“People” says Ajith Fernando “ often talk about getting back to the church like it was in Acts. They tend to focus on a romantic understanding.” They look through rose tinted glasses “they think of a church that saw many miracles, much conversion, amazing unity and spirit filled leadership. They forget that Acts also describes the troubles the Church faced from within itself and without.” We can forget that right after the chapter we had read out to us today is the very disturbing incident an Ananias and Sapphira, and the allegations of prejudice against the widows in the Hellenistic Jewish Community when it came to distributing to those who were in need. And of course Fernando rightly points out After Acts chapter three there are only three chapters” in the book “that do not mention persecution” and “That Chapter four marks the beginning of the resistance to evangelism in the life of the church, a feature that has been true of her life during the twenty centuries that followed.”
We are working our way through the book of Acts looking at the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the early church as a way of encountering the Spirit at work in our own life and times. Today we are going to look at how God’s people reacted to the beginning of opposition and how the Spirit empowered them to continue to fulfil their and our mission of witnessing to the risen Jesus Christ in the face of these setbacks. I hope it will provide us with encouragement as we face setbacks in our own life but also to give us direction as a church in facing resistance to evangelism.
Last week we saw Peter and John had prayed for a man who had been born lame and he had been healed. They Had gone into the temple and the man had drawn people’s attention and Peter and john had taken the opportunity of preaching about Jesus Christ risen from the dead and the need for people to believe in Jesus. That’s where we stepped into the narrative in our reading this morning. It tells us that there were two reactions to this miracle and their message. The ordinary people responded positively to the gospel and the religious leadership saw it as a threat.
After they had finished speaking that they were arrested by the temple guards and the Sadducees. Sadducees were a party within the Jewish religious hierarchy similar to the Pharisees. They differed in their theology and outlook from the Pharisees, and while the Pharisees were the main opposition to Jesus during his ministry they seem to be quite accepting of the church, the Sadducees become the chief opponents in Acts, one of the reasons for that is they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the apostles were claiming that they were witnesses to Jesus risen from the dead. Peter and John are given a night in prison and then bought before the Jewish authorities in the morning.
The second reaction was that many came to believe and joined the fledgling church. That the number of believers grew to over five thousand. Some people think that we can focus too much on numbers, that they the sign of success, they are an important sign not of success but as a representative of beloved individuals who have come to know Jesus as Lord and saviour.
The Sanhedrin ask Peter and John about whose authority they healed the man, as there is no way of denying the fact that he had been healed. Peter and John tell the council that it was in the name of Jesus Christ who they had crucified but who God glorified and raised to life again. It tells us that Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and this is a fulfilment of the promise Jesus had made in Luke 12;11, that they would be dragged in front of such courts and they were not to worry because the Spirit would give them the words to say. The council’s response of course was that they were amazed at the courage of these ordinary folk, and couldn’t fault them. They warned them to not speak about Jesus again and set them free. Peter and John refuse to do this, the session had started with a question on whose authority and it finishes with Peter and John saying they will obey God rather than the authority of a human institution.
How did the early church respond to this opposition and what does that have to say to us.
Firstly it tells us that they were in unity. They gathered together around Peter and John, they listened to what had happened. One of things that setbacks or opposition or persecution can do is to isolate us from support or fellowship, we can let those things cut us off or we can find that we feel alone in the face of them. But one of the gifts that God has given to us for these times is the extended family of God. We are not alone, we belong together in Christ. And on e of the greatest gifts we can give to one another is to listen. Before we pray for the spirit to give us the words to say we should pray for the spirit to give us the ears to hear. We are doing the Alpha a Marriage Course at the moment and on Thursday Night we talked about the importance of communication in marriage and the centrality of being a good listener in that process. One of the key things for the persecuted church round the world is that they need to know that their voice is heard, that they do not stand alone. Christian life and in particular Christian witness is a team sport.
The second thing they did was Pray. They took the situation to God in prayer. We have the invitation from Jesus recorded in Luke 18 to pray in all situations, the wonderful assertion in Hebrews 4 that we are able to boldly approach the throne of grace. The image I am using for this series of messages on Acts reflects the logo of our PCANZ, the burning bush and for me it is a reminder of the nature of God as revealed to Moses, a God who hears and sees the plight of his people, who care and who responds, and sends.
The substance of their prayer helps us as well.
