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Sunday, October 28, 2018


A sermon based upon Acts 6: 1-7
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time,  October 14th,  2018 
(8-14) Sermon Series: Church: Then and Now

Today’s message is about Church leadership.  Here, in Acts chapter 6, we encounter something very important about leading a church: Church leadership is supposed to be about ‘spiritual’ leadership.  “Choose from among you those known to be filled with the Spirit and wisdom”(v.3).  The apostles clearly believed that those who lead the church must not only have a good ‘business’ sense, but they must also be ‘full of the Spirit.’ But what does this mean?

Having leaders who are ‘full of the Spirit’ is crucial for the church, because the church has a big, if not impossible, job to do.  In these opening chapters of Acts, the young church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is growing and expanding its ministry from Jerusalem into Judea, and into the ‘ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8, NIV).  Even though the authorities and officials were threatening and persecuting believers, the church was still growing, thriving and accomplishing it’s mission to ‘take the gospel’ into the world.  How can you explain this, other than the work of the Holy Spirit?

But in today’s text we encounter another kind of problem that threatened the growth of the church.  This was not a problem from the world outside, nor was it from ‘worldliness’ inspired by Satan who ‘filled the hearts’ of Ananias and Sapphira. Here the church faces a ‘good’ problem which could have quickly become a very bad problem. 

When our son-in-law called us to inform that our daughter had given birth prematurely to twins, we were overwhelmed.  After spending nearly two months in the hospital, due to my daughter’s own problems, the question was where would the twins go after their hospital?   The only feasible answer was that they would come into our home, where they remained for a few more months.  It was a problem, but it was a ‘good’ problem.  One that impacted our lives forever. 

This is the kind of ‘good’ problem we encounter in this text.   The church was growing so rapidly, that it developed a problem within its own ministry.  Some of its newest members were making complaints against how it’s ministry was being conducted.  Jewish communities had some of the most well-developed social ministries in the ancient world.  The church followed that pattern, and developed a ‘feeding’ ministry which provided food for its most vulnerable members—especially the widows.  But because the church was reaching into the broader world, to Jewish people who came from outside the walls of Jerusalem, it overlooked some of those who could not speak their language.  Had that problem not been addressed and resolved quickly, the church’s reputation could have been damaged and its explosive growth could have stopped. 

All churches face challenges, whether they are young churches or well-established churches.  The question is never ‘why’ do we have to face problems or challenges, but the question is ‘how’ do we face these challenges?  How do we work like a church, and continue to be guided by God’s Spirit, no matter what problem, or problems, we face? 

Most all of us have experienced some kind of church conflict and know how divisive and destructive it can be to a church’s development and progress.
The first church conflict I recall from my childhood, was a big disagreement about whether or not to plant grass in the church cemetery.  Since the founding of the church in 1898, the cemetery had been managed with sand, and it took a lot of sand.

I don’t recall all that was said in the business meeting.  I don’t even remember the meeting at all.  But I do remember the fallout that took place after the church decided to remove the sand and to plant grass.  Today, it’s easy to see how good of a decision that was.  In the modern world, mowing is less expensive than buying sand.  Besides, how many ‘sandy’ cemeteries do you see today?  But it that day, in the early 1970’s, the decision to plant grass caused not only a great deal of conflict, but several key members left that church to almost never to return.  I say ‘almost never to return because some 20 years or so later, one family returned just in time to be buried there.  Yes, and to be buried there under the very grass they oppossed. 

Unsurprisingly, the story of ‘organized’ leadership in early church began with a complaint.  The word ‘complaint’ (1:1) used here reflects the same kind of ‘murmuring’ and grumbling Moses had to put up with from the children of Israel in the wilderness (Num. 11:1ff).  The appearance of complaints can be one of the ‘good problems’ for becoming a people, a church, a family or any kind of group, assembly, or congregation.   Because we are human,  and no one is perfect, or does anything perfectly, there always will a potential and possibility for making missteps, mistakes, and misunderstandings that may cause offense or hurt.  

The great challenge for the church, however, is not to silence nor to stop the complaints, but the great challenge for the church is to learn how to express complaints and to address complaints in positive, caring, and compassionate ways.  Without some kind of ‘give and take’ the church cannot grow, flourish or accomplish its mission.  In order to grow beyond our own little group, church members and church leaders have to learn how constructively share with each other, listen to each other, seek to understand, and to remain engaged with each other, even when hurts come and conflicts arise.   We must learn how to navigate, solve and settle our problems and conflicts or we will not be able to attract others and grow at the body of Christ, either numerically or spiritually. 

Even people in the church; people like us who are trying to live in the Spirit, will encounter problems, challenges, and have misunderstandings with some amount of conflict.  Having conflict is not the problem, but ‘HOW’ we report and resolve the problem, could become the greatest problem. 

Several years ago, I took a training course in Church Conflict.  One of the first things we learned is that as a pastor, when someone gets angry with us, that most of the time, the the main issue is not about us.  It’s normally about something that happened many years ago, in either the church’s life, or in someone’s life, which was never dealt with or worked through.  Now, because it is still lying there in someone’s heart, not being completely healed, something we’ve done or haven’t done, has brought all that pain back to the surface and we are having to deal with it.

I recall one learning experience in particular, which was hard for me, because she was a dear friend, and she was hurt.  It all happened for a good reason, but it wasn’t good enough for her.  Our church was trying to find some ways to show and share God’s love with our neighbors, so we decided on the leadership team, to call off evening services and to invite our neighbors to go with us to join us in enjoying a local ball game.  The reason we used the evening worship time was because the local baseball team had a ‘faith night’ on Sunday evening and our members already had church on their schedule.  We thought our reasoning was good, and our plans were responsible and fit our evangelistic goals, so the leadership followed through with it and one Sunday I announced our plans to the whole church.  
After the service, this dear lady was walking out the door, she looked straight at me, and then she said, “How dare you call off worshipping God to go to a ballgame!” That was all she said, and all I could do was smile.  She was a very spiritual, elderly lady, whom I had visited and been warmly received in her home.  I had never see this kind of anger in her.  We were trying to do good for the church and for the cause of the gospel, but this lady saw it as nothing but ‘stopping church for a ball game’.  And she didn’t just have or make a complaint, she ‘nailed’ me at the door, where she knew I had no chance to answer, to clarify, or to respond.

Because churches are made of imperfect people, churches can also be imperfect places where hurts happen.  Some people have wondered why the church isn’t a perfect place, since God’s loving presence is here?  Well, the quick answer is because God is here, the church becomes not only a place where saints are being made, but this is also a place which becomes ‘a hospital for sick souls’.  And the greatest sickness of all, as we all should know, is not the physical sickness, but the emotional and spiritual sickness of sin, our human limitation that can’t so easily be expressed or addressed.

