- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JULY 11, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Call to Worship Psalm 27:1 & 13 – 14
Light, space, zest— that’s God!
With him on my side I’m fearless,
afraid of no one and nothing.
I’m sure now I’ll see God’s goodness in the exuberant earth.
Stay with God!
Be courageous. Take heart.
I’ll say it again: Stay with God.
Lighting of the Christ Candle
Hymn: Come, Now is the Time to Worship
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
We praise you for coming in Jesus with a fearlessness that challenged people to live for your kingdom and dared religious leaders to rethink their set ideas.
By your Spirit you gave Moses the strength to face off against Pharoah.
You gave Joshua the courage to enter the Promised Land.
You gave David the faith to stand up to Goliath.
You gave Daniel the devotion to defy the government and the courage to survive a night in the lion’s den.
You gave John the Baptist the nerve to call people to repentance and to stand up to Pharoah.
You gave Peter the confidence to invite people to hope in Christ.
You gave Paul the conviction to undergo torture and imprisonment for the honour of sharing Jesus with those who had no hope.
We confess that we are not like those people. We avoid conflict at all costs. We are easily intimidated. We cannot imagine rebelling against our legal authorities or going somewhere we are not wanted. The thought of telling someone about Jesus embarrasses us. Our faith is weaker than our fears, and our desire for comfort outweighs our confidence in you. Forgive us.
Give us a faith that is so hopeful we cannot keep it in. Give us gratitude for your grace and forgiveness that dwarfs our fear. Give us the power of your Spirit so that we may face whatever giants get in our way.
We worship today, mindful of our many brothers and sisters with whom we are one body. Bless each one we miss and love.
May our worship and our lives bring glory to your name and reveal your power and majesty, through Christ who died and rose for our salvation. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon Isaiah 43: 1 – 3
The God who made you speaks:
“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.
I’ve called your name. You’re mine.
When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you.
When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and a hard place, it won’t be a dead end.
Because I am God, your personal God,
The Holy of Israel, your Savior.
God Speaks to Us:
Prayer for Illumination:
Open our eyes and strengthen our spirits, Lord, so that we be bold for you in our words and our actions. Amen.
Deuteronomy 31: 1 – 8
Acts 3: 11 – 26
Matthew 10: 16 – 33
Message: Being the Church – Bold
The internet site, Pinterest, has many silly quizzes like: what percent Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty’s nemesis) you are (I’m 80%); your mental age based on the house you build (38); which element you are (water). This potential for deep self-discovery keeps me awake long into the night. A recent quiz, and I don’t remember what it was about, showed a picture of a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government in 1963. It asked if I would do this to support what I believe – yes or no. I said no. Fire really hurts. Moreover, while God might ask me to endure a torturous death, I don’t think he’d ask me to inflict it upon myself, no matter what the press coverage. But underneath that lies the question: would I be bold enough to die for my faith? Now, usually if you’re dying for your faith, no one asks you if you’re agreeable to it. So, the question really is: would I be bold enough to worship, to speak about Jesus or declare myself his follower in pubic if it could lead to persecution, imprisonment, or death, even death by burning?
Religion is often described as a crutch for weak people who can’t deal with reality, who are afraid of death, who need someone to tell them how to live, or who find strength in numbers. Why faith bothers people so much is beyond me. One person who self-righteously declared she doesn’t need anyone to tell her how to live, said, “I live by the golden rule” and went on to quote Jesus (Matthew 7:12). The truth is our faith is anything but a crutch. Faith in Christ calls us to be better people, to put others first, to love our enemies, to take up our cross, to speak when it would be easier to be silent, and to be faithful to the end. It is a call to courageous boldness.
