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Sunday, May 31, 2015

“The ‘Must’ of the Church”

A Sermon Based Upon Acts 5: 27-42
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Trinity Sunday and Memorial Day, May 31th, 2015

But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority. (Act 5:29 NRS)

When all other British-born Methodist preachers left during the American Revolution, only Francis Asbury stayed behind and continued to plant churches, traveling some 6,000 miles each year by horse.  He is said to have influenced the planting of some of the very first Methodist congregations in northern Iredell County, such as Mt Bethel (1797) Moss Chapel (1799) and Snow Creek (1801).  

One day someone asked Rev. Asbury why he was always preaching on the passage "Surely ye must be born again."  Bishop Asbury is said to have had a simple answer, "Because surely ye must be."  (From a sermon by Alex Stevenson, “Why You Must Give Your Life to Christ”, at

Perhaps that was the sentiment of the majority of Methodists, the Baptists and  Presbyterians around here at the end of the 18th century, but that’s surely not the most common sentiment now.  Today faith is mostly personal or private matter, only widely accepted as an opinion, an option, or a recreational pastime.   Some of us may have memories of a time when we ‘had’ to go to church was part of everyone's expectation.

Why do I have to become a Christian?”  Why should I join or participate in a Church?” or Why should I take Jesus seriously when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me?”   Haven’t we learned that the world is a bigger, a lot more complex and complicated than when Peter first said,  “Repent and be Baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus” (Acts 2.38)?   How could anyone today dare suggest, as the church once preached, that ‘there is no other name given under heaven that has been given among mortals, by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12)?  Aren’t there all kinds of other ways to be saved? 

This kind of exclusive, demanding, or decisive biblical ‘musts’ makes what happens in this text especially interesting.   When Peter and the other apostles went around preaching, healing, and witnessing to the name of Jesus Christ, they came in direct conflict with the prevailing authorities.  Those authorities felt seriously threatened by this outright, non-negotiable, unqualified claim “that there is salvation in no one else… (Acts 4.12).  Even though the message came from the ‘uneducated and ordinary’, the authorities still ‘ordered them’ not to speak of him any more.   But even after they had been ‘put in prison’ (5:18) they would not stop and were being reprimanded again: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in his name, yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching….” (5:28).   Why are these apostles so obstinately and persistently hard headed?  Why were they so insistent?   Who do they think they are?   It is Peter who gives us the answer as he goes from saying ‘we can’t keep from  speaking….” (Acts 4: 20) to saying more forcefully, We must obey God rather than any human authority (Act 5:29 NRS). 

Did you catch that word again?  Must?  Was it really all that serious?  Can the church require that anyone ‘must’ believe such a dogmatic, inflexible, uncompromising concept of salvation or obedience to God?   How dare the church demand anything from me, from you, or from anyone other than what I want to do or have?

Peter’s unyielding words goes straight to the heart of an issue that is still current for us.  ‘Who’s really in charge of my life or in charge of this world?’  Should a certain religious perspective be our ultimate concern?  Is a certain political perspective really what is decisive for our future?  Is a certain scientific proof determinative for everything else we should believe, think, say or do, or is the truth always relative to whatever I decide is true for me?  In a world where truth seems more uncertain than anything is for certain, how can the church preach, teach any kind of truth that would demand to be taken so seriously? 

Besides, who cares?  It’s a free country, isn’t it?   I can decide what I want and who I want to be, can’t I?   Isn’t that where most people are in their thinking?  Aren’t we smarter than to let our lives be controlled by any ‘must’ at all, let alone the commands of a demanding, difficult God who is proclaimed as ‘Lord of heaven and earth (Acts 17.24)?  If God’s really that big, then why doesn’t he come down and say so himself?  Why does he keep making demands on little people like us when we can’t see that he is who he says he is?

On a particular Sunday, the church sets apart for preaching about Christ the King, the former Dean of Duke Chapel,  Will Willimon, tells how he once asked the congregation present whether or not Americans actually need a king to be in charge over their lives?  Do you need a king?  Of course,” he continued, “since we are Americans, democratically disposed, we are averse to monarchy.  Right?   

But he went on to say he wasn’t “talking about some polo-playing playboy who dabbles in architecture.”  He was talking about a real king.  He said he also wasn’t talking about “a pleasant woman clutching a purse, wearing a small hat and sensible shoes.”   He was “talking about a lord who would set things right, somebody’s who’s really in charge.”  In his sermon he went on to talk about the lordship and kingship of Jesus Christ who is the only rightful ruler of all life and the universe.  Can’t imagine to many people at Duke taking such a sermon seriously as they do basketball, can you?

After that service, as people exited, some mumbled ‘nice sermon’, but one lady clutching a purse, wearing a small hat and sensible shoes stopped. “Did it not occur to you that you might have British subjects in the congregation today?  “Our queen is ten times the Christian of your silly actor president,” she shouted. 
I wouldn’t put that to a vote here, he responded in jest.”   She didn’t get the joke.   “You’re not funny, and I intend to report you to your superiors.”  Willimon answered that  since he was a preacher from South Carolina, he had no idea who his superiors were.”    “Stuff like that is why we broke away from those people” someone commented.”  The strange thing, Willimon added, is that this lady really did understand his point, maybe better than anyone.  The question we all must answer is: “Who is on the throne?  Who rules?  Who’s in charge of our lives?  (From W. Willimon’s sermon, “Who’s In Charge Here” in The Collected Sermon of William H. Willimon,  WJK Press, 2010, pp. 159-160).

