When Peter and John get released from prison they rush back to “their own people” to report on what happened. Now folks debate who that group would have been, some people say it was probably a small group, just the other disciples perhaps, some think they would have gotten together the entire church or at least all the men. Whatever the group, you can imagine they were anxiously waiting to hear news from Peter and John, the men had gone to afternoon prayer and never come back! Word probably would have spread that they had been arrested but details would have been scarce, so we can imagine that there was relief among those gathered people when John and Peter show up and appear no worse for their time.
Peter and John’s decision to go back immediately after being released might strike us as strange if we think about it for a minute. After all, they had just been released without any kind of punishment, without having to admit any kind of guilt or anything like that, they had been vindicated. Today there would be a press conference, right? Peter and John and would stop on the steps of the courthouse and speak to the cameras, their lawyers would at least make a statement. If you remember last week I mentioned that one of the recurring themes we see in Acts is that when opportunities present themselves the church didn’t let them go by, this seems like a really good opportunity to walk out triumphant and rub the temple elites’ nose in the fact that their tactics didn’t work. They threw the first punch, they tried to silence Peter and John, now would be the perfect moment to hit back harder, to show that the church won’t be intimidated, to really claim a dominant position and show that they won’t be messed with or threatened or bullied but instead Peter and John head back home, they let the moment for the counter punch pass.
Counter punching is a great strategy in boxing but not so much in building relationships. We’re generally not at our best right after we’ve been hit. I don’t understand boxers and MMA fighters, I don’t understand how they can go into something knowing they’re going to get punched in the face. And I definitely don’t understand how they’re calm about it after it happens. We’re not our best right after we’ve been hit. And obviously that’s not just a physical thing, we’re not our best when we feel like we’ve been attacked, when we’ve been challenged on something, or when we feel threatened in some way. And what happens here happens enough in Luke and Acts for it to be considered a pattern, when Jesus in the Gospel and the disciples in Acts are really strongly challenged there is never an immediate counter punch, they almost always withdraw from the situation. They almost always withdraw, they almost always avoid the conflict but don’t mistake that for being weak or passive, what we see in those moments is that while they withdraw they don’t withdraw and give up, they always withdraw and then come back stronger. They are almost always better in the next confrontation because they took time away from the situation. Counter punching is a good tactic in boxing but not so much in building relationships, not so much for doing the work of the Kingdom. Being able to withdraw ourselves from situations we know aren’t going to end well is a sign of maturity, and it leaves the possibility of a positive outcome open. Peter and John could have taken this opportunity to declare war on the Sadducees and the Temple Elite but they would have lost. Withdrawal in this moment kept the early church alive. Counter punching, lashing out in our anger or our passion, all of that feels good in the moment but doesn’t help us out in the long run.
Instead of hitting back Peter and John withdraw, they gather with whoever this group is and after relaying everything that happened, sharing the command/threat that they received from the Sadducees and then the group started to pray and obviously that prayer makes up the bulk of the passage and there are a couple of things that we should take away from that prayer, both in what is present in the prayer and also, perhaps even more tellingly for us, what is not there.
I actually want to start with what is not in the prayer and the first thing that is missing is any kind of self-pity. Not only is it not in this prayer, you’d be hard pressed to find any self-pity in the book of Acts. We’re going to read people’s prayers as they’re being killed. We’re going to read about folks witnessing while literally carrying all their belongings on their backs because they’ve been kicked out of their homes. And not once do they complain. Not once do they ask God to make it easier. There’s no self-pity in this prayer, but there’s a lot of self-pity in Christianity today. Folks, we get upset about coffee cups. We get upset about whether people say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. People die in Acts. The early-church doesn’t have time for self-pity, they recognize that what they’re doing is going to be hard and they don’t waste the precious time they do have wishing it was easier.
