Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 12, 2015
In the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain works in this kernel of truth: “Often the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” We’ll see this play out in today’s reading as the Jewish leaders want to maintain the status quo and, despite evidence of a change coming, do everything they can to hinder the challenges presented by Jesus’ disciples.
Our reading is a long one, as we are looking at the last thirty verses in Acts 5, so I am going to summarize the first few verses and then break the passage into two readings. If you remember, last week we discussed Ananias and Sapphira, the two who lied to God and died. This created much fear within the community as people realized their lives were not only threatened with judgement from the Jewish leadership but, if they were unfaithful, by God Almighty. In verse 13, we learn that although the Apostles are held at high esteem, there are those reluctant to join because they are afraid. But the faithful carry on the work of Jesus, bringing the sick to Peter. There is even a belief that Peter’s shadow is enough to bring about healing, such was the people’s faith in the work and teachings of the Apostles. Much good is being done, but there’s change in the wind and those in power are scared and are quick to act. I will pick up my reading in verse 17 and I’ll read on to verse 33. When I finish this reading, you might want to keep your Bibles open as we’ll come back and pick up the rest of this chapter later.
Let’s recall another movie this week: Groundhog Day. It’s a classic that not only you can watch over and over again, but you watch it over and over in the same sitting. The film creatively has Bill Murray as Phil Conners, a TV reporter from Pittsburgh, reliving the same day (Groundhog Day) in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This happens dozens of times and he is the only one who realizes it. Phil becomes cynical and takes advantage of what he knows is going to happen for personal benefit, only to find himself back where he started from when the alarms goes off on what should be February 3. But it’s not, it is once again, February 2, Groundhog Day. Eventually he gets it and uses his knowledge for the good of others and is able to win the heart of Rita, his producer, played by the beautiful Andie MacDowell.
It seems what happens here, as in the movie Groundhog Day, is a repeat to what has already happened, with a few additional twists. The Apostles perform some good deeds and the powers that be become angry and fearful of what’s happening and arrests them.  We’ve seen this scene before. Yet, they can’t keep Peter and John from testifying to the power of the resurrection. Heck, they can’t even keep them in jail, for they are mysteriously released and, instead of fleeing, are back in the temple preaching. It’s almost as if this is a scene from an old keystone cops movie. Imagine the surprise of the guards as they look into their cells and find them missing, but then hear them preaching in the temple.
They are rearrested (although it appears they go willingly) and taken back to the Council where they are ask why they have disobeyed the order for them not to talk about this man. Interestingly, the High Priest avoids to use of Jesus’ name. They respond, “We must obey God rather than human authority.” This response, by the way, is very similar to that which Socrates gave to those in Athens when he was on trial. His comments didn’t make the Athenians very happy and they came back with a death sentence and soon, in Acts, we’re going to see that there are those who will lose their lives because of their testimony to Jesus Christ.
Would we be so brave as to stand up as for what God wants instead of falling in line with popular opinion and what those in leadership demand or expect? When the numbers line up against you, what would you do?
This is a story that has been around the internet many times that I am sure is not true, but it illustrates an important point. A couple of masked gunmen come into a church during worship and, pointing their automatic weapons to the congregation, say they’re going to shoot anyone who believes this nonsense. People begin to deny their faith and when allowed, rush to the streets. Only a handful remain. Then the gunmen drop their weapons, remove their masks, and say to the pastor, “Okay, we’ve gotten rid of the hypocrites.” What would we do in such a situation? Would you be shaking in the sanctuary, afraid but secure in your faith? Or would you be running down the street?
Many people today think this might be where our society is heading, to a place where we will be persecuted for our faith, but before we worry too much, I think we should realize that it has always been tough to stand up for the gospel. This isn’t anything new; those white pastors who stood up for civil rights, especially before the late 1960s were often condemned and in some cases physically threaten. Yet, history was on their side, even though many suffered greatly for their convictions.
