Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Foolishness of Persecution [Acts 8:1b-40] (12 August 2001)

Accompanying Presentation (opens in a new window)

In the past few weeks we have been studying the first few chapters of the book of Acts. Let us recap what we have learnt so far. In the first sermon on Acts 1 we saw that the disciples were told to wait for the outpouring of the Spirit because the Spirit would usher in a new era during which we need to be very sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit. Each situation that confronts us needs to be evaluated for its own merit. What worked yesterday might not work today.

Then from Acts 2 we saw that the death and resurrection of Jesus had changed things at a cosmic level. So great was the change that the new age of the Spirit had begun while the old age characterized by enmity to the Spirit was still around. The two ages inevitably clash because their agendas are different. The old age is ruled by death while the new age of the Spirit is characterized by life in Jesus.

In the third sermon we saw that healing happens today precisely because the Spirit works to reverse death. We saw that the barrenness of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, like illnesses and debilitating conditions, are but a sign of the reign of death which God has overcome in the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, there is no formula for healing. We can only depend on God’s initiative and hope that he stretches his hand in response to our pleas.

Then from three stories in Acts 4, 5, & 6 we learnt that the Spirit promotes a form of life in the church that is drastically contrary to other forms of life to which we are used. While the old age tells us to seek prestige and look to money for security, the Spirit produces humility and asks us to find security in God. While the old age tells us to make people dependent on us so as to hold on to power, the Spirit asks us to willingly give away our power, to empower others so that he can work through others.

And last week we dealt with the martyrdom of Stephen. We saw that he was open to the realm of heaven in which the death of Jesus is given cosmic significance that runs contrary to the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23. And we saw that Stephen imitated Jesus in his death—a death of which Saul of Tarsus was a witness. We shall see today what immediate effect seeing Stephen’s death had on Saul and what his actions made happen in the early church. And from this we will learn what the foolishness of persecution is. First, we must hear the text for today. I have asked Angie to read for us the text of today’s sermon.

Thanks Angie.

Most of the text we have heard today lies between two statements about Saul’s persecution of the church. In Acts 8.3 Luke writes, “But Saul was ravaging the church…” etc. And in Acts 9.1, which we did not hear today, Luke tells us, “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” etc. From this we should understand that Luke wants to tell us what happened when Saul persecuted the church. The description of Philip’s ministry in Samaria, the conflict with Simon of Samaria, and the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, all happen as a consequence of Saul’s persecution of the church.

Let us first chart the movement of Philip, who happens to be the main character in Acts 8. The map in the slide shows us his missionary journey. He is initially in Jerusalem, one of seven men chosen to handle food distribution to Greek-speaking widows. When Stephen is killed and Saul steps up his persecution, Luke tells us that only the apostles remained in Jerusalem. All the other Christians fled Jerusalem. Philip flees to Samaria where he too, like Stephen, has a ministry as powerful and as controversial as that of the apostles. From Samaria, Philip, prompted by the Spirit, goes toward Gaza. The most common route would have been to first go to Jerusalem and then to go toward the coast. Somewhere between Jerusalem and Gaza, probably quite close to Jerusalem, he comes across the Ethiopian eunuch. And finally, the Spirit spirits him off to Azotus until he eventually reaches Caesarea.

Early in the book of Acts, Jesus voices a prophecy that is the agenda that drives the church. He told his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” However, we have covered seven chapters of Acts and the disciples are still in Jerusalem. Only toward the end of chapter 7 does the action move out of Jerusalem—and that is for the stoning of Stephen!

Theophilus must have been getting quite concerned. Having read the first volume containing Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry, and having realized that Jesus was one who kept his word, the failure of the action to move according to Jesus’ words must have been disconcerting. And Luke then says that the church faced severe persecution. What was happening? Was Jesus going to be wrong? Was the church really only a human movement? Was it going to be snuffed out in Jerusalem itself?

But then Luke narrates the events with which we are concerned. And in broad strokes he tells us how the second phase—the Judea and Samaria phase—came about. Saul was the instrument who enabled, or rather forced, the evangelization of Samaria to take place. As Joseph told his brothers, someone probably told Saul later, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.”

Luke tells us about Philip’s ministry in three acts or movements. Let us consider each in turn. The first part of Philip’s ministry is its description. Luke uses terminology similar to what he used to describe Stephen’s ministry. Philip, like Stephen, works signs and miracles. However, while Luke describes Stephen as a great orator, one who spoke with wisdom, Philip has a more miraculous ministry. In fact, in Luke’s writings, Philip is the first person after Jesus whose presence makes unclean spirits come out of people with shrieks. You could say that Stephen’s apologetics was in word, while Philip’s was in deed.

The second part of Philip’s ministry that Luke tells us about is that connected with Simon the magician. Philip’s ministry, as we have just seen, was characterized by miracles. For people unable to sense the Holy Spirit, miracles will come across as magic—some mysterious but formulaic way of going against the laws of nature. Simon the magician follows Philip around and is astounded by the power that flows through him. Being a magician, he craves that power but does not know how to obtain it. Philip gives him no clues. But when Peter and John come along and lay hands on the Samaritan believers so that they would receive the Holy Spirit, Simon infers that the power of the Holy Spirit is at the beck and call of Peter and John. After all, though Philip was able to do great miracles, he was not able to transfer his power as Peter and John could. So he offers Peter and John money so that he would have what Philip evidently did not have—that is, the ability to bestow the Holy Spirit. He wanted to be able to give this gift to others but since he expected to obtain the power with money, he probably also wanted to profit from receiving the power. And it is at this point that Peter rebukes Simon. The Holy Spirit’s power is freely given as the Holy Spirit wishes. It cannot be bought. And it certainly is not for profit.

This calls to mind many televangelists who offer all sorts of miracles and healings in exchange for what they call “love gifts”. I wonder what Peter and John would have to say to them. Maybe they have forgotten Jesus’ words, “Freely you have received, freely give.” The Holy Spirit is the gift of God through Jesus to a world at enmity with God. But since the Holy Spirit is a gift, his power is not for sale. I wonder how different such practices of exchanging healing or prayer for “love gifts” is from the medieval Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. An indulgence was a certificate that proclaimed forgiveness for grave sins. But rather than pronounce forgiveness freely, the Roman Catholic Church sold these statements of forgiveness. I really do not see an essential difference between selling indulgences and accepting “love gifts.”

