APR 17, 2016, 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER

THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES | PART 3:  ACTS 5:12-16

A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin

The crowd packed Solomon’s Portico.  The sheltered porch outside the temple, overlooking a deep valley, was supported by a substructure of thick white walls on the spot first worked by King Solomon, the temple’s founder. There were so many people crowding the portico “that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them” (ESV, 5:15), and they would be healed by his power.  In the extraordinary and unique time that followed the resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit to his church, the promise of Jesus, as recorded by John, was fulfilled: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).  Peter’s shadow was so powerful that “The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed” (Acts 5:16).  

“The church is like a hospital,” a child preacher in Brazil says today; “People go there sick in a physical way or emotional way and I administer cures” to those who are sick “or liberations” to those afflicted with unclean spirits “to help them to be free of their problems.”  Acts 5:12-16, the third and last summary statement in the book’s first five chapters, is set between two accounts.  First is the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied about the amount of their money to Peter, and for succumbing to Satan and trying to deceive the Spirit, they were instantly judged and died (5:1-11).  The hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira contrasts with the sincerity of Barnabas, who sets all the proceeds from the sale of his possessions at the feet of the apostles. The fear aroused in the city by talk about this episode of God’s judgment is soon followed by the story of the arrest, divine release, and re-arrest of Peter, John, and the apostles, as the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem escalate their efforts to suppress the Jesus movement.  The apostles are beaten, then once again released (5:17-42), heightening the general sense of fear.

In between the two accounts, one focused on pressures within the community, the other on pressures from outside, Luke recalls and expands on his earlier portraits of church life (3:1 – 4:31) and prepares his hearers for what is coming (5:17-42).   He highlights several themes:  the church’s regular meetings in Solomon’s Portico (5:12, 3:11), signs and wonders (5:12, 4:30), the rapid growth of the church (5:14, 4:4), healings (5:15-16, 3:1-10), and persecution (5:13, 4:3, 17-21, 5:17-42). The intensified threat from the Jewish authorities indicates what will follow from the Romans.  By walking the way of Jesus, the apostles demonstrate what discipleship may look like:  suffering, but also deliverance, under the watchful eye of God.  The church cannot be constrained by political or military power. The church assembles outside the spheres of power.

Practical applications can be drawn from each facet of early church life mentioned in The Acts:

(1) Signs and wonders performed by Jesus through the hands of the apostles remind us that Jesus is the head of the church.  Disciples act as trustees of his teachings and their proclamation, of his worship and its sacraments.  All disciples are trustees and must, therefore, learn the teachings of Jesus through Word and Sacrament, to pass these on to the generations behind them.  This requires that young people be invited into the missions of the church, so that they will begin to understand discipleship. Our grandchildren, who do not share the experiences and values of our mother’s children, express more concern about what the church brings to the world than what it does in its sanctuaries.

(2) The first church of Jerusalem is a gathering, an assembly, a coming together of believers.  The church continues to meet at the temple, despite the threat posed by religious authorities. Other than health issues and travel, what reason can those of us who think of ourselves as disciples  – stewards of the vast resources of Christian culture and its worldview – have for not regularly meeting together in worship and in fellowship?

(3) There were people in Jerusalem who didn’t join the first church, because they were made afraid by the deaths of Ananias and Sapphire and the increasing harassment of temple authorities, whereas disciples, following the example of Jesus and the apostles, had the courage to be publicly identified as Christians. We should not overlook the role of courage in our discipleship.

(4) The church believed that it had inherited the promise of eternal life. This meant, as Luke narrates in his gospel, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23) and “whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Money giving is part of self-giving; we give through the church because the church saves lives. To be saved means to be spared “the wrath to come,” i.e. death and destruction.

(5) The people of Jerusalem could see the effects of following Jesus, and crowds of men and women were added to the church.  The church witnesses to the world by how it lives and loves each other.  Then, as now, the world holds a good opinion of the church when it fulfills its mission.

(6) Multitudes of the sick were healed through the first church of Jerusalem by the power of the Holy Spirit; this Spirit continues with the church, until the 2nd Coming of Christ.  The Spirit does not abide with the church to keep up the appearance of its buildings, but to build up the body of believers who are the trustees of faith in their walk of Jesus.

Much that Luke narrates in The Acts is summarized by Paul in 1st Thessalonians, the first letter we have of his, where he lists the exemplary qualities of the church of Thessalonica: work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope. These are the three cardinal virtues, evidence of God’s election – his choice – of the church out of Israel.  This choice was consummated, Paul writes, because the gospel of Christ came to the church “not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thess 1:5). The Spirit works through Paul, who conveys it with all the strength of his conversion, and “it is received in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example” (1 Thess 1:6-7). Paul and Peter teach us to witness through the corporate body of the church to the nonbelievers of the world by our joy and virtue, as well as our proclamation of the word.

The “Good News” is many-layered, and cannot be reduced to a single utterance, concept, or action.  The “richness in doctrine of the primitive evangelism” runs through Paul’s first letter, and includes mention of election, the Spirit, assurance, the Trinity, conversion, the Second Coming of Christ, a walk worthy of God, sanctification, the Day of the Lord, resurrection, and the threefold division of human nature – spirit, soul, and body.[i] We are meant to live as grateful and faithful stewards of our rich inheritance and to stop seeing ourselves as poor.

“The church is like a hospital,” and we are its doctors; we need to be skillful in our practice and generous in our training.  We need to delight in the joy of giving, so that believing in our Lord, Jesus Christ, we can bring his love to the broken world, administering his cures to those who are sick and liberations to those afflicted with unclean spirits, so that all are helped “to be free of their problems” and come to life in his eternal kingdom. Amen.

[i] The Scofield Study Bible, Thessalonians, Introductory Notes

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