Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 28, 2019
Acts 5:27-32 Commentary
To my great surprise and delight, the RCL moves to the book of Acts on this Second Sunday of Eastertide and stays there until Pentecost. Clearly the intent is to follow the trajectory of Easter. What happened to the church and the world after Jesus rose from the dead? Did that single historical act have any longer and larger effect?
The Risen Christ had told his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations—an audacious, almost laughable Commission, given how few of them there were and how poorly equipped they were. Beginning in Jerusalem they were to move to the ends of the earth. How on earth could that happen? The book of Acts was written precisely to answer that question. And our text for today is an absolutely crucial chapter in the story.
I am excited about the Lectionary moving to Acts because of the Easter text on which I wrote last week. Isaiah 65 gave us a magnificent, poetic take on Easter. That single act of Jesus Resurrection inaugurated the new heavens and the new earth. I noted that Isaiah 65:17,18 used the word created (bara in Hebrew, the word from Genesis 1), and I pointed out that the verb could be translated in the future or the imperfect. In other words, the new heavens and the new earth began with the Resurrection and will be completed in the future, but God is also creating that new world right now by a continual and increasing series of actions. Our text in Acts 5 and subsequent readings from Acts show us how God is creating that new world through the witness of the church.
The few verses on which we focus today may seem like a tiny morsel, until we read them in context. Then we see them as the crucial hinge in the early story of the church and the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus’s Resurrection. At the beginning of Acts, the Risen Jesus had told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until God gave them the gift of the Spirit. No matter how convinced they were about Jesus saving work and how committed they were to his mission to the world, they couldn’t begin to bear witness as he told them, until they had the Spirit in them. So, they waited and prayed.
Then Pentecost happened. They were instantly filled with the Spirit and they spontaneously began to bear witness, with stunning results. Three thousand were converted after one Spirit fueled sermon about Jesus death and resurrection. The first apostolic miracle was performed by Peter and John. The populace was amazed at what was happening. It was a heady time.
And then the trouble began. The Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court of Judaism, some 70 priests and scholars) got wind of what was happening. They had Peter and John arrested and thrown in prison. They summoned Peter and John to explain what was going on with this miracle and their preaching. In the power the Spirit, Peter and John boldly witnessed about Jesus. And when the Sanhedrin commanded them to stop speaking in Jesus name, Peter and John simply defied them.
More preaching and more miracles followed. As might be expected, the Sanhedrin arrested and imprisoned not only Peter and John, but also the rest of the apostles. They meant to stamp out this little band of brothers and stop this Jesus nonsense right now. When the authorities sent for the Twelve the next morning, the guards found the cells empty and learned that the Twelve were right back in the Temple courts preaching about Jesus. Enraged, the Sanhedrin hauled the apostles into court (though gently for fear of the awe-struck crowds).
That is where our text picks up the story. The atmosphere is charged with tension, even fear. The Sanhedrin have moved from annoyance to apprehension, “wondering what would come of this (5:24).” Clearly, they were dealing with something of a phenomenon here. These ordinary men were upsetting the whole city of Jerusalem with this Jesus talk. For their part, these apostles should have been afraid, too. After all, they were being threatened by the very men who had killed their Master. But, on the other hand, he had just been raised from the dead. Of that, they were fearless witnesses.
Here is the first serious opposition to the Gospel and the Kingdom it would build. The entire authority of the Jewish religion confronts the entire authority of the church, the 70 against the 12, the showdown at the Temple Court. Would the 70 be able to silence the 12? Would the progress of the Kingdom be stopped before it ever moved out of Jerusalem? Who would blink?
Summoning up all their authority the Sanhedrin speaks in thunderous tones. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.” Note that the high priest can’t bring himself to use the name of Jesus, or won’t allow himself to dignify the name of that damned (literally) criminal he had hung on the cross. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” Of course, they were guilty. But to divert attention from their blood guilt, the high priest virtually accuses the Twelve of a hate crime. In preaching about this man’s death and our role in it, you are making us look bad in the eyes of your audiences. By preaching Jesus as the only Savior, you are denying our religion. You must stop, or else!
Summoning up all their authority the Twelve speak boldly. When the authorities had ordered silence the first time (4:18), Peter and John had been a bit more deferential. “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” Now, this second demand for silence is met with a bolder statement. “We must obey God rather than men!”
Those words have been used over the years to justify all sorts of civil disobedience, but we must be careful not to misapply Scripture. These words do not give everyone carte blanche to pursue their cause in the face of authority, just because they believe God is on their side. The context here must guide us. The Twelve were simply defending their right/obligation to preach the Gospel. Jesus had told them to go and preach the Gospel. They must obey him rather than those who were offended by that Gospel.
The Twelve are very definite about what constitutes the Gospel. It has to do with what God has done in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Yes, those discrete historical acts have much wider Kingdom implications, and we should preach the Kingdom. After all, Jesus did. But we must never forget that the work of God in Christ must be the center of our Gospel preaching. The kingdom will not come, except by God’s actions in Christ and our preaching about those actions. At this critical juncture in the progress of the Kingdom of God on earth, the first preachers were very careful to summarize the Gospel in just a few words.
