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BRAVE IN THE NEW WORLD    Acts 4:1-22          (2nd Service)

We are starting a new series today that I am so excited for.  It’s called “Brave in the New World,” and we, over the next few weeks, are going to be tackling some of the most difficult issues and topics that we face, sort of culturally and societally, in our world today.  Our goal this morning is to set a little bit of ground work and to give us a path forward that we’re going to ask Jesus to lead us in over the next few weeks.

Like you, I watched in horror on April 15th, not as my tax return came back, but as Notre Dame burned.  I had had the chance to go once to Notre Dame.  Aaron and I were on a layover in Paris; it lasted a day.  We were on our way home from a missions trip in Africa, so we spent a romantic in Paris together.  We had the chance to stand in that beautiful cathedral.  It’s a little bit different than being in South Fellowship Church building.  The grandeur and the awe that you feel when you stand in that space is unparalleled.  Yet, we saw on April 15th that it began to burn.

I think this is a prophetic picture; not just what physically happened to the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, but what’s been going on with the church for a number of decades.  You may be aware that if you were to go to Notre Dame and stand in the courtyard, what you would find is what they call “point zero.”  It’s a marker, and everything else in Paris is measured against that point. So all the distances are in relationship to Notre Dame.  That was not accidental.  It was also not just a physical marker.  At one point it was a spiritual marker too.  It was a marker of reality.  It was a marker of how we figure out our spot in this world.  It was measured against church.  In large degree, it was determined by Scripture; that was point zero.

In our day, in our culture, in our time, in our country, we have a number of point zeros too.  Have you recognized that when you drive through most downtowns in our country, what you find, on Main Street, is a church.  You drive through a small town and what’s in the very center of the town?  A church.  This just in….that’s not by accident!  The church was, both literally and figuratively, at the center of it all.  I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic and I don’t think I’m speaking in hyperbole when I say that day is no more.  That day is no more.  There may be churches on Main Street, but I think our prophetic moment, our cultural moment, looks far more akin to the burning of Notre Dame than it does to the church on Main Street that’s intact and has a voice that is rippling out to the culture around it.  No, no, no, no, no.  I think, just like Notre Dame burned, we’ve had churches in the center of every major downtown across the U.S. that are no longer places of worship but are now bars and pubs and nightclubs.  This is where we stand.

But it wasn’t always where we stood.  There was a day, there was a time, where the church had unbelievable impact on the world around it.  There was a day and there was a time where there was an early group of followers of Jesus—we’ll read about some of them this morning—who, in their world, had zero political or social power, but they developed massive influence.  They didn’t have any say over the Roman government.  They didn’t have any vote in the empire.  The early followers of Jesus didn’t have a seat on the Sanhedrin; they didn’t get to speak into temple practices.  Politically, socially, religiously, they had ZERO power. But over the course of a few hundred years, with no power, they developed massive influence.  People started to take notice.  Most notably, the powers that be started to take notice.

If you know your history, in 312AD, Constantine, the emperor of the Roman Empire, became a follower of the way of Jesus.  In 323AD, he declared that Christianity was THE religion of the Roman Empire.  This religion, this group of people that had zero political and social power , but massive influence, all of a sudden had extreme, EXTREME, power and influence.  Christianity went from being a movement that had no power but great influence—catch this, we need to dial this in as we begin the series—to being a religion that had power IN ORDER to have influence.

The way that the church impacted the world dramatically changed under the reign of Constantine.  The church started to build buildings—many of which we still go visit today and are beautiful cathedrals.  The church started to get some tax breaks.  It started to have influence and power in the world around it, so, subsequently, because we tasted power there were some things that started to happen.  Let me take you on a brief, thousand-plus year history, okay?