What ‘s most remarkable about the story of the church in Acts is not just that it settles ‘who’s in charge’ or what we ‘must’ believe, but Luke also takes great pains to show us how these people who thought they were in charge, really weren’t. 

Isn’t it amazing how threatened these very powerful Jewish leaders were by these ‘uneducated and ordinary’ (4.13) men who were preaching about a rejected, betrayed, denied and crucified man, whom they now claimed has been raised from (4.10)?  Do you see just how ridiculous a claim like that would be, if it wasn’t true?  Who would believe this?   Why were these controlling, dominating, leaders worried?  Why didn’t they just laugh their way back to their seats of power and relax? 

Well for one thing, Luke shows us that they were worried because ‘a lame man from birth’ was now walking around praising God ‘in the name of Jesus’ (3: 6-10).    They were all worked up and worried about a movement, no one really knew yet what to name.   Even the angel who commanded them to preach ‘the whole message about this life’ (Acts 5.20) didn’t know.    But it kept growing (5.14) beyond anyone’s control as a ‘message’ and a ‘movement’ that seemed to have a life of its own.

Also, the people who were in charge were worried because Peter and the apostles grew even bolder in their sermons and speeches (4.29, 31).   ‘A great number of people’ were gathering even from the towns around Jerusalem (5:16) as rumors about all kinds of ‘signs and wonders’ were circulating among the people (5: 12, 16).   Most of all, they were worried because when they had to call the ‘whole body of elders of Israel’ together to bring charges against these they had already locked up, when the guards went to retrieve them, they found the prison doors still closed and locked, but the prisoners were all gone.  Guess where they found them next?    Standing in the temple’ teaching the people (5:19-25), preaching the same message that had put them in prison in the first place.   It is a bit humorous to revisit how ‘out of control’ the situation was for the temple police (5. 22,26).   They must have looked something like the ‘Keystone cops’, for even when they brought Peter to stand before them, reminding him of ‘strict orders not to teach’ (5:28), he started preaching straight in their faces!    

Do you see just how unnerving the whole situation was for the power people?  The people who think they are in control have their hands tied behind their backs, so to speak, and the people who were put in chains and cells, keep going free.   And when the lest they could do was ‘order them not to speak in the name of Jesus (40) ever again, it was like laying a match to gasoline, for  now,  every day in the temple they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah’ (5.42). 

Yet there is something else, even more startling and perhaps alarming for us.  Before you take your hat off to these apostles, thinking they were about to take world by storm or single-handedly change of the course of Israel’s history, think again!   The Spirit that was leading them was leading many of them straight into the crosshairs of even greater challenges,  more persecution, and even greater problems that were attached to all these new possibilities.    Whatever this story is, it is certainly not some fly by night, winner take all, happy ending fairy tale story.   Jesus had promised that the Spirit would fill them and send them out, but he also promised it would be something they would have no complete control over.   He not only ordered them to ‘wait on the Spirit’ (Acts 1.4) to empower them to “be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8),  but he also told them that ‘it was not for (them) to know the times or periods when or how the Father would restore Israel (1.6) and he also implied that they will sometimes get more than they bargain for, as this word ‘witness’ also means ‘martyr’! ‘They will bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities.   Do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very our what you are to say (Luke 12:11-12) .  Jesus not only promised the Spirit would give them the words ‘to say’ but he also promised that if they were true to Jesus, they would, in some shape or form, lose their life, if they truly wanted to find it (Mark 8.35).  

However we interpret what really happened in the early church, we must not get the picture that the lives of these ‘spirit-filled’, dynamic and adventurous apostles were some like some fictitious Hollywood lives thrown on the screen of our religious memory filled with glamour and material success.   This ‘must’ they were obeying and the ‘must’ they were following would eventually bring them as much fear, trembling and suffering, as it would also bring adventure, purpose and meaning into their lives.   Could it be that the ‘great fear that seized the whole church’ (5.5) came not just because of what happened to Ananias and Sappharia, but because of what would happen to many of them as they obeyed the ‘must’ of this demanding Holy Spirit?  

Truly, the things that were happening to them, or even happening through them, were dangerous and endangering powers that were beyond their control.   Even though, as this text says, these apostles were released after they were ‘flogged’ (40), one commentator was right to remark that: “39 lashes has killed many a prisoner.  Furthermore, the  ‘rejoicing’ (41) they did was not because they had received a free ticket to glory, but it was because of the pain they were ready and willing to endure to tell the truth they could not avoid  (From “Acts”: Interpretation, a Bible commentary for Teaching and Preaching,  William H. Willimon,  2010, p. 58, location 1211, Kindle Edition).   
It’s intriguing that this God who sprang prison bars open will just as easily close some of those doors, allowing the spirit-filled Stephen to be killed by stoning (Acts 7),  or to permit the head of the Jerusalem church, James, to be killed by the sword (Acts 12) or even to let Paul, his most daring missionary to be beaten, stoned, shipwrecked and imprisoned many times (2 Cor. 11.25) and finally to be beheaded in Rome, although he had prayed and planned to go on to Spain (Rom 16.24).   Perhaps even Peter himself was wondering how his own situation would soon change, since Jesus had promised him ‘you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go."   After getting Peter all worked up about his own mortality,  then Jesus challenged  "Follow me." (John 21:18-19).

