July 24, 2016 “Unstoppable” – Acts 5:17-42

Acts 5:17-42
“Unstoppable”
July 24, 2016 – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

A train full of toxic chemicals roars down the track with no one aboard. That’s the story of the 2010 Tony Scott/Denzel Washington film Unstoppable. It’s also the true story of CSX 8888, a freight train known as “Crazy Eights.” It got loose in Ohio in 2001 and ran without anyone controlling it for two hours before another train was coupled to the rear and applied brakes to slow the runaway to 11 miles per hour. Then an engineer ran alongside, hopped on, and shut down Crazy Eights’ engine.

As historians have to admit, whether they like it or not, Christianity emerged something like an unstoppable freight train in the first century. Unlike so many other religious movements, unlike other Jewish prophets or revolutionaries of the time, what started with Jesus of Nazareth only kept gathering momentum. Our text shows us that faith in Jesus is unstoppable.

Once again it’s the high priest and his fellow Sadducees in verse 17 trying to stop all the talk about Jesus. We skipped over it, but verse 14 tells us that “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women.” The Sadducees who did not believe in resurrection from the dead were infuriated that the message about a Man who rose from the dead kept spreading. So in verse 18 they arrested them again, not just one or two, but all the apostles.

It’s God’s sweet irony that verse 19 says the Lord sent an angel in the night to open the prison doors. The Sadducees also did not believe in angels. God threw their lack of faith back at them by providing supernatural help for those who did believe.

Before the Sadducees found out what had happened, however, God’s messengers were back out in the temple preaching. Two weeks ago we heard Peter in chapter 4 say that they couldn’t help but speak about what they had seen and heard about Jesus. The apostles themselves had no control over it. The message itself was unstoppable.

Think about all the things which stop you and me from talking about Jesus. It might be embarrassment. Perhaps it’s an employer or government regulations which prohibit religious expression. Maybe there are unbelieving family members who are just too intimidating. It could just be our own doubt. None of us have been jailed for our faith like Christians in China or the Mideast, but there are still people we fear and social and mental prisons in which we find ourselves.

A few of you have had your faith opposed by those around you, family or friends. Maybe you were the first to accept Christ, to the bewilderment and even anger of your parents or your spouse or your buddies. But your faith was unstoppable. You’re here at worship this morning despite the fact that someone didn’t want you here.

Some of us struggle with personal, internal confinements that threaten to stop us from talking about Jesus. Shyness, depression, bitterness, even mental illness may restrain us from speaking up for Christ as often as we would like. Yet you’re here, worshipping Him today, out in the open, visibly displaying faith in the Good News.

God still sends angels to free us. They may be less visible. We may be almost like Sadducees in our practical disbelief in their presence, but angels are real and they still come to us in times of need. God sends His messengers of hope and deliverance.

Years ago in Santa Fe, Beth and I visited a little church now called the Loretto Chapel. It was built in 1878, but had no stairway to its choir loft. The plan was for it to be entered by a ladder, but the Sisters of Loretto could not climb a ladder in their robes. Local craftsmen could see no way to fit a staircase into the building.

So the sisters prayed for help and a traveling carpenter appeared. He worked for months to produce what seems almost miraculous. It’s a spiral staircase built entirely from wood and containing no nails or screws. It makes two complete 360 degree turns and contains thirty-three steps. When finished, the carpenter simply said, “You have your staircase,” and left. No one knows for sure who he was or from where he came. Whoever he was, he was God’s messenger enabling the sisters of that little church to keep sharing Jesus.

Flashy miracles happen, but God’s angelic help is usually more subtle. A friend writes an encouraging note. There’s a peaceful voice in the middle of a day when everything seems to be unraveling. Some impossible problem is solved in a way we don’t expect.

This past week my wife Beth was told her fall class at the Bible college was cancelled. It broke her heart. Teaching students to think like Christians is what she loves. And we can use the extra income. But three or four days later, another e-mail message arrived telling her that more students had signed up and her class was back on the schedule. The message also said that one of the graduating seniors had given her glowing praise in his exit interview. I heard angel wings in the background as Beth told me this.

God’s messengers are usually invisible. Yet they are always around us. In our men’s Bible study Friday we read a glorious passage from II Kings 6. The Syrians came for the prophet Elisha and surrounded the city where he was. Elisha’s servant was overwhelmed with fear, but Elisha told him, “Fear not, for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” Then Elijah asked God to open the servant’s eyes and he saw that the mountain above them was filled with horses and chariots of fire.

The next few verses, 22 to 24, tell how those who thought they had the apostles surrounded with walls and guards were caught off guard by God’s invisible forces. The whole Jewish leadership gathered to judge the believers and sent the temple police to bring them from their cell. They found the doors of the jail locked, the guards standing watch, but their prisoners were gone! Verse 24 says the captain of the temple and the chief priests were “perplexed.” Then in verse 25, someone arrived to drop the bombshell that they’re back in the temple and teaching people about Jesus again!

The unstoppable message keeps going in surprising and perplexing ways. Like that train in the movie, everything that should stop it fails. It just keeps rolling. And those who climb aboard in faith and hope are carried right along with it. Verse 26 says the temple police went for them again, but didn’t hurt them because the police were afraid the people who wanted to hear the apostles would start throwing rocks.

Now matters were serious. Up to then Jesus’ followers had broken no laws, but in verse 28 the high priest tells them, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.” They disobeyed a direct order. The high priest felt the Christian message was aimed at them, making them guilty of Jesus’ crucifixion, of His blood.

Peter’s famous reply in verse 29 looks like a “line in the sand” drawn by unstoppable messengers, “We must obey God rather than men [there were no women on the Sanhedrin.]!” We will not stop when human beings tell us to stop. It’s ultimately what got Christians in trouble not just with Jewish authorities but with Roman authorities.

