Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, April 3
Second Sunday of Easter
O God, you raised up Jesus Christ as your faithful witness and the first-born of the dead. By your Holy Spirit, help us to witness to him so that those who have not yet seen
may come to believe in him who is, and was, and is to come. Amen.
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us." But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him."
All Readings For This Sunday
Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150
1. How would you describe the Pharisees?
2. Are we primarily called to protect and preserve past revelation, or to "help realize God's dream for the future"?
3. Have you ever had to face a challenge to your faith, or had to answer for it?
4. What is the good news that you share as a follower of Jesus?
5. How might Gamaliel be a model for us in the church today, when we disagree?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Have you ever known anyone so convinced that she was right that she relished being persecuted for her beliefs and even took it as validation of her position? Well, you might understand then how the high priest and the council must have felt when those pesky followers of Jesus kept turning up and swaying the crowds with their persuasive, passionate speech. Imprisoning them didn't work: they just escaped miraculously from jail! No wonder the authorities were worried about the crowds turning against them. Someone had to do something about the situation.
Our story this week from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, although short, is so good in so many ways that one hardly knows where to begin to unpack its meaning. However, by not telling the rest of the story, our lectionary passage misses the opportunity for a particularly great teaching moment for the whole church, for congregations, and for each of us. And so we simply have to continue, past the end of the lectionary text, through the rest of this fifth chapter, to the words of Gamaliel the Pharisee in response to the controversy stirred up by the preaching of the disciples of Jesus. What do we do--what can we do--in the church when we cannot seem to agree about the truth? In verses 33-39, Gamiliel suggests one wise and Spirit-filled possibility.
Passionate and exuberant
Our passage provides a marvelous glimpse of the passionate, even exuberant conviction of Peter and his companions, the ones who walked "clueless" with Jesus and finally "got it" when the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, several chapters earlier in this book of the Acts of the Apostles. Now they feel downright compelled to speak the truth as they see it, even when they're face to face with a body that we might compare to both our Supreme Court (secular authority) and a panel of the most esteemed theology professors of our time. (Remember: these are unschooled fishermen!) This is not a new thing to the religious authorities, who have dealt with various popular teachers and their followers before. And it would be easy, reading Peter's words and agreeing with them as we do--that it's better to obey God than any human authority--to see how a misreading of the story could make "the Jews" the enemies of the truth. What calamities have followed from such a distortion of the story!
It's imperative that we approach this text and all the stories from the earliest days of the church with the understanding that the conflicts that arose are more like a family feud than one religion fighting another. Scholars observe that Peter's response to the authorities is a claim that is in line with the tradition of his own people. For example, he invokes the memory of Moses by speaking of Jesus as "Leader and Savior," and proclaims the repentance and forgiveness of sins that Israel longed for. These are not unfamiliar categories for the members of the Sanhedrin--they cut to the heart of who Israel claims to be as the people of God. But the Sadducees certainly don't appreciate the source of these words, or the exuberance of this bunch of trouble-making preacher-healers who are gaining a disturbing measure of power among the people.
Who bears the guilt?
The religious powers-that-be have to be careful because of the popularity of these preachers, which also forces them to take a second, uncomfortably hard look at their own role in the death of Jesus. David L. Tiede sums all of this up by reminding us of where we are in this scene: "Back in the court where the Lord Jesus had also been tried, the apostles put the accusers on trial, bearing witness against Jesus' wrongful death, testifying that in raising him from the dead, God turned Jesus' hideous crucifixion into a gift of restoration for Israel." The words, "for Israel," are not unimportant here.
First, a note about the "role" of the Jewish leaders in the death of Jesus, which has been used for almost two thousand years to justify unspeakable hostility and crimes against the Jewish people: Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi reminds us that "[i]n Luke through Acts, the Roman Empire is Jesus' executioner. The leaders of Israel, under Rome's colonial rule, were trapped in a conspiracy to kill the prophet from Nazareth," and in this scene we encounter "Israel's leaders, the Sadducees, wrestling with the political consequences of playing the Roman Empire's conspiracy game."
