July 16, 2000
"If It Is of God. . . "
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
5th 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 5:27-42
The story of the young church continues. In the past weeks we have heard about disciples filled with the Holy Spirit, and thousands of people coming to believe in the risen Christ. We have heard about miraculous healing in the name of Jesus and how uncomfortable it made the keepers of the status quo. Last week we learned about trouble in the church, dishonesty before God. But the church did not fail, instead the signs and wonders among the people of God continued. More than ever, believers, both men and women, came to know Jesus Christ. The high priest couldn't allow this to continue. Hadn't he told the disciples not to say the name of Jesus? So he arrested the apostles ; he put them in jail. In the night an angel of the Lord appeared, opened the jail door and told them to go back to the temple proclaiming the name of Jesus. (Acts 5:12-21) It seemed that nothing could stop the growing momentum of the church. It was empowered and driven by the Holy Spirit. And don't think these accounts are far removed from us as we worship here today. These stories are our roots, our foundation. We are this church, equipped by the Holy Spirit and compelled to proclaim the name of Jesus. When the prison guards realized that the apostles were missing, they went looking for them. They located them in the temple teaching and brought them before the high priest and the Sanhedrin or Council of Justice. This is what happened:
Read Acts 5:27-42
It looked as though the spread of the Gospel would stop right there. The temple leaders were not only angry with the disciples' disobedience, but probably fearful of the growing numbers of Christians and the apostle's miraculous escape from prison. What would this do to the unsteady peace in Jerusalem? What would the occupying Romans think? These outspoken followers of Jesus said they would obey God rather than human beings and the leaders of the temple wanted them dead. But then one respected Pharisee, Rabbi Gamaliel, spoke up. He used examples of leaders who led recent uprising (some scholars have called them terrorist movements, Smith, p. 50). Theudas led an uprising against a Roman procurator and Judas of Galilee led a band that opposed the imposition of new taxes following the census. Although both, in their day, were seen as Messiah's by their hundreds of followers, their plans to overthrow the power of Rome failed. Gamaliel's conclusion is that action not led by God will fail.
This is believable for us. We have seen movements, both religious and political, or a combination of both, that have risen and fallen. Communism, ideally an experiment in equality and justice fell far short of that ideal in reality, and failed miserably. Forceful leaders, backed by national armies, have taken control of nations, only to have control violently ripped from their hands in the next military coup.
Historically, sects and cults have risen to challenge the practice of religious institutions. In the early church, as the institution became established there were many divisions based on doctrine. Some of the leaders of the divisions survived to become the "Fathers and Mothers" of the church, other names were lost to history. Before and during the time of Martin Luther, individuals led bands of Christians in Europe who questioned the rule of the Catholic Church. Many were eventually burned at the stake. Some, like John Wycliff, paved the way for the Protestant Reformation. Others were lost to history. In the United States, religious leaders have founded utopian communities that they believed were the answer to a fulfilled life. Some have faded, the Shakers, Amana, and Koinania Farm, but their ideals and ways of living still challenge us today. Others, like the Branch Davidians and churches that romote racism and hate may seem to have a strong voice, but they fail to thrive.
Gamaliel made this important point. "if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them--in that case you may even be found fighting against God." (Acts 5:39) Who would be foolish enough to try and stop the movement of God? Gamaliel urged his hearers to wait and see which side God was on, to trust the verdicts of history rather than run the risk of fighting God.
This movement, these people who proclaim Jesus as their living leader, will not be stopped if it is of God. Gamaliel spoke with the history of the Jewish people as his support. The facts of biology should have stopped Abraham and Sarah from having a son when they were too old to produce children, but God made it happen. Pharaoh should have stopped the Hebrew people from finding their way to the promised land, but God was in their journey. The forces of Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians and Romans all had opportunities to crush the people Israel, but they were unable to do so. Outsiders introduced other Gods, weak and poor substitutes for the one true God. There were times of struggle and falling away from God, but the people of Israel continued to return to their faith. This was God's doing.
And the church has not been stopped. The witness of that can be found in the example of the Oberaummergau Passion Play. This play, in the a little Bavarian mountain village, has been performed every ten years since 1633. The play started out as the result of an oath to re-enact the passion of Jesus if the village was spared from the Black Plague. The village was saved and the play began. Today over 2,000 residents in a village of just over 5,000 participate in its production. But unlike the villagers of 400 years ago, there is a diversity of religious belief. Catholics, Protestants, Moslem and agnostics take part. Some are faithful members of churches and others have renounced their membership to a church. If this is the case, then why does this play that depicts "the greatest story ever told" still go on? Why will over 500,000 visitors be moved by the powerful truth of the resurrection? I believe the answer lies in the power of God. God's will, God's church, cannot be stopped.
