My youngest sister lived for a number of years in New York City and it can be a pretty scary place. If you’ve ever been in a taxi in New York, you might well have feared for your life. Last summer on our way to Estonia, Chris and I and several other members of our team had to spend the night in Amsterdam when our flight was cancelled. The short taxi ride that we took from the airport to the hotel where we spent the night was perhaps even more harrowing than those New York taxi rides.
We live in a scary world. A world filled with terrifying things. A world filled with the destructive forces of hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires, a world where even a trip to an outdoor concert can suddenly be turned into a war zone. It can even be dangerous to go to church on Sunday morning.
Last Sunday, while we were gathered together in worship, a man in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killed 26 people and wounded 20 more during their Sunday morning worship service. That’s 46 people out of the estimated 60 in attendance that day. Sutherland Springs is a small town only a little bit larger than McCallsburg.
We’re horrified by what happened last Sunday in that Baptist church in that little rural town in Texas. This is not a new occurrence in the larger world—in fact, prior to last Sunday, more than 60 people had already been killed in churches around the world this year. Killed while they were gathered together with other Christians worshiping God. An additional 182 have been wounded. The most deadly attack occurred last April, when 49 people died and an additional 78 were wounded in two Christian churches in Egypt when their churches were bombed during Palm Sunday worship services.
We live in a scary world—a world that can be even more scary for Christians, as you saw in the video. We have lived so long in this country under an illusion that our churches are safe places that we’re not even sure what to do when faced with the reality that they’re not as safe as we thought.
But God never intended our journey through life to be safe.
It’s only because a man in a nearby home heard gunfire in that church, grabbed his own gun and ran toward the danger, that any of the people in that church survived. Had it not been for him, it’s likely that every single person in that church would have been killed and possibly others as well.
Why did God allow this to happen?
Why did He allow Richard Wurmbrand and many other Christians to be tortured and persecuted—many of them dragged out of their churches as they worshiped? It’s estimated that since Jesus died on the cross, 43 million Christians have been martyred. Right now 200 million people face persecution for believing in Jesus and 60% of those people are children.
The man who fired his gun at the shooter and then followed him was scared last Sunday—he’s said that he was terrified. Nobody wants to run toward danger. But he knew he had to do something.
Nobody wants to go out into the world and rescue the perishing. You don’t want to and I don’t want to. We want to stay nice and safe in our own little world. And right here in this place—we even call it a sanctuary. For generations, people thought that there was nowhere safer than in a church.
But no more—why? Why is God allowing the refuge to be taken from us? Why isn’t He keeping us safe in our sanctuaries? As I thought about this question over the past week, I turned to the Book of Acts. And as I studied, I realized that perhaps I’d never really understood all of the story that Luke is telling of the early church.
So this morning I’d like to take you on a lightning tour through the early part of this book.
If you have your Bibles with you, I’d invite you to open them. If you don’t, you might want to take a few notes so you can look at these passages later.
As the book begins, Jesus is about to ascend into heaven and He tells the disciples that they’re job is to continue what Jesus Himself had begun—but they’re not to do anything until they receive Spirit. His final lesson: don’t try to figure it out on your own and don’t get ahead of the Spirit.
In Chapter 2, this small band of Jesus’ disciples are “all together in one place” (Acts 2:1) when the Holy Spirit descends upon them. immediately they go out among the people who have gathered outside; Peter stands up and shares the gospel and “about three thousand souls received his word and were baptized” (Acts 2:41).
And the next thing we read, as you heard earlier, is that “All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47).
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to be part of this body? When we talk about being a first century church in the twenty-first century, this is often the picture that we have. A nice church where we all are together—in our nice, safe sanctuary—with everybody loving one another and getting along together.
We often forget—or at least ignore—the fact that they’d just received 3000 souls into their fellowship, and more were coming every day. They were all together because they needed to disciple all those new converts. Teaching them more about this Jesus who was both Lord and Savior, this Jesus who had died on a wooden cross for them. This Jesus whom God raised up from the dead, a resurrection that Peter and the other disciples had witnessed.
