Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
An elderly woman living in a small southern town was well known for her faith and for her boldness and talking about it. She would stand on her front porch and shout, “Praise the Lord!” Next door to her, however, lived a reported atheist who would get so angry at her proclamations that he would shout back, “There ain’t no Lord!” Hard times set in on the elderly lady and she prayed for God to send her some assistance. She stood on her porch and shouted, “Praise the Lord! God, I need FOOD! I am having a hard time. Please, Lord, send me some groceries!” The next morning, the lady went out on her porch and saw a large bag of groceries and shouted, “Praise the Lord!” The neighbor jumped from behind a bush and said, “Ha Ha! I told you there was no Lord. I bought those groceries. God didn’t.” The lady started jumping up and down and clapping her hands and saying even louder, “Praise the Lord! Not only did the Lord send me groceries, but He made the devil pay for them!”
Such boldness of faith is not a personality trait. Even a typically soft-spoken, introverted, calm person can be bold, yes, even stoic Lutherans. No, boldness is a gift of the Holy Spirit which shapes and forms the words and actions of all believers. It is a gift which can be nurtured and cultivated.
This morning, I would like to share with the story of two, unassuming apostles who were changed by the boldness of the Holy Spirit. Peter and John opened up their lives to this life-changing character of boldness. Persecution and suffering would be a part of this change, but their lives would never be ordinary again.
The 4th chapter of the Book of Acts continues the story we read last Sunday of Peter and John arriving at the Temple late in the afternoon, and healing a lame man who was begging at the Beautiful Gate. The crowds were astonished at the miracle, and were now listening intently to Peter speaking. He claimed again that he had no silver or gold, but he healed the man with the only thing of worth he possessed, “the name of Jesus.” The crowds around Peter, John and the lame man were increasing in number as Peter began to proclaim the meaning behind the miracle. He spoke boldly of Jesus, how he had lived and died, and “how he had been raised from the dead.” The crowd of listeners were enthralled, but the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees were annoyed because he was teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there was the promise of the resurrection of the dead.
At this point in the story, it is important to offer an historical aside. There were three important sects within Judaism during the early 1st century. There were the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the most powerful and influential, the Sadducees. The Sadducees represented the upper social and economic echelon of Judean society, and fulfilled various political, social, and religious roles, including maintaining the Temple. They believed in the literal interpretation of the Law written in the first five books of the Old Testament only. They were vehemently opposed to any notion of the resurrection of the dead. That is why they were “sad you see.” And since the high priests of Jerusalem all descended from a Sadduceen family, they strictly enforced, a proper, orthodox teaching, that there was no life after death. The dead simply entered Sheol. That is why the Sadducees and the Temple guard were so annoyed with Peter and John. So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening.
The following day, Peter and John were escorted to stand trial before the same court that condemned Jesus. And they asked Peter and John, by what power or by what name they had healed this lame man. For no one questioned that this man, whom they had passed by thousands of times begging at the Beautiful Gate, had been healed. But by what name had he been healed?
Peter answered boldly and resolutely. “Let it be known to you that this man standing before you is in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, and whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is the ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’” As for the response of the council, “When they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed.” Peter and John were not skilled interpreters of Scripture. They were fishermen, out of water in the big city. They hadn’t travelled down the long educational path to be groomed for leadership, and yet they had this “boldness.” How could they be both unschooled and so bold? This was absolutely astonishing to the leaders.
But why was it so astonishing? Certainly, it had something to do with their courage under fire. Even as they faced the wisest and most powerful men in their nation, they had an unparalleled confidence. Peter and John spoke with an eloquence and passion which they had heard once before from the mouth of Jesus. But most compelling, the apostles wanted to share one truth- whatever the cost- arrest or persecution. They wanted every ear to hear that a new day had dawned all because of this Jesus who was crucified, died, buried, who was now raised from the dead. That is boldness in Christ.
Boldness of faith is acting and speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit, with urgent conviction in the face of peril. Boldness is not simply personal taste or preference. It is a Spirit-powered conviction. It demands courage, recognizing that there will be a cost, and there is urgency to complete the task. If one of the qualities is missing, you won’t act boldly. Without sufficient conviction that something ought to be said or done, what’s there to be bold about? Without sufficient courage, we don’t have enough backbone in your conviction to face opposition or threats. Without a sufficient sense of urgency, you lack the fire under your feet to get you moving. If you have discovered that you are halfhearted, fearful, or indifferent, take heart. Scripture gives us every reason to hope for that transformation. But how?
It all begins by trusting that what you believe truly can make a difference. You do this by opening yourself to the ways of the Holy Spirit, by dedicating yourself to prayer and scripture and gathering with fellow believers. No one grows in faith on their own- not even the apostles. It was an amazing transformation. Peter and John, were once frozen with fear, but when they allowed themselves to be open to the Holy Spirit, they could be seen out preaching the gospel for everyone to hear. Yes, this soon got them arrested, the very thing that once had terrified them, but it was now their boldness that terrified the temple authorities who recognized them as being with Jesus. But choose your goals carefully. Some are not that challenging. An atheist complained to a Christian friend, “You Christians have special holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. Jews celebrate their religious holidays, such as Passover and Yom Kippur. But we atheists have no recognized national holidays. It’s unfair discrimination.” His friend replied, “Why don’t you celebrate April first?” Touche. That is low hanging fruit.
Remember to pray for boldness. The apostles and the early Christians knew this. At the council meeting in Jerusalem, Peter and John were warned that they were not to speak openly or publicly about Jesus’ resurrection again. After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and elders had said to them. Everyone understood the possible implication, flogging and persecution. So did they flee back into hiding and give in to the authorities? No, they gathered together with friends and prayed for boldness. Only a few verses later in the chapter, we read, “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. Boldness is not a constant to be taken for granted. We must keep praying for it whenever we need it.
Finally, you should not think that every time boldness is required that you will feel some heroic swell of confidence. Beware there are Christians more obsessed with themselves than with Christ. God often gives us that Spirit-empowered boldness when, in spite of our own feelings of fear, we step out in faith with the assurance that God will provide what is needed.
A young preacher attended a conference to help encourage and equip pastors for their ministry. Among the speakers was a well-known preacher who boldly approached the pulpit, gathered the entire crowd’s attention, and said, “the best years of my life were spent in the arms of a woman that wasn’t my wife!” The crowd was shocked! He followed up by saying, “And that woman was my mother!” The crowd burst into laughter as he delivered the rest of his speech. The next week, the young pastor who had attended the conference decided he’d give this humor thing a try, and used that joke in his sermon. As he approached the pulpit that sunny Sunday morning, he tried to rehearse this joke in his head. It suddenly seemed a bit foggy to him. Getting to the microphone, he tried it anyway and said loudly, “The greatest years of my life were spent in the arms of another woman that was not my wife!” The congregation inhaled half the air in the room! After standing there for almost 10 seconds in stunned silence, trying to recall the second half of the joke, the pastor finally blurred out, “…and I can’t remember who she was!”
Yes, there are fool hearty things we can do as Christians, and then there are the real challenges that are just and honorable. My friends, avoid the petty, the simple, the foolish and fool-hearty, instead pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit. For when boldness is needed in fearful situations, and we act in spite of sweaty palms and pounding hearts, Jesus promises to fill our mouths by the Spirit. And what a difference that make in this world. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.