A sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter (Acts 5:27-32; Rev 1:4-8)
And leading the apostles forward, they made them stand before the Sanhedrin. And the chief priest interrogated them, saying: “We strictly commanded you not to teach in this name, and now look – you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you want to bring the blood of this man down upon us.” And Peter and the apostles said in response: “It is necessary to obey God rather than human beings. The God of our forebears raised Jesus, upon whom you laid hands in violence, hanging him up on a tree. This man God exalted to his right hand as leader and savior for the purpose of giving repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. And we are witnesses to these matters, along with the Holy Spirit which God gave to those obeying him.” (Acts 5:27-32)
In the ebb and flow of church attendance and energy, the Sunday after Easter tends to fare poorly. We in the ministries of word, sacrament, and the worship arts put forth our best efforts for Holy Week and Easter, in part because we know that we will be serving our largest assembly of congregants since Christmas Eve and until the next Christmas Eve. Then we marshal whatever is left over for the Second Sunday of Easter with the relaxation that comes from knowing church attendance will probably not merely return to normal, but will drop below normal, as many of our parishioners will go on a short diet in regard to religion after the surfeit of Holy Week. Throughout my life, whether serving in Episcopal, Lutheran, and United Methodist congregations, I have heard this Sunday most frequently called “Low Sunday,” as if this were the official designation of the day in the liturgical calendar. Last week we sang “The Strife is O’er”; perhaps today we ought to sing “The Hype is O’er,” as we begin to slump our way back towards ordinary time.
Our Scripture readings today, however, point in an entirely different direction. The resurrection of this Jesus has changed everything. The implications of the resurrection are stunning, and these readings urge us to discover these implications more fully and throw ourselves into falling in line with them more fully. Easter is not the climax of events that had been set in motion; Easter has set events in motion, and there is work now to be done – divine purposes to be fulfilled as these purposes come to drive our lives, preparations energetically to be undertaken in view of future divine encounters!
Nothing makes this clearer than the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. The resurrection of Jesus, catalyzed by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, impels Jesus’ disciples to proclamation, mission, and the organization of a new community right there in the courts and porticoes of the Jerusalem Temple – under the noses of the very people who had hoped to defuse this Jesus movement by collaborating with the Roman overlords to dispatch its leader. Giving all credit to the Holy Spirit, Luke portrays the phenomenal consolidation and growth of the Jesus movement in response to the preaching and wonder-working of its principal leaders, particularly Peter and John. The chief priests and ruling council of Judea – the Sanhedrin – act quickly to quash it. After arresting the apostles and letting them spend the night in the prison, they command them to cease and desist, to which Peter and John can only reply on behalf of the group, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). The apostles’ response is to pray for greater boldness and to continue their work of declaring all that God had done and was continuing to do through Jesus, which leads to their arrest a second time. This time, however, the Lord sent an angel to open the doors of the prison. When the Sanhedrin sent for them, the guards reported that they were back in the Temple courts proclaiming Jesus. And so we arrive at today’s reading.
The high priest believed the apostles’ actions to be directed against them, aimed at “bringing this man’s blood upon us” (5:28), arousing popular indignation such as might lead to mob violence against the members of the Sanhedrin in retaliation. He was understandably concerned. Peter has not been at all subtle on this point in his preaching up to this point (Acts 2:23; 3:13-15, 17; 4:10-11), holding the leaders and people of Jerusalem to have been complicit with Pilate and the Gentile occupation force responsible in the execution of God’s Anointed One. No one escapes some responsibility for the guilt of Jesus’ execution, which is only theologically proper since, to borrow from Isaiah, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6).
Peter interrupts the high priest to clarify his aim and the aim of his apostolic colleagues. It was not to bring down bloodguilt upon the Sanhedrin. If Jesus’ story had ended on the cross or in the tomb, that might have been Peter’s motive, once he screwed up the courage to come out from behind his locked doors. But the resurrection changed everything.
The God of our forebears raised Jesus, upon whom you laid hands in violence, hanging him up on a tree. This man God exalted to his right hand as leader and savior for the purpose of giving repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.
God’s resurrection of Jesus, while it indeed vindicated Jesus from the accusations of blasphemy and covenant disobedience heaped upon him, also meant that God was offering the crucified and risen Jesus as a great olive branch to the disobedient nation, inviting them to repent and assuring them of forgiveness if they did. The apostolic proclamation was not a call for the condemnation of the Jewish leaders but an invitation extended to all the people to reconciliation with God and the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. Repentance and forgiveness did not merely have in view the city’s recent rejection of Jesus and their leaders’ cooperation with the Roman occupation force to eliminate him. Israel’s experience of foreign domination, essentially since 587 BC, and the scattering of the people throughout the lands of the Gentiles was widely understood to be a consequence of Israel’s historic and persistent disobedience to the covenant as a whole. By bringing Jesus back from the dead as “Leader and Savior,” God was generously offering Israel a fresh start, setting them “free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39 NRSV), because the sacrificial system instituted by that law included no provisions for willful disobedience. At this stage in the narrative, the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for Israel’s repentance is alone in view. God will shortly lead Peter and the whole body of apostles to realize, however, that a similar opportunity for “repentance unto life” was being offered to the Gentiles – the other party involved in the death of the Messiah – as well (Acts 11:18).
