“Are we there yet?” This is a well-known question for anyone who’s ever taken a trip. This year we’ve traveled the redemption road through the season of Lent, and now we continue the journey toward Pentecost, encountering new questions and moving more deeply into the new life we receive in Jesus. Early Christian disciples were known as followers of “The Way”—referring to the way of life embodied, taught, and empowered by Jesus of Nazareth. In those early communities lots of questions emerge along The Way! During the Great Fifty Days of Easter, we will explore some of those questions based on stories from the Acts of the Apostles and how they remain relevant for us today.
When Is Disobedience Faithful?
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC April 28, 2019, the second Sunday of Easter. “Questions Along The Way” series.
Text: Acts 5:27-32
As we turn a corner into a new stretch of spiritual road—from the Lenten journey to what our tradition calls “The Great Fifty Days of Easter—we are jumping into the book called “The Acts of the Apostles” or “Acts” for short. This book is part two of the Gospel according to Luke. It was written by the same author, provides the sequel to Jesus’ life, and is a narrative about the early experiences of the communities formed in the way of life taught and modeled by Jesus. These early followers of Jesus were known as people of “The Way.” Something you might consider between now and the end of the Great Fifty Days (June 9th) is to read Luke and Acts as you would any short(ish) story. If you’d like some occasional reflections on the texts, check out the CEB Women’s Bible—I wrote the introductions and reflections for these two books in that volume. Through that work, I came to more fully appreciate the way that Acts—Part II—is unfinished. It’s like a movie that ends on a cliffhanger that never gets resolved. I’m pretty sure this is intentional, since the author of Luke and Acts is a skilled storyteller. The point seems to be that the story is still getting written, chapter after chapter written through the lives of followers of The Way from the time of the original apostles up until today…
In order to set today’s text’s showdown between the apostles and that sect of the Sadducees in proper context, let me highlight a bit of what has transpired before. The Acts of the Apostles begins with Jesus still among the people. Before he leaves, he orders them to stay in Jerusalem and gives them this promise/commission: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The apostles and key women leaders do as they are instructed, and in Jerusalem on the day of the Jewish festival of Pentecost, Jesus’ promise is realized: God’s Spirit descends upon them, enlivening them and empowering them to be brave and bold in proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ liberating love and resurrection.
The story continues as Peter preaches boldly about Jesus’ life and resurrection and calls people to repent—to turn away from deathly things and toward life in God. The apostles are reported as accomplishing signs and wonders and the people as living together in disciplined and peaceful mutuality (Acts 2:43-47). People flock to the apostles seeking healing—and they receive it! The ruling classes become concerned about this message of new life and liberation that is mobilizing the people and so they bring Peter and John in for questioning. The story makes the point that the political power brokers saw Peter and John were “uneducated and ordinary” men and were amazed that these were the people responsible for what was happening. (Acts 4:13) The followers of The Way of Jesus are doing radical things like not claiming private ownership of anything, but sharing their possessions to care for the needs of all the members of the community. (Acts 4:32-35)
Throughout all of this, the message is that it is not the apostles themselves accomplishing signs and wonders, but God at work through them. They were being obedient to The Way of Jesus, they were making themselves available, staying close to God through prayer, stepping out with boldness, and allowing the life-giving power of God to flow through their lives for the good of others. They were telling the story of Jesus—of his life, his unjust death, and his resurrection—and were calling upon the name of Jesus to bring liberation and healing to people who cried out for care.
This leads the apostles to be put in prison. But the story goes that during the night an angel of God (literally “messenger”) snuck them out during the night and told them to “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” (Acts 5:20)
This brings us to our story today. Certain leaders within the religious establishment had given orders—they had perhaps even passed legislation—outlawing the invocation of Jesus’ name and the proclamation of Jesus’ teaching. But Peter and the others were clear that no human decree would keep them from obeying the word and Way of Jesus. They were commissioned by Jesus to be his witnesses and they were empowered by the Spirit to do just that. And so they proclaim, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Their disobedience almost got them killed, but thanks to the intercession of a wise Pharisee named Gamaliel, they were flogged and released. The story ends with them rejoicing that they were deemed worthy to suffer for the sake of the name of Jesus. (I’m not suggesting an equivalency, but I remember the way I felt when the folks from Westboro Baptist gleefully spat hateful words at me every time I walked past them outside General Conference in St. Louis. I literally rejoiced when they called me a “nasty woman!”). The last line of this story reads, “Every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.” (Acts 5:42) From the beginning right through to the end of the book of Acts, those who follow The Way of Jesus refuse to be silenced by persecution.
