Acts 5:17-21a, 26-29
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
April 22, 2018
The philosopher Plato once said, “Courage is a product of knowing what to fear and what not to fear.”
Of John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian branch of Christianity, it was said, “He feared God so much that he feared no one and nothing else.”
In that, Knox was following in the steps of the apostles.
Not long before the events described in today’s scripture, the authorities had warned Peter and John to quit talking about Jesus and threatened them with imprisonment if they kept at it. The apostles, however, told the authorities they couldn’t stop talking about Jesus; and, sure enough, as soon as they were released, they resumed their witness, speaking out about Jesus all the more boldly. So the authorities swept in on them again and threw them in jail, swearing they’d take more drastic action to shut them up the next day.
But when the next day dawned, the apostles were not to be found! Though the prison doors were locked, and police officers were standing at all their posts, the prisoners were gone!
But they had not gone into hiding. They had gone right back into the temple courtyard where they had been arrested and gone on with their proclamation of the message. This was a matter of obedience for the apostles; for the angel of the Lord, who had shown up in their prison to release them, had given them explicit instructions to “go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.”
So, once more, the police arrested the apostles and brought them before the authorities, who immediately ordered them to zip their lips – or else! Once more, the apostles refused to refrain from telling the good news too good not to be told. Unintimidated by the threats, they humbly replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
What gave them the courage to defy such earthly powers and disdain their menacing threats? They knew what to fear and what not to fear.
Though the apostles knew that they were exposed to genuine danger and might well suffer further imprisonment, physical harm or even execution, and though they had to feel scared at an emotional and physical level, their view of the purpose of their life drained those feelings of the power to deter them from doing what God had given them to do. They lived, not by their feelings, but by their faith that God had assigned them a purpose which was theirs to fulfill no matter what pain or peril it might involve. More than they feared distress or death, they feared disappointing the Savior for whose pleasure they lived, falling short of their destiny, and failing to live out fully their love of God and neighbor.
They knew that neither suffering nor imprisonment nor premature death is the worst thing that can happen to a person. All three of those things would in fact happen to Peter, but he would accept those costs without complaint as simply the price a follower of Jesus sometimes has to pay to do God’s business in a world of evil.
The spiritual descendants of apostles like Peter have always had that perspective.
I think of all the faithful followers of Christ who decades ago fought for civil rights though they knew they’d suffer painful bites from fierce police dogs, the blistering blasts of fire hoses, cold nights behind bars without bedding, toilet facilities or food, and even perhaps lynching. They feared the right things and thus nothing else by comparison.
I think of the faithful followers of Christ who now fight for justice and equal opportunity though they know they’ll end up being in danger of rioters ready to throw rocks and Molotov cocktails on one side and of police officers ready to launch tear gas canisters and lethal bullets on the other. They fear the right things and thus nothing else by comparison.
I think of our persecuted Christian brothers and sisters in parts of Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere who continue to bear witness to Christ though they know they’ll lose jobs and friends and perhaps get beaten up and locked away in prison. They fear the right things and thus nothing else by comparison.
I think of students in this congregation who resist peer pressure and refuse to steal or cheat on tests, when they could get away with it, though they know they’ll be mocked as fools for their integrity. I think of adults in this congregation who refrain from enjoying jokes that put down others with stereotypes, and who welcome all kinds of folks into their hearts and homes, though they know they’ll thereby lose social standing in certain circles. I think of many in this congregation who share with others what Christ has done for them, and how much He might do for any open-hearted person, though they know they’ll get labeled, demeaned and excluded as a result.
They all fear the right things and thus nothing else by comparison.
When deciding upon a course of action, true followers of Jesus do not first ask, “Is it pain-free and safe?” but “Is it faithful to my Lord, true to my best self, and fulfilling of my highest purpose in life?”
But who then would want to be a true follower if it puts you at such risk of trouble and tribulation? Those who love Jesus and want to go where He is going and do with Him what He is doing! Those who want their lives to mean something and make a difference in this troubled world! Those who so desire to feel God’s delight in them that they fear no deprivation or danger that must be endured to obtain it!
This courageous, costly life turns out to be the life that makes us the happiest of all – and not just at the finish line but at every step of the race getting to it.
Let us pray.