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Sermon for Sunday 23 April 2017

FIRST READING Acts 5:29-42

29Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” 33When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. 35And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice, 40and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. 42And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.


PSALM Psalm 148

1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights. 2Praise him, all you angels of his; praise him, all his host. 3Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. 4Praise him, heaven of heavens, and you waters above the heavens. 5Let them praise the name of the Lord; for he commanded, and they were created. 6He made them stand fast forever and ever; he gave them a law which shall not pass away. 7Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps; 8Fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, doing his will; 9Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars; 10Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds; 11Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the world; 12Young men and maidens, old and young together. 13Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name only is exalted, his splendor is over earth and heaven. 14He has raised up strength for his people and praise for all his loyal servants, the children of Israel, a people who are near him. Hallelujah!


SECOND READING 1 Peter 1:3-9

3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.


GOSPEL John 20:19-31

19On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” 24Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” 26Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.



A three-year-old girl had been sick with a runny nose and a cough for close to a week, so her mother decided to take her to the doctor. The doctor asked her if her throat hurt. The little girl said, “Yes, it’s been hurting all week!” The doctor then asked, “Can you point to where it hurts for me?” The little girl emphatically said, “Right here.” She then proceeded to rub her stomach. It’s easy to get confused in life, isn’t it?
I wonder how many of us fully understand God’s expectations of us. Even the parts we think we understand, can be difficult for us to effectively and consistently put into practice. To help us with our confusion, Paul helped by summing up God’s instructions, initially given through Moses in Deuteronomy (30:14) of what God requires. In Romans 10 St. Paul wrote, “But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
In today’s first lesson, Peter and the Apostles have been hauled before the Jewish religious leaders because of their witness to the Resurrection. The Jewish leaders want them to stop for several reasons, most importantly was the fact that they knew they were guilty of crucifying Jesus. And because of the disciples’ boldness in proclaiming the gospel, they have been arrested and brought before the council. But things don’t go as the Jewish leaders plan. Not only do they fail in frightening the disciples, they end up with a fire and brimstone sermon to boot. Even having the disciples beat had no effect on their determination. One of the things Luke wants us to understand is that by looking at the apostles’ actions, we can find a model for how we’re to respond as Christ’s ambassadors in a seemingly increasingly hostile environment.
As followers of Jesus, we need to understand that as we carry the message of the Resurrection into the world, we will, at times encounter apathy at best, at other times we might encounter struggles, and possibly even suffer persecution, from those who oppose that message. One of the reasons that this passage is so important is, that the experience of the disciples who faced the charges of the Sanhedrin, can help us become more effective witnesses. This passage from Acts reveals for us, three important experiences, that witnesses could very well face as they carry Christ’s message to a secular society.
The first thing we may encounter is confrontation. One thing is certain, it’s inevitable that anyone who takes seriously the call to follow Christ, will experience conflict in the secular society in which we live. For a Christian who has never experienced such conflict, one of two things have occurred. Either that person doesn’t feel passionately about the message of Christ and the difference it has made in their life or they haven’t bothered to share that message with the world. A person who feels no passion for Christ can avoid conflict. Also, a person who remains secluded in a monk-like environment need not worry about conflict from the world. But for those who take seriously the call to be ambassadors for Christ, conflict will occur. And as the disciples learned, it can even come from other religious people.
The disciples were called before the Sanhedrin to give an accounting of their actions. They were confronted by the high priest for doing exactly what they had been forbidden to do. The high priest challenged the disciples with these words: “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:28). This whole encounter speaks to the issue of authority.
In fact, the questioning of the disciples by the Sanhedrin reflects the lack of real power and authority the religious leaders actually had. They took great pride in their religious authority but, up against the divine will of God, they looked like mere posers. The Jewish leaders had issued injunctions against the disciples. They had crucified Jesus. They had imprisoned the disciples. Yet the message was still being preached. On the surface, it appeared as if the religious leaders had all the power on their side. The problem was, they were no match for God’s dedicated witnesses.
I know of a husband and wife that went on vacation for several days. While they were away, they had someone come in to stay with their children. Before leaving town, the parents gave a list of rules to be followed while they were away. There was to be no fighting. They were to brush your teeth before going to bed. They were to be in bed by 8:30 p.m. And there were several other rules that were stressed and then they left. The first night the children helped to set the table as they had been taught. So far so good.
