Fearless Witness

Is there any fear in freedom? No – because true freedom comes from God’s love, which is perfect, and “perfect love casts out all fear.” 

Acts 4:1-12 

While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, greatly disturbed that they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in custody until the next day. But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand. The rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is `the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” 

Today I want to talk to you about Fearless Witness

St. Peter once said, and I paraphrase, “If you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it, what good does that do you? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.” (1 Pt. 2:20). The same goes for getting arrested, like Peter and John were in Acts 4. 

Some people get arrested for drunk driving. Others for assault and battery. Some are embezzlers and thieves. Peter and John, they were arrested for “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” — this was their Fearless Witness. 

What’s the big deal? It was a big deal to the Sadducees. They didn’t believe in the Resurrection of the Dead. They didn’t teach it. And they carried some power. But along come Peter and John preaching in Solomon’s colonnade, “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead,” and winning hearts and minds — “many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.” 

The Sadducees probably liked to believe that their power was in what they taught. But what happens when another teaching comes along that has more power, more authority – because it’s more true? Let the most authoritative teaching win! — right? 

Wrong. The Sadducees don’t appeal to their teaching in order to “out-teach” Peter and John – they don’t engage in debate — they have them arrested. How much authority can your ideas have when you need to resort to force to protect them from other ideas? When you find yourself in a disagreement, do you talk it out, have a patient debate – or do you get hot-headed, start name-calling, slam the door, storm out of the room? Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve done all of those myself. Not exactly my proudest moments! 

All ideas have power. But when we argue, we’re arguing about which idea is true — because the most powerful idea is the one that’s true. The one that’s rational, that makes sense, that’s logical – in line with the logos. This ain’t no small potatoes, because even the most petty arguments are driving at truth, digging for it. Trying to figure out what is logical, in the form of a debate or an argument, is a divine thing, because you’re really trying to discern what is in line with logos, which is the very word Apostle John uses to describe God – when he says, “In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the word was God.” 

This is true even of the most petty arguments, up to the most elevated heights of philosophical and religious debate. 

The Sadduccees, along with the scribes and Pharisees, they’d been through all this type of debate before with Jesus. Mark notes that “the people were astonished at [Jesus’] teaching, because He taught as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” They tried to engage in debate with him – and he licked ‘em every time. This bothered them so much that they had him killed. You see how there was no power in their teaching – so they resorted to the power of force, hoping that Jesus’ teaching would die with him. 

But that is not what happened. Along comes Peter and John, “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” They’re not just teaching about the resurrection – they’re saying that Jesus, a Fearless Witness so fearless he was willing to die for his testimony, Jesus is the resurrection, and is risen from the grave! Jesus didn’t just overcome their teaching about “no resurrection” with his teaching about “the resurrection”, he overcame their power by rising again after they conspired to have him put to death. He didn’t have just authority in teaching, he had authority to lay down his life and then take it back up again (Jn. 10:18)! 

Now Peter and John had five thousand men and women convinced with this authoritative teaching. But not the Sadduccees. They hadn’t learned. They don’t bother with debate – they skip right to arrests. But what’s interesting here is, they hold a little trial here. So maybe they’re up for a little debate after all, right? 

Well, let’s chew on that. I don’t know about you, but when I get into an argument with my brother over who ate the last chicken nugget, neither of us call the police to round up the other! But if we did, maybe we’d get a fair trial at our courthouse. It seems like that’s what’s going on in Acts 4. The Sanhedrin are assembled, Peter and John are given a somewhat routine hearing. If you read on, Spoiler alert, they let Peter and John go. After all, the two Apostles had just healed a man miraculously – the Sanhedrin “could not find a way to punish them, because all the people were glorifying God for what had happened” (Acts 4:21) 

So, not the worst ending, right? Did they get a fair trial? A fair sentence? Basically. Seems like it. But you got to wonder – why was all this necessary? Why were these men, who were doing good deeds, arrested and put on trial for – speech? We all know Peter would be killed for this eventually, and I’m sure we can all agree that’s wrong – but what about just this one incident? Isn’t this arrest a bit off, a bit much, a bit wrong? A bit – fearful

Why were the consequences of their witness so fearful that it was necessary for Peter and John to be Fearless Witnesses? 