Consider this case in the early church.  It was a natural problem, and maybe even a good problem to have.  The church was growing.  The church had a lot to do.  Many, who both physical needs and spiritual needs, were joining the church.  The church began among Hebrew people, but now was reaching out to Greek speaking Jews.  Some of these Greek-speaking Jews were widows, who had perhaps just moved into Jerusalem, maybe to live the last days of their lives.   Who knows exactly how it happened?  It’s easy to overlook the needs of outsiders, because we don’t know them and they don’t know us.  I don’t think anybody wanted to overlook anyone, but it happens.  Church people, and church leaders too, are human beings who live within the limits of what humans can know, see and do.  We are not seraphim’s with multiple ‘faces’ or ‘eyes in the back of our heads’ (Isa. 6). 

Interestingly, another reason churches have problems is because we want to do good; we don’t want to hurt, but to help. We have been established to ‘serve’ and to herald the message of God’s salvation, but often we haven’t developed good guidelines for our ministry, or we, like the early church, will sometimes face problems we haven’t encountered before.  Unless we develop guidelines for our ministry, which clarify who we are and how we do what we do, which has been decided upon by all, we remain at the mercy of how people feel, rather than being guided by who God has called us to be and what God has called us to do.     

So, what did the apostles do face church’s first congregational crisis?  The text displays their intentional resolve: “Brothers and Sisters, choose seven…from among you…We will turn this responsibility over to them” (v.3).  Here is the great lesson for us still today:  If a church wants to get serious about reaching out into the larger world around us, like the early church, we must also get serious about choosing and developing our leaders who can lead the church to face the challenges and problems we encounter. 

There is a wise saying that goes ‘the church will never rise above it’s leadership.’  This statement can be verified in the biblical witness. The church would not have continued to reach out and grow without continuing to organize itself by facing its challenges, solving its problems, and by developing and following its leadership. 

But what exactly is was the nature of this newly chosen and organized leadership?  Do we know how to define it?  We certainly need to, because people can be very good at leading in the world, in a business, but still fail to understand the special and unique calling of leadership in a church.  Very often, churches elect leaders who are skilled in the worldly ways of business and home, then automatically think these skills can be easily transferred into the church.  While the church certainly has earthly business to do too and needs skills and wisdom from the world and the home, but the main business of the church is God’s business, and God’s word, and we have a calling that is beyond becoming just another earthly business.  The question that comes out of this text is for us to ask ourselves what kind of business is God’s business?  Can we define what special, unique calling, leaders should have for God’s church, especially in these times when churches face uncertain futures and many special and unique challenges?

What is clear is that when the apostle’s asked the congregation to ‘choose…seven…who were full of the Spirit and wisdom’ they were following not just the agenda of growing a church, but they were following
God’s agenda.   This is what they directly addressed when they went on to divide the leadership task of the church into two different areas of ministry: One was the ‘attention of prayer and the ministry of the word’ (v. 4), and the other was the ministry action of ‘to wait on tables’ (v.2).  The apostles believed it a healthy church had to not to ‘neglect’ (v.2) neither of these two types of ministries.  In order for the church to face its challenges, the church had expand its leadership and it had to ‘share’ its ministry with those who had the spiritual qualifications to lead the church?
Of course, we could get into all kinds of details or discussions about what this dividing of the church’s work into specific ministries by gifted people might mean in today’s church.  We certainly have a lot more ministry areas than these three; prayer, the ministry of the word, and the distributing of essentials.  The needs of churches and the needs in our world have changed a lot since then, and they continue to change too. 

There are at least three most important observations about how church leadership developed then, and must still develop now.  The first, that I have already mentioned is that the church must continue to develop SHARED LEADERSHIP.  When the church faced big challenges, what is still important for us, is to see how the church expanded and ‘shared’ its leadership.  The apostle’s understood their own limitations and their own gifts and priorities too.  They not only felt it was most important for them to continue to lead in the ministry of prayer and preaching, they also realized how the church would suffer, if they tried to have their hands on everything.

Churches have proven to eventually struggle when ‘leadership’ remains centralized and limited by one, or a just a few.  I once pastored a church that grew quickly under one well-respected pastor, who grew the church mostly based on his own personality, but when he retired, the church floundered, and is still struggling today.  If he had allowed the church to share the ‘leadership’, it might be in a better condition today.

What was most ‘wise’ about the apostle’s decision to ‘share’ the leadership was not just ‘how’ they asked the church to ‘choose’, but it was also ‘who’ the church choose to lead them forward.  Notice how the church went on to choose ‘seven’ who had Greek names.  They had a ‘minority’ Greek problem, so the majority Hebrew leaders allowed the mainly Hebrew church, to select ‘minority’ Greek leaders to address the problem.  Not one of the new newly selected and elected leaders had a Hebrew name.  The church had selected, elected leaders and ‘shared’ their leadership with the ‘minority’ that would very soon become the ‘majority’ of people from where the church would find its future growth and ministry, outside Jerusalem, outside Hebrew culture, connecting itself with the world beyond it’s own walls.

If a church wants to have a future, the church must learn to ‘share’ its leadership with the people who are most like the world it wants to reach.  This is exactly what mission pastor Rick Warren did when he wanted to build a church meeting the needs of the California community known as Saddleback.  He wisely developed a picture of a fictitious person he called ‘Saddleback Sam’ and also ‘Saddleback Samantha’, and he began to reach out based on the needs of the people he wanted to reach, not building the church only to meet the people who were already there.  This was not always pleasing to his existing members, who wanted the church only for their own needs.  But this ‘sharing’ of ministry and ‘leadership’ enabled Saddleback to become one of the most amazing stories of church development and church growth in our contemporary world.

