This passage that we have just heard from the Book of Acts is only a fragment of a much larger story. In it, the apostles are on fire with the Holy Spirit, which had come upon them earlier at Pentecost. They are teaching and healing all over Jerusalem, they are proclaiming the truth of the resurrection, they are bringing faith to life in many, they are easing so much suffering of body, mind, and spirit. The Sanhedrin, the religious council, had told them to stop, probably for a couple of reasons. First, the occupation government of Rome, which had so recently and barbarically put to death the teacher and healer from Nazareth, hadn’t suddenly gotten any more friendly towards the Jewish community, or to spiritual mobilizations among that people (they could so quickly lead to political mobilizations). The Sanhedrin may have felt this to be an especially important time to be laying low. Peter and the other apostles needed to do the whole Jewish community a favor and cut it out. Second, the Sanhedrin may well have been envious of the enormous success that the apostles are having. They, the Council, are the recognized leaders of the religious community. They may well have resented the fact that these upstart guys are suddenly earning a lot of respect, loyalty, and authority within their community.
Our passage for today picks up at the point when Peter and the other apostles are called before the Council to be read the riot act. They say, “you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” In a way that I find truly amusing, Peter uses this attempt at a dressing-down -at censure - as yet another opportunity to preach the good news of the resurrected Christ! You can’t shut this guy up. And yet it’s not funny at all-the very next verse in the Book of Acts after our passage reads: “When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.”
One member of the Council, Gamaliel, will come to the rescue with a plan that lets the Sanhedrin save face. The apostles are brought back not to be killed but “only” flogged extensively. The apostles were told again never to speak the name of Jesus, but nothing can deter them. They left their flogging “rejoicing” that they should suffer for their Lord. Gamaliel’s approach will not win out again, and eventually Peter will be stoned to death. Other apostles will be killed, while some take the Gospel to other regions. Their resurrection witness is very costly indeed.
Fortunately, we who are Christians in this majority-Christian country do not fear violence because of our religious identity, although some members of minority religious communities do. Unfortunately, our relative ease of religious practice and cultural reinforcement can make it very challenging to experience the need to challenge what is around us by testifying to a resurrection faith. We are comfortable here, and we are glad for that, but it presents us with particular obstacles. In principle, we all wish, as Peter said, to “obey God rather than any human authority.” I have seen this lead to dishonesty, self-aggrandizement, and truly unethical, un-Christian behavior. Proclaiming that they are “obeying God” some American Christians have literally placed themselves above the law. If they preach or publish what others call exaggerations or falsehoods it is a good thing, because it is all in the service of advancing Christ’s kingdom. To not advance the kingdom is the bad behavior - it is even sin. If fiscal accounting is fudged, or misrepresentations are advanced, so be it-the ultimate purpose is building up Christ and so the ends justify the means. Of course, they don’t - not in a Christian ethical framework. At the heart of such manipulations is usually an effort to promote one’s own power or interests. We are never obeying God over human authority if we are being dishonest or are self-aggrandizing. This is a problem for Christians anywhere, but I think particularly for those of us with access to some privilege, and who want more.
Apparently, I’m not the only American preacher who reads this passage from Acts and who thinks immediately of cautionary tales of what not to do before thinking of proactive deeds of faith to do. We are, as I’ve said, in such a privileged context. I’ve come across other preachers’ negative examples such as subversive foreign missions. In those countries where Christian missionaries are illegal, Christian business people use their professional visits to evangelize everyone they meet. The American Christians are delighted with themselves for “obeying God rather than human authority;” they come home smugly self-satisfied. Meanwhile, every unsuspecting person they have “evangelized” gets into very big trouble. If there are to be negative consequences for sharing the Gospel, they must only accrue to the one who chooses to do it, otherwise it’s an exercise in self-righteous self-flattery. A positive example in this regard is work that I saw in Nicaragua in the 1980s. The Contra War was still raging; those U.S.-backed Contras had a policy of killing local leaders, trying to prevent municipalities from articulating and implementing any plans for themselves, from having any power, any agency. They would kill mayors, teachers, pastors. They effectively shut down local governments and churches. In answer to the killing of religious workers, individual laypeople or couples would go to the affected parts of the country, sneaking into villages to lead Bible studies. Bible studies. They were called Delegates of the Word. They would teach the Bible. They would teach that no community deserves murders, terror. And when they were caught by Contras, they were killed. The danger was on them, not others. That is in keeping with Peter’s statement that he seeks to obey God, and not human authority. The Delegates of the Word defied the authority of those with guns in order to lift up others, with risk to themselves.
To me, this all begs the question of where the church is, today, most pleasing to God, most courageous, not for its own sake but for those who suffer. Is it congregations in the most dangerous neighborhoods in this country and others who can not be intimidated or made to stop educating kids, providing nutrition, caring for the sick? Where else is the church easing the suffering of body, mind, or spirit, at risk only to itself? For those of us in countries like this one, whose human authority makes room for the full expression of our faith-when and how are we called to hold that authority accountable as we obey our God? Is it in our work for an end to inequities in education and health care? For prisons that restore and rehabilitate? For an end to punitive laws that target the poor and people of color? We are Christ’s body in the world today, we – the church. Thankfully, God keeps resurrecting Christ’s body, resurrecting the church, from our apostasies, from the persecutions we endure and the ones we have caused. God continues to repair and restore us, so that we might try again to serve, to witness to Christ’s resurrection.
To be witnesses, ourselves, to the resurrection is not a passive endeavor, as in witnessing a fender-bender. It means to testify, to make known, what it is we have come to know. With what aspects of our lives might we testify to Christ’s resurrection? I’ve mentioned the kind of work we can do to lift up those around us-all as acts of a living faith. Let us do them! What else? Perhaps in the way we simply honor and respect all people as children of God? Believing that Christ died and rose for all, we may show love to all people whom Christ loved so infinitely. Is that not a resurrection witness?
God has raised Christ from the grave. The tomb is empty. Heaven is opened. God’s love is stronger than any other force in the universe. We, the church, have something to tell the world -“a truth that no one else will tell them.” We are the ones – the only ones - who can testify to this, who can be witnesses to the resurrection. We are all that Christ has. We have a truth that no one else can share with the billions who “hunger for a living expression of…grace.” This divine grace and love is our privilege and gift to share.
Friends, as we move forward through this blessed season of Eastertide and beyond, let us be courageous and selfless in our sharing of the resurrection’s truth. “Ours is a deep truth, which when spoken with love and with conviction has the power to transform burdens and transcend everyday life.” Let us be bold in our truth-telling, that all those around us may be lifted into the life that really is life.
(Quotes in the last 2 paragraphs are from J. Michael Krech’s article on Acts 5:27-32, in D.L. Bartlett & B.B. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2 p. 383)