April 28, 2013

The Fruit of Boldness

I am a big fan of movies.  Especially trilogies.  One of the trilogies that’s easily on my top ten list is Back to the Future Trilogy.  Okay, I really never cared for the third one, but the first two were great.  In a particularly memorable scene from the end of the first movie, replayed with greater detail in the second, Marty McFly has gone back to 1955 to set the past right once again and meets his parents, George and Lorraine, before they were together.  In order to help make sure his parents get together, thus ensuring his own existence, he has to give his dad some lessons in self-confidence and standing up for what’s right.  In fact, in order to give him some practice and help him win the girl of his dreams, the two concoct a plan to help him win her heart.  Marty was going to pretend to take advantage of his mom…yeah, that always weirded me out too…and his dad was going to come save the day.  Unbeknownst to George, though, Marty had gotten locked in a trunk by Biff and his gang and when he went to rescue Lorraine from Marty, it was the bully Biff who really was trying to attack her.  George charges in head first and demands that the person he thinks is Marty take his hands off of Lorraine.  Suddenly, Biff turns around and menacingly stands up out of the car.  George had taken a bold stand for what was right, but he was about to pay for it.

You know, thinking about it, we hear a lot of talk today about standing up for what is right.  Moral courage like this is something that our culture celebrates loudly in theory.  It is particularly prevalent in our schools.  There is a deeply ingrained sense that moral courage is a virtue worth encouraging and so we teach this to our children in hopes that they will pick it up.  The problem is, we don’t teach good morals, one, but two, we don’t often teach the other side of the story.  We celebrate examples of people standing up for what it right and we should.  We should tell stories like that of St. Telemachus, the 3rd century Christian monk, whose bold stand for what was right put the final nail in the coffin of the Roman gladiatorial games and their senseless waste of human life.  We should remember the work of people like William Wilberforce and his efforts to put an end to the slave trade throughout the British Empire.  We should celebrate Civil Rights heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks and their efforts to bring equality to minorities in this nation.  But, we should also tell the other side of their stories.  St. Telemachus was killed by a gladiator when he climbed down into the pit shouting for them to stop the violence.  Wilberforce was bitterly and often unfairly opposed by most of Parliament for decades.  King, Parks, and the other Civil Rights leaders were viciously and brutally opposed by state and local authorities.  They were cursed, jailed, beaten, bombed, lynched, assassinated, and on and on.  Each of these individuals took bold stands for what was right.  They sought to boldly advance the message and mission of Jesus.  But that doesn’t mean their efforts went smoothly or easily.  In fact, more often than not, the rule of history has been that boldness from the church results in persecution from the world.

Well, this week brings us to the third part of our look at the Greatest Story Ever Told.  This story is the story of the church.  It is the story of how God worked through people not so different from you and me to create and expand the movement through which He intended to advance the message His Son came to inaugurate.  Realistically speaking, the church should never have even gotten off the ground.  It proclaimed a view of reality radically different from anything the world had ever known and which should have been pounded into the dust by the wealthy and the powerful.  Instead, though, in the span of 300 years it conquered the largest and most powerful empire the world had ever known up to that point in history.  It didn’t stop there, though, and as I said last week, the movement of Jesus is today the largest and fastest growing in the world.  People all around the world give up literally everything in order to join this movement.  The story of how it all got started, then, really is the greatest story ever told.

At this point in the story we have seen how the church got started from nothing.  We have seen how a group of demoralized and defeated men and women who thought they had lost everything and were fearful for their own lives were empowered by the news of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit and began proclaiming this message to the world around them.  They spoke it and they lived it together which created this incredible community that drew people in like moths to a flame.  Eventually, though, they began to face some obstacles to moving forward.  As we saw last week, though, they powered through each of these, whether external or internal in origin, by boldly remaining glued to the message and mission of Jesus.  They did not allow anything to sway them from the path and constantly looked for ways to boldly—which is not the same thing as foolishly by the way—proclaim the resurrected Christ and His kingdom.  Hearing what they did to advance the Gospel should encourage us.  I know that many of you have asked me in the last week what we could do to be bold in our own mission.

