September 14, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE STORY OF THE CHURCH: CLARITY
The second in a series of six.
I’m glad my dad lived long enough to see high definition television. His business was cable television. Their selling point was a clear picture, as opposed to the snowy images people without cable were getting. Over the years he made many, many service calls to customers who complained that they were paying good money for cable and yet their television picture still wasn’t clear. In almost every instance my dad would adjust their fine tuning, something they probably could have handled on their own without a service call, and their picture was once again crystal clear. We thought of putting words on my dad’s gravestone: “Have you checked your fine tuning?”
But even the fine tuning back then could not create picture quality even close to what we have come to expect today. The high definition picture we see will typically use a million pixels. Sometimes two million. The result is a picture that is amazingly true to life.
Everyone loves it except the news anchors. Our daughter got into television at the wrong time. High definition television is also amazingly true to life when it comes to any imperfections you might happen to have on your face.
The Book of Acts is written in high definition. All except for the chapter we looked at last week. Things were a little blurry and fuzzy for the disciples right after Jesus had left them. They were confused and bewildered. All that was clear was that they were to do what Jesus had told them to do. They were to wait and pray. That’s what they did. That’s where we left them last week.
Then as we begin reading Acts chapter 2, it’s kind of like watching The Wizard of Oz when the picture changes from black-and-white to color. Or like watching a football game back in the 60’s on the biggest, clearest television set available at the time and then suddenly, miraculously the picture changes to the high definition of 2014.
What happened in Acts chapter 2 is the coming of the Holy Spirit. We call the day when that happened Pentecost. It is often called the birthday of the church. On that amazing day, everything changed. The disciples who were afraid are suddenly fearless. They were depressed and now they are filled with joy. And their fuzziness and confusion over what God expected of them is gone. It’s like the fog has lifted and the sun is now shining. They have received the gift of high definition clarity.
They share the good news about Jesus with everyone they meet. Even if it gets them arrested and thrown in prison, they still share the good news. Even in prison, they continue to share the good news. No one can stop them. No one can distract them. No one can discourage them. It is impossible to silence them or to keep them in prison. They keep talking. They keep escaping. They have a burning passion for what God wants them to do and they have a high definition clarity about what that is.
We pick up the story immediately after one of their prison breaks. They didn’t exactly break out. An angel had opened the locked doors for them, then they walked out, and then the angel locked the doors behind them. The prison guards were left scratching their heads, baffled over what had just happened, and then comes news that the escapees have been found. They are in the Temple talking about Jesus. They are doing once again the very thing that got them arrested in the first place!
So they are removed from the Temple and brought before the high priest and his council. They are told one more time to stop what they are doing. Stop talking about Jesus. Stop causing problems.
Stop or else. And that’s when Peter and the apostles give voice to what was so crystal clear to them: “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29).
Clarity and courage are connected. When you are clear about what you are supposed to do, you can also be bold in doing it. The words, “bold”, “boldness”, and “boldly” are found all through the Book of Acts. The word isn’t found in today’s passage, but the boldness is. “We must obey God rather than men.” They spoke those words to those who had the power to kill them. They spoke those words knowing they could be the last words they would ever speak. But there’s no hemming and hawing. There’s no thinking it over. There’s no hesitation. There is courage and there is confidence because there is clarity.
Life can get way too complicated. But remember, of all the complicated, confusing questions that confront us in life, there is only one that really matters: “Is this what God wants me to do?” If it is, do it; if it isn’t, don’t do it; if you’re not sure, pray about it. Say “yes” to God. Say “no” to anything and everything that gets in the way of saying “yes” to God.
That’s the way to live our lives as individuals. And that’s the way to live our life together as a church. “We must obey God rather than men.”
And now we come to something else that was made clear to these early leaders of the church. Something big. Something important. Something without which the church would never have been born. It would have been stillborn. The early leaders of the first church were clear that God was in charge and that they weren’t.
That may sound obvious enough. We say it so often, it’s like a cliché. “Let go and let God.” But how often do we really do that? How often do we really let go of things we are holding onto and let God take hold of them? And how often do we say with our words that we are turning things over to God, and then we say with our actions that we really still want to be in control?
So how does that apply to the Book of Acts? There is a very common fallacy that is widely taught and widely believed about the early church. The fallacy is this: When Jesus left this earth he left his disciples in charge of his ministry. One of my all-time favorite sermon illustrations actually illustrates this fallacy.
Jesus is in heaven engaged in conversation with the angel Gabriel. Gabriel says, “Master, you must have suffered terribly down there on earth.” “I did,” Jesus replied. “And do the people you suffered for even know all about how you loved them and what you did for them?” “Oh, no,” said Jesus, “not yet. Right now only a few people in Galilee know.”
Gabriel was perplexed. “Then what have you done to let everyone know about your love for them?”
