Go and Tell
We love historical stories of bravery and boldness. We are inspired by Christians who have come before us, blazing the trail, calling out injustice and creating revival. One might remember Joan of Arc the French teenaged girl who, after experiencing religious visions felt compelled, called, to lead the French army to victory against the invading forces of the British army. In her deep passion and conviction, she said, “One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.” You may also remember that Joan of Arc was given over to the British army, tried as a heretic, and burned at the stake at age 19. Nonetheless, she said, “I am not afraid…I was born to do this.”
Or perhaps you admire Martin Luther, one of the most prevailing voices from the Protestant Reformation. Intending not to leave the Catholic church, only to reform it through debate, Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. “You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say,” he said. Of course, his efforts did lead to the Reformation and when subjected to interrogation before authorities he stood his ground, even to the detriment of his own wellbeing. In the face of great power and to great personal risk, story has it that he said, “Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God.”
Another: Sojourner Truth. After escaping the brutality of slavery, Sojourner Truth became a powerful abolitionist and women’s right’s activist. Long before slavery had been outlawed, Truth asked “Ain’t I a Woman?” as she argued for the rights of all women, white and black- women, who unfortunately did not often advocate for her rights in return. “I feel safe in the midst of my enemies, for the truth is all powerful and will prevail.” Before the Civil War was even fought, Truth spoke boldly and with conviction, demanding what she knew God had given to every person- dignity, agency, and freedom.
Julia Ward Howe, author of the “Battle Hymn of Republic” inspired back in 1870, what later became the holiday we celebrate today- Mother’s Day. But she didn’t intend for it to be a day to celebrate moms- Julia intended this day to be a day when the mothers of the world stood firm against war. Mother’s Day would be a day for mothers to raise their voices, to use their power to protect the humanity in their children. She invoked Jesus’ words about rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and rendering unto God what was God’s- inviting us to remember that everyone bears the image of God. Her call began “Arise, then… women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!”
Or a more recent story. You’ll remember Rosa Parks as a civil rights icon whose work became public when she refused to move to the back of the bus to accommodate white riders. Fueled by her deep faith, Rosa knew that she was prepared to do what she believed God was calling her to do. Later on she said, "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."
Maybe the name Rev. Dr. William Barber is familiar to you. Dr. Barber is a pastor in Goldsboro, NC but is a leading voice around the country for justice. In his book, he writes, “From Moses to Jesus, the Bible tells us that those who fought for justice—those who spoke truth to power, those who refused to accept that injustice and inequality had to exist and that there was no better way—always found themselves hated, hounded, and heaped upon with false accusations simply because they believed in the necessity of speaking and working for the cause of righteousness and building a more just community. This lack of majority support is why the just must live by faith and must know exactly who we are.”
Around the world, across the ages, God’s people have stood firm in the face of power, stood firm despite their personal risks, stood firm despite unfavorable odds. God’s people have looked into the eyes of injustice and violence and said, “God is with me, I will carry on.” And that, friends, that holy defiance is the example set for us by Peter and John and the early church.
Our text for this morning is a snippet of a larger story. Peter and John have perfected holy defiance by chapter 5. The first two chapters of Acts describe Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the Holy Spirit’s moving during Pentecost, and the way the early church was living. In chapter 3, Peter and John were traveling towards the Temple for prayer and along the way they heal a man who had been disabled his entire life. After delivering what must have been a heck of a sermon, the authorities have Peter and John arrested- they’re seen as a real threat to the power structure and a risk not worth taking. During their questioning, the council determines that if Peter and John will quit talking about Jesus, everyone could get along. In response to the not-so-gentle suggestion to stop teaching and speaking, Peter and John replied, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
The two return again to the Temple to preach. And again, they’re arrested. This time, they’re release from jail by an angel. But, filled with the Spirit which overrules common sense sometimes, they return to the Temple again to teach about Jesus and again, they’re arrested. The chief priest reminds them about their ruling that they should not carry on preaching, and here’s our passage for today- the apostles respond, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” The courage of their convictions. Radical trust. Holy defiance.