Before we take off running, though, this morning I want to give you the other side of the story.  As it turns out, this is the next part of the story.   You see, being bold is a…well…bold thing to do.  It takes a lot of guts.  It also takes an awareness of the consequences.  You see, the world doesn’t like boldness.  It pretends to.  But it doesn’t really.  For example, on occasion news outlets will run stories about some otherwise obscure college professor who has made a statement so far outside the mainstream of public opinion as to be deeply offensive to most Americans.  The best example that comes to mind is former University of Colorado-Boulder Professor Ward Churchill whose 15 minutes of national fame came when he voiced an opinion that the 9/11 attacks were well-earned by United States.  One of the angles that many media outlets took on this story was to celebrate his moral courage for saying something unpopular as if saying something unpopular is in itself a praiseworthy thing.  The only problem is that at CU-Boulder and, frankly, in many of the media outlets that covered the story, his opinion really wasn’t all that unpopular.  It was kind of like if an American soldier in World War I stood up from his trench where he was surrounded by his unit and shouted at the German soldiers across the field that the Kaiser was jerk.  Acclamations of this soldier’s moral courage would be a joke.  Yet this is exactly what our culture celebrates as boldness.  On the other hand, when Jesus followers rise up to boldly take courageous, God-honoring moral stances that fly in the face of what culture currently pronounces as good and right the world is going to respond and the response isn’t going to be pretty.  Last week I said we need to be bold.  This week I want to show you what can (and often does) happen when we do it.  If you have your Bible or a Bible app, find your way to Acts 6 and will take a look together at this next part of the story.

The story opens with the church continuing to grow and grow and grow.  The church is growing so much and so quickly that it starts to run into an entirely new kind of problem: organization.  Remember Luke’s comment that the church members shared everything in common and used their collective resources to help meet the needs of their neighbors?  Well, one of the neediest social groups back then were widows.  We’ve mentioned several times the fact that the place of women in this society was awful.  A woman by herself was in a terribly difficult place.  It was only natural, then, for the church to take serious efforts to meet their needs.  One of these was food.  As a result, there was a daily distribution of food to widows.  Well, as the church grew, eventually it got to a point that organizational problems began coming to bear.  In this case they were exacerbated by ethnic preferences.  Widows who were not ethnically Hebrew found themselves overlooked more often than not in the daily food distributions.  The problem got bad enough that eventually a complaint was raised and the church faced her first organizational crisis.  How were the leaders going to handle this?

Reading this part of the story we are tempted to take it lightly, but I get the sense that with the exception of the apostles determination to defy the men they would have considered to be their religious leaders—remember, they all considered themselves Jews—in favor of submission to God, this was the single biggest challenge the church faced in these early days.  And, given what I said last week about mission-focused groups like this tending to double down in the face of external obstacles, this was the first challenge that had the potential to fracture the internal unity of the group at which point it would have collapsed under its own weight.  Even Ananias and Sapphira didn’t pose this kind of threat.  So how were the apostles going to handle this oversight?  The natural response would have been to wade in waist deep, seek to resolve things by both example and fiat, and set some clear policies in place to hopefully prevent future issues.  This would have been a strong show of leadership and would have preserved their power in what was quickly becoming an organization.  What they actually did was entirely more bold than that.

Look what they did starting in v. 2: “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples [the first church business meeting] and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.’”  In other words: “We’re not getting involved in that.  It would not be right for us to stop doing what only we can do in order to get involved with what somebody else is perfectly capable of doing.”  Continuing in v. 3: “Therefore, brothers [and sisters], pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.  But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”  They essentially looked at the church and said: “Yep, we have a problem.  You deal with it.  Pick out the people you want to deal with it and we’ll bless them to go deal with it so we can focus on what only we can do.”  Let me run on a quick tangent and we’ll get back to the story.  When pastors get directly involved in ministries and in sorting out issues that folks in the congregation are perfectly capable of handling, everybody loses.  The already fleeting time of pastors gets sucked away from the things only they can do and the congregation loses initiative and confidence in their ability to solve problems apart from the pastor.