Sharing the good news wasn’t something they could do overnight but God doesn’t let them that in that comfortable place very long. The very next thing that happens is that Peter and John pray for a lame beggar and he gets healed—a crowd gathers and once again Peter shares the gospel. Shares it so effectively that he and John are arrested.
Satan is already at work trying to stop the good news of Jesus Christ.
In Chapter 4, the high-priest and the rulers in the temple order them to stop telling people about Jesus, to which Peter and John said, “Nope. Not going to happen. We can’t stop telling people this great news.” The temple leaders continue to threaten them, but finally let them go “because of the people” (Acts 4:21).
When they were released, Peter and John went back and told everyone what had happened. And the believers prayed to God; they said, “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” (Acts 4:24-31).
But now they’re all back together again—they’re safe. And the very next verse says, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him were his own, but had everything in common” (Acts 4:32).
“The place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness”—and the conversation immediately turns to physical needs. To their comfort. They were sharing their money, their food, their stuff.
And then, in Chapter 5, we meet Ananias and his wife Sapphira, who sell a piece of property and donate the money to the church—some of the money, but not all of it. The problem isn’t that they kept some of it—it was their land and their money. No one told them they had to give any of it to the church. The problem is that they told the church that they were donating the entire proceeds of the sale. They lied to make themselves look good.
We’ve gone from crying out to God for boldness in speaking His Word to “Look at me, look at how good I am” in almost no time at all.
Peter calls Ananias out for his lie and when Ananias sticks to his story, he immediately drops dead right in front of them all.
A few hours later his wife Sapphira comes in and Peter asks her how much money they sold the land for. She too lies—and she too immediately drops dead.
Satan, the father of lies, has now invaded the body of the church.
“And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11).
Now the apostles are doing many signs and wonders—but “none of the rest dared join them, although the people held them in high esteem” (Acts 5:13). Sounds a lot like today, doesn’t it? We hold the great evangelists of our day in high esteem. We hold the persecuted people in other countries in high esteem—we’re amazed when we hear from the very mouth of Eenok Haamer how he lived in an underground bunker, a hole in the ground, for years while hiding from the communists who wanted to arrest him and his mother—the same communists who had sent his father to a Siberian labor camp. We listened to the story of Richard Wurmbrand, who was suffering in prison at this same time and again we’re amazed.
We’re amazed—even as we’re grateful that we’ve never had to suffer like that.
So the apostles, the Twelve, continue to do signs and wonders and multitudes of new believers are being added to the Lord (Acts 5:14). Now the high priest has all twelve of them arrested, “but during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out and said, ‘Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life’” (Acts 5:19-20). “Keep preaching—keep sharing the good news.”
And they did, enraging the council—they wanted to kill them.
Why didn’t they? Because God wasn’t ready for them to die—He had more work for them to do. And when they were released, “they left, … rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).
Have you ever suffered for the name of Jesus Christ? Suffered dishonor?
It didn’t even slow them down. The Twelve are on fire: “Every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (Acts 5:42).
But we discover at the beginning of Chapter six, that while they’re out preaching and teaching, the people back at the church are arguing again—this time, about whether everyone’s getting their fair share of the food. The apostles, “the twelve” refuse to be distracted from “prayer and the ministry of the word” to settle quarrels among the people. They tell them to choose seven men to be in charge of overseeing the distribution of food. They’re going to keep praying and preaching.
Seven men are chosen; they “prayed and laid hands on them.” And the next thing we know, one of them, Stephen, is “doing great wonders and signs among the people.” So the elders and the scribes arrest him and “bring him before the council.”
Stephen used the opportunity to preach the gospel and they were so furiously angry that they took him out and stoned him to death. His last words were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
“And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem”—a great persecution that caused many of the believers to scatter “throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).
