Last week, we started a new sermon series called “Big Church.” It’s called Big Church because Church (with a capital C) is a BIG Idea. It’s a BIG movement, and it has been for nearly 2,000 years now.
Start of the Church
A guy named Luke, who was a physician, (he also wrote the book of Luke) interviewed a bunch of people and put together an orderly account. It’s called the book of Acts, which is short for “acts of the apostles.” I say it’s called Acts because it is like a full action-packed movie or novel. One of those you just can’t put down and feels like it’s half as long as it is. It’s in this book, we get the eyewitness accounts of how this whole thing called Church got started.
The Church started with a handful of people who believed Jesus actually rose from the dead. They were eyewitnesses who went out into the streets of Jerusalem one day. While thousands of people were crammed into the city from 12 different regions for a Jewish festival, they began to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Living God and that he had actually been raised from the dead. Luke tells us the church got started on that day. That was opening day and about three thousand people became Christians in that day alone.
The Church was born, and it was born as a movement. There were no buildings, no pews, no hymnals, no liturgy, and no traditions. It was just a group of people that believed something had happened supernaturally right in front of them.
Therefore, the Church began with a simple mission: To go out from their community and spread this good news – that people know that Jesus has risen from the dead, and that people would embrace the teachings of Jesus. The Church was totally outward focused.
The Danger of Turning Inward
But do you know what happened over time? The church got buildings, it organized, (Of course it had to get organized. We’re going to talk about that in a couple of weeks.) and became a hierarchy. When people got in control and realized they could leverage religion to control people and things went kind of crazy. Before long, this outwardly focused movement that was about passion and love and acceptance (hey, we don’t care where you’re from or what you’ve done or what color your skin is, we just want you to know that Jesus is the Son of God and has risen from the dead) began to turn inward.
You know what I’ve learned? Churches make this transition from outward focused to inward focused very, very quickly. Many times, we don’t even know we are doing it. It happens that fast. I’m sure some of you could tell stories about churches you’ve been apart of that were so inwardly focused that they went downhill fast as greed and ‘wanting it my way’ thinking crept in and took over.
First Century Church
Then you read the book of Acts and think many churches don’t look anything like the local church in the first century. In the first century, they loved each other and they shared with each other (as we’re going to see in a few minutes). People from all these different cultures, who happened to be in Jerusalem because it was this special feast, just took care of each other.
The only thing you had to believe… the only thing you had to know… the unifying point was that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and He rose from the dead. That’s it. That’s all you needed to know. If you believe that, you were in. If you don’t believe that, no problem. How can we help you believe it? In the meantime, while you’re making up your mind, what can we do for you, because you’re not our enemy. We’re not against you. We’re just so excited about something we discovered, something we witnessed, we want you to know it. We’re not going to force you to believe something, we just want to share it with you. That was first century Church. (The point wasn’t how you took communion or if you were a member)
When you really look at this first century Church, it was absolutely amazing. In fact, there’s a verse (we’ll look at in a couple of weeks) that says that in Jerusalem, even though there was some tension around Jesus and all that had happened, the Christians in Jerusalem had favor with the people. There was something unusual, unique, remarkable, and attractive about them. Consequently, the Church got BIG quickly.
How a Church Prays
You know, right here in this part of the Church body, we are not immune from the subtle turn to where it’s all about us. One of the ways (and here’s where we’re going today) you know whether or not a church is still on mission (still on track with what God really intended when He launched the Church) is how a church prays. How a church prays indicates whether or not the church has strayed from the mission.
So here’s what we’re going to do today: we are going to read the very first prayer that the early Church ever prayed. But before we look at their prayer I want you to think about the prayers that you pray.
What things do you pray about? (I know what you pray about, and I’m going to tell you. But I want YOU to think about it before I tell you. I know, because we all kind of pray the same stuff.)
Here’s how we pray for the most part. There are exceptions because there are some highs and lows in life, but the average prayer is:
- we pray for our family,
- we pray for ourselves,
- and we pray for a sick person or two, and that’s it.
For the most part, the stuff we pray for does not exercise God’s might. A lot of it is stuff that’s already going to work out.
For example: We pray, please give us a safe trip. (I’m not saying this is a bad prayer. I pray it with my family too.) God doesn’t get all worked up to give a safe trip to vacation.
Think about some of the stuff that fills our prayers. We eat pizza and ask God to magically bless it to our bodies. We ask God to help us have a good day. (He does that every day, we just don’t.)
Now, you should keep praying all that stuff. I’m not saying you shouldn’t. A lot of times I wonder though if God isn’t going, “Ask me something important! I’m God. You keep asking me for stuff that’s going to work out anyway. Try me; test me; give me something BIG.”