After Constantine becomes a follower of Jesus, Christianity becomes the religion of the Roman Empire.  In the Middle Ages, we have a little event called the Crusades.  It reinforced, all the more, that the way we have influence is by having power; if we don’t have power, we don’t have influence.  The church started to get this in their DNA, and the church started to get corrupt.  You had this massive split in the church in the early 1500s, between Catholics and Protestants.  You had fighting among the Catholics and the Protestants, and among the Protestants and the Protestants.  It was an absolute mess.  So you had a group of people in 1620 that said, “We’re going to go and seek religious freedom.”  They hopped on boats and traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and they landed in the New World.  These spiritual pilgrims were looking for religious freedom.  They found it.

Just so we’re clear, Christianity was the primary religion in this New World, but it wasn’t the only religion.  The United States was never a Christian nation because that’s impossible.  Christian is not an adjective, it’s a noun.  It can be a Christianized nation, and it certainly was.  We’re founded on Judeo-Christian values, but we’re founded on an experiment that said what if we created an environment where any religion can come and take root without being persecuted.  That was the goal of the early pilgrims.  So, the church, in the New World, in our nation, in our world, wasn’t just a consumer, it was a contributor.  It was a curator.

You may be aware that that time didn’t last.  Over the last century or so, the church has started to lose its voice in the public square.  You’re aware of this?  The church has continued to operate as a religion that had power in order to have influence.  The only problem is that in our modern age, Christianity doesn’t have power, and therefore, now, doesn’t have influence.  We’ve continued to operate in this old model—in order to have influence, we’ve got to have power.  We’ve been left with our hands in the air, as a collective church, going “How in the world do we move forward?”  How do we live in this world? This world that’s different than the world that our grandparents grew up in.  How do we interact?  What should we do?  What should our methodology be to engage this world around us?

Over the last century, we’ve had a number of different ways we’ve attempted.  See if you’ve seen any of these play out in your day and your time, or maybe, through your life.  Here’s the first thing we’ve tried:  Condemn.  This was primarily, not only, the fundamentalist movement of the early 1900s.  We started to condemn culture.  The church was seen as having one of those big foam fingers pointing and going “no, no.”  That was the methodology.  We saw this happen in the 1980s with this rise of the hope for a Moral Majority.  Here’s the thought amongst followers of Jesus:  If we can gain back the voting block and legislate morality, then we will regain the power and regain the influence.  The only problem was that the Moral Majority was neither moral nor the majority.  Eventually, the bottom fell out of that, didn’t it?

So, we’ve tried to condemn culture.  We’ve also tried to critique culture.  This was in the camp that I would say I’m a part of—evangelicalism.   We want to sort of understand the world view.  We want to have a conversation.  We want to look at here’s the way Christianity’s different, so we’ll go watch the movie and we’ll sit down and have a conversation.  Here’s what they’re proposing and here’s what we believe.  So there was a critique.

The movement I grew up mostly under was the copy-cat version of the way that we interact with the culture.  I remember walking into the Bible bookstore and seeing the CD or tape section.  They had little signs beneath the CDs that said something like:  If you like Dave Matthews, you’re going to love Jars of Clay.  I’m like, “What’s wrong with just liking Dave Matthews?”  Right?  He’s amazing!  I listened to Jars of Clay, and they were good, but…..let’s be honest, people, they were no Dave Matthews.  So we tried to copy the culture out there.  Well, we can have our version of Christian music, Christian movies….we’ll take the good stuff you’re doing and we’ll redeem it.  We’ll make our version.

I think if we try to ask what’s our cultural moment, how do we interact with culture, I think to a large degree, we’d just have to say we’re consumers.  Maybe we don’t condemn a whole lot, we don’t critique a whole lot, we don’t copy a whole lot, but, man, we’ll go to the movie and watch it.  We’ll have very little conversation about any deeper message in it.

