"When intimidated, remember Peter"
April 19, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Acts 5:27-32
"We gave you strict orders," the religious elite told Peter and the others, uneducated and ordinary men in their eyes. Can you imagine the scene? Arrayed before this fisherman and his friends were all the bigwigs of Jerusalem, men of vast intellectual and spiritual skill, all focused on what looked to be a collection of misfits. I shake in the boots a bit when I think of the possibility, a nightmare in many ways. Youíve had dreams like that, havenít you? In them, we stand exposed - perhaps in only our underwear - frozen in fear in front of people who have power over us, real or imaginary. Certainly, thatís what the intent was on the part of those religious leaders: intimidation.
The only problem was that this band of bozos who stood before Annas, Caiaphas and the rest were turning the town upside down. By the thousands, if you believe the counts, people were joining this Jesus movement. And even those who couldnít bring themselves to take that step were in awe of the followers of Jesus, to the point where they placed their sick relatives along the path where Peter and the others might walk, on the chance that the mere shadow of a disciple might fall upon them and healing happen. Things were getting out of hand, as the Sanhedrin saw it.
Jerusalem was dangerous enough as it was. Zealots were all over the place, people sick of Roman domination - ready to die in some holy war at a momentís notice. With the benefit of history, we know that a generation down the road the fires would erupt among the people, and Rome would crack down with an iron fist, tearing apart the city brick by brick, so that all that would remain of the Temple would be one wall at which Jewish believers today still gather and wail, praying through their tears.
Jerusalem was a powder keg ready to explode. Add to it the strange events of Passover that year. The religious leaders thought they had put one fire out when Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities. Unfortunately for them (or so they thought), he couldnít be kept in a grave. His followers insisted that the God of Moses had raised him from death, that they had seen him alive, in fact. Things were getting out of hand fast. After the feast of Pentecost it got worse.
Who were these blasted disciples, anyway? What Rabbi, other than Jesus, did they study under? Did they know the Torah? How could they? Everyone said they were just fishermen and tax collectors - ignorant Galileans who ought to be frightened out of their wits by a show of power. They should have learned their lesson at Calvary.
For a second time the council tried to intimidate Peter and the rest into silence, but they could not. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the council was itself on the verge of intimidation. After all, somehow these men had broken out of jail, and the guards had no idea how it happened. And then, to top it off, instead of hiding somewhere until it was safe to come out, these simpletons were back in the Temple teaching and preaching the very next morning, in full sight of everyone. It was getting absurd!
So the high priest tried to silence Peter and the rest. "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name," he said, "yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us."
I need to pause the story here and share a few thoughts. The first is that these words, and others like them in the New Testament, do not justify anti-Semitism. It was only this year that the Pope openly said that the Jews did not kill Jesus, the Romans did. No big secret, right? Well, it was an important statement, even coming as it did over 50 years after the Holocaust, when anti-Semitism erupted into a national policy of extermination of the Jews, sanctioned through silence by the church. After all, as the age-old sickness said, "the Jews killed Jesus." His blood was on them, or so it would seem. The truth is, however, his blood is on all of humanity, both the blame for his death and the cure found within and beyond it. Letís make sure as we read these lines that we do not, ourselves, get caught in the trap of anti-Semitism.
The other thing I need to say has to do with an online conversation I had this week. As Iíve said, computers are both a blessing and a bane. On the positive side, I now have a resource through this thing called the Internet, that I can explore what others are preaching around the world, literally. Chris Heath, an Anglican pastor in Australia finished his sermon earlier than I did and posted it on the world-wide web where I found and read it for ideas. Something in what he said caught me and I had to challenge him, nicely, and he responded to my prodding.
You see, he started his sermon out at this very point, the talk of blood and blame, and focused on how Peter didnít really listen to the Sanhedrin. He just charged ahead like a bull in a crystal shop, in good confrontational style, perhaps speaking before thinking, setting up an "us against them" scenario. Rev. Heath questioned whether this was the model we, as followers of the prince of peace, should follow. Now, Iíve got to tell you, my Brethren heart thrilled when I read this Anglican call for "a pacifist and non-confrontational form of Christianity." Even so, as I wrote him, I felt he blunted the power of this scripture. Our early Christian and our Anabaptist forbearers, many of whom were killed, tortured, or imprisoned for their faith, knew the power of these words, not as a "militant, confrontational form of Christianity," but as a way of standing up to intimidating power and speaking the truth in love.
