Sermon at St. Stephen
Second Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 5:27-32
Rev. Wayne Menking
The readings from Acts and the Gospel of John present two contrasting pictures of Peter and the apostles. In the Gospel, John tells us that Peter and the apostles are locked in their room for fear of the Jewish authorities. This is parallel to what the Gospel of Mark tells us in the 16th chapter: they are locked in the upper room for fear of the Jews, confused, grief stricken, and afraid! On the one hand they have heard the reports that Jesus is alive, but they aren’t sure what to believe. They are behind locked doors, protecting themselves from the powers that be of the outside world. Interestingly however, those locked doors cannot keep the risen Lord from appearing. He enters, shares the peace, and gives them the gift of the Spirit with this charge: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. As some commentators note this is John’s version of Pentecost. Now contrast this scene with the scene presented in the reading from Acts. Peter and the apostles have been brought before the Jewish rulers – the same ones that put Jesus to death. Prior to this, thy were put in prison – locked in a jail cell – in an effort to keep them silenced. Not unlike the story in John where locked doors could not keep Jesus from coming in, the locked prison cell cannot keep Peter and the apostles in. When the temple police come to retrieve them and bring them before the rulers they are astounded that the cell is locked, yet empty. Peter and the apostles are found in the temple, publicly proclaiming the good news of Jesus – without fear! They are taken before the rulers without violence we are told. When the rulers reprimand them for not staying silent, Peter and the apostles reply: We must obey God rather than men! Another way we can read this: the power of the resurrection and the Gospel cannot be contained!
Clearly, Peter and the apostles are now a radically different group of people than those we saw in hiding! They do not cower to the ruler’s intended intimidation and threat. Unlike their fearful posture behind locked doors, they now stand before the rulers with a bold confidence: We must obey God rather than men! These are people who have been transformed so that they no longer conform or adapt to the expectations and demands of the powers that be. What we see and hear in these texts is the transforming power of the resurrection, a power that empowers them to move beyond the locked room and their paralyzing fear to engage the world and the powers that be with the Gospel news of God’s liberating victory over the captivity of sin, evil, and death – in whatever form those exist.
But we need to ask: how did this transformation happen? It happened as they came to believe that in fact Jesus was alive, risen from the dead. But their belief was more than a cognitive ascent that it happened. What they believed was the reality of God that was revealed in Jesus’ resurrection. In Jesus’ resurrection they saw the confession that we hear in Revelation: I am the Alpha and Omega, a statement of God’s ultimate power over all of creation. They saw and believed the power of God over all powers and dominions that seek to undo what God has created. They saw and believed in this God who is fervently and faithfully committed to liberating us from any power that seeks to take life away, whether those powers are internal or external, even when those powers appear to be dauntingly overwhelming and in control. They saw and believed a God who is active in history, working to deliver those who are on the margins, those who are exploited, those who use creation and other human beings for their own purposes. When John writes Jesus’ words to Thomas: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe,” and then when he states the purpose of his Gospel, “these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name,” he is inviting us – you and me – into the same empowering and transforming faith to which the disciples came! The power of this resurrection faith is that it took Peter and the apostles out of their locked room into the world to engage it! They engaged the sick, the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized; their preaching and their engagement empowered others. Theirs was not the goal of gaining new church members for the sake of creating a successful mega-church. Their goal was to empower the powerless with God’s liberating word of hope, new identity, and belonging.
Our faith and belief in the resurrection calls us in exactly the same way it did with Peter and the apostles: we are called to be transformed by our faith so that we can be God’s transforming agents in the world. Just like Peter and the apostles, this transforming faith does not come easy. In fact it is a struggle, because just like them, we constantly come against the powers that be in the world that detract us, that create doubt, powers to which we easily conform. It is a tension and struggle that is part and parcel of being human, one that will be with us until the Kingdom comes in its fullness. I share three stories that will illustrate this:
- Gary is a fairly conservative man, a long time Lutheran from the Midwest. Some years ago, the congregation to which he belongs made the decision to join Allied Communities of Tarrant. Some of you may know that this is an organization of churches and religious congregations organized to empower and give voice to marginalized and poor communities to help them improve quality of life and get the kinds of community services that most of us take for granted. Gary initial reaction was that this was a political movement that the church should not be involved with, that it violated the separation of church and state. But instead of disengaging and grousing about it, he decided to participate and see what Allied Communities of Tarrant was all about. Only two weeks ago, Gary gave this testimony: one of the most important gifts I have received from my congregation is the opportunity to participate in Allied Communities. It was a transforming moment. It was nothing that I thought it was. It truly was people helping people. People from all political and religious persuasions coming together to help people have a better life in their communities. I willingly and energetically drove to locations in Fort Worth where many of you would not dare go, without fear. Gary did not conform to conventional wisdom or his own misgivings. He was transformed, and his transformation became life giving not only for himself but for others.
