Sermon: Super(Natural) Courage
Scripture: Acts 5
Date: May 29, 2016
We are six weeks into our Super(Natural) hero series and if I could sum it up with one sentence, I think it would be that Super(Natural) Heroes are powerful but don’t always know just how powerful they are. As I was reading up for this message I discovered that usually when a superhero begins, they are aware of only a few of their super powers and that the evolution into a Superhero is often a gradual process. For instance, it took several years for all of Superman’s powers to be discovered. He started out basically with four super powers. An advanced intellect, incredible strength, the ability to leap an eighth of a mile, and speed fast enough to out run a train. It wasn’t until a few years later that readers learned that he also had the ability to fly, and x-ray vision, and skin that could repel bullets, and then sometime after that heat vision, and super sensitive hearing. It has been a journey of discovery for Superman. And that’s what’s happening in the Book of Acts. As, the Disciples, our Super(Natural) heroes, emerged from the Upper Room after the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit began to reveal more and more of the super natural powers that they would need to make disciples all over the world. Now we’ve said that Super(Natural) Disciples have got to be all in if they are going to make a difference in lives and the world. We can’t have one foot in the church door and one foot in the things of the world if we are going to make Disciples, if we are going to change the world. But here’s the thing. I think that most of us are afraid of the sacrifices that will need to be made in order to become Super(Natural) Heroes, to fully utilize our powers. And so Our approach to faith is how can I fit Jesus into my life rather than how can I fit my life into Christ’s will for me. We are afraid of what we will have to give up in order to be all in. (Show Chart) And so too often we choose places of half-hearted devotion or mixed up devotion in which to dwell because the cost of being totally devoted is just too high. Dietrich Boenhoeffer, who knew about paying the high cost of devotion, wrote in perhaps the greatest book on Discipleship, The Cost Of Discipleship: When Christ calls a man He calls him to come and die.
And so that brings us to the next power that the Spirit gives the Disciples and that is the Super(Natural) Power of Courage. It takes Supernatural courage to be a Disciple who’s all in, to be totally devoted to Christ. Now if you have your Bibles take them out and turn to the 5th chapter of Acts, or there should be a Bible in the pew rack there. Take it and turn to this 5th chapter. Because I am not going to read this whole passage as much as we’re going to walk through it together.
So Luke begins the story like this: Read Acts 5: 12-13.
So here are the Disciples, all twelve, back in the Temple Courtyard and not only are they proclaiming the name of Jesus, but they are performing miracles, healing and doing other wonders in Jesus’ name, right at the very place where Peter and John had been arrested and threatened with death if they persisted with their preaching and teaching. And Luke says that the ruling council of the Temple called the Sanhedrin were eaten up with jealousy because so many were coming to this new church. And so they ordered ALL of the Disciples arrested and threw them in jail.
Now Who were the Sanhedrin? The Sanhedrin actually dates to the time of Moses leading the people in the Wilderness between Egypt and the conquest of Israel, some 15 centuries before Jesus. Scripture says that many disputes rose among the people while they were in the Wilderness. Now Moses was a big picture guy but his time was being consumed arbitrating these disputes. And so at God’s direction, he chooses 70 of the wisest and most respected elders and essentially appoints them to be the arbitrators. And so for 15 Centuries, this group served as the highest court and council of the Jewish people. When the Temple was constructed they were given a place of prominence in the Temple itself and every day except the Sabbath they met at Daybreak to discuss the important issues that were facing the Temple and the people. There were 71 elders on the Sanhedrin, representing the original 70 that Moses had appointed and Moses. Now look at this picture of the wall of the Temple. (show picture of the Temple gates) Can you see the outline of three doorways that have been bricked over? And the stairs that led up to them? In the First Century it is believed that the two gates on the outside were entrances into the Temple mount. So you would climb this first set of stairs and pass through the gate, and then go up more stairs to the Temple platform or the Temple Mount. And fairly recently many archaeologists have concluded that the middle door led into the chambers of the Sanhedrin.
