The Fifth Sunday of Easter May 6, 2012
1 John 5:1-5
210, 208(1-3, 8-10), 201(1-3), 201(4-5)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
“To those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2-3) Amen.
False modesty is like cheap paint—it doesn’t hide anywhere near as much as you think it will. For example, experience has taught us that a solid percentage of those who say “I am honored to…” or “It is my great privilege to…” really mean something other than what such words should mean. Occasionally, the words are genuine, but those times seem to be as obvious as they are rare. As in all things, Scripture is both wise and correct when it says, “By their fruits you will know them” (cf. Luke 6:43-44).
Actions always speak louder than words, and nothing articulates true feelings any louder than sinful pride. A man, for example, that is filled with pride in himself and in his own worth and accomplishments doesn’t feel humbled by the praise and adoration of others. He feels he is altogether justified in receiving such accolades.
Part of the profound change that God works in His children at conversion is the recognition that to God alone belong all praise and glory. God gives us gifts to use in His service and to His glory. When we put those gifts to the best possible use, Scripture also clearly lays out what our attitude ought to be: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10).
But that’s not sinful mankind’s natural inclination, is it? Which means there is also a part in the Christian that doesn’t want to follow God’s will. That old Adam in us loves the praise. We absorb it like a dry sponge. We not only want to excel, we want others to recognize our excellence. We not only want to accomplish great things, we want recognition of our accomplishments. Then—as if that isn’t bad enough—we seek desperately to justify our prideful inclinations, or to cover them with false modesty or feigned humility.
The Scriptures, however, consistently lay out a much different course for the followers of Jesus Christ. To find out in greater detail just what this means, as well as that more God-pleasing course of action, we turn to today’s text for our instruction—God’s Word found recorded in the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts:
But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted Him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice, and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. [ESV]
These are the verbally inspired words of our God—the very words through which eternal life is both given and sustained. Mindful of the great value of these words from our God, so we petition that same God: “Set us apart for holy purposes by your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
At the risk of further solidifying my peasant status in society, I freely admit that there are many, many things I just don’t “get.” I don’t, for example, get many art forms. Where others seem to find depth, insight, and excitement, I see blobs, splotches, and weirdness. While I appreciate a modestly well-dressed man or woman and the dignity dressing up lends to any occasion, I don’t get fashion. While the crowds seem to be wowed by, and applaud wildly at, just about whatever comes down the fashion runway, to me it looks most often like concentration camp survivors that came out on the short end of a tussle with a couple of rabid bobcats. (Unless, of course, the crowds are applauding the courage it took to wear such outfits in public—in which case I do get it.) I also don’t understand opera, and I don’t get the appeal of either the Oscars or the Grand March on prom night.
Understand that I’m not saying that all of these things are necessarily wrong or sinful, in-and-of themselves. I’m saying that I just don’t get them. Unless, of course, the point or purpose is the glorification of man, in which case I get it, but am even more repulsed by it. Again, to be perfectly clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with appreciating both the beauty and the variety that God included in his amazing creation. Yet, every time that adoration is directed toward the creation rather than the Creator, something is fundamentally wrong.
To help each of us to clarify our thoughts on all of this—because we are bound to get bad advice from our old Adam in this regard—compare the whole “praise me” mindset with the basic message and thrust of our text. The contrast could not be more profound. Think, for example, of some fashion guru being honored by a standing ovation and showered with bouquets of flowers for the garish outfits he just displayed, and compare that image with Peter and the other disciples in the text. The basic difference is that the latter was all about Jesus Christ, the former was almost certainly all about anything but Jesus Christ.
Peter set the tone in the opening words of the text when he said: “We must obey God rather than men.” [v.29] While he spoke these words in response to those Jewish religious leaders who had commanded the disciples to stop talking about Jesus, these words are really foundational to everything that the Christian thinks, says, or does. The basis of life itself is not so much about our relationship with other human beings as it is about our relationship with our God. To put it another way, if our relationship with God is not good, nothing else in life can be.