But all too often, the thing that all of your prayers and my prayers have in common is that at the center of our prayers is who? Us. In fact, just guessing, if God had answered all of your prayers last year (I mean the ones that you prayed day after day after day) for most of you, the only person that would be better off is you (Every now and then maybe a family member too). But if God answered all your prayers, chances are YOU would be married… YOUR kids would have gotten into better schools… YOU would have a better paying job…
I don’t think you should quit praying any of that. But what my concern is as your pastor, as a Christian, is that our self-centered prayers (when you get them all together) after a while, cause us to start acting like self-centered Christians. All of a sudden, this incredible church goes from an outward thinking church to an inward thinking church. When that happens this just becomes just a church building and we become just church people doing church things. Then we finally just get on each other’s nerves, because we become so self-centered, and we go find ourselves another building that we call a church.
But see, if you’re here, (I know this about you) you want to be a part of something bigger than that. I’m telling you, churches focused on God’s big mission pray BIG prayers. Today I want to challenge you to start praying a little differently. Start praying like the early Christians did.
Before I tell you about the prayer they prayed, I’ve got to tell you what happened first.
Peter and John cause quite a stir
So on day one, three thousand people joined the Church. (A big launch of the Church.) A few days later, Peter and John are going to the temple to take part in the three o’clock prayer service. (The temple is the epicenter of ancient Judaism. Peter and John are Jews, so they’re going there to pray, but now they’re Christians, followers of Jesus, so there’s a little conflict going on.) On the way, they see a guy who hasn’t been able to walk since he was born. 40 years! Since he was crippled, the only thing for him to do is to be a beggar. Every day, friends would carry him to the temple gate where he would sit for hours and hours begging for money. That’s how he survived. Peter and John approach him and he asks them for money. Peter says, we don’t have any money, but I’ll give you what I do have. In the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk. All of a sudden, this guy is miraculously healed.
Feeling excited and so grateful, he doesn’t want to let go of Peter and John. So he follows them into the temple. The temple is full of people who recognize him. Their minds are now absolutely blown. Their like I’ve known this guy since he was a kid. Each day, I see him sitting in the same spot begging for money. And now he’s seriously walking! Suddenly there is a stir in the temple.
Now, it was one thing when Peter was creating havoc out in the streets, but now he’s drawing attention in the temple. So as everyone gathers around to look at this guy walking. Peter, he just can’t help himself, decides to preach a sermon right there in the temple. He didn’t have authority to that but he did anyways. He shared again who Jesus is and how He was raised from the grave.
Luke tells us in the book of Acts that by the end of the message, many of the people who heard it believed it and now the number of believers totaled about five thousand men, not counting the women and children. So, now you have about ten percent of the city of Jerusalem turning their attention toward this new religion – this new belief about Jesus rising from the dead.
Peter and John arrested
The people in charge of the temple, were not happy. They arrest Peter and John and throw them in jail for the night. Word spreads throughout the city. The people that were close to Peter and John had to be a little nervous because it was just 2 months ago that these same group of people had Jesus crucified. The next morning, the religious leaders question Peter and John about how they healed this man.
Peter says, I’m glad you asked, and he launches into another sermon about Jesus being the Son of God and about Jesus rising from the dead. As he concludes his sermon, he says:
10 Let me clearly state to all of you and to all the people of Israel that he was healed by the powerful name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, the man you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. 11 For Jesus is the one referred to in the Scriptures, where it says, ‘The stone that you builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.’ 12 There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”
It’s like, Peter gear down a bit…come on, you still smell like jail. He just got out of jail for saying this kind of stuff. But he can’t stop.
As you can imagine, this really bugged the leaders of the temple. But the problem was, the guy that had been healed came to the meeting, and he’s standing right in front of them. They knew him to. They saw him every day as well. Like everyone else, they knew this was a miracle, and they can’t exactly punish the miracle workers. So, it goes on from there.
13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. 14 But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say.
You know, this is just his second day of standing. It was just the day before that he couldn’t stand or walk. In fact, I bet he didn’t even go to bed that night. He probably just kept walking and walking. I mean come on, how would you feel if you had never been able to walk in your entire life and all of a sudden, when you were not expecting it, you’re miraculously healed?
They say to Peter and John, okay look, we’re going to let you go, but don’t come in here anymore with this kind of ridiculous teaching. Don’t talk about Jesus. Don’t talk about the resurrection, and quit blaming us for crucifying him. Just keep your mouth shut and all will be fine.
