Below is the sermon I preached earlier this month at the CPM meeting where I was certified ready to receive a call. I got great feedback, and if I preach this again I will tweak some things. For now, I have kept it as I preached it.
Will you pray with me? Holy Spirit, come to us. Grant to your servants the ability to speak and act upon your Word with boldness while you stretch out your hand to heal. Holy Spirit, come to us. Through the name of your holy servant Jesus, Amen.
Our passage today comes from the book of Acts. Just before our passage, Peter healed a crippled man in front of the Temple and got himself and John arrested. The chief priests interrogated them demanding to know about this healing done in Jesus’ name and why they were talking about Jesus’ resurrection. Peter boldly tells the chief priests that the man was healed in Jesus’ name whether or not they like it. The priests threaten Peter and John and tell them not to talk about Jesus or do anything else weird.
This is where we come in, in the fourth chapter, beginning in the twenty-third verse:
“After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant:
‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples imagine vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
and the rulers have gathered together
against the Lord and against his Messiah.’
For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.” The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I wonder which was scarier to the early disciples—failure or success?
Can you imagine how strange this community of disciples would have looked to the people around them? They must have looked like failures. Here is a fringe group of an oppressed minority religion whose leader was from some backwater village in the middle of nowhere. Not only that, this leader is dead! Their group failed to bring about substantial political change. Their group failed to bring about substantial religious change. They failed so much that their living leaders are fishermen, tax collectors, women, and other “uneducated and ordinary” people. They failed, but this is no ordinary failure.
There is nothing ordinary happening in the Book of Acts. The ordinary is constantly being shaken up. Divisions are being demolished through the power of the Holy Spirit. People are being healed in the name of Jesus. The ground is shaking! The priests and scribes are probably not the only ones who are confused and asking “What is going on?! Why are these failures continuing to preach and teach and baptize and heal? Why do they insist on using the name of this failure Jesus? How can they possible be this bold? Why are they acting like they’re successful?”
The disciples recognize in their prayer that God is the one who defines their success and failure. God is the main actor, the source of their life. God is one who heals. God is the one who performs signs. God is the one who empowers them to continue witnessing in Jesus’ name even amid continued difficulties from the community at-large.
The disciples asked God to grant them boldness, and the Spirit then empowers them to be bold! Their prayer was successful. But what’s scarier—success or failure?
I have a friend name Andy who received his first call as the pastor of a small urban church. The church members felt disconnected from their community and told Andy they wanted more people from the community in worship on Sunday mornings. So Andy began connecting with people in the community through different community projects, conversation, and prayer; and people from the community began showing up for worship. At first there were two or three young couples with children, and the church members were delighted. Then, people from the church’s own Alcoholics Anonymous group started coming to worship. The church members were less delighted. And then, one Sunday several homeless people showed up to worship. That week, the Session called an emergency meeting told Andy to stop doing whatever he was doing.
Yes, they wanted more people at their church; but not these people.
Andy was confused. He had been successful in connecting with the community. He had been successful in getting more people into worship. Hadn’t he been successful? It turns out that what the church thought was successful was far more frightening than continued failure.
Success meant change, and change can be scary.
Perhaps the question is more complicated than asking whether failure or success is scarier. Perhaps we need to be questioning how we define failure and success. Sometimes success is painful growth. Sometimes failure is liberating hope. By the measure of our passage today, it sounds like success is when our communities discern through prayer in order to act boldly amid their new circumstances and speak boldly the name of Jesus.
Unfortunately, this little urban church rejected the increase in worship attendance, at first.
Through more prayerful discernment, the church leaders realized they had to help the congregation grow into the kind of congregation they wanted to be. They had to address the congregation’s fears and discern together who the Spirit was calling them to be. Success meant change, but that change turned out not to be as scary as it first appeared.
The initial success deemed by some failure turned out to be just the catalyst for God’s empowerment that the church needed. They recognized a place for prayer, a place for bold action, and a place for bold speech in both their worship and their witness in the community. Over time, their actions began to match their words. They began and continue a journey of radical hospitality that has taken them beyond their original labels of success and failure.
If asked whether success or failure was scarier, I bet Peter would have answered “Yes.” It must have been scary for this group of friends to have their prayers for boldness successfully answered. It must have been scary to continue failing at explaining themselves to people and authorities. Yet they continued to be bold amid failure and success, rejection and acceptance.
The author William Willimon explains the early church’s evolution of identity beautifully. He writes: “In this rhythm of action and speech, witness and worship, the church discovers the source of its life.”
The Spirit is the source of our life. The Spirit is the source of our social justice. The Spirit is the source of our evangelization. The Spirit is the source of our church picnics, our worship services, our Bible studies, our mission trips, our committee meetings, our fellowship hours, our failures and our successes. The Spirit may take us places we never could have imagined. Could Peter have imagined when he first began following Jesus that his life would completely be turned upside down? A fisherman from a nowhere village, ordinary and uneducated, became empowered by the Spirit to speak boldly in Jesus’ name and act boldly in changing circumstances.
Relying on God’s activity in the world as the source of our life, may we be as bold as the early believers to seek the Spirit’s empowerment in order to act and speak in our changing circumstances.
Will you pray with me? Sovereign God, who made heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them, grant to your servants the courage to speak your Word with all boldness and with all boldness to act in our world according to your will. May we not be afraid of failure or success but let everything we do and say be done in love with firm reliance on you as the source of our lives. We pray this in Jesus’ name, through the power of the Spirit, Amen.