Acts 4:23-31 – Why Not Us?

Hear My Plea by Rochelle Blumenfeld

The apostles Peter and John were arrested for preaching the good news about Jesus. After warning and threatening them to stop doing this, the ruling council of the Jews released them. This was the apostles’ response….

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

“‘Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
against the Lord
    and against his anointed one.’

Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. (NIV)

The early believers in Jesus turned to God in a time of persecution. They found comfort in how God had worked in the past. The ancient church claimed the strength to carry on with speaking about Christ in their everyday lives. When they heard about threats against the apostles, the believers did not get angry or upset about how terrible things were. Instead:

The church decided to concentrate on corporate prayer together.

God is going to do what God is going to do. No government, nation, institution, group of people, or individual person can thwart God’s agenda for the church and world. God is sovereign over everything. We are not. Our place is to participate in God’s agenda through the ministry of prayer and speaking the word of God.

God acted in the past, on behalf of those first believers who came to Jesus and worshiped him with all their hearts. God is still transforming lives. It happened in ancient Jerusalem, throughout the history of the church, and in places today around the world. It can also happen with us.

Prayer is like breathing – inhaling more of God and exhaling less of me. Prayer takes the form of first remembering what God did in the past. Then, we pray specifically for our current situation which connects to the larger purposes of what God is doing. All the while we anticipate God will hear and act, just as has been done throughout history.

Remembrance is an important dimension to biblical prayer. Memory is necessary because we have a tendency toward forgetfulness. The older we get the more we tend to forget (probably because we have so much to remember!). So, continually rehearsing what God has done keeps us grounded in Scripture and tethered to what God can do now.

Remembering God’s saving actions and finding our own personal stories in the grand story of redemption helps us to pray in biblical ways.

The prayer of the early believers was a rehearsal of God’s mighty reputation, from creation to King David, to the redemptive events of Jesus. They reminded God of when, in the past, there was divine intervention. The church collectively quoted Psalm 2 about the Messiah. That psalm declares how the nations of the earth plot in vain because the Lord is the One who shall prevail over every hard circumstance. 

God bends each malevolent action toward the redemption and transformation of humanity. God will work out benevolent plans and purposes, even using people who have no acknowledgment of God. God is not surprised by our troubles and our tough situations.

God is never frustrated by people acting badly, because divine providence and guidance is in control, even if we cannot always perceive it or see it in the moment.

Remembering and rehearsing what God has done in the past helps us realize that, during any trouble, God is in control and will accomplish good plans on this earth. The prayer of the believers in Acts made the connection between what God has done and what they needed.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Interestingly, the believers did not pray for relief from oppression or for God to judge their persecutors. Instead, they prayed for boldness to speak the word of God in the middle of their trouble. They rightly discerned that they needed to pray for courage to speak about Jesus. So, the church prayed for God to act in power, for God’s Word to go forth, and for Christ’s Name to be glorified.

God’s response to the prayer was immediate. The place where the church was praying shook. God did exactly what they asked for – filling them up with the Spirit, so that they spoke boldly about Jesus. Just as God empowered people for service in the past, so it was done in the present. What’s more, God will empower us with the same courage.

It is completely normal to simultaneously yearn for bravery while being afraid of getting a prayer for boldness answered. This is more than trying to overcome feelings of awkwardness or shyness. For the early believers, a very real and immediate danger to speaking up about Jesus was present.

It seems to me we need more people who know how to ask good questions and have the patience and attention to listen well and respond thoughtfully. It does no good to simply dispense answers to questions people aren’t asking. Speaking about Jesus does not mean making spiritual cold calls on strangers. And it certainly doesn’t involve being obnoxious or acting like a spiritual pester pup.

Discussing Jesus mostly means speaking casually, one-on-one, with a friend, co-worker, neighbor, or family member you already know. Too often we might try to fly under the radar and avoid people because we think talking about Jesus is going to be too hard, or out of our league.

Confidence and courage are not telling people what they ought to believe. It is rather like sharing a precious gift with someone. It begins in relationships with people we care about and extends to a relationship with God. It is about discovering God together, and not arm-twisting others to personal ethics or churchgoing.

Yet, it may still all sound too scary. So, maybe we start with this: “Tell me what’s going on.” Then listen. After listening, say, “I’ll pray for you.”  The next time you encounter the person, ask how that situation went.  Express that you’ll pray again. Keep doing it and watch what God will do through you.