However, the problem came in when they were putting the bottles of soda on the table. One thing led to another, and before the babysitter knew what was happening, they were shaking the bottles up and down. They wanted to see what would happen. So, all the children put their thumbs over the tops of their bottles and they shook as hard as they could. Then they released their thumbs and watched with a mixture of horror and delight as three geysers spewed soda fountains up to the ceiling. By the time the babysitter entered the room, the bottles were half-empty and soda was dripping from three different places on the ceiling.
They cleaned the mess up, but now there was three stains on the ceiling that would need to be explained when their parents returned. As soon as the parents returned they asked for an explanation. And the children’s response? Well, it wasn’t one of the rules. Mom and Dad never said, “Don’t go into the dining room and shake up bottles of soda.” You see the futility? It’s impossible to legislate against every possibility.
The law is limited. The Jewish religious leaders tried to legislate against the spread of the Christian message. But they couldn’t, and the result was confrontation. Even today, when we faithfully carry Christ’s message into the community, we risk confrontation with those who would oppose it. The second thing we will experience is choice. The message of the gospel is counter-cultural or as Paul put it, “folly to those who are perishing.” (1 Cor 1:18)
When we experience the confrontation between the views of this world and the teachings of Christ, we’re faced with a choice. We cannot be true to both. Jesus was clear when He said, “No one can serve two masters.” (Matt. 6:24) The views of this world and God’s teachings are often in direct conflict. Even if we try to take a position that would appease both, we’ll experience the tension from within. Eventually, we’ll be forced to make a choice. Even refusing to decide represents a choice. It means that we have chosen not to embrace fully our role as witnesses for Jesus. The disciples saw the choice before them clearly and they responded accordingly. Quite possibly this is the passage Luther was thinking of when he rejected the Pope’s demand, at the Diet of Worms, that he recant his writings.
The disciples responded to the leaders in this way: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). They, along with Luther, recognized the supreme authority of God. Their response showed that their ultimate loyalty was to God. The disciples could have opted for any one of a number of responses to the challenge presented to them. They could have promised to adhere to the injunction in the future. They could have rationalized and explained away their failure to do as they had been told. They could have tried to deny it. Instead, the disciples spoke without apparent hesitation. They came down firmly on the side of their Lord and Savior.
I read about a minister whose son, Scott, had a tumultuous adolescence at best. As a teenager, Scott was as rebellious and wild as you care to imagine. And every inch of the way his parents struggled not to lose the battle. They struggled not to give up. And the battle in their home raged on relentlessly. Scott chose to keep his hair long. He ran with the wrong crowd and started using drugs … a lot of drugs. First, he tried marijuana, then amphetamines, speed, then graduated to LSD. They were living a nightmare right in their home. Finally, the father discovered that his son had started selling drugs out of the home. And that was the last straw.
Long before they had ever heard the phrase “tough love,” this minister kicked his son out of the house. He wasn’t allowed to come back until he was willing to adhere to the “house rules.” It was six months before Scott was to graduate from high school. And now he was literally on his own. Scott was eventually arrested. He spent a few nights in jail. And miraculously, almost overnight, he straightened out. He moved home, went to college, and became a model citizen.
When asked what turned him around, he points to several people from the church who reached out to him in a special way: a former Sunday School teacher who remembered his birthday while he was in jail and sent him a special birthday cake; a former youth chaperon who took a chance and offered him a job; a deacon who took him to an NFL football game — who actually chose to spend time with him when he felt like a social leper. And the church in so many little ways had displayed a willingness to share God’s unconditional grace and love. And the church had played a significant role in healing the brokenness of life. The power of our witness would be dramatically increased if we could model the courage and the commitment of the disciples.
The apostles sensed God calling them to continue spreading the message of Jesus in spite of the restrictions placed on them by the Jewish religious leaders. It must have taken great courage to maintain a public witness in the face of such scrutiny. The problem we face is human nature compels us to take the path of least resistance. It couldn’t have been a safe course of action for the disciples to persist in preaching the gospel. But they did, and in their persistence, they provided a model for us to follow. In fact, the disciples were so persistent, Peter’s response to the questioning of the Sanhedrin included a mini-sermon.
Peter and his colleagues were accused of breaking the law by preaching, so what did he do? He broke out in a sermon. (Acts 5:29-32) I have to ask myself if I would have the courage and the commitment to do that? When we look at Peter’s sermon, we gain an understanding of why the disciples made the choice they made. Peter reminded the temple officials that they had killed Jesus by hanging Him on a tree, but God raised Him. Not only did God raise Jesus up, but God also exalted Him “at his right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5:31). It was as if the disciples were saying, “Why would we listen to you over God? God’s purpose clearly triumphed over your diabolical schemes.”
