Sunday, May 1, 2011
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter (May 1, 2011)
“Counted Worthy” (Acts 5:29-42)
During these seven weeks of the Easter season, the Old Testament lesson is replaced by a reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. (You may already know this, considering I wrote about this in my May newsletter article.) Those who organized the lectionary did this for a reason. Easter is the time of fulfillment. All that was promised about Christ’s death and resurrection in the Old Testament was fulfilled in the Gospels. Following upon the accounts of the Gospels are St. Luke’s accounts of the life of the early Church in the book of Acts. Here, the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus was fresh in the hearts of the apostles. We learn how the resurrection of Jesus changed the disciples from a timid, fearful group of men hiding behind locked doors into bold, courageous confessors of Christ crucified and risen. It changed Paul from a zealous bounty hunter of Christians into one of the greatest missionaries and defenders of the faith, writing much of the New Testament. In the face of much opposition, they went out and proclaimed that it is in Christ alone that we receive forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.
The book of Acts is really “Luke Volume 2.” Some say that the title “Acts of the Apostles” is a misnomer. Perhaps a better title would be “The Acts of the Risen Jesus in His Church.” In fact, in the introduction to Acts, Luke says that in his gospel he “dealt with all that Jesus began [my emphasis] to do and teach, until the day he was taken up” (Acts 1:1). It’s as if to say that Jesus continued – and continues – to work and teach in the world, but now does so through his Church with the risen life that he shares with his followers in the power of the Holy Spirit. As we read and hear the accounts from the book of Acts in the weeks ahead, you and I can see ourselves included in the ongoing story of the life of the risen Jesus in his Church.
Today’s reading begins right after the apostles had been arrested, put in prison, then freed by an angel at night. You might expect the angel to say, “Run! Fly away! Your life is in danger!” Instead, the angel told them to go right back into the temple courts and keep preaching the message of Jesus and his resurrection. “Go” he told them, “and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life” (Acts 5:20). At daybreak the next morning, that’s exactly what they did. When this was discovered by the high priest and the ruling council of the Jews, they rounded the disciples up once again and said, “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” (Acts 5:28). That’s when Peter uttered his famous words, “We must obey god rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
This just served to tick the council members off even more, to the point of wanting to kill the apostles. It took level-headed Gamaliel, a famous and well-respected rabbi of the day, to calm them down. He names two other men, Theudas and Judas (not the one who betrayed Jesus), who rose up and gathered a number of followers around them. But they were killed and their movement died with them. Regarding this “Jesus movement,” Gamaliel says that “if this plan or this undertaking is of man, if will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God” (Acts 5:38-39). The rest of the council agreed. Still, they felt they had to do something to teach the apostles a lesson. So they beat them, told them to stop talking about this Jesus, and let them go.
And here’s the part that I want us to focus on this morning. After they left the council, the disciples rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:41-42).
“Counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” Boy, doesn’t that just fly in the face of our modern American notions of what Christianity is all about? We think it’s a part of our birthright as Christians to be blessed both materially and spiritually. We can’t understand why people just don’t flock to our churches. We’re friendly folks. We have a great message of love and forgiveness. In our daily lives, we try to offer a Christ-like example to our family, our co-workers, our classmates. Yet there are still those who oppose us and who mock the Church. Maybe it hasn’t been right to your face. But you certainly hear about the opposition to the Church in the news media. A pastor is involved in a very public scandal, and all Christians are lumped in with him, accused of being hypocrites. The Church takes a pro-life position, and we are accused of being against a woman’s “right to choose” or a woman’s access to health care. The Church speaks out against gay marriage, and we are accused of being “homophobic.” The Church declares that Jesus is the only way to the Father, and we are called narrow-minded, self-righteous bigots.
This should not surprise us. In fact, Jesus guaranteed this will be a part of the shape of our lives as his followers. Jesus said, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:21). St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). At the end of the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). Perhaps those words of Jesus were echoing in the apostles’ minds as they departed from the council that day in our text. Beaten, bruised, bloodied, they were able to rejoice. This was confirmation for them that they were, indeed, following in the footsteps of the Savior and were doing his will by faithfully teaching and preaching salvation in his Holy Name. Some time later, the apostle Peter – speaking from experience – could write these encouraging words to Christians who were suffering for their confession of faith: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:6-9). Those words can be a blessing for us when we suffer, in particular when we face opposition and ridicule for the sake of Jesus.
Our temptation is always to give in, compromise, go along to get along, make our teaching more palatable to a modern audience. Sin? Nobody likes to hear about sin anymore! The cross? That’s offensive! Let’s take it down from the wall and not talk so much about it any longer. Closed communion? Why should we prohibit someone from coming to the altar, even if they don’t believe it’s the true body and true blood of Jesus. What’s really important is that we all just love one another, right? Wrong. We need to be faithful to all that has been revealed to us in Holy Scripture and not pull any punches, even when it may be unpopular or hard to understand. You have to hear that you are a sinner in order to know you need a Savior. You have to hear about the cross because that is where Christ died for us sinners. And people who commune without knowing what they are doing or who deny the presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the sacrament can eat and drink to their spiritual harm (1 Cor. 11:29). And so, when tempted to compromise or water down any scriptural doctrine, we say right along with Peter, “We must obey God rather than men.”
The Church suffered dishonor immediately following the resurrection of Jesus. She still suffers today. But this “Jesus movement” is “of God,” as Gamaliel unwittingly declared. No matter how beaten, bruised, and bloodied the Church looks, no one will be able to overthrow her. Those who oppose the Church oppose God.
Therefore, you and I can rejoice that we are counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus … worthy not of our own merit, but because of the merit of Christ, who was beaten, bruised, and bloodied for us at the cross. By grace, we have been baptized into Christ’s name, given faith to believe in Christ’s name, and forgiven of all our sins in Christ’s name. “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter. 1:3-4).
We are really not all that different from the Christians in the book of Acts, even though culturally, linguistically, and technologically we are centuries apart. The life of the Risen Jesus is still at work in his Church today. He is among us with his Word and Spirit. He gives life and grows his Church through Word and Sacrament. You and I can rejoice that we are also counted worthy to be a part of God’s “plan” and “undertaking” in the world. Like the disciples, we continue their work of “teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” We continue their work of announcing the peace of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, so “that by believing [those who hear] may have life in his name” (John 20:31).