This Easter season we are going to spend some time in the book of Acts, or more fully, the Acts of the Apostles. These are the accounts of the very earliest church, the actions and activities of those men and women who were closest to Jesus and his resurrection and those who had experiences with him after the resurrections.
Through their experiences we will try to discern some of the marks of resurrection communities. In light of what had JUST HAPPENED, in light of their experience of Jesus who died and rose again to bring forgiveness and new life, what did they do and value as people of faith? What did they emphasize in their ministry and how did they respond to Jesus’ promise of the power of the Holy Spirit and command to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Our series of encounters with the early church over the next several weeks will give us insight into how these first apostles interpreted and enacted the resurrection in their life together. What did it mean and what does it mean now to be an Easter church?
Peter and the apostles were becoming regulars in the Jerusalem county court system. Their names were appearing pretty regularly in the police blotter section of the local newspaper. It was almost impossible NOT to notice how often they were running into the authorities, and most people were probably wondering just why they didn’t lay low for a while. If they would just let the dust settle a bit, the air clear a tad, this would all just blow over and Peter and the rest of them could just fade into the crowd again. They didn’t have to make it so hard on themselves by constantly rubbing their teaching and the name of Jesus in the faces of the temple leaders. This was the third arrest and trial for some of them in what had to have been just the first few months since Jesus’ death and resurrection.
What had gotten into these men? One almost has to assume they were either brave or stupid. Either courageous or clueless. They knew they were wanted men so soon after the death of Jesus and then the disappearance of his body. They knew Jerusalem was buzzing with rumors and questions about what had happened, and was anyone going to do anything about it. Yet, they weren’t exactly doing their part to stay out of the limelight. In fact, they seemed to be doing everything they could to get back into it.
Stupidity seems out of the question. There were enough of them, one would hope, for SOMEONE to have the smarts to realize they were in a virtually powerless minority in Jerusalem. Even as they added to their numbers daily, the opposition still had the religious hierarchy, local leadership, and ear of the Roman government on its side. Their cluelessness would have had to have been of such astronomical proportions it’s impossible to believe they persisted because they just didn’t know what they were up against.
It had to have been their bravery. It had to have been their courage and their confidence in their message. It had to have been, Scripture tells us at the first trial, the power of the Holy Spirit that filled them. It wasn’t their outstanding education, the authorities are quick to point out. It wasn’t the armies that backed them up. It was the Holy Spirit, promised to them by Jesus before he made his ascension to heaven. It was the Holy Spirit, given to them in an upper room with the wind and fire of God. It was the Holy Spirit, constantly with them as they healed and taught and received believers into their community, that gave them the boldness they needed to stand up against the authorities in Jerusalem, authorities that had to face head on to follow Jesus’ command to be his witnesses first in Jerusalem, before spreading out to “all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Going against the established authority is never easy. The large scale examples of civil disobedience in India that countered colonialism, South Africa that struggled against apartheid, and the United States that supported the Civil Rights Movement highlight this in a monumental way. Yet even on a much smaller scale we know this to be true. Swimming upstream is never easy. Ignoring or purposely contradicting conventional wisdom, society norms, and the cultural myths we all seem to live under may not change laws, but on the individual or even community level the struggle feel like one is trying to move mountains.
In recent months there have been efforts to change our cultural vocabulary, to remove the “R” word, a word formerly used to describe people with developmental disabilities, from its now common use as an insult or description of something thought to be ridiculous. Peg Gagnon, who we know as the director of the Bridge for Youth with Disabilities, made a public plea for support in this effort through the local newspaper. Others in our community and around the country have spoken out to try to change what has been accepted as normal, but is recognized by many as offensive, harmful for public discourse, and just plain wrong in the human family.
Other movements such as the fair trade movement, in which we participate as a congregation with fair trade coffee, exist to try to resist the public urge to save my own money even at the expense of someone else’s loss further down the supply chain. Going “green” has become a popular marketing term, but real, lasting participation in the attempt to reduce our impact on the beauty and complexity of God’s creation is a lot harder to accomplish in a culture that values quick, easy, disposable products and the “new and improved” over the “old and good enough. Trying to live life ordered after an authority different from the one in power is never easy, even if it’s ultimately beneficial, and those who attempt to do so, to keep themselves on track, have to keep asking themselves the question “Who’s the boss?”
“Who’s the boss?” Peter and John asked the first time they were arrested and brought before the leaders in Jerusalem. Was it the religious authorities? Was it the occupying government? Was it tradition that claimed healing could only happen in a certain way, by a certain name? Who’s the boss? To whose authority should they defer?
“Who’s the boss?” the apostles had to ask themselves as they decided whether or not to continue this ministry of witness and proclamation. Do we follow the rules and save ourselves? Do we continue to teach as Jesus told us we would do? “Who’s the boss?” they had to decide when they were released from prison in the middle of the night by an angel. Do we go home and go to bed or do we follow the command and put ourselves right in the thick of things, right in the temple teaching with every free minute and every ounce of energy we have? Who is the boss?