The disciples understood their role as Christ’s witnesses. The cause of Christ relied on their willingness to carry the message out into the world. The degree of success for the kingdom of God will be determined by the degree of commitment and passion of His faithful followers. The question for us is, are we willing to fulfill Christ’s expectations as His witnesses? The final experience we could have, when taking God’s message into the world, is one of confirmation.
When we face confrontation by a world that’s hostile to the message of Jesus, we are compelled to choose between promoting the ways of Christ and embracing the secular way of life. If we choose Christ and are faithful to His call, we will experience confirmation of our choice. Confirmation comes when we’re strengthened by the Holy Spirit to witness to others. With God’s help, we’re empowered to speak out boldly for God’s kingdom even in the face of adversity. It’s this confirmation that signals we’re doing God’s will and are fulfilling His purpose. It was the same help and confirmation that enabled the disciples to face the Sanhedrin with such courage.
Not only were they courageous but they also preached boldly to the very ones who banned them from preaching. Such strength of character doesn’t rely solely on human resources. It draws its strength from a sense of unity and oneness with God’s Spirit. The disciples recognized that they relied on the confirmation of God. This is what they said: “And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32).
When the disciples faced persecution in order to witness for Christ, they also entered into solidarity with Him. The very fact of their suffering because of their faithful witness united them with Christ. John’s writing is helpful here: ” If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:18-19, 26). When we choose to be faithful witnesses for Christ, we may encounter rejection and hostility in the world. However, if we remain faithful, in spite of our suffering, we will experience the blessing that comes from faithful obedience to God. There’s no deeper joy in life than to sense that affirmation that comes from pleasing our heavenly Father. Peter in our epistle lesson referred to that joy as, “inexpressible and filled with glory.” (1 Pet. 1:8b)
Years few ago, there was a story about a minister who had his wallet stolen. The thief used the minister’s bank card to clean out his bank account. Hundreds of dollars were stolen and when they discovered that they had no money in their account, the family was put under a great deal of stress. Eventually the thief was caught. As it turned out, the young man was a member of his church. In fact, he had grown up in the church.
When they went to court, the minister made sure he got an opportunity to confront the guy and let him know just what he thought. However, as the minister discovered, it was an empty experience. Then, the thief who had stolen his money began to call him. He kept calling to request that the minister visit him in jail as his pastor. Eventually the minister agreed. The minister recalled that it was an intimidating experience to go back into the jail cell. He found he wasn’t prepare for what he saw. It was a shock to see such a small area where six men lived together while they awaited their trials. On the day he visited the young man, the man had a huge bruise on his face and a gash on his forehead.
The young man explained that he had gotten in a fight with the others in his cell. The minister looked around and the other men, all looked older and bigger and much harder. For the first time, the minister saw this young man as something other than the thief who had stolen his money. He could sense the futility of this man’s life, and he could feel some of the young man’s pain and anguish. The man had told the minister on the phone he wanted him to come down to the jail to pray for him. The minister had been dreading that.
What prayer do you offer for someone you know has so callously wronged you? Now his feelings had changed, and he wasn’t sure why or how. But now he wanted to pray for him. As they prayed, the minister held the criminal’s hand in his. The man was trembling. He was in pain and the minister could sense that his greatest pain wasn’t physical. During the prayer, the pastor sensed God’s presence there in that jail cell as strongly as he had ever felt in a place of worship. Suddenly, the young man stopped trembling. A sense of peace came over both of them.
When the minister finally finished his prayer, he opened his eyes to discover that the other five men in the cell had crowded around and each one had knelt close by the young man. They had strained to put their hands on his back and shoulders. Something unique transpired in that jail cell and these hardened criminals sensed it. They were drawn to God’s spirit and they sought connection with it. When you and I can genuinely pray for our enemies, they’re no longer true enemies. God has the power to change lives.
Through prayer, we receive God’s confirmation. We cannot prayer for someone else with bitterness in our hearts. Robert Law wrote: “Prayer is a mighty instrument, not for getting man’s will done in heaven but for getting God’s will done on earth.” Through prayer, we bear witness faithfully for Christ. And when we’re faithful, we receive the affirmation that can only come from God.
Being a faithful witness means we have to go out into the world and that can come with struggles. Yes, we could experience confrontation from a world that opposes the message of Christ. Yes, we’ll have to choose between the views of this world and God’s expectations. But we’ll also experience confirmation from the Holy Spirit as we’re empowered to face that confrontation with courage and to make the choice of commitment to the cause of Christ. In this way, we too can live by the charge presented to us in these words: “And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32).”

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