The third part of Philip’s ministry is that connected with the Ethiopian eunuch. While Philip was in Samaria, the Holy Spirit told him to go along the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. On that road he came across the eunuch reading from Isaiah 53. He shares the gospel with the eunuch and the eunuch believes and becomes the first missionary to Africa.

Here we must pause to understand Isaiah 53 because the church has for the most part lost the importance of its being here in chapter 8 in connection with the persecution led by Saul. The eunuch asks Philip, “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” What do you think the answer is?

Just what I expected! However, note that Philip does not answer the question as you have. Rather, Luke tells us that Philip began with the passage from Isaiah 53 and proclaimed to the eunuch the gospel. The church for the most part has done away with this ambiguity—to its own detriment. Let me explain.

If you asked a Jew to explain the passage, you would get two prominent answers. First, she would tell you that this passage refers to Israel’s role in the world. That is, Israel as a people is personified here as the servant of Yahweh who bears the evil of the world. Second, she would tell you that the prophet himself is the servant of Yahweh who bears the sins of Israel. In fact, given the context of Isaiah 53 these two options are the most likely.

But the church has applied the passage to Jesus—and rightly so. But not because this is a prophecy about Jesus but because Jesus chose to fulfill in his life Israel’s call to bear the sins of the world. What this means is that Isaiah 53 does certainly apply to Jesus but not to Jesus alone! In fact, it applies to anyone who dares to say that he or she belongs to the people of God. For it is through his people that God accomplishes his purposes. In other words, if I say I belong to God’ people, then this passage must characterize my life. Which is to say that, by applying this passage solely to Jesus, the church has forgotten probably the most important aspect of its calling in relation to the world.

Last week I repeated one phrase a number of times: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” What Luke tells us about the church following Stephen’s death should convince us about the truth of that statement. And in fact, his choice to include the quote from Isaiah confirms this. You see, Philip would not have had the opportunity of discussing Isaiah 53 with the eunuch if Stephen had not emulated Jesus. Only because Stephen saw that he too could, like Jesus, become a suffering servant and bear in his body the evil meted to him, did the persecution of the disciples escalate so as to disperse them beyond Jerusalem. So if the statement “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” is one of encouragement for the church, the phrase “persecution is foolish” is a warning to all potential persecutors—including persecutors within the church.

But why is persecution foolish? What did Saul’s persecution do to the church? He supervised the murder of Stephen, only to see God raise Philip with a more powerful and extensive ministry. He dragged people off to prison, only to see the church go underground. He intentionally tore apart Christian families only to see the church become the family of God. For what persecution does is force those who are oppressed to depend on each other in a manner analogous to that in which various parts of the body depend on each other. The more Saul tightened his grip, the more the church grew until he himself was defeated by the Lord of the church.

This is quite similar to what Princess Leia says to Admiral Tok. When he tries to cower her down with the threat of the Death Star, she tells him, “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip out of your control.” This is because of the very nature of oppression and persecution.

Persecution makes the church more like the body to which Paul likens the church. In other words, persecution forces the church to behave like a body—that is, to behave like the church. And when the church lives the body life to which God has called it, it becomes the relentless power of God unleashed in the world. No force can then stop it from reaching the ends of the earth, just as Saul’s persecution of the church only moved it to fulfill the next stage of Jesus’ prophecy about its mission.

But by failing to see the implications of Isaiah 53 for the church, and by applying Isaiah 53 only to Jesus, the church surrendered an important part of its commission. We have substituted taking up the cross for preaching about the cross when in fact it is by following Jesus’ example and dying for others that the cross is preached.

And so we need only read church history to see the devastating effects of applying Isaiah 53 only to Jesus. From believing that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” the church moved to practice “the foolishness of persecution.” While many Christian historians like to think that Christianity conquered the Roman Empire when it became the official religion of the state, a little critical research in light of the bible—and especially Jesus’ ministry and commission to his disciples—will show that it is by becoming the official religion of the state that the church lost its prophetic voice. While the ostracized early church denounced war and violence, the accepted church promoted all kinds of wars and violence in the name of religion. I need only mention the Crusades and the Colonial efforts of many so-called Christian nations like England, France, Holland, Portugal, and Spain.

The Crusades were launched to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim occupying forces. But till AD 1918 Jerusalem remained under Islamic control. But more devastating is that the brutality of the Crusaders drove the Muslims to Northern Africa where they ravaged the peaceful Christians there with the violence doled out to them by the European Christians. And till today much of Northern Africa remains predominantly Muslim, Europe is at best nominally Christian, and Jerusalem is still embroiled in the bitter conflicts that are centuries old. That is the foolishness of persecution.

While all this was underway, the Spaniards came to South America under the pretext of spreading the gospel. Led by Dominican monks, the Conquistadors decided that it would be best to have as great results as Peter did at Pentecost. So each day their soldiers rounded up some natives at one side of a body of water and forced the natives to cross the body of water. When the natives emerged the Dominican monks pronounced them baptized. They forced the natives to build church buildings and when they faced little resistance the Dominicans took that as a sign that true conversion had taken place. It was centuries later that an earthquake destroyed one such church and revealed that the natives had hidden idols of their gods under the altar of the church. By forcing people to convert the church produced pseudo-believers who still secretly worshipped their gods though the outer form of worship appeared Christian. The foolishness of persecution is revealed here when we consider that this aberrant form of Christianity is firmly entrenched in much of South America. The church may now realize that this form of Christianity is aberrant. But what can we say. We cannot ask them to believe in Jesus because now they think they already do! It is like asking them to convert from believing in Jesus to believing in Jesus. What an absurd thought!

When the church exchanges its divine calling to become the lightning rod for the evil on the earth for spreading the gospel through violent means or for public policy based on violence, the church raises against itself the very beast that comes out of the bottomless pit. The church then battles violence and unbelief with violence and unbelief. And in such a conflict the church always loses because violence and unbelief are contradictory to the gospel it is called to proclaim.

So what does this all mean for us? Each of us is unique. But none of us is so important that the church will collapse without us. Quite the contrary, if we are persecuted and killed, as was Stephen, it will only serve to further the gospel. God will raise new leaders, like Philip, who are more formidable than the earlier leaders. The church will then go from strength to strength.

The question for us is, “Why are we not persecuted?” The Jews stoned Stephen even though they did not have the right by Roman law to do so. Yet, at this grave violation of Roman law, the Romans did not punish the Jews. The law, designed to protect people, failed in Stephen’s case. It failed the early Christians on a number of occasions. Why do our laws today not fail in our case? I submit that it is because we do not believe that imitating Jesus to the point of death is our calling. When we recover the urgency of this calling, we will invite the wrath of Satan on ourselves. Have no doubts about that.

