For any Christian church, gathering for prayer and worship grows out of a shared faith in the Author of Life who is Jesus Christ. But believers can not build a church that only gathers for prayer and song and nourishing themselves with the Word of God.
We are learning through the experiences of the earliest congregations in Jerusalem that building a church requires a level of boldness that comes not from within, but from God’s Holy Spirit. It is a boldness to speak and to act. It is a boldness that can be met by the “powers that be” with anger, violence or attempts to control the spreading of information that they do not want others to hear. Look at what happens to Peter and John in our text this morning when they speak boldly about the power of Christ to the religious authorities.
You might remember from last week that Peter had been preaching in the temple, with the man who had been born unable to walk now standing next to he and John because of the healing power of the name of Jesus. The powers that be—the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, who were a part of the influential priestly establishment in Jerusalem—had been alerted to what was going on. They also did not miss the obvious fact that a LOT of people had gathered to listen to Peter. So many, in fact, that Luke reports to us that 5000 people believed the word that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Convincing people that someone had been resurrected from the dead did not sit well with the Sadducees. They did not believe that resurrection fit anywhere in the Torah, nor in any of the teachings of Moses. They understood the way to best connect with God was to obey the practices taught by Moses, not to believe in a person resurrected from the dead.
This is important because the Sadducees were among the religious and social elites, and therefore the ones with the power to judge for or against any upstart group of believers. They vehemently opposed the apostles, their message and their practices throughout the book of Acts. The Sadducees response? Like many of those in authority, when their authority is challenged or undermined or ridiculed in any way, they clamped down and did what they could to stop this dangerous behavior. They arrested Peter and John, and they spent the night in jail. The next morning the two apostles were brought before the religious authorities and questioned on just where they thought their authority came from to heal a man who had never walked before. Already we are seeing that the followers of Jesus end up facing similar kinds of resistance to that faced by Jesus himself in front of Caiaphas, Herod and Pontius Pilate. Those who want to build a church can not expect to get off more easily than Jesus did. If we live our lives with the same commitment to loving others, to seeking justice and to promoting peace, we will also run the risk of raising the hackles of the powers that be, wherever we are. In Baltimore, Maryland, USA, we are very unlikely to lose our lives for speaking out, but we sure do know what it is like to run into walls erected by the systems of our society. The elusive shopping center owner who seems to care little for the safety of the people who frequent his property. The practical and attitudinal roadblocks against recently released prisoners in their quest to find an honest job. The power of tradition in a church that keeps newer members from speaking up about their ideas and suggestions. It is because of this “Jesus disturbance”, as William Willimon calls the ministry of Jesus, that those with the authority to judge, feel threatened wherever we might be.
Peter speaks boldly, wisely, convincingly. The authorities are stunned that an uneducated, ordinary fisherman could speak so well and make them look bad in the eyes of the crowd for arresting he and John in the first place. Peter’s boldness comes from the Holy Spirit. He is very clear that this outlandish charge of healing a man who never walked has nothing to do with his own action. He gives all the credit to Jesus, the Christ of Nazareth, who was sentenced to die at the hands of the very same kind of authorities who are looking down on Peter at that very moment.
The authorities, looking back and forth from the healed man to the crowd of onlookers outside the door, were speechless. Their only response was to order that there be some time in executive session. Peter and John were removed from the room while the authorities debated what to do. They knew very well that the people believed that the healing had been in the name of Jesus, and the preaching of the good news of the resurrection had now convinced many of them to be believers in Christ. Given the pressure of the crowd, they could not detain Peter and John any longer, nor could they punish them physically. Instead, they called them back in and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.
It reminds me of what happened to our brothers and sisters in Cuba when one set of abusive authorities was toppled and a new regime took over in 1959. Under Fidel Castro, the church was invalid. It lost all its power and many of its resources. The church schools were seized and turned into government schools. The church buildings which housed mini pharmacies and food pantries as well as spaces for worship and study were forced to be abandoned. The “powers that be” basically tried to put a muzzle on the church, tried to control the information available to the people by controlling the media and bad-mouthing the religious institutions. Essentially, they tried to ban belief. You can try, but it does not work. On the outside, Castro may have claimed that he was in control, that the church was muzzled for good. But the truth of a resurrected Jesus can not be contained. In Cuba, the gospel continued underground for several decades, with believers meeting in homes, in small connect groups. Those Christians who had to publicly renounce their roles in the church in order to keep their jobs continued to believe in their hearts that Christ is the Author of Life. No government official can take that away! Now we know that worshipping communities are permitted again in Chuba, although the government maintains a very close watch their activities.
Peter boldly replies to the religious leaders—we absolutely cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard. If that is not defiance in the face of authority, I don’t know what is. But at this point, Peter knew very well that he and John had the upper hand. There were too many people who had heard and believed, too many people who knew that arresting someone for healing in Christ’s name was bogus.
We see this dynamic play out in our day again and again. Civil authorities (and maybe even religious authorities!), drunk on the wine of self-importance or white privilege or conspicuous consumption, overstep their power, passing judgement on those with no power, no money, no social capital. Too often they get away with it in a system that continues to be skewed toward those in power. This past week we saw an authority figure toppled, getting the verdict he deserved for killing a man with his knee. Maybe the Minneapolis decision brings a glimmer of hope that change is a-comin’.
The followers of Jesus, then and now, have no reason to expect that the “powers that be” will have any more interest in them, or offer any more support to them, than they did to Jesus himself. Bucking up against authorities who are on the wrong side of justice brings a reaction, and often a swift, angry, negative reaction. That is why standing firm in what you believe requires boldness. Not boldness that comes from being a courageous individual, but boldness that comes from being together with a community of believers inspired and equipped by the Holy Spirit.
We did not hear this part in our reading this morning; let me tell you what happens next. After Peter and John were released, they went to the group of believers to tell them what happened. The group prayed together, not asking God for protection from the religious authorities, who might be looking to arrest them next; but for boldness. The believers were seeking from God the boldness they needed to speak God’s word in the face of persecution or discrimination or bogus charges or threats. They clearly believed that even in the face of persecution by powerful people, they could turn to God. They were still in God’s hands. And so are the poor, the disenfranchised, the vulnerable, those on the margins. They are still in God’s hands. We are still in God’s hands. Even in the face of unmerited troubles and trials, God’s hand never wavers.
Yes, indeed, church building requires boldness. The external community needs to hear and to see what we are about—otherwise they might mistake us for just another fun-loving social group of some sort. No different from a Ravens’ fan club or a garden club or the players on a softball team getting together after a game. We are different. We are a community who shares faith in the Author of Life. And together we are witnesses to justice, doing random acts of kindness, and walking side by side with those who are hurting or homeless or haunted by demons or addictions. Let us be church builders, bold and strong, ready to exhibit the love of Jesus Christ in this world. Amen.