Our allegiance first and foremost is to Jesus Christ and our citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. We must remember that the Kingdom is not the status quo. We’re not yet in Paradise. We long for God’s Kingdom to be fulfilled and until that day, we need to stand with the one whom we claim as King of all Kings.
Peter and the Apostles’ response to the Jewish Council, telling them that they must first obey God and then reminding them that Jesus was resurrected and is calling Israel to repentance and offering forgiveness. This is too much. The Council sees themselves as being in the right and not having any need to repent or to be forgiven. Peter’s accusation enrages them. After all, he’s a fisherman. Who’s he to be speaking in such a manner to those in leadership? They want to kill ‘em. Déjà vu all over. They wanted to kill Jesus, and they eventually did. Eventually, most of the Apostles will be martyred, too. But the spilling of their blood is like pouring out fertilizer, for the church continues to grow and to become even stronger.
I want us to return to the text and read one response. Let me also point out that so far in Acts, we’ve mainly been hearing from Sadducees, a political and theological party in Israel who did not believe in the resurrection. Another position in Israel was that of the Pharisees, who also had problems with Jesus but they did believe in the resurrection. Now we hear from one Pharisee, Gamaliel.
Read Acts 5:33-42
There is a lot of wisdom in what Gamaliel says. Although we seek God’s will, we don’t always have a clear idea of where God is going. After all, we’re called to walk in faith. In John’s gospel, we told God’s Spirit is like the wind, it comes, it goes, but is mysterious. The problem with the Jewish Council is that they are so sure they are right and that they have the ability to maintain control. When God moves, we need to understand that we are not in control. We’re along for the ride. Of course, they are sure that God isn’t behind what the Apostles are doing and thereby justified their treatment of the Apostles as something necessary in order to keep the peace. They are people who don’t like change, but the winds of change from God is blowing and their attempts to hold it back is not going to be successful.
Gamaliel’s suggestion is a wise one. If God isn’t behind a movement, it’ll ultimately unravel. He cites two examples of zealots who, along with their followers, have come and gone. But, as he also reminds them, if God is behind this movement, they don’t want to stand in the way. It appears that the Council only took part of this advice. They have the Apostles flogged and let them go and they resume what they have been doing, preaching and teaching and proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah.
As I said earlier in this study, the “Acts of the Apostles” is really a book about the acts of God, which is what we learn from Gamaliel’s prediction. If God is not behind this, sooner or later the movement will falter.
We often forget we worship an Almighty God. We think we have to give God a hand, that we have to be God’s army, but we forget that even if we fail to do what God wants us to do, that God can raise up someone else (even stones, as Jesus told his challengers on Palm Sunday), to do his work. Sometimes, too, we are be like the Council and want to judge and even retaliate against those we see as enemies of God. But, you know, we got to be careful. Are they God’s enemies or our own enemies? There’s a difference! Furthermore, God also teaches, going back to the Old Testament, that vengeance belong to him, not us.
When the disciples leave the Council on this day, they do something amazing. They rejoice that they are worthy enough to suffer dishonor for Jesus. How many of us, having been whipped, would rejoice? Yet, this attitude sets the stage for more people to be drawn into the community that, as we’ll see in the next few chapters, is about to bust out of Jerusalem and spread across the Roman Empire.
There are two things you need to take away from this section of Scripture: Obey and trust God. As the Apostles tell the Council, we must obey God, and as Gamaliel suggests, we must let God be God and not stand in the way. Obey and trust, or with the old hymn, reverse the two: “Trust and obey.” Trust and obey, for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.” Amen.
 In chapters 3-4, Peter heals a lame man and as he teaches is arrested and the next day brought before the Council.
 William H. Willimon, Acts (2008, Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2010), 56
 Plato, Apology. See also, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), 109.
 John 3:8
 Gaventa, 110.
 Isaiah 63:4, Deuteronomy 32:35, Psalm 94:1. For a New Testament reference see Romans 12;10
 Refrain from John Sammis’ hymn, “Trust and Obey.”