When we pray for boldness, and courageously make ourselves available to God, then we are living sacrifices. This is our spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1-2) Who knows? Why not here? Why not now? Why not us? After praying, we might find our meeting places shaken, lives transformed, and everyone filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

God almighty, as you sent the Son, send us into the world with your compelling love. Help us by means of your Spirit, to share your good news of love, forgiveness, justice, peace, compassion, and care. Revive your Church, o Christ. Gracious God, work everywhere reconciling, loving, and healing your people and your creation. Open our eyes to your mission in the world. Send us to serve with Christ, taking risks to give life and hope to all people and all your creation. Amen.

Acts 2:42-47 – A Changed Community

We Are All One in Jesus Christ by Soichi Watanabe, 2009

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (NRSV)

You’ve likely heard the old saying, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” It is a wise saying. Yet, what if we don’t know something is broken? What if we keep living our lives with something out of whack and don’t even realize it? Or, worse yet, what if we don’t care?

The ancient church after Christ’s resurrection and ascension was on a mission to live communal life together different from how they lived before Jesus came into their lives. Today’s New Testament lesson gives us a glimpse of what that life together consisted of.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Rumi (13th century Persian poet and scholar)

We know something needs to change when it doesn’t quite match up to the life depicted by our ancestors in the faith – a life of fellowship, of glad and sincere hearts, and of concern for the common good of all. We never just change or alter something for change’s sake or because we like or dislike something. No, instead, we adjust our lives according to whether it lines up with the relational dynamics of Holy Scripture.

I had just one grandparent when I was growing up. My Grandma was seventy-nine years old when I was born, and she lived to be ninety-seven. I always knew her as an old lady. Although quite aged, she had a lot of spunk to her, all ninety-five pounds of her. 

I remember Grandma had an old wooden cutting board in her kitchen. I don’t how old it was, but it was probably purchased from Methuselah’s Kitchen Outlet. It was cracked and nearly falling apart. The board had deep furrows in it from the thousands of cuts made on it. Grandma liked her cutting board.

For Mother’s Day one year my Dad bought her a nice brand-new cutting board. After thanking my Dad for the gift, Grandma proceeded to put the new board in the back of her cupboard and continued to use her nasty old cutting board. Whenever my Mom or sisters helped her in the kitchen, they were not about to touch that old board because it was like a bacteria trap with its deep grooves. 

Grandma didn’t care about anyone’s concerns about her cutting board. When my Dad finally asked her why she did not use her new cutting board, she simply answered, “Oh, it is much too nice to use.” We all knew that was Grandma’s way of saying that she liked her nasty old cutting board and nobody was going to tell her she can’t use it.

Sometimes folks, including Christians, can be like my Grandma, bless her stubborn old heart. They just like the way they do things, and really don’t see what others see who aren’t Christ followers. They fail to consider or realize that non-Christians have no emotional attachment to the cutting board. All they see is an antiquated old board they would never use and find it weird anyone would ever want to use it.

Christians may forget or lose sight of how overwhelming and even intimidating they can be with those outside the faith. Because Christianity is familiar to Christians, we don’t see what others see when they view us from the outside. 

I remember once walking into a beautiful new church building and sitting down and seeing a huge old pulpit that was literally falling apart. Since I’ve been around a lot of churches, I quickly discerned it was likely the old pulpit from the old church building. I asked someone, and it was. But as an outsider to that fellowship, I had zero emotional attachment to the pulpit, and it was a distraction because it just looked like a big old ratty collar on a new little puppy.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The point I am making is this: The decision to change our lives, or not to change, must come from a motivation of biblical and human values. The Christian’s mission and purpose are the Great Commission (make disciples) and the Great Commandment (love God and love neighbor). We express those values through our daily devotion to teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Such life together is attractive and winsome to a watching world.

If people matter, including those who don’t think or believe like us as Christians, then we will make decisions based upon that value. Nothing need be fixed or changed if the mission is going forward with biblical values driving it. However, if people stay away, or know nothing about our shared life together, then we have a prime reason to change. If this has gone on for years, even decades, I suggest that the fellowship of people is eating meat prepared from a cutting board full of bacteria and it is making everyone sick.