Ancient Rome was like America, a pluralist society, home to many kinds of people and many different religions. It didn’t matter what god or gods you believed in, as long as you could affirm your allegiance to the empire and its emperor. You could worship any way you wanted as long as you could say, “Caesar is lord.” But that’s just what Christians refused to do, because only Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the final authority, not any human power.

Part of our Covenant history is the story of Paul Carlson, a missionary doctor to Congo in the early 1960s. When rebel insurgents threatened his medical station in Ubangi Province, authorities told the missionaries to evacuate to the Central African Republic. Carlson sent his family over the river to safety but heard God telling him to stay and take care of his patients. He was captured by the rebels, falsely accused of being an American spy, tortured and finally executed just as paratroopers were coming to rescue him.

The apostle Peter looks truly courageous. We marvel at the bravery of those first Christian martyrs and still tell their stories. We honor the memory of Paul Carlson and Jim Elliot and Kayla Mueller who was killed by the Islamic State, along with those 21 Coptic Christians beheaded in Libya last year. That line of faithful men and women rolls down through history like an unstoppable locomotive.

But it is not Christians who are unstoppable. It is not human courage and strength which power the Gospel train. It is the unstoppable grace of Jesus Christ which those apostles refused to quit talking about. They weren’t unstoppable in themselves. Peter said “we cannot keep from speaking,” and “We must obey God rather than men.” They weren’t driving the train. They had gotten on and couldn’t get off.

Peter kept going back to the real source of it all, what got it all moving down the track. Verse 30 repeats it once again, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” As the events in Acts are happening it’s all new. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have not been written yet. Peter and the apostles are telling the Gospel story for the first time. You and I and all those later martyrs read it in the Bible. Guided by the Spirit, Peter was writing the Bible as he spoke. It crystallized into its essence right there and on into verse 31, “God exalted him at his right hand as Ruler and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”

That’s it. The whole thing. Everything that really matters is there. It’s the kerygma, the kernel of the Good News. Jesus died and rose again and was exalted to heaven so that He might be our Savior by forgiving our sins. That’s our unstoppable faith in Jesus.

The apostles violated the Sanhedrin’s order. Now there was a formal charge against them. In verse 33, angry voices even wanted to put them to death. But then most famous rabbi of his time stood up, Gamaliel. He was a minority member of the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee while the others were Sadducees. He was loved and respected. The apostle Paul studied with Gamaliel. The Mishnah says “When Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, the glory of the Law ceased and purity and abstinence died.”[1]

This respected rabbi stood up to the majority with wisdom. In verses 36 and 37 he named others who claimed to be led by God, Theudas and Judas. They were popular and successful, and led revolutions in first century Palestine, but it all came to nothing. So in regard to Peter and the rest he advised, “keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Legends say Gamaliel was a secret Christian. Whether believer or not, he gave good advice. They let the disciples go and the results are evident. Judas and Theudas are almost gone from history—we are not even quite sure who Theudas was. But what Christians did is obvious. More accurately, what God did is obvious. It could not be stopped.

Christians are not unstoppable. We as Christians get stopped all the time. They decided not to kill Peter and the apostles right then, but in two weeks we will read how they stopped another Christian, the first martyr of them all. And Peter and John and all those others were finally stopped too. They can stop us, but it’s the message of grace and forgiveness and new life in Jesus that is unstoppable. No one can stop God’s train. That’s why you and I want to climb aboard with all our hearts.

Our church can be stopped, like churches around the world have been stopped by persecution from the outside or apathy from the inside. What you or I may do for Jesus is totally stoppable by all kinds of forces in this world, whether it’s someone else trying to derail us from following Christ or our own weakness and sin. But the power on which we are riding, the force which is carrying us into the kingdom of God, is unstoppable.

Let’s remember our unstoppable message, our unstoppable Savior when we are afraid to go on. Like Jesus taught in our Gospel reading from Luke 11, let’s remember not to stop praying. Our Lord is unstoppable. He always wants to give us His love in Jesus, to give us the gifts of His Holy Spirit. We go forward because God is always on the move and carrying us along.

Remember Jesus is unstoppable whenever you want to quit. Whether you are broke or discouraged or in pain or lonely; whether you feel imprisoned in a job you hate or a marriage that’s hard or a spiritual darkness that won’t go away, when you trust in Jesus His grace cannot be stopped. His angel will open a door. His angel will send a friendly voice among your enemies. His help will arrive like a freight train speeding through the night.

Jesus has been unstoppable for two thousand years. Let’s remember that, never forgetting the record of how His message has always been on the move, has carried men and women into His kingdom down through the ages. Let’s tell those stories of the martyrs and all the other faithful people on that train. That kind of memory offers us an unstoppable hope, the kind of sure confidence which those first disciples had.

They didn’t kill the apostles, but not without trying one more time to stop them. Verse 39 says they had them flogged. In other words, they were tortured. If they received anywhere near the 39 lashes permitted by law, they were tortured nearly to death. Which makes verse 41 pretty amazing, “As they left the council, they rejoiced…”

God sent an angel to release them from prison; He gave them an advocate on the Sanhedrin, but He did not make things easy for them. They walked out with bloody backs and a threat of death hanging over their heads. That would stop most people. I think it would stop me. But they kept going and even rejoiced, because “they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” That’s the name of Jesus, the unstoppable Jesus who gives unstoppable joy to those who claim His name.

Verse 42 says, “they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.” The train is still rolling. I invite you to get on board and roll with it, roll with the good news of Jesus that never stops.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] John Westerdale Bowker, Jesus and the Pharisees (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 107.