The Sunday Sermon: Second Sunday of Easter – April 8, 2018
Scripture: Acts 5:33-39
If it Is of God
The second Sunday of Easter, Eastertide, and our journey shifts in the rhythm of the church year. With Easter behind us, we journey now toward Pentecost, May twentieth this year. We journey with the apostles through the Book of Acts as they begin to share the Christ experience that was theirs on that first Easter morning.
Their declarations turned very quickly to demonstrations as they began to teach and preach at the Temple in Jerusalem and as they moved beyond that city. They came up against many who were opposed to their message, who were fearful, enraged, confused, and/or indifferent. They also encountered those who were moved, even to conversion, because of the message they shared.
We will follow these first century apostles and the formation of the early church the next six weeks and try to figure out where righteousness, justice, mercy, and humility “fit in” in the ancient world and in our own. These after all are the ingredients we found that will keep the waters from rising again, from flooding and drowning out the men and women, young and old, we were created to be. Are we going to turn our own words and beliefs about God in Christ Jesus into action? Are we going to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly in the way we live and the way we love? And what might a demonstration of such a life and love “look like,” in our privately and in the public sphere?
Pray with me …
So, why the book of Acts? Why look here? The Acts of the Apostles deals with issues that were part of life in a faith community 2000 years ago: Relationships with one another, with others in other congregations or cities, with those of other faith traditions or none at all, and with the world in which it began and grew. All those concerns with community are explored through problems with prayer, the purpose of preaching and teaching in the church, the role of the church (or any faith community) in the larger body politic, and many other problems that still press in on the contemporary church.
But we’re also engaging these scripture lessons in Acts because as we read these verses we realize immediately that we are reading a story – an ongoing story, an “open-ended” story because it continues today in our own church. The church began over 2000 years ago and it continues today as a “story formed community,” an imaginative construction which resulted from, and still comes out of, the acts of imagination we call stories. It began with the stories of the life, death and resurrection of one Jesus of Nazareth and how his life, death, and resurrection made sense out of the rest of our lives. We are all still trying to make sense out of our world and out of our lives, trying to remember our beginnings, our plots, our styles and, of course, our conclusions. As we listen to the stories in the book of Acts we find our own story, as a community called the church, specifically Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church. So … let’s begin.
Once upon a time … a group of disciples were commissioned by their “Leader” to share the love and justice of God they had received from him with the “whole world.” According to our scriptural accounts, fifty days after his earthly death, they were empowered by his love and by the Spirit of God to go forth and make disciples in all nations. And so they did …
We’ll be returning to that day of “empowerment” on Pentecost Sunday, but we start our journey with the apostles this Eastertide a few days after it. The first story in our new journey begins and ends in Jerusalem. This morning we read the end of the encounter, actually, in the final verses of chapter five of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. We’ll fill in some of the back story in a moment, but first, listen for the word of God:
Read Acts 5:32-39. The Word of the Lord … Thanks be to God.
As I mentioned a moment ago, we’ve read the end of a story that began about 20 verses earlier. Peter and several other apostles had been arrested, not for the first time, and thrown into public prison. The leaders of the religious authority in Jerusalem are upset with them in part because they are finding such favor with the “people” who were attracted to their message, a message of justice for the poor and marginalized, and mercy for the outcasts and refugees. Poverty and immigration, still hot-button topics in our day. There are many in power who have much to lose in this message the crucified Nazarene taught to his followers who are now teaching to the masses. Their anxiety over not having enough for themselves and their fear of the stranger lead them to throw the apostles into prison.
These apostles escape prison back in verse nineteen through an angel’s intervention. This prison escape is a theme that Luke uses regularly to symbolize the futile attempt to keep the redemptive purposes of God locked up by trying to silence God’s messengers. Our first story is a perfect example of that. Human prisons cannot contain God’s promise any more than a tomb could contain Life. So the apostles go back to the Temple to teach.