Whenever a faith community is focused on trying to keep people from leaving, instead of reaching people with an outward focus, then that community has lost its sense of spiritual values.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

The main verb contained within the Scripture verses for today is the word “added.” Those who accepted the message of repentance and faith in Jesus were baptized and about three thousand were “added” to their number that day. We then get a string of participles, that is, words connected to the main verb of “added.” The result is this: The Lord “added” to their number daily those who were being saved.  Please understand the text makes it quite clear that the driving force of Christ’s church is to reach people.

It could be we take the old cutting board for granted and simply expect other people to use it if they are in our kitchen. If that is the case, there is to be a driving motivation and desire for outreach. There are people aplenty who need the kind of deliverance Jesus provides.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy

If something is off in our faith community, then the biblical solution is to change our lives, change our practices, change our speech, and change our daily behavior by reaching people for Jesus and adding them to the fellowship.

Whenever Christians break bread together at the Lord’s Table, the communion reminds us of our highest purpose and values. Jesus came to this earth for those estranged and far from God and others. Through Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are saved by grace through faith. This reality is made tangible to us in the elements of bread and cup. They are a visible sign and seal of an invisible grace. We are to come to the Table forsaking all personal agendas and embracing God’s agenda of redeeming humanity.

And, by the way, after about a year of sitting in my Grandma’s cupboard, my Dad took out the new cutting board, put it on the kitchen counter and threw away the old board. It was about time.

“Holy Holy Week, Batman!”

Burt Ward as Robin and Adam West as Batman in the TV show that aired from 1966-1968

“Robin, there is something seriously sinister afoot.  It seems the people of Gotham have lost their sense of the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.” 

“Holy Holy Week, Batman!  It must be the work of that arch-villain the Joker who has turned the narrative of Jesus into a by-gone joke… or maybe the Riddler who has made the redemptive events of Jesus into a complicated riddle that no one can solve… or maybe that fiend, Cat Woman, has finally found the purr-fect way to foil attention to the Lord Jesus.”

“I fear, Boy Wonder, that you have stumbled upon who is behind the loss of Holy Week… they are all conspiring together not just to create a spin on the life and death of Jesus, but to form a new narrative that doesn’t even include Christ at all.”

“Those dastardly demons of disaster!  Let’s go get them, Batman!  How could they have done such an ugly underhanded umbrage as that!?”

“Let’s use the Bat computer to analyze the evidence found at the crime scene churches…. Look, Robin, it seems a feculent film of gross gas has rendered the believers prone to the noxious notion that the Christian observance of Holy Week is optional, as if the journey with Jesus to the cross doesn’t need special attention.  They are attempting to rewrite it all so that Christians will pass through this week without even a thought about Jesus… until it’s too late.  Then they will sweep in and make all of Christianity into something that’s merely an accessory to life, like a petty plastic purse.”

“Holy evisceration, Batman!  They’re trying to do away with the Christian life and the story of Jesus altogether and replace it with their fiendish focus on the foul festering faith of fecund followers!”

“That’s right, Robin.  It’s our job to stop them from following through with their platitudinous plot before it’s too late.”

“But how, Batman?  Their vile villainy has already voiced a vacuous votum of veneered viciousness to any observance of the last week of Christ’s life on this earth.”

“Yes, Robin, but you are forgetting the one “v” word which has already spelled doom for our culprits of crime… “victory.”

“Holy resurrection, Batman!  You’re right!  All we need to do is voice the victory of Jesus and those bungling bandits of belief will get another “v” word: “vanquished!”

“Holy Week and all the major Christian seasons of the Church Year are meant to help us remember Jesus and follow Christ in our daily life.  When strayed souls begin berating believers for observing obedience to Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy (or Black) Saturday, and Easter Sunday then you can bet, Boy Wonder, that the gangsters’ gross gas of gullibility has fumigated their faith.”

“So, you’re saying, Batman, that the forgetting of faith festivals can be reversed through setting our sites on the contempt of the cross and the resplendence of the resurrection?”

“The cross is the mid-point of history, Robin, the very center of faithful followers.  From it flows the flowering of all faith.”

“Holy forgiveness, Batman.  I see it now.  The sin issue has been taken care of once-for-all through the death of Jesus Christ.  And his rising again has enabled us ignorant idiots of ignominy to live a new life of love through the words and ways of Christ.”

“And, don’t forget, Boy Wonder, that we get our faith focused through walking into those ways and words by highlighting holidays as eminently important to our crowded calendars.”

