As you have no doubt noticed there is a General Election campaign on at the moment but can I reassure you that if you are beginning to lose the will to live, there is only 11 days to go and we will not have another General Election for at least 4 years. The TV schedules will go back to normal, people from all parties will stop knocking on our doors asking for our votes (and starting ignoring us again) and best of all they will also stop clogging up our letter boxes with their leaflets.
I actually love General Elections but even I have found the last few weeks exasperating. Most exasperating of all is the constant promise of change. The underlying message of everything we have been told in the last few weeks by all politicians of all parties is that if we vote for them things will change. In a world where so much seems unacceptable and wrong it is an attractive message. It is a message politicians from every part of the political spectrum and from every period in history have made and yet none of them have ever really delivered – no government, no political party, no ideology, no group of people has ever really changed the world.
No one except one small powerless group in the first century, who turned the world upside down, not by winning an election, not by seizing power but by serving Jesus Christ. That group of people were the apostles and this evening we are going to be thinking about how this uneducated, very ordinary group of people transformed the world and we are going to do that by looking at two of them in action – the apostles Peter and John from Acts 4.
And as we learn about them we are also going think about how their example can challenge all Christians, every member of this church, to be involved in some form of ministry, which is the technical term for sharing the Gospel with people who are not yet Christians and helping other Christians to grow in their faith, not just in a formal setting such as a Bible Study Group or as a sidesman, but just as we live our everyday lives. We are going to do all that by looking at Acts 4 in three sections – the context of our service, the content of our message and the character of the servant.
First, THE CONTEXT OF OUR SERVICE
So first the context of our service, in other words the situation we find ourselves in. If you look at verses 1-4, it is striking how similar our situation is to Peter and John's:
The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.
Two things jump out from those verses: on one hand Peter and John had many opportunities to tell people about Jesus Christ but on the other hand they also faced much opposition. That was the background, the context, to their daily lives as they tried to serve Jesus Christ.
Before we go any further it is worth knowing a little bit more about the background to the events we are looking at this evening. When we join Peter and John at the start of chapter 4 they are in the Temple Courts in Jerusalem addressing a crowd who had gathered after they had healed a long-term cripple by the power of Jesus Christ, you can read about that in the first section of chapter 3. This healing provided a tremendous opportunity to explain more about Jesus, which in turn led to many believing and the church growing. But there was also opposition. As soon as the authorities realised what had happened the two apostles were arrested in order to be taken before the ruling council or to give it its proper name the Sanhedrin. They had opportunities but also faced opposition.
And that pattern of opportunity and opposition which Peter and John experienced is still the same for us today. There are countless opportunities to share the Gospel in today's world. Think about our situation here in Newcastle. We collectively, as a group of people at this service this evening, come across thousands people everyday at our schools, universities, places of work, in our families and in our friendship circles, who need to hear about Jesus Christ. That alone demonstrates that in today's world there are many opportunities to speak about Christ, if we want to take them.
And here at Church there are plenty of opportunities to minister. This evening we have heard about the summer Globe and there are leaflets about Parish Visiting in the pews. As well as those things there are children's groups, teenage groups, old people's groups, toddler groups, music groups, home groups, focus groups, wives' groups, men's groups, international groups, enquirer's groups among many other groups and activities at JPC and they all need Christians to serve in them.
But with these opportunities in the world and the church there is also opposition. However my feeling is that the opposition we face is altogether more subtle that the opposition Peter and John faced. When the soldiers marched up to them and threw them into jail it was obvious where the opposition to them was. For us it is not so clear – the government will not arrest you for speaking about Jesus Christ, we are free to do that. Today the things that might prevent us from engaging in some form of Christian ministry are likely to be more pedestrian and closer to our hearts than we realise. If you are anything like me the opposition will come from yourself – from your fears of being rejected or ridiculed, from the desire for a quiet life and from plain old fashioned laziness. For many of us today the opposition that could prevent us from taking God given opportunities is not from outside but from inside, putting our priorities, our wants and our desires before those of Christ.
