Myth 5: “Faith is something personal…” (Acts 4, part 1)

While it’s been a few years since we’ve talked about Tim Tebow, few can forget the example set by this NFL Quarterback—both on and off the field.  Known for his Christian faith and conservative moral stance, Tebow made waves for his frequent practice of visibly bowing in prayer.  Though inspiring to some, the act was irksome to others—some of whom mockingly imitated the practice, generating the trend of “Tebowing.”  What was to be made of Tebow’s shameless, public faith?  In 2011,former NFL star Kurt Warner had the following advice to share:

“You can’t help but cheer for a guy like that…But I’d tell him, ‘Put down the boldness in regards to the words, and keep living the way you’re living.  Let your teammates do the talking for you.  Let them cheer on your testimony.”

While most of us will never grace a football field, we too face the challenge of how to live out our faith in the public square.  In our postmodern, post-Christian, post-everything world, religion has begun to be seen as the source of countless social problems—not the answer to them.  What, then, has become of religion?  According to social analyst Peter Berger, in the last few decades the role of religion has shifted.  Once religion represented a “common universe of meaning”—that is, a system that would unite and inform a society on matters of beauty, truth, and goodness.  But in recent years we’ve moved away from a “common universe of meaning” to seeing religious belief as an “innocuous ‘play area,’” one that that emphasizes private, psychological needs, but has no real bearing on the broader culture.

What happens when Christians begin to believe this?  You and I might find ourselves saying things like:

  • Religion and politics are off-limits in the workplace. Sharing my faith would violate an unspoken social boundary.
  • My faith means a great deal to me, but I can’t expect others to share such convictions. It would be wrong to impose my views on someone else.
  • My coworkers/neighbors/friends already believe in God—so what if they don’t describe their religion in the same ways that I do?
  • No one wants to be a religious “fanatic”—or worse: a hypocrite. Being a Christian doesn’t just mean verbalizing your faith.  It means sharing your faith by living morally and showing love to others.  I don’t need to actively seek ways to tell people about Jesus.

Put negatively, it seems that we’re often motivated more by the fear of man than the fear of God.  When we say, “I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable,” what we’re really saying is “I’m not comfortable making others uncomfortable.”  The difference is subtle, but notice that it’s motivated by self-concern rather than gospel faithfulness.

This pressure existed since the days of the early church.  In Acts 4, we see Jesus’ followers proclaiming the gospel with runaway success, only to be taken into custody:

And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, 2 greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3 And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. 4 But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. (Acts 4:1-4)

Given the already threadbare social fabric, it’s partially understandable that the religious leaders would react this way.  Judaism, you might recall, was barely tolerated by Rome.  Jesus’ arrival disrupted the uneasy peace that existed. Now that Jesus had been publicly executed—and his followers scandalized—both Roman and Jewish leadership presumed their problems solved.  So when Jesus’ followers began preaching about Jesus and the resurrection, the Jewish leaders naturally feared that this message would generate conflict between the Jews and the Roman establishment.

On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem,  with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. And when they had set them in the 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 being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:5-12)

The Sanhedrin was a group of Jewish leaders who met in the temple courts to preside over matters of Jewish ceremony and custom.

We should note that these were the same men who tried Jesus and had him turned over to the Romans for execution.  So Peter may have had extra reason for caution in speaking before this governing body.  The Sanhedrin would surely have noticed the ripple effects of several thousand people choosing to follow the same man they had killed.  Earlier, when Jesus was on trial, Peter had denied any association with Jesus.  Now, he minces no words in claiming Christ as the exclusive means of salvation (v. 12).

13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. 14 But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15 But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another,16 saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17 But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” 18 So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” 21 And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened. 22 For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old. (Acts 4:13-22)

Notice that the Sanhedrin is impressed that such a movement could be started by “unlearned” men such as Peter and John.  Fishermen were by no means blue-collar workers in that day, but entrepreneurs.  Still, they would not have been regarded as having the same level of intellectual sophistication as the Sanhedrin.

So the Jewish authorities seem perplexed.  The message is challenging—but it came from an unlikely source. Still, they found themselves threatened by this movement—partly because it would shift power away from the localized center (i.e., the Temple) and also because it further rend the already threadbare social fabric.

On the one hand, the authorities could find no legal prohibition—nothing to explicitly punish them for.  Still, they threatened the apostles not to proclaim their message.  In a very real sense, this is the same thing we hear today: “Your message is good for you—just keep it to yourself.”

Religion will invariably lead to division.  Yet our culture assumes that when religion is privatized, this division disappears.  Not so.

Bounded setTraditionally, our culture has assumed that Christianity draws clear boundaries in which the “good” people are in and the “bad” are out—and that this boundary is primarily drawn on the basis of sexual ethics.

The postmodern world has rebelled against all such absolutes, but only to the point of moral collapse.  In recent years, Harvey Docx penned an essay in which he writes:

“by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended. … If we de-privilege all positions, we can assert no position, we cannot therefore participate in society or the collective and so, in effect, an aggressive postmodernism becomes, in the real world, indistinguishable from an odd species of inert conservatism.”

Do you understand what he means?  “Inert conservatism” means we haven’t changed the nature of the bounded system—only its categories.  Now the “open-minded” people are in, and the “closed-minded” people are out (!).  This, Docx is saying, is just replacing one form of religious fundamentalism for another.

Centered-SetThe gospel provides another way.  Jesus promised that when He is exalted, He “will draw all men to Himself.”  The task of Christianity is to exalt Christ—in our neighborhoods, in our workplace—and allow the gospel to draw men and women closer to Him.  This “centered set” replaces traditional forms of thinking, and in some ways is quite messier.  But it reminds us of our task in helping those who are far to be brought near through the blood of Christ.  Next week we’ll explore further as we examine the way the gospel motivates us in sharing our faith.

 

 

 

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