4/29/2019 10:08:32 AM
The Risen Christ Empowers His Witnesses
Spring is the season of highly anticipated sunshine, rain showers, budding flowers, longer days, baseball, and… Potholes. Lots and lots of potholes. We even have our fair share on School Road. But there is a 59-year-old man in Gretna, Nebraska, a small town outside of Omaha, who may have a pothole to thank for saving his life. Did you hear about this? This past Monday afternoon, an ambulance rushed to help this man with a racing heart at work. They had a 20-minute drive to the emergency room, and at one point the patient's heart was beating at a rate of 200 beats per minute. A normal resting heart rate is between 60 to 90 beats per minute. So his was more than double. During the seven-mile ride, the ambulance hit a doozy of a pothole. Then something unexpected happened. The medics on the ambulance told the hospital that the jolt of the pothole converted the patient’s racing heart back to normal rhythms. A doctor described the pothole as having the same effect as the electric paddles they use. I think it’s safe to say that this 59-year-old man from Nebraska will forever look at potholes differently. A pothole calmed his racing heart.
It wasn’t a pothole that calmed the racing, troubled hearts of the apostles who cowered in fear behind locked doors that first Easter evening. It was Jesus, the risen Christ. In the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the picture we often receive of Jesus’ closest followers is one of timidity, confusion, doubt, and fear. But then when we turn just a few pages to the book of Acts, we see the very same men with markedly different character. The book of Acts shares the events of the Early Christian Church; the explosion of Christianity after Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. Today, we consider an account from Acts chapter 5. Notice the boldness and confidence of the apostles:
12 The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life.” 21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people. When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to. 25 Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” 26 At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them. 27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” 29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
I read this, and I have to ask, “Are these really the same guys?” Denying Peter, Doubting Thomas? The same disciples who scattered at Jesus’ arrest and were found behind locked doors on Easter evening? Yes, these are them. The night of his resurrection, Jesus came and stood among these scared, frightened men and gave calm and confidence to their troubled hearts. He said, “Peace be with you!” And he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw Jesus.(John 20:19,20) And now here in Acts 5, just weeks and months following Jesus’ Ascension and following Pentecost, the apostles are boldly proclaiming all God had done through his son Jesus Christ with no regard to the consequences. They testify how God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him as Prince and Savior before the very men who crucified him; the very men they were hiding from that evening in the locked room. What contrast we see in the apostles! All because the risen Christ empowers his witnesses.
It’s not only the apostles. This is Shahbaz Bhatti. He was a Pakistani politician and an elected member of the National Assembly of Pakistan. He was a Christian in a country that’s less than two percent Christian. In fact, he was the only Christian in the prime minister’s cabinet. Shahbaz had received death threats since 2009 when he spoke in support of Pakistani Christians who had been attacked. The threats increased in 2010 when another Pakistani Christian was sentenced to death. Shahbaz said, “I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us, and I am ready to die for a cause.” On March 2nd, 2011, he did. He was traveling to work, having just visited his mother, when his vehicle was sprayed with bullets. Why would he so boldly share his faith when he knew it would likely cost him his life? The risen Christ empowers his witnesses.
Would you take a bullet for your faith and trust in Jesus? Or like the apostles would you go to jail for proclaiming his name? Better yet, after being released from jail and led out by an angel, would you immediately go back to the most public place in the entire city and start teaching “all about this new life?”
I want to say yes to that. So badly I do. But first, I need to confess how I have often failed to stand up for my faith and proclaim Jesus with far less on the line. You and I are blessed to live in a country with religious freedom. We can purchase Bibles, support Christian schools, gather for public worship. Any situation of having to choose between my faith in Jesus or my physical safety or freedom is very rare. Yet even in broad-minded, 21st century America, there are times that call for Christian courage and conviction to heed the apostles’ words in our reading and obey God rather than human beings. Fewer and fewer agree that Jesus is the only way to heaven; that “salvation is found in no one else.”(Acts 4:12) And supposedly tolerant, open-minded people can become narrow-minded and vindictive, even nasty in the face of unchanging Bible truths. Have we always shared our faith and boldly proclaimed Jesus and everything he has commanded when it may not have been the popular thing to do? No, not always. There have been times when I have taken the easier way and obeyed human beings, and their opinions, rather than God.
After the apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin, the high priest questioned them. He said, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.” “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” – to make us guilty of this man’s blood. When Jesus was on trial before Pontius Pilate, these same Jewish Leaders had told the governor, “May his blood be on us and our children.”(Matthew 27:25) Well, now it was. And the High Priest seems to reveal his guilty conscience.
How does Peter and the other apostles respond to his charge? “The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins.” “Yes, you did kill Jesus, the Messiah.” The apostles say. “But by raising him from the dead and exalting him to his right hand as Prince and Savior, God wants to bring you close to him and forgive your sins.” See, the apostles aren’t only speaking to the man who killed Jesus and threw them in jail, they’re speaking to a guilty conscience. Their response is incredible. They share forgiveness through the risen and exalted Jesus.
The point of this reading from Acts is not: Look how bold and fearless the apostles were in the face of persecution. Be like the apostles. No. It’s the message they share. That’s why Peter and the apostles are such bold witnesses. God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him! Why? – To bring forgiveness! Forgiveness to Israel and the High Priest for killing the Messiah sent to them. Forgiveness to the apostles for their lack of understanding and cowardice. Forgiveness to you and me for when we have failed to fearlessly confess Jesus and his teaching. Your sins are forgiven, all of them. The risen Christ proves it. Our sin that Jesus carried on the cross couldn’t contain him to the grave. God raised Jesus from the dead! And as the apostles said, “We are witnesses of these things.” – Witnesses empowered by the risen Christ.
In the 8 o’clock service this weekend, 50 new members to Immanuel will stand in front of church and boldly confess their faith and trust in Jesus. They’ll respond to questions such as “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” And “Do you intend to continue firm in the true Christian faith… even to death?” They will respond, “Yes! I do, and I ask God to help me.” What a joy it is to hear Christians confess their faith. Yet it’s not only those new to Immanuel at the 8 o’clock service, it’s you. In a minute from now we’ll stand to confess our faith with the words of the creed. And you confess your faith and are “witnesses of these things,” not only through the creed, and not only by gathering here for worship, but every time, through even the simplest ways, you point to Jesus and the forgiveness God brings through him. Yes, the risen Christ empowers you to be his witnesses. Amen.