Easter Sermon Series 2016 - Week Five Preaching Notes
Key Word: Testify
Notes for Acts 16:16-34
There can be no doubt about it: the book of Acts testifies repeatedly to the power of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. The gospel changes people. It transforms unbelievers into believers. It heals. It brings hope. It exorcises demons out of those who have been possessed. There is power in hearing the Gospel proclaimed!
Of course, at the time Acts was written the only “scriptures” that people had for use in worship was the Hebrew canon. Scholars date Acts as early as the 80’s, but there is no real consensus as to either date or authorship. Some attribute the work to the same author who wrote Luke, which is an argument for the early date. Others place it later, and perhaps with a different author, but one who was closely aligned with the Lukan community and its concerns. Even if the letters of Paul were circulating at this point, and even if Mark, Matthew, Q, and Luke had been written, they would not have been in widespread use. During this period there were many writings attributed to Christian community that were circulating. It wasn’t until two centuries later that the New Testament canon officially formed.
So at this point in history, to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ meant to tell the stories of Jesus from one’s memory. There was no reading of passages from the New Testament. There was only remembering and sharing stories that had been heard from others about the things that Jesus said and taught and the miracles he performed, and passing those stories down orally.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is always proclaimed. Our United Methodist order of worship considers both the reading of the scriptures aloud in worship and the preaching on those scriptures to be the proclamation of God’s Word. But as Methodists, we do more than simply listen to God’s Word proclaimed in worship. We are called to study those stories alone and in community with others and to consider how our holy scriptures inform our faith. In our baptismal covenant we vow,
“To receive and profess the Christian faith as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.”
John Wesley interpreted this to mean that as Methodists, we are to continually “search the scriptures” in order that we might “spread scriptural holiness over the land.”
When I read this amazing story about the testimony of Paul and Silas to both the woman possessed with a spirit of prophecy, and to the other people in prison, and to the prison guard, I am completely awestruck by their tenacity. They refused to stop sharing the good news, even when it cost them their freedom. They refused to stop even when it cost them their very lives.
Do we have that kind of tenacity about proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to others? I suppose the answer to that question depends on where you live. I live in the United States, which is a place where we claim to offer freedom of religious practice. In reality, though, since shortly after our founding as a nation, religious belief and practice in the United States has been dominated by Christianity. Some people even claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, although that is a claim which is not based in fact. Many European settlers came to this land seeking freedom of religious expression. That is true. And for many the expression they sought to practice was Christian. But most of those who signed our Declaration of Independence likely aligned more closely with deism. While many of them were affiliated in some way or another with Christianity in their lifetimes, only a couple were actually practicing Christians.
Whatever the relationship between the founding of this nation and the Christian faith, there can be no doubt that until recently, Christianity has been the dominant religion in this nation since its beginnings, which means that proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the United States has, for most of modern history, not been counter to the status quo. But that is changing.
We live in a time now in which more and more of our neighbors neither claim nor affiliate with the Christian faith. We live in a time when proclaiming our faith in a public forum may not be appropriate or welcomed. We live in a time in which more and more people do not hear the message and teachings of Jesus Christ as good news, but rather as an affront to their beliefs and practices and culture and lifestyles.
Of course, in lots of places in the world this has been the case for several millennia. In many countries, to be Christian is not only to be counter to the dominant culture, but to put oneself in harm’s way. I write this words on the day after Easter. On the news this morning, after as story about last night’s basketball game results (it is March Madness) and the death overnight of two more people from their injuries from the suicide bombing attacks in Brussels, Belgium, bringing the total number of casualties to 35, there was a brief report on something that happened yesterday in Pakistan.
I don’t know if this news will have become more troubling and widespread by the time you read these notes. I can only say that today, the day after the attack, it is not the lead story on the morning news, a fact which grieves my soul. This attack happened in public park in Lahore, Pakistan, as Christian families gathered on Easter evening to celebrate the holiday together. In Pakistan, Christians make up only 2% of the population. A suicide bomber intentionally targeted Christians on Easter day, setting off a blast that killed at least 69 people and wounded over 300 more, many of whom were women and children. I am saddened that there is not more of an outcry coming from the Christian community in America and around the globe. I am saddened that the news of the Brussels attacks, which while tragic, happened several days ago, continues to dominate the news, while this story about our Christian brothers and sisters in Pakistan goes largely ignored, not only by the media but also, I suspect, by many Christian churches. I am troubled that the systematic destruction of some of our oldest and most important Christian sites in Iraq, a nation where Christianity has been practiced since the first century, barely even gets reported in the news, much less prayed over in our sanctuaries.
We who live in places where being a Christian does not endanger our lives must ask ourselves what we would do if these things happened in our own nation? Would we continue to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land” if doing so might cost of our lives? What if doing so cost us the lives of our children?
Paul and Silas were preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ in a public arena during a time in history when a few fringe religions, such as Judaism, were allowed by the Roman government to be practiced, but only within certain parameters. Their refusal to be quiet about their beliefs caused people to sit up and listen. Lives were changed. Even when they came under direct attack by Roman authorities and crowds, even when they were beaten and thrown in prison with their feet fastened in stocks, they refused to be quiet. The told the stories of Jesus to their fellow prisoners. They prayed and sang hymns to God. And their testimony was so compelling that the prisoners listened, and later the jailor, and lives were transformed by the power of the holy spirit working through their proclamation of God’s Word.
It seems like today, many of the voices for Christianity that are heard in the media are not representative of people like you and me. I am very serious about my Christian faith. I am as committed to proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ as anyone I know. But somehow, the media is never interested in people like us—people who quietly and faithfully practice our faith and share the Gospel in sanctuaries and communities around this nation and around the world week after week, year after year. Maybe that would change if we got out of our buildings and joined our voices in a collective outcry not over the latest juicy story about a politician, but rather about our concern for our brothers and sisters in the faith who live in places where their proclamation of the gospel may very well cost them their lives. Maybe that would change if we could be as bold as Paul and Silas, and order those evil spirits out of our brothers and sisters who have been possessed, and refuse to be silent about what our faith calls us to do and who it calls us to advocate for in this world. Maybe if we did these things we might be able to make a real difference for people. Maybe if we could just testify about how Jesus Christ has changed our own lives, letting the power of the holy spirit move through us, we really could bring the kingdom of God to earth, as it is in heaven.