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Bill Shankly was a very successful manager for Liverpool Football Club. When he took over as manager in December 1959, they had been in the second tier of the Football League for five seasons, when he retired in 1974 they were one of the best teams in Europe and were about to go on to a period of unprecedented dominance. He had a great sense of humour as illustrated in one of his most famous quotes;
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.
It’s a joke of course, but one that makes a point. Professional sport is a serious business. Millions of pounds can hang on the results of some matches, to say nothing of the careers of those involved and the hopes of thousands of supporters. It cannot be described as a game.
The first Christians were fully aware that following Jesus was no game. They had watched as he was crucified, they were facing persecution from the authorities and the incident in yesterday’s passage clearly demonstrated that God himself was serious about his Church. It marks a stark contrast to many of us 21st Century Christians. Church is often seen as an interest or a hobby or even in some cases; a source of entertainment. The stakes could not be higher.
This is another one of Luke’s snapshots. We’ve seen them before (2:42-47, 4:32-35), Luke gives us a summary of all that is going on and will go on to give examples. There are three distinct groups of people mentioned.
First there are the believers. Peter and John had been imprisoned and threatened with further punishment. The believers would have been in no doubt, these were not empty threats. Yet they still met together in one of the most public places – the temple. This is a Church boldly proclaiming Christ. They had prayed:
“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.” (4:29)
I’m not sure that would have been my prayer but it was certainly the right prayer. They recognised the need to publically stand for Jesus. They had also prayed;
“Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (4:30)
God answered that prayer as well with great healings and even people being laid down so that Peter’s shadow would pass over them. We are not told whether anyone was healed through Peter’s shadow but from what we have learned of Luke’s writing, I cannot see him repeating a groundless myth. Perhaps we can learn from the Apostles’ prayer. They prayed for miracles to bring honour to the name of Jesus and God answered.
Luke tells us that the believers were; ‘highly regarded by the people’. We have seen examples of the early Church having unity, integrity, compassion and generosity and these are attractive qualities. It is what we are supposed to be – it’s no wonder then that God hates disunity, deceit and hardheartedness.
Secondly, there were the interested observers. They didn’t dare join the believers but they were interested and spoke well of them. They seem to have realised there was something significant going on but were not quite ready to take the all-important step and trust Christ. There are often people like this around the Church, if you are a believer, why not pray for anyone in this position. If you are an interested observer, why not find out more about the good news of Jesus.
Finally, there are those who are being added to the Church. Praise the Lord! The Church was growing, not because people were joining from other churches but because God was saving men and women. As I write its election day in the UK. I have already voted but to be honest, I didn’t really want to vote for any of them. I think it’s an attitude shared by many. We know that none of the parties have the answer to the problems we face. It isn’t a new government we need – it’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s pray that just as it was in the early Church – God would bring salvation to many in our communities.
We have heard the joyful sound:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Spread the tidings all around:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Bear the news to every land,
Climb the steeps and cross the waves;
Onward!—’tis our Lord’s command;
Jesus saves! Jesus saves! (Priscilla Jane Owens)