They focused on the sovereignty of God. It is very easy to think that when things seem to go against us that everything is out of control, but our faith is in the fact that God is in control… God is sovereign… God made the heavens and the earth. The early believers quote Psalm 2 which talks of the nation’s conspiring against God, the psalm finishes with God establishing his Holy One. They saw this in the way that the authorities had treated Jesus, but that God had raised him to life again, God was in control, and God has the big picture in mind. We can often think of the sovereign God as the God way out their disinterested, distant and detached. But in tying that down to Jesus coming and suffering and dying we see that sovereign God is a God who is with us, a king who wears a crown of thorns.
In the wider flow of the book of Acts we see how God is able to use this growing persecution. The early church seemed to have been quite willing to follow Jesus command and stay in Jerusalem; it’s almost as if the they hadn’t heard the bit about Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth and it’s as if the Holy Spirit uses the persecution which starts here to encourage the believers to go. The Sanhedrin thought it was stamping out these people, but it was kind of like stepping in a puddle to stamp out water... in reality it simply splashes it out over a larger area. There is comfort and hope in the reality of the sovereignty of God, as we face setbacks and opposition that God is in control. But it’s not an excuse to sit back and do nothing.
Those first believers being aware of God’s sovereignty ask that God would give them the courage to speak the gospel with boldness. Something he had already started to do with Peter and John. They ask for the courage to do what the sovereign God has called them and us to do, witness to Jesus Christ risen from the dead. It would be easy for the church to simply play it cool, to keep the favour of the people and be quite, or even to lose confidence in the gospel. But they don’t. We too need to pray that we might have the courage to speak God’s word boldly, it may be in a different way than we were used to, without the mana of being in a position of power that we were in Christendom, but with the assurance that people still need to hear of the love and grace of God and the uniqueness of Christ, the only name by which people can be saved. That of course does put us at odds with the prevailing worldview of tolerance and inclusiveness. It is often the hardest thing to do in the face of setbacks in our life and as a church in decline to speak of our faith in Jesus Christ but it is often when that message has the most impact it is in the face of adversity that people can see the truth of what we confess.
They also asked God to continue doing what he was doing, to keep on performing ‘signs and wonders’ through the name of Jesus’. Again they did not want to stop what God was wanting to do in the lives of the people round them. Sometimes I think people pray for renewal and revival and for God to move because they see it as an easy way out of doing the hard yards, if only God would turn up. But that is not the case here, firstly they realise that this will bring them into conflict again with the religious powers to be. Can I say it’s sad the way that its often those whom we would expect to most supportive of what God is doing who can be the focus for opposition. Secondly, because to be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be filled with the love and compassion of Jesus so we pray that God out of compassion for the people round us would continue his works of mercy and salvation and transformation in their lives.
The other thing that we are told is that the believers continued to live as a community of love. The passage finishes with one of Luke’s summaries of the life of the church. They continued to live the gospel out in their lives, to devote themselves to prayer and teaching, and fellowship, sharing what they have with one another. They are filled with the spirit and so demonstrate the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s presence and leading. In the face of setbacks and opposition we don’t stop being God’s people we continue to live out Christ’s love in our love for one another.
We see that God responded to their prayer by shaking the building, a sign of theophany, letting them know that he was with them and filling them with the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure that God always shakes buildings; the quaker’s got their name because they shock when the Spirit came upon them; but we do know that God is able to reassure his people of his presence in many different ways. I’ve mentioned it before but often when I pray for people in difficult situations it is by that sense of quite peace, like with Elijah on Mt Horeb, it was not in the earthquake or the storm or the fire but in the stillness that he experienced God’s presence. God is with us and encourages us to shake off the opposition and continue to serve him and be a gospel people in the power of the Holy Spirit. He will continue to fill us with his Spirit when we ask.
In the face of setbacks and opposition, we like those early Christians need each other’s love and support, we need to bring those situations to God, trusting in his sovereignty, and ask for the courage to live in a way that will witness to Jesus Christ and that God would continue to do his work in and through us and continue living our faith in the assured knowledge that God is with us.
Our vision as a church is that “we are called to be an authentic vibrant sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus and inspiring others to join us on that journey”… we can only see that vision continue to grow and blossom by the continued presence and power of the Holy Spirit. AS a church we need to pray that God may give us the courage to witness to the risen Jesus in word and deed and that he might continue to do his works of compassion, his signs and wonder, in and through us. I wonder if such a prayer might have us quaking in our boots, well, You know it just maybe that the sovereign God might have to shake us up, might have to shake us awake, but in the end it is the sovereign God who is calling us, who is enabling us and who is for us and with us to the end of the age.