Monday, May 11, 2009

The Wonders of Courage

“Life in the Spirit: The Wonders of Courage”
Scripture Readings: Acts 4:1-22;
Matthew 10:16-31

A teenager was almost robbed in New York City. He was walking from the subway to his family’s apartment in Manhattan. Suddenly he realized that there were two other teenagers walking on each side of him. They started asking for his wallet. He told them, “No!” They asked him over and over, “Give us your wallet.” He kept saying, “No!” They finally gave up. They asked why he didn’t give them his wallet. And the teenager said, “My learner’s permit’s in it.” (Dave Mote, “The Pastor’s Story File, ’86)

The teenager in New York, Peter and John in Jerusalem, and Christians in many times and places, have found themselves in need of courage, or something like courage. The leaders in the Temple had arrested Peter and John for doing a wonderful thing; for healing a lame man. They were conducting a trial in the hopes of punishing them, at least frightening them, perhaps killing them, and one way or another eliminating them as a challenge to their authority.

They were the people of authority, and they were more than willing to use the power of their authority. But they were not people of courage. Their authority and power actually made them afraid of Peter and John, as they had also been afraid of Jesus.
They had gotten Jesus crucified to show that they were stronger than Jesus; to show that (in their world) they were the ones to be feared. But they were the ones who were afraid.

What they feared the most, as we see in this story, is that Peter and John were not afraid of them; or didn’t act like it. The authorities saw courage in them, “and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” They connected the courage they saw to the relationship that Peter and John had with Jesus. They were worried about this courage, because they lacked it in themselves.

Peter and John would not have been thinking so much about courage. If you had asked them if they were brave people, they probably would have said no. In fact they were people who found a great need in their lives to pray for courage and boldness (Acts 4:29), because, to their mind, they lacked it.

It wasn’t courage that was most on the mind of Peter and John. What was on their mind was faith. They knew that what they needed most was to trust Jesus. They made it their determination that they would go forth, against all odds and even against their gut feelings, to trust Jesus; and this is what looked so much like courage.
Faith and courage look a lot alike, in terms of how we live. The line from the Psalm, which Peter quotes, is the reason that he chose to live faithfully and bravely, even if he didn’t feel a lot of faith or bravery. Jesus, Peter said, “Is the stone which you builders rejected which has become the capstone.” (Psalm 118:22)
Peter knew that, although Jesus had been rejected and crucified, Jesus was alive. Jesus had conquered death, and had risen from the grave. Jesus was “the capstone.” Jesus held things together. Jesus was on top. He was in charge.

For Christians, faith and courage come from this: the Lord is in charge; therefore (therefore) the universe is our friend. But, the universe might not look that way.
If there had been neutral bystanders present at the trial (bystanders who knew how things stood in Jerusalem and the Roman Empire); those bystanders would have been pretty sure that the universe was no friend of Peter’s or John’s. Jesus didn’t seem to have much power there.

The Temple authorities believed that God was on their side, and that God was in charge, and that the universe was their friend. The evidence they had, for this being true, was that God had put them on top. If their position on top looked like it was in trouble, then they had no courage and no faith.

Peter and John knew that they were not on top of anything in the world. They knew that the day of that trial could have been their last day on earth. Still, Jesus was in charge.

They could die. They could seem to fail. Yet the universe was really their friend (because Jesus was their friend), and so they lived accordingly. And this is what made the difference that looked like courage and faith.
Jesus had prepared the disciples for this very thing. The very first time that Jesus sent the twelve disciples on a mission of preaching and healing, he gave them a set of instructions; and you can read the whole set in the tenth chapter of Matthew.
The first part of those instructions was fairly simple and common sense. But where our reading jumps in, they started to get scary. Jesus told them that they were going off on a mission where, one day, the people who go on that mission might be arrested and killed by the authorities, or even killed by their own families; and all for simply doing what Jesus was sending them to do.