Is this ‘must’ of full, unwavering, life-demanding obedience any way to call a disciple or build a church?  Wouldn’t people stay away from it?  Perhaps, this is the only way call a true disciple of Jesus.  You can manipulate a person to join a church or you can try to get people to sign up for heaven with all kinds of tricks, but there is only one way to call a person to follow Jesus Christ.  It requires that they hear, heed some fully engaging  musts’ in their lives.   You must be born again (John 3:7)!  We must obey God rather than mortals (Acts 5.29)!   Even when someone has sinned against you 7 times or 7 times 70, and then repents,  You must forgive (Lk 17.4).   Each of us must please our neighbor  (Rom 15.2).  When God calls a (disciple), God calls them to come and die!   The one who said this was hung for following his ‘must’ (Bonhoeffer).  We would all wish to ignore ‘musts’ like that.

It would be nice to think we could have the Christian life another way, without all the daily musts we have to do to remain faithful each day, without giving anything up.  We’d like to think that the power, the miracles, the healing, the growth, and all the other wonderful things that happened in that early church could fit into our shrinking church budgets or be stuff into our own church tool boxes, so we can decide whether to adopt or how to adapt them for own plans.   But that’s not what happened then, nor is it what really happens now. 

If we learn anything in the Bible about the God of the Bible, it is that we, you, nor I, nor any Christian, Church or person, can ever put God in any kind of box.   That’s why the Jews never wrote down his ‘name’, nor let anyone go near him, if they could help it.  You can’t put the true God is a Jewish box, a Roman Catholic box, a Baptist or Methodist box, nor any other box, be  it contemporary, traditional, for that matter.  If you think you have this God pegged or cornered, he is the God who keeps breaking loose, springing out, stirring things up, and then releasing new ‘fiery tongues’ to burn up whatever words and ways we have devised to try to control or bottle him up.  

Besides, haven’t you noticed that what happened in the early movement of Spirit in the church, for the most part, seldom happens today?  If something like that does happen, as it has from time to time, no one has ever been successfully able to control or manipulate the miracles of the true God.   No one can control where or whether the ‘signs and wonders’ will happen, nor have they been fully prepared for when they won’t.   There is no safe place to hide or reside away from this God, except for placing ourselves under the shelter under his mighty wings.  Have you ever tried feeling safe and secure under the wings of a high flying bird?   

Recently I read how a Texas pastor, a Baptist preacher, entered the pulpit and told his congregation that, if they really wanted to be Christian, they needed not to have any of symbol of allegiance in their sanctuary other than the cross.   He then recommended that the children stop pledging allegiance to the American flag at VBS, since this our land is not really a Christian country, and then he, as their spiritual leader, saying he was inspired by the Holy Spirit, advised they should take the flag out of the church once and for all and not lift up anything alongside of this truly invisible, truly demanding God.  Do you know how well that went over?  Today he’s a Mennonite pastor in Virginia. 

Or maybe you’ve heard about the other Mennonite pastor in Virginia, Kenneth Miller, who was recently convicted for and jailed for aiding an international Kidnapping scheme.  A woman from Vermont came to his church in Virginia seeking a new way of life in Christ, renouncing her former life, and wanting to take her daughter away from the court order to share custody with her former Lesbian partner.  The pastor helped her arrange to move to Canada, and then to Nicaragua, stating that God’s law trumps Federal law, adding that the government has no business redefining marriage   (

I told obeying the ‘must’ of a demanding and decisive God could get you in trouble.  However you come to understand what you must or mustn’t do, the only guarantee I can give you in your obedience to him is that you will never control your own destiny ever again.   Just like in Luke’s picture of the early church, when the Spirit is obeyed,   the powerful nor the faithful were in control, nor were they assured of what would happen next.    

So, how can I dare preach that we ‘must obey God’ when there are no guarantees or when the question of control will demand that you release your own control of what happens next?   What might encourage any of us who are still holding on, or holding out, to obey God or even to rejoice, if we too might have to ‘suffer dishonor for the sake of the name?’ (5.41).   
Strangely enough it was a wise and respected Pharisee of the Jewish council named Gamaliel, who Luke offers as encouragement for obedience and trust.  Gamaliel was a Jewish rabbi, and not even a member of this new movement, but he was a very smart man—a man who understood very well just what the stakes are, and just how dangerous it would be to go against the God who will always be bigger than your plans or my plans, our desires, our wants, wishes, or to any predictable human hope. 

Knowing from Isaiah that God’s ways are not human ways, or that God can be just as indiscernible as he is demanding, Gamaliel reminds these leaders who might just make their next wrong move, just how dangerous it could be.   ‘Fellow Israelites’  ‘consider carefully’ what  you propose to do…” (5.35).   Could he be talking to me or you?  If all this “activity” (NIV) or ‘undertaking’ (NRSV) or ‘work’ (KJV)  is only of human energy, it will eventually fail.   But, then he cautions, “but if  this does come from God, you will not stop it (NIV) and if you go up against it, and it is from God, you will find yourself  fighting against God….” (5: 38-39).  This line of reasoning is what persuaded them to stop, to think, and to wait.  

But what line of reasoning was this?  What got their attention about ‘going up against God’ that doesn’t get people’s attention today?   What moved them to realize with Paul, that God would be true and  liars could be made out of each and every one of us? (Rom 3.4)?   Isn’t this eternal, unresolvable, irrevocable possibility of error where the ‘must’ of the church always comes from?   Isn’t this why I must be born again, and again, and again?   Isn’t this why I must obey God rather than mere mortals?  Isn’t this why I must forgive 7 times 70, even when I don’t want to or don’t know how?  Isn’t this why I must live to please my neighbor, and not just please myself.  I must, and the church must, and we all must, because we could end up on the wrong side of a gulf that is fixed and cannot be reversed.   

Isn’t this the day for you to realize that the ‘right side’ is the place where you must let God decide?  With the rest of the church, and with Gamaliel too, we must decide to stand together and find God’s side?  Is there any other logical option?   Let this  be our logic, wrote John Calvin, “that which is of God must needs stand, though all the  world say nay!”  (From Calvin, John (2012-08-26). The Complete Biblical Commentary Collection of John Calvin (Kindle Locations 420887-420888).  . Kindle Edition).  

Have you decided what you must do with or for God today?   Remember Gamiliel’s logic:  You are not as much in charge of what happens next, as you think you are?   Amen.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

“The Devil’s Chapel”

A Sermon Based Upon Acts 4: 32-5:11
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
May 24th, 2015

"Peter asked, "why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?" (Act 5:3 NRS)

In the Wartburg Castle, where Martin Luther was in exile for challenging the excesses of the church of his day, he spent most of his time translating the New Testament into the German language.  That translation singlehandedly united all German dialects and basically became the German language spoken today. 
I’ve been in that castle, located in Eisenach, and in the room where Luther did his translating.  When you walk into the room, you will see a small table and chair where Luther sat.  Most interestingly, on the wall behind the table is a large splash of ink, still visible, where Luther is said to have thrown his ink well at the devil who, at that time, was attempting to torment and interrupt him.

Luther had his ‘demons’ to fight against, as all of us do.   Luther was able to stand up unafraid of his opposition, essentially saying, without fear, “The Church stands on the Word of God….Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise”  When you have someone doing great good, as Luther did, standing up against corruption and vice, you will also find opposition, struggle and the potential for evil to raise up its ugly head in resistance.  Luther understood this, and once he made another statement we must hear today because it is well-represented in the text before us.  Luther said, “Whenever and wherever God builds a church, the devil also builds a chapel.”  And most often,” added Daniel Defoe, the author of the story of Robinson Crusoe, “the devil has the larger congregation.”

It is certainly true, especially in the text before us, that the devil will try to build a chapel beside the church God is building.  But before we take a closer look how the devil’s chapel may spring up at any time, I want us to begin by looking closely at the good, glorious, and generous church God wants to build. 

Ever wonder what would it have been like to be part of the electrifying beginnings of the early church?   Luke tells us that ‘the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul….” (4:32).  When I ride up and down the countryside, and see small little churches barely existing, but not far apart from each other, I dream about what all these little churches could do if they would were one church, one people, and one congregation, standing together rather than standing separate to confront the loveless world. 

If this is how it once was, what happened?  Why are we the scattered instead of the gathered?  Of course most of our churches developed before modern transportation, but that’s not the whole story.  Today churches can seem to be more competitive than cooperative.  Jesus prayed that we would be ‘one’ (Jn. 17:11), but today we are more used to be “many minds” than “of one mind.”  While I don’t think we can repeat the miracle that was the early church, we can certainly learn from it and we can see our own potential to do great good as being an ‘alternative’ community to the world we know. 

Luke tells us that the church in Acts were of ‘one heart and soul’, everything they ‘owned was held everything in common’ (4:32, they gave ‘testimony’ to Christ alive in their own lives, and they share ‘great grace’ from God.  The major impact was that: “There was not a needy person among them….” (4:34. We even read ho one among them, whom they nicknamed ‘son of encouragement,’ showed his own generous spirit by ‘selling a field’ and giving the proceeds for the needs of the community.  How can we imagine a church in the Spirit that is also generous, selfless, giving and caring?

As landowners, farmers with a common heritage, we can remember times when there was more sharing, helping, and working together to bring in the harvest or survive against elements of life.  Among some this still goes on, and it should continue.  The generosity we share together as a people together instead of people apart makes life worth living.  This text in no way implies giving up ‘private property’, as was wrongly forced in the failure of communism, but it encourages voluntary sharing of our time, talents and treasures with each other for the benefit of the community good.  The good of community is important because nothing is really ‘ours’ alone, and because we also know that the more we share and the more we spread care around, the more it comes back to us and we dare to build the kind of living that makes sense and build the kind of communities that makes sense up against the coldness and cruelty of the world around us.

In the book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations,  Robert Schnase, a Methodist Bishop, tells of how one of the churches under his care, had a special baptism service, where the several families were up front after the service taking pictures.   One of the mother’s needed to get something out of her purse, an elderly man close by  offered to hold the baby for a moment.  As people continued to come by to offer their congratulations, the elderly man would say to them,  “Oh, this is not my mine, I’m just holding him for a moment…”   The next day there was a knock on the pastor’s study door.  It was that elderly man who wanted to speak to the pastor.  The pastor at first, worried whether or not this might be some kind of complaint about  the service, but as the elderly man sat down, he shared with the pastor how he wanted to change his will to include the church.  He said that while he was holding that baby, he realized that when he was holding the baby of those new members, that we at this church are not many families, but we are also one family, and that I have a responsibility to help that family and that child just like I have a responsibility to help my family and my grandchildren.

What would a ‘generous’ people look like among us?  It has many difference faces, but from this text we can know it starts by being more than a people apart, but to be a people together, for the good of our children, their children, and all the children of the world.  A generous community is a bold witness kind of community that is rightly called both spiritual and Christian.  This is the kind of community that still runs against the grain of our very selfish world, and reminds us all that what can have is not just counted in dollars and sense, but is also counted with sense and sharing.   Can you imagine a church filled with God’s generous spirit?  It’s not just about the money, but it is what we treasure because, ‘where our treasures are, our hearts will be also’.  The greatest wealth is to care and to be cared about.

Unfortunately, in a fallen world, we find that ‘the devil’ also works to build his own chapel out of the ‘good will’ of the community.   As they come to lay their gifts ‘at the apostles feet’ (4.37) an act of deceit interrupts … the progress of the people of God’ (FF Bruce).  The forward momentum stops when text says, “BUT a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property…. and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles feet” (5:1).   What is being underscored here is not the lesser value of their gift, but it is their insincerity, their pretense, and their deliberate deception and dishonesty in this scheme.  Twice Luke tells us that this man did this ‘with the consent of his wife’ (5.1) and ‘with his wife’s knowledge’ (5:2).  This is a big deal because they were purposely undercutting the grace and generosity of God, trying to privately gain off of the compassionate giving of others, making it appear they too wholeheartedly with them, when in reality, they were holding back. 

Peter confronts them directly: “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds…?” You have not lied to us, but to God! (5.3, 4).  It is the ‘lie’ against the Holy Spirit that has invited evil into this caring, compassionate, and generous congregation.  It is the lie of pretense, of saying one thing, but doing another.   It is the lie of saying that you are a giving, caring, and compassionate person, but the truth is that all you care about is you, yourself, your own benefit, and your own advancement.  Self-serving, insincere hearts interrupt and violate the spiritual flow of God’s grace. 

While the people of God worked to build a community that cares, “the devil was also at work constructing his perpendicular chapel.   Len Sweet continues, that  the devil’s chapel has grown so large and tall that it has been able to take its choir on the road, a choir that happily sings the devil's favorite song.  The tune the devil loves to hear is the discordant sound of a million voices all singing their own song no harmony, no melody, no chorus only a devilish din of solos.   The devil’s song has only one rule of composing: The first person singular.  The “I” or “the devil’s I” is all there is. There is no “we”, no “she”, no “he”, nor is there a “they” to consider.  Everything is intently focused on ‘me, mine and I” to the exclusion of everyone else.

How many have left church, or refused to be part of a church, exactly because they have encountered some like Ananias and Sappharia, who only ‘pretend’ to share in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2Co 13:14 NAS) only for their own sake?  It doesn’t take long for someone to see through the scheming of an inauthentic life or faith, and when people see it, often they are repulsed and disgusted, and rightly so. 

It’s important for us to see, however, that even the early church was not ‘a perfect church’ (FF Bruce).  Even the most pure, good, and pristine fellowship can invite the opportunity for insincerity and hypocrisy.  In a fallen world, even the greatest good still creates an opportunity for evil to rise up.  Think of how technology invites new ways of identity theft, or how new conveniences and advances for living can create a culture of leisure rather than a culture continues to work for the common good.   In this world, you can’t have the good without the probability that evil will corrupt or make some twisted use of it. 

Because the flow of grace can be corrupted, even among good people and in a good, growing community, we need to take this story seriously and consider our own way being or doing church.  Are we for real?  Is our faith sincere?  Are we putting our hearts into it, or are we still holding back?   While this story is not given to us as a threat, it is given to us help us resist the accuser and to expose his own trickery within us.  Luke would have us realize just how destructive Satan’s lies really are, not only because they put the community of faith at risk, but because they also put the “pretenders” at risk.  

Exactly what happens to the ‘pretenders’ in this text is both messy and strange.   After Peter confronts the lies of both Ananias and his wife Sapphira, without another word they die---they both lie and die.   “If you lie, you die… makes a captivating sermon title, but it’s not what what normally happens.   Most people get away with it a bit longer.  Peter, lied too and denied, but he didn’t die.  Strangely, in this story there is also no chance to offer repentance or forgiveness to this couple.  They die within three hours of each other and in between Peter and the whole church just sit and wait and watch what happens.   It’s a very strange story, but the meaning is clear. “The deceit of one’s self or one’s brothers or sisters in the church leads to death.  The story is harsh, severe, uncompromising in the telling, but how is falsehood ever confronted except in a manner which always seems severe to the one tangled in deceit?” (Will Willimon) “O what wicked web we weave, when we first practice to deceive” (Sir Walter Scott).  

Most always, the one most deceived, when we deceive, is us!   Just like the Rich Fool (Lk 12: 31-21) who deceived himself into thinking he could store up goods, not realizing he would die that very day,  the money that Ananias and Sapphira hold back to make themselves secure, is exactly the money that brings them down.  

People still think that the money or wealth that is held on to tightly will secure their future and the future of their own children.   Statistics tell us that over 8,000 Americans have a net worth of over 100 mission dollars, but they give less than 2% of that large wealth to charities.   What are they keeping it for?   Rock singer Sting made a lot of sense when he said recently, “I’m not leaving one cent of my millions to my children so it will ruin them….”  His wisdom is even more than saying money can’t buy happiness, but he’s also saying that holding on to money too tightly can actually bring more misery, more emptiness, and it can rob your soul or the soul of children of the most important qualities of life?   Money is most deceptive, as Dave Ramsey has said when he asked, “Why do people spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need to impress people they don’t know?  Those who try to secure their own future through greed, covetousness, and acquisition, are deceiving themselves in the worst form. 

The church, of all places, is supposed to be the place where people get real about the things money can’t do and learn about the things money should do.   Church is supposed to be the place, where we learn, as John Wesley taught, “to earn all we can, to save all we can’ so we will also “give all we can”.   If we don’t learn such important life lessons, and pass them on to our own children, we only fool ourselves and we fool them in thinking we will ever really hold anything back from God.

Interestingly, the very first time Luke uses the word ‘church’ in Acts comes right at the end of this story (5:11).   What is Luke trying to tell us?   Could it be that even the community of the truth will struggle with truthfulness?   

