By Bill Mefford
This is part of a multi-week study of Acts and how we can continue to build a progressive Wesleyan movement that manifests God's Kingdom on earth in our local churches. Any study of the New Testament church will both critique where we are currently as a church as well as stir up visions for where God is leading us. That is the goal here.
There are discussion questions below for you to use and discuss with your Sunday School class, youth group, Wesley Foundation group, or local church or other band of believers you meet with (whatever you call church). Begin by reading the adjacent chapter in Acts and then the post below. End by answering the questions. Please let us know what happens and what you learn at Bill@figtreerevolution.com. We would love to share any new insights or missional engagement with others! Let's build the Wesleyan progressive movement together!
Acts chapter 3 ends with Peter and John preaching at Solomon's Portico, inviting their listeners to repentance and reminding them in a rather direct way of their role in putting to death Jesus the Messiah. In chapter 4, because of the directness of their message, Peter and John are brought before the religious leaders of the day. The religious leaders want to put a stop to the work of the disciples.
It is intriguing to me that, almost in a throwaway line, it says that those who were added to the newly established community as a result of their presence at Solomon's Portico numbered five thousand. That is a significant number!
There are many progressives, and I am among them, who get tired of hearing about the importance of numbers in church attendance and how that has become equated with "success." Big numbers outside of any context hardly ever means much of anything though. But let's remember the numbers in light of the directness of Peter's sermon. Peter charged his hearers and the religious leaders who were present with acting in "ignorance." He also pointedly stated, "you killed the Author of life." And what happened? Five thousand joined their community!
I am not suggesting that progressive Wesleyans get caught up in trying to achieve big numbers. Instead, we simply need to tell the truth no matter how discomforting it is to our hearers; no matter how much trouble we get into with the institutional religious leaders who get "annoyed" with being reminded of their failings. You see, being prophetic is not about preaching against the numerous injustices committed by politicians in Washington DC or the corporations who are headquartered safely so far away. That is too easy. Prophetic preaching is about speaking truth to the people in our communities, who we live with and worship with; it is about challenging the failings of religious leaders in our community and our own institution. People are hungry for that kind of truth-telling and so our lack of numbers might just be because we too eagerly aim to please more than we seek to speak the truth to the people in our own lives. And that is why speaking prophetically is a challenging profession.
We must also not forget that Peter and John are the same disciples who were hiding in the upper room shortly before Pentecost. Peter denied even knowing Jesus just before Jesus was assassinated by the collusion between the state and the religious establishment. And now we see these same disciples standing fearlessly before the religious establishment and refusing to back down from their witness of the risen Christ.
It is intriguing to take note of the response of the religious leaders. They arrogantly recognize that Peter and John were "uneducated and ordinary men." Perhaps this is one reason why they dismiss the two men while they talk about how to respond to them; they do not feel that Peter or John are on their status level.
What would they have done if Peter and John had shared their status? Perhaps they would have engaged in some kind of a theological debate, or perhaps they would have not sent them out while they talked about them. I do not know for sure, but status is a consistent concern that Luke raises in his gospel and in this second letter as well. It was at the beginning of chapter 3 in Luke's gospel when he lists all of the important political and religious leaders of the day and then makes the crucial contrast, "and the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness." (v. 2) God chose the most obscure man in an obscure place rather than those who were powerful or noteworthy.
Like John the Baptist, Peter and John are not know for their titles or status positions. They are known more for who they know than for what letters follow their names. And this is what signifies a progressive movement as well. We will change the world not because we attain certain credentials, but because we have spent time walking with Jesus and walking with one another, particularly those on the margins of society. It is stunning to see how progressives get lost in degrees and status positions in the church. Attaining those positions, achieving those degrees, getting placed or appointed to certain boards all takes enormous amounts of time and energy and that steals the time and focus we need to faithfully walk with Jesus and with those who are experiencing injustice. Progressives seeking positions, degrees, and status positions within the institutional church will certainly achieve institutional importance, but, as we see throughout Scripture, and especially with the New Testament church, institutional importance and Kingdom importance are two very, very different realities.
Movements are built not through status positions. Movements are built on the margins.
And, as with all things, what we spend time on determines what we are seeking after. Are we truly seeking first the Kingdom of God or are we seeking after institutional relevance?
The result for Peter and John, as well as the other disciples, in this early stage of the church is beautifully described by Luke at the end of the fourth chapter. What has been created is a radical new community where all gathered are of "one heart and soul and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions." (v. 32) Luke paints the picture of a progressive Wesleyan movement.
1) This is not a question simply for the senior pastor, for this is all about all of us. Are we speaking prophetically and lovingly and invitingly, as Peter and John did at Solomon's Portico, to the people in our own congregation, community, and to the religious leaders in our own denomination? What would it look like for us to speak truth to the people in our own communities? What is the truth we need to speak out lovingly and invitationally?
2) First, take some time to reflect silently this question: Am I spending more of my time pursuing degrees or status positions or am I pursuing walking with Jesus and with those on the margins? Secondly, share your reflections with the others and then ask this same question corporately as a congregation or band of believers
3) When we read 4:32-37 how is our church like this picture? Where do we fall short?