Over the season of Lent, we did a series on the Renegade Gospel. But Lent is over now. Jesus is Risen, and risen indeed… so what next?
What next is definitely a big question to tackle in the Easter season. Oh, and yes, it’s still Easter. It’s going to be Easter for a while. The rest of Easter is devoted to that question: What’s Next for the followers of Jesus Christ? What’s next, when our Lord is alive, when death is dead, and the resurrection is a reality? When the Kingdom of Heaven is here, but not quite yet? What do we do in the face of this new reality, how ought we to live?
This passage today from Acts depicts a tense confrontation between the Temple Priests and the new Jesus Movement. It is a moment in time that is imminently relevant to our modern world, the conversations we have about the role of holy living and the public sphere, and how we are to conduct ourselves when the rest of the world may not necessarily live according to our viewpoint.
Scripture often gives us a somewhat complex perspective on the ways in which we as people who follow Jesus ought to behave ourselves in response. We’ll talk a little bit about that, but we’ll also talk about the role of civil disobedience to authorities, peaceable resistance, and when and how we ought to participate in them.
This Far, No Further
Our scripture, as usual, is our jumping off point. It begins several weeks from the Easter Resurrection event, post Pentecost, and focuses on a heated debate.
Peter and the rest of the disciples, for weeks now, had been engaging in a public preaching ministry, as well as engaging in healing ministries–events that often took place on the Sabbath. Now, Jesus set the precedent for that, and the temple was certainly not pleased about it. Now we have tons of people doing the same thing, and the temple is enraged. For generations, the temple had at least some control over the message of the religion, but this was something new, something dangerous. Jesus was a heretical rebel to the Jewish authorities, who they had arrested for charges of treason to the Roman Empire. And now, we have a group of people saying that he isn’t dead, that he’s alive, and his message is taking over the city of Jerusalem.
This looks bad for too many reasons to count for the Temple, as it means a disintegration over their influence and their control under the Roman Regime. It also, in their minds, could spell doom for the very city they live in; if there’s enough of these rabble rousers around, what’s to stop the Roman Authorities from bringing the hammer down on the city. (Their fears weren’t entirely unjustified, by the way; the city was indeed ransacked by the Roman authorities in the 60’s AD, although in response to Jewish zealots, not Christ followers.)
So they round up these Christ followers, for not the first time, and accuse them in their court for preaching the resurrection in the name of Jesus Christ, who if you remember, was public enemy number one for the Temple priests. They haul them before the council, and say “Look, we asked you to stop. Repeatedly. So why is it we hear you now filling the entire city with more teaching, and not only that, pinning his death on us?”
Peter, being the honest hothead that he was, blew up. He didn’t refute the charges; in fact, he doubled down on them.
He responded with a very pivotal argument: We don’t answer to human authority, or your authority; we answer to God’s authority. You are responsible for Jesus’s death, but even though you had him lynched, hung, crucified, God raised him from the dead anyway. He’s now with God, and we’re now with you, doing what we need to do. We are witnesses to this resurrection, and the forgiveness he offers to Israel and to the whole world, and we can do no other. The line is drawn here: this far, no further.
Believe it or not, this is not the first time that this argument has been made. In fact, it long predates the Christian church.
- “I did not think [the king’s] proclamations were strong enough to have power to overrule…the unwritten and unfailing ordinances of the gods.” (Antigone, in Antigone by Sophocles, lines 453-455, fifth century BCE)
- “Men of Athens, I honor and love you, but I will obey God rather than you.” (Socrates, in The Apology by Plato, 29D, fourth century BCE)
- “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” (seven Jewish martyrs defying the decrees of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV, in 2 Maccabees 7:2, second century BCE)
So though the argument was old, it was put to new use in the context of Jesus’s followers, but note the specific usage of the argument: it was used to defend the ability to confess the gospel. Furthermore, they did not refuse to suffer consequences for these actions. This is something called non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. It took tremendous spiritual courage to do so, but primarily because they knew that their faith kept from doing any other. What was unjust, they could not stand by and allow.
