First Mennonite Church
November 8, 2020
For the Sake of the Name, Neither Fight nor Flight
Text: Acts 5:17-42
Chapter five of Acts begins with a really sad and sort of scary story. Ananias and Sapphira were caught in their dishonesty. They wanted to pretend being selfless about their giving to the church, when in fact, they were taking care of themselves first. The couple sold a property and pocketed some of the money, maybe for the rainy days they thought, but then told Peter, it was all that was in the bag as Ananias handed it to Peter. Peter, graciously encouraged Ananias to correct himself about his statement, but Ananias stood by his claim that it was all the money. Ananias died and his wife died three hour later for making the same claim.
After that story, Luke once again focuses on the successful ministry of the apostle. They were boldly preaching the gospel, great number of men and women were coming to faith in Jesus, and many signs of wonders were being done. People from neighboring towns were coming, bringing along their sick and those tormented by evil spirits to be healed. We are told, it only took Peter’s shadow to fall upon the sick to be healed. The people held the apostles and all believers in “high esteem” (5:13).
But once again, conflict arose. And that is where our passage comes in. The high priest and his allies were filled with jealousy about the apostles’ powerful and popular ministry. So, this time, they arrested not only Peter and John, but all the apostles (v.18). However, at night an angel of the Lord released the apostle from the public prison and commanded them to “tell the people the whole message about this life.”
In Acts, we find three ways in which the Jesus-movement was called. In our passage of today, the angel calls it “this life.” In various places in Acts, it is called “the Way” (9:2, 18:25, 19:9, 23, 22:4). In Acts 11:26, the believers were called “Christians” for the first time. Each of these names in reference to the message or the group of believers, namely: the life, the Way, or Christians, not only indicated something special about the message they announced, but more importantly it revealed the profound impact the gospel had in the lives of those who had accepted it. The angel’s command to Peter to continue proclaiming “the whole message about this life” referred to not only the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection, but also the life-giving power Jesus gave to everyone who accepts the message. It was a message that offered newness of life in Christ. It was message that inspired joy, even in the face of persecution. It was a unifying message that toppled down all kinds of social barriers. The message of Jesus was indeed a way of newness of life that flowed from the heart of God to his people.
Therefore, once liberated from prison, Peter and the rest of the apostle went to the temple courts early in the morning to continue preaching the whole message of life.
That same morning, the priest and his cohorts commanded the prisoners to be brought before them. However, the prisoners were missing. And once again, the apostles were arrested and brought before the court. There, they were threatened, flogged, and then released.
As we can understand from today’s passage, there was, is and will always be opposition to the message of the gospel. Today, many Christians suffer harassment, persecution, imprisonment, and even death in certain parts of the world. In Pakistan, certain parts of India and other Muslim countries, especially in the Sub-Sharan regions in Africa, Christians face great challenges. There is a terrible practice in Pakistan and Afghanistan on how to inflict pain and suffering to Christians ffamilies. I recently read two stories of young girls from Christian families being kidnapped from their families and forced into marriage. Therefore, even when the girl is finally located or when the abductor reappears in town, he claims the girl ran away from home to get married. When these cases are brought before the court, judges often claim religious laws that allow for under-age girls to be married. That was the case of 14 year old Huma Younus, who was kidnapped, forcefully converted to Islam, and then married to a 44 year old man. Right now, there is an international effort, not only from Christian organizations, to pressure the Pakistani government to protect the rights of religious groups, reports the International Christian Concern.
In India, at first, Pastor Munsi Thado was exiled from his village for not recanting his faith in Jesus. This year, after living with his family in the jungle for five years, Pastor Munsi was killed by Hindu extremists for sharing his faith with others.
My dear sisters and brothers, how would we respond if we felt there were biases or contempt against us for being Christians? What would we do if we were harassed or demanded to do certain things that violate our Christian principles?
In Acts we find how Peter, John, and the early church responded to the official opposition against them. In chapter 4, after Peter and John were released from prison the first time, they came together to pray for greater boldness. They did not pray or organize to topple the authorities. Here in chapter five, after the apostles had been threatened and then flogged, they came out rejoicing for being “considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” of Jesus. They neither fought back nor retreated. They did not whine, nor organize a protest, or engage in political activism. In other words, as Paul would later say, the apostles realized that their war was not against flesh or blood, but against spiritual forces. And therefore, they prayed and glorified God for giving them the badge of honor of suffering for the sake of the Jesus.
Peter’s reply to the authorities, “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” was not political grand standing. It was a theological statement. In other words, it is a position taken by those who see themselves serving the purposes of God’s work in the world, even if in the process of doing so, they put their safety and lives at risk. Jesus is the model of that. He remained loyal to his Father, speaking about God and his kingdom, doing acts of kindness, and reaching out to those at the margins of society. That was what Peter, John and the apostles were doing. Instead of calling God’s wrath to come upon the authorities, they were calling them to repentance to become participants of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit (5:31, 32).
When the church confronts opposition by arming itself with God’s grace, power, and love, the testimony of the church becomes an unstoppable force. When the church extends love and forgiveness, in the name of Jesus, even to its opponents, the message of the gospel gains territory.
Dear Sisters and brothers, our world is changing and time will come when Christians might become a minority group, less influential and with less access to political power as it was used to. It might become very much like the context of the early church. However, it will provide the church with greater opportunities to give testimony that its power to keep on going, to reach out even in the midst of obstacles does not depend on its own wits and power. It will be a greater opportunity for the church to show the world that the power of the Risen Christ is what make her unstoppable. For the Christian Church, it’s neither fight nor flight when it faces opposition, it is rather, a time to fully depend on the power of God.
We should remember that never have Christian communities died or faded away because of persecution. When the Chinese government began persecuting the church in the early 1950s there were only four million Christians. A little over fifty years later, the official count was 44 million Chinese Christians, although estimates are that the number is higher. When the Mennonite Church in Ethiopia went underground in 1974, after the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia took power, the church only had 5,000 members. 20 years later when the church came from its hiding, the church had 50,000 baptized members.
Churches die, but not because they are persecuted. Churches die when they wage war according to the flesh. Churches die when they move their eyes away from Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. And who, for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame (Hebrews 12:2).
May the Lord give each of us holy bravery that neither fights nor flights in the face of trial. May the Spirit of God, fill us with power to love as Jesus loved, both friends and foes. May God impress in our heart a renewed passion for the living word and compassion to share it with others. Amen!