The Sunday Sermon: Second Sunday of Easter – April 19, 2020
Scripture: Acts 5:33-39
If It Is of God
Easter never goes away as a way of life for us – we are Easter people every day, but as a Sunday on our calendar, we have moved past it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I imagined we would have moved past all this … isolation stuff once Easter happened. But of course, we haven’t. We were never going to return to “normal” just because Easter Sunday happened, but for some reason I was surprised by that on Monday morning. So …
We return this week to our “simple” and sacred video worship offering for as long as it takes to get through our separation from one another. The weeks after Easter leading up to Pentecost are called “Eastertide” in our church life. Every year at this time, I imagine “setting sail” and traveling toward the next big Sunday in our church year.
So, here’s what we’re going to be doing for the next six weeks during this part of our time together on Sunday morning: As we travel toward Pentecost Sunday on May 31st we’re going to be journeying with the apostles as they begin to share the Christ experience that was theirs on that first Easter morning as they returned from the tomb.
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, indifferent, and confused. They fought among themselves about who could benefit from the salvation they found in Jesus. And, they 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 so that we may make an informed decision for ourselves on Pentecost Sunday this year: We will be able to physically gather together by the time the Holy Spirit arrives “like the rush of a violent wind”? Will it happen earlier? What will we miss if we aren’t able to be together? What will experience with one another no matter where we are or when we are able to gather together in our sanctuary?
Wherever we are, we are on a journey. And we are on it together. Pray with me …
So, I think we’ll be sharing the words of Sunday morning, from welcomes, Calls to Worship, prayers, messages and announcements from outside our sanctuary walls in these weeks. If everyone can’t be in there together, then no one will be as we journey with the first apostles in the first century discovering the first communities gathering in Jesus’ name.
The Acts of the Apostles deals with issues that were part of life in community almost 2000 years ago: Relationships with one another, with others in other communities or cities, and with those of other faith traditions or none at all. And it deals with issues related to the Christian stance in the modern world, too: All those concerns with community, and also problems with prayer, the purpose of preaching and teaching in the church, and many other problems that press in on the contemporary church.
The church 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 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 of all nations. And so they did …
Now the first story in our new journey begins and ends in Jerusalem. This morning we read the end of the story, 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 5:32-43
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 hope for the poor and marginalized, and promise for the outcasts, widows, and orphans.
So jealous and fearful are those who have much to lose in this message the crucified Nazarene taught that they 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 subvert the redemptive purposes of God by trying to silence God’s prophetic word. Our first story is a perfect example of that! Human prisons cannot contain God’s promise any more than a tomb! 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. 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, if we’ve even heard of him at all, 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 is mentioned in our passage: That he was “a Pharisee in the council, a teacher of the law and respected by all.”
He stands out as the only one of the religious establishment in our story 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.
Whatever motives 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, 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, but in the case of our apostle’s and their message we can be certain. However mixed the church’s history may be, we are over two thousand years and counting. And it was given new life, I suggest, with this morning’s scene in a religious court in Jerusalem.
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, and of the early Christian church. Something new has happened. Something new is happening and the established institution, in whatever form it takes – a council of religious leaders in the first century or the traditional church today – should not resort to force to silence those who seek God in new ways, but rather should let truth make its own way.
And so the door is left opened a crack. The apostles leave with their lives. They don’t leave without suffering, they were flogged and ordered not to talk about Jesus anymore, but they were alive. Jesus’ promise from so long ago in Luke was fulfilled: “ … do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour .. ”
At least for now, this undertaking is indeed, “of God” and the story, our story, will have another narrative or two. Where will go from here? Is it too unseemly to say, “come back next week?” Well … do. We will continue our journey, following our friends and meeting new ones – next week a Pharisee on the Road to Damascus. And as we travel, we will understand our own story more deeply that we, too, may find our church and the lives we are called to because of it … “of God.”
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 19, 2020