July 2, 2000

"Nations Under God"
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
3rd 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 4:23-30

You'll remember that last week, Peter and John were arrested and questioned for healing a man, a man who had never been able to walk. The leaders of the temple were uncomfortable with this healing done in their territory and they were even more upset that the men healed in the name of Jesus. They ordered Peter and John to keep silent. They were not to preach or heal in the name of Jesus again. But Peter told them he could not keep silent about what he'd seen and heard. Our scripture this morning describes the next scene in the story of Acts 4. Read Acts 4:23-30

I'm a member of the Dundee Housing Commission. Monthly, before each meeting, we stand to stay the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States flag. You'll remember when you regularly made that pledge, standing beside your school desk, hand over your heart. We pledge allegiance to the flag and to the nation it stands for. Then come the words that describe the United States. . . one nation under God. . . indivisible. . . with liberty and justice for all.

I'm afraid in my cynicism, I tend to think of those phrases as the ideal rather than the reality. Indivisible. We may not have any Civil War brewing at this time, but I don't think we can claim confidently that our nation is not divided on many issues--from what to do about the state of health care and education, to foreign policy and the use of public owned land, to the best sports teams and athletic shoes to buy. Ideally there is liberty and justice for all, but statistics indicate that our educational and legal systems offer different kinds of justice for many people of color and the poor.

But the phrase I'd really like to look at today, on this holiday weekend, is "one nation under God." Is the United States living as if it is a nation under God? U.S. historians would say that was the intention of many who came to settle in the New World and it is the ideal for which we strive. But today's reality is that we're a nation that behaves as if it is living under many gods. The gods of materialism, economic comfort and individual freedom are powerful and profoundly affect the nation's choices.

There are two ways to look at the condition of being "one nation under God." The first is to believe that we have a choice and this nation should live under the guidance of the one true God. The second is to believe that there is no choice. Whether we acknowledge it or not, God is sovereign in this nation and in all lands. The disciples knew that they were greatly out numbered and lived in a land that did not accept the Good News that the Messiah had come, but they understood that they were all under God.

Picture their gathering in the aftermath of Peter and John being arrested and questioned. Where the disciples had been speaking in front of large crowds in the temple's outer courts, now they were with an intimate group of fellow believers. They told their story of the preaching and the healing. They related what the members of the Sanhedrin had told them: "Stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus." And when the whole group heard the story, they raised their voices and began to pray. The prayer we read in Acts 4 is an authentic and preserved prayer of the early church.

Honestly, I find their prayer surprising. If I'd been in the same situation, I would have been praying for divine protection, that the persecution would end. Instead, they asked for boldness.

These prayers began by calling on the Sovereign Lord, the creator of heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them. By this their prayer acknowledged that the help they would need would come from the one who provides everything, the one who was in the beginning and will be for all time. Next, using Psalm 2 as a pattern, the prayer speaks of the Messiah, God's servant, and those who deny him. The Gentile Romans rage and the people of Israel imagine in vain what will be their destiny. Kings like Herod and rulers like Pilate gather to conspire against God's servant. At this point the believers of the early church found comfort and courage. Jesus was baptized, anointed by God's Holy Spirit, and the will of God would be accomplished no matter what forces were set against him. When there should have been defeat in Jesus' death, God brought victory. Finally, the disciples found courage in the signs and wonders performed in Jesus' name. Many had been eye witnesses to the power of God in Jesus' ministry. And now through the miracle of miracles, they found themselves doing things just as Jesus had predicted, great miracles of teaching and healing. And so, they did not ask for protection. They did not ask for the system to change. They simply asked to go on speaking the Good News with boldness.

What was God's answer? The place shook with the power of the Holy Spirit. They were filled with its power and they spoke boldly the truth of Jesus Christ.

This is the understanding of a "nation under God" held by the early church, God who was sovereign over all places, people and time. It was not the choice of the people whether God was in charge. God just is.

It's like the loving parent who is there through his/her child's outbursts of "I hate you" and "Go away". (Or in the case of my three year old niece, standing with her hands on her hips proclaiming, "You're not the boss of me!") Our nation can try to separate itself from God, but it's just not going to happen. God will not go away. God will continue to love us and pursue us, no matter how despicable our behavior. God is the "boss of us." And early Christians trusted that it was God who fired lives with courage and boldness of word to bring the truth of Christ. And the cycle of their public lives indicated that belief. John and Peter "moved from a time of prayer to a time of confrontation with the misery of the world in the form of a lame man. Then, after arousing the ire of the authorities and testifying to the world and its rulers concerning the power of Christ, [Peter and John] once again withdrew for prayer, seeking to be given in worship the power needed to witness boldly to what is happening in the world. In this rhythm of action and speech, witness and worship, the church discovers the source of its life." (Willimon, p. 51.)

As we celebrate our nations birthday, instead of mourning that we do not seem to be one nation under God any longer, we might do well to remember and celebrate instead that we are a nation under God, a God who has the power to create and destroy, to bring an end to suffering and is the beginning of hope.

And to pray not that others change to fit our plan, but instead that God will change us to fit God's plan and equip us with right words and deeds. Pray for boldness of action and speech. Pray for the Holy Spirit to so fill this church and our personal ministries that the very ground shakes.

Resources
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.