Sunday, April 26, 2015
Who are we?
On the trips our church takes to Ethiopia, people from there see our group. They hear us speak English. They see us emerge from a guest house that is foreigners. They watch us buy things designed to be sold to tourists. They may not know our affiliation or that we are there to work with poor children. But one thing is clear. We are Americans.
I travel back to Roanoke and spend time with old high school friends. We reminisce about good times we spent as kids and a lot of those memories happened in the home where my parents still live. Whatever else I am, in those moments, I am of the Tennant family.
Who are we?
Heather and I and other pastors gather, and it is clear, we are of HillSong Church. Sometimes in an ecumenical gathering, I am the Baptist in the group.
American; Tennant; HillSong; Baptist; who am I? Who are you? On what do we stand? What is it that undergirds who we are, how we think and act, and all that we do?
It was a key moment for the apostles John and Peter. Just before they entered the temple, a handicapped man asked for a hand-out. He had been disabled from birth. His entire life’s identity was built upon begging. On what did he stand? Nothing. His role in society, his very identity, was that of one who could not stand and could only survive by the generosity of others.
Then Peter said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk.” In the name of Jesus Christ; and this man who have never walked, stood and jumped and leaped and praised God. Heather discussed this last week in her sermon from Acts 3. Right there in the temple, Peter preached an impromptu sermon in which he accused the leaders of killing Jesus (3:15) and then invited them to come to faith (3:19, 26).
On what do we stand? What authority authorizes the way we live our lives?
The leaders in Jerusalem stood on shaky ground according to Peter. They heard him clearly affix responsibility for the death of Jesus to them. They saw clearly that Peter and John healed a man everyone knew – a full-grown adult who have never in his life walked. They felt the movement of history as the crowds flocked to the disciples to hear them talk about salvation in Jesus. The leaders in the temple needed to cut this off, before it got away from them.
The priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them “much annoyed” says Acts 4:2. These officials of government and religion did not like the claim that in Jesus we have resurrection – his and ours when we put our trust in him. No, they did not like any of this. These officials stood on their own unique understanding of scripture, a perspective that assured them of power.
Do we dare confess a faith that upsets the conventions of our time? Tolerance of all religions, which means saying all religions are okay and basically teach the same thing; this sentiment rules in our time. Do we dare oppose this by saying Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through him?
An individual person’s individual rights are sacred and not to be threatened in our culture. We believe in the autonomy of the individual. At least, that is what we claim to live by. Do followers of Jesus dare say, no, my rights are not as important fully submitting myself to Jesus as my Lord and my King?
The priests and Sadducees stood on their privilege as leaders. They expected all in Jerusalem to live by this foundation, so they were furious that the disciples of an already crucified man would continue defying their authority. But they could not deny what everyone witnessed. The man with useless legs was now completely healed and jumping around praising God.
How could they maintain power? Who were they? Those in leadership positions in the temple may not have consciously wondered that, but the actions of Peter and John created a crisis for them. They who understood themselves to be the ones in control now had to face forces beyond their reach. Verses 14-15 say, “When they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that [these] were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them [Peter and John], they [the officials] had nothing to say in opposition.”
All they could do was pose the question. Their last gasp, their final lurch for control was to name this thing that was happening. “By what power or by what name did you do this” (4:7)?
On what do we stand?
What authority authorizes the way we live our lives?
Who are we? Americans? Tennants or Asbills, Johnsons or Bakers, Folliards or Sits? Baptists? Who or what makes us, drives and defines our actions and attitude, our thoughts, deeds, and words?
All the priests and Sadducees could do was throw the question out into the crowd, into the air, out where all gathered would hear and consider. All Peter and John could do was give one answer – the only answer they had, the only answer that is true. “Let it be known that this man is standing in good health by the name of Jesus Christ whom you crucified, whom God raised from the Dead” (4:10).