While Luke paints a very positive picture of the early church, it’s not over idealized.   The church then, as now, is filled with real people who are pulled in different directions by the same temptations then that still tug at us now.   Right in the third pew from you, you’ll likely find someone struggling to be faithful or scheming to be foolish in how they handle what they have and who they are.  Someone has have already put their hand to the plow are looking back.  Someone thinks they have better things to do, than to give their whole hearts to God.  And some of these are Ananiases and Sapphiras who look a whole lot like the best of us.  Amen, or it is Oh me!  

Sunday, May 17, 2015

“A Courageous Church”

A Sermon Based Upon Acts 4: 1-12
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
7th Sunday of Easter, April May 17th,  2015

Several years ago I was speaking to a elderly Russian Baptist woman about her family. 
        “My son’s a preacher too,” she told me.   Then, a tear came into her eye.    
She continued:One Sunday, after he preached, he left the house and we haven’t seen him since.”
       “Where did he go, I asked?”
She was silent.   She couldn’t tell me the awful truth.  I had to find it out from others.   Her son, like many others in those days of atheistic communism, were arrested and taken to hard labor camps in Siberia were most of them died.   This is how the KGB dealt with those who dared to preach Jesus Christ over Joseph Stalin.

Our text today says that ‘while Peter and John were speaking to the people…’, ‘much annoyed’ authorities came and ‘arrested them’ (4: 1-3).   Most of us can’t imagine preachers being arrested for preaching.  I know I don’t want to think about it.   Still, it’s true, that there are parts of the world where the Christian faith is not only not appreciated, but also not welcome; where Christians are persecuted for their faith, and where those who dare preach or witness, must do so underground or in secret, or risk being arrested.  

A couple of years ago, the Atlantic Magazine ran an article entitled, “How to Get Yourself Arrested on Moral Monday in North Carolina   The article told about religious leaders of different faiths and denominations showing up on Monday’s to intentionally get themselves arrested and draw attention to the plight of the poor as politicians drafted new policies about medical care, unemployment and education.  While they being arrested for refusing to clear the legislative building, they sang “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…” and quoted Scriptures such as “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  One pastor commented to the reporter for the Atlantic: “There are no unclean people here, only unclean systems….”   Whether you agree such civil disobedience, you should be thankful to live in a country where people can peacefully ‘get arrested’ to draw attention to matters of justice and human need. .

Do you have enough faith, enough courage, or enough passion for Jesus Christ, or for God’s justice that you could be arrested for it?   Would there be enough evidence to convict you of being Christian?   I’m not wishing for it for any of us, but I want us to think today about how courageous should be in our own witness for Jesus Christ in the context our changing, challenging, and a very confused culture.   In today’s passage, we can clearly see that the church grew because it was passionate, was ‘counter-culture’, and because it was witnessed in ways that gained the attention of the community around it.   Could we also find ways that could help embolden our own witness and work for the Lord?
The big mistake the authorities made in arresting Peter and John was that when they arrested them, the church grew bigger not smaller (4.4).    The more they arrested them; the more they tried to ‘stop the spread’ and ‘warned them not to speak in his name’ (4.17), the more they did speak and the more it spread.    Have you ever thought about why this happened?

Part of the reason they could not ‘stop’ this church from speaking is because the very message they wanted to stop was the very message that put life in them.  We are told that these disciples were arrested because ‘they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead’ (4.2).   What was the big deal about preaching ‘the resurrection’?  

What we need to understand in this story is that the ‘priests, the captain of temple, and the Sadducees’ (4.1) were not just the religious parties, but they were also the ruling political parties of that time.  These Sadducees not only did not believe in any kind of resurrection of the dead, they did not want to.  Most of the reason why they did not agree with the Pharisees, was because the Sadducees were the, wealthy, political conservatives of the ‘old school thinking,’ who held firmly to the original five books of the Hebrew Bible, and did not have any desire to follow any of this new school thinking of the Pharisees, who followed Daniel’s new vision of resurrection.   According to Daniel, one day God would awaken the dead for judgment for both their good or evil deeds (Dan. 12:1ff).  If you are rich, if you are comfortable, if you are in power, and especially if you’re not living the kind of life you should, of course, you wouldn’t appreciate resurrection where God takes charge and has the final word either.

What made the church’s preaching and teaching especially dangerous, is that now they were teaching this religious perspective with new fervor and new enthusiasm ‘proclaiming’ that ‘in Jesus there is a resurrection of the dead’ (v.2).  This made the growing church even more of a threat to the ‘political peace’ than the Pharisees were.  Can you grasp why?   Don’t miss how ‘the next day’, after Peter and John’s arrest, that ‘rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high priestly family” (4:5).   Do you see that these are the same people who were in charge of crucifying Jesus?  Do you see that these are the people who have the most to lose, if Jesus, or even if only the teaching of Jesus, has come back to life in Jerusalem?  
If the resurrection is true, or even if people think it is true, everything might change.   People in charge, or on top, or in control, do not like change.

The kind of change the preaching of the church threatened was unique.   People in power still recognize it.  Recently, I read a review of how Netflix released a new movie series about Marco Polo’s travel’s in China and his encounter with Kublai Khan.   They became friends, but at the beginning, at least in the movie, Kublai Khan, was repulsed by the inscription on the cross he was wearing which said, “All kingdoms will bow to Christ”.   That’s the ramifications of resurrection that still put fear into the hearts of any who only want their own life their own way without regard to God or others.  But it’s also the kind of hopeful message that put life and courage into the hearts of ‘uneducated and ordinary’ (13) who are disenfranchised, disadvantaged, or underprivileged by the ‘principalities and powers’ of this world.  

