This is my second sermon for my preaching class today and about fifth sermon in all preached. The text is from Acts 5:27-32 where the Apostles were facing the Sanhedrin once again on charges of teaching in the name of Christ Jesus. The sermon deals with the issues of obedience and witness and how we, as a church, can learn from the Apostles’ example.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was hearing criticism when he arrived in Birmingham. He had come to this Alabama city to lead nonviolent protests against the city’s segregation laws, believed to be among the worst in the south. King’s reputation had taken a hit after a protest in Albany, Georgia did not produce the results he and his supporters would have liked. King had come to Birmingham with the hope of making civil rights a national issue. But instead, he faced criticism from all sides about why he was there.
In Birmingham, members of the black community spoke to reporters about whether or not King’s presence would be beneficial. The city had just elected a new moderate leadership, ousting segregationist supporter Bull Conner, and leaders wanted to give the new administration a chance before starting protests. From eight white ministers, including two Methodist bishops, King received criticism in a letter entitled “A Call for Unity.” The letter claimed “outsiders” had little or no understanding of local issues, and that negotiations and courts should be used to secure rights for the black community.
King had to be aware of these criticisms while he sat in a Birmingham jail, arrested yet again for leading demonstrations which sought the end of racial discrimination. King faced a choice – he could succumb to human authorities wishing to end his efforts, or he could continue to do what he believed was obedience to the will of God by proclaiming the Gospel of Christ’s love in racial equality.
We know King’s choice. King wrote the now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” defending his actions and the call to proclaim freedom in saying “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King chose obedience to what he believed was the will of God over the wishes of human leadership, and it helped bring about the end of racial segregation in the South.
In a similar way, the Apostles in Acts 5:27-32 faced the same question. Would they be obedient to the will of God and proclaim the message of the Gospel, or would they acquiesce to the wishes of the political and religious leaders of the time? It was the religious and political leaders, led by the chief priests who sat on the Sanhedrin, who hoped the Apostles would stop proclaiming Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior. The Apostles’ answer to this question would shape the future of the church in the First Century, and helps us, in the 21st Century, as we answer the same question about what it means to be obedient to God in a world that wants us to change our witness to fit their needs.
But what led the Apostles to this point? Why were they standing before the Sanhedrin and facing a trial for their teachings?
This wasn’t the first time the Apostles had interacted with the high priests and the council regarding what they were teaching in Jerusalem and, most importantly, in the Temple. In Acts 4, we see that Peter and John were arrested by the Temple Guard for proclaiming the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. The Sanhedrin, a collection of the elders who dealt with the legislative and judicial issues of the Jewish faith, ordered Peter, John, and the other Apostles not to teach in the name of Jesus again.
Obviously, the Apostles did not obey this command. In Chapter 5, we see them continuing to teach in the name of Jesus, proclaiming that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. They preached the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with the Triune God. Faith in Christ grew in Jerusalem, and many were healed.
While the Apostles preached the message and gave witness to the resurrection, the Sanhedrin was faced with this teaching which was spreading like a wildfire throughout Jerusalem – a wildfire they could not control. So they arrested the Apostles once again, in the hope that this would be the last they would hear from the Apostles. Maybe this time the Apostles would understand that the Sanhedrin meant business. There is to be no preaching of “this man” in the Temple courts. Ever. The Sanhedrin was to be obeyed.
They were not.
The Apostles were freed from jail by an angel of the Lord and told to proclaim in the temple courts to the people “the full message of this new life” of faith in Christ Jesus. That is what they were doing when the captain of the Temple Guard found them and brought them back to the Sanhedrin.
So here the Apostles are in Acts 5:27-32. The question has already been placed before the Apostles, and it is the question of who the Apostles will obey. Will it be God or will it be man? Time and time again, the Apostles said that their obedience – their allegiance – was to God. Yet they found themselves before the Sanhedrin, facing the authorities because of their actions.
The Sanhedrin attempted to make their case that obedience should go to them. They were the authority and protector of the Law. They said what could happen and how one should worship God. They were the interpreters of Scripture. And they said they themselves were to be obeyed. To take the words of President Truman, the buck stopped with the Sanhedrin.
If the Apostles felt like they were being singled out by the chief priests and religious leaders, they were not. In Chapter 20 of Luke’s Gospel, the chief priests challenged Jesus on whose authority he spoke. Jesus would not answer, knowing that the priests were more concerned with their own political authority than being in right step with the authority of God.