Today’s reading from The Acts of the Apostles follows on last week’s reading of Peter healing a man who had been unable to walk since birth. When the crowd around the temple witnessed the man walking and heard it had been Peter who had healed him, “they were astonished” (Acts 3: 11). If I had been Peter, I’d have likely smiled, given God the credit, and gone on my merry way. Peter saw it as an opportunity not only to give Jesus his due credit, but to tell the crowd the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Peter knew the danger. It had not been long since Jesus had been put to death for blasphemy and the disciples lives had been in peril. Regardless, he plunged right into the story of who Jesus is – God’s son; of what happened to him – he had been killed; of what God did – raised him from the dead. What was even more brazen is that Peter held the crowd responsible, “Jesus, the very One that Pilate called innocent, you repudiated. You repudiated the Holy One, the Just One, and asked for a murderer in his place. You no sooner killed the Author of Life than God raised him from the dead” (Acts 3: 13 – 15). He went on to challenge them to repentance, “Now it’s time to change your ways! Turn to face God so he can wipe away your sins, pour out showers of blessing to refresh you, and send you the Messiah he prepared for you, namely, Jesus” (vs. 19 & 20).
Being as bold as Peter is not something that most Canadian Christians can imagine. Our biggest faith dilemma is if we are going to forward an email of footsteps in the sand. It’s so much of a challenge that people tag on Matthew 10:33 where Jesus states he will deny us before God if we don’t hit send. Beyond being ashamed of Jesus or fearful, there are many reasons for our lack of courage.
The first is, it’s not nice and we value “nice” above all else. For many of us, following Christ has become synonymous with being “nice”. J. Vernon McGee writes, “the cross offends the good breeding, good taste, and finer feelings. It is offensive to culture and refinement. The mention of blood makes some people actually sick. To talk about the death of Christ and the blood that He shed is crude.” It is not “nice” to mention the cross, yet Jesus’ death on a cross is at the core of our faith. Further, when we look at the early Church and at Jesus himself, we see they were not always nice. Quite often they were in people’s faces, making accusations, pointing out their hypocrisy and challenging their faults. We learned from our forerunners. What we learned is that not being “nice” gets you killed. So, we’ve taken Jesus’ calling to radical living and watered it down. We’ve equated sacrificial love with politeness, silence and sweetness so that we can avoid conflict and save our own necks. Being “nice” is a far cry from “taking up [one’s] cross and following [Jesus]” (Luke 9:23). Peter didn’t hold back from a bold proclamation of the gospel in order to keep from offending anyone and neither can we.
We also wouldn’t speak like Peter because we live in a multi-cultural society where the biggest sin is to impose ones faith on another. Who are we to force our faith on anyone or to say their way of life isn’t as good as ours? Good questions. I think the Church has learned through out failures not to force our faith on anyone – doing so does wounds others and damages our own reputation. Beyond that, responding to Christ’s gift of life is something an individual must freely choose for him/herself, or it isn’t real. Belief adopted under pressure is a meaningless commitment and like seed tossed on rocky soil, it will soon whither under the sun’s scorching heat. The failure of the Church to be respectful of others has made us ashamed, not only of being a Christian but of the gospel itself. Yet we also leave people wounded when we don’t offer them the gift of life in Christ. As Thoreau said, many people live lives of “quiet desperation”. A recent article about “millennials” said their outlook for the future is so bleak that many are just giving up and doing nothing with their lives. They literally don’t bother getting out of bed. They are urgently in need of hope. Hope is one thing Christians have in abundance. Our message is all about hope: God loves us. God came as Jesus. Jesus’ death frees, heals, and saves us. This is God’s gift to us. It means that life has purpose, the universe is going somewhere, and God is directing it. Life is not futile. Add to this that Jesus conquered death by his resurrection. Although the future looks bleak and people continue to make a mess of life, we know the outcome. We are assured there won’t be “any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times” (Romans 8: 18). Yet even a message of hope, spoken with and out of love, takes courage to share. Every time the apostles opened their mouths to tell their story of hope, they knew the chance they were taking. They were repeatedly arrested, flogged, and eventually martyred. They accepted this may be their lot since they followed Jesus, who died for sharing the hope of God’s kingdom. We need to recapture the boldness of Paul who said,“I’m not ashamed of the gospel. It’s news I’m most proud to proclaim, this extraordinary Message of God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts him” (Romans 1: 16).