These are all ways we’ve attempted to try to make sense the world around us.  Just to be clear, there is a TIME for EACH of these.  How many of you wish that followers of Jesus would have been more condemning of the Nazi regime in Germany?  Me too.  There’s a time for critique—Any display of art evokes a response and you’re suppose to have that, and that’s good.  There’s a time to copy—Martin Luther is known for taking tunes that they sang in bars and making them into hymns.  Can you imagine them being like “Cheers!” and him going, “Yeah! A mighty fortress….  That’s amazing!”   I don’t know.  Certainly, there’s a time for consuming—How many of you have eaten recently?  On some level, we are consuming culture.  Lean in for a second.  Look up at me.  The problem becomes when ANY ONE of these approaches becomes the church’s default position to the culture around it.

In their most recent book Good Faith, Dave Kinneman and Gabe Lyons wrote that to a large degree the church is viewed from the outside world as being extreme and irrelevant.  The church is no longer the place where people go for the big questions of life.  Questions like:  What is reality?  What is the good life?  How do we live that good life?  Friends, Notre Dame is burning!  And the reason they do not come to the church for answers to THOSE questions anymore…..which by the way, those are the three main questions of every ancient philosophy and that every ancient religion tried to answer—What is reality?  Who is the good person? How do we live that kind of life?  The reason the world no longer comes to the church for the answer to those kinds of questions is because the church no longer wrestles with those questions!  We’ve specialized in ONE question—How do we get to heaven when we die?  We’re viewed as extreme or we’re viewed as irrelevant.

You add on top of that… 1963, Bob Dylan wrote, “The times they are a-changin’.”  Imagine what he would write if he were still alive today.  The times are changing, friends, RAPIDLY, are they not?  Think about the world we live in.  How many agree the world is changing?  We have worldwide population growth at an exponential rate that’s never been seen before.  The internet has changed the way that we think.  Cell phones have changed the way that we communicate.  9/11, for a large degree, for our country, changed the way that we feel about our safety in our country.  There are cars that can drive themselves.  There are drones that will deliver your groceries for you someday, praise be to God.  I’m not even touching on A.I. and all of the new frontier that’s on the horizon with artificial intelligence.  If you think the world’s changing quickly NOW, buckle your seat belt!

You add on top of all of those layers the fact that, at least in a visceral way, it FEELS like we’re more divided now as a nation than we have ever been before.  I think, to a large degree, the church and everybody else is having a hard time figuring out how do we respond?  The old way of power in order to have influence isn’t working any longer.  Where do we go from here?  What do we do?  What’s the new way forward? Lean in for a moment.  My hope is that the church would regain its voice.  My hope is that the church would be seen as a beacon of hope and a beacon of light and a beacon of love.  My hope is that the church would have the ability to speak into some of the deepest, most prevalent, confusing questions of our day and of our time, but we need a different playbook.  The way that we’ve been going about this is not working.  It’s not more of the same.  It’s not going to get the job done.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a playbook?  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could figure out a way forward?  What I want to propose to you over the next few weeks is the way forward is the way that embraces influence without clamoring for power, that continues to be brave in the new world, but also operates with wisdom.  Here’s the irony of it all—We have our playbook.  We actually just need to get back to the work that early followers of Jesus were doing when they embraced their position.  Here’s what they were and what I’m calling us to become as well:  The church of the future, just like the early church, will be a creative minority that has influence without power.

Today, I want to lay a foundation for you—if you have your Bible, open to Acts 4.  Today’s about laying a foundation that we’re going to build on each week as we gather during this series.  In Acts 1, we see that Jesus spent forty days, after his resurrection, teaching his followers about the kingdom of God.  He was then taken in the ascension into heaven and the Holy Spirit came.  In Acts 2 and 3, the Spirit broke out in such a way that people were declaring the gospel.  God was calling people into the church at unprecedented rates.  In chapter 3, Peter and John heal somebody who was unable to walk.  Now, here was the problem: The problem was that the religious environment of their day wasn’t exactly welcoming to the way of Jesus.  They were pluralistic.  Rome had its pantheon of gods.  The Jews had their monotheistic worship of Yahweh.  You have to know, you have to know, you have to know that when Peter and John started preaching Jesus, it was a NEW THOUGHT.  So that’s the context.

