Spirit-Spangled Faith Acts 4:23-31 4/30/19

A little background before we read today’s passage. Jesus has died, resurrected, and ascended back to heaven. Pentecost has happened. The church has formed and is growing steadily under the power of the Holy Spirit and boldness of the apostles. In Acts 3, Peter and John heal a crippled man, then preach that Jesus gave them this power. They get thrown in jail, which turns out to be a PR nightmare for the authorities. Peter and John make them publicly release them, and they share the gospel to the people and to the authorities. When they return to the believers, they tell this story and pray this prayer:

Acts 4:23-31 CEB

23 After their release, Peter and John returned to the brothers and sisters and reported everything the chief priests and elders had said. 24 They listened, then lifted their voices in unison to God, “Master, you are the one who created the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them.25 You are the one who spoke by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant:

Why did the Gentiles rage,
    and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth took their stand
    and the rulers gathered together as one
    against the Lord and against his Christ.

27 Indeed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with Gentiles and Israelites, did gather in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.28 They did what your power and plan had already determined would happen. 29 Now, Lord, take note of their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with complete confidence. 30 Stretch out your hand to bring healing and enable signs and wonders to be performed through the name of Jesus, your holy servant.” 31 After they prayed, the place where they were gathered was shaken. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking God’s word with confidence.

Land of the Free

Peter, John, and the early church lived in Israel under the thumb of Rome. They paid taxes and serve Rome economically. Rome set up a puppet government to keep the Israelites in check. The only power an Israelite could wield outside of Roman-given authority is religious authority, which they tended to abuse. So the early church was persecuted by the traditional Jewish religion and the power of Rome.

Contrast that to America. In America, we have freedom of religion. For the most part, we can practice our religion as we see fit, whatever that religion happens to be. And if something’s not right, we can take it to court or to the voting booth to try to get things changed. Ancient Jews had no power in court over their oppressors, no opportunity to vote out offenders and correct injustice. So if I have to pick between modern America and being a Jew or Christian in Ancient Rome, I choose modern America.

But there’s a temptation here. Because the state gives us some measure of power, we are tempted to wield it. When we feel persecuted—a religious monument is removed, a government official gets in trouble for sharing their faith, when a public institution finds itself at odds with a religious one—we call on the power of the state and the 1st Amendment to right this wrong (which is a double-edged sword). Or we call on the power of social media shaming to declare, “this is not America,” as if America were the kingdom we are trying to build.

The early church had no such illusions that the state would fix their problems. They had no vote, no say, no power (except maybe in a riot, which usually ended badly). Instead, they appealed to a higher power. In their prayer, they quote Psalm 2.

Why did the Gentiles rage,
    and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth took their stand
    and the rulers gathered together as one
    against the Lord and against his Christ.

This is a prayer that recognizes that when the Messiah (Jesus) comes he will reign until all the world is under his feet. The church wasn’t interested in building a better Rome. They weren’t really even interested in changing Rome as much as they wanted to see all people in all kingdoms be changed by Christ. And they believed that they could appeal to this power over and against the most powerful political force of their day.

And look what happened, at first there were martyrs and persecution, but then emperors became Christian, Rome fell, and Christianity lived on. While Rome was falling, missionaries were ready and waiting to share the gospel with the invading hordes, which is how most of us ended up in Christian cultures.

But about the same time that was happening, Christianity began falling to the temptation of trying to use the state’s power (e.g. Constantine) to bring the heavenly kingdom. The message got diluted, and nominal Christianity began. When we try to use secular power, we almost always abuse it. I think that’s why the American Church is healthier than the European Church. Europe, so fed up with the established church’s hypocrisy and abuse of power, is trying to find it’s way without the church. If American Christians aren’t careful, we run the same risk of demanding our rights and alienating the lost.

Home of the Brave

But apart from hurting our witness, there is another problem with calling on the wrong power. Look at the early church—the marginalization, the powerlessness, the oppression. Then look at what they prayed for:

 29 Now, Lord, take note of their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with complete confidence. 30 Stretch out your hand to bring healing and enable signs and wonders to be performed through the name of Jesus, your holy servant.” 31 After they prayed, the place where they were gathered was shaken. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking God’s word with confidence.

They didn’t ask to be rescued from persecution. They didn’t ask for their rights to be restored. They asked for boldness and confidence to keep preaching the gospel. They ask for the Holy Spirit to show up and do miracles. And the Holy Spirit showed up, fueling their mission, empowering their actions, and growing the church. With fearlessness and recklessness that saw God shine his light in a resistant and dark world.

American Christians have less to be afraid of than any other group of Christians perhaps in the history of the world. The worst we have to deal with is internet trolls, angry bosses, tax exemption status, or very isolated acts of violence that are not state-sanctioned (as opposed to being eaten by lions at the request of the emperor). But often we are more scared to share our faith than ever before. Our churches are shrinking; our people are hurting. We hold the cure, but we feel awkward bringing it up.

Maybe we forgot to ask for power. Maybe we trusted the wrong power. Maybe we aren’t waiting around in prayer for the Holy Spirit to shake the room, and instead, we’re putting our faith in politicians who know they can score polling points with us if they say the right Christian buzzwords.

All Nations Under God

Jesus will bring his kingdom to the whole world with his power. He will do it with the powers that be or in spite of the powers that be. He will do it with a church asking for his help, or he will do with others because the church was looking for strength elsewhere. Nothing can stand in His way, but we want to be a part of his solution, not an obstacle he has to overcome.

Stop. Pray for the Spirit to give you confidence and the power to do miracles (miraculous and everyday transformation). Then, go and do it. Start by listening to people’s stories and earning their trust. Then look for opportunities to show that the gospel can heal their brokenness. If nothing else, just try to answer the question, “what did you do this weekend?” honestly. A preacher I listened to recently pointed out how easy that question can be about what God did through worship on Sunday, but often we side-step our Sunday experience.