Monday, June 8, 2009

a disobedient church

The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.’” – Acts 5:27-29

The first Christians got in quite a bit of trouble. Over and over again they were told to keep silent. They did not. The Jewish leaders ordered them to stop teaching in Jesus’ name. They disobeyed. The Roman leaders ordered them to worship the emperor. They refused. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

I’ll sometimes hear Christians speak about faith as if discipleship to Jesus Christ is inextricably bound to “obeying the law of the land.” The argument is quite formulaic actually. A little Romans 13 here – “let every person be subject to the governing authorities” – a little 1 Peter 2 there – “honor the emperor.” And of course I take these verses seriously. BUT, I also think we 21st century Westerners have lost an appreciation for how subversive the early church was. Their obedience to God required a radical disobedience to their own religious and political rulers. Their obedience to God required them to defy an empire.

I think we also forget that there are Christians all over the world – even today – that risk their lives to obey God. In America churches go underground because it’s cool. But there are a lot of countries where churches go underground out of necessity. It’s not a trend. It’s not emergent. It’s a matter of survival. It dishonors the emperor. It’s radical disobedience to the governing authorities. It’s radical obedience to God.

Back to our reading from Acts – the apostles were once again released. And upon release, “they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus.” (6:40) “And every day in the temple the apostles did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.” (6:42) They kept disobeying.

If anyone reads this as a call to anarchy, please start over. All I’m saying is this – When we say that Jesus is God we are making a theological statement. But to affirm Jesus as Lord is to make a political one. And sometimes Jesus’ Kingdom clashes with other kingdoms. Sometimes Romans 13 has to yield to Revelation 13. At times being harmless as a dove will take a backseat to being wise as a serpent. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” (Ecc 3:1)

There’s no shortage of disobedient people in our world. There will always be men and women that disobey for disobedience’s sake – they are lost fools. But rare is the man and rare is the woman that disobeys for the Gospel’s sake – they are modern apostles.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

an uneducated church

“Now when they … realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men…” – Acts 4:13

When I’m elected President of the United States, the first thing I’m going to do is surround myself with the best and the brightest. I’ll want to see resumes longer than a Cormac McCarthy novel – an average of 3.5 graduate degrees and accolades out the wazoo. Such is the wisdom of our world.

Jesus, on the other hand, started a world revolution. His aim was to turn the entire world upside down, and in doing so, to place it right side up. Jesus, the President of the Universe, carefully handpicked his Cabinet – a few fishermen, a tax collector, a hooker or two. He chose the “uneducated and the ordinary.” Such is the wisdom of our God.

A friend of mine once told me that I hold the most pretentious, nonsensical, and idolatrous degree that exists – a Master of Divinity. As if God could be “mastered” in the academy. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m pro-education. I think it’s a blessing. Education need not hinder our spiritual growth, depth, or power. In fact, when done in conversation with Jesus, education will only enhance our ministerial capacity. That being said, God doesn’t need our intelligence. And to prove it, Jesus started a perpetual world revolution with “uneducated and ordinary men.”

Take Paul, for example. Paul was a scholar. He sat at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). When it came to the Law, Paul wasn’t just knowledgeable – he was blameless. And yet Paul came to regard all his learning “as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ” (Phil 3:7). Or consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians regarding their own call: “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor 1:26). They were like Peter – uneducated and ordinary.

You see, God’s primary concern isn’t that we be knowledgeable. The first sin, you may recall, had to do with eating from the tree of knowledge. God’s primary concern is that we be wise. And wisdom can’t be learned in the academy. But “the beginning of all wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (Ps 111:10).

As an educated people, we do well to remember that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom” and that “faith should not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor 1:25, 2:5). We do well to remember that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1).

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” – 1 Cor 1:20

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

a bold church

“Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John …” – Acts 3:13

After the cripple was healed, the people “were filled with wonder and amazement,” (3:10) and as a result, Peter “addressed the people.” (3:12) Peter’s words, as we saw earlier, are direct – so direct in fact that the captain of the temple throws them in jail. Peter and John then stand trial before the rulers, elders, scribes, Annas (the high priest), Caiaphas (the former high priest), and others from the high-priestly family. And when questioned, Peter and John are more direct than ever – “there is salvation in no one else” (4:12). And when seeing their “boldness,” the rulers are “amazed” (4:13).