While the church was encouraged and emboldened by the preaching of Christ’s resurrection—a message that lifted up Jesus as the true Lord of life---the church was only able to preach and bear witness to this message because they were filled with the Holy Spirit.   Because he was ‘filled with the Spirit’ (4.8) Peter was able to face head them head on and look those rulers straight in the eyes and declare that ‘this Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone” (4:11).   That’s bold and that’s pure courage.

There is no magical, biblical, nor even an educational formula that enabled this church to become bold in their witness like this.   What amazed those rulers themselves was that these were ‘ordinary and uneducated men’ who were ‘recognized as companions of Jesus’ (4.13).  Could it be that Luke, the author of Acts is telling us here, more than we might want to know?  Could it be that exactly because they had been and still were spiritual ‘companions of Jesus’ that this boldness and courage was now being released in their speech and in their lives?  
 Jesus told them that the Father would send the Spirit to empower them (Acts 1.8) and now the Spirit has come (Acts 2.2).  

Because the church had been faithful to obey, to follow, and to continue to worship this ‘same Jesus’ (Acts 1.11), they were they now filled and emboldened by the ‘power of the Holy Spirit’ (1.8) Jesus had promised.   Isn’t this the only way the Spirit ever works and fills our lives too: when we are faithful to ‘this same Jesus’?   We are told in the gospel that the Spirit does not ‘speak for himself’ but is faithful to glorify Jesus (John 16:13).  The Spirit will only ‘take what is mine and declare it to you…” (Jn. 16.14), Jesus said.   The only way to find the fullness and filling of God’s Spirit is to make yourself a constant companions of Jesus.  It is outrageous to think that you can buy or obtain the ‘power’, the boldness, or the presence of God’ Spirit in any other way (Acts 8.19) than by being faithful to the ‘apostles teaching and fellowship’ (Acts 2.42).  But what does it mean to be faithful in a way that leads to a bold witness?

Pastor James Merritt tells how back in the 1990s,  a mission team from the US preached to packed crowds in Romania with people standing outside in 10° weather, listening to loud-speakers to hear God’s Word.  The U.S. Christians asked Pastor Josef Tson why Romania had a spiritual fervor and a fire that America didn’t have.  He said, “Americans, here is the difference. In the United States, you talk about commitment. In Romania, we talk about surrender. When you are committed to God you hold all the cards. You decide when you are going to be committed and when you are not. When you surrender, God holds all the cards.” Then he shared this unbelievable example to back up his point.

During the 1970s, Tson, who was recognized as probably a leading pastor in the entire country of Romania, was arrested and imprisoned multiple times. The only thing they ever charged him with was preaching the Gospel. Every time he was arrested he would undergo several weeks of intense interrogation, beatings and mind games and then released.    It all came to a climax in the middle of one night when about 3am in the morning, Romanian police broke into his home, literally dragged him out of bed, threw him into the back of a car, took him down to the police station, stripped him naked, tied him to a chair, and began the most offal beating he said he had ever incurred. They kept making one demand, “Quit preaching the Gospel. Quit talking about Jesus.” He absolutely refused.

After hours the captain of the police station came bursting into the room, pulled up a chair in front of him and said, “Tson, I am through with you. I am going to ask you one last time to quit preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ or I am going to kill you here and now.” Josef Tson said, “I knew that he meant it. At that moment, I was filled by the Holy Spirit like I have never been before. I looked at him and here is what I said, ‘Captain, I want to warn you. If you use your weapon I will be forced to use mine.’” The captain jumped up out of his chair in fear and said, “Search him immediately! Which was kind of funny, because Josef Tson was completely naked, but they dutifully did what the captain said. The captain set back down and said, “What are you talking about?”

Tson said, “Your weapon is killing. My weapon is dying. Now here is how it works. If you kill me, my popularity will explode. If you kill me, my tapes, my manuscripts, and all of my messages will multiply like rabbits. Unbelievers will say, ‘This man was willing to die for what he was preaching. I’d better hear what he has to say.’ My sermons will speak 10 time louder after you kill me and because you killed me. In fact, God will use me to conquer this country because you killed me. I’m warning you captain, you use your weapon and I’ll be forced to use mine.”

The captain of the jail jumped up and said, “Tson, you are crazy! You’ve lost your mind” and walked out of the room. Later they came back in, gave him his clothes, dressed him and drove him back to his home. Tson said the next morning, barely able to walk from the beating, he got up to walk to the church and when he walked outside there were two Romanian policemen there. He held out his hands thinking they had come to cuff him and take him back for more beatings and they said, “Sir, we are not here to arrest you. We are here to protect you.” Tson said, “What do you mean?” One of the officers said, “Sir, we don’t understand. We just know we have been given orders to escort you everywhere you go and to make sure that nothing happens to you.”  (From a Sermon by James Merritt entitled,  “Fight Fire with Fire”).

Can we imagine this kind of courage and ‘boldness’?  Can we imagine this kind of surrender and commitment to Christ?
We can only imagine it when we know that the church was courageous because it boldly preached and announced that ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved (Act 4:12 NRS). 

Isn’t the reason the church lacks boldness today is because we just don’t know how to believe this, live this, or preach that Jesus as the ‘only way’ of salvation in a world where there are more ways than we can count?   How can we have the same motivation those first disciples had in their world, when we don’t live in that same world?   Do we have the boldness and courage to preach Jesus as the ‘the way, the truth, and the life’, when even we have found and do follow so many other ‘healing’ or saving ways, such as our own politics, our own wealth, our own views of faith and religion?   We too know, even as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, or Pentecostals, that there is more are even many ‘ways’ of even finding this ‘one way’ of being saved in Jesus.  So, how dare we dare we preach ‘there is salvation in no one else’ when we haven’t even agreed on how this salvation comes to us? 