None of Jesus’ scary warnings came true to the disciples on their first mission, or maybe on other missions that followed. The scary things would come later. And we believe the Bible teaches that, in the last days, the scariest time for Christians will come.

Why did Jesus set out to scare them on their first timid, innocent, childlike training mission? It would be like teaching kindergartners the rules for crossing a street by showing them the really gory videos of accidents that I remember seeing in my Driver’s Safety Class, when I was in high school. Something like that would make them afraid to cross the street for the rest of their lives.

And yet, with all the warnings of horror and terror, in Jesus’ instructions, those instructions are also full of promises. “Do not worry about what you will say or how to say it…for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:19-20) “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (10:29-31) “It is enough for a student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.” (10:25)

Jesus could get really scary about what his disciples should be prepared for when they went out into the world to follow him, and to live and speak for him. Jesus got scary (realistically scary), but he did it for their safety’s sake. He oddly did it to make them people of courage and faith when the universe did not look like their friend.

He promised that they could never find themselves in any situation where he and his Father were not in charge. If they took things step by step in faith, no matter how hard that might be; if they took life step by step in faith, no matter what it cost; they would find that Jesus and his Father and the Spirit were in charge.

We know that mothers and fathers should never be scary to their children: never, unless something very important is at stake. For instance, mothers and fathers may scream at their children for their safety’s sake. They may make themselves scary for their children’s good. They usually mean to do this to create a healthy fear.
Faith and courage do need to be afraid of some things.

Faith and courage need to be afraid of being foolish and stupid. When the authorities became scary, and challenged their authority to heal and to share the power and grace of Jesus, Peter said, “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!” (Acts 4:9-10)

This was an especially wise way to answer in a scary situation. It is as if Peter were saying, “You are putting us on trial, but we all know that something good was done yesterday. Why don’t we talk about this good thing?” Peter spoke in such a way so that he was not provoking trouble, and he was not avoiding trouble either. He was helping the people who were against him to listen, if that was possible. Why would kindness make someone mad, or afraid?

It was also a choice of gentle humor (deliberately getting the reason for the trial wrong), to help his opponents see the real issues. Being light-hearted is a part of real courage and faith. It is part of what Jesus called being “shrewd or wise as serpents and innocent as doves”. (Matthew 10:16)

Faith and courage also need to be afraid of not living themselves out, and not doing the things that are worth doing and saying. This is what Peter means, toward the end of the trial when he says, “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.” (Acts 4:19-20)

There was an old television show called “All in the Family”. Something would come up that was upsetting to the husband, Archie. Trying to be helpful, the wife would say something compassionate about the people who had offended him, and Archie would say, “Oh stifle yourself, Edith.”

Faith and courage need to be afraid of stifling themselves. They need to be afraid of not living fully and being themselves. They need to be afraid of not being free.
Good courage and faith are not fearless. They pray to be wise and innocent in order to be at their best.

Jesus nurtured his disciples to have the proper, healthy fears that would keep them from being stifled, or stifling themselves. Being a Christian, being faithful to Jesus, is as dangerous and as fun as driving a car, or using a chainsaw, or just simply living. Some families, and some church cultures or families, rob their children of a life that can be lived Jesus’ way in courage and faith.

The authorities recognized the mark of Jesus in the way the disciples stood up to them. They saw Jesus in them. When we need the courage and faith to live contrary to the pressures of the world, and the pressures of our peers, and the trends and injustices of our culture, there is a Jesus way to do it.

Just as the disciples did, when they were on trial, we can defeat the temptation of being provocative about our differences, and we can defeat the temptation to blend in, and deny and avoid our differences from the world. We can be different in a way that will show that we have been with Jesus: wise, and innocent, and unstifled in our way of life.

The Lord’s Supper is the place where we remember to live our lives with Jesus. This is a meal where we are fed and nurtured by Jesus, and released out, into the world. We are fed with the presence of Jesus so that we can go out into a world that often turns against us and live there with courage and faith.

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