“The God of our fathers (note how they connect this new word to the old faith) raised Jesus from the dead….” From the beginning, a real resurrection has been at the very heart of the Gospel. And God did it, your God, our God, the God of our fathers, Yahweh. God raised Jesus. That matters more than anything, because, as Paul famously said in I Corinthians 15, if he didn’t rise, then none of the rest is true and we are still in our sins and we are misrepresenting God himself.
So, the Gospel starts with the resurrection, which was necessitated by a crucifixion—“whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” Note that the Twelve don’t simply talk about Jesus’ death; they focus on the means of his death—on a tree. Of course, that’s because the Old Testament said that death-by-hanging-on-a-tree was an accursed death. The one so killed was considered accursed by God. That was the point for the Jewish leaders; he deserved to be cursed because he claimed to be the Son of God and the King of the Jews. He was guilty of both blasphemy and treason and deserved to be cursed by Temple and Rome. That is also the point of the Gospel, but in a very different way. Jesus was accursed, but not for his own sin. For ours.
But the Gospel doesn’t end there. It also proclaims that the Risen Jesus has been “exalted by God (note again that God is the Actor in the story of the Gospel) to his own right hand as Prince and Savior….” The story of Jesus doesn’t end on earth at around 33 AD. It goes on and on, because the very earthly Jesus, the crucified Jesus, the risen Jesus, is now in heaven in the place of ultimate authority, ruling all things and saving the world. There is the Gospel in three acts—crucifixion, resurrection, ascension/session. Anything else is not the Gospel. Anything else will not propel the Kingdom to the ends of the earth and every square inch of creation.
Oh, yes, there is one more element of the Gospel, namely, what this Jesus wants to do now. Well, say his witnesses, God did all those things to and through Jesus “that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” There is so much to unpack in those few words. How we understand them will impact how the gospel will be preached and taught for the next 2000 years.
As we saw last week in Isaiah 65, God will create a whole new world through the work of Christ; everything will be made new. But all the change begins in the human heart and between God and sinners. Before anything else can change, there must be repentance and forgiveness of sins. That doesn’t mean the Gospel is unconcerned with social justice, acts of compassion, deeds of mercy, the reordering of human society along the lines of the Kingdom of God. It means that none of those things can happen until repentance and forgiveness of sins take place.
I could say much more about that, and you may choose to do so, but I will note just two more things about verse 31b. First, repentance and forgiveness are “given” by Jesus. We do not earn forgiveness by repentance. Repentance is as much a gift as forgiveness. Both are part of the salvation won by Christ. We must repent, but to do so, we must rely on Jesus to give us a changed heart and mind. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
Second, Jesus wants to give those gifts to “Israel.” That is an important note, given how subsequent history has used verse 30b as justification to persecute the Jewish people for killing Christ. Such persecution is contrary to the Gospel, not only because Jesus death was the work of only a few Jews, particularly the leaders, but also, and more importantly, because Jesus wants us to forgive them. He himself said, “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.” Here the Apostles summarize the Gospel by saying that the purpose of Jesus saving work was “to give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” Not only to Israel, of course, as later developments in Acts will show, but certainly to Israel first (cf. Romans 9-11).
In this moment of high drama, with the future of the church and the Kingdom and the new heavens and earth on the line, the Apostles do what Jesus commanded them to do—be witnesses for him. This Gospel is not something they made up to perpetuate the myth of Jesus. They are risking their lives because of what they heard and saw and touched. God did these things through Christ, and “we are witnesses of these things.” On such witnessing the church and the kingdom and the world lives, or dies.
Thank God it didn’t just depend on these human witnesses. They were just as frail and frightened as we are, until the Spirit came, to be a co-witness; “and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” He is why the Kingdom is finally irresistible. Nothing can stop it—not the Sanhedrin, not Saul, not Rome, not communism, not post-modern secularism, not “the Prince of Darkness grim.” God has done these things we have seen and heard in Christ. And God the Spirit in us is the light and power we need to keep witnessing. The rest of Acts tells the story of the Acts of the Apostles and the Holy Spirit.
I’m sure you can see that the church today is at a similar critical juncture, a hinge of history. Opposition to the Gospel is growing apace. Daring to say that God has acted to save the world through the death and resurrection of one Jewish man is viewed as the height of intolerance, if not a hate crime. Claiming that Jesus is in charge of everything brings hoots of derision in a world filled with suffering and evil. Calling people to repentance and offering forgiveness is labelled moral and spiritual arrogance. Threats to the church tempt the church to change the terms of the Gospel, so that it is less about what God has done in Christ and more about what we need to do in the name of Christ. What will we do in this showdown in the court of human opinion? May God fill us with his Spirit, so that we dare to obey Jesus rather than humanity and continue to preach the ancient Gospel. On that, the church, the kingdom, and the world depend.
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