Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 24, 2022
Acts 5:27-32 Commentary
Oh how I wish the Lectionary had extended this lection to include the words of Gamaliel that follow. Because there this key leader of the Sanhedrin says something that is at once utterly sensible and miraculously prescient. Once Peter makes it clear that they cannot be frightened into silence by the likes of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel looks into the eyes of his colleagues and sees the fires of anger and vengeance beginning to flare back up. They are ready to lock Peter and company into irons or do far worse to them than just that. So Gamaliel steps into the breach.
“Look, my friends, let’s be both sensible and cautious here. These Messiah wannabes are a dime a dozen. I’ll mention Theudas and Judas the Galilean but you know full well we could multiply that list ten-fold in no time. It goes like this every time: Impressive preacher rises to prominence, scores and then hundreds of people desperate for a little meaning in their lives hitch their sorry wagons to his rising star, rising star gets rubbed out by the Romans or someone else, legions of followers fall apart. They go home. They start their search for Mr. Wonderful all over again. Believe me, gentlemen, we’ll never hear the name of Theudas again. And if all there is to this Jesus movement is a dead itinerant rabbi and now these pathetic rag-tag followers who are trying to resuscitate the dying corpse of the cult through a cockamamie story of resurrection . . . well, no worries. It will soon enough go the way of Theudas and company. And if not . . . well, let’s grant a 1.78% probability that this is of God. If so, we cannot stop it no matter what we do. So trust me: sitting back and letting this thing play itself out is our best option.”
Well, Gamaliel had a point. Plus, it was getting late in the day, Happy Hour beckoned, and since a trial and sentencing chewed up a lot of clock time, the Sanhedrin just let Peter and John go with a slap on the wrist and yet another generic plea to stop talking about Jesus. The apostles then left with joy but notice: it was not because they had “beat the rap” but because getting even a little roughed up by the authorities was exactly what Jesus told them to expect would happen in case they were faithful to the Gospel and its proclamation.
The Sanhedrin had no power over these men.
There is a moment in the grim and gritty film The Dark Knight when the sociopathic character of The Joker is being flung around and beaten about the head by a desperate Batman who needs the Joker to give him some information. But the Joker doesn’t fear death, he holds all the good cards, and so the brute force through which someone like Batman can usually get his way and win his victories is meaningless in this encounter. “You have nothing, nothing to threaten me with, nothing you can do to me with all your strength.” Precisely because this is true, it about drives Batman over the edge. People who live by power, who live by the sword, generally go crazy when it turns out none of that can make a dent in someone’s behavior.
Of course, the apostles in Acts 5 are the opposite of a sick sadist like the Joker (I hope I didn’t need to point that out actually!). But in a real way their message to the Sanhedrin is the same: “You have no power over us, nothing to threaten us with!” They know the truth and among the truths they know is that Jesus promised a level of persecution and opposition on a par to what he himself experienced. And the apostles know something else: precisely because in his resurrection Jesus won the victory over the worst thing this world can dole out—death itself—even the specter of death is not quite enough to unmake them in front of the authorities.
The core of the Truth Peter and the others are called to proclaim means both that they cannot stop talking about it just because some don’t care for the message and that there is no threat so fiery that would not in one sense confirm the Truth of their message (because their own Master predicted just such opposition) and, precisely on account of the threat, cause them to cling even more tightly to the truth that Jesus’ love is stronger than death.
That boxes the authorities in rather neatly, you see, and will drive them crazy for a very long time to come and right on down to this present day. Even today many in secular society try to treat religion like a hobby, something that could stay private and sequestered on a par with building model airplanes in your basement or collecting stamps or doing scrapbooking. Why would any such thing have to accompany a person to work, to Congress, to the mall, or to anywhere else? What the authorities fail to see again and again is that the nature of the Truth that just is the Gospel is by necessity as broad and as capacious as can be. It’s a matter of life and death to those who believe because somewhere very near the heart of the whole message are matters that traffic in, well, life and death!
Gamaliel ended up being right on two counts: a fake movement would die out (and the death of this group’s leader had thus far caused the opposite to happen, which is weird right there). Also, if God were really behind this, they could no more stop it than they could repeal the Law of Gravity.
Nearly 2,000 years since Jesus walked alive out of a tomb, the Year C Common Lectionary assigns this Acts 5 passage for the Sunday following Easter. It’s a Sunday decidedly quieter than the week before. Fewer people show up at church. The extra bells and whistles and musical numbers and instruments that had been used on Easter Sunday morning are gone and the liturgy in most churches will look pretty normal and ordinary again. That’s OK. The fact is people will still come. All over the world and two millennia later people will still come. They will sing. They will pray. Someone will stand up to clear his or her throat to share a sermon on a text perhaps like this one. It’s been happening like this in the church for ever-so-long now.
“If this thing is of God” Gamaliel predicted, “there will be no stopping it.”
He had that right, thanks be to God!
According to an old adage, it takes a thief to catch a thief. But sometimes it also takes a thief to be able to identify those who are, as a matter of fact, not thieves. Such was the case some years ago when the convicted Watergate co-conspirator, Charles Colson, wrote that it was precisely his experience as a man involved in a fraud and a cover-up that convinced him of the truth of the New Testament and, particularly, its witness to the resurrection. Colson was part of the Nixon administration and learned one of the most painful lessons in politics the hard way: viz., crimes and mistakes in government are bad enough but 99 times out of 100, the attempt to cover it up creates far more problems.
But what was particularly interesting to Colson was another thing he learned along the path that eventually landed him in prison: people involved in a lie, in a fraud, in a cover-up will only suffer so much before they crack and tell the truth. Very few people are willing to suffer for very long in defense of a lie. Very few people can stand to see their family members suffer in defense of a lie. And very, very few people are willing to die for what they know is a lie.
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