Of course the church will prove invincible only when it follows Jesus’ command, “Freely you have received, freely give.” As long as we place restrictions of any sort on the lavish outpouring of the Spirit, we only confess that we believe God is stingy. And God will then prove himself stingy. God has given us his Spirit without cost. So let us give all Christians full access to this gift. Let us not draw some artificial boundaries beyond which we say the Spirit does not act. That would only place us in the company of Simon the magician. Rather, let us be ever ready to be astonished by God’s generosity in blessing and using people who have rebelled against him.

Finally, let us be bold to imitate Jesus. Let us recover the grand calling we have of being Yahweh’s suffering servants. Let us boldly face evil and return good. Let us absorb in our bodies the hate, sin, and evil around us. Let us fight this battle confidently, remembering that we are not battling against humans but against evil individual and corporate spiritual powers. Let us not contribute to the spiral of violence around us at both the individual and corporate level. Let us remember that the unique contribution of the church in the world is its ability to extend God’s forgiveness and grace. There are no “ifs”, “ands”, or “buts” about this. So let us not entertain any such cop-outs. If we do, we will find ourselves rejecting our calling and rejecting the wisdom of God for the foolishness of persecution. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Blood of the Martyrs [Acts 6.8-8.1a] (5 August 2001)

Accompanying Presentation (opens in a new window)

During the past few weeks we have been breezing through the first few chapters of the book of Acts. In the first sermon on Acts 1 we saw that the disciples were told to wait for the outpouring of the Spirit because the Spirit would usher in a new era during which we need to be very sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit. Things that worked one day might not work the next. This age of the Spirit is one of fascinating possibilities. 

However, from Acts 2 we saw that the death and resurrection of Jesus had changed things at a cosmic level. So great was the change that the new era of the Spirit had begun while the old era characterized by enmity to the Spirit was still around. This brings about an inevitable clash because the agendas of the two eras are different. The old era is one ruled by death while the new era of the Spirit is characterized by life in Jesus. 

In fact, in the third sermon we saw that healing is possible today precisely because the Spirit works to reverse death of which illness and debilitating conditions are but a sign. However, there is no formula for healing. We can only depend on God’s initiative and hope that he stretches his hand in response to our pleas. 

Finally, last Sunday we saw from three stories in Acts 4, 5, & 6 that the Spirit engenders a form of life in the church that is drastically contrary to other forms of life to which we are used. While the old era tells us to seek prestige and look to money for security, the Spirit produces humility and asks us to find security in God. While the old era tells us to make people dependent on us so as to hold on to power, the Spirit asks us to willingly give away our power, to empower others so that he can work through others.

Today we are dealing with the first Christian martyr—Stephen. At the end of the text we will hear today Stephen is stoned. The slide shows stones found at a site where people were stoned to death. Some of these stones were as big as a person’s head. Stoning, being an act of collective murder, allowed the Israelites to kill offenders without any one person bearing the guilt. It was the punishment for blasphemy, idolatry, and various sexual sins.

Now Luke introduced us to Stephen in chapter 6 in connection with the food distribution problem. He was one of the people chosen to handle food distribution to the Greek-speaking widows. He and the other six were chosen because the apostles realize that their first calling was to proclaim the good news about Jesus. Hence, others had to be found to handle the food distribution. Luke tells us that Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit. And right after Luke tells us about the selection of the seven servers, he tells us about Stephen coming into conflict with the Jews. Something about Stephen made him a threat to the status quo. Let us briefly touch on what made him a threat.

We should not imagine that Stephen had discarded his responsibilities with regard to food distribution. Rather, it is probably in the context of fulfilling this responsibility that he found himself to be the channel of miracles. We can learn from this that it is impossible to circumscribe the ministry of a person full of the Spirit. Though he was selected to wait on tables, the Spirit drove him to go beyond this. Luke tells us that Stephen did many signs and wonders—two terms he reserves for the miracles of the apostles. In other words, so full of the Spirit was Stephen that he was empowered to have a ministry as effective and controversial as that of the apostles.

I say that his ministry was controversial because as soon as Luke tells us about the signs and wonders he moves to telling us about the conflict Stephen was drawn into. As with Jesus and the apostles, miracles, far from convincing everyone that they were from God, strengthened the disbelief of those already inclined to disbelieve. These people draw Stephen into a debate but find that his debating skills are too much for them. Luke tells us “they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.” In other words, being full of the Spirit, Stephen had incredible wisdom. The only example we have of this wisdom and spirit is the sermon that Luke records for us in chapter 7. So let us read the text for today and then try to understand what according to Luke were the wise and spirited things that Stephen said. I have asked Joe and Dwi to read for us the text for today.


As usual, there is much that can be said about the passage we have read. But having mentioned Stephen’s wisdom, let us try to see what that wisdom looked like from his sermon.

The first thing we need to see is that Stephen’s sermon is in response to a charge brought against him. When Stephen’s interlocutors were unable to withstand his wisdom, they brought false witnesses who said that Stephen held the view that Jesus would destroy the temple. 

Here we must understand what false witnesses are. According to the Old Testament, testimony was to be established through two or three witnesses. The testimony of the witnesses had to agree at every single point. Otherwise the witnesses were said to be false. They may not have been lying. But they were not able to substantiate each other’s accounts. 

So from what Luke tells us, it does not mean that Stephen did not say the things the witnesses said he said. Rather, the witnesses were unable to corroborate the circumstances under which and the manner in which he had made such statements. That this is the case is borne out by the fact that Stephen never denies the charge. Rather, given what Stephen says in his sermon, he actually accepts the charge but find nothing wrong with it.

So what does Stephen say in his sermon? He starts, as a Jew would, and as we should, with Abraham and God’s promises to Abraham. This is the background of biblical faith. It is the point at which God selects for himself a people through whom he would accomplish his purposes. Our faith is one that refers constantly to God’s dealings with his people through history. God’s choice of Abraham could be likened to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862. It marked a new era. Keeping the analogy, the life, death, and resurrection could be likened to the end of the Civil Rights movement when the Emancipation Proclamation was fully realized.

After talking about Abraham Stephen merely mentions Isaac and Jacob and then focuses on Joseph. He brings a charge against Joseph’s brothers. God had told Abraham that his descendents would be slaves in another land. Here Stephen tells his audience that it was not as though God wanted them to be slaves. Rather, the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers resulted in the slavery, which admittedly God used for good.