My new Australian friend made me aware of the situation in his own parish where his approach was Godís Word needed in that setting at this time. Along the way, though, he helped me to clarify what I see in this scripture. Isnít it funny how the Spirit works, even over intercontinental telephone lines and computers (though God far transcends these puny means)?!
Back to Peter and those first disciples, now called apostles. An attempt was made to intimidate them into silence, not once but twice - and this would not be last such an occasion, by any manner of means. These followers of Jesus were about "life," resurrection "life" discovered in Christ. Their God-given mission was to proclaim it, define it, touch people with it. After all, they had witnessed the overcoming of death. Jesus could not be imprisoned in a tomb. God rolled away the rock, brought him to life. They had seen him with their own eyes, and in the days that followed they were blown into life by the very breath of God. Now the powers that be, whether religious or political, were afraid of this life. It was a threat to "the way things are." The good news, strange as it may sound, is also bad news if you donít want to hear it.
Anyway, those in power wanted Peter and the rest to shut up. They didnít want to hear the truth. Iím reminded of a church I once served, where I discovered only at the end of my time there that one of my predecessors way back in the past had abused his power as Pastor. I had spent many hours over the years counseling a family only to find out that many of their difficulties dated back to an affair this minister had with the wife. A sacred trust was broken, as it had been in other congregations. Sad to say, the truth has not yet been openly spoken. People have been intimidated into silence by this man, still an influential leader in that congregation and in the larger church. Thatís how the power behind sin and death works. "Tell your disciples to be quiet," Jesus had been ordered when he entered Jerusalem that final week. "If they are quiet, the stones themselves will cry out," he replied. The power behind "life" cannot be silenced.
Iím also reminded of some folks here in Baltimore. While I do not agree with the tactics of the brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan and their cohorts in the plowshares movement, I understand their actions in standing up to the death and destruction of our countryís nuclear arsenal. Most recently, in 1995 they broke into a military installation and damaged a Tomahawk cruise missile with hammers (beating swords into plowshares in their own eyes), and then they poured their own blood on it. They then searched out and found some guards and turned themselves in, openly witnessing their faith. To update the situation, they have since served their sentences and paid financial restitution to the government. However the justice department is keeping them from returning to their home community, Jonah House here in Baltimore. Itís called intimidation.
To be honest, what these Catholic pacifists did embarrasses me. I donít really like it, though I consider myself a pacifist as well. To be honest, also, what Peter did long ago sort of embarrasses me. How about you? Letís be honest, now. What he had to say to the council enraged them, so much so that they wanted to kill him. Thatís what it says. Itís sort of like those Quakers of long ago who would walk into another churchís worship service and stand and boldly interrupt the preacher. Can you believe it? When arrested and brought before the magistrates for trial, they would boldly speak the truth with such fervor that people said they literally quaked - thus the name they were called: Quakers.
Back to Peter, can you believe that this is the same fellow who ran away from another council meeting, the one where Jesus was brought before some of these very same people following his arrest? A woman in the crowd thought she recognized Peter as a follower of Jesus, and three times he denied it, and after the cock crowed he escaped and hid throughout the rest of the affair. It was the power of death that silenced him then. He was afraid. But now, in the face of the same intimidation, something is different. Boldly he stands before these people who seek to silence him, perhaps quaking a bit himself, and says, "We must obey God rather than any human authority." Again he preaches a mini-sermon before his intellectual superiors. Itís kind of amazing when you think about it.
Of course, thereís more to the story. A liberal Pharisee named Gamaliel spoke a word of toleration, saying, "leave these followers of Jesus alone, because if this movement is of human origin it will fail, but if itís of God, youíll be fighting against the Almighty." After a flogging (the powers-that-be always have to get their licks in), the apostles were released, rejoicing once more. And they kept right on telling about and showing people the life found in Jesus Christ.
This is not just a story about them. Itís about us, as well. Last Sunday we reveled in the good news of Easter. And then we each went our way, back into a world of business-as-usual. Some of us face situations on the job, in the school, or perhaps even in the home, which deaden the spirit. The power of death still seeks to suppress this "life" we know in Christ. Are we going to keep our mouths shut, our hands closed, and our arms folded in upon ourselves, intimidated, even embarrassed into silence? Or are we going to allow the wind of God to blow us open, that we might be witnesses of the truth, in word or deed? "If you cannot preach like Peter," that old spiritual sings, "if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus and say, ĎHe died for all.í"
©1998Peter L. Haynes
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