A sermon by Fr. Justin Clemente to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican). Week one in the series “Eastertide & Acts.” This series explores the connection of the Resurrection to the mission of THE Church and OUR church.
A Different Kind of Revenge
Voice of the Martyrs recently told the story of a Middle Eastern Christian widow whose husband was killed for smuggling Bibles into a village.
You can imagine all the different emotions she must have felt: deep loss and grief, anger, and confusion. But how did she decide to “avenge” the death of her husband? She continued his work. Along with help from her parents, she went back to the place where he had been killed and pumped into it 1500 copies of the New Testament.
That’s a different kind of revenge, sparked by an unspeakable depth of mercy and grace from the Savior himself. This story instantly reminded me of the response of the apostles in our passage from Acts.
Today we begin a series of sorts in Acts. We’re just going to be using the lectionary readings right out Acts, and our goal is to connect Eastertide and Acts together with the mission of the Church and our church.
As we move into our passage today, the apostles are in hot water for the second time with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. Pentecost has already glorious happened, and the Spirit has been poured out upon the church. The apostles are changed men, now leading a living Church, full of gospel joy and power. The lessons for mission are many – I want to try and distill four of them down for you today. You can find our passage on page 913 of the Pew Bible.
God backs up the gospel message – always. (read vs. 18-20)
Now, God does not always deliver from prison or persecution or death. We should remember, of course, that all of the apostles (with the exception of John) would die a martyr’s death. But this passage in the Scriptures so that we would know that God stands behind the proclamation of Jesus.
And that means that our responsibility is to be faithful to where the power lies. It is the Good News itself that gives to people the eyes to see and the hands of faith to believe. What did St. Paul say in Romans 10:17 “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” What was the angel’s charge to the apostles as they were delivered from prison? Verse 20: “Speak to the people all the words of this Life.” The NIV has it here, “the full message of this new life.” “Later in Acts 5, the Pharisee Gamaliel will give this advice (vs. 38-39): “38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” He certainly spoke better than he knew!
John Stott says here that the apostles were called to be, not only eye-witnesses, but mouth-witnesses. (The Message of Acts, pg. 116) They were simply to be faithful to speak!
- For those who are laboring to plant and for all of us who are laboring to build up the work of our church here, our first lesson is that we must trust to the power of the Gospel. That the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus is back up by God and able to redeem and save sinners.
God reversed the judgment on Jesus for the purpose of forgiveness… and here God reverses the judgment on his people for the same purpose. (vs. 19-20)
In Acts, even in the midst of great victory and growth, the apostles begin to share in the sufferings of Christ for the purpose of grace. It’s fascinating to note the parallels between Jesus’ resurrection and the apostles’ imprisonment.
- At the tomb and by the prison, guards were stationed.
- An angel opened the tomb, and an angel opened the prison doors (don’t miss the heavy irony here: Sadducees didn’t believe in angels).
- At both events, the disciples are told to go and speak about Jesus.
- Both events confound and enrage the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem.
- Both bring potential forgiveness and reconciliation to deniers, persecutors, and enemies of God.
I’m always amazed by the book of Acts. Because some of the first people to hear the gospel are those who, in the limited sense, killed Jesus (of course, we are all culpable). Listen to Peter’s words, just beyond the end of our passage (vs. 30-33): “30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
The Sanhedrin says, “You’re trying to bring guilt down on us!” Peter says, “Jesus is now exalted that you might come to repentance and forgiveness of sins. Stunning! God sets his people free, not for vengeance, but to proclaim freedom in Christ to these men!
- The lesson here is that we must genuinely believe that the gospel is for those to whom we are sent. That God loves them and has exalted Jesus so that they might be reconciled to him. Put in a different way: the pre-requisite for evangelism and mission is simple but hard: loving people as God has loved people.
The posture of God’s people should reflect God’s (read vs. 29, 40-42)
What words would you use to describe the apostles’ posture here? I’d choose three: vulnerable, obedient (to God), and joyful.
First, vulnerable. When they are asked to come to the Council, they come. They are clear that they will obey God, but they are not combative. They are open-handed and without worldly power. We ought to remember that the Church of Jesus began its life largely on the margins of society and not in power. But that does not mean it was powerless – far from it. Here, the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem is the one absolutely powerless to contain the Good News because of the power of the Holy Spirit!
One of the finest tributes to the character and posture of the church in those early days, under persecution, is a letter called the Epistle to Diognetus. It’s an anonymous apologetic for Christianity, written in the second or third century. Listen to how it describes the Church of Jesus:
“Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle…
They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are `in the flesh,’ but do not live `according to the flesh.’ They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.
They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life….Those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.
In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians throughout the cities of the world.” (excerpts from Chapters 5 & 6)
- How can we here today place ourselves in a more vulnerable, open-handed, fully obedient posture for the sake of the Gospel and for others? Would that this be the testimony of our church and our people in our time: that we are the soul of the body as believers in the world.
But next, joyful! Verse 40 tells us that they were beat: this the same word used for the way in which Christ was beaten before his Cross. The apostles were flogged and they went away lacerated and bleeding. But how do they leave: rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus. They are honored in their dishonor.
There have always been and there will always be attempts to snuff out the church by force, but where it is met with joy and obedience, it will never do anything more than plant the seeds of a new harvest for God. You may know the words of Tertullian, an early Christian leader: “Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust…the more you mow us down, the more we grow; the seed is the blood of Christians.”
More recently, and in our Anglican family, Bishop Festo Kivengere, in 1979, on the second anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda, said this: “Without bleeding the church fails to bless.”
Here in Acts 5, we see a bleeding church, and even in that, a church of great blessing to others. And we must never forget that there are many of our brothers and sisters around the world today who are willing to bleed and bless others.
It is the will of heaven that the gospel go forward, even in hard times (read v. 20)
I want to bring us back to the words of the angel. Echoing Jesus himself, the angel says go. He doesn’t say, “Man, things are kind of hard right now, why don’t you guys just get out of here and lay low for a little bit!” No, he’s put them right back where they were! Preaching the gospel! Discipling! Building a First Church of Jerusalem. Amazing. What a word to us. We are so tempted to be quiet and say nothing when it might cost us. Or the conversation might be difficult. Or, God forbid, someone might not like us! In a word, we are tempted to see people and their reaction as very large and God’s will as small and insignificant.
- There will never be a perfect time to put our hand to the plough and plant a church. There will never be a perfect to move forward in mission for the sake of the kingdom of God. There will never be a perfect time to reach out and offer to pray with someone. There will never a be perfect to cross the road and befriend your neighbor in the name of Christ. There will never be a perfect time to speak into that open door in a co-workers life. There will never be a time when inviting someone to church isn’t sometimes awkward.
But we know that it is the will of heaven that the gospel go forward, be proclaimed, and be embraced in every place. We have our marching orders. They haven’t changed.
I have great admiration for those in our midst who are committing themselves to raising up new works. It’s not easy, there are great challenges, but the work is blessed by God. May all of us here – Hagerstown, Frederick, and Chambersburg be blessed and encouraged by the message of Acts 5 this morning.
For all this and more, we give all praise, glory, and honor to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.