Where do you think Peter, John, and the apostles got their courage? How did they know, truly know that they should keep going? Well, I find in the larger story precisely where- Sandwiched in the middle of these sermons and arrests is a beautiful story that is so easy to miss. It deserves to be heard. Hear these words from Acts 4 (between the first and second arrests): After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.” For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.
The apostles could speak boldly because their community came around them in prayer and support and the Holy Spirit guided them. Let me break that down a little bit. First, Peter and John leave prison and go straight to their friends, to their own, their people. They knew they would be loved, cared for, given a meal and the chance to recharge. They had their people. I guarantee if we asked every person I listed earlier, every single one of those wise voices would say that they did what they did because someone else was holding them up, caring for them. We cannot underestimate the power of a beloved community lifting up, strengthening, and caring for one another.
And number two, Peter and John’s people went straight to prayer. They fully acknowledge the threat, the very real risk, but they pray for boldness. “Help us not to be afraid, God, but help us to testify to what you are doing in the world.” And what is God doing? The believers ask God “to stretch out God’s hand to heal.” Let me ask you this: why is this prayer not on our lips? Why do we not pray for boldness and for God to heal? I’ll tell you why we don’t pray for boldness- it requires us to open our mouths, to show up, to tell the truth even when it is scary, to love even when it is hard, to live as God’s people truly when everyone’s eyes are on us. I think we probably do pray for God to heal, but we sure can be guilty of leaving it there. “You do the work, God. I’ll be right over here cheering you on.”
Throughout this larger story of the apostles teaching and being arrested, we find one other critical piece- the Holy Spirit. God is showing up. God’s messengers are showing up. That prayer for boldness results in everyone being full of the Holy Spirit, full of their own sense of calling and clarity. Later on, when Peter and John are imprisoned and the angel of the Lord opens the prison doors, the angel also gives a message (of course the angel does, “angel” means messenger). Here’s the message: “Go, stand in the Temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.”
“Go, stand in the Temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” Go and tell the whole thing. Go, and tell every part of this dying and rising life. Go, and tell about the abundant life Jesus offers. Go, and tell the people why we are choosing to sacrifice our wealth, to share everything we have, to ensure that everyone has what they need. Go, and tell the people that in God’s kingdom there is no longer Jew or Greek, man or woman, slave or free. Go, and tell that through Christ we find life and not death, freedom and not shackles, forgiveness not violence, integrity and not fragmentation. Go, and tell that in raising Christ, God has raised all of us and it is a story we cannot keep to ourselves.
So it becomes simple, really, to see why Peter and John can look into the faces that insisted Pilate kill Jesus and respond with holy defiance. You can see why, of course they cannot stop speaking about what Jesus did, who Jesus was and is. It’s no surprise that in the face of scapegoating and bloodshed the apostles would choose boldness. The question is, perhaps, why don’t we?
I want to be clear that we should only be praying for boldness if we understand what is “the whole message about this life.” It absolutely is not us using our faith to prop up our political beliefs, social preferences, or supporting our own positions of power and privilege. Remember that the life these apostles were living were full of generosity, they lived in poverty, they associated with the lowly, they befriended sinners and healed those who had be cast out of the dominant culture. Brian Peterson, a New Testament Professor at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary says it this way, “When we stand up to such powers in what we claim is faithful opposition, how do we know that we aren’t simply projecting our own desires, prejudices, and politics onto God, when in fact we are simply serving ourselves? Perhaps Peter’s reference in [Acts 5] verse 30 to God raising Jesus is key here. What God promises and accomplishes is life rather than death, freedom rather than confinement, repentance and forgiveness rather than murder and revenge. That is the Kingdom to which the church is still called to bear witness in words and in actions.”
Friends, it is my prayer that today we will listen closely and carefully to the voice of God, that we will look for those whom Jesus would have befriended, that we will hear their stories, determine their need, that we will be willing to risk whatever is asked of us in the name of following Jesus. That we will gather around the leaders among us, supporting and praying for them, that we will wait expectantly for the Holy Spirit to come among us. That we will pray for the boldness that comes from God. A hurting and dying world is waiting for our courage. Amen.