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Sermon - Easter II - 20190428

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year C
April 28, 2019
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150 or Psalm 118:14-29; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

Peter said something incredibly dangerous when he and James were questioned by the Council.  Do you know what it was?

Let’s put this passage in context, shall we?

Peter and the other disciples went each day to the Temple in Jerusalem to tell people about Jesus and what he had done for them.  People were hesitant to openly join the movement, but the numbers of disciples climbed nonetheless.  People who were ill contrived to sit or lie where Peter’s shadow might fall on them, in hopes of being cured of whatever ailed them.

But the chief priest and some in the Sadducees – the priests and leaders of the Temple – were disturbed by all the activity and excitement.  They were afraid it might come to the attention of the Romans, so they tried to get Peter and his companions to stop doing this.  They had him arrested, along with the other apostles, and locked them up.  They had done this before, and warned them most particularly, they must not teach “in this name,” but they apostles continued to do just that.

This time, Luke writes:  “… during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’ When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching.”[1]

In the morning also, the priest came to speak with the apostles, but they were not in the jail.  Then someone said, “Look, they are back at the Temple!”  So they had them brought before the council by the police, who did so without violence “because they were afraid of the people.”

That brings us up to our reading today – Peter witnessing to the council about Jesus, who he was, and what he had done, and why they continued to teach about him.

This is where Peter said the dangerous thing:  “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

It was dangerous for a couple of reasons:  One, it would definitely put a bee in the bonnets of the council members; it would make them angry and more likely to clamp down on the apostles, who were defying their own authority and influence.

Two, it was dangerous because it can be hard sometimes to discern what it is that God wants – so it’s dangerous for everyone who says that’s what they are doing, right up to the present day.  Who’s to say what God wants?  What if we are wrong?

Now it’s pretty clear that the author of the Book of Acts was convinced that Peter and the others were doing exactly what God wanted:  after all, an angel had come in the night to free them from prison and sent them back to the Temple.

Furthermore, Peter and the others had known Jesus personally, and once they received the Holy Spirit, it gave them the courage to move on and move out and do what Jesus had requested – to spread the good news of God’s love and mercy to all the people, beginning in Judea and spreading out from there.

Peter had the advantage, then. 

But do the rest of us? 

I had a short conversation last week with a friend from Virginia.  I haven’t talked with him in a long time, not since I left Virginia to go to Seminary.  He has always been a very faithful believer, and does his best to follow Christ in every aspect of his life.  He is also a Biblical literalist and quite conservative.  So conservative in fact, that he has since left the Episcopal Church and joined the Anglican Church in North America. ACNA got its start when the Episcopal Church began ordaining women, but really took off when the Episcopal Church began ordaining GLBTQ persons.  In Virginia, as I recall, eleven or twelve congregations left the Episcopal Church because of this, and, eventually, my friend did as well.

Then he wanted to tell me why.  He said he and another man were praying in the chapel one day, and the bible opened to Acts 3:
“Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out…”  That’s the beginning of verse 19, and it’s part of a larger address to the Judeans who came to listen to Peter, who reminded them of the history of the children of Israel, from Abraham to Moses, to the prophets and on to Jesus – yet they rejected Jesus as Messiah.

In other words, my friend read this half-verse and decided that it meant that the Episcopal Church had left the true path.

At this point, I pleaded other business, and ended the conversation. 

But it’s what got me thinking about how dangerous it is for us, in our own day, to think ourselves the true followers of God.  It’s one thing if an angel comes to us in prison and unlocks the doors and tells us to go out and do things like Jesus did; it may be something else entirely if it’s half a verse in a larger story about something completely different than how we choose to apply it.

ALL our reading of the Bible is subjective – that is, we are always going to interpret what we read in light of our own predilections, assumptions, and biases.  That’s true of everyone who ever translated the Bible as well.

Last week, if you were here, you may remember that I told you that when Mary Magdalene went to the other disciples to tell them that the stone was rolled away from the tomb, and they didn’t know where the body was, the other disciples thought it was “an idle tale.”  Only that wasn’t what the original text read in Greek.  There, it said they thought the story was complete nonsense, totally unbelievable, or, in a word, “crap.” 

The translators chose to use a much milder term, perhaps to make the disciples look better, and to cast Mary as merely foolish, rather than something worse, especially as she was proven quite right.

My friend has never taken hold of the idea that if two – or more – people took different ideas from a biblical text, than perhaps the biblical text is more vague or confusing or contradictory than he thought.  He has always been adamant that his understanding – his interpretation – is the correct one.

Remember, I’ve known him of old.  He hasn’t in the intervening decade managed to figure this out yet.  So I said, thanks for calling, be well, be blessed, and good night.

We live in a time when there is no one authority on matters of religion; we can’t appeal to the pope; we can’t appeal to the united opinions of protestant clergy; we can only read our bibles, and hope that we get at least some of it right.

So how might we know if we’re on the right track at all?

Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, says, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”

I personally think that’s a good place to start.

Quaker theologian Parker Palmer says that we’ll know if we’re headed in the right direction if we find things “falling into a place of joy.” 

Some of you remember a few years ago when Lynn Maricle retired as our organist.  I was very excited to learn that a new organist was moving to town as her husband had gotten a job at Hanover College, and she was looking for work.  Oddly enough, she was excited to learn that the Episcopal Church in Madison was just at that same time looking for a new organist.  Do you remember, that one week Lynn was here for her last Sunday, and the very next week Starla began her tenure with us?

I am firmly convinced the Holy Spirit sent her here – and, as it happens, she was equally convinced the Holy Spirit provided her with a new position!  Her and our points of view were different, but the conclusions were the same: God was in this, for her to be here with us.

That’s what Parker Palmer would call a sign of the Holy Spirit:  When things fall into place, not just for one, but for many.

When God is involved, good things happen.  Even if things are hard or painful, God’s presence makes them bearable.  His yoke is easy; his burden is light.  All we have to do is be open to God’s presence, to be vulnerable enough to seek God.

If our pain teaches us hate, then we can be sure we have blocked God out.  If, however, pain teaches us empathy, then we can be sure that God is involved. 

It won’t take away pain, but, like Peter and the others, perhaps we, too, can learn to rejoice that we share our pain with God, and God shares our pain with us. 

 

 

[1] Acts of the Apostles 5:19-21.