Second Sunday of Easter: Fearless Witness

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St. Thomas, April 27, 2014
He is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!
Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29
Last week I mentioned one of the historical proofs for the resurrection of Christ: the New Testament provides an extensive and verifiable list of witnesses. This week we run into another proof of the resurrection: the boldness of the Apostles in holding to their message in the face of all opposition. How can you account for the radical transformation of their psychology? These were the men who had fled when Jesus was arrested. Peter had been the man who denied he even knew the Lord when a servant girl asked him about it. Once Jesus had died, all of them locked themselves up in a room, afraid to go outside because they thought they might get caught as disciples of Jesus. Now, just a few weeks later, they are in the temple publicly preaching that Jesus is risen. Now they are telling the Jewish people – and the Jewish leaders in particular – that they condemned an innocent man, indeed, they condemned their own Messiah. In fact, after those leaders warned them to cease and desist, the Apostles increased and persisted in proclaiming Jesus. Their lives are on the line, but they were fearless. In fact, all of them – 11 out of 11 original faithful disciples–would go to their deaths holding to this same faith. More than that, all but one of them endured martyrdom and did not deny the reality of the resurrection. Only John would die of old age and he, too, through those long decades continued to preach what he had seen and heard and touched and known regarding the risen Lord. What could account for this change from cowardly disciples to fearless Apostles? Only the fact that the story they told was true. The Lord was risen and they knew this as certainly as they knew that the sun was bright and that fish swam.
In fact, this same fearless spirit has always emboldened those who believe firmly in God. Back in the Old Testament, we can remember Daniel who faced the lions’ den rather than give up his fellowship with God in prayer (Dan. 6). King Darius had issued a decree that people should only pray to him over the course of a month and anyone who disobeyed would become cat food. Daniel was an upright Jewish man; he knew this would be a violation of commandment number one. To pray to king rather than God? It would mean trading the sweet communion he shared with his heavenly Father for base slavery to a vain oriental despot. So, he quietly ignored the ruling, continued his practice of prayer, and when he was turned in he did not deny it. God gave Daniel a kind of resurrection that night. Everyone counted him as good as dead but the Lord kept the lions’ mouths shut. Daniel walked out, safe and sound, in the morning. We can also remember the earlier event when King Nebuchadnezzer set up a golden pillar as the center of worship for his people. At any sound of music, everyone was to bow down to it. But three men of God—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—would not bend to the image of gold. For them, then, it was time to be thrown into the fiery furnace, so hot that just to come near the doors was deadly. They boldly and confidently answered the king: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us from it, and He will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Dan. 3:16-18). They were fearless because they had God alone as their God. They knew all their good came from His hand and they were determined to do nothing that would displease their heavenly Father. And at that time it was God’s good pleasure to deliver them immediately. They danced in the flames and the Angel of the Lord danced with them. The men walked out, not a hair on their head was as much as singed.
From those men to Daniel to the Apostles–this is the bold and audacious faith the resurrection of Christ gives us as well. Jesus rising from the dead shows us that God has the power to give life to the dead – and God desires to give such eternal, unconquerable life to His people. We Christians can be the kind of people who are not afraid to die, people who can stand up for what’s right against anyone and anything. We are remade by resurrection faith into the kind of people who can follow God, do good and do right, no matter what the cost– because whatever cost we pay, God will make it good and restore us with even more abundant blessing. They only single thing we should never want to do is to let loose of God, because only in Him is all our security, all our safety, all our salvation.
So Jesus could tell his followers: “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear Him who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:4-5). And that is why Luther could stand before the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire – Charles V who had demanded that Luther take back his writings and recant his efforts to reform the Church – and Luther responded: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”
The resurrection enthrones God in our lives so that He alone is our God and we can obey Him rather than anything or anyone else. The resurrection of Jesus has the power to liberate us all other concerns and all other fears. This week, a Christian doctor, a graduate from Wayne State University in Detroit, was shot by an Islamic terrorist. Dr. Jerry Umanos followed Christ’s call in his life to serve the people of Afghanistan. He had been working in Chicago among inner city children when 9 years ago he felt called to move to Kabul to serve the people there at a Christian hospital. Of course, it was dangerous. Of course, he knew this. But he would obey God rather than men. He would not let threats or fears stop him. He obeyed the God who raises the dead. His grieving wife spoke in his name words which express their faith in the God of love and the God of life. She said, “I know Jerry would also like everybody to know about his love for the Afghan people,” said the grieving woman. “We don’t hold any ill will towards the Afghan people in general or even the gunman who did this.” What tremendous faith and courage and love came from Christ’s resurrection into their hearts.