Peter looks at them, right fresh out of jail and says, “Okay, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.” And so Peter and John take off through the streets. They find the group—Mary, James, Andrew, and all the other disciples and the people that have become followers—and everybody breathes a sigh of relief because they didn’t know if we would ever see them again.
Fresh out of Jail… They Pray
Then Luke tells us they pray. Now, I’m going to show you the prayer in just a minute, but if we can just imagine, how would you respond at this point? You almost two very important people in your group. You almost lost Peter and John. They spent the night in jail, barely escaped with their lives. So, what are you going to pray for?
What would our response be?
I know how we would pray today. We would pray the kind of prayers we always pray. We would pray for protection. “God, protect us, and bless us, and keep this from us, and cover us with a hedge of protection.”
In fact, I think what we would have said, “Okay, guys, look, here’s what we’ve got to do. First of all, Peter and John, you are not allowed to travel together anymore. We can’t lose both of you. When Peter goes, John, you stay here. Number two: we need to get a fleet of black tricked-out Escalades, and we need to get guys with sunglasses and suits and little wires hanging out of their ears. We need security. You guys are too important. Number three: We’ve got to tone down the rhetoric. Peter, no more talk about resurrection. No more R word. Let’s just lay low and knock off the resurrection talk for a while. John, talk about love. We’ve heard you do a sermon on love; people love love. Peter, do a thing on prayer. You’ve heard all that stuff Jesus taught. Do that thing he did about “blessed are the peace makers.” We never knew what that meant, anyway. Then when this thing blows over, then we can kind of ramp back up with the Jesus and the resurrection thing. So you guys don’t travel together, and we’re going to tone down the rhetoric, okay? Are we good? That’s how we think, isn’t it? Be careful. Be careful.
The Disciples Big Prayer
But are you ready for this? Here’s how they prayed.
24 When they heard this, [“This” being the report of Peter and John] they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.
In other words, God before we ask for anything, we just want to remind you that we know who we’re talking to: Sovereign Lord, nothing is out of your control. Nothing happens without you knowing about it. You made everything.
25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
And now they’re going to quote an Old Testament passage, get this, that predicted that the Messiah would be persecuted and mistreated.
25 “‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one.
And then they bring it into their context, and say that’s exactly what happened right in their lifetime. Remember, this wasn’t written 50 or 100 years after the events. This was written just a couple of months after the events that happened right in the city where they are.
27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.
They believed that none of these events were spiraling out of control, that somehow the sovereign, powerful God oversaw even the crucifixion of their friend. And then they get to their prayer request. So now they’re at the part where we would go gimme, gimme, gimme. That’s where we say – Lord, thank you for the day. Let’s get that out of the way now. Now here’s what I want or think I need. But here’s what they asked for.
They pray for Boldness
29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.
Okay, time out. I’ve just got to say one thing, guys before you finish your prayer. Boldness? You’re asking for boldness? Isn’t boldness what got you into this? Isn’t boldness what landed you guys in jail? Isn’t boldness what has created all the chaos out in the temple and between you and the religious leaders? Isn’t boldness the problem?
Guys, I’m just speaking to you from my twenty-first century perspective—you guys are pretty bold already. I mean, you stepped right out there in the street, Peter, and preached about the resurrection. You know in my town—street preachers, we don’t even pay any attention to them. You actually were a street preacher, and three thousand people responded. I think you’ve got boldness covered. You’re good.
Contrast Prayer Today
Now, let me ask you this question. Have you ever in your life prayed for boldness? Do you remember the last time you prayed for boldness? Is it even in our vocabulary as twenty-first century Christians to ask God to give us boldness to speak his Word, to represent him in the marketplace, in our neighborhood, with our friends and family? I mean, we pray the kind of prayers every once in a while like: God, help her to become a Christian. I’m not going to say anything. I just want you to make her a Christian. But have you ever asked God to enable you to speak with boldness appropriately?
We’re going to talk about this more next week. But for now, I want to be clear, I’m not saying you pray for weirdness—where you go up to someone and quickly say, “Jesus is risen from the dead!” It’s like, check. You did your one shot. That’s just weird and is not what I’m talking about.
They pray for something even more extreme
Do you know why the message of Jesus got to the twenty-first century? It’s because the first century Christians had and prayed for boldness. For the most part, I don’t even think about boldness, yet that was the first thing these guys asked for. Then they asked for something even more extreme. Check this out: They only asked for two things.
30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
So use us. Stretch out your hand and use us to heal and perform miracles. Have you ever asked for that? No, no, I don’t go to one of those kinds of churches.
