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Dealing with Conspiracy, Fear, Doubt, and Your Lord and God

25 Apr

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“…these [words] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” 

– John 20:31

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Today, this second Sunday of Easter, there begins a bit of an odd run in the church year…

As you heard, starting today and for the next six weeks, our first reading – typically an Old Testament reading – comes from the book of Acts, which covers the history of what happened after Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, following Holy Week and Easter! 

And we, I think, are very blessed by this.  

The book of Acts was written by the physician Luke who also wrote the Gospel by the same name, and I think it is not only a very encouraging but a very interesting book. 

We certainly see evidence of this in today’s reading, as we are given an intriguing and dramatic account of how the Apostles that Jesus chose carried on His mission, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God and also performing many miraculous signs and wonders among the people near the Temple!

And when the high priest and his associates, members of the Sadducees, get wind of all of this they are filled with jealousy and throw the Apostles in jail.

But an angel of the Lord frees them during the night and tells them to go back to the Temple courts and “tell the people the full message of this new life”!

Eventually, the high priest and his associates arrive at the Temple to discuss this situation concerning the Apostles, only to find out that somehow, there has been a covert prison break and they are in the Temple courts preaching yet again!

This leads to their being brought into the Sanhedrin, something like a Senate chamber, where the Apostles are questioned by the high priest.

Eventually, we get Peter’s dramatic answer: 

We must obey God rather than men! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

To say the least, I’d recommend reading the book of Acts. 

There, you will see how the Christian church, in the vigorous stages of its youth, gains a foothold in the world against the Kingdom of Darkness.

You will see the initial skirmishes between God’s church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and Satan’s kingdom, as the Prince of Darkness looks to hold onto the territory that he has dominion over and to suppress the influence of the Kingdom of God. 

Nevertheless, as we are reminded at various points in the book of Acts, “the Word of the Lord grew…” as its power and influence claimed ground in the hearts and minds of the people of Jerusalem, eventually spreading, as chapter 1 says, to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth….” 

The “many convincing proofs” that Luke talks about, we are told, first claimed the hearts of 3,000 men on the day of Pentecost, in chapter 2, and then an additional 2,000 in chapter 4. 

These were exciting times if you were a follower of Jesus Christ, to be sure! 

It is no surprise that Christians in search of vitality in their own churches often go back to the book of Acts, seeing it as a model of sorts and hoping to learn from it. 

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The text I chose for today’s message, from the Gospel reading, goes hand in hand with the book of Acts is all about. Again:  

“…these [words] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

That said, we know, sadly, that not everyone does believe…

Even when men are full of great courage, say “we must obey God rather than men,” and proclaim the word in great power, Martin Luther reminds us that 

“One of these two things has to happen: either the Word of God will abide and conquer them; or at least they will be unable to suppress it, even if they refuse to accept all its grace and goodness and salvation” (AE 21:121).

What I find interesting about that quote from Luther is this: when he talks about men being unable to suppress the word of God here he is talking about their not being able to suppress its influence as it conquers the world around them! 

Even as personally, they might still refuse to accept it…

And yet, it sure often looks like they succeed in suppressing it in the world around them though… in society… doesn’t it?

Yes it does, even if God would have us see all of this through the eyes of faith. The book of Hebrews says: God left nothing that is not subject to [His people]. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them…” 

And in the book of Acts as well, we see mention of this kind of thing: about how men try to suppress the influence of the word of God… 

When Peter and the other disciples are driven to prayer in chapter 4 of the book of Acts, They make this very clear:

“Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

“‘Why do the nations rage

    and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth rise up

    and the rulers band together

against the Lord

    and against his anointed one.

27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”

There is a lot of good stuff in that prayer, but we note specifically who the enemies of the Gospel are in this passage, those who are trying, seemingly successfully, to suppress it:

“Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed…”

I recently read the following from a pastor who rather colorfully and I think relevantly unpacks this. Pardon a bit of extended quoting:

“…this was a conspiracy with deep roots.  It involved many of the conservative Pharisees and lawyers and scribes, as well as their rivals, the liberal priests and Levites and Sadducees, as well as the hated politicians known as the Herodians.  And all of these groups conspired with the pagan Romans, whom they considered to be a hostile occupying force.  It involved the provincial ruling council, the Sanhedrin, which was also a Jewish religious court.  It involved the Roman governor, a military captain, a detachment of soldiers, and one of our Lord’s leading disciples as well, who was the group’s treasurer.  This cabal also included the mobs of ordinary people, who were whipped up into a frenzy by their leaders and by the fake news of the day.

