Sunday, October 02, 2005

Post-Pentecost Proclaimers

Never do joy and mourning run so close than in the pages of the New Testament.

Pentecost is the day Christians around the world wish they could have experienced. Today we live in a church riddled with denominations, divorced by culture and separated by culture and language.

On that day in Jerusalem the Holy Spirit poured down on all those who believed the Good News Jesus Christ had come into the world to proclaim. Christians suddenly were able to speak in new languages. There was no doubt who was a believer and who was not. God burst into the lives of more than 3,000 people and the city reeled as the Church was thrilled with the presence of the third member of the Trinity.

Jesus looked forward to this moment in the dark hours before he began the road to Golgotha. The Holy Spirit was not coming as a substitute for Jesus. Rather, his imminent arrival in the lives of the believers would bring humans and God into the closest relationship that had existed since Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden. Such reconciliation was only possible because of the work Jesus would do on the Cross.

This new era of history was what he talked about when the terrible pain and injustice of the imminent trial and crucifixion loomed over his life. He told his disciples in John 16: “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go I will send him to you... I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.”

These are mysterious and miraculous words; too wonderful for the disciples to understand when they first heard them; too incredible for our minds to fully comprehend 2,000 years later.

But coupled to this proclamation were Christ’s words of caution. Moments earlier he had told them: “All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is doing a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you.”

The hairs on the backs of the disciple’s necks must have shot up when they heard this, and the verses are unnerving for us to read today.

What were the disciples to make of what Jesus was telling them? They had just been promised the gift of the Holy Spirit - something that their ancestors had not experienced even in the most glorious days of the Temple - but they had also been told that persecution and suffering past the point of death would soon be unleashed upon them.

What is this Gospel? What is this life? It at once seems too terrifyingly holy to be grasped by humanity and yet also a certain guarantee of conflict and trauma. But as they reel with this paradox, Jesus also tells them: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

In the book of Acts we see all these promises fulfilled and persecution, revelation and celebration floods the Church. There are people locked in chains in prison cells, but they are filled with such joy that they are singing at the top of their voices. This is a faith where fear is driven out by a knowledge of a love which has caused death, truly, to have lost its sting.

So much of modern life is defined by fear. Advancements in science have not stopped us dreading death; instead, people ask: “Which is worse? The medicine or the disease?” Fear of crime prompts people to go without a summer holiday so they can afford to fit in their homes the type of anti-crime devices that used to be found only in government weapons establishments. The threat of terrorism has taught us to fear our neighbours.

Jesus’ words - “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” - can be taken as a comforting saying which we can clutch on a dark night; but they can just as easily be read as an instruction that is incredibly difficult to obey and requires the full arsenal of faith.

In Acts 5 we see it is fear and jealousy which drives the religious authorities to persecute the apostles, but we also witness these Christians receiving a command from God and doing what would seem to be the most terrifying thing possible.

The high priest and the Sadducees had the Apostles arrested and jailed when they learned that they were gathering crowds in Solomon’s Colonnade. The religious class had been driven to distraction by the teachings and person of Jesus. In fact, they had been driven to murder him. And now uneducated men were preaching that God had raised Jesus from the dead. This was too much.

These men must have felt a strong case of déjà vu. Plots to kill Jesus began when stories started circulating that he had raised Lazarus from the dead. Now the apostles were said to be performing magnificent miracles. We are told “people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by”. To snuff our such excitement the Apostles were locked up.

But just as the tomb could not hold Jesus, prison could not contain the apostles. In a remarkably matter-of-fact manner, the writer of Acts says that “during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out”.

This great escape is a miracle - a supernatural intervention in history - but it is not the most incredible aspect of what is going on. Throughout the Bible there are examples of amazing occasions when God has delivered men people from a fiery furnace or a den of lions.

What is noteworthy here is what the angel tells the apostles: “Go, stand in temple courts... and tell the people the full message of this new life.”

Rather than run and hide behind locked doors - as the disciples had done in the days after the crucifixion and before Pentecost - they follow the angel’s instruction and stride into the most public and sacred space in Jerusalem and the world.

They are not fugitives but proclaimers: People chosen in a moment in time and space by God Himself to reveal His work to the world. These men who walk the distance from the prison to the Temple are the Church. This is what the Church does.

It doesn’t take long for the Temple guard to haul them before the Sanhedrin. The religious authorities are now bewildered. They cannot understand how they escaped from prison or why they would have marched back into the place where they face certain arrest. What has happened to their self-preservation instinct?

None of these actions is pleasing to human logic. But the authorities know that, logically, the Apostles could be a cause of terrible trouble if they continue convincing people that Jesus was the Messiah.