This is probably where Jesus was taken after He was arrested in the Garden to stand trial. Now archaeologists have reached this conclusion for two reasons. First the location makes sense because we know that in the cities of Israel that were walled cities, near the main gate, there was always a chamber where the judge of that city would hold court and moderate disputes. So the close proximity to the main gate would have made sense. And secondly, several years ago, in excavating this site, a broken rock sign was found that carried the inscription Elders. They speculate that the sign fell from this spot over the middle door. Now in the foreground here excavations have found the remains of dozens of ritual immersion baths and then, of course up above here is the Temple platform itself.
And so the Disciples have been holding their meetings on the Temple Platform, up above the place where the Sanhedrin was meeting, no doubt discussing what a problem the Disciples had become. And finally they have enough and they order all 12 Disciples arrested. But, and this is such a great story, in the night one of God’s Angels opened the doors of the jail and let them out and instructed them to go back to the Temple Courtyard and preach the Gospel. In essence the Angel was telling them to face their own death so that they could “tell people the full message of new life in Christ.” So, sure enough, at dawn when the Temple Gates opened, the Disciples went through the main gate and back to the Temple Courtyard to Solomon’s porch and resumed their teaching and preaching. Well at the same time members of the Sanhedrin were heading into their chambers for their daily meeting. And the first item for discussion was what to do about these Disciples they had locked up. And the soldiers were dispatched to the prison to bring the Disciples to the chambers so they could discuss things with them. And after a while the soldiers return and they say, “We found the prison locked down as we left it, but the Men weren’t there. They’ve escaped.” And just then “someone” came in to the chambers, an informant, and said, “You know those people that you put in prison for preaching in the Temple, are back at it this morning.” And so once again the soldiers are dispatched but this time not to arrest them because they don’t want the people to riot. So instead they “invite” them to come and teach before the Sanhedrin. But when they are brought into the Chamber, the high priest lays into them. “We told you to stop teaching in the Man’s name.” (Notice he can’t bring himself to say the name Jesus.) But you have filled this Temple with the false idea that we were responsible for His death.” Now it’s at this point that the Super(Natural) power of courage takes over. It is so appropriate that we think about courage on this Memorial Day because there is no doubt that those whom we honor today were men and women who had the courage to lay down their lives for their country, for you and me. So many times, as I have contemplated the sacrifice that so many have made on battlefields all around the world in the last 2 1/2 centuries have wondered about where such courage came from.
The courage of farmers and merchants, to stand up to the British Army, the most powerful army in the world, at Lexington and Concord, and fire the first shots of Revolution. The courage to charge the lines at Gettysburg, fighting for human rights and the unity of our nation. The courage to storm the beaches at Normandy, and face enemies in Korea and Vietnam who were often hard to identify, much less defeat. And to step into terrorist cross-hairs in the Middle East.
We honor their courage today. We can point to them and say, now that’s courage. And that is certainly part of what is happening in this story. It is about Disciples who were willing to continue to act on behalf of Jesus without thought of their personal safety – to sacrifice everything if need be. But I think there is more to this Super(Natural) Power of Courage then even the willingness to lay down your life.
Because look at how the story continues. In response to the high priest, the Disciples reply we heard what you said and know the authority by which you speak but we must obey God rather than men.
The Super(Natural) Power of Courage is the power to be obedient to God. Disciples are given the courage to obey. Because, here’s the thing. Obedience is all about authority. The Sanhedrin believed that they had the ultimate authority when it came to matters of faith – and especially the Temple. And when the Disciples were hiding out in the Upper Room before the Spirit came, that was their understanding also. They were hiding from the authorities who wanted to kill them as they had Jesus. But once the Spirit came, they began to understand that there was no real authority in man. That the ultimate authority came from God and that the power of courage was the power to obey God, not man. And so the Disciples say “we understand where you are coming from Sanhedrin. You may think that we are just ignorant fishermen, but we get it. It’s just that we don’t recognize your authority, only God’s.” You see, we are all obedient to something or someone. It may be our bosses, or our teachers, or politicians, or government officials, or friends, or even ourselves. And so for Disciples, every day of our lives we have to decide – are we going to be obedient to God, or to man? The world? One pastor in talking about being obedient to God and not man, says this: I am not afraid of the things that God asks me not to do. But I am afraid of, and lay awake at night worrying over, struggle with, the things God asks me to do. Things like forgive and love my enemies and live at peace with one another and invite persons into new life in Christ and give all that I have to God, and proclaim the name of Jesus.
