When we meet the risen Christ, we are given peace and life and a relationship of love and life with the Triune God, which gives us peace and confidence to trust God’s authority in our lives and follow it, to act on our faith in the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Second Sunday of Easter C; texts: Acts 5:27-32; John 20:19-31
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
This is a remarkable change. An amazing change. A surprising change. Pick the adjective you want, the apostles in Acts 5, our first reading, are very different from the ones of John 20, our Gospel. In John, they’re frightened, locked behind closed doors, fearful of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council who had condemned Jesus and urged his execution. In Acts, only a few months later, they find themselves under arrest for preaching about Jesus’ resurrection, and they stand before that very council of their own authorities and fearlessly refuse to stop their preaching. In effect, they challenge the council to do what it has to do, but they will not stop telling everyone they can about Jesus. They have no fear of earthly authority. They know who the true authority of their lives is, and they won’t back down.
It’s nothing short of miraculous, this transformation. From cowed, hiding followers to brave, fearless leaders in only a few short months, something happened to them which changed them. And the Bible says that what happened is they met Jesus alive, after they had seen him killed. And nothing was ever the same for them again.
All of which raises the question for us: do we share such faith? Do we have such confidence in the authority of God in our lives that we can be so fearless? Willing to face death rather than disobey God? Unafraid of anything anyone could do to us, and completely focused on our call to proclaim and serve the risen Lord?
Maybe we have to start with another question: do we even want such zeal?
Our living out of our faith can sometimes be a quiet one. And we can, at times, be fine with that.
In a pluralistic society it’s not really even a question anymore whether we’ll be challenged in court to defend our faith and our discipleship, our actions. And since we aren’t persecuted for our faith, arrested for our faith, we have the luxury of considering faith a completely private affair if we want.
In a tolerant America, about the only offensive faith action you can do in the eyes of many is try to convince your neighbor to believe what you believe. Groups which proselytize, which loudly proclaim what they believe in public, on the air, in the media, make a lot of the country uncomfortable. Perhaps including us.
In fact, given the rationale many terrorists give for their actions, that of obedience to the commands of God, and adherence to the dictums of their faith, many Americans, perhaps including us, find unquestioning obedience to God distasteful, if not downright dangerous.
Add to this the reality that some Christians in particular are trying to, as they put it, re-claim this country for Christianity, in effect re-writing our history to suggest the founders intended this to be a Christian nation, and trying to assert that we should be again.
So last week in North Carolina some legislators introduced a bill which would exempt North Carolina from the federal constitutional mandate that no law may be made respecting an establishment of religion. They wanted to make Christianity the state religion of North Carolina, and be exempt from federal laws prohibiting any such favoritism. The bill has since been removed from consideration. But I’m sure they believed they were acting according to the mandates of their faith. I’m sure they looked to Peter and the apostles today as their proper forebears.
So here’s the hard thing: if we disagree with the obedience terrorists claim to God, if we disagree with these legislators, then potentially this means we believe what the apostles are doing in Acts is unacceptable to us, inappropriate, perhaps dangerous.
And that puts us in a bit of an awkward spot, doesn’t it, given that we call ourselves disciples of the same risen Lord Jesus?
The witness of the early Church got the witnessers into trouble at many turns. They were considered rabble rousers, and many were executed for their preaching and teaching. They harmed the economies of towns and villages and cities by preaching against false gods which threatened the economic system that the worship of such gods generated. They harmed the quietness of the same places by preaching about this risen Jesus and inviting, exhorting, calling to people to leave all they believed and come to a new faith, a new life.
The last thing faith was to these early believers was private.
It seems there’s a gap between our expectation of how one should live out one’s faith in the public sphere and the expectation of the disciples of Jesus. And as soon as someone’s faith convictions lead them to involvement in politics, in urging the government to act, in speaking out for what they believe and trying to influence public policy, many of us get nervous.
As the events in North Carolina show, recently it has been right-wing Christians who want to inflict their views and beliefs on all of us. Many of us think that is wrong of them to do. But are we thereby shirking our call as disciples?
This actually is a familiar American difficulty with nuance and subtlety. We’re not very good at that. This is not a question, it turns out, of complete quietism and keeping one’s faith to oneself on the one hand and terrorism, Nazism, fascism, or American Christian theocracy on the other.