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth; and, Jesus Christ his only Son, our Savior; who, with the Holy Spirit lives and reigns forever and ever!”  

“Amen, Boy Wonder.  Amen.”

Philippians 2:12-18 – Think of the Needs of the Group

Photo by Ingo Joseph on Pexels.com

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act to fulfill his good purpose.

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So, you too should be glad and rejoice with me. (NIV)

Here is what I would like you to do. Go back and read these verses for today….

Now, I want you to read them again, but with this understanding: Every pronoun in the verses is plural, not singular….

Did that last reading make a difference for you? You see, we all tend to read with certain lenses. Reading with American glasses usually means we read such biblical passages, like our New Testament lesson today, with individualist lenses. But this would be a misreading of the text.

These words from Holy Scripture are directed at the community. They are meant to be read with a collective understanding. So, when the Apostle Paul told the Philippian church to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” he wasn’t aiming it toward individual persons. He meant everyone together was to help one another live out their common salvation. In other words, deliverance is more than an individual affair – it is also a communal concern.

This also shapes how we understand the admonition to do everything without being a grump and a complainer. The community works together to encourage each other and weeds out all arguing and bickering. Practically speaking, no one individual is going to get over being a crotchety curmudgeon without the help of the group. Since people are hard-wired by God for community, always trying to be radically independent will almost always end in being a faultfinder and bellyacher.

Group work is human work, and vice versa.

Interdependence with others is the proper road to travel, without veering into either ditch of independence or dependence. Community dynamics are necessary to life. Mutual giving and receiving are a must. Both sharing and accepting need to occur for any sort of relational health.

The reason the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippian Church was because they weren’t getting along, weren’t playing well with others. Christianity is a team sport. Everyone must work together, even when it comes to salvation. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell – salvation from guilt, shame, disconnection, and relational separation from both God and others – is a matter for the collective community. That’s why no one is baptized alone or observes the Lord’s Table all by themselves.

Today’s New Testament lesson is not a text dealing with individual salvation but is an ethical text dealing with the outworking of salvation in the believing community for the sake of the world. Paul’s present concern was with a group of believers being God’s people. Individuals were to stop their selfish in-fighting and get along with each other.

To do that, the entire group was to set aside selfish ambition and put the concerns of others ahead of their own personal agendas. Everyone is to think of the needs of the group. When we do that, we then discern that murmuring and grumbling are simply not helpful. And, what’s more, such an attitude can damage, even destroy a group through bitterness resulting in gangrene of the church body.

Instead, we are to be blameless and pure in all our dealings with one another. Here are a few basic ways this communal concern works itself out practically:

  • No one cries alone.
  • No one suffers in silence.
  • No one falls through the cracks.
  • There is always someone present to share joy with.
  • There is always someone around to hear your story.
  • There is always somebody there to pick you up.

When such a dynamic dominates any group, then it will be hard to find any grumblers, any sort of in-fighting, and little discontent. Rather, there is a great deal of carrying one another’s burdens, a lack of judgment toward others, and a settled hope that, even though the world might be going to hell in a handbasket, we will be okay because we have each other.

So then, the church is to be an inclusive community, inviting persons into a hospitable space of care and support. Church as factory cannot do this. Church made up of special interest groups is not able to do this. Church as simply a Sunday affair will never get it done.

However, Church poured out as an offering to the world will get it right. Church as oriented toward faithful service for the common good of all has it. Church as the community of the redeemed, living out their faith together as one people of God cannot be stopped or restrained from blessing the entire planet.

Do you want to go it alone? That is what Satan did, and it hasn’t worked out so well for us.

Will you think of the needs of the group? That is what Jesus did, and it resulted in our salvation.

We are to work out that salvation, together, so that our collective faith is strengthened, and the world is delivered from its great loneliness. So, put your best foot forward and think of the needs of the group.

Holy God, we your people come with deep gratitude for our common call as believers for the life of your big world. Draw us into communion with you and all creation. Living with intentional awareness and openness to change, we seek to expand the expression of our collective obedience to the mission of Jesus to love God and neighbor, inviting others to walk with us in sharing our gifts. Free our hearts to recognize and attend to Christ in hidden and unexpected places. We renounce and reject societal barriers created by the misuse of power and authority by selfish individuals. Transform us to listen deeply to one another and to the brokenness of the world. Bless our efforts to be the change we want to see in the world, through the enablement of your Holy Spirit. Amen.