Sacrifice to Build: Listening to God, Acts 5:27-32
First United Methodist Church, April 28, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
If you’re one who reads the monthly newsletter, you have perhaps noticed on the Preaching Plan that we have designated Sundays beginning with Palm Sunday as Vision Sundays, which will continue up through May 12 as we bring our commitments to Rebuilding First Church forward. We’ve wanted this time of preparation and discernment to be a spiritual journey; a time of dreaming and praying about our church and God’s will for our church in the days ahead, and not simply raising money to pay for bricks and mortar, furnaces and air-conditioners.
We began by sending out and posting on Face Book a daily scripture to help us focus and reflect on the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem as told in the Old Testament writings of Ezra and Nehemiah. What insights can we gain from them about who we are, about our congregation and about those in the greater community who are observing our efforts? What we do here in this place impacts the community beyond we who gather in this place, and it’s important for us to remember that! A daily prayer continues to be offered to help us relate those scripture lessons to our experience today.
Easter Sunday, Vision Sunday #2, is all about faith. We read how the women, how the disciples of Jesus first respond with confusion and fear and a sense of having lost everything they had hoped for, and then, with the help of angels, their faith grows. Still grieving the loss of the man who walked beside them, they remember the things he taught, and are convinced in a way they hadn’t yet fully realized that Jesus is indeed God’s Son. They grow to understand their task to carry on, to be not merely witnesses who have observed, but witnesses who speak of the resurrection, and of the love and grace they have come to know through him.
Through their faith, the good news of Jesus Christ has been passed on to us, entrusting us with the message, to be witnesses in this day and age.
This is Vision Sunday #3, when we are reminded again, of the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf—how he gave up his life up for our sake. But as we recall the story, we can see that his disciples sacrifice as well. They have come to understand that the message is too important to simply return to life as it once was. They’re willing to take a risk to share the good news.
A lot has happened in the few weeks between the time that Jesus was crucified and the section of scripture we read today. You remember how the disciples scattered and hid after Jesus was arrested and crucified, fearing for their own lives after what they’ve seen. But God doesn’t leave them alone, trembling in fear and hiding out under a staircase somewhere. The resurrected Christ comes to them, appears to them several times: first, when everyone is together except Thomas. All who are present see and believe in the resurrected Christ, but Thomas doubts until Jesus comes again, and then he, too, believes. Later Jesus walks and talks with two disciples on the road to Emmaus; on another occasion, he hosts a fish fry for them on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. He then has a conversation with Peter: tells him to feed his sheep. Finally, I’m sure—all too soon—the time comes when they watch him ascend into heaven.
By this reading, the Holy Spirit has been given and the disciples have begun to boldly proclaim the message of Jesus. In verse 12 of Chapter 5 in the book of Acts, we read that many signs and wonders have been done among the people through the apostles. Many men and women have been added to their numbers, and the sick are brought to them to be healed. Their friends and relatives lay them out in the streets on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might pass over them, and they would be healed.
This of course, doesn’t go unnoticed. The high priest and his associates are filled with jealousy. This is the same group of people who sentenced Jesus to death, but the disciples continue to heal, to cast out demons, to proclaim Christ, in spite of the unhappiness of the religious powers that be. So they’re arrested. Put into the public jail. But during the night an angel appears, opens the doors of the jail and tells them to go back to where they had been—to keep on preaching.
No longer intimidated, no longer fearful, filled with the Spirit, the disciples return, they teach.
The legal authorities reconvene the next morning and send the guards to fetch the disciples from their jail cell. Uh, they’re not there. The cell is locked, the guards are standing outside guarding…but no one is inside.
Can you imagine? They check the bars on the window, they look behind the toilet, they look in the toilet. Where’d they go? How’d they do that?
They return to the council and make their report. The council is puzzled, too, of course. They don’t know what to think. About that time, apparently someone slips in the side door: psst…come look—the men you arrested are out on the temple courts again, teaching the people.
The guard is dispatched, and they kindly urge the disciples to return to the courthouse. “Would you mind following us, gentlemen?” The guards are fearful of how the crowd will respond, so there are no threats, no violence.
This is where we pick up today’s reading: back in the courtroom, the disciples are confronted: “You were given strict orders not to teach in this name!” The council won’t even speak the name of Jesus. “Yet you continue to teach, and are determined to make us responsible for this man’s death.” (They still refuse to speak his name!)
Peter and the others reply, “We obey God rather than men,” and in that courtroom, to the men who had hung Jesus on the cross, the disciples witness to the resurrection, to the power of the Holy Spirit, and how Jesus was exalted to give repentance and the forgiveness of sins. “We are witnesses,” they tell the council. ‘And so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey.”
The council is furious and call for the disciples to be put to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, well respected by his peers and the people says—let’s take a breath. Send them out and let’s talk.
When they do that, Gamaliel addresses the court urging caution. He cites several examples of others who have rallied the sentiment of the people. He names several men who were eventually killed and whose followers scattered. “I advise you,” he tells the court: “let them go. If their purpose is of human origin, they will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, but you will find yourselves fighting against God."
His speech persuades the courtroom. The apostles are called in and are flogged. They’re ordered not to speak in the name of Jesus, and they are released.
And you know what they did: they never stop teaching or proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. The message is too important. The outcome of what they have to say is essential to the lives and souls of every man and woman from that day forward.
The disciples are willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ. They are willing—and ultimately, they give up their lives for the cause of Christ. You and I are the benefactors of their willingness to sacrifice.
Sacrifice is giving up something we consider valuable for the sake of something of greater worth. In today’s world, sacrifice isn’t high on the list of what we expect to do. It isn’t something we’re terribly good at. We like the idea of having it all, and we’re told that we CAN have it all. That’s why the idea of plastic (credit cards) is/are such a temptation. For a price, we can have whatever we want. For a price, we don’t have to wait. For a price, we can obtain whatever we think we need. And of course, our wants and needs get all jumbled up together and it can be hard to figure out which is which.
As we think about/talk about/consider our individual roles in Rebuilding First Church, it involves sacrifice. As a member of the church, we commit ourselves to the ministry of our church through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness. We give a piece of ourselves, a piece of our time, a piece of our wallets/our pocketbooks to sustain the ministries of our church, and as we do that, it’s not only to sustain what we have, it’s to make things better, to build it up, to find new and better ways of reaching out, to identify men, women and children who don’t have a faith community, who don’t know Jesus, who are living their lives pretty much alone. It’s to ensure that our children and our grandchildren have the good and blessed things that we’ve experienced in a faith community. Sure, things will be different for the next generation and those yet to come…we’ll have different ways of communicating, of witnessing, of learning…but the need to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ will not be outdated. The need for a Savior will remain until Christ returns in his final glory.
You and I don’t face terrifying opposition, we face a lack of confidence, a lack of passion, a lack of decisive action, and a building that needs work. I can’t guarantee that what we we’re planning to do will heal the church of all that is wrong, but it’s a good start. As we check the various needs off the list of “to do’s” we will be invigorated and encouraged and we will be reminded—and remind those around us—that we’re alive and well, that we have a mission and ministry that is vital, and we’re ready to take it on together. It’s less about bricks and mortar and air conditioning and furnaces, and more about rededicating ourselves to the ministry to which we’ve been called and the people around us who still need to hear the good news.
Just as God raised Jesus from death, so is God raising the church from death, and calling each one of us to be a part of it. It takes discernment, wisdom, sacrifice and risk.
May the sacrifices we make today bring life and hope for those yet to come.
We do it in together in Jesus’ name. Amen.