Monday, April 28, 2014

Sermon on Acts 5:29-42, 2nd Sunday of Easter, "Obey God, not men"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! How far would that joy and knowledge carry you? Of Jesus’ resurrection? Does it strengthen you to face the day? Does it equip you to live unafraid of death? Would it fill you with the joy and courage to become a missionary for Jesus’ sake? Or as disciples or followers of Jesus, where in your own life can you proudly bear His name? In our reading from Acts 5, we get a glimpse of how that joy and knowledge carried the apostles, the ones “sent out”, to be witness of Jesus. It’s exciting because of the apostles’ infectious joy, even in the face of persecution, and the overpowering sense that nothing was going to stop the Gospel of Jesus Christ from radiating out from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, to the very ends of the earth.
They had this commission from Jesus before He ascended into heaven, and they were following through on God’s command. But obeying this command to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name, isn’t one they took up reluctantly, but boldly and joyfully, even in the face of persecution. In fact, the incredible burdens of persecution, scorn, and bodily injury made them rejoice to be counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of Jesus’ name.
Just one verse earlier, in Acts 5:28, the high priest says: “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.” They had been arrested and warned not to teach in the name of Jesus more than once, and yet they paid no attention. They just kept on speaking in the name of Jesus and teaching the words of life! But what is so interesting is that the high priest challenges the apostles, saying, “you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” Obviously he was talking about guilt—he thought the disciples wanted to blame them for Jesus’ death.
And Peter’s response, that you killed Him by hanging Him on a tree, certainly shows that they weren’t innocent. He wasn’t excusing them for their part in Jesus’ death, as neither are we without blame. But every time Peter and the apostles reminded them that they crucified Jesus, but that God raised Him from the dead—there is no hint of recrimination or hatred, but rather a warning not to keep rejecting Jesus. He had repeatedly appealed to them to repent and be baptized, to turn to Jesus’ name and find salvation. So ironically, the high priest was right! The apostles did want to bring the blood of Jesus upon them—only not for guilt—but rather for innocence! They wanted to bring the cleansing blood of Jesus upon them to forgive all their sins. Blood shed to cleanse every spot and stain, and to bring the church to God as His holy people.
Peter was saying that no matter your aims in killing Jesus, God raised Him from the dead, proving Him greater than your assaults and the dishonor heaped upon Him. God has exalted Him at His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. Those titles “Leader and Savior” echo another pair of titles for Jesus found in Hebrews 12: fix your eyes on Jesus, the “Author and Perfecter” of our faith. Actually the same word is translated “Leader” in one place, and “Author” in another. It means the first one, or the ruler, a hero, or founder. The Greek word was sometimes used of someone who founded a city and named it after themselves. Jesus is as author or founder of our faith. He is the founder of the new city, the heavenly Jerusalem, of which Christians are citizens, and who bear His name. Jesus is our Leader, our Prince, as the one who has delivered us from the powers of sin and death, and conquered them for us.
So if this is our citizenship, and if Christ is our Leader and Savior, what do we fear from men who oppose Him? Do we hang our head or slink back when people ridicule Christians? Do we allow ourselves be shamed into silence, as though it would be uncool or unacceptable to ever talk about our loyalty to and love for God? Or that someone might find out that we revere and worship our God, and our trust in Jesus as Savior? Would we ever fear to speak in His name, or cower before men who oppose Jesus’ name? Perhaps few of you give much thought to whether you could stand up against severe persecution for the faith—physical beatings, imprisonment, humiliation, torture, or even death. If you do think about it, there’s a fair chance you might be skeptical about your ability to face it. Unless you overestimate yourself. But I doubt any of the disciples did either. But I have every confidence that if God called on you to suffer persecution for His name’s sake, that He would give you the strength and the grace to bear it. Not from any confidence in human strength, but in the power and grace of God. Likely it seems like a remote possibility for most of you, that you would ever face that kind of persecution. Yet we never know what God has in store for us, nor the direction the world and our life may turn.
