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a Gag Order"
The early followers of Christ, after the crucifixion and the resurrection, were an unruly lot. But then, that's a matter of perspective. They were perceived to be unruly by the powers-that-be, the chief priests and the elders and the scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees, all those folks who were wishing that the disciples would just sit down and shut up, wishing that Jesus were still in the tomb.
But I think that another perception would be more appropriate. I think that they were committed and persistent. As persistent as flies at a picnic. I own two cats. Or maybe I should say that they own me. And they are persistent.
One frequently wants to sit on my lap while I am reading. If she really wants to be there, no matter how many times I throw her down, she will keep climbing back up. In other words, she doesn't give up. Actually, the word "relentless" might be more accurate here. Anyone can be persistent. For a short period of time. But are we prepared to be persistent FOREVER? The early followers of Jesus were that way.
In the fifth chapter of the book of the Acts, we learn that the apostles are gathering huge crowds about them. So they are arrested and put in the public prison.
"But 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 had heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching."
Persistent. But then, so was Jesus. Jesus didn't give up coming back to visit the disciples until he had Thomas convinced that he had been raised from the dead. He didn't give up until Thomas could see his hands and feel his side.
We might wonder to ourselves, "What would have happened if that angel had NOT opened those prison doors and told the apostles, "Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message." Would they have been as persistent? Maybe not.
But they knew that they had God on their side. And OUR persistence as Christians depends on OUR believing that WE have God on our side.
We may not have angels opening doors and talking to us, but we DO have the scriptures, we DO have the history of the church in all its glory, and we DO have our own personal experience of God in our lives.
Well, the persistence of the apostles is matched by the persistence of those who imprisoned them.
"...the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council."
These are "repeat offenders." In the language of law enforcement, they have "priors," prior arrests. If they had had cars, those cars might have been carrying bumper stickers saying "criminals for Christ."
But there was a difference in their criminality, in their offenses. Unlike criminals who don't want anyone to know what they have done, their so-called crimes were out in the open.
Although I doubt that they enjoyed prison, I suspect that they were fully expecting to get caught and hauled into court. They were like folks in contemporary society who demonstrate for social issues, KNOWING that they will be arrested and jailed until they can make bail. By the way, that includes a couple of bishops at the last General Conference. How could the apostles avoid it? How can WE be successful in behaving like Christians unless folks KNOW we behave like Christians?
As the question goes, "If we were arrested for being Christians, would there be enough evidence to convict us?"
So the apostles are back in court a second time. And now the story REALLY gets interesting.
"The high priest questioned them, saying, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us."
Now, I don't know about you, but I hear the whine of fear. "Didn't we tell you not to do this? Didn't we tell you not to preach Christ? But it's all over town! Look what you're doing to us!" Whenever truth gets out, the whine of fear sets in.
But it is a whine of fear caused by guilt. "You are determined to bring this manís blood on us." The high priest does not want to be reminded that he was among those responsible for the crucifixion. He wants that to suddenly become ancient history and forgotten.
But the cover-up is not working. It's the same cover-up that was going on in the twelfth verse of the twenty-eighth chapter of Matthew: "After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, "You must say, "His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep." If this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble."
So they took the money and did as they were directed."
And the soldiers have been bought off. The priests and the elders are attempting to buy their version of truth.
But the high priest and the elders are not really concerned with truth; they are concerned with squelching it, with keeping Jesus in the tomb, with covering their own backsides.
And folks, you should know as well as I that this kind of behavior still goes on, in the secular world and in the religious world. It is COMFORTABLE to always keep things just as they are; and too often we are too busy protecting ourselves from the truth to ever find out what the truth really is.
But these repeat offenders are ready for this attack.
"But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority."
Now, in this context, in this story, we can think to ourselves, "Isn't that wonderful!" But on the other hand, how often have we heard obedience to God used as the reason for starting and continuing wars?
The crusades of the middle ages were fought because folks thought they were obeying God. Some folks thought that the first Gulf War should be fought in obedience to God. Children and spouses have been beaten and abused, in so-called obedience to God's will. And actually, what I think I see happening is not people obeying God, but people scapegoating God, using God.
Instead of beginning with an understanding of God and then trying to figure out how we fit into that understanding, we begin with our own narrow understanding of the world as we see it and try to get God to fit into that.
God becomes a rationalization for our behaviors. God BECOMES the coverup. And then we have to ask in all seriousness, "What kind of behavior does a loving God ask of us?" Does God seek brutal, warlike, destructive behavior? Is THAT the God of our Savior Jesus Christ?
Now, I have taken this verse out of context. And I have done so to try to demonstrate the kind of trouble we can get ourselves into. Because for me God does not exist in a vacuum. God only has meaning in the context of scripture, in the context of human history, in the context of my personal experience. And if I take God out of those contexts, I may be tempted to distort God, to twist God out of shape, to fit what may be my own distorted, twisted needs.
So let's put the verse back INTO context. