Our Second Reading for today comes from the Book of Acts, chapter 5, verses 21-32. We join the apostles after they have received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit emboldens them and they begin preaching and teaching without ceasing in Jerusalem and especially in the temple. Their committed proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah, that he had been put to death by the religious authorities, and that God has raised him from the dead is not received well by the authorities. So, they arrest the apostles and publically put them in prison. This sets the stage for a miraculous delivery, which is told in a quite unspectacular way, and another confrontation with the authorities. Let us hear this Word of God.
21bWhen the high priest and those with him arrived, they called together the council and the whole body of the elders of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 But when the temple police went there, they did not find them in the prison; so they returned and reported, 23 “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were perplexed about them, wondering what might be going on. 25 Then someone arrived and announced, “Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” 26 Then the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.
27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 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.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
I was at a loss. I was driving to meet a dozen smart, faithful, and wise pastoral colleagues for our annual four day retreat at the beach. Each year we rotated leadership for the essential elements of our time together. This year I had been tasked with leading the next morning’s devotion. I had nothing prepared.
Initially I thought that after almost seventeen years of ministry I could take a piece of scripture or a brief idea and, with a little help from the Holy Spirit, speak with some measure of coherence for long enough to count as a devotion. But for this group of pastors and colleagues, mentors and friends I had nothing. No ideas, no illustrations, no point with which to begin.
In a bit a panic I did exactly what they teach you in seminary never to do - I put the Holy Spirit to the test. As I was passing through Columbia, SC, it hit me that surely there must be a radio station with a radio preacher giving a message. I would hit the seek button on the radio and the first radio preacher I heard, I would stop and create a devotion on the scripture or the topic being addressed. Like I said, I was desperate for some inspiration.
Several stations with music slipped by until I heard the distinctive voice of a preacher. You can always tell a preacher on the radio, right? Holding my breath, I started to listen. His topic was “Kingdom Authority.” Committed to my plan, I braced for the worst and even anticipated that my devotion might be a direct contradiction to whatever I heard next. The preacher was already halfway through point 3 in his sermon, so I had some catching up to do. But he gave me something to work with by the time he reached point 4.
So as I did at that retreat, I ask you this morning - what kind of authority do we as Christian possess as we live into the Kingdom of God? What kind of authority does Christ have in your life? The preacher’s closing example encouraged us to think about a college football game, particularly about a defensive linemen. Those guys are huge – 300 lbs. of pure muscle. They are strong. They are fast. And their only job is to reach the quarterback or running back and tackle him with as much force as possible. On top of that you put on all the pads and a helmet and the result is a quite imposing, intimidating figure.
So the play begins and the defensive end rushes the quarterback. He is almost there; ready to crush his target, but suddenly… he stops. A whistle blew. The one with the whistle is the skinniest guy on the field. He is not the fastest or the strongest. He is not wearing any pads or a helmet. He stands on the field in a black and white striped shirt holding a whistle. But when he blows that whistle, all the big, fast, strong players on the field immediately stop. The referee has authority.
For the radio preacher, Christ should have that kind of authority in our lives. And even more, Christ grants his disciples authority like that of the college football referee. That is what we see going on in our text from the fifth chapter of Acts today, right? The disciples who fled in fear as Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified now stand with authority, with boldness to witness to Jesus every day in the Temple. And even more, once they themselves are arrested they speak with courage before the council, declaring, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Obey God rather than human authority. Blow the whistle and everyone stops. Speak a word from God and the world listens. Yes, that is how the world works, right?
It sure would be nice if it did. I have no doubt that Christ has authority as Lord of heaven and earth. We are called to obey Christ above all. However, I have rarely found the choice between God and human authority to be so clear cut - to be just stopping when the whistle blows.
Let’s take a step back and consider the whole context of this encounter between the apostles and the authorities. For generations and generations the people of God had been worshiping in the Temple. Why? Because God told them to worship in this way. The priests performed sacrifices out of obligation and religious duty, not out of self-interest. They had scripture and tradition behind them. This is how you obey God – you sacrifice in the Temple and keep your head down so the occupying Romans don’t start messing things up.
And then this group of 120 from Galilee show up in Jerusalem following a guy they thought was the Messiah. He disrupted everything. He messed up the practical system for currency exchange and sacrificial animals. He taught new things about God and what God was doing in the world. This made the religious authorities and the Romans nervous, so a plot was hatched to put this upstart Messiah to death. That did not take long, but a few days later reports began that he had been raised from the dead. Unbelievable. His disciples seemed quiet for a while but then they boldly started preaching about this Jesus every day in the Temple. Despite being arrested, they kept preaching and witnessing. They claimed that they were the ones obeying God and that they had scripture on their side. But the authorities knew they were in the right. They had never done it any other way.
The choice suddenly doesn’t seem so easy, does it? Both groups claim to be obeying God rather than human authority. They both claim that the authority they rely upon is God’s.
Yes, obeying God is so often intertwined with our relationship to human authority. We make decisions and must consider the demands and authority of our families and our work; our community and even our nation. In the church we have a Session which makes decisions for us as a congregation. As the moderator of those Session meetings I am very intentional to ask before every vote we take, “Those who believe that God is leading us to do ________, please say aye. Those who believe that God is not leading us in this way, please say no.” We do our best to intentionally remind ourselves that every decision we make should not merely be based on our personal preferences but on obedience to what God wants us to do.
And yet, our personal preferences and other authorities are very much in play. In a previous congregation the session had engaged in a fairly lengthy, probably more lengthy than necessary, conversation and debate about whether or not families could use their cell phones during worship to take pictures and videos of baptisms. There were passionate pleas made on both side of the argument, each with scriptural references - hospitality on the one side and reverence in worship on the other. Finally it came time to vote. I asked the question, “All those who believe God is leading us to adopt this paragraph about cell phone use during worship, please say aye.” Before anyone could cast their vote, one elder said, “Well, if you put it that way, I don’t think God cares about the use of cell phone cameras during worship. We certainly do, but I’m not sure God does.” We just sat there for a moment under that glimmer of wisdom and grace. And then the motion passed anyway.
We must obey God rather than any human authority. It is not a simple equation. There will be occasions when obedience to God requires doing what we have always done. Holding on tight and not letting go. And yet, I want to encourage you to see in this text an opportunity to act for God with boldness and new vision. For I am convinced that God does not intend for the church to merely be a whistle blowing referee - watching everyone else play the game of life while we try to keep everyone in line. No, God intends for us to join the game, to act and proclaim with boldness the new life which has been given to us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is the Holy Spirit which makes that boldness possible for the church. The Spirit that blows not where we intend, but where it wills. The Spirit that encourages not the status quo, but abundant life. The Spirit that reminds us of the prophets of old and gives voice to those long silenced.
So, my friends, what I hear in this text is the call of the Holy Spirit for Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church to be not a church of referees but a church of:
followers of a resurrected Lord.
That is the church that obeys God. That is the church that witnesses to Jesus Christ. That is the church empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Is that our church? Is that the church that God, the one with all the authority, is calling us to be?
Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: