That’s a totally natural sentiment.  When we really understand the Gospel message we find that it’s a totally irrational sentiment, but it’s natural all the same.  When we get burned, our natural response is to react by getting more cautious.  That’s basic self-preservation.  Remember my promise after being traumatized by “Fire in the Hole”?  I didn’t ride another roller coaster or even a mild thrill ride for a full ten years.  Ironically, the next time came when I was at Silver Dollar City, but this time with my church youth group and my four best friends in the world finally convinced me to get on the park’s only roller coaster with them.  I loved it and kicked myself for what I had been missing.  My fears were finally overcome.  My parents had not left me permanently scarred.  Yet what was it that finally overcame my irrational fears?  What was it that the disciples actually prayed?

Take a look at the actual text with me starting at 4:24: “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.  And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants [that our lives might be preserved…just checking to see if you’re paying attention] to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  In other words, “God, pay attention to what’s going on down here.  Things are getting pretty tough.  Don’t worry about our safety.  Just make sure we have what it takes to stick to the path with boldness.”  Now wait a minute.  Being bold is what got them in this mess in the first place!  Being bold got them thrown in jail…twice.  It got them beaten.  It put them directly at odds with the leadership of the people.  It was what drew out the frauds Ananias and Sapphira.  Why on earth would they pray for boldness?  Because boldness is the only thing that propels us successfully through challenges like this.  Without boldness, when we get burned, we fold.  I gave up on thrill rides.  Completely.  My cautiousness made me look ridiculous in front of my friends…in junior high.  We went to our version of King’s Dominion in seventh grade and I was the only one of my friends who wouldn’t ride basically anything.  I looked like a sissy.  I didn’t care.  I had gotten burned and I wasn’t about to stick myself back out there again.  There was nothing bold about me.  Without boldness challenges cause a church to turn inward, focus undue attention on stupid things like the style of the choir robes, become a tight-knit community that’s hard to break into, and do almost nothing consistent or lasting to advance the mission of Jesus.  But, boldness drives the church through challenges.  It wasn’t until I had friends who loved me enough to put a ton of peer pressure on me to stick myself back out there again, endure my fear-filled bellyaching about everything that could have gone wrong, and coax me to once again be bold.  It isn’t until a church gets bold enough to risk absolute failure that it will start moving forward on the mission of Jesus once again.  Boldness drives the church through challenges.

And here’s the really cool part.  When we pray sincerely for boldness, God will give us opportunities to be bold.  Look at v. 31: “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”  What happened next?  Remember, this all lies right in the middle of the story.  It’s after this prayer that the apostles are out healing everybody they can.  It’s after this prayer that they are arrested…again.  It’s after this prayer that they are imprisoned…again.  Yet what happened?  God breaks them out and tells them to stick their arrest in the face of the religious leaders by showing back up in the Temple the next day preaching the same thing.  Boldness.  It’s after this prayer that they are beaten for the first of many times.  It’s after this prayer that they are released with a warning…again.  And it’s after this prayer that they got back out and what?  Started preaching the message of the resurrected Jesus…again.  Boldness drives the church through challenges.

So what do we need to do with this?  I’d like you to be kind of cautious and reserved and ease your way out into the middle of the path advancing the cause of the kingdom.  Come on!  Let’s be bold.  If you are a follower of Jesus, you have a message worth being bold about.  You serve a God who’s short on neither power nor resources and so if He calls you to something, get out there and do it.  Make the best plan you can.  Take it as seriously as you are able.  But be bold about it.  Boldness drives the church through challenges.  So pray boldly.  Ask God for God-sized things.  And I don’t mean personal things.  Prayers for healing this or that person are important, but come on, someone being physically healed is immaterial next to their becoming a follower of Jesus.  If you want to ask for healing, ask for God to do the harder healing of a skeptic’s heart and then look for ways to take part in the process.  That’s bold.  Think boldly.  Think of bold ways to keep the church on track with her mission.  What are some bold ways that we could become fully a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ?  Act boldly.  Look for bold ways to be a part of advancing the kingdom of God.  I know of a couple who in a few months will leave behind their four kids and travel to one of the most dangerous nations in the world in order to show the love of Christ to people with no way of showing it back to them.  That’s bold.  Boldness drives the church through challenges.  Boldness keeps our focus where it ought to be.  If we want to be a church that’s on track with the mission of the kingdom, with the mission God has given us, it’s going to take boldness.  There’ll be plenty of challenges.  There’ll be plenty of obstacles.  There’ll be plenty of detractors.  There’ll be plenty of reasons not to.  But boldness drives a church through challenges.  Let’s be bold together.