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Speaking Boldly

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Sep 20

Text: Acts 4:13-31

Acts of the Apostles tells the striking story of the first years of the early church. Written by the same individual who wrote the gospel of Luke, both Luke and Acts describe in vivid, first-hand language events in the early decades of the church, as the Jesus movement was growing and beginning to take on a distinctive character. Much like the letters of Paul, the Book of Acts recounts gentile conversions, the spread of Christianity to the Roman Empire—far beyond the geographical boundaries of Israel and the Galilee.

Acts tells of tensions between the powerful, religious establishment and the followers of Jesus. It describes tensions that arose within the church, early theological debates. It tells of the radical practice of the early Christians—holding property in common and caring for widows and orphans out of the common coffer. It even admits to the controversy and internal friction sparked by those practices.

The book of Acts is written as if it is a compilation of eyewitness accounts. The author even uses “we” to give the narrative a sense of immediacy. Yet, scholarly consensus dates the authorship to between 80 and 90 C.E.—a full fifty to sixty years after Jesus’ death.

By contrast, the letters of Paul date to between 52 and 67 C.E. Paul’s activity spanned from about 37 to 67 C.E. and it seems he first put pen to paper (or ink to papyri) in about 52 C.E. So Paul ‘s writings precede the writing of Luke-Acts.

The Acts of the Apostles is riveting. It’s full of preaching and healing, trials, imprisonments, persecutions, controversies. It reads like historiography. Yet it is full of miracles and strange events, which would not have passed muster for other early historians like Eusebius or Josephus. So what is Acts? It is a powerful record of “Apostolic faith in Jesus Christ, which forms the church.”

If we cannot trust it as accurate historical reporting, here’s what we can trust: We can trust the emotional tenor of Acts. The boldness and fervor of those early witnesses. The tension, edginess and risk of the time. Being a follower of Jesus was a high-stakes proposition. Being a bold witness was risky. We can trust the power of the Spirit that inspired that boldness in the Apostles. In Peter and John.

We hop in on the story today in Acts chapter 4. The story is in full swing. The Spirit has come with power on the day of Pentecost and the followers of Jesus are on fire! Peter and John have been preaching and healing in the name of Jesus. And all of this is creating a commotion, which draws the attention of the authorities.

Our morning scripture picks up as Peter and John are being called before the authorities and asked to account for themselves. “By what authority? By what power do you act?” the Jerusalem council wants to know.

Here’s where we hit a speed bump. Peter and John are called before the Jewish authorities for preaching and healing in the name of Christ. It is quite clear that Luke-Acts wants to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus. We must reject this idea—which has caused so much harm over the centuries. Admittedly, there was strain between mainstream expressions of Judaism, and this growing sect, which began as an upstart reform movement. And I don’t mean to minimize that. (This is a rich topic to be explored another day!)

But there’s an alternate, straightforward way to read this conflict in Acts: It’s not their Jewishness that sparks opposition, so much as their role and position as authorities. They Jesus people are becoming a movement. Peter and John are attracting large crowds and, as William Willimon writes, “the Jesus disturbance is in danger of becoming a mass movement.”

What do authorities do when they’re in charge of keeping the peace and crowds threaten the order of things? Maybe they jail the leaders. Or dismantle the people’s tents, the way officials did during the Occupy movements. Maybe they use fire hoses the way Bull Connor did in Birmingham in 1963. Or teargas and water canons, like Hungarian authorities did this week in attempt to turn back the flow of Syrian refugees at the border.

The Jerusalem authorities merely told Peter and John to “stop talking.” Stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” They are so bold! Something has touched them and changed their lives so powerfully that they cannot stop talking!

I love the part of the story where the authorities realize that Peter and John are “uneducated and ordinary men” and are amazed. We kind of like Ph.D.s around here—and that’s cool! But you don’t have to be extraordinary or credentialed to speak boldly about faith! In fact, being in a community like Cambridge with so many erudite folks may be a bit intimidating when it comes to speaking about faith.

