So, in the last week a couple of months have passed. Did you notice? Let me explain. Last Sunday we were with Jesus’ friends on that first Easter Sunday morning, as they discovered that the tomb was empty. Some of them had seen Jesus, but not many, and they were just starting to get their heads around what had happened. This morning’s reading from Acts jumps us forward a couple of months.
Past all the resurrection appearances, past the road to Emmaus and Thomas wanted to see before he believed, past the restoration of Peter, past the Ascension, past the waiting for the Holy Spirit to come as Jesus had promised, and past Pentecost. And here we are, in the first weeks of the life of the church, at the hub of it all in Jerusalem. As I said, a couple of months have passed. And what a difference it has made to the Jesus friends and followers, his disciples. No longer confused or scared, grieving or frightened, here they are – confident and full of faith.
Shall we go back a little bit and find out what they had been up to? Let’s skip all the way back to the beginning of chapter 4. As it says in the famous Sunday school song.
“Peter and John went to pray, they met a lame man on the way. He asked for alms, and held out his palms, and this is what Peter did say. Silver and gold have I none, But such as I have give I thee
In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk. He went walking and leaping and praising God Walking and leaping and praising God. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk”
As you can imagine, this caused quite a stir, and people asking how Peter could heal this man. So he explained to them, and they were listening intently to all that he was saying, particularly about Jesus’ resurrection. Peter said, “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.”
At the beginning of chapter 4 we find the reaction of the religious authorities to this claim. They were most put out, and had them arrested and jailed, and the next day brought before the ruling council, and demanded that they explain themselves. So Peter repeated his defence, and the religious leaders were astonished, and didn’t really have any counter arguments, as they man who had been healed was stood there. But, they hadn’t gone to all that trouble to have Jesus executed just for his followers to start up again, so they instructed them to keep quiet and not to teach any more about Jesus, but Peter and John said that they couldn’t disobey God’s command to preach. So, having threatened them, they let them go.
And they continue to teach, and to do miraculous works, and this brings us to chapter 5, v 12, where Jesus’ followers are again on a collision course with the religious authorities. We read of more and more people becoming followers of Jesus, of people being healed, of people being freed from the oppressive power of unclean spirits. The church is growing, and growing with power.
The religious leaders react, and have the apostles arrested and jailed, but God opens the cells and tells them to go back to preaching, which is what they are doing when the confused temple guards come looking for them. So they are arrested again, and dragged before the council, and this is where we pick up the reading this morning.
The council members are furious, we told you not to keep talking about this Jesus fellow, they say. But the apostles repeat what they had said before, “We must obey God rather than human beings.” And here is the core of their gospel, of the good news,
“The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead -whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
This did not go down well with the council – if we read on we find that they were furious. Furious enough, in fact, to want to put them to death. But one of the leaders, Gameliel, talked them down.
“leave these men alone, Let them go. For if their purpose or activity is of human origin it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men, you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
The council were persuaded, and didn’t have them killed, but had them flogged, and then released with warnings to stop teaching about Jesus.
And what did they do. They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer disgrace for Jesus, and never stopped teaching about Jesus.
As we continue on through Acts, and the accounts of the early church, this pattern is repeated time and time again. Jesus’ followers preach the core of the message of the good news – Jesus is alive and offers forgiveness to those who repent, people respond, persecution is stirred up, and the church grows all the more. Two thousand years of opposition to the good news of Jesus have not stopped it spreading, and have not stopped the church growing.
So, with all that in mind, let’s focus our attention on what Peter said when he was brought before the council.
Firstly, we must obey God rather than human beings.
Up until now this defiance hasn’t cost the disciples very much. They’ve been warned, and they have been arrested, but they know things are about to get much worse. They knew what had been done to Jesus. Jesus himself had warned them of the persecutions to come. In the face of all this opposition, they choose to obey God rather than human beings. They choose to stand up for what they know is right.
I wonder where we find it difficult to obey God, or if there is any thing we’re scared about speaking up about.
If our faith never brings us into conflict with the surrounding culture, or with our own preferences, then maybe we need to ask ourselves some challenging questions. Sometimes the human beings that need to be ignored are out there, and sometimes it’s ourselves. I am the human being whose desires, even commands, I need to ignore so that I can obey God instead. If doing what God commands us to do were easy, straight forward, or always our natural inclination then it wouldn’t need to be obedience, we’d just do it.
Secondly, we see here a great example of the way in which God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit works. Each is mentioned doing something, but all with a common purpose – all woven together.
God the Father – raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him, lifted him up, to his own right hand side. God the Father also gives the Holy Spirit.
Jesus – brings repentance and forgiveness. In this case Peter is focussing on the people of Israel, but as we go through Acts we find that this is not just for the people of Israel, it is for all people, everywhere.
Holy Spirit – is the witness to these things, and is given to all those who obey God. This is as Jesus promised his followers.
The intent and direction of purpose of all three of them is the same, they point to each other, and work together to bring rescue to humanity, and all of creation.
Thirdly, we have the role of Jesus’ followers, his disciples and apostles. They were witnesses. They had seen and experience God at work, and just told what they had seen. They couldn’t do anything else. They are doing exactly what Jesus said they would do, before he left them, he said, “You will be my witnesses”. We don’t have a choice about being witnesses for God. We come to church, we call ourselves Christians, so people look at us, and make judgements about God on the basis of what they see in us. We don’t have a choice about being witnesses. The only choice we have is whether we’re going to be good, faithful, witnesses, or not.
When people look at us do they see us being obedient to God’s commands to love God, love each other, and loving our neighbours. Do they see us putting others, and their preferences before our own. Do they see us worshipping this beautiful, powerful, three in one God, who frees us from sin and gives us life and freedom?
It’s even further for us from that first Easter day. Not just a few months, but a few millenia. And still, the power of God is at work to change lives, to bring healing and wholeness, to bring us to repentance and to forgive us. All the forces of people, hell, and history haven’t been able to stop the purposes of God working out, and they never will, because he is risen, ascended, glorified, and he will never be short of witnesses to his power to change lives.