Reminds me of the movie What About Bob? Richard Dreyfuss plays a psychiatrist upon whom is forced a person with agoraphobia, played by Bill Murray. Getting increasingly frustrated with his client, the psychiatrist subjects the client to what he calls death therapy. Though this is actually a ruse to kill Bill Murray’s character, by some strange twist, Bill Murray’s character is cured of his phobia and goes on to write a book on death therapy. Though the death therapy was intended for evil, good came out of it.

That is how God works much of the time in this sinful era. He did not kill Jesus, but used the death of Jesus to bring salvation to the world.From Joseph’s brothers Stephen then jumps centuries to the time of Moses. In response to his killing the Egyptian taskmaster, a Hebrew asks Moses, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” Stephen mentions this not to justify Moses’ actions but to indicate the blindness of the Hebrews. They were unable to recognize God’s deliverer. And so Stephen tells the audience about the burning bush episode. And he then demonstrates that the answer to the question, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” is “God!” God is the one who had chosen Moses to be ruler and liberator.

But the guilt of the Hebrews was not just that they did not recognize their deliverer. Even after he had been revealed, they refused to follow him. They forced Aaron to make idols for them. They kept turning from Yahweh to false gods. Though they had the tent of testimony in which was the presence of God, they found the false gods more appealing and indeed more comfortable to worship. Their behavior was like that of an alcoholic who repeatedly resorts to drinking because facing the real world is difficult and causes discomfort.

Finally, Stephen mentions David and the building of the temple by Solomon. In this regard Stephen quotes from Isaiah 66.1-2 to the effect that no physical building of any kind would be a sufficient residence for God.

Then Stephen accuses the Jews of being stiff-necked people like their ancestors. Now from the treatment of Joseph by his brothers, from the failure to recognize Moses as God’s deliverer, and from the repeated ventures into idolatry we can agree that Stephen’s accusation is well deserved. However, why does he precede his accusation with the quote from Isaiah?

There must be something in the Isaiah text that supported some view that Stephen presented that in turn gave rise to the charge that he spoke against the temple. The force of the passage from Isaiah is that God cannot be contained in any human artifice—including especially the temple. The temple, being as it were a spatial structure, could not be an appropriate residence for God. Moreover, humans cannot make anything out of nothing. That ability belongs to God. So anything humans would make for God would be from things already made by God. Therefore, the temple could only have been a shadow of a residence God had already made for himself.

Now the tent of testimony and the temple significantly were always supposed to be among the people of Israel. Hence, the tent of testimony went wherever the Israelites went during their years of wandering. And when God dispersed the Israelites from the land, the temple also had to be destroyed. For when we juxtapose the symbolism of the tent of testimony and of the temple with the words of Isaiah we understand that God dwells wherever his people are.

With this understanding Stephen probably mentioned Jesus’ words about the destruction of the temple. He probably told the Jews that there was a new temple—the church, a community with Jesus at its center. Quite naturally the Jews were ticked off. Here was this Greek-speaking Jew who was doing away with the temple—and with it obviously all the prescriptions in the Old Testament that were associated with the temple.

Because the Jews were unwilling to accept this new phase in God’s dealings with the world, Stephen compares them to their ancestors, who always opposed the Holy Spirit as seen in the examples from Joseph’s brothers, Moses’ rejection, and the repeated idolatry of the Israelites.

That was bad enough. But this upstart claimed that God was doing a new thing through Jesus! But Jesus was crucified. This meant that Jesus was under the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23 “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” How could God do something new through a cursed person? That was unthinkable!

And to top that Stephen calls Jesus the Righteous One. Not only had he said that the temple would be destroyed, but also that Jesus would destroy the temple. And he had the audacity to call Jesus righteous while he was evidently under the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23. It would be as though someone claimed that Dr. Kevorkian was the one who truly promoted life. What Stephen was saying was undermining the very foundations of the Old Testament.

But Stephen does not stop there. He is not satisfied with calling Jesus righteous. That would not mean anything for anyone could say anything about anyone with its necessarily being true. Rather, as he makes his confession that Jesus is righteous, he sees heaven open and sees Jesus standing before God. So he tells his audience what he sees. To say that he saw Jesus standing before God meant that God had substantiated his testimony about Jesus’ being righteous. Stephen and God therefore became two witnesses who brought true testimony that Jesus was righteous.

Now it was one thing to voice a personal opinion about Jesus. It was quite another to call God in as witness. If Jesus was crucified, which he was, then he must bear the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23. How then could God testify in Jesus’ favor? It would mean that God was going against his own words. That was tantamount to calling God a liar. And when Stephen called God in as a witness, it was too much for the Jews to bear. In their view Stephen had moved from disrespecting the temple, to lying about Jesus, to blaspheming by calling God a liar. And for that he needed to be stoned.

So in what way was Stephen wise? Being full of the Spirit, Stephen was open to another realm—that hidden realm we call heaven, in which there is a reality that transcends the reality available to our senses. He does not deny that Jesus was crucified. That would have been absurd for crucifixion was as public an event as one could have had in those days. Contrary to some contemporary faddish theories, no person in antiquity ever denied Jesus’ death on the cross. Everyone concerned agreed that Jesus was crucified. Where the disagreements came in was the meaning that people attached to Jesus’ crucifixion.

And here we have another clue concerning the wisdom of Stephen. When he calls Jesus the Righteous One, he reveals that scripture is not flat writing that has no nuances. On the face of it Jesus seems to be under the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23. The context of Deuteronomy assumes that the conviction of the individual is a just one. However, Stephen calls that assumption into question. He wisely recognized that a group of people could collectively convict an innocent person.Then he says that Jesus is standing in God’s presence. He then calls Jesus the Son of Man, a title that alludes to Daniel 7.13-14. He recognized that Jesus is the one to whom authority over the universe has been given.

With that unconventional knowledge Stephen boldly faced his stoning. But even with his last words he reveals this wisdom that he possessed. He says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Where have we heard such words before? Theophilus, reading Luke’s second volume would recall Luke 23.34 where Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” By saying something similar to what Jesus had said Stephen reveals this insight: the sacrificial forgiving way of Jesus is the way to conquer sin, Satan, and death.

But Stephen is not the only one with wisdom. Luke too reveals, by the way he writes, a wisdom that is unconventional. Right at the end of Stephen’s sermon, Luke introduces us to a person named Saul. He is the one who supervised Stephen’s stoning. Luke tells us, “And Saul approved of their killing him.” 

