A Response to Violent Hands

http://kubasok.sk/services/relax-zone The Sunday Sermon: Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 1, 2016

go right here Scripture: Acts 12:1-4, 18-19, 20-24

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http://africanevasion.fr/10300-dtf99356-comment-crée-un-site-de-rencontre.html A Response to Violent Hands

We begin our chapter in the story of the early church after the first Easter experience of the Living Lord and Risen Christ this morning with a prelude. I love it when worlds collide and they are this morning.  We’ve been talking about the clash of the early Christian movement with the Roman Empire in our adult Sunday school study through the mission and ministry of Paul.  This morning we read of it together here in our sanctuary.  First, a bit of “back-story” to that reading.  One that opens with the violence of war … So even before that … Pray with me …

It is 31 B.C.E, more than thirty years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and at least 60 or 70 years before the early church. Having defeated Brutus and Cassius, Julius Caesar’s assassins, about ten years earlier, Antony and Octavian are now facing one another off the northwestern coast of Greece, near Philippi.  Once allies against a common foe, they are now adversary’s battling for singular control of Rome and its territories.  It had become devastatingly obvious during the decades of civil war that preceded this particular encounter that Rome could have a republic or an empire, but it couldn’t have both.

When this battle in the Ionian Sea was over, Octavian, the divine son of the deified Julius Caesar, stood alone as “the first among equals.”   All the other equals, you see, were dead.  The long civil wars were over, internal peace was restored, the Golden Age was at hand.  And Octavian, later named Augustus, had accomplished all this.  He was Lord, Savior, Redeemer, and Liberator.  He was Divine, Son of God, God, and God from God.

Now, these titles were not just what Augustus called himself or ways that he alone understood himself.  These were the titles given to him by all that were part of this new Roman Empire.    Peace had come through military victory and Augustus was the divine agent that ensured continued peace through brutal violence. This was Roman Imperial Theology and it was the glue that held the empire together.[1]

It was into this theology that Jesus of Nazareth was born.  It was in this world that he was raised, on stories of Roman aggression and repression, and in the midst of the Empire’s often used military power and violence.  It was in opposition to this theology that he began his own ministry, teaching that true peace could only come through justice.  It was at the hands of Roman Imperial Theology that he was crucified. And it was from the first disciples choice to “remember” and follow the non-violent God of Jesus that the early church grew and spread.  The story of that early church is the one we have been sharing with each other again this Eastertide.

Our chapter this morning find us on another battlefront.  In our story for this week, the Kingdom of God comes face to face with the Empire of this world.  We wonder, not for the first time, about the future of the movement we have inherited:  How will the church respond? And let us continue our journey …

  Read Acts 12:1-4

“About that time …“  I love this translation.  We’re about halfway through the book of Acts, the apostles have been stirring up trouble for the local Jewish communities and poking the wider Roman Empire with stories of “Christ” Jesus and “Lord and Savior,” title meant for Caesar alone in the early first century, and … “about that time … Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church.”  Literally interpreted, Herod “stretched out his hand to do evil.”  This is what the kings of this world do, Luke is telling us.  This is what those who would rule by violence and through victory do.  They “stretch out their hands” or say a few words or with the stroke of a pen send thousands of innocents to their death or imprison them.  The titles and tactics have changed, but the world of our 21st century empires and tyrants is no different than the first century.  The world’s “civilizations” haven’t yet embraced the radicality of God’s nonviolence.  Violence is their “norm.”

This is one of the earliest tests for our new movement.  Just as Herod the Great and Pilate conspired against Jesus some years earlier, his grandson, Herod Agrippa I, is now raging against Jesus’ followers – killing and arresting and intending grave harm.  Something has got to be done to challenge this brutality.  And the church is getting ready to do it!  In the next verse the church swings into action to use its power against the power of Herod, against the powers of the Empire!  Perhaps the church will finally follow Peter’s lead at the last supper and take up the sword as he did. Luke 22:49-50  Maybe this time the apostles, having become a bit more “worldly wise,” will do more than take off a bit of ear!  Let’s read … (Read Acts 12:5)

I’m not even going to ask how disappointed any of us might be with that verse, that response.  I’m quite sure most of you expected it, but I’m afraid to know how many of us really believe in that response’s effectiveness or worth – prayer.  Even after we witnessed its power in the story of Tabitha two weeks ago, we don’t … well, we’ll leave those concerns for later.

For our purposes this morning we note that the first century apostles, the first followers of the Way, have learned one lesson, at least, from their Lord and they have applied it properly to their life in and with this world.  I know that we hope, more than we’ll ever admit when we’re together in this place, for some more effective political action against the injustices and oppressions of the state, but the “political expediency” that the sword offers is not an option for the disciples of Christ, in any age.  “No more of that!” Jesus himself commanded. Luke 22:51 The power of the church is in the power of prayer, of the community, of peace, not through violence, but through justice.  And so our lives are “prayer,” a living out of that hope and faith.