Another important characteristic of the apostle’s leadership, was that they not only ‘shared’ their leadership, but that they also prioritized that this leadership was to be ‘SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP’.   “Choose…Seven who are full of the Spirit…and wisdom.”   As the church grew, and faced its problems, the apostles did not forget who they were and what they were about.  They were a church, Christ’s body, who were called first of all, not to be just another worldly business, but they were a people who were to be on mission because they were filled with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 

What does it mean for us to ‘choose’ leaders who are ‘filled with Spirit and wisdom(v.3)?  Let me pause to tell you one of my favorite stories.  George Smith was a deacon at New Hope Baptist Church before I became their pastor.  I never met George, but I certainly knew of him.  He built the Lutheran style pulpit I climbed up into every Sunday to preach.  It was a beautiful piece of work, which stood out in a small Baptist Church.  His wife, Mrs. Rosey, I affectionately called her, told me how soon after the pulpit was built the church was trying to decide which color of carpet to put down.  George, having a Lutheran background, or course suggested the color red.  But there were others who wanted green.  When it came time to vote, George stood up and spoke passionately for red carpet, because it signified the color of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins.  Still, others preferred light green, saying that was more practical, and fit better with the existing color of paint on the walls.  When the time for a vote came, the church decided for the greenish color.  Later, on the day the men of the church came together to put down the carpet, George was the first man there, neither complaining nor grumbling having lost the vote.
So again, what does it mean to be a ‘spiritual’ leader, who is ‘full of the Spirit and wisdom’ (v.3).  In every church I’ve ever served, it is people like George Smith, who speak their mind, express their feelings, and no matter what happens or what the way majority go, always stands ready to work for the good of the whole body of Christ.  The apostle Paul put it this way, ‘…If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion,
 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.
 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,
 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. (Phil. 2:1-5 NIV).

Paul’s mention of this ‘same mindset as Christ Jesus’ brings us to other major quality of a church leader that is underscored in this text: Christian leaders are SERVANT LEADERS.  Paul went on to explain to the Philippians how the ‘mindset of Christ Jesus’ was revealed in how Christ, who was by ‘nature’ shared ‘equality with God’ did not use this to his advantage, but ‘made of himself nothing’ by ‘becoming a servant’ as he ‘humbled himself’ by becoming ‘obedient’ even to die on ‘a cross’ (Phil 2: 6-8).  Here Paul reminded the church at Philippi, that Christian leadership was, just as Jesus set the example, not to ‘lord over’ others (see Matt 23:8-11), but to ‘serve’ others in Jesus’ name.

We can see exactly how was realized in the church, as in this text early church leadership was divided into two major areas of ministry or ‘service’: first there was the priority of the proclamation of the word and prayer, and secondly, there was providing necessity social, benevolent, service ministries, which in this moment, took the form of a ‘food service’ (CEB) or ‘serving tables’ (NIV, v.2 which may have meant either providing food or the collected monies for buying food and handing it out). 

Early on the church came to understand that, through its own experience and obedience to the Spirit of Jesus, that it could not succeed in its priority of proclaiming God’s word, without also serving to meet human need.  The realities haven’t change even today, for just as a person cannot ‘live by bread alone’ (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4, as Jesus quoted Scripture when tempted by the devil in the wilderness), the church also understands that people can’t easily hear or understand ‘the word’, when they are still ‘hungry’ and ‘hurting’. 

What was most wise in this ‘division’ of ministry, was that the church came to realize that all members of the church are expected to participate in some area of ministry, whether it be through proclamation ministry of worship, preaching, teaching, and prayer, or through participating in social, care, and benevolent ministries, such as visiting the sick, or helping to assure that its members have emotional, physical, as well as, spiritual needs addressed (Matt. 10:42, 25: 35-36).    

The fullness of Spirit, which enabled the church to thrive and grow, was a church ‘filled with the Spirit’ so that ministry was a ‘SHARED’ among the members, provided a ministry which was both ‘SPRITIUAL’ and ‘SERVANT’ oriented, where everyone used their natural and spiritual gifts in some way to participate in the saving, redeeming, and healing work of God.  It was a church where no one could everything, but everyone was expected to participate and do something.  

What happens when the ‘whole’ church shares, serves and is filled with the ‘spirit’ of Christ in how it proclaims and serves?  The most natural result, is exactly what happened here; ‘the word of God spread… the number of disciples…increased (v. 7).’   

I’m glad, in this text, that the emphasis was not on the physical growth of the church, because in some situations a faithful church doesn’t grow numerically.  But even when the church doesn’t grow numerically, when it is focused on the Spirit of Christ, and shares together in servant ministry, will alway grows spiritually in maturity and discipleship.  

When that happens, it isn’t long until other amazing things can begin to happen too, perhaps even some numerical growth.  This is what happened in a most unexpected way in the early church.  Through the ‘shared’ ‘spiritual’ leadership which increased the church’s ‘servant’ ministry to both insiders and outsiders, a large number of professional Jewish ‘priests’, saw what was happening and responded in ‘obedient’ ‘faith’  (7b).   People were then, and are still not convinced by the ‘word’ alone, but people need to see the word come alive in human ‘flesh’.  To say it in theological terms, only incarnational faith brings real transformational results.  In layman’s terms,  only by living the words we say and hear, do we see and experience change in human hearts.

As I conclude, I think there is one more important observation we need to make from this text.  I want to give this observation in the simplest, most practical way.  Remember, we started this message with some Greek ‘widows’ who were complaining because they felt they were being left out of the food service that was being carried out by the Hebrew church.  What the apostles did in response, is still a good model of how we too should face, confront and tackle the challenges and conflicts of our own day. 

I want to say this in three simple words you can remember: EXPRESS, ADDRESS, and DO NOT REPRESS.  Churches that thrive, even in questioning, confusing, and difficult times, are not churches never have conflicts, or who solve all their problems.  But only those churches who are willing to learn how to work through their problems together, feeling free to express their needs and expectations in constructive ways; where leaders serve by helping the people address these needs in healing, helpful and healthy ways; and finally (and I know this is a long sentence), where most both leaders and the congregation as a whole, take special care not to ‘repress’ or as Scripture says, not to ‘quench’ the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 5: 17) in all they do, will be able, even through ‘hardships’, to accomplish God’s will and ‘enter the kingdom’ (Acts 14:22) that is still coming.  Being a spiritual, servant church of shared leadership, is always as much about ‘how’ we serve, and ‘who’ we become as we serve, as it is about what we accomplish in Jesus’ name.

Years ago, one of the most beloved gospel songs in the south was entitled, “The Jericho Road”.  It a song with a catchy tune that has been sung not just by gospel singers like The Chuck Wagon Gang, and more recently, Bill and Gloria Gaither, but it’s also been sung by country stars like Merrill Haggard and Bill Monroe.  The song is about having a personal relationship with Jesus, so that your life can be redeemed and restored.  It’s a worthy message, as the song starts out asking whether or not the ‘world seems all wrong’ and your ‘load’ is too heavy.  If it is, the verse answers simply, ‘just bring in to Christ’ and ‘confess your sins’, implying that this will make it all better.  After this comes the most familiar chorus, often sung in echo, 
“On the Jericho Road, your heart He will bless,  
On the Jericho Road, there’s room for just two.
No more or no less, just Jesus and You.
Each burden He’ll bear, Each sorrow He’ll share
There’s never a care, for Jesus is there. 