- Bob owns a construction firm. He’s had his successes and he’s had his failures, but for the most part his successes have far outweighed his failures. He’s a member of the same church as Gary. I don’t know all of the circumstances, but not long ago he was faced with the decision of relocating his company’s office. Given real estate’s conventional wisdom it would seem reasonable that Bob should have sought a highly visible and strategically viable location one that would help him achieve business success. Over the years Bob has had some humbling experiences, experiences that in his own words have taught him he is not his own god! These have also stirred his faith and created a yearning to make a difference. So when it came to the relocation of his office, he did not choose a location that complied with conventional wisdom. Believing that helping indigent people doesn’t happen by just giving them money, but rather by becoming engaged and getting into relationship with them, he located his offices on East Lancaster, right across the street from the Presbyterian Night Shelter. In addition, he created a program called LEG UP that seeks to give the unemployed indigent a means of getting back on their feet. This is transformational work. He did not conform to conventional business models and business practices.
- The third story is my own. A few weeks ago, I was traveling on business and landed at SFO. I had just boarded the airport train to make my way over the car rental center. Just as the doors were about to close, a man pushed and shoved his way onto the train and then announced that there was an emergency at terminal 1. I was taken back and wondered. As the man began to speak – with considerable desperation – I realized that the man was asking for help. Something had happened with his ticket that he needed money to help purchase his daughter’s ticket so she could return to Chicago by 6:00pm that evening. He was standing right next to me. I could feel his anxiety and the intensity of this desperation. BUT, like everyone else on the train, I stood still and silent, not responding to his plea. All of the normal thoughts when through my head – it’s a scam, he wants the money for something else. I thought about reaching into my wallet and giving him some money – I had enough! But then another fear – what will it look like if I’m the only one…what might others think. In the end, I did nothing. I stayed disengaged. I look back on that with great regret and guilt. Mine is a story of conformation…conforming to conventional wisdom, conforming to my own internal fear and anxiety. To be blunt, I stayed stuck in fear behind the locked doors. I did not trust the power of resurrection in that moment, and my response was not life giving or transformational – for the man seeking help or for me.
Believing in the power of the resurrection is risky business. It calls us out of our private comfort zones, out of our privatized faith to be engaged with and in the world. In fact, if we take the record of Jesus’ post resurrection to heart, belief in the resurrection cannot be a private matter lived out behind the protection of locked doors. You know something about this in your work with Rooming Inn!
Returning to the three stories, I have no doubt that Gary and Bob have not arrived at the perfection of their faith. Like all of us, they have their moments of staying stuck in the locked room and disengaging. And I have no doubt that there is more to me than the person who was paralyzed and non-responsive to my neighbor’s need. But that’s the point: believing and trusting in the power of the resurrection so as to be God’s transforming agents in the world will always be a tension and a struggle. Like it or not we are vulnerable to doubt. When confronted with the powers that be in whatever form they come, we find it safe to disengage from the world, retreat and find protection behind the locked doors. But the very good news is this: just like with Peter and the apostles, whatever rooms and locked doors we create for ourselves, they cannot and will not keep the risen Lord from entering and calling us out. Count on it! My prayer for all of us is that we be attentive when the risen Lord breaks into our hiding places to call us out, and when that happens, I also pray that we will trust not in our own power, but in the power of the resurrection of our Lord. May it be so among us.
And now to the One who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and ending of all things, the One who has dominion over all of life and all that exists, be praise, honor and glory. Amen