Further, we are not bold in sharing the gospel because we don’t want to come across as judgemental. This is good. Jesus made it clear that judging someone is not for us to do. It will come back to bite us. “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own” (Matthew 7: 1 & 2). We are not the keepers of everyone’s behaviour or morality. Although Peter didn’t hold back, he also didn’t judge the crowd. He spoke the truth – the crowd had been involved in Jesus’ execution. He also spoke the truth in love (Ephesians 4: 15). Instead of heaping guilt, he offered grace, “…friends, I know you had no idea what you were doing when you killed Jesus, and neither did your leaders. But God, …knew exactly what you were doing and used it to fulfill his plans” (Acts 3: 17 – 18). Speaking the truth in love is an art form. It takes genuine compassion and caring. We need to be tuned to the Holy Spirit to see what God wants us do and say. We need to ask: will my boldness bring people closer to Christ? Speaking the truth in love takes the ability to perceive how much condour a person can handle in that moment. Truth is not spoken in love if it will hurt, wound, or destroy someone. It takes discernment to be sure we’re speaking truth and not a version of it warped by our own dysfunction or neediness, and also to know if we’re being manipulated into holding back. Jesus had a remarkable way of reading people. He always spoke the truth, sometimes with gentleness, sometimes with abrasiveness, and always out of love.
Jesus warned the Church that our path wouldn’t be easy. In sending his disciples out to share hope with people, Jesus warned them, “This is hazardous work I’m assigning you.” He instructed them, “Be as shrewd as a snake, inoffensive as a dove” (Matthew 10: 16). They were not to be naïve, but they were not to be obnoxious either. They should expect their integrity to be questioned. They’d be slandered. They’d be beaten. They’d be arrested. They’d have to plead their case in courts and go up against governments. People would turn on them and hate them. People, even those close to them, would hand them over to hostile authorities. They’d be put to death and persecuted, shamed and driven out of their places of work and their homes. When was the last time being a follower of Jesus felt like hazardous work to you? If it doesn’t, we need to ask ourselves if we’re doing it right. “Doing it right” means we’re being rejected for our faith, not for being offensive, loathsome, intolerable, or repugnant. Anyone can be rejected because of those qualities. Too many Christians like to believe they’re suffering for their faith, when really, they’re suffering for being insufferable. It has nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with them. Being bold is grounded in courageously telling the story of our faith. Being obnoxious grows from being self-righteous, judgemental, hypocritical, foolish and harmful. Being hated because of an injustice you’ve done to someone else by living contrary to the gospel is different than suffering because you love Jesus. Being called up for your lack of integrity doesn’t count if you have acted without integrity. Then it’s not you who’s being slandered, it’s you who have slandered the name of Jesus. We cannot expect our path to be easy because we are followers of Jesus. If his path wasn’t easy, we can be sure ours won’t be either. That is the cost of discipleship.
Given all the horrible possibilities that a Christian may face (tell me again how my faith is a crutch), what gives us the courage to be bold for Christ? Jesus encouraged the disciples to look at the big picture and the end of the finish-line. What we endure here and now is difficult but will be rewarded when God’s kingdom comes into fullness. We are to survive while still being ethical, to not be intimidated but to go public, to not be bullied into silence, to not cave in under pressure. Jesus reminded his followers not to fear people who have the power to take your earthly life, but to be in awe of God who holds all life, here and now in his hands. In a culture where people are regularly shamed and silenced, these are powerful words. Jesus told the disciples not to be worried about what they would say in court, because they Holy Spirit would give them the words. Once in university, I was walking to class and had the distinct premonition that my faith was going to be challenged and I was being asked to speak up. I prayed the Spirit would give me the words, the strength, and the love that I would need. Part way through the class, the conversation turned into a verbal bloodbath against Christians, and I knew this was the moment. It felt threatening, but I couldn’t be silent. The Spirit gave me everything I needed to present Jesus in a way that was positive, hopeful, and life-giving. I could see people looking perplexed as their preconceived ideas about Christ were challenged and I could see people soften as their prejudices were met with patient love. I don’t know what, if any, long term effect my words left on the people there, but I left with a deep sense of peace. That’s not exactly imprisonment or being set on fire and burnt to death, but it gave me assurance that, whatever I face, for Jesus’ sake, the Spirit will be with me. And in the same way, Jesus promises the Spirit will be with us all.
