I don’t know what comes to mind when you think of church. Maybe you think of your parents pinching you during the sermon to get you to stop messing around and pay attention. Maybe it’s watching neighbors get up early on Sunday morning and going off to this thing called church, and you’re wondering why in the heck are they getting up so early.
Maybe church was a really bad experience for you or maybe you’re like me; you grew up in church and you’ve always loved church.
But no matter what comes to mind, the challenge for us is to think of church the way it began, because it wasn’t so much a location with a hierarchal structure focusing on attracting a crowd with programs as we have come to know it but rather, the church was a movement. A movement that was launched around an event in history; the resurrection of Jesus.
So, what we’ve been doing over the past few weeks is looking at what it means to be the church, using the book of Acts as our guide.
Let’s quickly recap before we jump in to our text . . .
The word that is translated “church” in your bible, is the Greek word, Ekklesia. It literally means “an assembly or gathering”.
So, when Jesus launched the church, he launched it around one simple idea; to gather.
Not long after Jesus was crucified. He rose from the dead and spent about forty days with his followers. On one of those days, he gathered them on a hillside and gave them his final instructions and it’s here that Jesus predicts the beginning of the church.
He tells them that they will receive power from the Holy Spirit and that with this power, they will become witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
In other words, this movement, this gathering, was going to be multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and it was going to be accomplished through the power of God’s Spirit.
About two weeks later . . . the city of Jerusalem was jam packed with people from all over the world celebrating the Jewish holiday; Shavuot – or we have come to know it, Pentecost.
When Peter saw all these people, from all over the world, he stood up and preached his first sermon. This was opening day of the church and about three thousand people embraced this idea that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that had risen from the dead. A couple of weeks later, Peter preached in the temple and two thousand more believed.
By the time the story picks up today, over five thousand people had embraced the message of Jesus. And suddenly, this movement, this gathering, was gaining traction.
The problem was, there was a very sensitive balance of power between Rome and the Jewish authorities and it was important to keep the peace between the two, because Rome had the authority and power to shut down the temple; the epicenter of Jewish activity.
This Jesus movement was beginning to disrupt the balance.
So, in an effort to stop this movement and restore the balance, the Jewish authorities arrested Peter and John and had them spend the night in jail, so they could think about what they were doing.
The next morning, they get out of jail and are brought back to the religious guys and they say to Peter and John “Ok, we’re going to let you go but don’t come back here teaching these ridiculous things; Don’t talk about Jesus. Don’t talk about the resurrection and quit blaming us for crucifying him.”
Peter looks right at them and essentially says, “Ok, you do what you’ve got to do but we can’t stop talking about Jesus and we’re willing to deal with the consequences of that decision.”
So, they go back to their friends, who have been freaking out because they don’t know what’s going on and they get on their knees and pray that God would give them boldness – which is ironic because it was their boldness that got them into this mess in the first place.
And then they prayed that God would do something miraculous through them, not for their benefit but for the benefit of those who were skeptical.
If you remember from last week, miracles aren’t for the person receiving the miracle. Sure, it was a good day for them, but miracles created opportunities to point people towards God.
After they prayed, they immediately go out and engage their community – meeting their needs in miraculous ways and preaching the gospel and more and more people embrace the message of Jesus.
Well, now there’s a big disruption and Luke (the author of Acts) tells us that the religious leaders become jealous. So, they send the temple guard to arrest all the original followers of Jesus. They were thinking that if they got the ringleaders of this Jesus movement, that would put an end to this nonsense.
They arrest them and stick in the jail for the night but someone or something, opens the cell doors and they all walk out. The next morning, the religious leaders discover that they aren’t in jail but rather back in the temple area preaching Jesus and the resurrection. So, now they’re furious.
They tell the temple guard to go re-arrest these guys but when they found them, they got scared because the disciples were surrounded by a huge crowd of people and they were afraid that if they arrested them, the crowd would kill them.
So, they worked their way through the crowd and they approached Peter and said, “Ok, here’s the deal, we’re here to arrest you but we’re kind of afraid that these people are going to kill us so is there any chance you’d just arrest yourself?”
I guess the boldness thing really kicks in because Peter and the others put a pause to what they’re doing and accompany the temple guard back to the religious guys and put themselves under arrest because it was going to be an opportunity to give account for what they’re doing.