By now at least half of Jerusalem would have worked out there was a conspiracy to have Jesus killed. Judas had thrown his 30 pieces of silver into the Temple and declared, “I have sinned for I have shed innocent blood.” It would not take long for the citizens of the city to establish that the death of Jesus had been an act of political murder.

And if the followers of this man continued to grow in zeal and popularity, surely they could manipulate the same mob which been used to demand the death of Jesus to bring about the massacre of the Sanhedrin?

In this atmosphere of panic and anger the high priest says to them, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

Two millennia on, we are still trying to understand the full riches and implications of grace, but it is the opposite of revenge. It is a gift of life when death is deserved. It is the opposite of everything that seems logical, but it is the new law at the heart of God’s creation, and in one magnificent paragraph Peter the fisherman cum apostle reveals the new reality to the defenders of religion.

He replies: “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead - whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

The theology in these sentences would take a thousand books to unpack but there are at least three principles:

1. The commands of God trump the commands of men.
2. Jesus is now exalted with God and able to forgive sin, the condition which separated humans from the creator so long ago.
3. The Holy Spirit has been given to the people who believe this incredible message, and he testifies that it is true.

Today, if somebody believes these words their entire reality is going to be rearranged. There is not an aspect of life which is not transformed by the implications of this message. It changes the way we think about everything from cosmology to banking.

The Sanhedrin could not cope with this sudden injection of information. We are told they wanted to put the apostles to death.

The claim the Christian gospel makes over the lives of humanity today is no less terrifying or giant. People in positions of authority - Muslims, Communists and even Catholics and Protestants - have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people who were forced to choose between obeying orders and doing what they believed God wanted them to do.

Why does a faith that preaches peace have so many martyrs?

Peter would later write in his epistle, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors who are sent by him to punish those do wrong and to commend those who do right... Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the king.”

These are not the instructions of someone who resented and resisted Roman authority, drenched as it was in paganism and violence. The man who stood before the Sanhedrin was not a revolutionary with a drawn sword in his hand and instead of demanding revenge he was proclaiming forgiveness.

But the men in power did not want forgiveness. They wanted obedience. They wanted the Church to be silent about the new life God has welcomed the world to enter, then.

The apostles were flogged and released with the order “not to speak in the name of Jesus”.

Now, though the Christians may have been model citizens in every other aspect of life, this is a command they cannot keep because it means disobeying the Great Commission. The Church is God’s witness to the world. The second it ceases to share the message of redemption is ceases to be the Church.

The final paragraph of the chapter reads: “The Apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the name. Day after day, in the Temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching, proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”

For 20 centuries there have been attempts by some of the greatest civilizations in history to stamp out the Church, but human power fizzles when confronted with the will of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. The authorities were capable of dishonouring people and locking prison doors. The apostles worshipped a God who had already given them the greatest honour imaginable by sending His son to die in their place and uniting them with himself. He also, on multiple occasions, proved he could unlock prisons.

One beautiful detail in this story is that it was a Pharisee called Gamaliel who talked the Sanhedrin out of slaughtering the apostles with the argument, “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Gamaliel’s most famous pupil, Paul, was at this moment still locked in his own prison of persecuting zeal. In two chapter’s time Paul would look after the cloaks of the men who stoned to death Stephen - “a man full of God’s grace and power”.

Stephen’s last words were: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” It is an incredible echo of Christ’s own “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”.

Ananias and Sapphira attempted to use the early Church for social climbing and lied about giving the congregation all the money from the sale of some land. God struck the husband and wife down dead. The believers were instantly taught just how sacred and holy a creation the Church was in the eyes of God.

It is fascinating that God did not kill Paul as an accomplice to the murder of the church’s first martyr. Instead, on the road to Damascus, he invaded Paul’s locked-up world of dogma and prejudice, seized his life, and transformed him into the greatest missionary adventurer of all time.

The attitude of Ananias and Sapphira probably posed and poses a greater threat to the Church than the actions of people like pre-conversion Paul. God has more than enough power to thwart the purposes of his enemies, but how awful and corrupting it is when Christians lose sight of the majesty of God and the urgency and holiness of the mission he has given us.

Stephen, Peter and Paul were faithful to God and died horrible deaths. They were following the example of a God who had been just as faithful to his creation by sending Jesus to die for their sins.

The world around them swirled with injustice and suffering, but though their individual lives did not have what the writer of a fairytale would deem a happy ending, they are heroes in an unfolding and mightier narrative which is still unfinished. It is the story of how God does not turn his back on the sin-ridden society we have made but sends those he loves into the midst of its chaos and mire. There will be a resurrection morning when all creation will rise and witness the perfection expression of justice and love.

Now, in the dark before the dawn, redemption is at work. The invitation to become a Christian is not the offer of an escape from the chaos of our wilderness world. It is the opportunity to play a role in the greatest story that will ever be told.


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