Acts 4:1-4 — And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.  And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening.  But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of men came to about five thousand.   The cultural leaders of the day were “greatly annoyed.”  But Peter and John didn’t expect they would have a red carpet rolled out for them.  They didn’t expect….oh, Jesus of Nazareth, the slain but risen Messiah….tell us more about this.  No, no, no, no, no.  When they entered into the public square and they started to preach Jesus, they expected opposition.  They weren’t surprised by the fact that people had resistance to this message.  It was brand new.  No one had a category, at that point in time, for the worship of Jesus.

Jesus had also been very clear with his disciples when He sent them out to preach that the kingdom of God was at hand.  Listen to what Jesus says in his pep talk as he sends out the disciples.  Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matt. 10:16)   If I’m a disciple, I’m going, hey, Messiah, you mixed that up!  Aren’t we the wolves?  Aren’t we the people that have the power of God?  Isn’t the Spirit of God going to come on us and aren’t we going to drive out demons, and aren’t we going to heal the sick, and aren’t we the wolves in this scenario?  Please, say yes!  He’s like, I didn’t stutter.  You’re the sheep!  I thought about this—very few schools have mascots that are sheep.  Rams, maybe.  But sheep?  Do you know why people don’t have mascots that are sheep?  If there’s a bloodbath and a sheep is involved, they are not on the good end of that.  They aren’t.  So when Jesus tells his disciples to go out in the world, he’s saying expect opposition.

Look at the way the disciples respond.  Verse 19:  But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”   They didn’t get offended….How dare you?  They didn’t retaliate….If you throw us in jail, we’re going to…..   They didn’t get defensive.  They didn’t turn into jerks.  I think they understand that the influence of their platform would be determined by the amount of pain they were willing to walk in.  They went, this is worth it!  Here’s the other thing….please, will you look up at me?  Will you lean in?  I think this is for our cultural moment.  This is so important.  They realized that the way they responded to being wronged was a part of the message they delivered.  The way that they responded was not something different than the message of Jesus that they declared.  But it was intricately connected, so they saw it as an extension.  Maybe today it would be like the tone of the email is a part of the message.  The way that you respond to the comment on Facebook is a part of the message.  The glance, the look, the eye roll, the sigh…’s all a part of the message.

I can’t explain this, and I have to be honest, I don’t like it, but it seems as though, if you look through church history, that the church always flourishes when it’s under opposition.  You see that church growth movements typically happen in the most oppressive environments.  It seems like it’s just up and to the right when people are getting beat up for their faith.  I think there’s two reasons for that.  One is that you don’t ride the fence when you’re getting beaten for your religion, for your faith in Jesus.  I’m either in or I’m out, and if I’m in, I’m way in, and I might be in over my head.   Here’s the second reason:  Just like when a business is struggling, they typically strip back all the layers and go why are we here?  What do we do?  What’s our mission?  The same thing happens with the church when it’s under persecution.  You can see this come through in the way that the early followers of Jesus….they had a very simple message.  Look at it with me.  They were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. They were saying if it’s finished, it can begin again.  They were saying if Jesus walked out of the grave, one day we will too.  Think about all of the things the church didn’t preach about early on.  They didn’t preach about….well, this is the Bible and we can trust every single word of it.  That wasn’t their message.  They didn’t preach the Rome is evil; Rome is wrong—the oppression and the injustice. Which it was, it was bad.  That wasn’t their message.  Their message wasn’t about…here’s how sexuality is devolved in this culture and here’s what they’re doing and here’s what….   They had one simple message.  Do yourselves a favor, go read through all of the sermons preached in the book of Acts.  Do you know what will be at the core of every single one of those sermons?  Resurrection.  EVERY. SINGLE. ONE OF THEM.  They clarified their message.  Paul records in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that first importance is Christ has come, Christ has lived, Christ has died, Christ has risen.  That is the core of his gospel message.