Think for a minute about how bold this was.  The apostles had a perfect opportunity to consolidate their power.  Culturally they would have been considered fools for not doing so.  The boldness of this would have shocked many in the church and set a fantastic precedent of humility to be followed.  Make this more relevant, though.  Think about how radical this move was through the lens of our culture.  The apostles’ response that it would not be right to stop their ministry work to serve tables seems to drip with arrogance through that lens.  They weren’t willing to stop standing up front and getting all the attention in order to serve these poor widows and probably orphans too?  What a selfish, high-minded decision!  How dare they refuse to come down off their high horses in order to attend to the needs of the least, last, and lost around them.  The people needed to be able to see their leaders leading and here was a perfect chance to do so and make it personal.  They shouldn’t have been leading that movement at all until they had their fill of humble pie.  Yet the apostles understood something very important that Paul would later bring out in his letters: every single member of the church has a role to play in the body.  If one person tries to take on the work that should be done by someone else, the whole body is set off kilter and is hamstrung in its ability to accomplish the more important task of advancing the Gospel message.  As it turns out and although for a different reason, the apostles’ reaction to this challenge would be just as bold today as it was back then.  Yet look what happens as a result of their decision in v. 7: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests [that would be the guys who should have been the most vigorously opposed to the movement] became obedient to the faith.”  Indeed, boldness drives a church through challenges.

And the thing about boldness is that it’s infectious.  When people see other members of a community taking bold steps to advance the mission of the community, they are often driven to pursue similar expressions of boldness.  Social peer pressure works in a positive way like this.  It’s the “everybody’s doing it” phenomenon.  Usually this doesn’t play out very well, but if the thing everybody’s doing is boldly living out the life of Christ the net effective is really positive.  Furthermore, when a church actively looks to raise up new leaders from within its ranks, there is always a good chance of finding some.  In this case, the first church struck gold.  One of the leaders called before the apostles to be tasked with resolving the organizational issues in the daily food lines was a man named Stephen.  Stephen turned out to be a powerhouse on par with the apostles when it came to advancing the mission of the church in the public square.  In a day before authors used pictures to illustrate important points repetition was really important.  When a New Testament or Old Testament author repeats something pay close attention.  The Spirit-led wisdom and power of Stephen is repeated three times here in pretty quick fashion.  Think: Billy Graham on steroids.  And, since he was probably not a native Hebrew, he appealed to a totally different demographic than the apostles.  Stephen, who, ironically, is never mentioned as serving tables, goes out and follows the apostles’ lead in boldly advancing the mission of Jesus.  Boldness drove the church through challenges and kept it running right on down the road.  Like the apostles, Stephen is hauled before the religious leaders, but this time on false charges.  You see, when the world steps out to oppose us, we should not ever expect fair or just treatment.  Yet he continues following in the apostles’ footsteps and offers this incredibly bold response to their question as to whether or not the charges were true.  The reality is that all he had to do was deny the charges, or better yet, use his great wisdom to explain why his opponents’ distortions of his words weren’t true, and they probably would have let him go.  He opts for boldness, though, and in the longest recorded sermon in Acts, he turns the tables on the religious leaders and shows by appealing to the ancient Hebrew Scriptures how it is the broader people of Israel, including their leaders, who are guilty of opposing God in their resistance to the Gospel message.  And at this point we want to stand up and applaud Stephen for speaking truth to power.  He displays incredible moral courage here.  He shows this remarkably bold willingness to call things what they are with impunity.  And what happens?