In other words, it takes Super(Natural) courage to be totally devoted disciples. It’s the courage to be obedient to God first and foremost.
And then Super(Natural) Courage is the power to submit all things to God. It’s the power to be under God in every aspect of our lives. So the Sanhedrin calls in the Disciples and essentially says to them, “if you want to remain free, you’ve got to submit to us. We are the leaders of the people. We control the Temple. And we say you must stop blaspheming God and submit to our authority, not the authority of this man (whose name we will not even speak in this chamber.)” And in response, Peter and the Disciples say: “We will only submit to the God who raised Jesus from the dead, after you killed Him and who has now taken His place as Prince and Savior (Messiah) at God’s right hand that He alone (and not you Sanhedrin) might be judge and offer forgiveness to the people. (NEW SLIDE). We are witnesses of all of this through (now watch this Super(Natural) Heroes) the power of the Holy Spirit who comes to all who submit to and obey God.”
And Luke says that when the Sanhedrin heard this they were furious. Other translations say they were enraged. The literal translation of furious is that they were split (or sawed) in two. I look at the deep divisions in our church and in our country and I can’t help but think that at it’s core it’s an issue of who we are submitting our lives, our time and talents and resources to. This wacky presidential primary season has exposed the deep divisions that are present in all segments of our government and political system. And many have wondered how we have gotten ourselves in such a condition. It’s because we have chosen to submit to man and not God.
The other day I heard an introduction of one of our presidential candidates at a campaign rally, and the person making the introduction used the Pledge of Allegiance in the introduction, saying that Only (this candidate) can bring us together as one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Now when I first heard it, I thought there is something wrong here. None of these candidates have shown any ability to help heal the great divisions in our country. And then it occurred to me that what was really wrong was the speaker had left God out of her statement. That the pledge says One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. If we truly want to be one nation, undivided with liberty and justice for all, we must stop submitting to human beings and truly live “under God”. Now I know that’s not the politically correct thing to say but the Disciples were in essence telling the Sanhedrin the same thing, that they had left God out of the pledge, out of the Covenant, and, in fact, rather than submit to God, they had killed His Son, and that word caused the Sanhedrin to be torn apart.
The Super(Natural) Power of Courage is the power to submit ourselves, our whole lives, to God. And when they hear this, most of the Sanhedrin wants to put these Disciples to death as they did this man that they preach and teach about. But one of the members of the Sanhedrin is the Rabbi Gamaliel. Perhaps the most respected of all the 71 elders. We talked a few weeks ago about him in relationship to being Saul of Tarsus’s teacher. Now Gamaliel saw that it was about to turn out badly for these Disciples and so he asks that they be removed from the room, so they can talk about this. And he says, “Before you kill these men, you need to consider your actions carefully.” And then he talks about two others whom the people had rallied behind while they were living, hailing them as the Messiah. One was Theudas, who had claimed to be the Messiah, and several hundred had followed him, become his disciples. But when he died, because he was about man and not God, his followers dispersed and now no one remembers who Theudas was. And then there was Judas the Gallilean, who preached about how corrupt the faith had become and urged revolt against the Romans. His followers became known as the Zealots. But then Judas died and his followers scattered. If you leave these men alone, and this man whom they follow is not from God, then He will go the way of Theudas and Judas, and His disciples will scatter. But if it truly is God to whose authority they submit, then you won’t be able to stop them, and you will be fighting against God.” Now think about it. No one remembers Theudas or Judas. No one follows them. And the chamber of the Sanhedrin has been bricked over for Centuries. In just a matter of a few years the Temple was destroyed and today a Mosque sits on the Temple platform where Solomon’s Porch was. But the church of Jesus Christ lives on and will live on as long as there are Disciples who have the courage to submit their lives to God. To live under God. (Show Chart) Who are living their lives as best they can in this place of Total Devotion rather than submitting to the things of the world.
