Intro to Acts and review of this section (healing a man born lame)
While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, 2much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. 3So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. 4But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.
5The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”
8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ 12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
13Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. 14When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another.
16They said, “What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. 17But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” 18So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.
19But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; 20for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” 21After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. 22For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old.
23After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, 25it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? … 29And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, 30while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.
32Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
This story is a great example of why the early church was so successful: they knew that the story wasn’t about them; it was about what God had done and was doing through Jesus. It’s a story about being open to uncertainty, open to possibility and paying attention to what God is doing, even when it’s not obvious. Peter and John show a remarkable combination of flexibility and consistency. At every turn in the story the apostles turn attention away from themselves and towards Jesus. They keep their focus stubbornly on their mission, which is to bear witness to God’s love in Christ. At the same time, they look clearly and respond nimbly to what is going on around them.
This story is a good story in its own right and also a good example of the bigger story of Acts, which is why I chose it for our one week on the early church in this series. It’s also a great guide for the church today because our situation, like the situation of the first Christians calls for the same clear focus on mission paired with a nimble attention and response to the world around us.
When they first encounter the man who can’t walk Peter and John say straight out that they are healing him in the name of Jesus. Immediately, the man gets up and goes with them to worship God, staying close to Peter and John so he can learn more about this Jesus. A crowd quickly gathers, and just as quickly Peter gives the credit to God. He specifically tells the crowd that the healing didn’t happen because of their power or even their holiness; it happened by the power of God working through Jesus. Then they take the opportunity to tell the story of Jesus, inviting the crowd to repent and believe.
When the religious leaders react to this commotion with fear, Peter and John take that as another opportunity to give credit to God and to tell the story of Jesus again. When the leaders are getting ready to release them with a warning to quit preaching, Peter and John refuse to take the easy way of going along with their captors. Instead, without anger or disrespect they explain that God’s command to testify takes precedence over the leader’s order to keep silent.
After their release, they gather with their friends and pray for the strength, the boldness to keep telling people about Jesus. Then they get on with the big picture of faith: living their faith in everything they do with commitment. Like their testimony to the religious leaders, the lifestyle of the early church is both attention grabbing and attention deflecting. They share everything in common and proclaim God’s word with power and grace. The way they live will necessarily attract attention because it is so different from the way others live. The disciples will point to God rather than to themselves.
This story from Acts shows us what John is talking about in his letter. He tells the church that the way they should measure their faith isn’t numbers of people who come to Christ or healing power. Instead, they know they are on the right path if they “walk as Jesus walked.” Like Jesus, their lives should be defined and shaped by love. If they love others in action as well as in words, they are following Jesus; if their lives are shaped by hatred, they are not.
John focuses on love as the marker, but bold and courageous faith, even in the face of opposition is also a good example of walking like Jesus. These three guideposts: focus on God, boldly with love served the early church well, and they will serve us well today as we seek to redefine our mission in a new world.
Like the first Christians, our job is to bear witness to Christ in a diverse culture without imperial power behind us. To do that faithfully God is calling us back to the guideposts we see in Acts: Boldly sharing our faith in spite of the risks, focusing on God instead of on ourselves, and letting love shape all of our actions.
Many people in our culture today associate Christianity with judgment instead of love. Many people who grew up in church felt that their questions were not welcomed. Many who didn’t grow up in church think about TV preachers and corruption scandals or sexual abuse scandals or talking heads screaming about God’s judgment. None of these are images of love and they are baggage the church is stuck with. It’s going to take a lot of love to rebuild the trust of those who have been hurt by Christians. The good news for us is that most people in our culture have a favorable impression of Jesus. Our goal is to show that we are following his example in the way we treat people, especially those who are most vulnerable.
Many people have also been turned off the church by seeing Christians squabble about different issues. Whether it was Catholics and protestants unable to get along or intradenominational battles over ordination, the image of Christians fighting for members or power is not appealing to outsiders. We need to demonstrate that our focus is on God, not on our own prestige or fortune.
We’re unlikely to win people over with flashy programs. We can’t compete with movies or concerts to be entertaining. We can’t compete with sports events for energy. What we have that sets us apart is a message of hope and love through Jesus Christ. If we focus on that message God will speak through us to people who need to hear it.
We need to combine loving actions and focus on God with boldness to let people see and hear our faith. This is a hard thing for many of us to do. We have grown up with the idea that faith is private, that it’s not polite to discuss our beliefs. We also might fear being labeled as “too religious” or boring. We’re afraid of not having the right words or not knowing enough. Maybe most of all there is this undefined fear of being different.
As some of you know, I’m learning to dance tango. It’s a challenging dance, and, like sharing faith, it doesn’t come naturally. I’m getting much more comfortable dancing in class; I’ve learned a lot, but it’s still really scary for me to dance in public. Last night Maggie and I went to a dance. I knew several of the women there, but I still couldn’t get my nerve up to ask someone to dance. I was afraid I would embarrass myself by messing up or forgetting what to do next.
Church is like dance class. Here we are with others who are learning, so it’s easier to ask questions or make mistakes because we are here to learn. But the point of dancing isn’t doing well in class; it’s enjoying the dance outside of class. Likewise, the point of faith isn’t to do well in church, it’s to live our faith well with confidence, humility and grace in the world. Also, like dancing goes best if we focus on the music, sharing faith goes better if we focus on God instead of on ourselves. Even when we make mistakes, if we do it with love God will shine through what we say. It’s not about getting every step right, but about living God’s music of love and helping others to hear that great song too.
It is hard to share faith, but it gets easier with practice and there is amazing blessing when we share. You don’t have to be preachy, in fact, it’s much better if you aren’t. The key to sharing faith effectively is being gentle, respectful and honest. The cool thing is that when we live our faith boldly and lovingly, people will give us opportunities to share our faith if we keep our eyes out for those opportunities.
Thanks be to God.