I’ll tell you in just a second, but let’s go back to the future.  In the nice Hollywood-ized ending to the story, when George confronts Biff, the stronger, meaner, bully painfully twists his arm around to the side so that George has to watch while Biff continues his assault on Lorraine.  In this moment, George finally finds his moral courage, balls his hand into a fist, and knocks the bully out to win the girl and save the future.  And they all lived happily ever after.  So then, in the Hollywood version of our story, after Stephen makes his great speech to the religious leaders, they quietly back down, the crowd changes its mind, and the church grows to dominate the world.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  What actually happened though?

Look at the story with me at the end of chapter 7.  Starting at v. 54: “Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.”  Stephen didn’t change any hearts or minds with his boldness.  He just confirmed the need to do to him what they really wanted to do.  And what did they want to do?  Jump down to v. 58: “Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.”  Stoning is a pretty brutal way to die.  It’s when people gather around you so you can’t escape and throw big rocks at you until you die from the wounds.  Now, from a churchy perspective he had a pretty incredible death scene including a vision of Jesus Himself and offering forgiveness to the people actively throwing rocks at him with the intent of killing him, but the point is that he was killed.  He was bold for the faith…and he was killed for it.  Painfully.  Then look what happened.  From the beginning of chapter 8: “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles [another culturally rooted reason to be angry at them for not getting their hands dirty in actually leading the church?].  Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.  But Saul [the villain of the story is finally introduced] was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”  Not only did Stephen’s boldness result in his own death, but his death actually proved to be the final crack in the dam holding back the flood of persecution waiting for the church and it gave way exploding persecution all over the Jesus followers.  We rightly celebrate boldness on the part of followers of Jesus.  We are rightly encouraged by it.  It inspires us to pursue similar expressions.  But when our boldness sets us in opposition to the world, things are not going to go well for us in the short term.  You see, sometimes, boldness sparks persecution.

What do we do with this?  There are three ways to respond.  The first is anger.  This man stepped out to boldly advance God’s cause.  The apostles had been doing this.  In fact, they had gotten brought before the council twice so far and gotten off with nothing more than a beating.  Okay, yeah, they paid their pound of flesh, but not like this.  Why should we boldly step out there when this is the kind of thing that’s coming?  Jesus needs to do a better job of taking care of His servants.  Okay, yeah, Stephen had a vision of Jesus, but how about a vision of Jesus he got to then describe to people in order to make his witness even more powerful.  The injustice of all of this combined with the apparent inattention of God—especially considering that this was the lynchpin that resulted in persecution finally being blown all over the church—makes somewhere inside of us seethe with anger.  I mean, come on, the church was just starting to organize so that it could be even more effective in its witness to the city.  It was going to form committees and set policies and establish a set home base of operations so that it could really refine its efforts and connect even more people to Christ.  Oh wait…maybe our anger isn’t quite so well-placed as we thought.  I mean, good organization is critical for the church today, but it also brings a temptation to focus more and more of our attention on internal organizational issues rather than outward, kingdom advancing ones.  Sometimes boldness sparks persecution, but we have to be bold first to find out.

This actually brings us to a second reaction: caution.  Stephen didn’t just get burned for being bold, he got burned up.  There was nothing left but a good story.  Maybe he went too far.  I mean, let’s be bold, but sometimes boldness sparks persecution.  Why don’t we see if we can find a good medium boldness that advances the Gospel, but keeps us out of the spotlight.  Isn’t that a more humble approach anyway?  Nobody likes a glory-hog.  I mean, the apostles toed the line, but Stephen went sailing right over it.  And besides, his boldness didn’t just affect him.  Okay, so the apostles were beaten.  Nobody else was.  But after Stephen’s little bold journey not only did he get killed, other people lost their homes, their livelihoods, their family, possibly even their lives too.  How is that right?  Sometimes boldness sparks persecution so we need to be wise with our boldness.  We need to be bold in tightly controlled (by us) circumstances where there aren’t likely to be negative consequences.  We’ll be really bold in proclaiming the Gospel on the church grounds.  But, let’s not stray too far from there.  I mean, why provoke an argument unnecessarily.  Isn’t that unhelpful to the ultimate goal of advancing the kingdom anyway?

