United Church of Christ

Love's Disruptive Witness

Sunday, April 28, 2019
Second Sunday of Easter Year C

Focus Theme:
Love's Disruptive Witness

Focus Prayer:
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.

Focus Scripture:
Acts 5:27-32

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:
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Focus Questions:

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

Even if we didn't know "the rest of the story," we can sense from today's passage that Peter and the other disciples are headed for trouble. However, we do know the rest of the story: they will all end up as martyrs, dying for the sake of the truth they are preaching in the name of Jesus.

We've been taught to think of a martyr as someone who gets killed for a cause, but Dianne Bergant reminds us that "martyr" means "witness," that is, one who lives a faithful life, no matter what. And Kevin A. Wilson observes that this is an active, not a passive, commitment that calls on the witness to share their faith.

These claims provide a good starting-point for reflecting on evangelism, and why we do--or fail to do--the work of sharing the good news of the risen Jesus Christ, of witnessing to the Resurrection. 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?

Courage in every setting

Almost forty years have passed since 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 face death, if necessary, for the gospel.

However, Bergant 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 each day. In fact, the way we live can itself speak volumes about what we truly believe, about what has grasped our lives.

Witnessing where we are

And this is just as important in our own settings, wherever we are, even if we don't live in places of obvious brutality, remembering of course that so much brutality may be hidden, behind the doors of our homes, in the shadowed streets of our cities, and even in our institutions.

The world today hungers for the same good news that the disciples preached to the Sanhedrin so long ago. Bergant, then, encourages preachers and teachers--indeed, all Christians--to help their listeners regain their "sense of religious purpose." More on that, in a moment.

Frustrating the authorities

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 just a little how the high priest and the council must have felt when these pesky followers of Jesus kept turning up and swaying the crowds with their persuasive and 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.

No one can silence them

Our short passage from the Book of Acts, the story of the earliest Christians, is a marvelous glimpse of the passionate, 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 Acts.

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 the Supreme Court and a panel of the most esteemed theology professors of our time.

Misreadings and misinterpretations

This is not a new thing to the religious authorities, who have dealt with various popular religious teachers and their followers before (immediately after this passage, the Pharisee Gamaliel rehearses a couple of examples of such leaders who "came and went").

And it would be easy, reading Peter's words and agreeing with them as we do--that it is better to obey God than any human authority (as Marcus Borg says, Jesus is alive, and Jesus is Lord)--to see how a misreading and misinterpretation of the story could make "the Jews" the enemies of the truth. What calamities have followed from such a distortion of the story!

A feud in the family

It is very important that we approach this text and all the stories from the earliest days of the church with the understanding that the conflicts that arise are more like a family feud than the victory of one religion, or religious sect, over another.

When Peter responds to the religious authorities, his argument is in fact a religious one that is in line with the tradition of his people, as 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.

Trouble-making preachers

These are also not foreign 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 irrepressibility of this bunch of trouble-making preacher-healers who are gaining an uncomfortable measure of power among the people.

The popularity of the disciples gives the religious powers that be less room for moving around in, and also forces them to take a second, uncomfortably hard look at their own role in the death of Jesus. They also have to take a much longer, broader look at what God is about in the story: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

A tragic mis-reading

A note here about the "role" of the Jewish leaders in Jesus' death, which has been used for almost two thousand years to justify unspeakable hostility and crimes against the Jewish people: it was the Roman Empire that had the power to execute Jesus, and in this text we see the religious leaders of Jesus' own people wrestling with their part in the Roman conspiracy of brutality and suppression.

And there's even more going on here, because there are complex factions among the Jewish authorities, two of them represented in this scene.

Finding common ground with the Pharisees

The Pharisees and the Sadducees don't see eye-to-eye on many things. We're used to a one-dimensional, inaccurate portrait of one side, the Pharisees, even though they actually had more in common with the disciples (and with us), belief-wise, than we might think.

For one thing, they believed in the resurrection when the Sadducees did not, which makes this conversation even more interesting. The Sadducees were guardians of the truth in their time, and the weary conflict between religious factions is sadly familiar to us today, when conservative/traditional and liberal/progressive voices seem to be perpetually at odds instead of finding common ground.

Don't miss the rest of the story

This story is so good in so many ways that one hardly knows where to begin to unpack its meaning, and then the ending comes too soon. By not telling the rest of the story, our lectionary passage for this Sunday 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 the chapter, to the words of Gamaliel, if we want to reach that really good teaching moment. What do we do in the church when we cannot seem to agree about the truth? What do we do, and what can we do? One option, wise and Spirit-filled, is urged by the Pharisee, Gamaliel, in verses 33-39.

Friends of Jesus

But first, we have to acknowledge the common misconceptions about the Pharisees as harsh and legalistic, for we forget that Jesus had friends who were Pharisees, and that he enjoyed having dinner with them.

Robert W. Wall observes that the book of Acts, where Pharisees are among the early converts to Christianity and Paul himself is not ashamed of having been a Pharisee himself, gives us a fuller picture of the Pharisees than the Gospels do, where they are often portrayed as enemies of Jesus.

A reasonable proposal

We may or may not be surprised, then, that a proposal more tolerant than most of those arising in our own, post-modern church councils came 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).

What a remarkable character from the Bible, and what an outstanding model he would be for every church meeting, and every doctrinal discussion.

Listening for truth

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.

Of course, they still flogged the disciples, and the disciples still persisted in their preaching. Still, we hear Gamaliel's patience, humility, and wisdom, and we wonder if the church can claim to live those virtues so well today as our ancient ancestor in faith did long ago.

A word of caution

Several scholars develop the comparison between this intramural conflict within Judaism and the internal struggles within the Body of Christ, the church, today. Some of these writers seem particularly put off by the posturing of modern-day self-proclaimed prophets.

For example, Colin Gunton challenges us not to assume that a stand is prophetic simply because it goes against "the establishment." And J. Michael Krech develops this line of thought, questioning the authenticity of a faith, for example, that insists on prayer in public places, no matter how it affects others.

The courage to preach

Still, there is no question that we are called to witness, even if we're also called to discernment about the appropriate time and place and method of that witness. Krech challenges preachers, for example, to be courageous, like Peter and the other disciples, when they step into--of all places--the pulpit itself. He provides a thought-provoking reflection on the many reasons a preacher may be as fearful before a congregation as the earliest Christians could have felt before the Sadducees.

There's a double burden here, and every pastor is understandably reluctant to cause conflict with the powers that be within the congregation, or to lay burdens on the people they cannot bear. But Krech observes that the people return to church Sunday after Sunday, hoping to hear words of transformation and new life. What do you hope to hear on Sunday morning?

Many ways, many settings to witness

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. We can trust that the same Spirit guides the church today, as well.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the 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."

Soren 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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