Scripture: Acts 5:27-32
Would you be willing to die for the sake of getting the Bible into the hands of people who currently don’t have one? I don’t imagine many, if any, of us are willing to put our physical lives on the line for that cause. But Alim (not his real name) is. As told in the March/April issue of Outreach magazine, Alim’s a former drug smuggler who now smuggles Bibles into countries where it’s illegal to own one, and he knows that if he’s caught by the authorities he could be sentenced to death. And yet he keeps on doing it, even knowing the possible consequences – which some would probably say is more probable than possible, that it’s only a matter of time before he’s caught.
So, is there anything you’d die for? Anything important enough that you’d be willing to give your life for it? Over the course of our nation’s history, countless American’s have said that they’d be willing to die for this county. And every Veteran’s Day we honor those men and women who gave their lives, as well as those who continue to risk their lives, in order to keep us safe and free.
There’s a phrase we use to describe our level of willingness to grapple with an issue or situation, and it’s clearly a reference to a battlefield experience. If the issue at-hand is not something you feel is worth the fight, you’d say, “That’s not a hill I’m willing to die on.” For example, one of the things clergy learn early on in their ministry is that congregations will sometimes have arguments over seemingly inconsequential matters. The classic example is the fight over the color of the napkins at the big church dinner. I’ve heard of churches arguing about whether two hymns should be sung in worship or three hymns! One seminary professor told us that if we wanted to get a sense of the spiritual health of a congregation, we should discreetly move around some of the furniture in the narthex and then stand back and see how people respond. In some churches, such an act would be considered a federal offense – not a sign of spiritual health, for sure! For me, that would be a good example of a hill I would not be willing to die on. There are far more important battles to fight than that.
Clearly, most of life’s battles, including those in the church, don’t carry the possibility of physical death. So maybe the more practical question is, is there anything that’s so important to you that you’d be willing to endure the discomfort and distress of taking a stand for what you believe in?
This weekend, USA Today ran an opinion piece by Peter Funt with this headline: “Kamala Harris owns a handgun. That’s disqualifying for a 2020 Democrat in my book.” He’s clearly taking a vocal stand on the issue of legal handgun ownership, specifically that anyone running for U.S. President on the Democratic ticket cannot not legally own a handgun and be considered a viable candidate. It’s safe to assume that his inbox has already been flooded with negative responses to his article, but my guess is that he’s not going to back down from his position. He’ll endure their wrath, because this is a hill he’s willing to die on, so to speak. The bigger question is, how will Kamala Harris respond to peoples’ call to repent of her handgun ownership? Will her right to legally owning a firearm be worth the fight she’ll probably be up against, or will she decide to lay down her arms and not charge that particular hill? Is it a hill she’s willing to die on, and possibly put her candidacy in jeopardy with many voters? We’ll see.
It’s often the case that “charging the hill” involves a fair number of risks. Clearly, there’s the risk of dying on the hill. But if it’s a cause you’re willing to die for – even metaphorically speaking – then it’s not the worst thing in the world. There are certainly situations where we believe it’s better to risk it and lose than not risk it at all. But there are other risks beyond that. For instance, in the process of taking your stand you could upset a lot of people, including influential people who have the power to bring the hammer down on you and make life very difficult. You risk burning important bridges that you might need at a later time. Or turning around half-way up the hill only to discover that you’re all alone Maybe it’s more important to you than anyone else, and they’ve decided this is not a hill they’re willing to die on. Needless to say, trying to take the hill usually comes with risks.
You and I wouldn’t consider what we’re doing here this morning risky at all. Gathering together to worship Jesus Christ certainly isn’t what we would call a hill that we risk dying on. But for many in this world, it is. You might find it hard to believe – because I did when I read the number – in China alone it’s estimated that there are around 234 million underground Protestant Christians. That number goes up when we consider other nations where Christianity is either highly frowned upon or outright illegal. And even though taking a stand for Jesus isn’t risky for us, the experience of the millions of those who practice their faith underground is a lot closer to what it was like for the church we read about in the book of Acts.
In China alone it’s estimated that there are around 234 million underground Protestant Christians!
