A sermon for Easter 2, 24 April 2022
The Reverend Ann Edwards
Acts 5: 27-29
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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 Saviour 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.”
Our lectionary has gifted us the right readings at the right time so often this past year. Today, as we continue our Easter Season, we begin our journey through The Book of the Acts, or the Acts of the Apostles.
Acts recounts the events of the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome and Mark Powell describes this book best. “The book of Acts has everything but dinosaurs. It’s got earthquakes, shipwrecks, avenging angels, harrowing escapes, riots, murder plots, political intrigue, courtroom drama, and so much more…”
What fun we’re about to have!
It is a history book.
It is a theological work.
It is also an entertaining adventure tale.
Looking at the structure of the text, we can see God’s story with the church, and the key leadership of Peter and Paul,
The primitive church experiences dynamic and energetic growth, and opposition, culminating in the death of Stephen. This event scatters the apostles, and catapults the Word of God further afield, with Philip reaching Samaria and the Gospel being entrusted to the Ethiopian Eunuch in charge of Queen Candace’s treasury. Even the most horrific events have good outcomes in this text.
This text is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke writes the text in such a way that it is clear that Jesus is no longer physically present. The Church is now forming and moving, in the Holy Spirit. The character of this church is described as being just, committed to eliminating poverty within its ranks, and filled with joy.
I personally think this book was misnamed by the early church, and Powell agrees with me. This account of the history of the early church would rightly be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Luke seems to be telling the story in this way as well – the Acts describe parallel unmistakeably with the acts of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel
I’m excited that we can work through this text, about how the first church lived and spoke the Gospel guided by God, as we’re doing that same work of emerging and reaching out right here in the Gap in The Gap.
The Gospel text we heard today comes from that section of the dynamic expansion of the early church, which begins to be met with opposition. The High Priest, with the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy and arrested the apostles, only for an angel to release them so they could continue to teach in the temple, telling the story of Jesus.
The High Priest and the Sadducees were understandably very unhappy when the called together an assembly of the leadership and elders, only to hear that the prison was guarded, sealed, and empty. We can only imagine how much unhappier they became when told by a late arrival that the arrested men were now in the temple, teaching. So, the temple captain went and brought them to face the high priest and council and the entire body of elders.
This leading information is critical to this text. Luke paints a scene here – the highest Jewish authority and all the elders are gathered. The phrase used to describe the High Priest’s actions in assembling the elders closely parallels the description of Moses’s actions in gathering the elders in Exodus.
21: [The High Priest and Sadducees] called together the council [Sanhedrin – the supreme council having religious, civil and criminal authority] and the whole body of the elders of Israel
The term Luke chooses, Gerousia, /gair-oo-see-ah/ is used in the Septuagint Pentateuch – the earliest Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures – for the ruling body of Israelites. The phrase here echoes Exodus Just as Moses called the all of the elders before the Passover – Moses called all the elders of Israel.
This is the most serious of occasions – Israel as they know her is at risk. Luke’s account makes clear that this is a pivotal moment when the historical leadership of Israel faces the challenge of the new church.
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 Saviour 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.”
The High Priest and leader of all civil, religious, and criminal authority was enraged for good reason. They are in charge – nearly universally – of the Jewish community. And yet they have been judged and found guilty.
Luke is nearly universally generous in his description of people – when they argue, fall short, don’t understand, or don’t accept this precious word of God. He upholds the wisdom of the one wise council member that speaks to protect the lives of the apostles. But Luke does not extend this generosity to the council and high priest. The religious leadership denied Jesus’s blood was on their hands. No, says Peter, no say the apostles. You had him killed by hanging him on the tree.
Here, Peter invokes Deuteronomy. To be hung on a tree for the worst crimes in society was to be cursed by God.
You thought you shamed Jesus, they say, that he was cursed by God. But God exalted him. The shame is on you.
The hero of this story, and all of Acts, is not Peter, and later, it is also not Paul. The hero is the Gospel itself, the Word of God, carried by the Holy Spirit, that was met with joy and opposition, no matter who spoke. Those words spoken by the apostles – the Jesus killed by under human authority was raised by God and is the one true authority – are the words that are the hero of Acts. Our actions need to parallel the life of Christ and speak those words.
Some readers of Acts say they feel depressed, wondering why the church falls short of this spirit given life and frankly – power. Partly – we can be reassured that this was a particular point in God’s story with humanity. This time will never be repeated – a church with eyewitnesses to the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.
But perhaps we need to look closely again at the parallel between this text and the Gospel by the same author. Luke shows us clearly that the apostles literally followed the life and work of Jesus. The Gospel story captivates and enthrals those that hear it from people that reflect the life of Jesus. The community works to eliminate poverty by sharing, brings together people that were by tradition enemies, and is generous in its approach to those that don’t believe in Jesus. The only harshness in Acts seems to be reserved for the religious leaders who fail the widow, the outcast, and orphan, and would silence God’s voice calling them to repent, by employing and exploiting the violence of the Roman world in which they found themselves.
Luke will also show us in Acts this year that in trusting the Holy Spirit and the impact of the Gospel, we can comfortably be generous, and kind in our description of those that don’t understand, who are doing their best, and who disagree. Because we’re not the heroes of the story.