Then this story tells us that the Super(Natural) Power of Courage is the power to truly live. Now we often define human courage in terms of what we’re willing to die for. We honor those today who were willing to die for their country, for us. And we should honor them. But Spirit filled courage is the power to live like Christ. The Apostle Paul knew this when he wrote to the Philippians: For me to live is Christ. Boenhoeffer said that Christ’s call is a call to come and die, but with all due respect to Boenhoeffer, it is really a call to come and live, live as Christ lives. Paul wrote: I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. You see, when we obey and submit to the will of God, then we essentially die to the things of this world. To sin and greed and hatred and even fear – all the other things, good or bad, that keep us from truly living with Christ and Christ living in us. And for Super(Natural) Disciples that can be a sometimes painful and hard process. Because the Holy Spirit gives us the power of courage so that we might face whatever stands in the way of the abundant life, the forever life, that Jesus promises. So look how this story finishes up. Luke says that Gamaliel persuades the Sanhedrin to let the Disciples go, thinking that they would eventually disappear as had the disciples of other false Messiahs. But before they let them go, the Sanhedrin could not resist one more attempt to get the Disciples to submit to them and so they ordered the Disciples flogged. Now, without getting too graphic, we need to know that flogging was a very serious punishment. It involved 39 strikes with a leather strap that had sharp rocks or glass shards tied into the ends. So the intention was to rip the skin and even muscle away from the bone. It was a severe beating and often people did not survive a flogging. So in spite of Gamaliel’s counsel, there were probably many on the Sanhedrin who would not have cared if some of the Disciples had not survived. But to their amazement, not only did these Disciples live, Luke tells us that they left the Sanhedrin’s chamber rejoicing because they had suffered like Christ had suffered and through the power of the Holy Spirit they were able to go out and live for Christ. One preacher says he can just imagine the Disciples leaving the Chamber and high fiveing each other and looking at each other’s wounds and saying, “That’s so awesome that we are considered worthy to suffer the same way that Christ suffered.” The Super(Natural) Power of Courage is the power to endure the world’s suffering and truly live forever, just as Jesus endured suffering and the cross, so that He could emerge from the tomb alive forever. It’s the Courage to live, in spite of the world’s death. Super(Natural) Courage is the power to live today, and tomorrow, and forever.
So the Sanhedrin has them flogged and then let them go. And with their backs still bleeding and the scars starting to form, what do these courageous men do. (Show the Temple wall picture) They walk out of the chamber take an immediate right, up the stairs to the Temple platform and they start to teach and preach again. Super(Natural) Courage. And because of their courage, their devotion, their witness of obedience and submission, the number of disciples continued to increase. What a story. What Courage. What a witness. But what if the disciples had given in. What if their fears had taken hold of them and they had chosen the safe path, to obey the Sanhedrin? Here’s what I think. I think Jesus would have been exposed as just another false Messiah like Theudus and Judas and the Disciples would have scattered to the wind. And they would have missed out on life forever with Jesus. And we would not be here today. But because the Spirit gave them the courage to obey and submit their lives their witness became so powerful that millions upon millions have chosen to follow Jesus. The Super(Natural) Power of Courage. And here is the rest of the story.
Remember Gamaliel, the most revered Rabbi in Judaism. The historian Photios wrote in the 9th Century A.D. that several sources from the early church indicate that Gamaliel was so moved by the courage of the Disciples that day that he became a Christian and was Baptized by Peter and John. Now perhaps that is just a legend but we do know that one Jewish Historian wrote that at His death “the mantle of the Torah was removed from him.” For some reason he surrendered his credentials as a Rabbi. The Super(Natural) Power of Courage.