A second look at the Pharisees
But there's even more going on here, because there are complex factions among these Jewish authorities, two of them represented in this scene: the Pharisees and the Sadducees don't see eye-to-eye on many things. We have to acknowledge our common misconceptions about the Pharisees as harsh and legalistic: we forget that Jesus had friends who were Pharisees, and that he often enjoyed having dinner with them and debating with them. Robert W. Wall observes that Luke gives us a fuller picture of the Pharisees in his second book, because "the profile of the Pharisees in Acts, where some become believers (15:5) and Paul professes loyalty to his Pharisaic roots (23:6-9; 26:5), is in sharp contrast to that of the Gospels, where Pharisees unite with other religious and political groups in opposition to Jesus."
Unfortunately, the Pharisees have usually been presented to us very one-dimensionally, even though they actually had more in common with the disciples (and with us), belief-wise, than we might realize. For one thing, they believed in the resurrection when the Sadducees did not, and Colin Gunton points out the irony of this conflict "between two forms of Jewishness," about the right "way" to be faithful Jews, "a way within rather than outside the Jewish faith." In this scene, he writes, those who deny the resurrection face those "who base their teaching on the resurrection of the one put to death by those same authorities"!
The past against the future?
Philip Culbertson describes the influential Sadducees on one hand as "the strictest interpreters of Jewish tradition," especially "ritual and the Temple in Jerusalem," whose job it was to "protect God's past revelation." Unfortunately, their vision was at odds with both the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus, "who believed that their responsibility was to help realize God's dream for the future." (It sounds as if the past is, alas, pitted against the future instead of being in rich continuity with it.) Culbertson compares the Sadducees "to the most conservative interpreters of Bible and Christian tradition in our own times," so the internal conflict of the Jewish people here might "echo the struggles in the church today." It seems that today is not the first time in which conservative/traditional and liberal/progressive religious voices seem to be sharply at odds instead of finding common ground.
With that fuller picture, then, we may not be surprised that a proposal more tolerant than most of those arising in our own, post-modern church councils comes indeed from an ancient Pharisee, of all people. Gamaliel observes that other popular leaders have come along in the past, gathered followers and caused an uproar, but things quieted down afterward. Perhaps he senses that something different is happening this time, or perhaps he possesses a kind of wisdom, and a depth of trust in God's mysterious ways…wisdom and trust that make it possible for him to take the long view of things: "…if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them--in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" (5:38b-39a).
"The Gamaliels of the world"
Beverly Gaventa suggests that Gamaliel emerges not as "a narrow and censorious legalist, but…a warm and compassionate teacher who was quite aware that the God of Israel sometimes acted in benevolently surprising ways." This glimpse of "a sensitive and open-minded sage" just goes to show, Gaventa writes, that "it is not always easy to categorize or to place under one roof those who live just and compassionate lives. 'In my Father's house there are many dwelling places' (John 14:2), and one of those would seem to shelter the Gamaliels of the world." Beautiful!
Even if we didn't know the rest of the story, we sense from today's passage that Peter and the other disciples are headed for trouble: they will all end up as martyrs, dying for the sake of the truth they preach in the name of the crucified and risen Jesus. We often think of a martyr as someone who dies for a cause, but Dianne Bergant better describes a martyr as "a witness....not so much one who dies for the faith as one who lives it so completely that that person is willing to suffer any consequence, even death, in order to be faithful." And Kevin A. Wilson describes faithful witnesses, who are "not simply passive observers of an event..." [for] "they must actively make known what they have seen." Why do we do--or fail to do--the work of sharing the good news of the risen Jesus Christ? Are we merely passive observers, hearers, of the good news: does it stop here, with us? Are we afraid, or do we feel inadequate, to share something that has transformed our lives and given them meaning?