There’s certainly a lot of wonderful, redemptive truth in the message of this song, but the message falls on deaf ears and hearts, if we don’t also understand that ‘Jesus is there’ not just as ‘one Spirit’, but as a ‘body’ who are a people, the ekklesia, the ‘called out ones’, who are serving, caring, and sharing in this ‘one faith, one baptism, and one Spirit’ (Eph. 4:1ff), so that we don’t just have words to say, but we also have deeds that are done to make God’s word real and presence felt in our own world.  Amen. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018


A sermon based upon Acts 8: 4-25
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time,  October 28th,  2018 
(10-14) Sermon Series: Church: Then and Now

Few things are as important to modern life than having electrical power.  Just let the power fail for an extended time and what do we do but sit around and wait for it to come back on.  

Today’s story from Acts is about God’s saving and healing power.  God’s power falls upon the Samaritans in a similar way to how it came upon the first apostles in Jerusalem on Pentecost.  Luke’s point seems to be that God’s power comes to all people in all times.  But what exactly is this great power?  What God’s power is, and what it means, gets needed clarification in this story.

In telling this story, Luke gives us a report about a man who wrongly believed that he could buy the power that belong to God alone. 

Simon, also called ‘The Great Power’ or Simon Magnus, was a magician who ‘amazed’ and ‘astonished’ the masses with his own magical, ‘healing’ skills. 
We are not told what these magical skills were, but we do see a contrast between skills of magic and the working of miracles.  As Theodore Ferris has explained: “Magic is the human attempt to control and alter the natural course of events for human benefit.’  ‘A miracle, on the other hand, is God’s use of natural laws in extraordinary ways to achieve his own purposes.” (See Interpreters Bible, “Acts”, Vol. IX, Abingdon Press, 1954, p. 111).   

In short, through miracles, Philip was glorifying God, not himself. Through magic, Simon only glorified himself.   While Simon’s, though named here as sorcery (KJV) or magic (RSV), may have begun, as some kind of simple, harmless kind of entertainment.  But due to his ‘charm’ or natural gift, Simon drew attention to himself, and used his gifts to manipulate the masses only for his own benefit.

While in college, I knew a magician who was also quite impressive with own magical skills.  He ‘wowed’ everyone, and once came to my dorm room and gave me and my roommate our own private performance.  Tom was a Christian and he always reminded us that his ‘magic’ was not ‘dark’ or even real ‘magic’, but simple tricks he had learned and mastered for entertainment purposes, not some powers he had conjured up.  Today Tom is not a professional magician, but a trained psychologist, using his own God’s given knowledge to help others overcome the negative powers that bring great hurt and harm to the human soul.

Perhaps Simon’s magic show began with good intent too.  But because Simon was not grounded only his own reality and not in true faith, he allowed himself, as John Calvin said, ‘to become touched with wonder’.  Simon was so obsessed with his own powers of deception and people were so impressed by all his illusions, he gained a nickname attributing to him the ‘power’ that only belonged only to God. 

The Great American showman, PT Barnum, who invented ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’ is warmly remembered in a recent musical movie about his life, ‘The Great Showman’.   According to the musical, at least for a while, Barnum allowed his own powers of greatness to go to his head too.  PT Barnum boasted about his own skills of human manipulation, saying ‘there’s a sucker born every minute.’ 

More recently, David Cooperfield, an illusionist working Las Vegas, created an act of making several people disappear. Against his wishes, he had to reveal one of his secrets in court.  During a show, while running in a tunnel underneath the stage, a volunteer was accidentally injured, and later claimed to have suffered serious injuries, including brain damage. 

Defending against the claim, Copperfield’s attorneys argued:“It was a freak accident...It’s only magic and it isn’t dangerous.”  The other team claimed to the contrary that this accident proves that “magic is dangerous.” Cooperfield was able to settle the lawsuit for 500,000 dollars, even though his legal team argued that having to reveal one of his ‘trade’ secrets would hurt him financially. He is calculated to be worth 800 million dollars.“ (

Can human ‘magic’ become ‘dangerous’?  Well, that depends, doesn’t it?  If ‘magic’ remains a simple form of human entertainment--nothing more than skilled ‘sleight of hand’ for generating fun and amusement--then how could there be any real harm?  In this way it remains a ‘trick’ or ‘skill’ that has a positive use.  If we take Ferris definition of ‘magic’ as ‘the human attempt to alter or control nature for human benefit’, even science, modern medicine, or most any human ingenuity could be defined as ‘magical’ too.

The problem for Simon, which can become a problem for us too, is when we claim or want to have the ‘power’ which belongs to God alone.  Isn’t this how the ‘use’ of power can quickly become the ‘misuse’ of it?  When we fail to maintain the proper perspective in power or live, especially by failing to acknowledge our dependence upon God, in our humanity before God, either the magic, and even the miracle too, can easily also become a ‘mess’.

In our text, Philip’s evangelistic preaching gives us clarity that it is the truth about Jesus that releases God’s healing and saving power in the world.  Christ’s power, released through the preached word, brings cleansing from sin and offers the ultimate cure in life and in death. 

From this story, there is no doubt that Simon’s own magical powers impressed people greatly, but when Simon saw how people came to believe in Jesus and how great ‘signs and ‘miracles’ took place through Philip’s preaching, even this magician was amazed and impressed (13).

Seeing God’s ‘real’ and ‘raw’ power being released into the world, Simon could not help but see a business opportunity for himself.  Simon saw how he too could ‘use’ this power, not to minister to or serve others, but how he could get this ‘power’ to serve himself, using it only for his own personal gain.  Simon came to ‘believe’ in the ‘power’ of the Lord, but he did not really believe in the Lord of the power.  Like that character in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, who called the dark powers ‘my precious’, Simon wanted the powers just for himself, but didn’t realize the danger this posed.

But before we get to what Simon did wrong, we need to also understand that he did understand that there was something magical, miraculous, wonderful, and amazing going on through Philip’s preaching about Christ.  Simon saw immediate in preaching the value of allow God to work his wonder in our lives.  While many still see the powers of nature in a storm, an earthquake or a volcano, or more positively, they realize the benefits or promises of science and technology, do we still see what it might wonderful works might happen when we receive and respond to God’s goodness and grace?  Simon may have had the ‘wrong reasons’ for wanting God’s ‘power’, but at least he saw that power, and he wanted it too.

But can we still see what Simon saw?  Can we still see God’s power beyond our own? God’s power is still there to be seen, isn’t it?  Even though we have the ‘magic’ and miracles of modern medicine and to bring more healing and happiness than ever today, there are still limits to what we humans can do and accomplish, aren’t there?   Without the cooperation of the patient and the unseen power of faith participating in the cure, doctors are only ‘practicing’ a skill that remains as much an art, as it is a science.  All the medicine in the world is powerless to heal those who don’t want to get well.  Just ask any psychologist or any social worker, or any pastor, if you dare. 

