Rev. Teri Peterson
14 October 2012, Stewardship 2 (ordinary 28B)
The high priest, together with his allies, the Sadducees, was overcome with jealousy. They seized the apostles and made a public show of putting them in prison. An angel from the Lord opened the prison doors during the night and led them out. The angel told them, “Go, take your place in the temple, and tell the people everything about this new life.” Early in the morning, they went into the temple as they had been told and began to teach.
When the high priest and his colleagues gathered, they convened the Jerusalem Council, that is, the full assembly of Israel’s elders. They sent word to the prison to have the apostles brought before them. However, the guards didn’t find them in the prison. They returned and reported, “We found the prison locked and well-secured, with guards standing at the doors, but when we opened the doors we found no one inside!”
When they received this news, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were baffled and wondered what might be happening. Just then, someone arrived and announced, “Look! The people you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” Then the captain left with his guards and brought the apostles back. They didn’t use force because they were afraid the people would stone them.
The apostles were brought before the council where the high priest confronted them: “In no uncertain terms, we demanded that you not teach in this name. And look at you! You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. And you are determined to hold us responsible for this man’s death.”
Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than humans! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God has exalted Jesus to his right side as leader and savior so that he could enable Israel to change its heart and life and to find forgiveness for sins. We are witnesses of such things, as is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
When the council members heard this, they became furious and wanted to kill the apostles. One council member, a Pharisee and teacher of the Law named Gamaliel, well-respected by all the people, stood up and ordered that the men be taken outside for a few moments. He said, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you intend to do to these people. Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and some four hundred men joined him. After he was killed, all of his followers scattered, and nothing came of that. Afterward, at the time of the census, Judas the Galilean appeared and got some people to follow him in a revolt. He was killed too, and all his followers scattered far and wide. Here’s my recommendation in this case: Distance yourselves from these men. Let them go! If their plan or activity is of human origin, it will end in ruin. If it originates with God, you won’t be able to stop them. Instead, you would actually find yourselves fighting God!” The council was convinced by his reasoning.
I tend to organize time in my head by the liturgical calendar, rather than by the regular calendar—the dates on the Sundays may change, but the liturgical cycle stays the same. So six years ago today, on the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, was the first time I stood in this pulpit as one of your pastors. The scripture reading that day was the business about the camel and the eye of the needle and selling all you have and giving away the money. It was stewardship season, and it was my first Sunday here, when all I wanted to do was find a way to make you all like me. Talk about a traumatic first preaching assignment. It’s obvious, then, why we decided to go off-lectionary this October!
Or is it obvious?
Maybe it would be more obvious to spend the month talking explicitly about money, and about giving of ourselves as an important spiritual practice, and the reasons why we believe God calls us to sacrifice our resources for the work of the kingdom, and what it means to live our faith through the offering. Those are all important themes we can find in the lectionary texts for October. And they are also themes that many of us have heard often—and may have even contributed to the idea that many people outside the church hold: that all we want is your money. But I promise you that God, and God’s church, and God’s kingdom, wants something much more than just your money, though of course we can use that as we seek to fulfill our calling, and we don't want you to miss out on the blessings of the spiritual discipline of giving!
And so we’re reading from the book of Acts this season—stories of the first church, of people filled with the Holy Spirit, of communities that are so fired up by God that they overcome incredible odds. They face persecution, they are cast out of their old religious communities, they are imprisoned and killed and ridiculed….and yet they continue to tell the story, to witness to God’s love and grace and justice, to live as if Jesus has made a difference to them and to the world.
This way of living, and this story they tell, is so powerful that it can’t be contained even in the Jerusalem prison! Finally the council decides to let them be, hoping desperately that the apostles will just disappear, like all the others had. It’s a disturbing little window into the methods of the powerful—whenever someone comes along with a message they don’t like, that person is killed and the powers that be wait for his followers to disperse. And they do. But we, the reader, know that this time it will be different. These followers are on a mission from God, and they are unstoppable. This isn’t just a power trip or a fringe cult, an impermanent blip on the Empire’s radar. Nothing in life or in death, no power or person or anything else in all creation is going to be able to stop this fire.
But did you notice—the apostles don’t decide that since God can do it, they don’t need to participate. They don’t sit on the couch watching TV waiting for God to do something amazing, they don’t go to Starbucks and hide in the corner speaking to no one, they don’t just go through their lives wondering when God is going to show up. They know that they are the conduit through which the world will be changed. They stand in the Temple and preach. They go to the street corners and teach. They gather in community and they pray and share and serve. They reach out to people, they offer hope and healing and a story more powerful than that of the empire. And their educational strategy is simple: tell the story. show the story. live the story. And God will surely speak through you.
I wonder if we believe that?
Do we believe that this story can change us? That it can change the world? Do we believe that God’s voice can be heard through our voices? Do we believe that this faith is worthwhile enough to pass on to others? Or is it just for children, and once we get through confirmation we’re done learning and sharing, and now we can just go about our normal lives and show up here occasionally for some good music and to see our friends? And as for preaching and teaching—isn’t that the pastor’s job?
Or are we all on a mission from an unstoppable God?
If it is true that the story we proclaim every week in this room is live-changing, and if it is true that God is unstoppable, and if we really believe that God calls ordinary people to learn and to teach, AND if we are willing to live that reality rather than whatever reality the empire wants to impose on us, then we too will be a community that overcomes the odds. We too will be a community whose Acts of Faith are worth talking about. We too will be a community that walks right out of our prison—our prisons of uncertainty, of irrelevance, of financial insecurity, of wondering where the people are.
The Spirit freed the disciples from their prisons, and frees us too—if we’re willing to walk out and follow where we’re called. Notice that the disciples didn’t go home and wait for people to come to them—they went out from prison to where the people were and taught, prayed, healed, lived. Where will we go when we walk out of our prisons?
That is the question of church in the 21st century just as much as it was in the 1st century. The disciples could have decided it was someone else’s turn to teach. They could have decided to sit back and hope for the crowds to find them. They could even have listened to the people with the power and shut their mouths. But instead they acted on faith, shared the good news, and found that their changed lives also changed the world.
There is nothing—life or death, power or money or fear, person or institution or culture or anything else in all creation—that can stop God’s church. If we refuse to come along, we will die and another part of the body will arise to take our place. The Word of God, loose in the world, is unstoppable. Let’s act on faith and be a part of the story.
May it be so.