Another thing that’s absent in this prayer is a request for vindication. They don’t pray that God would prove them right, they don’t pray for those in power to change, they pray for the ability to stand up to the people in power. We, far too often I think, get that backwards. We want “Christians” in power so that things will be easy, so that, I think, the right thing will become the easy thing. That’s the bottom line, we think if the right people are in Congress or the Governor’s mansion or the White House or City Council or wherever, if the right people are in power they’ll make it easy for us to do what’s right. The disciples recognize in this prayer that throughout the history of God’s work in the world the right thing has always been the hard thing, the folks in power have never gotten on the side of what’s right. In 1963 the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream Speech,” had a 67% disapproval rating. Nearly seven out of ten Americans thought it was a bad idea, thought it was too much. In 1968, when he was killed, over 50% of Americans had a negative view of King himself. Even when the right thing becomes the popular thing we rarely live long enough to see it. If we spend our time waiting for the “right” person to come to power or for public opinion to swing the “right” way or for living our faith to be easy then all we’re ever going to do is wait.
The last thing that isn’t in this prayer that I want to draw attention to is a request protection. The folks praying don’t ask God to keep them safe and they don’t ask God to take the threats away. They don’t put their own self-interest above the Kingdom. Its not stated directly here but I think its implied and its definitely lived out in Acts that what they say in this moment is: “if our arrests promote the Kingdom then so be it. If our beatings promote the Kingdom, then so be it. If our deaths promote the Kingdom then so be it. If our poverty promotes the Kingdom, then so be it. If our discomfort promotes the Kingdom, then so be it.” We are lucky enough to still live in a time when our self-interest and the interests of the Kingdom rarely come in to conflict but I think the day is coming and I think its coming quicker than we think where what’s right is going to cost us something.
I’m on a bit of a King kick this week, I don’t know why. He wasn’t supposed to be in Memphis when he got shot, I don’t know if you knew that. He was scheduled to be in Chicago and then then Sanitation Strike in Memphis began and started to turn violent and he became convinced that if he didn’t go to Memphis the idea of peaceful protest and civil disobedience was going to be cast aside in favor of violence in the streets so he changed his plans. And folks around him told him they couldn’t guarantee his protection in Memphis. The FBI said they had picked up chatter that if he showed up in Memphis there would be attempts on his life. His flight out of Atlanta was delayed because someone called a bomb threat into the airport and they had to un pack and check every piece of luggage on the plane. But he went anyway. And the night before he died he preached a sermon and he ended it like this:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
If we’re waiting for the time when serving the Kingdom also serves our self-interest were going to be waiting an awful long time.
So what do they pray for? If it’s not for comfort or for vindication or for protection, what is it? It goes back to this idea we saw last week. Boldness. They pray that God will give them the boldness to keep doing exactly what got them in trouble in the first place. They pray, not that God will keep them safe, but that God will give them the conviction to face the danger. They pray that God will give them the courage to take the risk. And they do that because they believe that God is beg enough and powerful enough to do a great work regardless of the things stacked against them. Robert Wall, a New Testament Scholar in Washington state, wrote a commentary on Acts and he said this about this passage: “if the church is too timid of what people think and doesn’t ask God for boldness in ministry, it must have timid convictions about who God is, what God has done, and what God will do.” How we pray, and what we pray for, shows what we believe about God. Faith is taking what we believe about God and putting it into action. The early Church prayed and God shook the place they were meeting and did exactly what they had asked. They were confident enough in God that they were willing to be bold. They believed enough in God’s power that they stepped out on faith. They felt strongly enough about what God was doing in and for the world that they weren’t worried about what might happen to them but about how they could see that plan through with their lives. Prayer is where we first begin to put our faith in action, how we talk to God shows so many things. It shows where our priorities are, if our emphasis is on us or on the kingdom. It shows what we believe God is capable of doing. In this text we see a model of what kingdom focused prayers look like. What do our prayers look like? What do the things we’re willing to trust God with say about how much we actually trust God to do them?