Herb Miller tells how a great violinist was scheduled to play a concert in Houston, Texas. The Houston newspaper, however, didn’t focus on the artist. It used most of its space to describe his original Stradivarius violin. In fact, the morning of the concert, the front page carried a picture of the great instrument he would play. That night, the hall was filled with people.

The musician played extremely well. As he finished, the crowd thundered its applause. When the clapping subsided, the musician carefully laid his bow down. He carried a chair to center stage. Raising his violin over his head with both hands, he slammed it across the back of the chair. The violin smashed into dozens of pieces.

The audience gasped. Walking back to the microphone, the artist said, “I read in this morning’s paper about how great my violin was. So I walked down the street to a pawn shop. For thirty dollars I purchased a cheap violin. I put some new strings on it. That’s the violin I played this evening, then smashed. I wanted to demonstrate that it isn’t the violin that counts most. It’s the hands that hold the violin.” (From Herb Miller, Fishing on the Asphalt (St. Louis: CBP Press, 1987), pp. 32).

To acknowledge the power beyond us all, or that all human power cannot promise what only God can, is still the most needed perspective to keep all the magic and miracles of life from ‘going to our heads’, losing focus, and being misused.  Do you realize, that most all the problems of sexual abuse today can be attributed to a misuse of power?  Do you realize that most all wars, and threats of war, and social problems too, are problems of power, most often among the rich and powerful too?  Do you remember how the church, just as many nations and peoples have, has also struggled not to be obsessed with the use or misuse of power?

While God puts amazing gifts of power into our human hands, to fail to acknowledge this power as a gift, or to fail to recognize the limits of our power, remains the greatest deception that can become our greatest danger to life.  When we fail to realize our God-given limits to power, we fail to realize what is most real of all; that no human power, no human skill, and no human medicine whatsoever, can heal our greatest human hurt—becomes 'the sin that leads to death’. 

Even as science works to bring cures to the worst diseases, we will only continue to fantasize about healing everyone, about stopping all diseases, or about overcoming death itself.  Belief, which means trust in the true God and not just belief in a god, is the most reasonable response to our human limits and the realization of our own mortality.

When Simon Magnus saw God’s power, Simon wanted it, but he wanted it only for himself.  This is the ultimate abuse of power; not that he wanted God’s power, but that he only wanted for himself.

If our tapping into God’s gifts get misplaced or abused, locked in selfishness or ‘greased’ only for self-service, grave, satanic, deceptions will lurk within the human heart to become dangers that deceive and will destroy.  Human power is good, and power is a God’s gift to us, but when power takes over in us, because we fail to acknowledge God’s gift, then the gift becomes a curse.  Ironically, perhaps it was a natural ‘Freudian slip, who knows?  But the German word ‘gift’ means poison.  Likewise, when the ‘gift’ of God is not rightly acknowledge, the good which God intends, becomes poison deep in the human soul. 

Simon learned this the hard way, in a very stern rebuke from Peter himself. Since all God’s gifts, especially God’s gift of power, are ultimately rooted in spiritual gift on loan to us from God, no spiritual gift should be reduced to a mere commodity to be bought or sold; being used only for human gain or human glory. God’s gifts, no matter the form, must always be received from God to ultimately achieve the glory and purposes of God, and can’t be reduced to be ultimately only and just for us!  Have you ever wondered why this is?  Have you ever wondered why the apostle Paul later instructs the church: ‘So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31 NIV).  Why is what Simon did, by wanting to purchase God’s power for his own glory and purpose, so dangerous that Peter and John, coming down from headquarters in Jerusalem, literally warned Simon that, if he thinks he can buy God’s power with money, he can take his money and go to hell.’ (v.20).  That is how strong the Peter’s language really was.  Why was that?

Peter and John have already noted that God’s healing, saving power can’t be merely associated to the material realm of ‘silver or gold’, because they had none.  God’s power can only be rightly associated to ‘the name of Jesus Christ’ (Acts 3:6) and to ‘faith in the name’ (Acts 3:16). God’s power can’t every be purchased, nor can God’s powerful gifts ever be for our human manipulation nor come under our full control.  God’s power in life and God’s power for life, belongs to God alone.  The power of life is released in this world and in our lives, ultimately for God’s glory alone.  Life is a power on loan to us, and this power is never, and will never, ever, be released to us only or just for us, and our own benefit. 

Does this sound to you like God is being selfish or greedy when the Bible says, ‘the power belongs to God, and not to us?’  That’s the lie Satan put in Adam and Eve’s head too, just before they lost paradise.  Why does our faith insist that even our skills, ingenuity and all our human powers must be acknowledged as gifts, and never used ‘just for us’ and only for human glory alone?

As I write, the American president is about to attempt to negotiate a nuclear power treaty with a relatively small nation, North Korea.  How can it be that a smaller nation can consider itself on equal terms to a greater one?  That’s a differ way of seeing power, isn’t it? 

With the coming of this nuclear age, we humans have a chance to come of age again.  We can realize that power and limits of power, put us all on equal terms.  In a nuclear age, the question of the use or misuse of power is forcing us all to reconsider the meaning and implications of human power.  We must learn again that what is mine is never mine alone.  What is given to me can become either a blessing or it can become a curse.

Could it be why acknowledging life true source of life, as God’s gift, always matters?   While God’s power, goodness, and even his glory too, can and will be a benefit to us and for us, God’s power at work in us, must elicit   ultimate praise to God and not just to us.  The reason is not to restrict any use of good power by us, but because only when we acknowledge the giver do we rightly and fully, receive or continue to rightly use the gift.  When the giver isn’t acknowledged, the gift is always abused and may be misused. 

By acknowledging God, as the giver and source of all good gifts, the gift remains a gift intended only to bless and serve, instead of becoming a gift turned into a poisonous power only to serve greed or selfish gain, which will eventually, bring us more harm than gain.   

In the children's series Veggie Tales, Madame Blueberry is always blue, blue, blue, about everything. While the tree house in which she lives is nice; her dishes are chipped, knives are too dull, spoons are too small, and all her neighbors have more wonderful things than she has.

Then one day a mega-store called “Stuff Mart" moves across the street. The sign glitters like a beacon of hope to Madame Blueberry. They have refrigerators to preserve her extra mashed potatoes and a giant air compressor to blow fruit flies off her dresser. The company jingle says it all, “Happiness waits at the Stuff Mart, all you need is lots more stuff."