Peter speaks for them all when they are confronted for a third time. Peter answers for them all the question that has been following them for months. Who is the boss? Who are they going to obey? “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” he declares for the apostles. We must follow a command that comes from beyond human laws, human tradition, and human reason. We hear the word from Jesus, we have seen the authority of God, and it stands far above the authority of anyone on earth. Bravely, courageously, Peter declares that the apostles stand under a different authority, one that flies in the face of all conventional wisdom and common understanding of how the world operates, and then he shows them all exactly how as he shares with them the gospel he knows.
First, “God of our ancestors raised Jesus.” God who has existed long before any humans alive now is in charge. God who has ruled the universe before these temple leaders were appointed or born into their positions, God who has seen empires rise and fall, conquer and be conquered, build themselves on greed and power only to be destroyed from the inside out by the same, this God is our authority. Our authority is the one who has been faithful even when we are not. The authority we obey is not based on the power of the sword, the threat of physical punishment, or fear of incarceration. It is not decreed by law or convention or coercion. The authority we obey is eternal and unseen, but trustworthy and steadfast. It may seem unbelievable that we would do all of this, risk our freedom on earth, but we have seen for generations upon generations that God is in charge, God is faithful still, and God is our ultimate authority in life and in death.
Second, in Jesus is given repentance. It sounds ridiculous. Repentance is a gift? Turning around, literally turning ones back on an old way of life. Running from what we know and have known is supposed to be some kind of joy? Besides, everyone knows a troublemaker is a trouble maker. Everyone knows there’s no way to change that kind of life, that kind of person. Everyone knows that you must lie down in the bed you make, and once you’ve made it, there’s no real way to change it. No matter how hard someone tries, we are told again and again, they will never break the cycle in which they live.
Yet Peter says his authority gives repentance. Peter says the gift of God is the chance for new life. Peter says that in Jesus is a way to start over, get a clean slate, turn in the right direction and begin the journey again, putting one foot in front of the other walking in the way of God instead of the way of the world. Peter says this comes from obeying the authority of God instead of the authority of the world.
Third, from God we also receive the forgiveness of sins. Revenge may be the predominant human way to respond to pain inflicted, but it’s not God’s way. An eye for an eye isn’t the way to operate anymore. There isn’t “closure” in seeing someone else suffer just because we also have suffered. Guilt should not be our motivation for anything, because by the grace of God, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we created beings find our forgiveness from our Creator. We are set free from our offenses. We are liberated from that which ties us down and prevents us from living lives of compassion and peace. When the world says we deserve nothing but the pain we get, God gives forgiveness instead. When the world says we should lord our power over those who have hurt us, the gospel Peter preaches says we should forgive instead.
And lastly, but most importantly because it is the source of all the rest, “God of our ancestors RAISED JESUS!” We go back to the beginning of Peter’s short sermon to hear the most important piece of it all. God who has been faithful and eternal when everything else is fleeting, God who turns lives around, God who forgives and calls us to do the same, this God is our authority for all life on earth and in heaven, because THIS God has done the impossible. The world says death is the end. The world says that keeping our hearts beating is the answer to everything, because once they stop it is all over. The world says there is nothing more than the years we spend alive on this earth, but God is the authority the apostles choose because in God they have seen this wisdom defeated.
“God of our ancestors RAISED JESUS!” Peter insists, and because of this God gets their loyalty; God gets their obedience. God gets their life’s work because God raised Jesus from the dead. God overcame the most certain belief that the world has ever tried to hold onto, that death is the end, that death has the last say, that death is the final authority. In Jesus, God looked that supposed authority in the face and defied it. For that reason, the first among all the rest, for that reason, in God alone the apostles will put their trust. God alone will they obey.
The Easter church, the people of Jesus in those earliest days of faith in him, saw no one and nothing else worthy of their obedience, but God. Conventional wisdom had flown out the window. The norms of society had been turned on their heads. The undercurrent of cultural opinion could no longer pull the apostles along, because God in Jesus had shown another way – another way of treating people, another way of loving, another way of living and worshiping as the people and the community God created us to be.
The Easter church, God’s resurrection communities then and now, exists to obey God, not the world around us. We exist to be witnesses to the good news of life that can change direction, sins that can be forgiven, faithfulness that can outlast generations, and life that goes on beyond death. We exist to share this good news through our words the give hope and our actions that show love and justice that others may find the peace, grace, and joy by our witness. All that we do and all that we say, the way we worship God, the way we treat one another, the way we serve others should show our obedience to God who showers us with grace the world says no one deserves, love the world says no one can return, and mercy the world says will never exist. Then we will be the church of Easter. Then we’ll be showing them who’s the boss!