In 1887, a new term was coined in the English speaking world – the “underdog”… as opposed to the top dog – who was the dominant person in a situation or hierarchy, the winner, the victor in a fight or contest of wills. The term likely comes from the world of dog fighting, but soon the phrase was applied to politics, games, matches, and life in general.
We have seen the term “underdog” change from describing the outcome of a contest to the expectations for the outcome…. The underdog is the one who is expected to lose. The underdog is the one facing the uphill battle. The underdog is the victim of injustice who starts off at a disadvantage. The underdog doesn’t have the power, the money, the strength, or the system on their side.
And our bible is full of underdogs… people who march into battle with nothing but slingshots to face a giant… people who head into the seats of power as prophets… people who fight with trumpets instead of swords… people who are not afraid of what might happen to their own lives if they speak the truth…
And in our journey through the book of Acts today, we find disciples who by all accounts are NOT the top dogs of society. Their leader has recently been crucified, and yet still they go around working and witnessing and worshipping in his name.
As Zoe read for us, immediately after Peter and John healed the lame man in the temple they began to talk about Jesus and his power… and the powers of this world swoop in. They are not happy, to say the least, and they throw the pair in jail for the night so that they will cease and desist.
The next day, a council comes together… the same sort of council that gathered around Jesus – questioning him and sending him off to be crucified.
Jessica Hagedorn, an American playwright and poet once said: “I’m an underdog person, so I align myself with those who seem to be not considered valuable in polite society.”
That is precisely what Peter and John have done. Not only have they aligned themselves with the name of Jesus, but they have also aligned themselves with a poor, helpless, and up until yesterday – lame and useless man.
But right there on the margins, on the edge of society, is where the Holy Spirit moves. And so even though they were standing in front of the High Priest, the elders, and the legal scribes… even though they knew the danger and the risk… even though they knew the outcome seemed grim – Peter was moved by the Holy Spirit to speak:
“Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead.”
There the man stood. The one who was lame for birth stood there – right next to Peter and John as a living witness of the power of Jesus Christ. It was not a miracle done in the privacy of a home but in the middle of the temple and half of Jerusalem had seen it. The leaders were shocked by the disciples confidence, overwhelmed by the support of the crowds that gathered for these underdogs, and couldn’t figure out how to punish them and enforce their power without making themselves look bad.
Peter and John aligned themselves with the underdog – with the man on the bottom of society’s food chain… and for once that underdog was winning… the crowd was on his side… they were on the right side of justice.
In our society today – there are many people who are pushed around and broken. Last week we talked about the power of prayer and the healing power of God, but God also calls us to simply stand with them.
We are moved by they Holy Spirit to stand with the widow and the orphan. We are moved by the Holy Spirit to not just minister to the poor, but to get to know them and find out why they are poor and work to change that. Our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ takes us to the dark and lonely corners of our community – to people who have no one – in order to reflect the light of God into their lives. We, like Peter and John, are called to pay attention to the underdogs and to stand with them…. even if it means that we put our own selves on the line.
I talked a few weeks ago about how even “the church” has been an agent of oppression and injustice in this world. For a long time, we were on the wrong side of issues of equality for African Americans, justice for native peoples, and the inclusion of women in the pulpit. But throughout our history, there have also been countless people who have said, “no,” to the church and who chose to stand with and for those people until they found a place at the table. I am utterly grateful for those who became underdogs for my sake.
And so today, even if it means that I might get myself in trouble, I cannot ignore my calling to stand with underdogs. Last week, we talked about how Peter and John were led to stop by the side of the road and heal the lame man… and in the same way, the Holy Spirit leads each of us. We all have different issues that are close to our hearts, but whatever they are – we have to act, we have to do something, we have to stand up for the underdog. Maybe it is justice for the immigrant, or support for those fighting cancer, or kids who go hungry every day. Maybe it is with single parents, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who feel excluded from the church. Maybe it is with any parent facing the uphill battle of raising kids today. Whoever it is, wherever they are… if they Holy Spirit calls you to stand with them and for them, go… even if it means that you yourself become an underdog.
H. Jackson Brown, Jr. – the author of “Life’s Little Instruction Book” once wrote: “I never expect to lose. Even when I’m the underdog, I still prepare a victory speech.”
And in the blessed hands of the Holy Spirit, you and I always have a victory speech ready, too.
In our passage from Acts, Peter and John found themselves in front of the high and mighty in the religious leadership and yet the Holy Spirit gave them the words to speak.
As I think more about it – their speech would have been the same whether they were facing commendation or condemnation. They were simply speaking the truth: This man was healed in the name of Jesus Christ who you rejected. Praise be to God!
As much as the council wanted to throw the book at these two – the crowds were not on their side. Even with all of their power, they couldn’t win.
I believe that this passage reminds us that neutrality is not an option. When we choose not to speak or stand with the underdog than we have registered our vote with the top dogs. The only reason that the council lost the power they held was because of the strength of the crowds – because they spoke the truth, because they were willing to put themselves on the line for justice.
When the Holy Spirit calls you to speak, you just might be the voice that tips the scales in the favor of the underdog.
With the crowds turning against them, the council had nothing left to do. They tried to maintain their face and they scolded Peter and John and warned them to not preach in Jesus’ name again.
And Peter and John responded: “We can’t stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
As Christians, our victory speech is the testimony of our hearts about what Jesus Christ has done in our lives. Everytime we tell it, it is good news. Whether we are on the top of the pile or the bottom, it is good news. On good days and on bad days, it is good news.
The musician behind the familiar song “Proud to Be An American,” Lee Greenwood once wrote: It bothers me to know there is the possibility that I as a Christian would be not only an underdog, but that I would be trodden upon if I claimed that I was a Christian.
I have talked a lot this morning about standing with the underdog, but the very fact that we are Christians make us underdogs in this society. We start out at a disadvantage. We will be ridiculed, misunderstood, antagonized, and trampled on. If we’re not… then we are doing something wrong 😉
I actually believe the beauty of the fact that we no longer live in a Christian nation is that we now have the freedom to truly live out our faith. Without the blanket assumption that everyone is a Christian, people can see the difference between someone who claims to follow Jesus and someone who really does it.
Too many of us are afraid to associate with the name of Jesus. We are afraid of being rejected and cast out of our families. We are afraid of offending. We are afraid of finding ourselves in a vulnerable position.
You are not alone. You are in good company. And for far too long, we as Christians have been timid of speaking the truth of our faith. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit might move among us like it did among Peter and John and the disciples and early followers of the way of Christ. My prayer is that we might be challenged to stand with the underdogs, that we might speak the good news in love, and that we might not be afraid to become underdogs ourselves.
Because you know, when the storms are raging and all the powers of this world seem to be against us – that is when Jesus’ power is seen most clearly.
Our children learned this week that with God on our side, we have nothing to be afraid of. The wind and the waters obey him… the devil doesn’t stand a chance… the hungry are fed… the lost are found… the lonely are loved… all because of Jesus Christ.
Maybe the key to this story is the realization that we are not actually underdogs at all… in the grand scheme of things – we know in whom true victory lies. Goodness is stronger than evil, life is stronger than death, light is stronger than darkness. In the big picture – the powers of this world have nothing on the power of Jesus… they are the ones who will lose. They are doomed from the start.
We can no longer despair at the pain and suffering because we know through Jesus Christ that all will be made well.
The question of Jesus keeps coming back to me… Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?
Victory is already ours…. So lets boldly start proclaming the good news.