So then, what’s the third reaction?  Well, in a word, boldness.  But isn’t that what got us into this mess in the first place?  Yep.  Sometimes boldness sparks persecution.  It’s true.  It’s painfully, realistically, disturbingly true.  But it’s also the only way to power through the challenges.  And here’s the thing about the persecution that boldness sometimes sparks: it can come externally, as Stephen and the church experienced, but it can also come internally as people who react to the persecution and its threat that boldness sometimes sparks in one of the ways we’ve already talked about.  Let’s treat those quickly in reverse order.  Being bold is risky business.  When it comes to the church, being bold sometimes means looking for ways to advance the kingdom that are new or different, perhaps more culturally informed than to which many churches are comfortable.  There are some churches out there that are very much vested in the way things have always been done (granting that “always” only goes back 50 years or so).  They respond to bold new ways to advance the Gospel that have perhaps not yet fallen within the world’s crosshairs with fear, trembling, and sometimes, persecution.  Sometimes boldness sparks persecution.  When this happens, we respond with love and keep boldly moving forward to advance the kingdom as God has directed.  When it comes to the world, sometimes being bold means lovingly and humbly proclaiming the Gospel in places where it is not welcome.  Other times it means taking public moral stances on issues on which the cultural current runs hard in the other direction.  In our current culture, the reality is that the latter happens a lot more often than the first.  Sometimes boldness sparks persecution and given our culture’s rapidly deteriorating ability to handle differences of opinion on many different issues civilly, bold, Biblically-rooted moral stances which are out of vogue with popular opinion are going to draw ire.  We can and should expect persecution.  Let us be bold anyway.  Sometimes boldness sparks persecution.  Let’s just be sure that the only reason we face persecution is our message, not our methodology.

In the end, then, I don’t know that I particularly want you to do anything with this information.  This sermon was more about informing, than stirring you to action.  The call to action was last week.  Go to the website and listen to the sermon if you missed it.  This morning was about making sure you know the possible results of your action before you jump in.  Sometimes boldness sparks persecution and from a lot of different directions.  Go in with your eyes open.  Be bold anyway.  Do you know why I say that, by the way?  Because of where this story ends.  In case you’ve already forgotten, this particular story does not have a happy ending.  Stephen dies, the church gets chased out of Jerusalem, and a guy named Saul is going house-to-house to find any remaining Jesus followers in order to put them in prison.  We don’t get the Hollywood ending here.  And yeah we can look back and read the whole story and the church is still here and Rome’s not and there are fewer Jews in the world than Southern Baptists in the United States, but these folks didn’t know all that.  All they knew is that they took a bold stand and were persecuted mercilessly for it.  They didn’t know how the story was going to end.  They were bold because that’s what the kingdom calls for.  They were bold because the message of the resurrection calls for nothing less.  They were bold because Christ was bold.  They were bold because boldness is the only thing that drives the church through challenges.  And if sometimes boldness sparks persecution, so be it.  Here’s the thing: the goal is worth whatever the cost.  This is why they stepped out and embraced a lifestyle of boldness.  They believed that advancing the message of the resurrection Christ was worth whatever the cost happened to be.  And so they were bold.  And the church advanced.  But even if it didn’t—and they didn’t know it would—that would be okay because they knew they were being faithful to the mission and message of Christ.  So leave with this just like last week: be bold.  Pray bold prayers.  Think bold thoughts.  Ask bold questions.  Take bold actions.  Sometimes boldness sparks persecution.  Persecution is the fruit of boldness.  But be bold anyway.  Because so is the advance of the kingdom.  Your message and mission is unstoppable and when you sell out to it so will you be.  Be bold.