Acts 2 describes how the Holy Spirit came upon the believers in Jerusalem during Jewish festival of Pentecost, giving birth to the church. I’m sure that was an extraordinarily exhilarating experience. But that excitement was short-lived, as they experienced persecution almost right away from the Jewish religious leaders. Please understand I don’t say this to condemn Judaism. But the fact was, the first century church was seen as a wayward, disrespectful child, Judaism being the parent. That’s because the first Christians were Jewish by birth. So for many years the church grew at the expense of the synagogue. In the early years it was it felt like “sheep stealing” to the Jews. So, until Paul focused on bringing Gentiles into the fold, it was Jews who were coming to faith in Jesus. And as you can imagine, the religious leaders found this very threatening.
Acts 5 describes a few of the events which contributed to their anxiety. It says the apostles “performed many signs and wonders among the people” (v. 12). In addition, Luke recorded that the people would even bring the sick out into the main streets and lay them on cots and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow could fall across on some of them as he passed by (v. 15). Clearly, the people held the apostles in very high regard.
With all that happening, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the religious leaders got together and devised a plan to try to stop the hemorrhaging. Their plan: throw the apostles in jail. Which they did. But God foiled that plan by sending an angel who opened the prison doors in the middle of the night and let them out, and told them to go the temple and tell the people about Jesus (vv. 19-20). Which they did.
Their response: “We must obey God rather than humans!” We don’t take our marching orders from you or any other person.
This is where our reading picks up. The apostles were brought before the religious leaders, who scolded and threatened them. “In no uncertain terms, we demanded that you not teach in [Jesus’] name. And look at you! You’ve defied our order and, in fact, have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (v. 28). Stop it, or else….!
At this very moment the leaders of the fledgling church are faced with a critical decision. Suddenly standing at the base of an important “hill,” they must quickly decide if this is going to be one they’re willing to die on. Though they probably didn’t realize it at the time, the choice they would make in that moment would be a turning point for the early church. It certainly wouldn’t be the last time they’d meet opposition, but I believe their decision set the tone and the direction the church would take from that point on.
Their response: “We must obey God rather than humans!” (v. 29). We don’t take our marching orders from you or any other person; they come only from God. We will not do what you tell us to do if God tell us to do otherwise. They openly disregarded the very people who held so much social and religious power, and in so doing, decided this would be a hill they’d be willing to die on. Telling others about the resurrection of Jesus was that important to them, and no threat of imprisonment or bodily harm would shut them up. And because they were willing to suffer imprisonment, and even death, at the hands of people who opposed them, the church grew exponentially and globally, making it possible for everyone in the world to hear about Jesus.
So let me ask a question. Are there people right here in Adrian who would benefit from hearing about the grace and love of Jesus Christ? The answer, of course, is yes. That being so, what could our church begin doing to be more intentional about getting word out to them about God’s love? You and I already know about his love and grace, and we celebrate it every week when we come together to worship. But the life-transforming message we have was never meant to keep bottled up within these four walls. No, it’s imperative we let it out – more importantly, intentionally take it out – beyond this place so that everyone has a chance to hear it.
Is getting word out to the people in our community about Jesus Christ a hill you’d be willing to die on? Would you be willing to experience social awkwardness? Ridicule? Scoffing? Possible embarrassment? Uncertainty about how to do it? Would you be willing to lose friends over it? Close friends? Is Peter’s edict our edict, that what God tells us to do carries far greater weight than what people, includes ourselves, say we should do?
God’s given us our marching orders, and you know what it is: To develop new and maturing followers of Jesus Christ. Or, in the traditional language of the church, to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Friends, that is the hill before us. Call it what you want – developing followers of or making disciples of Jesus Christ – that’s the one thing we will be held accountable for some day.
I hope you’re able to come back next week, because I’d like to share a vision that God’s been revealing to me over the past three to four months as it regards where I believe God wants to take this church. I’ve shared it with a few key people here and there, and to a person they’re excited about it and find it compelling. And I think it’s time that I share it with the rest of you, which is what I’d like to do next week. Next Sunday we’re going to hear about another turning point in the life of the church, when a key leader was boldly charging up one hill only to have it suddenly replaced by a different hill, and he was faced with a risky choice about what to do. In light of his experience, I’ll be sharing with you what I believe God is up to with us. Let’s pray.