Somewhere in between those two convenient extremes which permit outrage without intelligence and criticism without discernment, somewhere in between lies this reality: to have faith in God at all means that God has a say in how we live our lives. That’s the truth. If we have faith in God, God has a say in how we live our lives.
And to live as a believer in God in a free society, where we are all expected to participate in governing ourselves, means that our faith will of necessity shape our politics, our votes, our public speech. Or there is no faith to speak of. Again, this is simply truth: if we believe, our faith will shape how we are.
It is not an integrated faith to be a believer in the risen Lord Jesus and keep that to oneself. It is not an integrated faith to be a believer in the risen Lord Jesus and not act on Jesus’ call to love God and love neighbor in a public way. Loving one’s neighbor inside the confines of one’s house and never stepping outside to help that neighbor is hardly love.
And once we step outside, once we act on the love of God that we know, we have become politically involved in some way. That’s just the way it is.
So the question remains: If we’re involved the moment we step outside, what will that look like?
This week we commemorate Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the 68th anniversary of his execution by the Nazis. He was a very important theologian and preacher among those who opposed Hitler. He was a pacifist and an ethicist, and his writings still inspire and teach today.
He also was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. What’s powerful to me about his involvement as I understand it is that he believed it was a great sin to do this. He had no illusions that somehow this was exempt from God’s law. But he also believed that doing this sin was the only right choice he had as a Christian. And as it turns out, he was arrested, among many others, after the plot failed, and was executed only weeks before the war with Germany ended.
Whether Bonhoeffer was right in doing a sin to try to save others is not the question for us today. The question for us is: can we even conceive of such a dilemma in our lives?
Can we even consider what it means to be so convicted by our faith that we act in a way we believe God desires us to act, even if it means others will not like us, others will be offended by us? I’m not envisioning we’ll be arrested. But it seems that even offending others can be a daunting fear for us sometimes.
What changes the question for us is what changed it for those first disciples: as these disciples found out, the risen Jesus comes through the locked doors of our fears and offers us peace. What happened to the disciples, the thing that changed them forever, has happened to us: we have seen the risen Jesus in our midst, he’s come through our defenses, and calms our fears.
There is a deep, abiding peace that Jesus offers his followers – not just the peace of knowing that he is risen and has defeated death, though that is the heart of our lives. But that peace leads to a deeper peace: knowing that if in fact Jesus is Lord of all, and has defeated death, we need not fear anything. And that means we have no reason not to follow Jesus’ call.
He comes through the locked doors of our lives and then invites us to open them and step outside ourselves. To be witnesses to his love and life for the whole world.
And that’s where we begin the conversation together. With questions like these:
• What does it mean to follow the Son of God who calls us to be peacemakers, who asks us to follow the prophets’ call to do justice and walk humbly with God?
• What does it mean in a pluralistic society to follow the Triune God’s authority and not human authority? How do we know what God wants, for that matter?
• How do we follow God’s authority as we understand it, and still have respect and tolerance for those who believe differently from us?
• What would it mean for us to take our faith out of the private sphere of our living rooms and act in the world as people who are filled with new life from God and a message of God’s love for all?
I don’t know what our answers will be to these questions, or others like them. I only know it’s vital that we ask them of each other.
It’s why congregations periodically take time to do what we’re beginning now, to have a process of visioning and discerning, to ask from time to time the question “what is God calling us to be and do now, in this place, in this time?”
It’s simply the only honest way to deal with the faith we claim to have. There has never been a time when the Bible told believers that the highest aspiration of their faith was to keep it to themselves and not bother anyone. Jesus has always done something after giving peace and hope and faith to his followers: he’s sent them out to change the world.
That might make us uncomfortable. That’s good. And we might not be ready to risk our lives for God, so it’s a good thing we probably won’t be asked to do that this week. But we could start by taking baby steps of faith. We could be a little more courageous and willing to talk with each other about how we live as faithful people in this world. Let’s not allow ourselves to imagine that suddenly, in our generation, God’s plan is that we stay home with our faith. Let’s walk through the door Jesus has opened for us.
Most of all, let’s rejoice in the peace our risen Jesus gives us and ask him to keep giving us this peace even as we begin to seek a deeper discipleship and obedience of faith.
In the name of Jesus. Amen