Against the backdrop of this truth, consider all the different pastimes and pursuits that occupy man’s time and talent and it all takes on a different perspective, a different meaning or character. Jesus’ disciples finally “got it” after His death and resurrection. They were different men, especially after they were filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They no longer argued with each other about who was to be the greatest when Jesus established what they thought would be an earthly kingdom. They no longer made special requests for positions that would gain them the praise and envy of men. Suddenly they recognized “privilege” where they would never have thought to look for it. You heard it in the text, but did you actually process the words when you heard them? The words are fairly stunning, not only in their simplicity but in the profound change of heart that they indicate: “Then [the disciples] left the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” [v.41]
We begin to grasp the amazing transformation that had taken place in these men. By the events of Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Pentecost these men had been transformed into something truly different, truly special. They were true “men of God.” While they certainly didn’t search out pain and persecution, they now recognized such things as that which they truly were and are: examples of divine privilege and honor.
It’s important that we recognize not only the nature of such things, but just how and why Christians can and should expect nothing less. God does not instruct his children to go out and seek to inflame or irritate unbelievers. He has commanded us to obey—thus, the “We must obey God rather than men.” The reality of life in a sinful world is that obedience to God will most often result in difficult times of one sort or another. Our Savior is the most obvious example.
We seem to be losing sight of that fact in our modern way of reckoning. As life in general grows ever easier, mankind seems to be convinced that religious convictions should also follow the same path of least resistance. That’s why one of the fastest growing perversions of Christianity today is something called “the emerging church.” You will undoubtedly hear more and more about this as time goes on. It is the natural religious by-product of a society that has come to believe that everything in life should be pain-free and “natural.” In other words, if a Bible teaching makes you uncomfortable, dismiss it. Get rid of it. Pretend it doesn’t exist—especially if it condemns something that you feel would make your life easier or would make you happier in some way.
Obviously this is just the opposite of “We must obey God rather than men.” One of the foundational pillars therefore of the “emerging church” is the rejection of all authority. One simply cannot hold to God as the one who decides what is right and what is wrong if your ultimate goal is to allow everyone to determine such things for themselves. In the end it is just a demonic perversion of Satan’s original temptation of Eve. While there he promised: “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (cf. Genesis 3), now the temptation is: “You yourself will be God, determining good and evil.” The sheer prideful blasphemy and arrogance is breathtaking in its audacity.
If the basis of our lives is boiled down to Peter’s simple statement, “we must obey God rather than men” what then is it that God has called us to do. Our text did not leave us without an answer: “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” [v.42] You and I are called to be teachers. More than that, we are privileged to be teachers in the service of our God.
That can be a tall and intimidating order unless we break it down a bit—quantify and clarify just what it is that our God expects of us. In a nutshell, God has called us to remove ignorance whenever and wherever possible. That means that your specific calling is that not one soul in your circle of life should ever be able to stand before his or her Maker on Judgment Day and be able to use as his or her excuse: “No one ever told me the truth about Jesus Christ.” In fact, our job is at the same time both simple and sublime. Many today have heard about Jesus Christ, relatively few have heard the truth of the Gospel. That means that while the name of our Savior is known, what He did for us is not. Americans today can attend services in a Christian church from cradle to grave and still believe that the Gospel is all about feeding the poor and doing good deeds. They live and die believing that Jesus was a guide, role model, enabler, and if they will just do as Jesus did, they will earn the right to follow where He has gone. Make no mistake, this is not the Gospel. It is pure work-righteousness.
The message we have been called to share, to articulate, is that Jesus came to do for us what we never could and never would do for ourselves. When we say that we believe in Jesus Christ, it means that we not only believe that He existed and that He died upon a Roman cross almost 2000 years ago, it means that we trust that His goodness (not our own) is that which has paid for our sin. While we cannot and do not make up for our sins by our good works, there is no need to do so. Jesus Christ removed the need, the threat, the debt. Therefore the simple message we are called now to share is this: “Jesus did it for you.”
Understand that this does not mean that you can convert anyone—you can’t, but God the Holy Spirit can. To do so, however, a human being has to hear the truth. That’s exactly why Jesus left the disciples with the simple instruction to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15). That’s why the disciples, just prior to our text, were miraculously released from prison and why they immediately went back to teaching. That’s why Peter said what he did to the Jewish rulers: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” [vv.30-31]
No longer could the Jews claim ignorance as to the true meaning of Jesus Christ. Were any of them converted? We’ll find out in Heaven. Until then our calling is simply to do what those first disciples did. Will it be easy? Of course not. Is it “worth it”? Absolutely! Just as you and I would consider it “worth it” when someone shared the message of the Gospel with us.
God grant us such a love for our fellow human beings, as well as a clear and abiding appreciation for the incomparable value of our calling and purpose, and for the incomparable privilege of working in His service—even if it means hardship. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.