That’s exactly the protest a woman gave to me when I invited her to church once.  She was telling me how proud she was of her daughter and about that time I invited her and her daughter to our come as guests at our church.  She responded that her she and her daughter were respectful of all religions, but they didn’t need to have a particular faith because all religions are the same.  That was of course, before 9-11-2001. 

This is exactly the problem with preaching Jesus today, isn’t it?  It’s not the big picture that hooks people, saying that Jesus was a great religious teacher or reformer, but it’s the particular picture of getting to the claim that God ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ in one particular person, in one particular event, and in one particular people--that’s the problem.   How do we preach, that though God has always be more than Jesus, as he was also in Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets, before Jesus, that God was uniquely revealed in Jesus or that God is never anything less than Jesus?   How can we preach Jesus in world where Mohammed, Krishna, and Buddha are just as prominent?  Can we still boldly preach that there is ‘salvation in one else’?

My answer is that not only can we, we must.   There is no other name given among mortals, whereby we must be saved.”    How do we preach this?   When Peter and the early church spoke these words, they were all still Jews.  They were convinced that the only way the Jewish people could be saved was to follow a way of Jesus, the truth of Jesus and the life of Jesus.  But what was that?  Do you know?  Do you dare want to know?   The way of Jesus was the way of the cross, the way of sacrifice, the way of giving yourself to others, and most of all, it was the way of love, even loving ones enemies.   There is no salvation in any religion, any politic, any denomination, or any human reality at all, unless we follow this unique, exclusive, exceptional, and specific way Jesus revealed God’s love.  It is a saving love which also commands and motivates us to love.  Through Christ’s own sacrifice and death on the cross, he calls us to ‘love God with all our hearts’ and to ‘love our neighbor as ourselves’, even if it kills us.  This is the way all humans everywhere, must take God serious or we have no hope at all.  

This unique way self-giving love is the only way to take God and religion serious, because only when we ‘love God with our whole heart in a way that includes loving others’ we can’t or won’t find any salvation that only God’s love can bring.  Saving love is just that peculiar and that particular.  We have to receive God’s unconditional love.   We have to give unconditional love.  We must love the God who loves us and we must love the neighbor we need to come to know and we must love.  We can only be saved by such unique, exceptional love, because only God can love like this and only when a divinely revealed love becomes real in us, can salvation come to the world.  Isn’t this kind of salvation that should still motivate us?    Doesn’t God’s unique love give us all something to be courageous about, whether it be to be a good parent, a caring person, or do the right thing in a difficult situation?  That’s exactly what Paul Grüninger did.  He wasn’t a Peter or John, nor was he a Josef Tson, but he was ‘courageous’ with his faith. 

IN THE SPRING of 1939,47-year-old Paul Grüninger was a middle-level police official in St. Gallen, a picturesque Swiss town near the Austrian border. The son of middle-class parents who ran a local cigar shop and a mediocre student who enjoyed the soccer field more than his studies, Grüninger became an unprepossessing man of quiet conventionality.  After dutifully serving time in the Swiss army in World War I, he obtained a teaching diploma, settled into a position at an elementary school, attended church on Sundays and married Alice Federer, a fellow teacher.

To please both his mother and Alice, Grüninger applied for a better-paying position in the police department, a job that involved mainly filling out reports and arranging security details for occasional visiting dignitaries. Or so it seemed. In April 1939, Grüninger found his way to work blocked by a uniformed officer who told him: “Sir, you no longer have the right to enter these premises.”

An investigation had revealed that Grüninger was secretly altering the documents of Jews fleeing Austria for the safety of Switzerland. “Non-Aryan” refugees were not allowed to cross the border after August 19, 1938, but all it took was a few strokes of Griininger’s pen to predate a passport and perhaps save a life, a small action but one of great personal risk. Grüninger was dismissed from his position, ordered to turn in his uniform and subjected to criminal charges. The authorities spread false rumors that Grüninger had demanded sexual favors from those he aided. Disgraced as a law breaker and shunned by his neighbors, Grüninger peddled raincoats and animal feed until he died in poverty in 1972.

Paul Grüninger is featured in journalist Eyal Press’s book Beautiful Souls, a study of seemingly ordinary people who exhibited extraordinary and risky courage on behalf of others.  Paul Grüninger was not Braveheart. He was an unassuming man whose family and faith formed him in a world—a kingdom, if you will—in which anyone who saw what he saw, “the heartbreaking scenes ... the screaming and the crying of moth- ers and children . . . could not bear it anymore . . . could do nothing else.” Paul and Alice are buried together near St. Gallen. Seventy years later a plaque was placed at the foot of Paul’s grave. It reads: “Paul Grüninger saved hundreds of refugees in 1938/39.” At his funeral, a choir sang “Nearer My God to Thee,” and a rabbi read from the Talmud: “He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.”

Just this past week, in that terrible train wreck in Philadelphia, and in the horror of that terrible darkness, one uninjured man courageously stayed on the train to hold the hand of another man who was pinned in the wreckage.  “I’m here,”  he said.  “I’m staying here with you until they get you out.”   Being extraordinary in courage doesn’t get any more ordinary than that.  And isn’t this what the church also does, saying,  “We’re here!  “We’re staying with Jesus until everyone gets out.  It is faith in this kind of love that is great enough to save us all.   Amen.