But as Charlie Brown has said, unfortunately, when our eyes are more on what we want, than what we already have, “Most of us live just about one cookie away from being happy." It sneaks in on us, doesn't it? Greed comes hunting for us in the depths of our souls, and it can ruin the joy of today.

Only by learning to praise God from whom all blessings flow, will today and everyday, no matter what we have or don’t have, do we continue to have the power of a gift of life that refuses to become a curse. Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

“We Must Obey God…”

A sermon based upon Acts 5: 27-41
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
24thSunday in Ordinary Time,  October 7th,  2018 
(7-14) Sermon Series: Church: Then and Now

Not long ago, I got to hear and meet the pastor who preached the Funeral Service for Mohammed Ali, Kevin Cosby.  He did a great job celebrating the boxer’s colorful life, as he did when he was preaching in that conference. But I still don’t like fights.  I’ve never really been in a serious one and I don’t want to be.  I have been in a few wrestling matches, but I’m normally the one who doesn’t fight fair.  Fights don’t bring the best out in me. In fact, I don’t think fights bring the best out in anybody.

Years ago, our sixth grade teacher Mr. Lackey was late again, so we boys decided we would all have a free-for-all wrestling match in the floor.  My sparing partner was Keith Snow.  We were all having fun testing our strength, but since Keith and I seemed to be fairly equal, or I was getting tired, I decided to ask him to agree to a draw, and we got up and sit in our seats while the other boys were still wrestling.  About the time we sit down, Coach Brown came into the room and demanded that the rest of the boys still on the floor come with him to the rest room.  I can still hear the sound of the paddle: Boom!  Boom!  Boom!  Boom!

In our Scripture text today, a wise Jewish leader warned against not just any kind of fighting, but against fighting God.  He warned Jewish leaders of that day that it would be foolish to take on a fight against an opponent that you can’t defeat.  His wisdom remains with us today, still reminding us, that sometimes the best way find God in our life and world, is to let God win in our hearts and minds.  Until we acknowledge that could be at work, even in our world, even outside of our own wills and ways, then we can’t truly find God at work in our hearts and minds in ways that can change and redeem our own lives.

Before we get the part of the story about ‘fighting God’, we need to start at the beginning. Here, we discover the best way to avoid fighting against God.  This is neither to ‘walk away’ nor to ‘ignore God’, but it is to surrender to God’s will and to ‘obey’ God’s purposes for life.  

What we discover in the biblical story, is that Israel’s God has a way of bothering the people he wants to save, heal, and help, but we humans also have ways of running away, making ourselves sick, and hurting ourselves and others.  This is why God keeps coming to us again and again, sometimes annoying us terribly.  But this God is not trying to pick a fight with us, since he knows we will lose and he will win.  This God, Israel’s God, is trying to get us to surrender to his compassionate love, his saving will and his redeeming purposes.  But how can we know this?  How can we know that God is worth surrendering too?  That’s part of what today’s story from Acts 5 is about.

In this passage we read how the authorities tried to stop Peter and the others from boldly preaching the truth about Jesus.  This is a bit ironic, because it wasn’t that long ago that Peter denied Jesus, not just once, but three times (Luke 23: 34). But now, surprisingly too, we see an emboldened, brave, ‘fearless’ Peter and the other apostles too, ‘filling Jerusalem’ with their preaching about Jesus, refusing to back down when the authorities command them to stop.  Even as Peter boldly and blatantly reminds the authorities of their guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion (5:28), they become so ‘furious’ that they are ready to ‘put Peter to death’ (5:33). 
Why were Peter and the other apostles preaching like this?  Why didn’t they just try to ‘get along’ with the authorities?  They had been given ‘strict orders’ not to ‘preach in his name’ (v. 28), but when they are reprimanded again, Peter answers directly, ‘We must obey God, rather than human authorities’ (29).  

This whole issue of ‘obedience’ seems foreign to our ears today.  To most people, it sounds oppressive and confining.  Our resistance to obedience now can make you curious as to why Peter and the other disciples dared to say they had to ‘obey’ God rather than these authorities.  How could they know it right to go against the way things were and to preach a new way of being faithful and of doing faith? 

The question of ‘obedience’ can get tricky, especially for those who are stubbornly sure of their own faith perspectives.  When Nazism was growing in Germany in the 1930’s, many Germans felt it more ‘Christian’ to support their government, no matter what the government was doing, even when the government was plotting war and killing Jews.  Only a few ‘confessing’ Christians were capable and willing to go against their own ‘authorities’ and obey the truth.  Many of those who did this were silenced, and even worst, some were imprisoned, tortured, or executed.   That’s how tricky obedience can become. 

Obedience can become a very ‘costly’ discipleship that’s too painful for most people to consider.  For example, do you think those who opposed or agreed with the American government during the Vietnam era were following or fighting God?   Do you still think the government was right to send soldiers into a war they secretly admitted they could not win?  That’s how complicated and costly this question of obedience can be.  Those of us who still recall the social unrest and rebellion of the 1960’s and 1970’s also recall the moral and spiritual confusion that went along with it.  It’s easy for us to say that those confused ‘youth’ were wrong, but we know that many of their feelings were right, even if some of their actions weren’t. Social, moral, and religious struggle in human life, reminds us just how difficult, divisive, and dangerous it can be to claim that what we are saying or doing is justified because we ‘must obey God rather than human beings’.

Even when we know that obeying God is the ‘right thing’ to do, what does obedience to God actually mean in our world today and for our lives right now?  There is a still risk involved and reflection required of us, isn’t there?  We know that obedience is also the kind of dangerous logic that cults have demanded from adherents.  In fact, in our world, where there are so many other options, opinions, and viewpoints, who would actually want to confine or narrow our choices to suggest that is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do anything?  Who wants to obey any God beyond our own desires, let alone Israel’s God?  Doesn’t it even sound a little archaic or outdated to get up tomorrow morning say to yourself, ‘not my will, but thy will be done’? What would it mean to actually seek to find and obey God’s will in our life?

There was an interesting 60 Minutes News story I viewed recently about an amazing scientific breakthrough in DNA research known as CRISPR.  CRISPR is a technology newly developed that promises to rewrite genomes for the prevention and treatment of cancer and all kinds of other genetic mutations.  My point is this: With so much ‘hope’ in what this, and other technologies can do, who needs to seek, find, or obey the will of God?  As the poem says, we are more inspired to be ‘masters of our own fate’, and ‘captains of our own souls’, aren’t we?  It could be suggested that seeking God’s will makes us look lazy or out of touch?  Why surrender to God when the way forward appears to be in the will of human minds and the work of human hands?