Speaking out against brutality as a witness to the truth
Recently, we observed the thirty-fifth anniversary (it feels like yesterday to me) of the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who gave his life because he spoke out against the brutal injustices perpetrated on the people of El Salvador. Like the disciples in this week's passage, Romero was not intimidated or deterred by earthly authority and was "willing to suffer any consequence, even death, in order to be faithful." However, Bergant also reminds us that, even if we don't actually suffer death for the truth, we can still witness to God at work in our lives and in the world by the way we speak and live. In fact, the way we live can itself speak volumes about what we truly believe, about what has grasped our lives. And this is important, even if we don't live in places of everyday violence.
Of course, so much brutality may be hidden, behind the doors of our homes, in the shadowed streets of our cities, and deep within our institutions. The world today hungers for the same good news that the disciples preached to the Sanhedrin so long ago. Bergant astutely observes that the church finds itself in a similar situation today: "Our religious convictions and aspirations seem to be floundering, sometimes even languishing. The rapid pace of social change has caused many to relinquish any sense of religious purpose. The number of people not raised within a religious culture has increased sharply." The world needs resurrection witnesses, then, who can share the good news in ways that people can hear and embrace a truth - perhaps one they've never encountered before - that will transform their lives.
Must we be bloody to be beautiful to God?
Both sides in today's story, the disciples and the Sanhedrin, were convinced that they possessed the truth. Perhaps Gamaliel had the humility to wait on God, to listen for God, and to open himself to the possibility of a new thing unfolding in the life of God's people. The council at least found him persuasive. Yes, they still flogged the disciples, and the disciples still persisted in their preaching. But there's a lesson there for us, in any case, and a question for us to explore, although neither is easy to resolve. One commentator, O. Benjamin Sparks, quotes George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, a place of deep spirituality and beautiful worship, as "saying that the 'church is most beautiful to God when she is bloody.'"
We recall the setting in which Oscar Romero gave his life, an almost inevitable conclusion to the story of his prophetic witness, and then we consider our own setting and our own story. Sparks poses the question: "The fact that so few of us, and so few congregations, face terrifying opposition in this choice-driven, liberty-loving culture begs us to ask a question that grows out of George MacLeod's assertion: Are we beautiful to God? Or is the church in the developing world beautiful, with manifold healings and severe persecutions showing us the way to truth and life?" At least some of us may object to MacLeod's claim: in a world full of bloodshed, the words "beautiful" and "bloody" are painful to read in the same sentence. We may prefer to think of a beautiful church as one that models and foretells the coming Day of the Lord, a time of peace and justice without the suffering and loss that has gone before. There surely is more than one way to be most beautiful in the eyes of God.
The past, the present, and the future in continuity not conflict
Whether we witness from the pulpit or in the pews, under the threat of brutal regime or private suffering, with words or deeds, we are part of that great movement that began back in Jerusalem, with a turbulent trial of a little band of troublesome preacher-healers, or farther back, with the bloody death of their Teacher, the Savior-Leader, and moved outward, even to the ends of the earth. Whatever and whenever we are called to share this truth, this good news, we can count on the presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who was present with, and inspired, our ancestors, these early followers of Jesus. "Acts," Colin Gunton writes, "is written by one who is confident that the Spirit guides the fledgling church in what she does." We can trust that the same Spirit guides the church today, as well.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Ella Wheeler Wilcox, 19th century American poet
"There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can circumvent or hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul."
Desmond Tutu, 21st century
"I wish I could shut up, but I can't, and I won't."
Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard, 19th century
"The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins."
Lillian Carter, 20th century
"I don't think about risks much. I just do what I want to do. If you gotta go, you gotta go."
Joan of Arc, 15th century national heroine of France
"Get up tomorrow early in the morning, and earlier than you did today, and do the best that you can. Always stay near me, for tomorrow I will have much to do and more than I ever had, and tomorrow blood will leave my body above the breast."
Harvey Fierstein, 21st century
"If you deny yourself commitment, what can you do with your life?"
M. Scott Peck, 20th century
"A life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged."
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, 20th century
"I don't think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains."
Clarence Jordan, 20th century
"The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church."
Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy, 20th century
"Talent is cheap; dedication is expensive. It will cost you your life."
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