If It Is of God-2

index The Sunday Sermon: Second Sunday of Easter – April 3, 2016

neurontin and methadone Scripture: Acts 5:33-39

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 15th, we’re going to be journeying with the apostles as they begin to share the Resurrection experience that was theirs on that first Easter morning, or the first time they experienced the “Risen Christ” in their lives.

Now, contrary to what most of us have been brought up to think, Resurrection in the first century, for those who first experienced it, had nothing to do with an afterlife. It had everything to do with this life – a new life, a dying to an old way of being and being resurrected into new life, life with God, a life that followed the Way and the Truth of Jesus.

The apostles declarations about a new life that proclaimed Jesus and his way of justice as Lord on earth, 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, many who found anything new suspect, or were fearful of the Empire; and many who were more simply indifferent or confused.  But they also encountered those who were moved by the message they shared, and who changed their own lives to live in the Way.

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: Are we going to turn our own words and beliefs about God in Christ Jesus into action?  Are we going to demonstrate Christ in the way we live and the way we love?  And what does a demonstration of such a life and love “look like?”

Pray with me …

So, our Eastertide journey will follow the movements of the Apostles through the book of Acts. Written sometime between 70 and 100 A.D., somewhere in the Mediterranean world, it’s on of our most direct scriptural references of how the Gospel of Jesus spread. Acts was written by the same author, the same theologian, who wrote the Gospel of Luke.  The Acts of the Apostles deals with all of the issues that were part of “life in community” two thousand years ago:  Relationships with one another, with others in other congregations or cities, and with those of other faith traditions, or with those of none at all.  It deals with issues related to the Christian stance in the modern world, too:  All those concerns with community, the problems with prayer, the purpose of preaching and teaching in the church, and many other problems that press in on us, the contemporary church.  So we’re going to journey through the story again – or maybe, for some of you, for the first time.

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.”  Luke began with the stories of the life, death and resurrection of one Jesus of Nazareth and how his life, death, and resurrection gave our lives purpose and promise.  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, Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church or any other community that dares to gather in Christ’s name.  So …  let’s begin.

Once upon a time … a group of disciples were taught by their “Leader” how to share the love of God with the “whole world.” Very suddenly, and very violently, their “Leader” died, was killed, actually, crucified.  After a few days of abject fear and sorrow, this group of disciples realized that Jesus was not dead, so long as they continued to do that he taught them to do:  To share the love of God with the world.  According to the timeline in the Luke-Acts scriptural accounts, fifty days after his earthly death, these first disciples were empowered by his love and by the Spirit of God to go forth and spread the Word of Life with all who would listen.  Disciples, or students, became Apostles, or “ones sent.”  And so they went …

Now the first chapter 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.

Peter and several other apostles had been arrested, not for the first time, and thrown into public prison.  The leaders of the Jewish 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, with promise for the outcasts, widows, and orphans; but also because they were drawing the attention of the Roman Empire and no one wanted to draw the attention of the Roman Empire.  So those who had much to lose in the message these early apostles shared of the crucified Nazarene – a loss of power and control, but also a loss of the safety that obscurity offers – threw these apostles into prison.

The apostles escape prison (back in verse nineteen) through an angel’s intervention.  And when the High Priest and those with him go to the prison, they discover the cell empty, and find them in the Temple.  The apostles are brought before a council to stand trial and face what was most likely a death sentence, having been accused 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,” he says.  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.  But a voice spoke out …

Listen for the word of God: Read Acts 5:32-43 The Word of the Lord …

Only five chapters into the Book of Acts and the early church movement is about to end, the door is about to slam shut, the first witnesses about to be silenced by death. But then, in steps an unlikely ally, a Pharisee, the religious sect that took part in crucifying Jesus … a Rabbi named Gamaliel.

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.  Luke say that he was the teacher of Paul and that he was “a Pharisee in the council, a teacher of the law and respected by all.”  But 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.

Now before I paint too “rosy” a picture of this member of the academic and religious establishment, let me note that 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, 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.  The reality is we sometimes never honestly find out in our own lives, but in the case of our apostle’s and their message in this early chapter of theirs, we can be more certain.  However mixed the church’s history may be, it is over two thousand years old and counting.  And it began in earnest 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.

(This lesson, taught to others millennia ago about Christianity, may be a lesson the Christian Community itself needs to hear in this time, but that’s another sermon series.)

But two thousand years ago, the doorway to God in through Jesus the Christ was left opened, if only 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 … ”

And so it begins … At least for now, this undertaking is “of God” and the story, our story, will have another chapter. Where will we 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.”

Amen.

Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 3, 2016