That’s where we pick up the story today . . . ACTS 5:27-41
So, they are standing once again before the religious authorities and these guys are just letting in to them. They say, “We gave you strict orders to stop teaching these ridiculous things, but you aren’t stopping. And the way you’re telling the story, is making us look guilty”
Peter says, “Well, the reason it sounds like you’re guilty is because you are guilty . . . and we are witnesses to what happened.”
In other words, this isn’t just something we heard. This isn’t even about something we believe. This is about something we saw; Jesus died, you killed him, but he rose from the dead.
Well, now the religious guys were furious, and they wanted to put them to death. They’re like, “Fine, if we’re the ones responsible for the death of Jesus, we’ll just have you killed too and put an end to this thing once and for all.”
And then something really fascinating happened . . . One of the religious guys named Gamaliel says, “Before we decide to execute another group of people and make twelve martyrs, let’s think about something; remember that dude, Theudas?” Well, call him Tad.
Now, there’s no extra biblical record of Tad, the only thing we know about him is in this verse. But apparently, he started a movement and had four hundred followers and Rome said, “I don’t think so” and squashed them like a bug.
The religious guys are like, “Yeah, we remember the Tad movement, it didn’t end well for them.”
Then he says . . . “Remember Judas the Galilean?”
Judas lived at a time when the governor of Syria decided to do a census for the purpose of raising taxes and Judas the Galilean said, “nope, we’re not going to participate” and he started a movement.
The group that followed Judas the Galilean were known as zealots. One of the followers of Judas the Galilean became one of Jesus’ disciples. He was known as “Simon, the zealot”.
The religious guys say, “Yeah, we remember the zealot movement, it didn’t end well for them either; Rome sent in a bunch of people and they squashed it too”
In bringing up these two guys, Gamaliel is reminding them that Rome took care of those problems that were disrupting the balance between the Jews and the Romans, without them ever having to get involved.
So, he’s suggesting is that all they have to do is say, “Hey Rome, you might want to pay attention to these guys . . . they’re starting a movement” and this Jesus movement will go away. Because if this is just another movement with people who have some radical new idea, it’s going to fail.
But listen to this next insight . . . “But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men, you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
He’s saying, the only thing that could overcome the power and control of Rome is God. If there’s going to be a breakthrough movement, if there’s going to be change, it would take an act of God.
Gamaliel was right . . . the only thing that could strong arm Rome and create a momentum bigger than Rome would be an act of God.
Well, they liked his reasoning and called the apostles in and had them flogged. Flogged was a cat of nine tails with pieces of wood, and steel, and in some cases pieces of glass tied into the ends of the strips. And a person was beaten with it until the skin was pulled off his stomach or back and then let go.
And so, for several hours, the apostles stood in line and watched as the temple guard flogged and permanently scarred the bodies of their closest friends, knowing that you were next, for talking about something they had seen.
Every time they changed shirts, every time they swam, every time they bathed it would be a visual reminder of that day. And every time people saw their scars, they would know that these guys were criminals.
And I wonder, how would we respond if something like this were to happen to us? I’m not sure the message of Christianity, this movement, this gathering, would have moved beyond the first century.
But listen to their response . . . “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing!”
The founders of this Jesus movement said, “Are you kidding me? To have suffered, to be disfigured because of the name of Jesus . . . it’s the thing I’m most proud of. He gave his life for me, all I did is give up the skin on my back for him.”
That’s how they thought and from the day forward they never stopped teaching and preaching and proclaiming the good news of Jesus. This was an act of God and they were invited to be a part of it. And they embraced this responsibility to take this message, this movement out of Jerusalem, into Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth . . . just as Jesus had predicted.
You guys, we’ve been handed the church for our generation; in some ways the church is beautiful and life giving but in other ways it has become destructive and painful.
No matter what you think or feel when you hear the word church . . . it’s up to us to keep this movement rolling. One day we’re going to pass on and we’ll hand the church off to the next generation and it will be in the shape we leave it in.
So, we’ve got to get bolder. We’ve got to find ways to engage our community with the love and light of Jesus. We have to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves and sometimes create opportunities to take advantage of for the sake of Jesus.
It’s what we’ve been called to do. It’s how the church escaped the first century. In the words of Gamaliel, it was an act of God, and God has been active ever since. And we’re all a part of it, because we are a part of the Ekklesia; a gathering, a movement.