The cry of the Gospel truth in our lives continues to be met with violence. If we look to Luke, we can be generous as our default. We shouldn’t be concerned about disagreement, but work through it. It’s not important to prove we’re right: the Gospel speaks for itself. Like Luke, we can save our critique for those that would silence justice with violence, deny their actions, and claim God’s authority anyway. Those that claim God’s authority anyway.
This week our Prime Minister stumbled when asked by a parent of a child with a disability about NDIS funding cuts – word for word, the exchange went like this:
Thank you Catherine, what’s your son’s name
I can’t. Jenny and I have been blessed. We got two children that don’t.
And he paused, and there were a lot of us holding our collective breaths. But he redirected….
who haven’t had to go through that. And so for parents who have children who are disabled – I can only try to understand.
There’s so much in here that’s good. Recognising that it is hard to understand an experience if you haven’t walked it. Talking about the child by name, recognising the parent’s journey. Seeing the people in front of him.
He stopped short of saying I’m blessed my kids don’t have a disability.
He pulled himself up, and never said that he was blessed not to have children with disability. Perhaps he pulled himself up short from something he was about to say – we don’t know, although it feels like it as we listen.
What was said was that our Prime Minister considers himself blessed for not having to deal with the NDIS for which he is responsible. Or the catastrophic financial haemorrhaging that existed before the NDIS. Perhaps he also intended to mean he hasn’t experienced the challenge of resourcing, therapy, and existing in a society that rejects difference.
What I want to say to you today is that I would be careful about judging the Prime Minister on these words. Because the Prime Minister isn’t alone in this belief – he is a product of his country and also the wider church. This lapse should all give us pause for introspection as we ask – Where is God in this?
And here we need to think through the theology at play. Do we believe God intends for one family to have smooth sailing and another to be thrown off course? Being blessed suggests that God deliberately decides who will have it tough and who will have it easy – that takes any sense of our responsibility to one another away. Because if God gives the hardship, then surely God is responsible for addressing it?
This is not just about the Prime Minister. Perhaps it could be argued that he is an authority figure claiming to represent God, that really seems a stretch in these circumstances. This stumble reflects a belief and perhaps even a theology that the wider community shares. Disability, suffering, belongs with that person, over there. And I wonder – when we’re confronted with disability, or suffering, or exclusion, how many of us feel grateful that we can just go home and forget? Or perhaps we even thank God we’re not like that family. We’ll pray for you.
It shows in the media since – much has taken the opportunity to sound bite the moment and write inflammatory headlines. Others have disparaged the “pile on” by the “left” that are quick to outrage.
Faced with a cry for justice, voices are silenced. Families of children with disability, and those that support them, are too quick to outrage.
you have filled [Australia] with your teaching and you are determined to bring this [child’s] blood on us.
On Saturday, Mr Morrison tried to explain.
I was just simply saying it’s tough and I’m grateful that there are these hardships I and Jenny haven’t had to deal with …
While this is better, in that we’re not minimising the value of people with disability, Mr Morrison is reflecting the deeply problematic values found in much of our society. To be grateful that we don’t have to deal with hardships – that shouldn’t sit well with us. Particularly when the voice of the person speaking has the authority to address those hardships, and potentially even contributed to them. Jesus knows what it is to suffer.
You had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him
And before we hit outrage – either about the cause or call out – let’s remember that this authority reflects the vote of the general public – so again, it’s not just the government that’s responsible. The cry of the crowd will go up, and authority follows suit.
Unless, it seems, the cry of the crowd are the voices of the ones that are marginalised, suffering, and crying out for justice and relief.
Mr Morrison might feel crucified. But who is really suffering?
For us – the call on our lives, as we look at the church built under the leadership of Peter and Paul, is to look out for those doing it tough and make it easier. To listen carefully, and reassess our own biases. Just as Peter did, by relieving the Gentiles of the burden of circumcision and Jewish law. To recognise that sometimes speaking truth costs, and rejoice when the message is opposed and we join the suffering, because it means God’s word is understood. To have grace for those working it out, as we’ll see Paul model over and over, but to speak truth to those that would invoke God’s authority to justify their discrimination.
We must get this right. What does love look like in community? Not just in our families. What does love look like when we’re challenged? Love doesn’t strike out in violence to silence the voice. Love doesn’t consider itself lucky if it is better off than the person in front of it – it reaches out. Love is vulnerable and giving. Love allows the reality of a situation to break in. Love speaks truth to violence. Love listens carefully and believes what is true. Love looks for the best for the person in front of it. To work in God’s love, to build this type of church, we must listen to God’s Spirit and be prepared to be corrected.
As we work through Acts this year, perhaps we should ask – where would the church be if Paul and Peter didn’t talk in honesty and a willingness to hear God’s truth? What if we continued to act as though being told we’re wrong was worse than actually being wrong?
What would the early church look like if it formed in a democracy – where people could vote out the truth they didn’t like?
What does it look like to speak the words today – this is the Jesus who you had killed? Who you hung on the tree? Who is it that has been sacrificed for political gain? Who is it that has had shame heaped upon them, only to be exalted by God? Whose vote made that happen?
God’s word is still the hero of our stories, not the voice of those that speak it. The Holy Spirit still moves today.
The challenge for us is this – are we going to speak or deflect? What would make Moses gather the Elders to free God’s people? When do we need to resist the council brought together to extinguish God’s word? What does the Gospel speak today? How do we embody the Gospel, as closely as Acts parallels the Gospel of Luke? How do we follow Jesus, love God, and love our neighbours, as we love ourselves?