Public Discourse and Civil Disobedience
We live in very troubled times. In other news, water is wet, grass is green and Santa wears red.
In every age, every era, there has always been troubled times. Some times were better than others, but the truth is, there is no such thing as the good old days. There have always been people who suffer, who struggle, who are oppressed and downtrodden, whether you remember them or not, whether it ever impacted you or not.
Struggling to survive is a very real, human experience, and honestly it’s not an experience I can readily identify with in my life. Sure, I’ve lived in poverty. I’ve struggled to make ends meet, wondering how I’m going to get to the end of the month on what’s left in my bank account. That’s thankfully been a very limited experience, though. I live in relative comfort.
So when I hear of my brothers and sisters caught in a cycle of poverty and destitution that increasingly gets harder and harder to escape, I do two things: I realize the privileges of my own life, privileges I enjoy without even thinking about them, and then I do what I can to give voice to the struggles of my brothers and sisters who bear a burden I can’t comprehend.
In the 1960s, there was a man named Martin Luther King Jr. He was a Baptist preacher, with an education not unlike my own, but an experience that I could not in my wildest dreams begin to understand. His was a time of institutionalized persecution, separation and segregation.
He did not start the civil rights movement. That movement had its roots long before him, since even long before the civil war. He was simply carrying on the movement from Sojourner Truth, WEB DuBois, Marcus Garvey and Ida B. Wells before him. He did, however, become the focal leader for the movement in the 1960s.
History has painted him as a hero, and surely he is one. However, he was not a popular hero in his day. In fact, he was seen as a very dangerous man, not the toothless, genteel and soft-spoken icon of popular lore. He was outspoken. He was a powerful speaker, one who drew from countless schools of thought, from the ethical philosophies of Reinhold Niebuhr, to the non-violent resistance of Mohandas Ghandi, and of course, to the rich tradition of freedom fighters in the African American community, and the black church, in the United States. He spoke for justice, justice that came from his understanding of the gospel.
Most of white America saw him as a threat, especially those in power. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, put him near the top his personal most wanted list. He was public enemy number 1 for many Americans, simply because he fought for equality, an equality that the law did not see fit to enforce. He ultimately died for his beliefs, died by the bullet from the gun of a man who deemed him not worthy of equality.
We have sanitized his history, as we have sanitized the history, ignoring that while he was alive, he was no more loved for his beliefs than the disciples were for theirs. He fought for his right to exist, not to own or dominate any other person. The disciples fought for their right to believe as they saw fit to do so, not at the expense of anyone but for the benefit of all.
Justice, Love, and the Public
And that’s where I wanted to bring this full circle. There are many who believe that we Christians in America are a persecuted lot. I would beg to differ. We, as a group, have a rather privileged place in American society. But then, that should not keep us from being engaged in public discourse.
We absolutely need to fight for our ability to remain in the conversation of faith in this world. We ought to be given a place at the table of public discourse, but we ought to also realize there are voices that are not others, and those voices, though we may disagree with them and perhaps even be diametrically opposed to them, are voices that are valid and worthy of a seat at the table as well.
The disciples and apostles did not want to shut the temple down and replace it with their own. They simply wanted to preach their gospel in peace, to do what they felt necessary, not to the exclusion of others, but in community with others. The gospel is one of peace, of justice, of equality, and most importantly, one of love.
If we purport to be people of the word, and fail to remember that that word is love itself, that our gospel is service, that our message is one of liberation and peace, then we are not doing what Peter and the disciples were doing. We are being the temple priests. By shutting down other people in their rights, we are no better than the ones who killed Christ. By excluding, persecuting, and dominating others, we have failed to live into the Gospel of Jesus, the gospel preached by Peter and Paul.
So which will it be? Will you be a force for domination, or a voice for liberation? Will we be people of the resurrection, or people who remain in darkness? I believe we can be Easter people, resurrection people, second chance people, love people. That is good news to me. Amen.