Thursday, 10 October 2013
The message and the movement (Acts 5:17-42)
Since 1949 China has been ruled by the communist party. Given that the communists expelled missionaries and discouraged religion you would have thought that the church was finished. In fact the opposite has been the case. In 2006 a columnist in the New York Times explained, 'although China bans foreign missionaries and sometimes harasses and imprisons Christians, especially in rural areas, Christianity is booming in China.' In fact since 1949 Christianity has spread at a rate unparalleled in China's history.
In the book of Acts we can see a similar phenomenon. The church faces adversity but the gospel continues to spread. This evening we are going to look at the message and the movement.
1. Christianity is based on a message
The apostles were arrested and put in the public jail. But an angel of The Lord came at night, opened the gates of the jail, and brought them out. He told them, 'Go to the temple and give people the message of life.' So they went to the temple and taught the people.
When they are brought before the religious authorities they speak about the this message. They explain that Jesus died and was raised from the dead; that he rules in heaven and offers people forgiveness for sin; and that enables people to repent and gives us the Holy Spirit that we might be changed from the inside out.
I used to get frustrated when people would talk about sustaining and growing the church. Experts would speak about becoming relevant and finding new ways of doing church. I believe in cultural engagement and want to be contemporary. But, in some circles, I didn't hear enough about the gospel being key to church growth and health. In any plans for the church the good news must be key. Our task involves speaking to God about people (in prayer) and to people about God (in evangelism).
2. Christianity is expressed through a movement
Newsweek once published an article entitled, 'Forget the church, follow Jesus.' It was picking up on the sentiment of some people who say that they love Jesus, but hate the church. If by church they mean the institution that oversaw inquisitions, persecuted reformers and discouraged the reading of the Bible then I can understand their sentiments. However, if by church they mean the flawed community of imperfect people who struggle to follow Jesus while we depend on him for his grace and mercy, then they have a problem. For in the New Testament love for Jesus is intrinsically linked with love for his people.
In the book of Acts the church consists of a deeply caring community of people who show their dependence on God as they cry out to him in prayer and are emboldened by the person of the Holy Spirit to speak about Jesus. In the book of Acts this movement grows despite adversity. As Jesus declared, 'I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.'
In chapter four of Acts, Peter and John are before the religious leaders who severely threaten them and forbid them to speak about Jesus; so the church prays, they are filled with the Holy Spirit, and they all speak the word of God boldly.
Now, in chapter five, the apostles are put in the public jail. An angel of the Lord opens the doors, and they go and proclaim the gospel in the temple courts. When Gamaliel, speaks at the end of this passage, he speaks some truth - if this movement is from God then the authorities will not be able to stop it. Just look at the first verse of chapter six: 'in those days the number of disciples was increasing.'
Gyles Brandreth was an MP in England. However, he lost his seat at parliament. This left him depressed and feeling worthless. So he started to search for the keys to happiness. With the Irish psychiatrist Anthony Clare he came up with seven secrets of happiness. In light of this passage I find the first two of these secrets really interesting: develop a passion and be a leaf on a tree.
Be a leaf on a tree. Brandreth writes, 'To thrive, you have to be both an individual — with a sense that you are unique and that you matter — and at the same time you need to be connected to a bigger organism: a family, a community, a company, a club. You need to be part of something bigger than yourself.'
What could be better than the movement Jesus is creating? This community of forgiven people. This hospital for sinners. This movement that grows despite all opposition.
Developer a passion. Look at the passion of the apostles. They are warned by the Jewish ruling council not to speak about Jesus, they are then flogged, and they leave that place rejoicing delighting that they were counted worthy of suffering dishonour for the sake of the name.
Iranian Christian leader Mehdi Dijab spent nine years in prison for his faith and was murdered in 1994, six months after release from prison. One of his prison guards once asked him, 'does Jesus Christ know that he has someone on prison who loves him?' He replied, 'Jesus Christ our Lord has millions of people who love him and who wish to sacrifice their lives for him. I too wish I was one of them.'. Later relating this Dijab wrote, 'how sweet it will be if one day my life is sacrificed for him.'
In a society that lacks any real sense of purpose we can be a part of the movement that Jesus is building, we can be a leaf on the greatest of all trees. A leaf on the international, multiracial, community, of people proclaiming the message of life. A leaf on a tree that will last beyond this age for all eternity. And we can have a passion for a risen king, who is kind and compassionate, truthful and holy. We have reason for joy!