I think one of the things that followers of Jesus are known most for, right now, is debating.  As Christians, we have an opinion on everything.  I’m not saying that’s wrong, please hear me.  I think you should have an opinion on politics; I’ll tell you what opinion to have next week!  I’m just kidding!! I think you should have an opinion on politics.  I think you should have an opinion on economics.  I think you should have an opinion on the most hotly debated topics of our day, but I think you should be most vocal about Jesus.

I had a chance to go to my uncle’s memorial; he passed away a few months ago.  My aunt, his wife, was a very strong follower of Jesus.  She wanted, at his memorial, the gospel to be preached.  The pastor, who I’m sure was well-intentioned and loved Jesus a lot, gave this gospel message about if you don’t love Jesus then he’s going to send you to hell and you’re going to burn.  My other aunt came up to me afterwards and said, “Aren’t you glad that the gospel was preached?”  I said to her, “I’m not sure it was.”  I said that the early Christians had a gospel and they were very clear about what it was.  It always included at least two things:  1) The kingdom of God is at hand.  You go read through….everywhere Jesus talks about the gospel, the Good News, he’s talking about the kingdom. 2) The other thing included in every single gospel proclamation was resurrection.  Those two things.  If we don’t preach resurrection, WE. DON’T. PREACH. GOSPEL.

This is the way that Paul writes it to Timothy (2 Timothy 2:8) — Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel.  They clarify the message.  It’s all about Jesus.  It’s about his resurrection.  It’s about his kingdom.  Are there other issues that are important?  Yes.  Were they talking about them?  Probably in their own circles, but publicly their proclamation was Christ has come, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Here’s how the passage continues (Acts 4:5-12) — On the next day {They’re being grilled on how in the world did this happen?  This guy wasn’t walking, now he’s walking.  Explain.}  their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.  And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”  Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, {It’s the Greek word sózó. It literally means healed. This word explains why somebody wasn’t walking one day and then the next day they were walking.  They were sózó.}  let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.  This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.  {Then they end with this verse that I think I got wrong for 38 years!  I used to go on the high school campuses and talk to people about Jesus.  I would quote Acts 4:12 — for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.  By that I meant, “You go to heaven when you die.”  Read it in context though.}  And there is salvation {Which is the Greek word sótéria, from the root word sózó, which makes sense in the context.} in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (sózó).   I think it should read: There’s no other name given among men by which we must be healed.  Certainly it’s a part of salvation.

You do know that the word salvation in the Scriptures is like really, really dense and really, really deep. To sózó someone means that one day they can’t walk and the next day they can.  To sózó someone means there’s chains in their heart that they start to become free of.  To sózó someone means that they long to live eternally in the presence of a good, Almighty God.  Sózó means ALL of those things, but HERE it’s an explanation for why somebody can’t walk one day and they can the next.  Like I said last week, the healing of sin is not just about getting us into heaven, it’s about healing our humanity.

So the early church….they’re going, we’re on trial for doing good.  Yeah, put us on trial for that.  If that’s why we’re standing before you, you should know, Peter says, it’s because of Jesus.  Did you know there was a time when one of the monikers for the church was “do-gooders?”  It wasn’t a cut down, it wasn’t a knock.  This is our history.  Did you know that early followers of Jesus were some of the first people to create hospitals, places people could come and get well?  They were advocates for children.  Some kids were tossed out by the Roman Empire to be killed by early exposure…..early followers of Jesus would go and find those kids and they would bring them in.  The early church was a curator of the arts, a protector of children, an advocate for equality, education, and literacy.  The church is one of the most prominent institutions that has taught people to read throughout the ages, because we believe that the Scriptures are so important.  We’ve been called a bookish people.  Do good.

