Friday, May 12, 2006

Sermon for Sunday, May 7, 2006

The Making of a Church: Boldness
Acts 5:17-42

Tim Burke video taped this sermon for me. You can see it at this link:

Prayer: May we refuse to speak your name, unless we speak with the full-throated cry of fools and lovers.

Let me share another prayer with you. It was printed in a popular newspaper a while back.

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray my Cuisinart to keep
I pray my stocks are on the rise
And that my analyst is wise
That all the wine I sip is white
And that my hot tub is watertight
That racquetball won’t get too tough
That all my sushi’s fresh enough
I pray my cordless phone still works
That my career won’t lose its perks
My microwave won’t radiate
My condo won’t depreciate
I pray my health club doesn’t close
And that my money market grows
If I go broke before I wake
I pray my Volvo they won’t take.

We can’t escape culture and it’s trappings. But, how do you think we, as Christians, should interact with the culture? In our tradition, protestant reformers cried Sola Scriptura. Theirs was a call to engage culture with an authentic understanding of Scripture. But, whose interpretation do you trust?

Some people think the church should pour a steaming cup of scorn on culture. These churches want to protect their members by providing a safe haven against society’s contamination. Some of our neighboring congregations say their mission is to be, “in but not of the world.” In other words, church members physically reside here on earth and but this is not their real home. They look forward to a day when Christ will return and restore them to their real home in heaven. They see the church as a refuge where members can get away from Sponge Bob Square Pants, and the Powerpuff Girls and be encouraged in their faith. Here’s the problem. Christian enclaves develop their own culture, with activities and catch phrases that the rest of us can’t understand. [i]

Some churches do just the opposite. They throw the doors wide open and make room for the culture. Instead of the fear underlying the first approach, these churches adopt the values of the surrounding society. Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, says that his tradition is suffering a crisis of disobedience. Christians divorce at the same rate as everyone else. Materialism destroys the church’s generosity. Christian spouses are just as abusive as non-churched spouses.[ii] The problem is that accommodating churches can begin to look like a bowl of cold unsweetened oatmeal – without form, taste, or substance

Some people want to protect themselves from the culture. Others see culture as a positive influence. Both are convinced that they are right. I think there’s another way. The stance of the church should not be that of a community that has all the answers, but a people who are in process.[iii] What if we stopped worrying about whether we bar the doors or fling them wide? What if we prayerfully go where Jesus goes, instead of assuming Jesus is going to come to us? I think God wants us to adjust our lives to profess hope in action. I think God wants us to have tender and sensitive hearts so that we can do the God-sized work that the church is supposed to do.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking in the Book of Acts to see the God-sized work the early church was called to do. I hope we will see some characteristics that apply to our churches. We begin by reading an account of a court appearance of the Apostles.

In today’s reading, we meet a group of religious and political leaders known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees were known by their conservative views and wealthy members. They held the power in the Jewish court. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees didn’t believe in an after life, or in the resurrection of the dead.

You can understand why they don’t like hearing about these followers of Jesus who go to the Temple, heal the sick and preach the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. All this teaching about Jesus being alive goes against everything they stand for. So they throw the Apostles in prison, and command them to speak no more.

Have you ever felt like the status quo challenges your faith? If not, just try to seriously use the name of Jesus in a public invocation. Somehow, we accept the false notion that God no longer belongs in the public sphere. To publicly speak the name of Jesus means that we’re trying to shove our religion down someone else’s throat. The silencing of the gospel is subtle. In the name of tolerance, we’re asked to keep the boundless love of Christ to ourselves so that no one else is offended. For the sake of not offending someone, we are tempted to ignore the suffering around us. For the sake of everyone’s comfort, we believe it when we’re told that church is just something for Sunday mornings. We are tempted to backtrack on our beliefs so that our churches are nice and pleasant places, like a kindly old great-grandma who sits in the corner and gently gives out hard candy to the kids. Is this really what Jesus intends for his church?

The Apostles may help us to find some answers. We learn that they make a miraculous escape from prison. As free men, they have some choices to make. They can run away and deny their faith in Christ. After all, they’ve done it before. Didn’t they run away from Jesus in his most desperate hour, leaving him to die with his executioners? Wouldn’t it be natural for these men to cut their losses and hide? The Apostles know the disappointment of running away. They have experienced the consequences, and know it isn’t an option.

What if they say -- “OK, it’s time for plan B. We are going back to Galilee. We will construct a chapel, and just meet there on Sunday and sing songs about Jesus. People will be curious, and they will come and sing with us. This way, nobody gets hurt” ?

What decisions do we make when our faith in Christ is challenged by society’s status quo? Do we run in fear? Do we compromise? To we apologize for our faith, and try hard not to offend any on else in the future? When the culture of tolerance asks us to keep silent about our deepest beliefs, what can we do?

What do the Apostles do? They do not run. They do not start a capitol campaign. They go right back to the spot where they were arrested and start preaching right where they left off. The religious authorities arrest them again and the Sadducees declare, “We gave you strict orders not to preach in his name!” But the Apostles know what they saw. They lived with Jesus. They saw him die. They touched his scarred hands, and talked with him after he rose from the dead. They will not be silenced. They don’t cave in to the demands of the powerful. As Peter says, “We must obey God rather than human authority” (v.29).

For their boldness, they are flogged – probably with the punishment of forty lashes minus one -- a punishment endured by those who offend Jewish law. It was meant to be a serious lesson to offenders. People died from it. They are released with strict orders not to speak again. Then we read something strange and amazing: their punishment filled them with joy. They rejoiced that they were found worthy by God to take on their share of suffering for the sake of the Jesus They did not keep quiet. They could not keep quiet as they went back to the Temple a third time and preached about Jesus.

From this point on, and throughout history, boldness in the face of persecution causes the church grow. From this point until today, men and women will be arrested, questioned, and persecuted for their faith in Christ. And their boldness will cause the church to become strong.

Here we are today, in this church in humble Trumbull, confronted by the boldness of those who have gone before us -- those who made it possible to be here. How do we confront the pressure to accommodate the demands of a culture that really doesn’t care much for what the church has to offer. The Apostles' answer is boldness. We have something worth offering to those around us.

Many will say it’s impossible to transform the culture. “The world is too hard. Too secular. Too post-Christian. This is the age of information, not regeneration.” So the world around us goes untouched and untaught. You know what? We have some real good news for people. God is still at work today. God’s in the business of healing the brokenhearted and binding the wounds of the hurting. God’s concerned for the needs of the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the powerless. God’s actively involved in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice. God is leading us to a just, peaceable, and loving world through Jesus Christ.

Those who go out to live the message of Jesus will come back weary and wounded, numbed by rejection and hurt by the resistance . . . and filled with joy.

More than ever, our neighbors, even our own families need to hear and to know that Jesus Christ is alive, and that he can change thing for the better. History reveals that the church grew because of the boldness of those who believed in Jesus. They talked about it with their lips, and backed it up with their lives. Today we are faced with a decision. May we walk and talk with the same character, integrity, and boldness of the Apostles, convinced that our message, and God’s Spirit, still has the power to transform lives in the name of Jesus our Lord.

[ii] The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, 27-29.

[iii] Douglass John Hall, The Cross in Our Context, 195.

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