June 25, 2000

"Impossible Silence"
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Please note: Because I do not use notes when I preach, the text in the written sermon may vary slightly from the spoken sermon. My prayer is that in both my writing and my speaking the Holy Spirit works to make this message worthy of God's purpose.

Scripture: Acts 4:13-22; Jeremiah 20:7-9

Jeremiah was a prophet of God. He was sent to tell the people to repent and turn to God. But it seemed that whenever he spoke God's word, he was rejected. This is part of his lament to God. Read Jeremiah 20:7-9. Have you ever been in a situation where you just can't keep silent--as a matter of safety or principle you have to say something? The last time the River Raisin was high, there were children playing on the river side of the iron railing as the swollen river rushed below them. I was tempted to walk by, but I couldn't keep silent. I tried to coax them over the railing and when they refused to budge, I threatened them with a call to the police, and they climbed over the railing to the safe side. Some would say that the safety of those children wasn't exactly my responsibility. But I couldn't keep silent. Perhaps there has been a time in your lie where you have made your stand known at a public forum, a letter to the editor or a meeting or with a family member or friend because you could not keep silent. (It's my experience that mothers and grandmothers tend to do this a lot!) The New Testament text before us is about followers of Jesus Christ who could not help but speak his name; they could not keep silent. Like the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, if they tried to keep the news of Jesus Christ to themselves, there would be a burning in their bones.

In Chapter 2 of Acts the Holy Spirit settled on the disciples and gave them the ability and the passion to proclaim the Good News that Jesus lives, and to use the power of Jesus' name to perform miracles. Last week, we looked at Acts 3, and heard about a man who was unable to walk, but found himself standing and leaping in praise to God after Peter healed him in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. While that would have been a satisfying end to the story, there is more. It's recorded in Chapter 4 of Acts. Peter's healing of the lame man did not go unnoticed by the religious authorities of the Temple. And when he and John began to proclaim the power of Jesus, the temple leaders did not like what was happening.

Chapter 4 begins with the arrest of Peter and John by temple security. The lame man was healed by the power of the Holy Spirit in the afternoon. By the time Peter and John were taken into custody that evening, over 5,000 people who had heard their preaching in the temple had come to believe in Jesus. The priests and the Sadducees had to do something.

Peter and John spent the night in custody, and the next day the high priest, the Jewish ruling class (the Sanhedrin), the elders and the scribes gathered to have a talk with the two trouble makers. They also brought in the man who had been healed. Pointing at the healed man, they challenged Peter, "By what power or by what name do you do this?" And Peter answered, "This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth." (4:10) He went further and said, "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved." (4:12)

Listen now to the rest of the trial. Read Acts 4:13-22.

The Sadducees were politically conservative, most concerned about keeping control of the Temple. They did not believe in a resurrection. The teachings of Jesus' disciples, for them, were not only theologically incorrect, they might bring the wrath of the Roman empire upon them. It was dangerous to say there was a name greater than Caesar. The solution seemed obvious. These disciples who had the power to perform miracles could believe anything they wanted, but they should keep it to themselves. They should not teach in the name of Jesus.

How do governments suppress political movements? The tactics are timeless. They keep the leaders silent. They do not allow opposition political parties nor media outlets to oppose the ruling regime. If the people don't know another way, they will not rise up and demand change. And that is why now, even in the 21st century, political opposition leaders languish in prisons around the world. It is this thinking that kept Nelson Mandela in prison for 25 years. It is why tolitarian countries have government-controlled radio and television stations. It is why the presses of opposition newspapers must often operate in secret. If the opposition will not be silent, those afraid of the message will silence them.

