Posted by: Johnold Strey | May 3, 2009

Sermon on Acts 4:23-33

THESE SHEEP AREN’T SHEEPISH!

  1. They pray boldly
  2. They speak boldly
  3. They love boldly

Text: Acts 4:23-33

Introduction

By now you have probably detected the overall theme of today’s service.  We sang a beautiful setting of Psalm 23 with the refrain, “The Lord’s my shepherd, I shall not want.  He leads me.”  The Gospel reading came from John 10, the “Good Shepherd” chapter of the Bible.  The Prayer of the Day echoed some of the phrases in Psalm 23 and John 10.  The hymn we just finished singing and the hymn we will sing during the distribution are both paraphrases of Psalm 23, and our last hymn will be “Jesus, Shepherd of the Sheep.”  If you didn’t know that the Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” you probably could have figured it out with relative ease based on what you’ve experienced so far this morning.

The picture of Jesus as our Shepherd and us as his sheep is a favorite image for many Christians.  Many find it to be a comforting image.  It is an image that seems to depict us as a meek, mild, and gentle flock under the care of the Good Shepherd.  But that’s not the image of the early Christians that we read about in today’s First Lesson from Acts 4:23-33.  In that reading, Luke described the early Christians as people who were bold and courageous, people with guts and chutzpah!  In the face of threats, these sheep weren’t sheepish.

new-testament-illustrations-074Over the past three weeks, our First Lesson tracked some of the early happenings in the infant Christian church.  Our guest preacher walked you through the background of this reading in the two sermons you heard over the last two weeks while I was out of the pulpit.  The apostles Peter and John healed a crippled man in Jesus’ name in the reading we heard two weeks ago, and last week we found out that the religious leaders didn’t like the attention that Jesus’ apostles were receiving as a result.  Today we look at the church’s response to the threats that the Jewish religious leaders dished out.  It is clear from their response that these early Christians were not chicken.  They weren’t timid.  These sheep weren’t sheepish.  Luke shows us that early church prayed boldly, spoke boldly, and even loved one another boldly.

I.

How do you suppose Jesus’ enemies hoped that the apostles would respond to their threats?  Did they want the apostles to apologize for their miracles and preaching and retract what they were saying?  Did they hope that they would retreat from the message about Jesus just as they had literally retreated from Jesus on the night of his arrest?

If that was the religious leaders’ hope, they certainly didn’t get what they wanted.  For the early church responded to their threats not in sheepish fear but with a bold prayer to the throne of God.  “On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them.  When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.  “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.  You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’  Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.  They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.  Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

You know what I find interesting about their prayer?  They took a long time to get to their request!  Like many prayers we hear in worship, their prayer first appealed to the characteristic about God that would be the basis for their request.  They needed God’s strength, and so they acknowledged his power first.  “You made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.”  If God could create the universe, surely he could help them with their current dilemma.  And then they added a lengthy tangent before their request.  They talked about the opposition Jesus faced – opposition that was predicted in the excerpt from Psalm 2 that they quoted, and opposition they described in their prayer.  The first Christians understood, perhaps better than we do, that in this world we follow Jesus in his sufferings and trials, not his glory.

With all of these perspectives laid out in their prayer, they arrive at their petition: “Enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  These sheep of the Good Shepherd offered a bold prayer.  They needed the ability to proclaim the resurrection gospel with confidence in the face of intimidating circumstances.  And at this point in Christian history, they need the confirmation that a miracle could provide as the evidence to back up their message.  These early believers did not have nicely bound New Testaments they could refer to for support.  They were living the New Testament!  If a skeptic today challenges what you believe, you can tell him to check out the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection described in the carefully and accurately preserved New Testament.  I’ve said many times that the case for the resurrection and reliability of the Scriptures is incredibly strong.  But the apostles could not open up their pocket Bibles and make their case that way, and so they boldly prayed for miraculous signs that would back up their gospel proclamation.