In chapter 5 Luke had introduced us to Gamaliel who had advocated patience. His student Saul, however, was full of zeal and wanted to do away with the follower of Jesus. But in so doing, Saul was exposed to Stephen who died in a manner similar to that in which Jesus had died. In the face of Stephen he saw the face of the man he believed was under God’s curse. But he wasn’t yet open to the realm to which Stephen was open. All Saul could see was the weakness of Jesus reflected in the weakness of Stephen.

But Luke knew that it was precisely this weakness that conquered Saul. After all, Saul would later, as the apostle Paul, write that the power and wisdom of God are made known through the crucifixion of Jesus which is the paradigmatic symbol of what is weak and foolish in the eyes of the present era.

The early church, when it was a minority movement, when it was persecuted, understood this wisdom. The early Christians understood that the power of God and his kingdom consisted in self-sacrificial love, in the willingness to die for the truth without resorting to the violent means employed by the present era. So the church father Origen wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

”So what does God have to say to us through the story of Stephen? The church is not exempt from the charge of working against the Holy Spirit. Like our ancestors in the people of God, we are always testing and resisting the Holy Spirit.

First, we have for too long used the word “church” to refer to a building of some kind. We have lost sight of the fact that God does not reside in any structure. Rather, it is the community of followers of Jesus that is his residence. It is in the gathering of Jesus’ disciples that God is to be found and met. We have individualized God’s presence when Jesus tells us that when two or more of his followers gather in his name, he is there among them.

Second, we have bought into the idea that we can and may solve our problems through violence. We have for much of church history supported all kinds of wars and all sorts of inhumane punitive measures. We have agreed, at least tacitly, that might makes right. We have assumed that God is on the side of those who have won wars. 

Yet, Jesus is the one who, at his arrest, refused to resort to violence, who, at his trial before Pilate, told the Roman Proconsul that his followers did not resort to violence precisely because he was a king of a different kind of kingdom. Yet, in the fact of this we have resolutely refused to believe that the way of self-sacrifice is the way to God’s power and wisdom. We have justified our actions of violence by saying that to do otherwise would be unwise. But by so doing we have only said that we are willing to kill others to achieve our ends but are not willing to die for others as Jesus died.

Third, in the midst of all this, rather than repent and change, we lament the fact that the church is not growing or that it is growing lukewarm. We try all sorts of church growth strategies and still wonder why our churches may grow in number without affecting the surrounding culture the way the early church did. We hammer on our bibles and keep assuring ourselves that we are “going back to the bible.” The conservatives condemn the liberals for watering down the truth. The liberals condemn the conservatives for being too judgmental. And all the while the world around us is heading to hell in a hand basket. We wonder why. And we launch all sorts of programs rather than repent—What Would Jesus Do?; Focus On The Family; Campus Crusade. And we barely make a dent in the world around us. And we keep asking why. Why? Why? Why?

How dare we ask why? All the while the answer has been staring us in the face. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” But we have reduced Jesus’ message of the denial of ourselves to some nebulous individualized spiritual realm. We have forgotten the gory life to which Jesus calls us when he says, “Take up you cross.” He has called us to follow him in death. And we cling on to our lives. No wonder then that the church today is making as big an impact on the world as an ant biting an elephant. We are no longer agents of transformation but of irritation. Because we have forgotten or forsaken the truth that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Taking Care of Business [Acts 4.32-5.11; 6.1-7] (29 July 2001)

Accompanying Presentation (opens in a new window)

We have been going through the book of Acts during the past few weeks. We have seen from Acts 1 that the church age is one characterized by the Holy Spirit. To live correctly in this age we need to be acutely aware of the prompting of the Holy Spirit in the various situations with which we are faced. From Acts 2 we saw that the death and resurrection of Jesus changed things at the cosmic level. The outpouring of the Spirit, which was the marker of the new age of God’s reign, has happened while the current age continues. The clash between two diametrically opposed eras, with two markedly different agendas, is the reason for much of the conflict true Christians face. Then from Acts 3 we saw that healing is something that God still does. Those of you who came forward last week either for prayer or for proclamation of healing, please let us know what God’s response has been. We have faith that he does heal because he is the same God who reversed the barrenness of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. Those reversals show that God has power over death. And the supreme demonstration of that power is the resurrection of Jesus. If God can reverse the sentence of death, then surely he can also heal! And he heals by his Spirit. 

So much talk of the Spirit! The number of references to the Spirit in Acts boggles the mind—that is, it boggles the mind if one does not realize that the church is a body created and sustained by the Spirit. Without the Spirit there would be no church. If this is so, what was the life like to which the Spirit called the early Christians? To answer that question, let us take a glimpse into some of the information Luke provides us with. I have asked Rocio to read for us the text for today’s sermon.

Thanks Rocio.

What in the world do we make of these events from the early church? Not quite the rosy picture we would have liked. In fact, the way Luke writes, we get the impression that it was not quite the rosy picture he would have liked. It was not smooth sailing for the early church. Quite the contrary, Luke tells us about Ananias and Sapphira and about the food distribution problem. While the second problem is solved quite amicably, the first ends in a terrifying way. What does Luke want Theophilus to understand through these stories? To answer that, let us consider the stories in turn.

Luke begins his story about Barnabas by telling us about the economics of the early church. “No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” For those who have grown up in America, this smells of Communism—something more suited to Cuba than to Capitalist America. And I have read some American books, which blame the later destitution of the Jerusalem church on their practice of communism. But the way Luke writes, he wants us to think of this practice as a good one. In fact, he cites Barnabas as an example of this practice. And Barnabas is the only prominent character in Acts, who does not have a blemish on his reputation. So, according to Luke, the communism of the early church was a great practice.

But it was not institutionalized communism like in Cuba. Luke does not say, “No one had private property” but “no one claimed private ownership.” There is a marked difference. The first statement, “no one had private property” would imply that the church owned the property as a corporate body with some sort of finance team handling the buying and selling of such real estate. However, from Acts 6 we see that the church was hardly organized enough to handle even food distribution! The second statement, “no one claimed private ownership” implies that no one was selfish, that those who did have private property treated it as though it wasn’t exclusively theirs. I hope you get the crucial difference. Rather than an institutionalized communism, the early church had an ad hoc, need-based communism. Landed people sold their land as and when liquid assets were needed among the early Christians.