So it might not have been a surprise to the Apostles when they were reminded that they were given strict orders not to teach in “this name.” In essence, the Sanhedrin was saying, “you have failed to be obedient to us. We told you once not to do this and you chose not to give us the proper respect.”
The Apostles had a choice to make, because this time they knew it could mean life or death. They had been warned as much by Jesus, when he told them to “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues.”
Now the Apostles stood, once again, with the choice of obedience to God or obedience to man. If they chose to be obedient to the authorities, to the chief priests, it likely would have meant, at the very least, a weakening of the message of their witness. Yet, most likely, it would have meant the end of their proclamation of the Gospel truth and might have hindered the growth of the church in Jerusalem, if not stopped it out right. But, if they chose to be obedient to God, they would be saying to the chief priests that they were not their ultimate authority. That it was God, who sent Christ Jesus to be the living revelation of the Scriptures, who was the ultimate authority. That their obedience laid with God and not with man.
Out of our obedience to God flows our witness of Christ’s resurrection. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we give witness to the resurrection through proclamation, acts of love, Christian charity, and generosity. We embody the witness with how we proclaim the message of the Gospel in both our words and our deed. As we remain faithful to the one who called us and loved us first, we also remain faithful to the message of Christ Jesus crucified, resurrected, and exalted.
The Apostles did not miss this opportunity to act out their obedience through their witness. John Wesley wrote that they went to the Sanhedrin with the desire to proclaim the “naked truth” of the Gospel. Peter proclaimed that Christ Jesus is risen and exalted and sits at the right hand of God as Prince and Savior, offering repentance and forgiveness to the people of Israel. Even more, the actions of the apostles and of the Holy Spirit bear witness to these events. It is an interesting contrast that while the Sanhedrin came to this trial as accuser, the Apostles came as proclaimers, seeking to use this opportunity to witness to the faith.
In the face of potential persecution and death, the Apostles did not weaken the message of Christ Jesus. They did not hide from what it meant to be obedient to God, and they did not hide from what it meant to be true to the witness of the faith. They stood firm and proclaimed Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior.
If only we were like the Apostles today. If only we had the same bravery and tenacity as the Apostles.
In our effort to fulfill Christ’s commission to proclaim the gospel to all corners of the earth, we have failed in our obedience to God. We, as the church today, have made the world the authority and have relegated God to second-in-command. We have become an organization more interested in programs than serving God. We have become more interested in seeking political power than following God’s agenda. All this in the name of trying to be “relevant” and “popular” with the people of today. We are more interested in what the world thinks of us than what God thinks of us. Our loyalty is with humanity and not with God.
In some ways, we should be concerned about some of the criticisms the world has made about the church, such as our need for political power, sexual abuse cases, and our exuberant buildings. These criticisms, as sound as they may be, should never stop our obedience to God, and it should never weaken the message of the cross. Yet that is what has taken place in the church today.
In 1999, the movie Dogma offered a parody of the Catholic faith. In it, Cardinal Glick, portrayed by George Carlin, offers a new Christ statue called Buddy Christ in the midst of a propaganda campaign attempting to remove some of the hardest aspects of the faith in order to appeal to the masses.
We have made Buddy Christ come into existence by clouding the Christian faith in order to appeal to as many as possible. We have been obedient to the world by believing that if we take away the hard-to-grasp aspects of the Christian faith – such as justification by faith and not works, love of our enemies and the poor, and that faith in Christ is the only way to have an enteral life with God – that more people will come into the church and the faith will grow.
But all we have to do is look around and see that is not the case. Churches in North America are struggling just to get people to come to church. Why is this the case? I do not believe this is because in North America people have stopped being spiritual, but it is because we have failed to be an obedient church that listens for the will of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and acts out of love as a fruitful and engaging witness of the resurrection of Christ Jesus.
As a church, we must repent and return to the example given to us by the Apostles and join once again in the Apostolic witness of the Christian faith. The Apostles did not run from the faith in the face of pressure from human authority, but stood firmly and proclaimed. The results were amazing, as the church grew throughout all of Jerusalem and Asia Minor. We can be this church again in North America. All it takes is a turn away from placing the world as our authority by seeking to be more appealing, and a turn toward the Triune God in obedience and proclamation of the true Christian faith in its fullness.
As the next leaders of the church, the choice is ours to make. Who will be our ultimate authority? Will it be God, or will it be the forces of the world that desire to weaken our witness of the Gospel? Will we stand in the Apostolic witness and join with Peter and the Apostles, Martin Luther King, and others who have stood firm in their obedience to God and obedience to the witness of the faith?
May we all obey God, and be a living witness to the resurrection of Christ this day.