As Christians, we are called to be as bold. We can fulfill this calling, not because we won’t face unpleasantness, injustice, persecution or even death, but because God, the God who loves us, has died for us and holds our eternal life in his hands, is with us no matter what we go through. As God told Joshua, “ Be strong and bold; Take courage. Have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. God is striding ahead of you. He’s right there with you. He won’t let you down. He won’t leave you. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t worry.” (Deuteronomy 31: 6 – 8)
Silent prayer and meditation
Mighty God, we offer you our lives, our wealth, our words, and our spirits. Make us courageous, like Jesus, so that we will fulfill your calling to go into the world to make disciples. Amen.
Hymn: Be Bold, Be Strong
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
Blessed are you, O God. To you belongs glory and honour, strength and majesty.
As our Father you hold us in love and pour out your goodness on us.
In Christ, we meet your wisdom and grace, face to face.
Through the Holy Spirit, we recognize the abilities and opportunities you create
in us and for us, to reach out to the world you love with the hope of undefeatable life.
We thank you for all the ways friends and families, neighbours and strangers,
extend themselves to us and to others,
offering support and kindness,
speaking up to confront wrongdoing,
and celebrating when achievements bless us all with healing and happiness.
Today we pray for courageous leaders in cities, countries and congregations
who strive to serve with integrity and honesty
in a world prone to self-interest.
We pray for those who struggle to create justice where it has been compromised,
and to build reconciliation and understanding in divided communities.
We remember before you quiet and reliable people – parents, teachers, employers and employees, essential workers, researchers and medical professionals
who keep their word and meet their deadlines,
so that we can depend on them in these unsettling times.
We pray for patient church members and community volunteers,
who work diligently towards long-term goals that will improve our life together.
And we pray for the creative, impatient change makers,
who are determined in righting wrongs and trying new strategies.
We thank you for Christians here and around the world
who keep challenging us, to be bolder in sharing good news with a world lost in despair.
We pray for those who once knew you and loved you, and who have fallen away from you. Rekindle the spark of faith that has been quenched within them.
We pray for the troubled in mind or spirit,
for the angry and unhappy,
and for those who feel that every day is a struggle.
Soothe their concerns and open their hearts to claim the hope and help you offer.
We remember before you the sick who are fighting for health,
the dying who are letting go of this life and preparing themselves to meet you,
and the bereaved who are trying to put their lives back together again.
We pray for those who are recovering from the pandemic,
looking for better health, a fresh start, more stability or a glimpse of hope.
We pray particularly for those we name before you now….
Draw close to all these who suffer,
offering your comfort and courage to face whatever comes next.
We pray for countries and people around the world,
Who are facing terror and tragedy,
Who are rebuilding their lives in the wake of destruction.
Who live each day with less than the basics,
And who live in fear within their own homes.
Receive our prayers, both spoken and unspoken,
and embrace us all in your love.
Give us hearts to understand not only what you do on our behalf,
but also what you call us to do on your behalf,
for we are friends and followers of Jesus, who taught us to pray:
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn: Take My Life and Let it Be
Invitation to Mission
We go into the world,
Filled with the courage of the Holy Spirit,
To witness to Christ,
With love and boldness.
Benediction: May the Triune God bless you and keep you. Amen.