The early church was a community based on self-less giving. This is the kind of community that St. Francis of Assisi wanted to start. Born into a wealthy family, he sold all his inheritance and distributed it to the poor. Then he requested permission of the Pope to start an order of monks—known today as the Franciscans. One of the rules of the community was that each monk had to accept voluntary poverty. This meant that someone born poor could not become a Franciscan monk because poverty was then not a choice. He wanted the monks to be able to understand what it meant to surrender all their possessions in service of Jesus. St. Francis’ example has inspired many, not least in our lifetime Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

Now Luke is careful in these stories to indicate that proceeds from real estate sales were placed at the apostles’ feet and not in their hands. Placing it in their hands would imply that the proceeds were a personal gift for the apostle concerned. However, placing it at their feet implied that the monies were for the community but could be distributed by the apostles.

After telling us the positive story of Barnabas, Luke contrasts it with the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Now their fault was not that they held some proceeds for themselves. As Peter indicates, even after the sale of their land, they had full authority in the matter of distributing the cash. They could have kept every denarius if they wished. Their fault was that they gave part of the proceeds to the church claiming that it was the full amount they had received from the sale. So Peter charged them with lying. Now most translations have the phrase “to lie to the Holy Spirit.” Quite literally, however, the Greek reads, “to falsify the Holy Spirit.” That is, by their act of secrecy, Ananias and Sapphira brought false testimony about the Holy Spirit and what the Spirit was doing in the church.

What was the Spirit doing in the church? Remember, when we learned from Acts 2 we saw that the pouring out of the Spirit was the sign of the new era that God was birthing while the present era continued. The new era of God’s kingdom is one in which, as Jesus repeatedly said, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. It is an upside-down kingdom in which the king dies for the subjects, in which the subjects are therefore called to live self-sacrificial lives that emulate their king.

But Ananias and Sapphira conspired to hide things from the rest of the body. On the one hand, it would afford them prestige within the church. “Ah!” people would say, “have you seen the generosity of Ananias and Sapphira? They have given the entire proceeds of the sale of a piece of prime real estate. Much like Barnabas. What a selfless couple.” Yes, such words of praise would have been exchanged among the early Christians. On the other hand, if the church did prove to be a big mistake, they would have some funds as an escape route. In Acts 5 Gamaliel advises the Sanhedrin to wait. He says that if the church is a human effort, it will fail on its own. If, on the other hand, the church was God’s work, nothing could destroy it. And the church is nothing without the Holy Spirit. So by keeping for themselves a secret escape route, the couple were actually calling into question the existence of the Spirit in the church. After all, if the Spirit was in the church, the church was going to be around for the long haul. No plan B would be needed in that case. But Ananias and Sapphira kept a plan B.

Their dual motives—seeking prestige and having an alternate plan—constituted a falsification of the Holy Spirit. And if it is the Holy Spirit that is responsible for the spread of God’s kingdom in and through the church, then falsifying that Spirit is what Jesus called the unforgivable sin. The actions of the couple meant that they did not seriously believe that it was the Spirit that was fueling the church. At some level they believed that some other power was at work. But, as Jesus indicates, to ascribe to a foreign power what it evidently the work of God’s Spirit is the unforgivable sin.

Both Ananias and Sapphira recognize the gravity of their error. They understand that they have sinned grievously. When Peter says, “You have falsified the Holy Spirit,” they realize that they were guilty of the same offense as those who accused Jesus of working by the power of Satan. And with that knowledge both of them died.

We should avoid seeing in their deaths lightning bolts from the sky. The text only tells us that they fell down and died. We are certainly to view their deaths as judgments from God but we should leave the mechanism of judgment ambiguous as Luke does.

Now we should also attempt to understand this couple. Living the life in the Spirit is not easy. And nowhere does the bible say that it is easy. The easy thing is to go the way of the world and to seek prestige and to find security in money, as did Ananias and Sapphira. To emulate king Jesus is to swim against the tide of human experience and expectation—kind of like Harrison Ford’s character in Mosquito Coast. Having messed up his dream to bring technology and money to a jungle tribe, he lies dying in a boat, which his son is rowing. And as they are floating downstream, he asks his son, “We’re going upstream, right? We’re going upstream, right?” His son lies and reassures him that they are going upstream. And the father responds, “Good! Because the only things that go downstream are dead.”

In this age of self-centeredness, God’s Spirit brings us to life in Jesus so that we too like him can swim upstream. We can swim against the currents of this era that tell us to seek prestige, that tell us to find security in money. To swim with the currents of this era is to concede that we are dead. 

The third story we heard today dealt with the selection of seven servers. In connection with the Barnabas story, Luke tells us that among the early Christians there was none who had any need. What Luke means is that no need was overlooked for here in chapter 6 we see that there indeed was some need and that the need was subsequently met. Luke introduces us to two groups of Christians—those who could speak Hebrew or Aramaic, whom he calls the Hebraists; and those who could speak only Greek, whom he calls the Hellenists. We are still dealing with a fully Jewish early church. So the distinction is a linguistic one and not a racial or ethnic one.

The widows among the Greeks speakers were disadvantaged not because of some intentional discrimination. Rather, most likely their ignorance of Hebrew and Aramaic may have kept them ignorant about the food distribution times. It would be like going to the heart of Mexico and announcing to them in Russian that there was food to be had. Someone who did that would have only himself to blame if all the food went waste!

When the oversight was brought to the apostles’ attention, they rightly point out that administration of food distribution was not their calling. Note that it is not a question of one ministry being better than another. The apostles were called to be witnesses to Jesus. Hence, others had to be found to manage the food distribution. And here we should learn from the apostles. Rather than keep control within the circle of Hebrew speakers, they hand over control to the Greek speakers. After all, if the ministry were among Greek speakers, who best to understand the need and meet it than the Greek speakers themselves? The Greek speakers best understood the need that had to be met.

St. Ignatius met with a similar response. He was appalled at the lack of biblical knowledge among the Roman Catholic priests. So he went to the Pope and told him about the ignorance rampant among the clergy. He wanted the Pope to start a school for training priests. The Pope, however, told him to start an order of monks who would study the bible and be the theologians of the church. And so was born the order of the Jesuits. The Pope argued, as did the apostles in Acts 6, who best to meet the need than the one God led to identify it?

This should be a lesson to us today. When we bring the gospel of freedom to people dying to hear it, let us not then enslave them to us. We should not make people we are ministering to dependent on us. Rather, let our presentation of the gospel be in such a way as to promote only the humbling knowledge of their dependence on God.