Now, it is into, and because of, our feeling that this “power of prayer” is an impotent force, whether we want to admit we’re thinking that or not, that Luke writes the next verses. (Take out your pew bibles and read along now – verse six and following in chapter twelve.) Luke makes sure that we all know the extent of the evidence against Peter’s possible escape.  Take a look:  He is bound with two chains, sleeping between two guards, with extra guards in front of the door keeping watch over the prison.  Luke is making it clear to us that Peter’s situation is hopeless. Heaven help him! And, as if on cue … verse 7:  “Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared.”

With about as much elaborate detail as the prison’s security system, Luke narrates the rescue operation:  first the tap to wake Peter up, and then the commands – “get up, get dressed, get going.”  We’ve encountered a similar jailbreak already, do you remember?  In our very first story the apostles were imprisoned to be brought before the council for almost certain death, and during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out and sent them out.  The light, the angelic command, the chains falling away are here again, common “tools” Luke uses to prove that nothing can prevent the movement of God – even the chains and the prisons of Herod.

The next part of our story this morning is almost comical, beginning with verse eleven.  Peter “came to himself” and cant’ believe his rescue himself.  He is incredulous.  He runs to his fellow apostle’s mother’s house that is close by.  The maid that first opens the door at Mary’s house is so amazed and overjoyed that he is free and has come that she runs in to tell all the others without unlocking the gate.  The others call her crazy while Peter is still knocking at the gate and when it is finally opened, everyone is amazed.

Are these the ones we are supposed to emulate? They don’t sound very faithful.  If they were truly full of faith, of trust, in God, why should they be amazed that their prayers were answered?  Of course, in their amazement, we find our own disbelief.

Can we truly believe, trust in, the promises of God in Christ today? Can we embrace the radicality of God’s nonviolence and inclusive love over the normalcy of our world’s, and our own, violence and fear?  Will we, the church today, unlock the doors to receive those who have been freed by the opening of prison doors?  …

Again, these are questions for Pentecost, so we leave them for the time being to continue our tale.

From the horrible murder of James, to the frightening imprisonment of Peter, to his liberation, and the comic scene at Mary’s house, Luke takes us back to Herod’s murderous rage. Someone must be blamed and we all know the “bit players” in this scene.  The guards pay with their lives for nothing of their doing.  Again, such is the pleasure of the kings of the world.  But the actions of the empire are never, ever the last word of our gospel.

(Read 12:20-22)

Herod is God’s “foe,” we’ve made that clear, Luke has made that clear, already. But his fate is sealed with his response to the community’s request for food.  Luke never tells us why Herod was angry with the people or why these people are seeking reconciliation.  Honestly, it’s not important to the story.  Luke uses these verses to show the fate of anyone and everyone who would “put on their royal robes” to be “worshipped and lifted up” higher than God or who would exploit the weak and powerless and force them to submit to the will of the state, which in Rome’s case was the will of the ruler, which in our story’s case, is Herod.  For Luke, for the early apostles, for the early church movement called the Way, and for us today, glory is given to God alone and preferential treatment is given to the poor and the impoverished, in body and in spirit.

The fate of any who would deify themselves and oppress the least among them is swift, pitiless, ruthless, and ugly. (Read 12:23)

It is with this death sentence to the violence and oppression of the Empires of this world that our story this week concludes. In contrast to Herod’s death, God’s speech, the love incarnated in Jesus Christ, continues to explode into the world, multiplying, spreading, overtaking the world once held within the tight fist of the tyrant. (Read 12:24)

So it was in the beginning … is it now? And shall it forever be?

We’re getting close to Pentecost, the birth of the church through the Spirit of God that proceeds from God and Christ. There is within the world and within the church the ongoing struggle between the world’s agenda of violence, victory, and then peace and God’s alternative program of nonviolence, justice, and peace.  We are forced to struggle with these witnesses.  They are both, violence and nonviolence, found within our Christian scripture, in our church’s historical tradition, and deep within ourselves.  We are forced to struggle with both and we are forced to decide between them:  Sword or prayer, selfishness or service, Caesar or Christ.  We may gain strength from the struggles in our past.  And so we re-tell our story and gather together to remember.  The table is set so that “the word of God (may, indeed) continue to advance.” 20:24

Amen.

Reverend Joel A. Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / May 1, 2016

[1]cf.  Crossan, John Dominic and Jonathan L. Reed. In Search of Paul, 2-4.