Easter 2016 Sermon Series - Week Two Preaching Notes
Key Word: Resist
Notes for Acts 11:1-18
Recently, I had a conversation with my colleague and friend Melanie Gordon about the role of prayer in the life of a Christian. She was reflecting on a conversation with some other Christians about whether or not there was a reason to pray for others if a person didn’t believe that praying would change the course of history or change God’s actions in the world. I have struggled with that question many times over the years myself, as have other people of faith. But I was reminded during the conversation that whether or not I personally think prayer can have an effect on what God does or does not do in this world doesn’t change my need to pray.
I know that prayer is something I must do, and so I pray. Prayer isn’t about changing God or changing circumstances or even, as some have suggested, changing myself. It is about necessity. The truth is, none of us knows exactly how prayer works. We only know that when we practice an active prayer life, prayer becomes as crucial to us as the air we breathe.
It is interesting to me that in his explanation of the role of intercessory prayer for baptized followers of Jesus Christ, Dr. Mark Stamm connects our prayers as a community of faith directly to doing the work of resistance.
This week, we consider the meaning of our second baptismal vow:
“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
Resistance. Resist. Is it possible that prayer can actually help us resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Stamm says that when we think about resisting evil, many of us think of troops battling Nazi Germany or envision thousands of New York City firefighters and police officers marching bravely into the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11. We tend to think of resistance by action, or even by force.
But Stamm suggests that if we think of resisting evil only in terms of force, we have failed to hear the fullness of the gospel message. The work of the baptized disciple of Jesus Christ is about resistance when we hold ourselves accountable to pray for others in a spirit of reconciliation and peace. We resist evil, injustice, and oppression whenever we gather around the Table of the Lord and participate in the kingdom of heaven. We resist when we respond to God’s word by offering ourselves and our gifts in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, when we choose to love our neighbors as ourselves—especially when we practice loving our enemies.
- What are some concrete examples you can think of where your church needs to stand in resistance to evil, injustice, and oppression?
- What form might that resistance take? How has the church expressed resistance in the past?
- What can we learn from Mark Stamm’s suggestion that we take some of our cues from the liturgical practices of the church? How might intercessory prayer, passing the peace, and sharing in Holy Communion provide avenues of resistance to the evils, injustices, and oppressions we face in our own community?
In our world today we can be awfully quick to not just determine, but name out loud who our enemies are. We might think our enemies are those who hold different religious beliefs from ours, or different political views, or even different interpretations of the Bible. We might think our enemies are those who live in a way that is different from the way we think people ought to live. We might consider someone an enemy because he or she has done something that hurt us or hurt someone we love. We might decide a person is an enemy because he or she looks different from us, or because our family history has taught us that “those people” are our sworn enemies.
The message from today’s story about Peter’s encounter with the Gentile Centurion named Cornelius is that the power of the Holy Spirit can open the hearts of anyone to know the saving love of Jesus Christ—even those whom we have determined to be, if not our enemies, at least “not one of us.”
What we must do is move away from taking a stance that others must prove to us, by their words or actions, that they are now “one of us.” The work of determining who is part of God’s kingdom is never ours to do. It is always God’s decision, and not one of us knows what the mind of God is or how God will separate the wheat from the chaff, or even that God will actually one day do that.
It is hard to refrain from deciding for ourselves who should be in and who should be out, who is a Christian and who is not, who is a friend and who is an enemy. As human beings, we seem built to make such judgments, no matter how hard we try not to. Perhaps it is simply part of our sinful natures. I don’t know. I only know that I must confess that I do it too, and that I must take active, intentional steps to resist my natural inclination to judge for myself who is righteous and who is not.
Living as baptized disciples calls us to actively resist not just through our words and actions, but through our ritual prayers. Praying together for the world, and especially for those whom we would rather not pray, is an act of resistance. Sadly, in a lot of congregations, this kind of prayer does not often take place. Instead, we tend to share mostly only in the joys and concerns of our own community and circle of friends, and not spend as much time praying against the overwhelming forces of injustice, evil, and oppression that pervade our world.
- As you consider the story of Cornelius’ response to the message of God’s grace shown in Jesus Christ, can you not imagine that God can take even the most hardened heart of your most fervently sworn enemy and soften and mold it into fertile soil for a disciple’s heart to grow?
- Can you imagine conversion might be happening even when you see no evidence of it?