When I was in 8th grade, I had a brush with fearful consequences at school. It was at the big annual Variety Show with my rock band. We were going to play the big Red Hot Chili Peppers hit song from that year, “Californication”. Now, a week before the big show – the first performance of my life! – our Vice Principal’s voice came over the intercom and she summoned me to her office. 

“Sean, when you perform this song, I want you to change the lyrics,” she said to me.  

“Ok, no problem – which ones?” 

“The word – ‘Californication’. You need to change that!” 

I scratched my naive head. “But that’s the name of the song, that’s the main lyric.”  

“It’s vulgar!” she said. 

“How so?” I had no clue. She explained to me what “fornication” meant. In some detail. I was…shocked. What she described to me was quite…pornographic. I was only eleven years old! I was scandalized. I would never sing about such vulgar things, especially in front of my younger classmates! I was flustered and embarrassed to be talking about fornication with this middle-aged woman across the desk. I immediately agreed not to sing such a filthy word, and bolted out the door! 

But later, as I was drilling the lyrics into my head, memorizing every line, I learned something that every song interpreter must learn – I learned the meaning of the lyrics. The message of the song. The song was a warning against the type of pornographic lifestyle my Vice Principal described to me – not an advertisement for it! I immediately sought a second hearing with her, and explained my case. 

“I think it’s a play on the word, fornication, which is a sin in the Bible,” I said, “Because really it’s talking about California-cation, it’s a warning against the allure of Hollywood and the hidden dangers that lurk behind the facade – it’s trying to help us not be California-fied, seduced by these things!” I’m sure I used those exact words when I was eleven. “I think the message of the song is important – I think my classmates need to hear it.” 

Well, she told me, if my classmates hear me sing that word, she’ll suspend me from school, and that was that. And that’s exactly what happened. I sang the song as it was, we did a great job, standing ovation – after we all return to our classrooms, the voice on the intercom beckons me to the Vice Principal’s office. 

I’ll never forget all of the kids’ leaning out of their classrooms watching me and cheering me on as I walked to the Vice Principal’s office. I felt half triumphant and half ashamed, since I’d never done anything rebellious in my life, but I was also proud because I did what I felt was right. It was a sense of satisfaction in my heart that eclipsed even the positive social response I got. It wasn’t popularity or peer support that made me feel good, it was the good feeling that comes when courage and conviction are satisfied by taking action. I got a taste of the glory of Fearless Witness. 

My Vice Principal looked at me from across the desk and said, “You’re suspended.” And I remember thinking – “That’s something – I think you should be suspended!” How could she suspend me for saying something she thinks is wrong, but can’t suspend her for being wrong about it? 

This is the question at the heart of every revolution in the history of the world. Some, like the founding fathers of this country, they do fight back. But I took my punishment. No revolution for me!  

But I comforted myself knowing that I took a stand and communicated my message, a moral message, and my peers received it and took it to heart, and I felt proud of that. I didn’t care that I was being punished for it – my punishment felt like a reward. Punishing me made the Vice Principal look bad, while accepting punishment demonstrated my willingness to accept the fearful consequences for Fearless Witness. I think that helped my message have more integrity, authority, and power

Now: my Vice Principal was the builder – and I was the stone she rejected. But the other students were also stones, and they rallied around me, and we became more fortified by our own common bond than the bond she tried to create between us with her rules and discipline. For a brief, glorious moment, I was the cornerstone of my school! 

Now I’m not going to compare myself to Jesus, the real cornerstone of the Kingdom of God. I did what I felt was right – but I still broke the rules! And I took my just punishment. As Peter said, “If you get punished for doing wrong, what good does that do you?” 