The resurrection of Jesus speaks volumes about God’s ability to right wrongs. The majority of the Sanhedrin and the Roman occupiers committed the quintessential wrong – brutalizing and killing God’s Anointed One. But as Peter and the other apostles stand there before the Sanhedrin, God has already righted that wrong: God has raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating him from the disgrace of the false charges and degrading death, restoring the life that was taken from him – and then some! As Jesus’ friends proclaim Jesus in the Temple courts and here stand before the court that handed Jesus over to Pilate, they seek only repentance and reconciliation, not revenge. God has already reversed the wrong; now it falls to the apostles to reverse only the perceptions of Jesus that led to the wrong.
To what extent has God’s resurrection – God’s vindication – of Jesus penetrated our awareness of God’s ability and commitment to right the wrongs that we’ve suffered and that we’ve seen inflicted, such that we, too, are freed to call perpetrators to repentance and reconciliation (though, indeed, always to repentance as the path to reconciliation) rather than to call down revenge upon them? If we can imagine extreme wrongs in regard to which we think a summons to repentance inappropriate because the wrong is so great as to be unforgivable, let us not allow those to negate the challenge that the apostles’ example here lays upon us to experience such a transformation in regard – let us be honest – to the vast majority of wrongs that we have ourselves experienced or witnessed.
The impetus for proclaiming this opportunity for repentance to all people comes not only from the past – from God’s resurrection of Jesus from the dead for this purpose – but also from the future that looms before all. We can count on John the Visionary to bring this to the fore, as he does in this day’s reading from Revelation: “Look! He comes with the clouds, and every eye will see him, and whoever pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn for him. Indeed, so shall it be” (Rev 1:7). But Luke does as much in Acts, particularly holding up the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the assurance of Jesus’ future coming in judgment. Luke’s Paul declares to an Athenian audience on the Areopagus: “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). Repentance – turning our lives back toward the One God and the grateful and loyal obedience due God – is the path to survival in the face of this future judgment. It is the means by which that future coming will be experienced as salutary, bringing “times of refreshing … from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19-21 NRSV). We see incidentally how all three elements of the mystery of faith hang consecutively and consequentially together – not just that “Christ has died” and that “Christ is risen,” but also indeed that “Christ will come again.”
Both Acts and Revelation speak about our primary loyalties during in this interim period. In our reading from Acts, the apostles declare for the second time their commitment to obey God rather than human beings, where human beings make demands that run counter to the commission given them by God. Their experience of the resurrected Jesus and the Holy Spirit convinced the apostles that they could know what God required of them better than the Sanhedrin could know, which the latter would have regarded as singularly presumptuous. Nevertheless, the apostles had to risk making this affront and risk suffering the consequences in order not to offer affront to God by fearing human authorities above God.
Christians would continue to take such a bold stand throughout the ages. Indeed, as we read about the boldness of those early apostles for whom angels threw open prison doors, we are bound to remember our sisters and brothers throughout the world today for whom prison doors do not open, but who, like the early apostles and their disciples throughout the ages, nevertheless rejoice to be “considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:41) and who, also like the early apostles, do not “cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah” (Acts 5:42), holding fast to their profession of faith and their hope in God’s reign and God’s kingdom, securing their citizenship there at the cost of their freedom, their enjoyment of all we take for granted, and often their very lives here.
They can do so, in part, because the resurrection of Jesus has changed everything. As John described Jesus, he is “the firstborn from among the dead” (Rev 1:5); Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee of God’s determination to raise with Jesus all who belong to Jesus and follow him in loyal obedience. They can do so because the resurrection of Jesus is the sure sign that God has appointed him “the ruler of the kings of the earth”; God has determined that “the kingdom of the world” must cede its power and authority to “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Rev 11:15). The resurrection of Jesus summons them to obey this higher authority, no matter the cost inflicted by the temporary powers that oppose Christ’s kingdom in the person of his devotees.
Such people are our fellow citizens in that political body to which our first allegiance is also due – the kingdom of God, the people “from every nation and language and tribe and people” redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Our commitment to them as they pay the cost of obeying God rather than human beings is one necessary expression of our allegiance to the kingdom of which we are fellow-citizens together. Their experience of our love and solidarity – to the extent that they experience this – is the confirmation of Jesus’ promise to all those who have left behind “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news” that they will “receive a hundredfold now in this age” (Mk. 10:29-30 NRSV).
The mystery of faith makes no less robust a claim upon our lives, however, as it does upon the lives of our courageous sisters and brothers advancing Christ’s kingdom and holding loyalty to Jesus dearer than life and liberty in restrictive nations around the world. On this side of Good Friday and Easter, we cannot give our first and best attentions and efforts to getting along and getting ahead. On the other side of Christ’s coming again in glory, we will wail for our foolishness if we have done so. Christ’s death, resurrection, and coming again claim our highest allegiance for the kingdom that we are called to advance in the most mundane of circumstances day after day, giving our first and best attentions and efforts to the work of priestly mediators, connecting human beings in their need to the God who supplies every need, and to the duty of loyal subjects, putting ourselves first and fully at God’s disposal so as to make Christ’s lordship fully a reality in, at the very least, the little space that we occupy every day in this world.