28th April 2019
Acts chapter 5 verses 27 – 32
John chapter 20 verses 19 – 32
Maggie Cogan - Reader
How many of us like surprises in our lives! I’m still waiting for my surprise date with a certain person – and with the odd reminder - it’s not happened yet, but I’m waiting!!!! But not all surprises are necessarily good but some can have an extraordinary effect on our lives. Being surprised at finding God and faith when one has not even considered it in the first place can bring about a dramatic change in one’s life. As I said during our Songs of Praise, a chance encounter with the Rev Sally Fogden, changed my life forever and when I was at the Cathedral last September, I had the opportunity to thank her. She was quite surprised that I had remembered that moment all those years ago
How many times in your life have you said something like this? “That could never happen. It’s impossible such a surprise.” “Not in my wildest dreams can I imagine that ever coming true.” What a surprise that could be - that element of surprise
I suspect we’ve all said those kind of things in one form or another. We’ve all bumped up against the impossible in our lives. And we all live with our own version of what is and what isn’t possible. Most of the time we live our life based on what we consider to be possible. We consider the range of possibilities and surprises and then we make a decision, choose a direction for our life, take our next step, all within the boundaries of what is surprising. But what if life is bigger than that? What if the impossible can be made real? What if the impossible really does happen? What if the impossible is possible?
It is appropriate that in this second Sunday of Easter—the week immediately following the glorious celebration of the resurrected Christ—the New Testament reading contains an amazing story of the apostle’s courage and boldness in the face of opposition. Acts 5:27-32 beautifully displays the fearlessness the Holy Spirit bestows upon us when we are living in the resurrection of Christ.
They had Peter and the other disciple with him arrested and brought before the temple council. However, due to the large number of new believers, the council is unsure how to punish them without starting a riot. So, basically, they tell them to stop preaching and teaching and that if they were caught again, they would be in real trouble.
Well, this slap on the wrist did nothing to dampen the resolve of the disciples who promptly went out among the growing crowds of believers and continued to preach, teach and heal. Can we believe that Peter who had denied Jesus three times had now become one of the main disciples telling about God’s love – what a surprise and change of heart that was.
As you can guess, this really upset the Jewish leaders. They had the disciples arrested again and thrown in jail. It was then an angel of the Lord came and led them out of jail and told them to continue preaching to the people in the temple. Now, when the leaders called for the disciples to be tried, they were informed that not only were they not in the jail, but that they were back in the temple preaching. This is where our passage begins.
Let’s remember that this is the third time the disciples have been arrested inside of roughly 2 days. They have been warned in the strongest sense not to preach and teach Christ’s message. They have been warned that if they continue to do so, they may find themselves in very serious trouble, including death.
Yet, they continued to preach. They continued to teach. They continued to share Christ’s love and compassion for each of his children as they encountered them. They completely failed to follow the order of the High Priests of the Temple. This would be like us failing to follow the law. I am not talking about getting a speeding ticket. They would be considered to have committed a felony in today’s laws.
They are even accused of attempting to have Christ’s death blamed on the chief priests of the temple. This would be like accusing a solicitor or barrister. Not something to be taken lightly.
With all this, what do the disciples say? Basically, “Sorry, but we don’t answer to you. We follow God’s instructions, not yours.” Can you picture the look on the faces of the priests? They are not used to being talked back to. Usually, what they say goes.
But here are these disciples; these people who have failed to heed their first warning, who have escaped from jail with the door locked and the guards still in place, who have repeatedly shown these elite leaders little or no respect, standing in front of them again and telling them to their faces, go take a long walk off a short pier.
The disciples slap down on the table the authority with which they have continued to ignore the priest’s warnings.
Verse 32 “And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him."
There it is. There is the authority; there is the sanction to stand up to those who believe they know better than anyone else, better than even God himself.
Recently in this country, “civil disobedience” has become somewhat of a trend. Our ingrained spirits of independence and individualism cause us to have a desire to “stick it to the man;” even better when we can do so in the name of Christ.
It seems that everybody wants to be a Dietrich Bonhoeffer or a Martin Luther King, Jr.—up unto a point, at least. When it comes to actually losing our livelihood or costing a life, people quickly tend to keep quiet. The “martyr complex” is a lot less glamorous for actual martyrs.
What Peter and the other disciples were doing was not a harmless or innocent thumb-nosing of the Jewish ruling council. The disciples were literally risking their lives by refusing to remain silent about Jesus. The persecution they were facing was real and imminent. As we see in the very next verse following this passage, “the high council was furious and decided to kill them” (Acts 5:33). The apostles understood the risks and had counted the cost; the fears of consequences they could face in this world diminished in comparison to the power and might that the Holy Spirit gave them. They knew that death was not the end since Christ had overcome it and provided a way for our salvation and resurrection. This was the moment they had prayed for in Acts 4:29: “And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness.” So they loudly proclaimed in the face of persecution, “We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard!” (Acts 4:20) Ultimately, they knew that they must obey God rather than any human authority.
Particularly in this political season, we are so easily tempted to put our trust in human authority rather obeying God. That human authority may come in the cloak of fear: “You have to protect your rights! We are being persecuted!” That human authority may falsely look like the answer to all of our problems and the potential saviour of our country or world. Or maybe we are tempted to obey those nagging questions that haunt our thoughts: “But what would people think?” “How can I best protect my interests?” “What can I do to get ahead?”
What are those earthly things or human authorities that demand our allegiance and call out for our obedience? In what ways have we let fear direct our path rather than praying for the courage that comes through the power of the Holy Spirit? This Easter season, in what ways might God be calling us to be bolder for the sake of God’s Kingdom?
It’s ironic that the Jewish rulers and priests accused the apostles of trying “to bring this man’s blood on us.” Because, in a sense, that was exactly what Peter and the other apostles were hoping to do: they were trying to make people understand that it is by the sacrificial blood of Jesus we are saved. These religious leaders were so caught up in obeying the purification rites and ritual sacrifices of Jewish law that they had completely missed the fact that Jesus had become both our High Priest and sacrificial lamb: Hebrews ch 7:27 says “Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself”. Even while under interrogation, the apostles did everything they could to win the Jewish leadership over to the Way of Christ. They were “witnesses to these things” even in the face of persecution. They were profoundly compelled to do everything in their power to draw people into the Kingdom of God–even their oppressors and persecutors! Their witness was that Christ had risen indeed, and they were not afraid to tell the world.
Ultimately, they did become “witnesses” for Christ in a final sense: the Greek word for “witness” is more accurately translated as “martyr.” Most of the original apostles were killed for preaching the gospel of Christ to the nations. They were truly witnesses even to the end.
So on this Sunday after Easter, may we be filled with that same courage and boldness that the Holy Spirit had given the disciples. May we not remain silent anymore, but loudly proclaim the victory that Christ has over death. May we experience the awesome power of our resurrected Lord. May we have the trust to obey God rather than any human authority. May our joy be so great and our hearts be so full that they cannot be contained as we declare all that the Lord has done for us.
Peter has been surprised by God for so long he’s learned a lesson---- and sometimes the unexpected work of God in our lives leads us to even surprise ourselves. Have we surprised ourselves by acting in faith rather than fear---- and God leads us to lean on his unseen potential for surprise rather than to obey the expectations of this world.