I first encountered Scott and Gabby Dannemiller through their website. They were serving as Young Adult Volunteers in Guatemala, where I had served myself a few years before. Scott and Gabby knew how to put together a great website, with compelling, funny stories and beautiful photography, testifying to the joys and challenges of living out God’s call. Scott was also a songwriter and singer, and when they returned from Guatemala, he recorded a CD of original songs, and the two of the traveled all over the country performing at churches and raising money they sent back to ministries in Guatemala.
It was extremely impressive. But I must confess that my reaction was mixed. I was in awe of their creativity and excellent work, but I’m ashamed to admit that another part of me thought them a little too bold. “Who do they think they are?” I thought to myself. As if they were somehow arrogant for trusting they had a testimony to give and using their considerable talents to share it as widely as possible!
Later on, when I actually met Scott and Gabby, who turned out to be fairly ordinary people, young adults trying to find their way in a complicated world. I did a little self-reflection and recognized how the way they lived out their faith challenged mine. In their boldness, I saw a confidence in God that I realized I lacked. I had felt called to do something significant, as they were doing, after my own time in Guatemala, but beset by insecurities, I felt had I backed off of those dreams.
Ah, envy. I’ve come to realize that it is a quite useful feeling, meant to help us become aware of ways we can make changes and grow in faith. And so I took my envy as a sign that it was time to learn what Scott and Gabby seemed to be living out.
Today’s scripture from Acts—in fact, the whole of Chapter 4—would have been a good text to study. Last week, we heard the story of Peter and John, standing before the high priests and elders at the temple, in the very place that Jesus had been tried and falsely convicted, testifying to Christ’s power to heal a man. Ordered not to speak or teach in Jesus’ name, they refused, saying, “You judge whether we should listen to you or to God; we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” In spite of this retort to the authorities, they were released, because so many people celebrated the miraculous healing. But as they walk away, I think Peter and John began to recognize that they would not always get off so easy. They began to understand the risks of ministering in Jesus’ name; finding themselves confronting the powers-that-be, they began to see that allowing Christ to live fully in them might actually lead them to their deaths. Are they a little bit shaken by this awareness?
At any rate, they pull back and return to their faith community. As we continue reading Acts, I want us to attend to this rhythm of public engagement and withdrawal back to worshipping community, which scholars have noted is a pattern in Luke and Acts. It is important for us to learn and practice a similar rhythm of action and reflection. We are called to act and speak in Jesus’ name in all parts of our lives, but we cannot continue to do so with integrity if we do not regularly pull back to a supportive community, receiving God’s care through our fellow believers and finding renewed conviction.
And we cannot speak about God to others if we are not also making space to listen as God speaks to us. One way we honor this rhythm is by gathering in this space for Sunday worship, after full and busy weeks of engagement. Praising and praying, confessing our failures,receiving forgiveness, witnessing to the Word: what we do here is meant to rejuvenate us and send us forth again to publicly proclaim Christ in our words and deeds.
And that’s exactly what happens when Peter and John return to their community. Their fellow believers listen to their story, hearing all the implications for their own lives, and together they raise their voices in prayer.
Now, let’s recognize that their response isn’t necessarily the most self-evident in an hour of danger. They could have gotten angry at the Sanhedrin and started forming plans to bring down their opposition. They could have fled quickly out of Jerusalem to save themselves. Or they just could have done as the Sanhedrin commanded, to stop speaking and acting in Jesus’ name.
But what do they do instead? They pray.
And what do they pray for? Do they pray for God to smite the Sanhedrin or the Romans? Do they pray for God to clear away all opposition? No—accepting the reality of these threats, they pray for boldness to speak and heal in Jesus’ name, to do more and more of the very thing that got them arrested.[i]
It’s astonishing, really, and possible because the Holy Spirit is in their midst, inspiring them to see beyond the implications of the moment, to see a deeper reality, the vast and hopeful culmination of God’s purpose, presence, and power in Jesus Christ. That’s the reality they enter in their prayer, as they turn to the Sovereign God, the One they trust is continually creating and sustaining all things in heaven, earth, and sea; as they remember the faith of their ancestors, embodied by David, whose words in Psalm 2 named the truth of the opposition they are now experiencing, that even those who oppose God’s purposes turn out to be used by God to fulfill those purposes!
It is a reality they experienced in relationship with Jesus the Christ, whose entire life, death and resurrection not only demonstrated the depth of the world’s opposition to God’s purposes and the suffering that comes upon those living God’s ways in that world, but also the ultimate triumph of mercy, grace, and love over the ways of sin and violence. Because of Jesus, they are ready to stake their lives on the deeper reality of God’s kingdom.
Only after they have voiced these convictions together do they petition God, honestly acknowledging their need in the face of such opposition. I like how William Barclay puts it: “They did not pretend that they could face this in their own strength; they took it to God. In the hour of trial they turned from time and stretched to eternity; when their own strength failed they turned to a power that was not their own.”[ii]
And what a sign they receive in response to their prayer! The place in which they were gathered together was shaken. The ancient preacher Chrysostom suggests that God did this to reveal that their prayers had been heard and “to make it more fearsome and to lead them to courage.”[iii]
It’s a confirmation of their assertion that God is truly sovereign over all; both fearsome and inspiring, because who can stand against the One who has the power to shake the earth at its foundations? So this awesome sign empowers and emboldens the apostles: “‘The place was shaken,’ and that made them all the more unshaken.”[iv]
My friends, if we truly believe that God holds the whole world in his hands, we can be bold, for there is nothing to fear from any human opposition. The same One who can make the earth tremble has a purpose and a call for us in Jesus Christ, and when we pray for boldness to follow that call, God will make a way where it seemed there was no way.
What I learned from Scott and Gabby is what I learn from the praying community in Acts. Right now, I’d like to share with you the song Scott Dannemiller wrote when he and Gabby decided to go to Guatemala, called “What Would You Do?” You received the lyrics to this song with your bulletin this morning. (Play music.)
“Lord, grant us wisdom to discern and the intellect to learn
that courage is just faith on top of fear, so we can do your will right here.”
This is a prayer for boldness, isn’t it? Scott says elsewhere that “fear is just something God gives us to let us know what we’re doing is significant.” Laying our faith on top of our fear is to trust not only that God has a significant purpose for us, but that when we ask for it, God will give us the boldness we need to carry out that purpose.
Therefore, let us take seriously the question in Scott’s song: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” What are you called to do that right now seems exceedingly bold? In what areas do we as a congregation need to pray for boldness?
Friends, the life of faith in Jesus Christ is full of risks. We will run us up against enormous opposition. Sometimes we will run up against the powers-that-be, as we seek to minister in Jesus’ name. But sometimes the opposition will simply be our own fears and anxieties. “Who do we think we are?”
Friends, when we find ourselves asking that question, it’s time to return to this community, to return to the Bible, to return to the witness of God in Jesus Christ, to remember that we are the servants of the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and to trust the Holy Spirit will always ignite the courage we need to act in God’s will and walk in Christ’s ways.
(by the way, Scott is now blogging at The Accidental Missionary. Check it out!)
[ii] William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955, 38-40.
[iii] Chrysostom, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Acts. Edited by Francis Martin, Gen. Ed. Thomas C. Oden. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 54.
[iv] Chrysostom as above, 54.