So what is God telling us through these stories? Let’s consider them in reverse order. Acts 6 does not describe a soup kitchen that caters to people not connected with the church. It is not an evangelistic strategy that Luke describes. Rather, it is a process of meeting the needs within the community of faith. How many of us know of needs within NUPC that are waiting to be met? If God has brought to your notice a need, then he is also calling you to make that need known to the leadership. We leaders are human also and therefore have many blind spots. Because of that, we need your input. If you see someone in the body suffering, do not be silent. We have to work together to discern creative ways in which we can alleviate the suffering. That is why God has placed us in a body.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira warns us to be careful of what we do in the body of Christ. Everything we do must be in accordance with the Spirit that is at work in us. Let us, therefore, not serve in order to be noticed or applauded. Rather, let us serve in order that we might be more like Jesus. Like Jesus let us look for our praise from God. And God does praise us. It is he who says, “Well done good and faithful servant.” And let us not serve half-heartedly. The church is one basket in which you want to put all your eggs! It is after all fueled by God’s Spirit. It is after all here for the long haul. It has been around for the past twenty centuries and is not showing any signs of fading. Therefore, if anything, it is a good investment to serve in the church.

The story of Barnabas tells us that each of us has something to contribute. Remember, each of you is unique. No one else can take the place in God’s kingdom that is reserved for you. If it does not seem that NUPC right now has a place where you can serve and feel fulfilled, bring that to the notice of the leadership. Tell us what is on your heart. Share with us the paths along which God is taking you. Open our eyes to new possibilities of spreading God’s kingdom.

This is how the church is supposed to work—each one of us serving in the capacity to which God has called us; not one of us being forced or coerced into serving in a way unsuited to God’s calling on our lives. This is how we can take care of the business placed before us—by living as members that fully benefit from and fully contribute to the health of the body. And it is the health of this body that we now proclaim and promote as we move on to celebrate communion.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

To Obey God Rather than Humans [Acts 3.1-4.31 & 5.12-42] (22 July 2001)

Accompanying presentation (opens in a new window)

We started our series of nine sermons on Acts three Sundays back. I have been using and will be using a number of slides. There is a lot of material in all of these sermons not only because there is much historical and geographical information, but also because Acts is a pivotal book in the history of God’s dealings with the world. Some of you like taking notes and I do not wish to discourage that. However, jot down only things that stick out to you that are not on the slides. If you want the information on the slides, I can email you the relevant documents. Of course, if you wish to write everything, suit yourselves.

So let us recap what we have learnt so far. From Acts 1 we saw that we live in a new era in which we still need to learn to live in and walk in the Spirit; that Jesus calls no one without sending him or her back into the world as his ambassador; and that the life driven by the Spirit is one in which there are no strict patterns, in which what worked yesterday might not work today, and in which we are called to be ever sensitive to new ways of presenting the gospel.

From Acts 2 we saw that Peter’s sermon introduces two crucial differences in the expected Jewish timeline. First, the Messiah is rejected and killed by his own people rather than being accepted and then leading a violent revolt against Israel’s then primary political enemy—Rome. Second, the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit happen while Israel still remains under foreign rule. This implied that resurrection life is possible today and is a way of living that demonstrates that death has been defeated, that God’s new era is pressing in on this present era, and that to live in this new era is to undermine all the values of this present era that are not in accordance with God’s character.

Today we are dealing a series of events that Luke records in Acts 3, 4, & 5. The action is still in Jerusalem. It is a few days after the momentous event of Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out in an unprecedented manner on the early church. Peter and John go to the temple for the afternoon prayer. They enter the temple through the Beautiful Gate, which is seen in the slide. Also known as the Golden Gate, it was the easternmost entrance to Jerusalem and led directly into the temple precincts. Since Peter and John enter from the East, they might have spent the night at Bethany, which is South-West of Jerusalem, as can be seen in the map.

The actual encounter between the apostles and the lame man took place in the temple precincts, at Solomon’s Portico. In the next slide we see Herod’s Temple, which dominated Jerusalem along with Herod’s Palace and the Antonia Fortress. Solomon’s Portico was nearest the Beautiful Gate at the Eastern end of the temple area. In the text for today we will see that the early Christians had the habit of gathering at Solomon’s Portico. This indicates two things. First, the apostles did not see going to the temple as being contradictory to their faith in Jesus. How could they? Jesus himself had made a practice of going to the temple when he was in Jerusalem, and to synagogues when he was outside Jerusalem. Second, the fact that they went to the temple at designated hours of prayer indicates that they saw temple attendance as being one way of expressing their faith in Jesus.

So what does God have to say to us today through these events that Luke has recorded? For that we need first to hear what Luke recorded. Since we have an extremely large portion of text for today, I have asked Adelina and Alice to assist me in reading.


Now there is a lot that I could explain or preach on from the text we have heard. However, for NUPC today I believe God would have us consider first the miracle itself, second, the relationship the miracle has to Peter’s sermon, and third, what all of this means for us today.

So let us consider the miracle. Peter and John are walking to the temple, as they were accustomed to doing. Quite out of the blue the lame man asks them for alms. Peter immediately moves to proclaim healing of the man in the name of Jesus. What do you think provokes such boldness in Peter? I think, first, that Peter realized the proverb “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Peter understood that if he gave the man alms, the man would be asking for alms the next day also. Peter realized the man’s dilemma.

Second, the man recognized that he was in need though having been lame since birth for over forty years he could not imagine a long-term solution. Peter, however, understood that the way out of the man’s vicious cycle was through the long-term solution of healing. Peter recognized the man’s true physical need.

Third, Peter remembered that Jesus had healed a number of people with all sorts of ailments. He recalled that Jesus had accompanied his miracles with two remarkable statements: “If I, by the Spirit of God, cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come among you” and “with God nothing is impossible.” And Jesus’ miracles seemed to bear out these statements. Yes, Peter remembered Jesus’ words and deeds.

Fourth, Peter knew that only recently he had experienced the outpouring of the Spirit—the same Spirit by which Jesus had done his miracles. And Jesus had said that the giving of the Spirit was so that Jesus’ disciples could do greater works than Jesus had done. So Peter knew that, in this age of the Spirit, God would heal people just as he had done during the ministry of Jesus. Peter knew that the Spirit healed people.

Fifth, the man could have asked anyone else for money. There were certainly many people at that time since it was the hour of afternoon prayer. So Peter took the lame man’s act of asking John and him for money as a sign that God was ready to heal the man. Peter acted when he recognized a sign from God.