One of our themes at First Church this fall is “faith and life.” We’ll be exploring together those places where our faith and life meet, places where what we do in church connects with our actions in the world. We’ll ask where in the world we see God at work. And we’ll talk about what words we use to speak about our faith. We’ll be doing all of this through sermons and 10:00 hours, at our All-church Retreat in October, and in the new Faith and Life Groups that we are launching today. (There will be sign up sheets in Margaret Jewett Hall following worship. More on that during announcements.)

Speaking about our faith can be hard. I suspect there are several reasons we get stuck. First, our spirituality is intimate—it is close to the heart—and sometimes we feel exposed sharing experiences that matter so deeply. Sometimes we have learned to distrust our own deep spiritual instincts—those flashes of insight and and inchoate perceptions that there is “something more” and that we are all connected.

Sometimes we get tripped up on classical theological language. We may have powerful associations with words like salvation and redemption but we don’t quite know what those words mean in our own day-to-day experience. On top of that, there are centuries of scholarship and controversy and even church schisms over the precise meaning of those words. We feel “uneducated and ordinary” and don’t know how our voices can join in that conversation.

A final reason that it’s sometimes difficult to speak about our faith is that we live in a time and place where the culture of Christendom is so normative, that faith has lost its edge. To claim Christianity means very little. Or to claim Christianity conjures up for many people a whole political and social agenda that we may not share! And if we are to claim Christ, we have to begin with an apologetic: “I’m not that kind of Christian.” And then you’re into a whole political and theological conversation—that you don’t want to be in—when all you want to do is say what’s important in your life.

If you are wondering how to speak about your faith, let me propose something simple that may help. This afternoon in confirmation class we will talk about the difference between faith and belief. It can be hard to pinpoint exactly what we believe in a cognitive sense. To which truth claims do we give our assent? But faith is something different. Faith is a way of living.
And if you’re part of a Christian community, I suspect you know something about that way of living—a way of invitation, hospitality and welcome, forgiveness and grace.

What’s more: We at First Church have a very particular and characteristic way of living out our calling to follow Jesus. And we can be bold about who we are. Not prideful, but bold. Bold like Peter and John, who could not keep from speaking. Bold like Paul and Silas—bound and jailed—who knew God’s love so powerfully that they could not keep from singing. “My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation, I hear the sweet but far off hymn, that hails a new creation.”

God is making all things new. Drawing people together in love, breaking down barriers, calling us into community, offering forgiveness, healing and grace. That’s what God is up to. Our job is to proclaim it boldly. When you have been touched by the grace of God in community, you can’t keep from speaking. Like that sentimental old church camp song (I loved so much as a child): “I’ll shout it from the mountaintop. I want the world to know. The Lord of love has come to me. I want to pass it on.”

Here’s what I want the world to know. There isn’t just one form of Christianity in America. The “Christian right” may have the loudest voice, but they do not have the only voice. There is a strong progressive Christianity that thrives on the love of Christ, that comes together in community, that looks to forebears of the past, but also to what is possible in the future—with new generations coming up, changing demographics, a wider circle of God’s love.

Christianity is entirely consistent with a radical embrace of people who are “othered.” In fact, some of us are convinced that’s how the whole thing got started. That what Jesus did was to set a table that would shatter the practice of “othering,” a table of extraordinary welcome.

Here’s what I want the world to know. There is a visionary church right here in Harvard Square. A congregation that meets within these monumental stone walls. A soul-searching, justice seeking congregation of thinking Christians. In the words of the UCC slogan, “Our faith may be 2,000 years old, but our thinking is not.”

We are not perfect. Maybe we’re not for everyone. But we do love Jesus and we are willing to listen—deeply—to what God asks of us. We are willing to be accountable to the ways Jesus calls us to follow.

Here’s what I want the world to know: There’s a Spirit in this place. You can feel it. This is a place where the Spirit shows up. I’m ready to say it boldly. How about you?

William H. Willimon, Acts: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1988) p. 48.

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