Real questions confront us out of Peter’s claim that he had to ‘obey God, rather than human authorities’ (NRSV, NLT).  It might help us to also consider what was happening in Peter’s own life.  In his boldness, Peter revealed the reason he obeyed God and resisted human authority: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead…God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.  We are witnesses of these things…” (v.s 30-32).  According to Peter, it was his own experience with the risen Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit that had filled him with the power, courage, and boldness to know God’s purpose and dare to obey God.  

What we know about the Peter’s life, particularly, in Luke’s gospel, is that we see how Peter has been a man on a spiritual journey with Jesus.  Peter was just another fisherman having had another poor night fishing when Jesus challenged him to push his boat out into deeper water.  Peter resisted, reminding Jesus they had fished all night and caught nothing (Luke 5:5).  But Peter ‘obeyed’ Jesus anyway, and his crew ended up making a catch that almost broke their nets.   Peter then turned toward Jesus, admitting his shortsightedness, saying “Go, away from me, for I am a sinful man (5:8).”

Perhaps by telling this story, Luke, who also wrote Acts, wants us to know that this is where all of us begin our journey to follow and obey Jesus.  We are not what we should be, but we are also not yet what we can become.   There will be ups and downs, especially when we have our weak moments just like Peter, when we too deny the truth of our risen Lord.  But Jesus does not give up on us, just like he didn’t give up on Peter.  After the resurrection, according to Luke’s unique perspective, Peter looked straight into the empty tomb, but he is still ‘wondering’ about everything, unsure of what will happen next (Luke 24:12). Peter is ready to obey, but still unsure of what this obedience might mean.

This is how Luke left Peter in the gospel, not specifically mentioning Peter again until Peter is found leading a prayer meeting to reassemble the disciples (Acts 1:15), and after that, bolding explaining the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:14ff).  Now, without warning, much had changed in Peter’s witness and obedience to Jesus.  Peter has gone from ‘sinful’ disciple, to ‘wondering’ apostle, and now, in the book of Acts, he has become the bold, daring, leading ‘apostle’ and ‘rock’ of the newly formed apostolic Church.  How can we explain all this? 

This is how ‘obedience’ to Christ transformed the life of a fisherman into the fearless apostle we call Simon Peter.  This was not something that Peter did for himself, nor was this something anyone would have completely expected, given the circumstances, but this is how becoming and being ‘obedient’ to Christ and to God’s purposes can still change and transform us into someone we could never have imagined before.

Some time ago, I watch a historical drama about the founder of communism, entitled ‘The Young Karl Marx’.  I was curious about Marx’s story because I once lived in a former communist country and had even lived on a street named Karl Marx Strasse (Street).  The historical drama told the real-life story about two young philosophers, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, living in the 19th century, who were anti-religious thinkers who were also social activists for social change.  Karl Marx was a very modest young German Jew, living and writing in Paris, and Fredrick Engels was a wealthy German aristocrat, whose Father owned a factory in England during the Industrial Revolution.  In response to what this change was doing to poor and the working-class people, making industrialists richer and richer, while making the poor, not only poorer, but also making life unbearable for most people, Marx and Engels, with Marx being the primary genius, came up with an idea for a counter revolution.  This later became known in our world as communism.  Interestingly, most of Marx’s original ideas for social change were formed before he was 25 years old. 

What impacted me most, was this ‘Robin Hood’ idea consumed the life of both Marx and Engel.  Their dream was to ‘force’ a better, more equal, and more just world into being, and both of them where were willing to give up all comfort for this cause, even willing to risk their own lives, which would often put their own lives and their own families, in jeopardy and in danger. 
The big problem with their idea, of course, was that they did not face honestly, the inherent flaw in all human systems.  They not only omitted our human need for God to guide us in what is righteous and good, but they also omitted the most realistic truth of all; the sinfulness of humanity.  They did not realize their sin or the sin which would finally come to the surface of any human system, no matter how great or needed the ideal.  But still, what captivated me most in this historical drama was not the philosophical, or social theory they had, but how they became completely ‘obedient’ to that their ideals and beliefs and were willing to give their whole lives to it, and even ready to die for that cause, without thought of much anything else.  Even when you disagreed with their na├»ve, short-sighted, anti-religious, revolutionary approach, you had to admire their will and their spirit of urgency to ‘change’ their world.

Are we so willing to give our lives for anything?   When another German thinker, Henrich Heine, was walking near a great Church building in Europe, a young student of his asked him, “How did they come to build such amazing buildings like this, which sometimes took more than a hundred years to build?   In answer, Heine said something like, “Son, in those days, when they built this building, they had and obeyed commandments.  We can’t build building like this anymore, because we don’t have any commandments we must obey.”

Of course, as Christians, we believe that the greatest demands or commands for our lives should be based on the commandment of love given to us by Jesus Christ, revealed as God’s Son.  Obedience to love cannot be overlooked, for God’s kingdom rule to be fully realized in our world.  Leaving God out can be the fatal flaw for those who elevate capitalism too. Without Christ’s love as the command above all other commands, ‘all other ground is sinking sand’.  But when we obey Christ’s love, lives can be changed, through human efforts, in ways that will impact life for good now, and for the future world still to come.

Is there any proof of obeying God’s command to love and live in light of God’s grace can change us, and the world for good?  Can obedience to God’s loving purposes still make a real difference in our own world?

The great father of modern missions, William Cary, once said, “Attempt Great things for God, Expect Great things from God.”  Perhaps, if there is any alluring pull of ‘obedience’ to Christ, it is to ask ourselves, ‘What will we get out of it?’  Life can be difficult, confusing, and complicated, so if you know that that obeying God might cost you, you also want to know that it will count for something.  But what is the ‘good’ or ‘goods’ that come from being obedient to the same living, loving, and commanding God, who still reveals himself through raising Jesus from the dead?

When Peter says that “God has exalted” Jesus as “Prince and Savior” to give ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel” (31), there is something being said to us too.  Of course, today ‘repentance’ has become such a ‘churchy’ idea that is out of style in our society, and in most churches too, for that matter.  But in the days of the early church, the real need for repentance was not simply religious, but it was also political, social, and urgent, meaning that Israel needed to turn from her selfish desires and resistant wills and move toward face their own reality through God’s forgiveness and grace.  If they did ‘obey’ this call, the tiny nation might be saved from a very real, impending, catastrophe. 

