It Takes Courage

April 27, 2017 – Thursday in the Second Week of Easter – Acts 5:27-33

Tonight I preached at the seminary’s final Community Eucharist of the semester. To view the sermon click here.

And so it is with today’s reading from The Acts of the Apostles as it has been with many of our readings from Acts since Easter: we join the following program already in progress.

The lectionary people have invited us into a vignette that is but one in a series of events in which the disciples find themselves in deep trouble. They have been performing healing miracles and teaching all over Jerusalem in the name of the Risen Lord Jesus. And here’s the thing: a lot of people are loving it. They’re won over by the hundreds. It’s no secret that Peter and the rest were good at what they were doing, and in tonight’s reading they appear before the council largely for that reason.

At the outset of the passage it says, “When they had brought them [from the Temple where they had been teaching], they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them…” They brought them, they had them stand before the council, and the high priest questioned them—it just sounds like a biblical precedent for our discernment process.

But, it’s more than that. We need to pay attention to what’s happening here—it’s pretty serious stuff. This is the same council that Jesus appeared before. These folks really don’t like the disciples stirring up people’s emotions and disturbing the civil order. No government does.

The council elders say, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”

Listen to that: “You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”

It’s blood that the council members don’t want anything to do with, bad blood. “Don’t you go blaming us for his death!” the council elders seem to be saying. [1] Oh the nastiness, animosity, and distrust they feel toward that blood!

For many Christians today that blood is a good thing. It’s like when I see Tom Early in the hallway. “How are you, Tom?” He replies with a crooked smile, pointing his index finger at me, “Washed in the blood of the lamb.” The fountains of hymnody flow with it. It’s the only tonic capable of curing our sinful ways.

But these folks are afraid of that blood (and rightfully so perhaps). They don’t trust what the disciples are doing. “Don’t blame me for what’s happened!” It’s like—don’t put that evil on me!

They’re afraid, and they’re mad at the disciples; mad because they fear being associated with Jesus and his death. Deep down I think they’re scared that what happened to him will happen to them if the disciples keep winning people over. As their fear increases they lash out in anger at the disciples who are the living, breathing symbols of Jesus.

Sound familiar? It’s what we do. It’s our human condition, evidence of our frailty. When we’re afraid, it feels more natural, easier, to lash out in anger than it does to take up courage. When everything is piling up, you’re exhausted just trying to make it to the end, and you open your mail box and find a C- where there should be at least a B+ and you get angry. You might not pass. You take it out on the professor. Then you find out your diocese has released you, you might not have a job. You take it out on your spouse or your bishop. These types of things don’t exactly breed courage, but courage is exactly what it’s going to take to fill Jerusalem with the news of the Risen Christ.

This is the last one of these Thursday night Eucharists for a while, and as we look around the room we’ll the see the faces of those who won’t be here when the next one rolls around. Some of our friends won’t be back. They’re headed out into a world that’s very fearful. They’ll need some courage to fill Jerusalem with the news of the Risen Christ.

Courage is required, or else we’ll get stuck in the cycle of fear, too. When your new neighbor at the rectory says, “Listen preacher, it’s like I told the last guy, we don’t need you nosing around here. Wife’s got cancer and my back is acting up again. I’m out of work. God has nothing to do with us.” It’s too easy to ignore the promise of Easter in times like that and to become a prisoner of fear. We can’t let ourselves do that.

We’ve got to take courage like the disciples do when they say, “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” they say. “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus … exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior … and we are witnesses to these things…”

That kind of courage is a no-brainer to them by this point. They are literal witnesses to the resurrection. They have no reason to fear any civil authority. When they said this council members got so mad they wanted to kill the disciples. But it’s no matter; the disciples have a reason to hope.

They may have no reason to fear death, but for us it’s much harder, don’t you think? Can you go out into Jerusalem and testify to things that enrage people to the point they want to kill you? It takes a lot of courage. Can you do it?

And don’t say, “Well Peter did it and he’s our model so we’ve got to go and do likewise,” because it’s not the same. No, it’s not the same for us, because they actually saw it. They were there when they nailed him up and they were there to hear the news of his resurrection and they were there when he appeared to them, and breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

They were there, but we weren’t. It was easier for them to live into the promise of the resurrection because they witnessed it firsthand and so could obey God without question, right? It’s harder for us, right? It’s harder now that it’s 2017. That was all so long ago. I want to know how we can do it now!

To say today that we must obey God rather than any human authority—it’s laughable! Can you even imagine how much courage that would take?

Where does it come from? Where does our courage come from today?

In a nursing home sits an old woman that I’ve become reacquainted with recently. She’s the sweetest thing, but it’s a terrible place. I bet you’ve been there. It’s damp and cramped. There are fans that circulate air that has long since stopped moving; all they do is mix the smell from the kitchen with the smell of stale bed sheets. She’s so sweet, but I don’t know how she has the courage to go on in there. The staff members are always scowling. They don’t even try to hide it from the visitors anymore. Where does her courage come from? I can hardly even stand to visit.

Before I knock on the door I peek my head around and see her there reading her Bible. It’s the only book she’ll even try to read anymore. I don’t know how she could go on. I sit down and she tells me she’s been thinking about her family. Each night when the nurse puts her in bed she thinks of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and she prays for them. How does she go on? The nurse comes in to bring her pills. “Oh, thank you so much, honey. I know you’re busy,” she says. How does she do it? She tells me about her new friend at her table in the dining room. They used to go to church near each other, so they have something to talk about. “She’s a good Christian woman,” she says. As I get up to leave she asks me, “Before you go, do you think we might have a prayer?”

I just don’t know where she gets that courage…

 

[1] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors. The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 208.

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