The apostles were bold. Each apostle “spoke the word of God with boldness” (4:31). And so we may want to consider – what is Christian boldness?

Let’s start with what boldness is not. Boldness is not arrogance. In the Bible, arrogance (alazoneia) is empty, braggart talk that trusts in its own power. We can all be arrogant in our speech about God. We must crucify our arrogance. God demands humility from his children. Arrogance is the antithesis of emptying one’s self and taking the form of a slave (Phil 2:5-11). Satan is arrogant. God, on the other hand, is humble.

What then is boldness?

Boldness (parrhesia) is a trusting, open, transparent freedom in one’s speech. It rests on the assumption that the speaker himself is powerless, and yet is commissioned to speak on behalf of the One in whom all Power lies. One who speaks boldly trusts God with the outcome of his speech. If his words are rejected, he is okay. If misunderstood, he is okay. If accepted, he is okay. He has learned to be content in all circumstances. His yes means yes; his no means no.

The Greek Fathers used the word parrhesia to describe the “free speech” that Adam and God had before the fall – i.e., the condition of standing naked before God and others and not being ashamed. Parrhesia, they said, died when Adam hid from God. Boldness, therefore, entails coming out of hiding. It’s about speaking truthfully and openly and humbly in the name of the One with the Power.

No wonder the rulers were “amazed” that Peter and John spoke with boldness. I think we’d be just as amazed if we encountered such open, uninhibited speech in our daily life. After all, we’ve learned to calculate our words and to “think before we speak.” All well and good – but, the apostles stood before the rulers and the authorities and the world completely naked and weren’t ashamed to bear witness to what God had done through Jesus. We too must ask, seek, and knock until the door of boldness is opened unto us. We too must come out of hiding.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” (Rom 1:16)

Monday, June 1, 2009

an attentive church

“Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them.” – Acts 3: 4-5

It’s 3 PM and Peter and John are en route to the temple. It’s their afternoon “prayer time.” And as they enter the temple gate, the hand of a lame beggar reaches up in search of a handout. I doubt the cripple expects much. After all, the predominant worldview of his time understood sickness as God’s punishment on the unrighteous. And so the gate of the temple wasn’t the best spot to beg. Most Jews thought the lame man was being punished. And who dares interfere with the judgment of God? The lame beggar needed better advisors.

Nevertheless, the lame man begged – day after day, year after year – his head to the ground, “expecting to receive something” (2:5). And from time to time he’d get lucky – a coin here, a piece of bread there. But I imagine that’s about as good as it got for a cripple like him. A coin here, a piece of bread there – but did anyone ever stop? Acknowledge him? Touch him? Listen to him? Look at him?

I imagine that Peter and John were among the first. Luke tells us that “Peter looked intently at him, as did John.” They acknowledged him, touched him, and looked intently at him. And as a result, the lame man “fixed his attention on them.” The apostles looked at the lame man. The lame man looked at the apostles. Both were attentive to one another.

Think about this story the next time you walk into a convenience store and pass a beggar. Think about this story the next time you’re at a red light and the man at the corner, cigarette dangling from his lips, displays a cardboard sign. Think about this story the next time you’re talking to a friend – the one with the awkward family situation – and you’re tempted to not mention the 2000 lb. gorilla – to just “pass by” the subject in the name of being “polite.”

It can be hard to “look intently” at the brokenness of our world – to “fix our attention” on situations and people that are messy and confusing and potentially scandalous. But faithfulness to the Gospel demands that we look intently.

You see, in the eyes of God, we are the cripple in today’s story. That’s the miracle of grace. God didn’t “pass us by.” He stopped. He acknowledged. He touched. He listened. He looked at us. And he became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth so that he could do all these things fully.

After all, salvation begins with sight. Think of the Exodus. “I have seen the misery of my people,” and because of that, “I know their sufferings” (Ex 3:7). Or ponder the cross. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). If we are to be the church, we must be attentive – we must be ready to look intently at the last and the least so that God’s kingdom might advance.

“Cripples” are everywhere. Some wear rags, others don suits. Do you see them? And our call as the church isn’t merely to extend a hand-out. No. Our call is to live our lives with hands extended out. “And Peter took him by the hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.” (2:7)

“The eyes of the Lord range throughout the entire earth.” (2 Chron 16:9) Our God looks intently. As adopted children, we must do the same.