But as we should know from history, a story predicted in the Bible, but coming after biblical revelation ended, Israel did not ‘repent’ nor ‘turn’ from her sins, nor did she turn toward God.  Instead, Israel followed those Zealots and Activists who refused to follow God in peaceful ways of resistance, refusing to obey the loving commands of Jesus given on the Sermon on the Mount.  By stubbornly, selfishly, and egotistically resisting not only Jesus, but also by openly resisting the Roman authorities too, the people succumbed to the most radical voices calling for arms and for more revolutionary action to politically, religiously, and militaristically stand up against Rome.  As a result, by resisting God’s more peaceful way of love, in 70 AD, just a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the great catastrophe came.  The Romans finally entered the city, destroyed Jerusalem, and the Jewish people were scattered across the face of the earth, in what we call the Diaspora.   All this ‘death’ and ‘destruction’ happened because people would not follow, obey, and submit to the truth that Jesus taught.   Their lack of obedience to God’s new commandment of love, even to love their enemy, was the disobedience that destroyed Israel’s immediate hope of restoring David’s throne.

But what about those few who were obedient?  What about those few who did obey?  What did they get?  Here, in our text, Peter says that God gave his new people, the church; God would give His ‘gift’ to them, a gift that could be given and received, even in the midst a failing politic and a dying nationalism. This gift was, and still is the gift of the of giving ‘the Holy Spirit to who obey him (32).’  

When Jesus spoke of the ‘coming of the Spirit’ in John’s gospel, he made the insightful comment that ‘when the Spirit comes’, He ‘will guide you into all truth’ and that ‘he will not speak on this own…’ but that ‘he will bring glory to me’…   This glory will come when the Spirit is given to us so that he will ‘take’ from what is ‘mine’ and ‘make ‘it known to you….” (Jn. 16: 12-15).  The surprising point is that the gift of the Holy Spirit does not bring us anything completely new, but the Spirit keeps building faith, hope and love based on the love, the life, the ministry, and the truth about Jesus, God’s Son.  This ‘gift’ of the Holy Spirit is that Jesus’ presence, teachings, ideals, and work continues, even into the present time, no matter what else in happening around us.  This is God’s gift to us, to call us to continue God’s work, motivated by what God has done in us, not what happening in the world.

Someone once asked Philip Brooks, the great 18th century Pastor, who was teaching on Princeton’s Campus at that time, “Can you be a Christian without having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”  Brooks, who was known as a soft spoken, very kind, easy going, fellow, but his answer took the student completely by surprise.  He answered him frankly, “Son, having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ IS what Christianity is all about.  You can’t have any kind of true expression of Christianity without knowing Jesus Christ in some kind of personal, particular, and individual way.  The Christian Faith and the Christian Life, is about knowing, following, and obeying the loving message of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit that begins God’s work in our hearts, even before we can wrap our heads around what is happening, for good or ill in the world, is still the greatest reason to obey God with our lives. When we resolve to obey God, from deep within our hearts, God is at work in us, and his promises can always be realized and our lives and our world can be still be redeemed.  

But what if we don’t want to obey, or we don’t care about what God is doing in the world?  What do we say then?  This is exactly the question Gamaliel, the trusted Rabbi directly addressed at the end of this story.  Gamaliel warned the authorities in Jerusalem not to go against what God could be doing in them.  Gamaliel warned, but didn’t listen.  Will we?  Gamaliel warned them that even if you don’t believe what these people are saying about Jesus, about the resurrection, or about the crucifixion, then you’d still better ‘leave them alone’.  He reasoned: “If their purpose or activity is ‘man made’, then it will eventually fail.  BUT IF IT IS OF GOD…’ you could be standing in God’s way ‘fighting against God’.  Now, if you don’t know what it’s like to stand in the way of the God who not only owns the future, but is our future, just picture it as you standing in front of a Freight Train.  You might not be able to imagine this, but I spent my early years living beside a very active railroad track, and I saw what standing in front of a Train can do to a human body.

But God is not a Freight Train, or at least, God intend to be.  God is the God who commands, demands, and requires obedience, not for his sake and glory alone, or to win over us, but to win us over to what is right, holy, good and just.  This is a fight God fights within our hearts, in our world, within our hearts, minds and souls, which is for our human redemption and salvation, not for judgment against us, or for our destruction. 

The novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, tells a story of a young man who visited a monk at one of the Orthodox monasteries in the Aegean Sea. The monks had their cells on the face of the rock and lived there alone. A young man climbed up to the cell of one of the older monks and asked for some wisdom,
“Father, do you still wrestle with the devil?”
The monk answered, “Not anymore. I have grown old, and the devil has grown old with me. He no longer has the strength. Now I wrestle with God.
“With God?” the man asked. “You wrestle with God? Do you hope to win?”
“No,” he said, “I hope to lose.”

God is the God who will wrestles, struggles and fights for us and with us, like he did with Jacob by the Jabbok (Gen. 32), so that if we really knew what was going on, we would want to lose, rather than to win.  Frederick Buechner called this loss “the magnificent defeat.” He means that losing to God and his loving purposes, is really winning. It’s like a blessing in disguise.  And to lose our fight with God, just like Jacob did, like Peter did, and like we all must do, when we face our own dying and death, is why God’s calls us to ‘trust and obey’ him in the first place.

I’m no Rock Music expert, but there is a song entitled Who Are You? by the British rock band The Who. You can hear it at the beginning of the reruns of CSI. Who are you? Who, who; who, who?  But the last lines are seldom heard. They conclude a song where a man is waking up from a drunken night in SoHo only to find he isn’t dead, but that maybe the miracle of grace has found him too. The closing words sounds like a prayer: I know there's a place you walked/ Where love falls from the trees./ My heart is like a broken cup,/ I only feel right on my knees./ I spit out like a sewer hole,/ Yet still receive your kiss./ How can I measure up to anyone now/ After such a love as this?

Well, that’s really the point of losing the fight against God, isn’t it? As Texas Baptist pastor George Mason has said:  “Once we know we are loved as we are, we are never the same again. We know who we are; or better, whose we are. And I might add, and we know we belong to Him.  (

Gamaliel’s negative wisdom not to fight God opens up to the discovery of the most positive wisdom of God’s love. Gamaliel’s wisdom, just like Peter’s preaching, and his personal transformation, confirms to us why we must obey and why Jesus still has the right to command love, both to Israel then, and to command love from us now.  To close yourself to God’s surprising miracles of love and grace, either in yourself or in others, is to ‘fight’ against God is a way you really don’t want to win.  It is better to learn to ‘trust and to obey’ God’s love, than to lose the most important gift God has ever given to us.  You certainly don’t want to ever win the fight that would ever try to oppose love.  We must learn to obey God’s love, so we can discover the wisdom of knowing why God’s loving Spirit is the most important gift we will ever be given in life.  Amen.