A few years ago I watched a film produced by an independent Christian film maker.[i] It was about a couple professors at a Christian college in the late 1800’s. They were debating morals. Is it enough to speak and truth and do good works or must our truth and our deed of help and benevolence be done in Jesus’ name. One professor said as long as good is done; it does not matter if it is in Jesus’ name or simply in the cause of doing what’s right. His colleague disagreed. He insisted that unless deeds were done in Jesus’ name, they could not be considered really true or truly good.
The film involves a time machine and caricatures that lack verisimilitude. I found it silly. But the debate between these fictional Christian college professors from the 19th century is fascinating and is timeless. In any context, we could ask, is a deed good in and of itself? Simply speaking, yes. It is good to give food to hungry people. It is good to provide education to impoverished students so they can develop their minds, reach their potential, get good jobs and climb out of poverty. These are a few of thousands of examples in which I see non-Christians contributing. I have seen people who say, “I am not Christian,” contributing to the good of humanity. Sometimes non-Christians outdo Christ-followers in generosity.
Yet at a much deeper level, I side with the view that it is not enough to simply do good things. At some point, after people have been healed, fed, clothed, educated, and given shelter, they gain power. When they gain power, those who had been holding all of it will feel threatened and a confrontation occurs.
“By what power or by what name are you doing this?” The question is inevitable. When it comes, we need more than groundless claims that love is self-evident and charity is self-evident and compassion is self-evident. Where do these values come from? Who are we that we dare stand on these things, and standing on these values, what gives us the gumption to help people?
Unless we are in Christ, we are speechless. If we are in Christ, our lives have purpose and we do not lack for words. His Holy Spirit provides them. “By what power?” We answer, “We heal and we feed and we travel and we work and we love and we help in the name of Jesus. He was crucified by sin, yours and ours. He was raised by God.” And we say as Peter said, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under given among human beings by which we might be saved” (4:12).
I do not say any of this to reject the good things unbelievers do to help people in the world. We have sponsors who support children in Kombolcha, Ethiopia who are not Christian. We gladly receive their non-Christian sponsorship dollars and I affirm that what they do is helpful and is good.
I find here in this story, in Peter’s word when the question is put to him that the intent of the Holy Spirit of God and the driving force in Peter’s actions not only heals crippled men at the temple gate and feeds hungry Ethiopian kids. The driving force also transforms the giver of the gift. The temple leaders, the Sadducees, some of the most lettered intellectuals of the day were silenced by uneducated fishermen from backwater Galilee.
How could that be? Peter and John and everyone who acts in the name of Jesus by the name of Jesus speaks and works with power that is beyond what any human possesses.
On what do we stand? We stand on the name of Jesus.
Who are we? We are a community of followers of the risen, Jesus Christ, the King. He is our testimony. He gives meaning to what we do – transcendent, eternal meaning. He binds us together as a family with God as our Father. Under His banner, our acts, both the work in our day-to-day lives and the works we do that are explicitly Christian are part of a greater story – the story of the emergence of God’s eternal kingdom. This included the work of home, vocation (our jobs), and the work of relationships, family, friendships, acquaintances, neighbors, and unexpected encounters. In all works in every part of life, He is Lord and we speak, act, and think by His name.
This week, you and I won’t be dragged before officials who want to know why we performed as miracle healing on a handicapped man who has never walked. The world is different. We will have opportunities to help people and do good things. Right now we as a church body are invited to pray that God would ready us, so when those opportunities come, we’ll respond by His name in His power sharing His love. Fueled by the Holy Spirit we will not only be inclined to do good and helpful things; we will also be ready to respond to anyone who wonders about us by pointing them to Jesus.
Please join me in silent prayer as we, the church, join our hearts together in asking God to fill us, empower us, and ready us to be His witnesses.
Now please join me in this responsive prayer.
Leader: Lord Jesus.
Congregation: You are the risen one.
Leader: Fill us with the hope and the power of the resurrection
Congregation: Help us to speak and act in Your Name.
Leader: Lead us, Lord Jesus.
Congregation: We commit ourselves to you.