This morning we continue our Easter celebration with a reading from the Book of Acts. It’s the first of five readings from Acts that focus on what I want to call “Transformative Encounters.” Over the next five weeks I’ll be offering a sermon series that explores how encounters with the Risen Christ transform lives.
This morning we begin our journey with a reading from Acts 5. We find Peter and John standing before the Council a second time. They’ve been arrested because they won’t stop preaching about Jesus. The last time they were thrown in jail, angels liberated them. But, this time, they must face their accusers, who according to Luke, are rather upset. They hoped that after Jesus died, his followers would disappear, but for some reason they were still hanging around. They were becoming pests and the authorities wanted to see them to go away.
Peter steps forward, and answers their demand that he and the rest of the community stop preaching about the risen Christ. He boldly declares: “We must obey God rather than humans!” It took a lot of courage to tell the authorities that they owed their allegiance to a higher authority.
Where did this courage come from? According to Luke it was Pentecost that empowered them. Of course Pentecost is a few weeks off, so let’s turn to the Gospel of John for some insight. John tells us that on Easter evening, while a group of frightened Disciples hid behind closed doors, Jesus appeared and said to them:
“Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (Jn 2:21-22 CEB)
It is this Holy Spirit that gifts and empowers Peter and John and the rest of the disciples to preach the good news that Christ the Lord is risen!
We don’t usually face situations like the one Peter and John faced. American Christians might not dominate society like we did back in the 1950s, but we still have a lot of freedom. Schools can’t force children to pray Christian prayers and the courts frown on putting creches on Court House lawns, but no one is breathing down our backs in America.
The biggest danger we face as Christians in America is the same one Christians have faced since Constantine decided to embrace Christianity. We face the temptation to merge our faith with our culture. We’re tempted to go along to get along. We ask God to bless our nation, often forgetting that God is the God of all people, not just Americans.
When Peter stands up to the authorities, he invites us to rethink the way we look at our relationships with those in power. His actions remind us that we owe our ultimate allegiance to God and not to any human authority.
In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, we pray: “Father hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come” (Luke 11:2). This is our pledge of allegiance. While it’s easy to say this prayer, it’s far more difficult to live into it.
When the governing authorities in Germany ordered Martin Luther to recant his teachings, it’s reported that he responded with words that parallel those of Peter. “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
When you face difficult choices, how do you -- to borrow a phrase from the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – “choose wisely?”
Very early in life, we learn about “peer pressure.” That is, we face the temptation to go along to get along. But going along can have significant consequences.
Back in the 1930s many German Christians went along with the Nazis. Being good Christians, they took very seriously Paul’s instructions in Romans 13. According to Paul – and Luther’s reinforcement of that teaching – Christians should be “subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God.” (vs. 1). But what if the authorities are unjust and demand that we act unjustly? Christians have been wrestling with this dilemma since at least Jesus’ arrest.
Very few Christians stood up to Hitler. One who did was Martin Niemoller – though he was cautious – at least at first. You may know his famous statement of complicity in Hitler’s reign of terror. Since today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, this statement takes on even more importance. Although there are several versions of the statement, this one will suffice:
First they came for the socialists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
Niemoller’s list is representative, so we can add to it. Whom might we add today? Muslims, immigrants, Persons with disabilities, Gays and Lesbians? If we fail to speak for others, why should we expect someone to speak on our behalf?
I want to close with the story of Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador. You may have heard his name mentioned in the news since the election of Pope Francis. In 1980 he was assassinated while celebrating the Eucharist by a gunman linked to government-sponsored death squads. Romero upset members of the government in El Salvador because he spoke out in support of the poor and the oppressed in his country. His opponents accused him of being a communist, and during the Cold War that was akin to being called a terrorist. They threatened his life, but he refused to stop speaking out. In his final homily, delivered just moments before he died, he spoke these words:
“God’s reign is already present on our earth in mystery. When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection.” That is the hope that inspires Christians.
We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us. MARCH 24, 1980 [Oscar Romero. The Violence of Love (Plough Publishing House), p. 219],
And in a homily given earlier in his ministry as Archbishop, Romero declared:
To be a Christian now means to have the courage to preach the true teaching of Christ and not be afraid of it, not be silent out of fear and preach something easy that won’t cause problems. DECEMBER 5, 1977 [Romero, p. 30]
In that sermon he told the congregation that the courage to speak came from the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit who inspired Peter and John, Luther, Niemoller, Bonhoeffer, and many others who chose to obey God rather than human authorities. Oscar Romero reached this pinnacle of power in the church by going along. It wasn’t until he became Archbishop that he truly saw the injustice occurring in his country. He could have stayed silent, but he didn’t.
We all face tough choices in life. For instance, when someone tells a derogatory joke or speaks of another in a disparaging way, isn’t it easier to go along than speak up? Isn’t it easier to ignore injustice than do something about it?
When it comes to making tough choices, I take comfort in Paul’s message that we’re all sinners who rest in God’s grace. Grace isn’t an excuse for inaction. Instead, it is the foundation for acting boldly when God calls us to act. So, will you choose wisely? Grace is the foundation for acting boldly in response to the call of Jesus, to follow and be his disciples.
When it comes to tough choices, are you ready to stand with Peter, who was transformed by his encounter with the Risen Christ, and say to those who demand your allegiance: “We must obey God rather than humans?”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
2nd Sunday of Easter
April 7, 2013