Now all this can be easily coopted by persons or groups from a variety of perspectives. As one biblical scholar says, the idea of obeying God rather than the will of human beings is an important principle, but “has a bad and a good history. Some of the problems facing the world today arise from people’s conviction that they need to obey God—and not listen to reason or see the effects of their actions. On the other hand, some of the world’s problems also arise because people obey the dictates generated by the interests around them instead of by what, before God, they know is right. Getting people to see and do what is right remains extraordinarily difficult—both at a personal and at a political level.”[i]
Our debates over “religious liberty” fall firmly in this territory. (To bake or not to bake?) And certainly our current situation in the United Methodist Church lives here as well. There are those who think that obedience to God means excluding LGBTQ persons from ordination and covenant marriage. There are those who may be sympathetic—and may even desire full inclusion for LGBTQ persons—but who believe obeying the human crafted rules in the Book of Discipline is the faithful thing to do. Others may be uncomfortable with breaking the rules or the agreement made at ordination, but feel compelled to do so because prayerful discernment leads them to believe that some rules are in conflict with the word and Way of Jesus. This is the grounding for the sacred resistance movement Bishop Mel Talbert coined as “Biblical Obedience.”
The latter is where I—and we at Foundry—clearly stand. We are not called, commissioned, and empowered by Spirit to be witnesses to harmful church law. We are called, commissioned, and empowered by Spirit to be witnesses to the power of God poured out upon ALL flesh (Acts 2:17), the liberating power of Jesus working through ALL those who God calls (Acts 2:39), and the life-giving power of God’s love for all God’s beloved children.
The thing is, figuring out how to be obedient to God’s Way of life and love isn’t always clear. Breaking rules, engaging in civil or ecclesiastical disobedience, and practicing sacred resistance—all of this requires discernment. It isn’t something to be taken lightly. When is disobedience faithful?
As people of The Way of Jesus, it makes sense for us to look at Jesus’ teaching as the model. My shorthand for this: God loves the world. God desires life to flourish, God heeds the cries of the suffering, and always works for good in the world. God empowers us to participate in caring for the life of the world. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus embodied all of this in his life on earth and in his death on the cross. Jesus’ obedience to God’s law of love and justice set him in opposition—disobedience—to the human laws that literally and figuratively stole life from people—and ultimately stole his human life.
We are called to be witnesses and to obey Jesus, the crucified one. And this means that we identify with those who are “crucified” in our own day—the innocent victims, the scapegoats, the ones crying out for justice. As another scholar says, when “the powerful of the world have gone too far…When the powerless are victimized—whether this means powerless people or powerless creatures of any sort, and whether this means physical victimization or more subtle types of oppression—then the faithful church resists.[ii]
It is obedience to the crucified one that helps us stand firm as we disobey harmful church law and participate in actions that disrupt the unjust status quo in our civic and political life. It is our obedience to the crucified one that fuels our proclamation that it is faithful to disobey any voice that tries to convince you that you are not beautiful and beloved, that you are less than someone else, that you’re a “nobody,” that you don’t matter, that you don’t have something to offer, that you deserve to be treated as a second-class citizen or second-class church member.
As I was thinking about our topic for today, a line from one of our prayers of confession kept floating through my mind: “Free us for joyful obedience.” And then I thought of the early followers of Jesus rejoicing even when their obedience to God meant disobedience to the earthly powers and how that, in turn, led to persecution and violence against them.
Those early followers of The Way were filled with Spirit and with love and with boldness and with courage. They, like Jesus, wouldn’t be controlled by the powers that denied healing, liberation and new life for those on the margins, for the suffering, and oppressed. These weren’t superheroes who worked wonders of God’s love. They were “uneducated and ordinary.” They were people like you and me who prayed together, studied together, shared their resources with one another and with those in need, dealt with conflict and challenge together, ate together, and then—having discerned the best they could—stepped out into the world to disobey anything that was counter to The Way of Jesus, no matter the consequence. May we write the next chapter in that story…
[i] William Loader, http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/CActsEaster2.htm
[ii] Douglas John Hall, The Confessing Church, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996, p. 133