All of us experience various sufferings in life—but we may not all directly experience that narrower set of sufferings defined as persecution. Persecution is particularly suffering because of your Christian faith, or righteousness’ sake (i.e. for doing good), or for Jesus’ name. We don’t need to anticipate how we might be persecuted we might face; it’s only necessary that we trust in God, and that if we face it, His grace and strength will carry us through, and that the Holy Spirit will equip us in that hour to face it. Persecution is never something we seek out for ourselves, but the world will bring it to us, if we stand strong in God’s Word and faith in Jesus.
And note how the disciples responded after the Sanhedrin settled on punishing and releasing them with threats not to speak in Jesus’ name. The apostles did not complain, turn it into a grievance, or trumpet it before everyone else, but simply rejoiced and gave thanks to God that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And then they just kept on preaching and teaching about Jesus! Their joy was altogether bound up with knowing who Jesus was, and the joy of telling others about Jesus. Persecution was just a hiccup as the Gospel moved forward and in some cases around the obstacles and opposition. Like a rushing river cascading over and around a rapids of rocks and boulders. However stubborn and defiant they are, the water moves over and around them. The panic in the atmosphere of the ruling council was that they just couldn’t find a way to stop the apostles! Threats and beatings only seemed to urge them on and fill them with joy? What could they do? Since the active approach failed—they were convinced that perhaps the passive approach might succeed—and the Christian movement might die out on its own accord. Of course this proved to be spectacularly wrong.
There will always be passive and active opponents of Christianity. For two millennia there have been enemies of the cross who have confidently announced the end of faith, the death of God, the demise of the church, or the refutation of the Bible—only to be again and again proved wrong. But our confidence should rest nowhere else than in Jesus Christ. If it were to rest anywhere else, it would be misplaced. I will boast in nothing else but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. This is the Christian’s motto. Jesus’ victory over death kept the apostles joyful, even through terrible mistreatment and uncertainty. By Jesus’ victory, they knew they didn’t need to fear men’s threats and punishments, but were free to obey God, rather than men.
This simple statement of Peter’s, “we must obey God rather than men”, sets the boundaries for where Christians are permitted—no, commanded—to disobey the laws or commands of men. In cases where we’re clearly commanded to violate God’s Word or our faith, or to do something plainly immoral—we must obey God rather than men. It should go without saying that God’s Law is the higher law to which we are bound, and that we fear His judgment, not the judgment of men. So too, on the other side of things, when the laws of men don’t contradict the Law of God, we are bound by Scripture to obey lawful government or authority. So this passage should not be abused so as to permit any disobedience that might seem convenient or desirable to us—but only in matters that are immoral or against God’s law.
Examples of obeying God rather than men abound. Joseph refused the advance of his master Potiphar’s wife. The prophet Daniel refused to worship an idol, instead of the living God. The apostles refused to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, because they knew this message brought life. A soldier might be called upon to disobey a command to take innocent life, or that would harm a non-combatant. A doctor might lose their job for refusing to participate in abortions. Pastors may get sued for refusing to officiate in a same-sex wedding ceremony. A Christian in business may refuse to do something that is dishonest or immoral, even if its technically legal. In every situation, the Christian soldier, doctor, pastor, or businessman is bound by a common thought—better to do what is right, and perhaps suffer for it, than to sin for the sake of following orders or keeping your job, your name, or reputation.
Even if none of us faces direct or serious persecution for the sake of Christ, we are all likely to face similar dilemmas in ordinary life, to obey God rather than men. There is no promise that it will be easy, and there is no promise that we might not lose something for it. But there is a promise that  “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:25-26a). And there is the promise that when Jesus comes again, He will “repay each person according to what he has done” (16:27). And St. Paul puts things in an eternal perspective, saying that “this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). In other words, the eternal rewards far outweigh the earthly consequences. Obeying God instead of men isn’t just a safe bet—it’s a guaranteed good choice. And thankfully, none of us stands on our own.
It’s only by Jesus, our Leader and Savior, that the path has been cleared for our deliverance. It’s because He lost His life, that He can save ours. It’s because God gave every glory and honor to Him, that He brings gifts and rewards to men. It’s because Jesus endured the real affliction of the cross, that we can bear up under the incomparably lighter crosses we endure. And it’s because of Jesus’ complete victory and promises, that we can even rejoice to bear up under difficulty for Jesus’ name; as strange as it may seem. [For they rejoiced] that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. For Jesus’ name. Amen. 

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