So with the assurance that God was moving to do in this man’s life what he had done in the life of others during the ministry of Jesus, Peter speaks the words of healing. Unlike Jesus, however, who pronounced healing directly, Peter is careful to speak the words in the name of Jesus. Now the phrase “in the name of Jesus” does not mean that Jesus’ name has some kind of power attached to it. Rather, the phrase is a Jewish idiom that can be paraphrased “by the authority of Jesus.” So when we speak “in the name of Jesus” we are not saying some magical formula but are claiming to be acting as Jesus’ agents. In Acts 3, it is by the authority of Jesus that the healing is accomplished for it is he who has poured out the Spirit of healing.

But does the miracle have anything to do with Peter’s sermon? Many commentators, scholars, and preachers approach the miracle as though Peter merely it as an excuse to preach the gospel. However, in order to understand either the miracle or the sermon, we must understand both and also that both actually go together. Peter was not walking around with a prepared evangelistic sermon that he just whipped out of his pocket. Rather, something about the miracle—or rather what the miracle indicates—made Peter say what he did.

The crucial sentence to understanding how Peter relates the healing to Jesus’ resurrection is in Acts 3.13. Peter says, “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus.” We often read these words in the bible—especially in the Old Testament. And we often hear these words in our worship songs or in sermons. However, what do we think these words mean? It means much, much more than just a statement that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob worshipped the one true God.

So what in the world was Peter driving at? In order to understand that we need to briefly consider the stories in Genesis about the three patriarchs.

When we encounter Abraham in Genesis, he is already an old man. God asks him to leave his birth land and go to a land, which was to be his inheritance. A few chapters later Abraham reminds God that he has no heirs and so all the talk of inheritance is quite pointless. He is almost a hundred years old at that point and his wife, Sarah, is ninety. What possibility was there that they would have children? Who has heard of a ninety-year old woman bearing children? There was no hope of her ever becoming a natural mother. And yet, the bible tells us that this barren old woman did bear a son.

When we encounter Isaac we see that he gets married to Rebecca. They love each other a lot. But we read that Rebecca was without children. But we also read that Isaac prayed for children and God responded by giving them twins—Esau and Jacob. Once again we have an occasion when barrenness was overcome with life by the direct intervention of God.

Jacob, deceived into marrying the sister of the woman he loved, responds by hating Leah and loving Rachel. But we read that Leah bore many children while Rachel was barren. But once again we read that barrenness was overcome. We have three generations of barrenness overcome by direct acts of God.

The phrase “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” is a way of alluding to these stories in Genesis in which we read of God’s power to overcome barrenness. And given that barrenness was the supreme symbol of death for the Jewish people, the phrase is a statement of faith that God has power even over death. So when Peter uses the phrase, he is being a very good orator. To a Jewish crowd that was astonished by the fact that the lame man was healed, Peter alludes to these stories in Genesis as if to ask, “How can you, who are Jews and the heirs of stories that demonstrate God’s power over the forces of death, how can you be surprised by the fact that this man has been healed? Is it not only to be expected that this God who could and did reverse barrenness, not only can but does heal?”

With these words said, Peter draws the attention of the listeners to Jesus. He calls Jesus God’s servant, the holy and righteous one, and the author of life. In the context of healing, the third term is the one that is relevant. Jesus is the author of life—that is not only the one who has authority over life but also the one by and in whom our lives are scripted. In other words, he has authority over our lives.

Then why in the world do we still suffer? Does God still heal today or has that stopped?

Peter says, “The faith that is through Jesus has given [the lame man] this perfect health in the presence of all of you.” In the Gospels, Jesus heals because he is empowered by God’s Spirit. And it is the same Spirit that is poured out on the church. So unless we have a clear indication from God that miracles have ceased, we should assume that the Spirit still heals. And frankly, the bible contains no indication that miracles would stop at any point. 

So does that mean that, as long as we have faith, God will heal us? Isn’t that what Peter says?

In 1989, while playing soccer, I was kicked in my left knee. And to this day my left knee remains injured. I have often prayed for healing. And some of these times, I had utmost confidence that God would heal me. Yet there are still days when my knee goes out of whack and my mobility is severely constrained.

Contrast my situation with this story: After having believed that God still healed, a friend of mine came under the influence of a philosophy professor and disbelieved. Then one day, when he was at a youth retreat, one of the adult supervisors had a heart attack while swimming. They pulled him out of the water and realized that he was not breathing and had no pulse. While the dying man’s son went off by himself to prepare for the inevitability of his father’s death, the other supervisors called 911. While waiting for the paramedics, my friend found himself with the dying man, surrounded by stunned and helpless teenagers. The helplessness of being there with boys and girls as a man lay dying suddenly brought up his old habits. He placed his hand on the man’s chest and said, “In the name of Jesus breathe!”

When the paramedics got there, they found the man sitting up and breathing. They took him to the emergency room and told the people concerned that one of the valves in the man’s heart had flipped from one side to the other. When they asked the doctors how the problem had been fixed, they said that they had no idea since fixing such a problem required physically pushing the valve back.

So, while I remain unhealed, this man was healed. And frankly, he was in no position to express faith in Jesus! What then do we make of Peter’s words? What is it that led to healing in the case of the lame man and the man in my friend’s story? And what is it that prevents my healing?

We long for an answer to these questions. All of us either ourselves suffer physically or know someone who does. And we long for healing. We crave wholeness. And if only, if only, we had a trusted way of assuring such healing! But thankfully we don’t.

Thankfully because if we did have a surefire approach the temptation to reduce our relationship with God to a formula would be too great for most of us to resist. Thankfully because we have now no option but to plead with God as people who do not deserve his touch. Thankfully because when God refuses to answer we can live up to the true meaning of Israel—one who struggles with God. Thankfully because we cannot help but admit that healing depends on God’s initiative and not on ours.

And he is still the God who in the past overcame barrenness. He is still the God who in the past raised Jesus from the dead. He is still the God who healed the lame man. He is still the God who healed the man at the retreat.

And with that confidence, with that assurance, with that boldness I ask those of you who feel led for healing to come forward. Let us in this way obey God rather than humans, obey the author of live rather than the dictates of a culture of death. As God created each of us uniquely, so also we believe he has a unique way of dealing with each of us. I am here ready for the Holy Spirit’s prompting regarding how to respond in each of your situations. And as people come forward, I request the rest of you to pray for them and for me.