So the challenge of verses 1-4 for us is this: If you recognise there are these many opportunities to serve Christ will you take them despite the opposition you face?
That is the context we live in – for Christians in 2001 there are plenty of opportunities but there is also opposition. It was just the same for Peter and John.
Secondly, THE CONTENT OF OUR MESSAGE
Have a look at verses 8-12.
The next day the rulers, elders and teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and the other men of the high priest's family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: "By what power or what name did you do this?" Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: "Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He is 'the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.' Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."
Looking at these verses there are 3 elements to the message that Peter and John preached:
First, they preached a person: Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The Christian message is all about an actual historical person, who lived and walked the earth 2000 years ago and whose words and actions were accurately recorded for future generations to learn from. But of course this person was more than just another human being, in fact he was more than an extraordinary human being – he claimed to be God. That was what Peter told this powerful group of people when he called this person Jesus Christ. And that is the first element of our message: Jesus the man who was God.
Second they preached that salvation was available through this person's death by crucifixion. That is what Peter is in verse 12. Jesus' death on the cross was not a mistake nor was it simply sinful people trying to suppress a dangerous upstart. It was a part of God's plan to forgive people who had rebelled against him. Peter and the other Apostles all taught that when Jesus was crucified he was being punished for all the wrong committed against the Lord so that people that trust in him could re-enter a relationship with God, which is what the Bible calls salvation.
On the top the dome at St Paul's Cathedral in London there is a huge cross. It is partly there as decoration but it also serves a practical purpose – it is a lightening conductor. If there is a storm the lightening will be attracted to that cross and the rest of the building will be protected from harm. When Jesus was crucified it was like all of God's anger against mankind's wrongdoing, which the Bible calls sin, was directed like a bolt of lightening at Jesus on a cross outside Jerusalem on the first Good Friday almost 2000 years ago. That happened so that people who have faith in Christ are safe from God's anger. That is the second element of our message: salvation is available through Jesus Christ.
The third element of our message is in verse 10 and it is that God raised Jesus back to life. That demonstrates the truth of Jesus' claims, particularly his claim that he was God, and confirms the effectiveness of his death for sins.
In a nutshell that is the Christian message: it is about Jesus, his death and his resurrection. It may be that you are here this evening but would not describe yourself as a Christian. If that is you I hope that helps you understand what it is that Christians actually believe and I also hope that you will feel free to ask Christians you know about the parts of our message that you do not understand or do not agree with. There are always groups at this Church for people who want to find out more and you would be very welcome to come to one of them. If you would like to know more about those ask one of the Church staff.
But for those of us who are Christians these verses not only tell us about our message they also tell us what got Peter and John into this situation in the first place. Peter tells us in his own words in the middle of verse 9. It was "an act of kindness". We need to remember that any ministry we take part in is not simply about telling people things or teaching people things but also about showing kindness and mercy on a more practical level as well. How you will do that will depend on your situation – how you will be kind to a child in your Sunday School class will be significantly different to how you will be kind to the homeless person you meet on Northumberland Street. But either way acts of kindness should be a part of everyday life.
So that is the content of our message and the challenge for us is very simply that Peter and John's lives were dominated by the priority of telling people this message and doing these acts of kindness. In doing that they were simply following the example of Jesus Christ. But I wonder if our lives dominated by those same priorities? I suspect our answer to that will depend on the third thing addressed by our passage.
Thirdly, THE CHARACTER OF A SERVANT
Have a look at verses 13 – 20:
When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say. So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together. "What are we going to do with these men?" they asked. "Everybody living in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it. But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn these men to speak no longer to anyone in this name." Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard."
Looking at those verses there were four things that characterised Peter and John:
Firstly they were courageous. Here were these two men with no powerful friends and no formal education in front of the most powerful people in the land, the same people who had been involved in the execution of their leader just weeks before. And yet they told them exactly what they did not want to hear. That is a real example of courage. And that is a challenge to us – we need to ask ourselves are we similarly courageous when we are put on the spot and asked about Christ.