Some form of persecution has affected Christians in nearly every time and place since Christ’s ascension.  The kinds of persecution we face today may not compare to what the early church endured, but Jesus promised that our lives would be a cross, and that means that sometimes we suffer for our faith.  But what is our response to those moments of persecution (albeit mild compared to the apostles)?  Is that our cue to pray boldly, or to retreat sheepishly?  Is that our chance to confess our faith without apology, or to excuse our faith as an outdated family tradition we have to keep?  Is that our opportunity to stand up for what is right, or to attempt to agree as much as possible with our detractor so that we don’t seem out of place?  I think you know how those scenarios play out a good percentage of the time.  We may be sheep of the Good Shepherd, but that doesn’t mean that we have to be sheepish.  Yet our sinful nature seems to sheepishly retreat and expose our inbred sinful status at those times when we have golden opportunities to confess Christ before others.

new-testament-illustrations-046Perhaps that is why the Bible’s image of the Good Shepherd is as comforting as it is.  Remember what Jesus said in today’s Gospel?  “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).  For sinful and straying sheep like you and me, Jesus laid down his life.  He gave his life into death on the cross for all our sheepishness and our daily sins and our sinful state.  Jesus laid down his life so that we would be cleansed by his blood and forgiven through his sacrifice.  And Jesus went on to say, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again” (John 10:17).  There is the resurrection!  There is the definitive statement of Christ’s forgiveness, of reconciliation with God, and of access to the throne of God that we can boldly bring him our requests in prayer.

II.

It’s pretty incredible to see how much Jesus’ disciples changed after the resurrection.  During Lent, we repeatedly observed how his disciples talked “big” among themselves, but acted quite sheepish as soon as they were challenged.  But think about that prayer the disciples spoke in our reading, and you can tell that something has really changed them.  And you can see that inner change from the events after the prayer as well.

Verse 31 says, “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”  God answered their bold prayer with a bold sign, and he also answered it by giving them what they asked for—the ability to speak his Word confidently and boldly.  Two verses later, Luke says the same think about the disciples’ witness.  “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.”  In that verse, we see the message they boldly spoke and we are reminded of the reason they boldly spoke: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It was the resurrection that changed those disciples from cowards to champions of the Christian message about the Christ.

The resurrection made a difference for Jesus’ first disciples, and it also makes a difference for the disciples gathered here in this church today.  Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is a historical fact that also declares your forgiveness of sins.  It promises and guarantees your eternal life.  It is the proof that gives certainty to every other promise from God.  And it gives power to the Christian message.  If Jesus was just another religious figure, if his body was rotting in the grave like anyone else, we would have no reason to confess our faith boldly.  But here is the key difference that empowers our witness: Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  And that is all the reason we need to speak boldly to others about the risen Lord!

III.

Just yesterday, while I was writing this sermon, someone commented on my blog about comments he heard from some of his Christian friends from Evangelical backgrounds.  These friends had commented about sermons they had heard from Lutherans (and others) that only talked about law and gospel.  These folks seemed to think that they were missing something if the sermon didn’t tell them specifically how they were to live their lives as Christians.  There seemed to be an assumption that without specific instructions for life, people won’t live the way God wants them to live.

One of the last verses in our reading speaks directly against that kind of thinking.  “All the believers were one in heart and mind.  No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.”  Here is a description of the way the early Christians lived their lives in the light of Christ’s resurrection.  They didn’t need their kindergarten teacher to scold them for not being good little boys and girls.  They didn’t need a government wealth redistribution program to take care of the poor and needy among them.  They loved boldly!  There was no way they could live with knowledge and faith in Jesus’ real resurrection from the dead and somehow prevent it from affecting their daily lives.

Would you like the same power and ability to love boldly?  Would you like the power to live that kind of life, a life that’s plugged into Jesus’ resurrection?  Then plug into the power that is yours in Holy Baptism.  Your baptism was the moment when you became sheep of the Good Shepherd, and at that moment you were not called to live sheepishly, because the font connected you to Jesus’ resurrection.  Christ’s forgiveness became yours.  Eternal life became yours.  You were adopted into the family of God.  You were given power to live a new life, a life in which you can boldly love the people God has placed along your path.

Can we live in any other way in light of the resurrection?  The resurrection empowers us to love boldly!  What else would lead you to give a “Year of Jubilee” offering to WELS so that our synod can pay down its debt and devote more of our dollars toward real ministry?  What else would lead you to confront a friend trapped in his own unrepentant sin with the goal of winning them back to their Savior?  What else would lead you to give your time and energy to help the outreach efforts of our church and school?  What else would lead you to love the family and friends God has placed in your life even when they don’t seem all that lovable?  What else could get us to love boldly other than the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead?  Nothing else could get us to live that way!  The resurrection enables us to love boldly.

Conclusion

There is nothing so life-changing as Jesus’ resurrection.  His resurrection changes us from sheepish sheep into confident confessors who pray and speak and even love each other boldly.  And our bold lives have been made possible by this one simple yet incredible truth: Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Amen.

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