Jesus said, “I’ve asked Peter, James, John, and a few of my friends to tell other people about me. Those who are told will in turn tell others and my story will be spread to the farthest reaches of the globe.”
Gabriel frowned and said, “But what if Peter and James and John grow weary? What if the people who come after them forget? What if way down in the twenty-first century, people just don’t tell others about you? What then? Haven’t you made any other plans?”
And Jesus answered, “I have no other plans.”
I love that story. It gives me goose bumps every time. I hate to ruin that story for you and for me. But the story of the church in the Book of Acts isn’t told that way. The disciples don’t pick up where Jesus left off. They don’t assume responsibility to keep things going. They don’t put up a motivational poster on their wall that says, “It’s Up to Us Now!” If they were clear about anything, they were clear about this: The church is not what we do; the church is what God does. The church does not depend on us; the church depends on God. The church was created by the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit can be counted on to lead and guide and breathe new life into the church.
This is what is often called a paradigm shift. For many life-long Christians and faithful church members, it may be a whole new way of seeing things. Whenever there is a paradigm shift it takes a while to get used to it. It takes a while to see things in the new way. We’re so used to seeing things in the old way, the old way is what we continue to see. We fight against the new, even when it can be shown that it’s really not new. It’s been there in the Bible the whole time. But we’ve been taught to see something in the Bible that isn’t there — that the ongoing work of Jesus depends on us and our creativity and our hard, diligent, faithful work.
Five hundred years ago just about everyone subscribed to a prevailing paradigm: That the earth stood still and that the sun and the stars moved around it. Then along came Galileo. He proposed something that was very upsetting. Especially to the church of that time. He said the earth does not stand still. It rotates around its axis once a day. It travels around the sun once a year. A paradigm shift was underway.
Many clinged to the old way of seeing things. It just seemed obvious. It just felt right. It was flattering to think that God had placed us at the very center of the universe. It was sacrilegious to think otherwise. Paradigm shifts are seldom popular.
If the church depends on us, then we are in control. We are the ones who set the goals and make the plans and either congratulate ourselves on how well it is going or blame ourselves when it’s not going so well. If hard work is what it takes, we’ll just work longer and harder and smarter and we won’t quit until we get the job done. And then we’ll bring in God after the mission is accomplished and ask God to bless it all.
That is not a Biblical paradigm! That is not a God-centered way of operating! In fact, that’s pretty much the way we would do things if we didn’t even believe in God. If we just believed in ourselves.
The disciples are clear. They do believe in God. They will obey God, not men. They do trust that God is in charge, they aren’t.
They almost die in the passage we read. Those words, “We must obey God, rather than men,” infuriated those they were addressing. “When they heard this they were enraged and wanted to kill them” (5:32). They might have killed them. The way the story is told, I think they would have killed them. Gamaliel saved their lives.
Gamaliel was no friend to Christianity. He was a hard-core Pharisee. He is mentioned in one other place. He was Paul’s teacher (Acts 22:3). We meet Paul next week. Paul started out as a hard-core Pharisee and a fervent enemy of Christianity, thanks we can assume to Gamaliel.
But Gamaliel was a man of wisdom. His advice was to leave these Christians alone. Don’t hassle them. Let them do their thing. Why? Because if what they are doing is just a human endeavor, they will fail. But if what they are doing is of God, they can’t be stopped. And if you take sides against them, you’ll be taking sides against God. You don’t really want to do that, do you?
There’s that paradigm shift again. If it’s all up to us, we’re going to fail. If it’s all up to us, the church would have failed a long time ago. But if the church is created, nurtured, empowered, and renewed by God’s Holy Spirit, the church cannot be stopped! The test of 2000 years of history would suggest the church cannot be stopped. It can get way off track. The human side of church can do everything imaginable to destroy it. But the church is not a human institution. It is of God. And therefore, as it says in our membership ritual, “[It] will be preserved to the end of time.”
Not this church necessarily, but the church. As we said last week, God will do something amazing here or God will do something amazing somewhere else. But God will do something amazing.
The disciples’ lives are spared. For now, anyway. The council listens to Gamaliel. Gamaliel had said to leave them alone. Well, they can’t quite leave them completely alone. They beat them up first. Then they warn them never ever again to speak in the name of Jesus. And then they let them go.
I love the way this part of the Story of the Church ends. You know how it ends? They’ve been told to never ever again speak in the name of Jesus. So here’s our last verse: “And every day in the Temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as Christ” (5:42).
That’s boldness! Clarity leads to boldness. And where boldness leads we can never be sure in advance. Because God is in charge. We aren’t.
Thank you God for the high definition clarity of the Book of Acts. It would be a great story were it a work of fiction. It is many times greater because it is true. May we enter this great story. May we open ourselves to what God is about to do right here and right now. May we offer ourselves to be part of the ongoing story of Jesus Christ. In his name we pray, Amen.