Secondly they were very ordinary. We sometimes think of the Apostles as extraordinary spiritual giants, who had shining halos behind their heads and always looked serene. But verse 13 says that there was nothing about these men that particularly marked them out from the crowd. They were not particularly bright or particularly impressive. In fact they were very ordinary. And that should encourage us – we do not have to be super human to serve Christ. The apostles weren't and they changed the world.
The third thing to notice explains why these very ordinary people could be so courageous and achieve such extraordinary things – it there at the end of verse 13: they had been with Jesus. They had the privilege of physically spending three years with him, learning from him and seeing him perform extraordinary miracles. That experience transformed them. And the truth is that Christians today can have the same intimate knowledge of Christ as Peter and John, not by being physically with him but by his spiritual presence through his gift of the Holy Spirit. We need to make time for him – we need to spend time praying and reading our Bibles. That way we too will be people who have been with Jesus.
The final characteristic I want to draw out form this passage is in verse 20 and it is that they were determined to speak about Jesus Christ whatever the cost. Have a look at verses 18-20 again:
Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard."
I recently came across a very sad letter written about 50 years ago by an American communist to his fiancé to break off their engagement. It said this:
"We Marxists suffer many casualties. We are those whom they shoot, hang, lynch, imprison, slander, fire from our jobs and whose lives people make miserable in every way possible. We live in poverty. From what we earn we turn over to the Party every cent which we do not absolutely need to live. We communists have neither time nor money to go to movies very often, nor for concerts, nor for beautiful homes and new cars. Our lives are dominated by one supreme factor - the struggle for world communism.
"We have a cause to fight for, a specific goal in life. We lost our insignificant identities in the great river of humanity; and if our personal lives seem hard, or if our egos seem bruised through subordination to the Party, we are amply rewarded in the thought that all of us, even though it be in a very small way, are contributing something new and better for humanity.
"There is one thing about which I am completely in earnest - the communist cause. It is my life, my business, my hobby, my sweetheart, my wife, my mistress, my meat and drink. I work at it by day and dream of it by night. Its control over me grows greater with the passage of time. Therefore I cannot have a friend, a lover, or even a conversation without relating them to this power that animates and controls my life. I measure people, books, ideas and deeds according to the way they affect the communist cause and by their attitude to it. I have already been in jail for my ideas, and if need be, I am ready to face death."
The man who wrote that letter was besotted by Communism, he gave up everything, including the love of his life, for it. In the short term he clearly felt useful but in the long term all his hopes, all his dreams and all his aspirations came to nothing. Communism failed and his life was wasted.
But if that that letter had been written by a Christian about his commitment to Christ rather than it being a testimony to a wasted life it would be an example of a life well used. It would have been a letter from somebody who along with Peter and John could say, 'we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard'. And the challenge for us looking at Peter and John's characteristics is whether we say in good conscience and with our hands on our hearts, 'we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard'? Or to put it another way could we write a Christianised version of that letter? Someone who can has the true character of a servant.
So there we have the character of the servant: courageous, ordinary, someone who spends time with Jesus and someone who is determined to speak about Jesus Christ.
Our time is nearly up. From Acts 4 we have learnt about 3 things:
The context of our service – like Peter and John we have plenty of opportunities to serve Christ but face opposition;
The content of our message – Peter preached a message about Jesus, his death and his resurrection;
The character of the servant.
All of which I find intimidating. The task of ministry seems so daunting but we must not forget that Peter, John and the other apostles were just like us – they had the same hopes and fears and what made them people who changed the world was not popularity, intellect, fame or even their gifts but Jesus Christ. If we love him, trust him and are determined to follow him just like they did there is no reason why we cannot change the world just like they did. The question is do you want to serve Christ like Peter and John?