They were so brazen, that this collaboration between Big Religion and Big Government with what was essentially the Big Media of the day, placed the charge over the head of Jesus in three languages at a busy crossroads – the equivalent of airing the execution of Jesus on live TV on all of the news channels.

Indeed, they pulled off what seems to be the most unlikely coup in history: the murder of God, the assassination of the King of the world, the lynching of the one man in history who fulfills all of the prophecies of the Old Testament, and who promised to restore Paradise.  This conspiracy seemed to foil God Himself….”

…[There was] indeed quite the conspiracy. It even drew in our Lord’s inner circle of disciples, who abandoned Him – even St. Peter, the head of our Lord’s disciples, betrayed Jesus in a shameful way, just as Jesus predicted.

Perhaps most surprising of all is that Jesus knew every bit of the conspiracy. He did not use His divine power to evade what was to come…”

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I said earlier the book of Acts shows us these were exciting times. They were also perilous.

And the book of Acts also isn’t just about exciting moments of action-packed church growth and continuous and conspicuous conspiracy… 

It also talks quite a bit about the topic of fear. Yes, fear. 

For in the beginning of our reading from Acts today, what do we read?:

“The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.”

Why were some not daring to join together – to basically become culturally united with or one with – the believers meeting in Solomon’s Colonnade, that is, the Temple courts where all this preaching was going on? 

On the one hand, it was no doubt because the Apostles were performing great miracles, and were greatly respected by the people. But men like the high priest and his associates had their own power to protect, and again, were jealous. They recognized how the Apostle’s influence worked against their own desires and designs, and even if they would hear them they would not listen and believe. 

On the other hand, it was also because, as the text says, “no one else dared join them”. And this was because of fear. Fear.

Some, no doubt, feared the religious leaders and did not have “the courage to attach themselves to those with whom they really sympathised…” (think of Joseph of Arimethia and Nicodemus)

That is not the kind of fear that the text primarily has in mind here though…

Right before our reading in Acts today, the book explicitly says “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events….”

What events? 

Well, it might be somewhat understandable if you don’t know this, because – and not to get conspiratorial or anything – I’m talking about an important account that, oddly enough, is never covered in the church’s lectionary, or weekly readings… 

I am talking about the dramatic deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, two of the wealthier members of the church who had also been involved in a conspiracy. 

Not a conspiracy to directly undermine the Apostles or their message. But a conspiracy, that is, a deliberate agreement, to deceive the Apostles regarding the extent of their own charitable giving. 

Ananias and Sapphira decided to sell some land and to give the proceeds to the church. They also decided, however, to keep some of the proceeds for themselves but to tell the church that they were giving all of the profit.

And for this, God struck them both down. Let’s just go to the Bible to pick up some of that story. 

Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

9 Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

Summing up the effects of this, one man put it succinctly: “Unbelievers [would be] deterred by the fate of Ananias [and Saphirra] from uniting themselves to the church under false pretences,” or, as another put it, “from mere curiosity or with any idle purpose…”

Be not deceived, God is not mocked. 

He means business. 

In order to stop those who conspire against Him and His people He can’t have those who conspire to lie in order to promote their own advantage undermining His church just as it is gaining a foothold!

I said the book of Acts was exciting in that it has exhilarating stories about the church’s early success and dark conspiracies, to be sure… But again, it also speaks of this fear… 

And not just here. As far back as chapter 2, we read this: 

“Everyone was filled with fear at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.”

Later, in chapter 9, we read this: 

“…the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers….”

When we think about the word of the Lord growing, people coming to faith, what role does fear play in our thoughts? 

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What is it that brings men and women to faith in Jesus Christ?

Here, I want to step away from all the excitement and even fear I mentioned the book of Acts telling us about…. It is all, in some ways, perhaps a bit too uncomfortable….

Let’s get to something though that is related to all this, and that perhaps more of us can identify with.

Doubt. For instance, the doubt of Thomas. 