Consider the forces from without and from within that have torn at the church. Before Constantine in the 4th century, Christianity was a persecuted sect. Roman emperors sent Christians to their deaths for the entertainment of its citizens, and yet the church continued. In those formative years arguments about doctrine could have torn the church apart from the inside, but a series of councils helped the believers to smooth out their differences. In the Middle Ages, the church became so entangled in politics, imperialism and individual struggles for power that many faithful retreated to monasteries and convents to live a regulated life and simply being in complete devotion to God. Others, caught up in what the church had become, participated in torture and genocide. And still the cause of Christ's church continued. The church was rocked in the Reformation and many leaders rose to question the central power of the Catholic Church and the central tenants of faith held for hundreds of years. But the church did not falter. As the world was opened by ship travel across oceans, the church spread and was shaped by settlers and indigenous people of many lands, from Asia to Africa to the Americas. The church grew. The church changed. The church survived.
And some wonder about the church today. There are so many denominations, worship styles, approaches to evangelism. The church struggles internally to balance biblical interpretation and mercy for God's people. How can it stand, while so divided? And yet, it does. The church, the church of Jesus Christ, stands as an oasis in a society rocked by constant change, insecurity and deep, spiritual need. The church feeds the hungry in body, mind and soul. It reaches every corner of the world. It impacts individuals, nations and history. And this is not because of human leadership. It is because this movement, the church, is of God. It is the very body of Christ.
And what about the movement of the church in this place and time, in this community? The forces that would stop it are here. One is unbelief on the part of those who have not yet been invited into the presence of the Holy Spirit. "Why should I go to church? I have a hard time believing the teachings?" There is also apathy from without and within that would make the church, not a movement, but a stationary institution, simply insuring its own survival. Another force that seems intent on stopping the church is lack of purpose for being the church. Do we exist to comfort ourselves or the world? Do we gather primarily to protect our connection to one another or to promote for all people a genuine connection to God?
The good news is that despite forces that would seem to diminish the church, this effort that is of God will not be stopped. Our choice is to be part of the living movement of Christ's church or against it. Gamaliel told the Council of Justice if we try to stop this we may find ourselves fighting against God. The apostles made their choice. They proclaimed the name of Jesus. They left the confrontation with the temple leaders alive, but not without suffering. The Sanhedrin may have let them go, but the religious leaders were unrepentant. The disciples were flogged for disobeying the Sanhedrin's order. Their response? Joy. They kept proclaiming his name. "And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah." (Acts 5:42)
What will be our part in this church of Jesus Christ that cannot be stopped? Will we claim our part and position in the history of the church? We are brothers and sisters with those first believers who heard the apostles. We share with them their passion and excitement to hear the stories of Jesus and the truth of forgiveness in resurrection. Our heritage is 2,000 years old and includes saints, artists, scholars, political leaders, mothers, fathers, salt-of-the-earth-believers who could nothing else but follow the direction of God. We are connected in historic and contemporary United Methodism as we touch lives around the world, influence leaders and make our collective voices heard in the nation's capital and through relief agencies world wide, as we proclaim that salvation from this life is in Jesus Christ.
What will be our part in this church of Jesus Christ? We can claim our part in the work of the church to educate our children and youth and provide ongoing opportunities for spiritual growth for adults. We can pray, seeking to be shaped by our prayers into the church as God would have us. We can be a beacon of light in this community, demonstrating graciousness to anyone who enters these doors for worship or any activity or work, and the same as we interact throughout our week. We can be a voice of faithful certainty and compassion for a society and individuals who are searching. We can be Christ's hands and heart in concrete ways in the living of our days. And we can worship and serve in this certainty: the movement is of God; it will not be stopped.
Comay, Joan and Ronald Brownrigg. Who's Who in the Bible. New York: Bonanza Books, 1971. Sargent, James. Basic Bible Commentary: Acts. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988. Smith, Dennis and Michael Williams, eds. The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, Vol. 12. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999. Walaskay, Paul. Westminster Bible Companion: Acts. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. Willimon, William. Interpretation: Acts. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1988.