I am starting to get woke. Are you “woke”? Not awake, but woke. Maybe you’ve heard that word, as it become popular in recent years. I recently read the book Woke Church by Eric Mason, and in the book he describes “woke” as “to utilize the mind of Christ and to be fully awake to the issues of race and injustice in this country.” (25) In society, to be woke is essentially to be socially conscious. It is not a Christian term, but there is much about being woke that is right in line with the mission of God’s Kingdom. For example, in the book Woke Church, Mason quotes a commentator who describes wokeness, and as I read this, I want you to think in your minds how this description of wokeness might have a connection to the mission of God’s Kingdom:
“To me staying woke means making sure you’re tuned in to your community. That you are doing everything that you can to not only educate yourself but to bring someone else along. To ensure that we all have the same information. It’s not enough to be woke on your own; you need to help someone else along to also get woke. Woke is about a state of mind.”
Like I said, I’m starting to get woke. I think I have a long way to go.
Today we’re going to see how the early church gets woke. And maybe their story will help us too.
We have been studying the book of Acts, which tells the story of the first Christians, and how they lived out their faith in Jesus in the world. The outline of the book is established in Acts 1:8 where Jesus gives the disciples their new mission saying, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea & Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
So far in chapters 1-7, we have watched how the church was formed and developed, pursuing that mission, but only to Jews living in the city of Jerusalem. They have not looked outward, and yet Jesus clearly directed them to look outward. As we saw last week through the life and ministry, and sadly also through the death, of Stephen, the church was pushed through that first wall, just like the wall around the city of Jerusalem. When Stephen was killed, we read in Acts 8:3 that a great persecution broke out against the church, led by a guy a named Saul who seems to have been a young, but very aggressive Jewish leader.
For now, open your Bibles to Acts 8 verse 3. If you have been following along with the story of the early church through chapters 1-7, you might get the idea that these very first Christians were living in an ideal situation, led the by apostles who were empowered by the Holy Spirit to do miracles and deliver powerful teaching, and everyone loved one another, and the church just grew and grew uninhibited. That’s just not the case, though.
While there are certainly some wonderful descriptions of that kind of experience in the early church, as we saw last week there is a larger context that is far more ominous. By the time we reach Acts 8, the church is somewhere in the vicinity of 2-3 years old. But by chapter 7, we have seen this relatively young church experience the threat of violence and destruction from the Jewish religious elite in the city of Jerusalem. Twice some or all of the apostles have been arrested and jailed, brought up on trial, and once the religious leaders ordered them flogged, which was a severe beating. Then last week we saw how Stephen, one of the seven deacons listed in Acts 6, was also arrested, falsely accused, and then stoned to death, which sparked the great persecution we read about in Acts 8:1-3, where this guy Saul is hell-bent on destroying the church, which he believed was a cult.
Only the apostles remain in Jerusalem, and the other Christians, fearing for their lives, scatter. How will the Christians handle this? Did some of them give up the faith? Did some think, “This is crazy…my family and I could get killed for this? This is not what I signed up for. I’m out.”? Maybe some did think like that. We don’t know. The author doesn’t say anything like that though. Instead, in this uncertainty, this threat, this great danger, we arrive at Acts 8, verse 4, which says:
“Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”
The author gives us a brief summary statement about how the persecution, instead of destroying them, spread the church beyond Jerusalem, and the Christians preached the word wherever they went. It’s an amazing statement. Though their location changed, though their situation had changed, they made sure their mission remained their mission. Their world was anything but rosy and happy. It was exactly the opposite.
Imagine fleeing for your lives because your faith in Jesus could get you killed or thrown in prison? Think about what they would realistically be like. It would probably be a very quick, anxiety-filled moment of gathering up a few precious belongings you can carry on your back, making sure you have some food and water, and hightailing it out of the city as fast as you can, hoping that the authorities do not see you or your family, or your friends in the church. I imagine people hiding in wagons, covered with tarps, trying to get beyond the walls of the city unseen, maybe under cover of night. This is what many current refugees who flee persecution go through. I imagine people looking out for this guy Saul and his minions, trying to alert people that he was coming. I imagine Christians wondering if their non-Christian neighbors and friends were going to rat them out to Saul. I imagine them wondering if they would have enough money, enough food, and when this crisis would end. Does that last line feel at all familiar? Read it again. See if it sounds familiar.
It would be super easy to give up the faith, to be very quiet about Jesus, not wanting to tip off anyone about the fact that you were part of this group of people who were Jesus-followers. It would be very easy to take the church underground and wait until the fire passed.
But that is not what the Christians did! First of all the apostles stayed in Jerusalem, which amazes me. Think about that. The most visible, well-known people in the church stayed in the place that was the most dangerous for them. Second, the Christians who fled the persecution were not quiet, but preached about Jesus everywhere they went! What we see from the earliest Christians is amazing courage and boldness, flowing from their faith in Christ, even during a crisis. They knew the real God, they knew his heart and they wanted others to be a part of the beautiful mission he was about. That is very instructive for us. Do we know God? Do we know his heart? It is such a part of our lives we can’t help but to show it to others?
Tomorrow we’re going to meet one of those courageous first Christians who had some fascinating encounters as he preached Jesus along the way. Through this man, it seems like the Holy Spirit wants the church to get woke!