I think it is probably obvious that Thomas, like Peter in His betrayal of Jesus, does not mean in any way to support those who oppose Jesus and his church or who perhaps try to subtly undermine Him.

Thomas just really has trouble believing, trusting. 

Maybe Thomas is somewhat like a number of men today, very cynical and skeptical of a lot that happens in the church. 

You say your church has how many members? How do we know this isn’t just vulnerable people being taken advantage of by leaders who really aren’t that different then others eager to make a buck?

And some of the biggest churches are well-known for having bands that produce powerful worship music that many say shows the power of the Holy Spirit. But how different really is this Feeling than that can be produced at most any rock concert? 

And what about the weakness and maybe even hypocrisy of Christians? We’ve all heard about abuse scandals in churches, after all. 

…and this past week, I was let down by a man I greatly respect, a man who basically said that God had told him that his marriage was no longer worth fighting for and that his wife was intelligent and brave for filing for divorce, in spite of no infidelity at all in this situation. 

By doubting, Thomas doesn’t mean to lend aid and comfort to God’s enemies – to those who conspire against him….

I think he actually might remind us that questioning things around you is sometimes important….

All that said, I want to make clear that it is nevertheless true that Thomas – who I admit I identify with – was without excuse for his unbelief

After all, he had seen Jesus fulfill the Messianic prophecies!

Heard Him promise that He would be raised from the dead! 

…and even had the eyewitness testimony of this from men he knew to be reliable and true!  

One thinks about how what Jesus said to the discouraged men on the Road to Emmaus could have just as easily been meant for Thomas!:

“‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ 

27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself….”

And the rest, as they say, is history – even if modern historians might squeal that they can’t prove this to their satisfaction, as if they could actually prove all of the things they don’t doubt about the past! (or even yesterday)

No, our Lord Jesus condescends to Thomas and other sinful and ignorant doubters…

To condescend can have a negative meaning, as when someone shows feelings of superiority or is patronizing. 

It can also mean, however, to waive the privileges or rank and “to descend to a less formal or dignified level…”

This is what Jesus, mercifully, did for Thomas. 

This is how He loved him and no doubt even showed him respect as He said: “Stop doubting and believe.” 

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In truth though, doubting Thomas gets a bad rap. 

Again, it is not bad to ask yourself questions about some things! 

It is not bad to wonder, for example, about why you believe what you believe, to be concerned about what actually happened and happens, about matters of reason, matters of evidence. 

About pondering and seriously reflecting on what we can really know, even if it is just in part for now…. Finally, asking who you should trust and why.

For the past, evidence, reason, and persons who prove to be reliable are all things that are not meant to work against God’s purposes, but things the Spirit of God uses and works through!

And the world knows that this is true, even if this, more and more, is internally suppressed. 

For they are at war with the God who commands you to love Him with all of your mind..

The world will tell you over and over again that they are right, and that you must listen to them, and that you must not question them or their authority. 

The world will tell you you are foolish or even worse for giving the time of day to this or that “conspiracy theory” – even as their own views of the world clearly can be found to be not just wanting, but truly deplorable.

The world will even look at you with a straight face and assert that you are a dangerous extremist if you want to:

“1) let kids live

2) keep kids’ education apolitical and age-appropriate

3) [insist] kids are too young to choose life altering surgery or chemical treatment”

Even though Thomas really had no excuse for doubting His Lord, I think, in one sense, it is safe to say that today we need more doubting Thomases…

Because, you see, our Lord is not like the false and impotent lords of this earth, who cannot be questioned!

Our Lord not only has answers and reasons but our Lord has truth!

He is The Truth! 

And so, it is Thomas, not Peter, who we attribute the first confession of our Lord’s divinity to:

“My Lord and my God!”

You better believe it!

And you do, right? 

You trust in the words of this Credible One who pays the price for your sin on the cross! 

And then gives you the most important and reliable news that you will ever hear:

“I forgive you. You are mine. Forever.”

Yes indeed. This is most certainly true! 

The divine conspiracy – that is, the Mystery of our salvation in Jesus Christ – is a fact. 

“…these [words] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” 

Amen

For message with footnotes see here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/10EiOEVBCdjWx-HjS8nN_Mjz6xIWZeKrPlNQl7g100eA/edit?usp=sharing

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Posted by on April 25, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

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