But he also said, “If you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be shaken.’” He’s quoting Is. 8:12 here — “Do not call conspiracy everything these people regard as conspiracy. Do not fear what they fear; do not live in dread.” He’s saying, don’t see the worst in things. Don’t only see “fornication” in “Californication”. Don’t waste your time on that. Instead, see the big picture. See God, and see what God sees. “The LORD of Hosts is the One you shall regard as holy. Only He should be feared; only He should be dreaded…And He will be a sanctuary.” 

I have a friend who sends me articles about how COVID-19 is a hoax. He’s not afraid of COVID-19 – but he is afraid of the vaccine! Everyone thinks he’s a conspiracy theorist – and he thinks everyone else are the conspiracy theorists! How about split the difference? “Do not call conspiracy everything these people regard as conspiracy.”  

Yes, he might not fear COVID-19 the way the rest of the world does, because to him, it’s a hoax – but he does fear whoever he thinks is perpetuating the hoax! And whether he thinks of it this way or not, he might fault people who fear and spread fear about COVID-19, but he spreads fear too — he wants everyone to be as afraid of what he’s afraid of: the vaccine, the New World Order, all that. I don’t see my friend spreading much hope right now. He doesn’t seem to have much for himself. And he has that in common with a lot of the folks he calls conspiracy theorists, folks paralyzed by fear of Covid. 

Everyone has a doppelganger and everyone has their opposite. My friend has someone in his life whom he’s singled-out as what he calls a Karen, or a COVID-Nazi – someone who’s really afraid of Covid and wants to spread more fear about it. I say, they are both in equal need of getting right with the word of God in Isaiah — “Do not call conspiracy everything these people regard as conspiracy. Do not fear what they fear” — but also, “do not live in dread” of what you fear. Only God is to be feared, to be dreaded – but He will be a sanctuary, your shelter and your fortress. He will be your hope when you have none other. Fear not death – he is your resurrection. 

Christians have a challenge to be fearless. Whether it’s COVID, a vaccine – whether it’s the New World Order! — or what the Bible calls, “powers & principalities” or “rulers & authorities”, and “spiritual wickedness in high places”. Our spirit is not fear, but courage. Jesus commands his disciples throughout the gospels, “Be not afraid: take heart.”  

To folks afraid of COVID, this is what Jesus has to say about sickness: you will lay your hands on the sick, so that they will be made well.  

To folks afraid of the vaccine, who feel it’s a poison, first of all, you get to choose whether you take it or not – problem solved! But if that were to change, and your power of choice were taken away — this is what Jesus has to say about poison: if you drink a deadly poison, it will not harm you. If a vaccine jab for you is as terrifying as a poisonous snake bite – Jesus said, “you will pick up serpents with safety,” and though St. Paul was bitten by a deadly snake, he did not die. We are taught to be fearless. 

To folks afraid of the people in power in our world, Jesus says: “when they hand you over, do not worry about how to respond or what to say. In that hour you will be given what to say. For it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”  

In even the worst case, should you fear worse suffering, he says: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution…Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” 

Am I telling you to seek the crown of martyrdom, to die for Christ? I’m telling you to live for Christ. And as I’ve said before, to live for Christ is to love as he loved; and to know this love is to know God, since God is love, and the knowledge of this truth will set you free. Is there any fear in freedom? No – because true freedom comes from God’s love, which is perfect, and “perfect love casts out all fear.” 

In all these things, that law of liberty applies. Each person needs to be fully convinced in his own mind. As Martin Luther said, “Here I stand – I can do no other, so help me God.” Of what value is a conviction like that if it is full of fear? That is not the spirit of God – love is. Where there is love, there is no fear. Fearless Witness is the witness of the Love of God in the Good News – it is exactly how the author of Acts described the Fearless Witness of Peter and John: it is “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” 

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