Do you know why this verse has gotten such a bad rap? I’ll tell you why, and I’m not picking on you, because you may be from one of these kinds of churches. This is weird to us, because we don’t do this. They were asking to be able to go out into the community among people who didn’t believe, and to live their lives in such a way that people who didn’t believe, who were skeptical, who had reasons to be skeptical, would see something in their community, in their neighborhood, in the world where they lived, and go, oh wow, that must have been an act of God.
What if you and I began to pray: God, would you please stretch out your hand and do something through me in my secular community, among my unbelieving friends, among my friends that have been burned by religion and have every reason to not come to church. I can’t convince them with my power. So God, would you be willing to stretch out your hand and do something unusual? Not for my benefit, but for the benefit of those who don’t believe.
The purpose of miracles
Now, this is important, especially if you’re new to Bible. All the miracles weren’t for the sake of the people that the miracles were performed on. In other words, the lame guy that was healed—you know he died later. See, all these people that were healed—they eventually died. The whole point of healing in the New Testament wasn’t just for the sake of the people who were healed. I mean, that was certainly a good day for them; don’t get me wrong. They were happy about it. But the point of the miracles were so people would go, Ah, ah! Tell me more!
The point of this wasn’t some weird, mysterious, spooky, you know, “the pastor laid his hands on somebody in the church and everybody was singing and chanting and all kinds of things, and it’s a miracle.” That’s not the point.
They’re asking to be able to go out into the community and demonstrate the power of God, not for their sake, but for the sake of what God was doing through the Church. To show who God is.
Can you imagine…
Now, let me just ask you. Can you imagine what would happen in our church, if we began to add to our prayers, not subtract? Pray everything you’ve been praying, but begin to add to your prayers. And God, thanks for this day—and you can say, help me have safe trip, get married, get a better job—and would you give me boldness with my friends? I’m afraid to even ask you God, but would you give me boldness so that I would see opportunities and take those opportunities?
And God, would you stretch out your hand and would you do something through me in that would possibly get my friends, who have just written you off and written the church off. Would you do something through me that would get them to possibly give you another look, and give you a second chance? Can you imagine what would happen if we began to pray like the first century believers?
I’ll tell you what will happen; I know this without a doubt. You will see more opportunities to take advantage of because God made you this way. God designed you to see what you’re looking for. When you begin to pray and when I begin to pray, God make me bolder, and God give me opportunities, and God stretch out your hand—you’re going to see things you haven’t seen before. And perhaps God is going to do some things God would not have done otherwise through you.
Here’s how the story wraps up.
31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken [I don’t know what that means. Was it an earthquake, did the building just shake.] And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
Then Luke, who is writing this down, says, oh yeah, and I’ve got to tell you this part.
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.
Suddenly, along with this boldness, there was an outbreak of extreme generosity—not because of a sermon; not because somebody said if you give one, God will give ten. It was just as they became outwardly focused, as they became concerned about their community, as they began to talk about the resurrection, there was an outbreak of generosity.
Here’s the deal. The way you pray and the way I pray is an indication of where our hearts are. The way you pray and the way I pray is an indication of if we are still on track to pursue God’s mission and plan for our community and our friends and our world.
So here’s what I want you to do during this series. I want us to be a church that prays big prayers. I want you to add to your prayer, God make me bolder. God this part kind of freaks me out, but God stretch out your hand, and if you could do something in my life that would cause the people around me to go, “Hey, that’s— “ then God, I’m open because I want to be on mission. I want to be part of the movement. I want to be the Church in my community and in my world.
And you know what I think? I think God is going to answer that prayer for us if we’re willing to take that risk.
So here’s what we’re going to do to close. In a minute, I’m going to have us all stand, and I know this is going to be a bit strange, but we are all going to feel a bit strange together. Remember we’re stronger together, right?
Now, if you’re not a Christian just yet or you’re not buying all of this, you don’t have to read it; you can mumble or don’t say anything at all—you don’t have to. But if you’re a Christian, if you’re a Jesus follower, then you have to play. You do, and here’s why. I’m serious. I don’t want you to miss this.
You are a Christian because the first century Church prayed bold prayers. I’m telling you, your prayers and my prayers would have never gotten the story of Jesus out of the first century, because our prayers are all about “protect me, and help me, and don’t let me skin my knee; in Jesus’ name, amen.” That’s how we pray. We’re just safety conscious. If it was all up to us, I’m afraid we would have never prayed the gospel out of the first century.
But that can change, because listen: You and I are responsible in this generation to hand the church off in good shape to the next generation.
So would you stand, and we’re going to read this together twice. We’re going to read it like it’s a prayer. Are you ready? Here we go.
Enable me to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of Jesus.
Feel a little weird? We’re going to do it one more time. Are you ready?
Enable me to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of Jesus.
That’s our prayer.