What if, what if our way forward is yeah, we expect opposition and we clarify our message—Jesus and his resurrection—and then we build on top of that.  We commit to doing good.  I know some people are like well, we’ve got to do good and we’ve got to preach.  I’m a preacher, I don’t disagree with that.  But if we don’t do good, we will have no platform to stand on to preach.  Jesus said it himself:  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16) 

One of the things I love about pastoring this church is I think we do this so well.  I love the way that this church embodies by the running of a Food Bank that feeds a number of people, dozens of families, every single week. Through the Early Learning Center that holds out the hope of Jesus and gives great education at affordable price to people.  To our coffee shop that creates a place in our community for people to build community.  To our partnership with North Littleton Promise.  To our partnership with Family Promise.  Our support groups are saying man, Jesus, we want to be a church that doesn’t just talk about how great you are, we want to show people the glory of your name.  What if we became a church that made it our goal to be put on trial for the good deeds done in the name of Jesus?!

Here’s how this passage ends (Acts 4:13-14, 21-22) — Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished.  And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.  But seeing the man who was healed (sózó) standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition.  Just so we’re clear, you do know that perceiving that they were uneducated, ordinary men is NOT a compliment.  They’re going, “These guys are a little bit back woods!  They don’t talk right.”  They don’t understand the right etiquette.  They haven’t been to the right schools.  They don’t have all the answers.  There’s more questions for these dudes than there are answers to a large degree.  But I think there’s an important message for us here in this.  We live in a cultural moment that’s obsessed with information, don’t we?  We love acquiring it.  We love learning.  I’m not down on learning, I love learning.  Learning is a great thing.  But what the early church brought to the table was not simply the information that they knew, it was the people that they were becoming.  The world looked on in absolute amazement and they didn’t say, “These guys are really intelligent,” they said, “These guys have been with Jesus.”  I think that the church of the future, just like the church of the past, is going to be a church that prioritizes presence with Jesus.

This just in….you may want to lean in for a moment.  I’m going to pastorally share some difficult news with you.  There will probably always be someone in every room you’re in that’s smarter than you.  My case in point is James Holzhauer.  Anyone following Jeopardy lately? I mean, fifteen straight wins!  The dude’s netted $1.1 million in winnings.  He’s made Jeopardy his job.  There’s always going to be a James in your family.  There’s going to be a James in your neighborhood.  There’s going to be a James in your workplace.  There’s going to be someone who asks a question that you don’t know the answer to, and if you wait until you know all the answers to step into the conversation, you will be waiting your entire life.  But I’m convinced that the world needs more people present in it who have been present with Jesus.  That we embody his way.  That we carry his love.   I think you should know where you stand on politics.  I think you should know some of the latest scientific discoveries.  I think you should be aware of economic policy.  I think all of those things are really, really, really good, but I think you should be KNOWN for being a person who’s been with Jesus.  There’s no better gift that you can give to your marriage, to your kids, to your friends, to your roommates, to your neighbors.  BE. WITH. JESUS.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to tackle some real difficult topics.  These are actually topics from a survey that we took recently, that you said you wanted to hear me preach on.  If you don’t like this sermon series, it’s YOUR fault.   Next week we’re going to talk about politics.  Then we’re going to talk about tolerance and love.  We’re going to talk about science and the Bible.  We’re going to talk about sexuality.  We’re going to talk about oppression and injustice.  We’re going to talk about technology and materialism and individualism.  The series is so controversial that Google rejected our ads for it.  That’s a true story.  Here’s what I would say:  You’re probably not always going to agree with me.  And that’s okay!  I want us to be a church that stands firm at the center, and the center has a name.  His name is Jesus.  We agree on that.  Then we say, Jesus, Ancient of Days, teach us what it looks like to live brave in this new world.

As we close, where might the Spirit of God be prompting you, just this week?  As we look backwards to see the way the early church interacted with its culture and try to get that as a playbook for the way that we move forward in ours, what’s one way that you can embrace the influence that you have, without saying it’s got to come from a place of power.  Let’s pray.  {Prayer not recorded.}