The high priest and those with him go to the prison to find the prisoners gone. They find them in the Temple and bring them before the council to stand trial and face what was most likely a death sentence, accusing them of bringing Jesus’ blood on them all. Peter immediately makes it clear that they can only do what God, through Jesus, has instructed them to do. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Not your will, but God’s be done. And that’s where we picked up our reading. When the council heard this they were furious and wanted to put them to death.
Only five chapters into our story and the early church movement is about to end, the door is about to slam shut, the first witnesses about to be silenced. The justice and righteousness, mercy and humility of the prophets lived and learned in Jesus of Nazareth while he lived and still experienced after his death seems to be doomed. But then, in steps an unlikely ally, a Pharisee, a member of the religious authority that took part in crucifying Jesus … a Rabbi named Gamaliel.
Now, my guess is that many of us, focused as we are on the apostles, have never really thought too much about this Rabbi in our story. But scholars have. They haven’t figured out much about this Gamaliel other than he was supposedly the teacher of Paul and what Luke mentions in our passage: That he was “a Pharisee in the council, a teacher of the law and respected by all.”
For me, in this opening act of our story, he stands out as the only one of the religious establishment who keeps a level head. So furious is everyone else that they aren’t bothering with Scripture or reason. Their anger and indignation are their only sources of thought. But not Gamaliel. It really isn’t clear what his motive is in his little speech. He certainly seems to be supportive of the apostle’s claim that they must obey God’s will and not human authority. But it may also be true that he’s being disingenuous in his words. He mentions two “false prophets” in his speech, Theudas and Judas, and lumps Jesus in with them, in effect reducing him to their low status. He may actually be expecting the apostle’s to fail in their undertaking, so why bother with them at all. But whatever makes Gamaliel step forward to speak, he saves the apostles from almost certain death.
His own caution to his peers about judging religious claims is highly practical and ought to serve us still today. If anything we claim to do in the name of Jesus and for the love of God is a human enterprise alone, it will collapse in its own time. If people, men and women of the church, boys and girls, are responding to a human leader, however charismatic, or to their own sense of self-worth or comfort, then that church, that congregation is destined to fail as a transformative and life changing community. It may continue to exist for its own purposes, but it cannot be “of God.”
But … if the movement, the claim, the person, and/or the ministry is of God …? Nothing will be able to stop it … or them. How do we know and when can we know? Those are our burning questions and the reality is we sometimes never honestly find out. In the case of our apostle’s and their message this morning, we can be certain. However mixed the church’s history may be, it has continued for over two thousand years and counting. There is something “of God” in this odd community called the church.
By having Gamaliel step forward, defending or belittling the apostles, it doesn’t really matter, Luke is telling others in his day, and in our day, that an effort should be made to think through the claims of these apostles, of the early Christian church, and of the body of Christ called the church today. There is potential here, in this gathering, and we must not seek to silence those who seek God in new ways, but rather allow “truth” to make its own way.
The apostles leave with their lives but not without suffering. They were flogged and ordered not to talk about Jesus anymore. I’m sure we don’t suffer too much for our convictions, for our lives of faith. But we must ask: Is it of God?
As we begin our exploration of the early church and the truth claims made for what is becoming a new faith, the Christian faith, we begin with the same query: Is what we’re doing, is who we are, “of God?” Decide for yourselves who and what else “God” is for you, but know this: God is justice. God is righteousness. God is mercy. God is humility. God is Love.
Are you, are we “of God” in our personal and family lives? Are we “of God” in our social, professional, civic lives? Ask yourself that question in every interaction you engage in this week. Just do it. It won’t be out loud, unless you want to discuss it with your spouse, or your friend, or your colleague. When you act on your own, are you acting justly? When you talk with your children, are you doing so with kindness? When you disagree with your spouse, are you engaging humbly? When you interact with colleagues, are you loving them as you love yourself? Is it of God?!
I mean it. I really want to haunt you this week. Feel me on your shoulder (devil or angel) asking these questions, if you’re not asking them. We’re starting over this Eastertide. Fresh off the boat and we must get it right this time. For if what we do and how we behave is of the same “origin” as it has always been, then it will fail … again. But, if it is of God …? The world will change one person at a time. let it begin with you.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 8, 2018