So how is it that you and I are Christians who believe in the God who raises the dead and gives life to all who trust in Him and yet we cower and yield to human pressures? Christian teenagers give into peer pressure and do what they know they shouldn’t. Christian adults submit to pressure at work to cut corners or fudge numbers of misrepresent the truth to clients. Christian family members go along with other family members just so things will go smoothly, even when they know it’s not the right thing to do. “We must obey God rather than men,” the Apostles said. We ought to, but truth is, we don’t always. What would we do if someone said that we have to stop talking about Jesus – or we’d lose our life’s savings, or we’d better stop talking about Jesus or they’ll burn down our house or throw us in jail. Most of us aren’t ready for that kind of a fearless confession of our faith yet. My, we have difficulty starting to talk about Jesus. We struggle to muster the nerve to invite our neighbor to church or even ask them how we might be praying for them. We give in to faithless fears and we neglect to take into full account that we follow a risen Lord who can deliver us from every situation and restore us. Even if we get swallowed up in the very jaws of death, we shall have life in the name of Jesus.
Consider that the Lord might be giving you little tests and trials that you can manage now that you might begin to taste His resurrection power. He has not called you to submit to major persecutions yet – but He has called you to faithfulness. Be faithful in the small things you experience now that you might grow to be faithful in big things which are to come. Obey God in the day-to-day tasks you have before you and when extraordinary days come, you may also be found faithful to obey Him even unto death. May our last hours find us serving God in courageous and faithful obedience, fearless and trusting in our God who raises us from death to life with Him.
Since Jesus has gotten victory over death for us, we have truly gotten God in our lives in such a way that He really can be God for us – that we might obey Him above all others, love Him and trust in Him above all else. Without the resurrection of Christ, we would have the command of the law – “You shall have no other gods before Me”— but we would still be bound in our fears of death and in our concern about what others might do to us. But since Christ is risen and since Christ will also raise us and all who believe in Him, we are delivered from earthly fears and concerns. Having God we shall have all we need.
It is exactly because Christians can have such confidence that we can have world-challenging courage. We can say in the spirit of the Psalmist: “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” And that is why tyrants have particularly targeted Christians. Hitler and Stalin targeted the church. China and North Korea cannot tolerate that Christians should practice their faith freely. Throughout the Muslim world, Christians are imprisoned and executed. Any system which depends on fear to keep the population under control cannot bear Christianity. Such authoritarian and totalitarian systems know instinctively that faith in Christ will be its undoing – because there will always be some Christians moved by the Spirit of God to oppose the tyrant and even at the risk of their own lives they will work to bring deliverance to others. Freedom of conscience is the well-spring and foundation of all other freedoms. How did the Berlin wall fall and Germany become unified? There were massive demonstrations by the people of East Germany. But where did those take place? Starting from a church – people gathered and prayed every Monday evening at the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig. Supported by the church, more were emboldened to gather to pray for peace. Other cities followed suit and other people gathered to pray in their own churches. From the beginning of September 1989 to the beginning of October, the assembly in Leipzig grew from a few hundred to 70,000 in attendance. The next week there were 120,000; then 320,000. At the beginning of November the Berlin wall was taken down. The tyrants of East Germany had to accept the terms of a few fearless people had given courage to whole country to stand up to them and demand change.
In our own country, we will only remain free from having to obey men so long as there are people who continue to courageously obey God. The courage of faith in the God of life and the God of love has always benefited the advance of true liberty. Before the Civil War, Christians ran the underground railroad to sneak southern slaves north to freedom. Christians were obeying God rather men. During the Civil rights movement a 100 years later, Christians were marching for equality. Their civil disobedience showed that they obeyed God rather than men. Today, Christians are standing up to defend the unborn, the disabled, the handicapped, and the aged. Obeying God and trusting in Him, we are freed from the slavery of obeying unjust laws and cruel tyrants. Our consciences can act with courage in service to God and for the good of our neighbors. This is the gift of true liberty that comes to us from the resurrection of Christ. Walk in that liberty, proclaim Him fearlessly, knowing with full faith that our God of life has given you life to live with Him forevermore.

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