And how, in this secular society, are Christians silenced, kept from speaking the name of Jesus? You may lift the most evident answer from the news headlines this week. The U.S. Supreme Court determined that student-led prayer at public school sporting events is unconstitutional because it smudged that dark, heavy line between church and state. Some mourn that Jesus has been removed from the public forum. But I would argue with those who say that if only we could say the name of Jesus in our public schools before football games and commencement ceremonies, then this nation would be right. The truth of the matter is in this nation we are blessed with the freedom to worship, to pray, to witness and to tell our story of healing by the One who saves. We can say Jesus' name, but we don't do it. Sure, the message is here, in church, in gatherings of fellow Christians, but we're hesitant to carry it any further.

Peter and John did not enter the temple and demand that their teachings become part of temple practice. They did not demand a seat with the rulers, and that this new Way of Christianity become part of the system. Instead, they walked into the temple, the outer courts where many gathered to teach, to listen, to prepare for worship and they just told what they knew because they couldn't help it. They proclaimed the name of Jesus; they told the story of their walk with him for anyone who would listen.

So how, in this day and age are Christian, are we, kept from speaking the name of Jesus? How are we kept from telling our story? How do we tell people that Jesus is more to us than the main character of a TV mini-series, that he is alive and because he lives, we have a new outlook on life. We are forgiven people of the resurrection, living in the sure and certain hope of eternal life.

I believe our silence is our decision. We make it ourselves. Perhaps we're afraid. It's important to fit in, to not stand out as some sort of odd ball, and won't that happen if we start talking about Jesus? People will think we're Bible-thumping, dreamers looking for an easy answer to the struggles of life. It's fine to lift the name of Jesus in church; with people who understand, but not "out there".

Martin Luther lifted the tidal wave of Reformation when he challenged a church that had grown dependent on tradition rather than scripture. He proclaimed that it was by faith alone in Jesus Christ that we are saved. And when Luther was put on trial by the church, he said , "On this I stand. I can do no other." Despite his removal from the Catholic church, despite verbal attacks, threats on his life and separation from long-time friends, Luther could not help but speak the name of Jesus. That burning to tell the story overpowered his need for comfort.

Another reason that we may keep silent about Jesus, is because we figure it is someone else's job. The pastor, the professional Christian, can do the witnessing. But honestly, every week, you see and talk with many more non-churched people than I do. I'm talking to you; you're the ones talking to the world. Jesus stood on a hillside before his ascension to Heaven and told his disciples, all who hear and celebrate his word, "Go and make disciples of all nations." (Matthew 28:19) There is not some sort of Christian Labor Union with job descriptions neatly itemized and posted, where some are given the job of telling their faith story and others can remain silent. To be a believer, to be empowered by the Holy Spirit means that silence is not an option. 

We might argue that there are other people who are better equipped to tell the story of Jesus. But look again at Peter and John, to ordinary men, with a background in the fishing industry. They went up against the greatest and most well-trained religious minds of their day. And what did they have at their disposal? They had a personal experience with Christ the Savior and the power of his name. They had a story to tell.

Now, I don't know if you noticed, but the religious leaders heard the same testimony that the people at the temple did, they saw evidence of God's activity in the healed man before them. And while 5,000 came to believe, there is no record that the religious leaders were convinced. There will be people who will not want to hear your story; they will not want to hear the name of Jesus, even as you stand healed by Jesus' grace, an undeniable symbol of God's activity. The world will try to silence you.

We may find it uncomfortable to speak about our faith; it might fill us with fear. But the truth is we should have more fear about remaining silent. If your friends and family don't know about Jesus, then who is going tell them? And if this is not the right time, then when?

The leaders said to Peter and John, "This is all you have to do. Do not speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus." And the faithful followers of Jesus replied, "We cannot keep from speaking about what we've seen and heard." Today, we are not commanded to be silent and we can't be. "We cannot keep from speaking about what we've seen and heard." What has Jesus meant to you? Don't be silent. Tell your story.

Sargent, James. Basic Bible Commentary: Acts. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988. Walaskay, Paul. Westminster Bible Companion: Acts. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. Willimon, William. Interpretation: Acts. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1988.