Why did the people leave? They left because they were terrified that they’d be killed, too. But now we find that they’re not arguing with one another—they’re preaching the gospel—sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. All of them—even the ones who weren’t ready.
Chapter 8 tells us that some were baptizing in the name of Jesus but not in the Holy Spirit. No one yells at them for preaching before they knew enough—Peter and John just show up and lay hands on prayed that “they might receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:15).
And from this point on, we hear very little about Christians living together safely in their own little sanctuary. From here on out, they’re preaching the gospel, they’re being persecuted and even killed. And nowhere is there any indication that God wants them to go back to that place where they’re all just happy together.
Why didn’t the apostles leave, too? We don’t really know. Perhaps it was simply because they weren’t afraid of losing their lives for Jesus. Perhaps it was because they could see that there were still many people in Jerusalem who had not yet heard the gospel.
Perhaps it was because they understood that our true purpose in life is to live for Christ. Perhaps it was because now they understood what Jesus had been trying to teach them for so long: we can be truly alive only as long as we live the way that Jesus lived. We must lose our life in order to have life.
Our default position is to go to the place where we’re comfortable—to find sanctuary. But that way doesn’t lead to life—it leads to death.
We are called to live. To truly live, we must live as Jesus lived. We must give up our life to live for Him. Jesus said, “Remember …: A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). And “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33).
The persecuted church understands this. Richard Wurmbrand, in the 14 years he spent in prison, writes in his book Tortured for Christ that “the Early Church in all of its beauty, sacrifice, and dedication has come alive again in these countries” where persecution is what Christians can expect.
So compelled was Pastor Wurmbrand by his experience in communist prisons that he said, “When I was released, he was concerned to the point of obsession that the plight of Christians prisoners should not be forgotten.” He worked day and night for the Lord for the rest of his life.
For the last 2000 years, commitment to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with the lost has always been greatest when the church has not been too comfortable.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, will our horror at the lives lost last Sunday in that Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs fade away as we return again to our own little world—until the next tragedy occurs? Or will we use this as a wake-up call, as a reminder that we never know when our lives might be cut short? We never know that we will actually have a tomorrow in which to serve the Lord.
People in prison for their Christian faith, people suffering in slavery around the world: God asks us—you and me—asks us, as those who would take up our cross and follow Jesus to Golgotha, to allow ourselves to be drawn into the pain of suffering and violence.
To let it break our hearts. We are called to “bear witness.” We are called to live as those who, in the midst of our pain, do not shrink back, but rather rise up. We are called to rise up, to make choices every single day that move us toward the God who alone can convict us of His calling on our lives, the God who alone can sustain us, the God who will cleanse us from broken-hearted fear and despair.
We are called to rise up to meet our God at the foot of the cross. At the cross we meet the God who drew near to us without fear. We meet the God who moved toward the suffering and oppressed. We meet the God who joyfully submitted to bearing all our sin, all our shame, all our burdens; the God who offers us His yoke, who makes our burdens light. At the cross we, like the apostles, can proclaim with boldness, the words of the psalmist, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord” (Psalm 77:11).
Will you go forth boldly—wherever God might lead you? Will you take the prayer cards in your bulletin and pray? Pray for the persecuted church. Pray for the people of Sutherland Springs. We don’t need to pray for those who died—they’re in a far better place. But pray for those lying in the hospital recovering from their wounds. Pray for the families even now beginning to bury their loved ones.
Pray that we will remember that the church is not our sanctuary. True sanctuary comes only in the Holy Spirit. We can find sanctuary in a prison cell, a torture chamber, or on a city street where we’re being stoned to death.
And pay that this congregation may move forward with deep roots, filled with the Holy Spirit, sustained by knowing the only hope that never disappoints-the hope of God’s glory, the hope of God’s healing the hope of God’s kingdom, now and to come.
Let us pray.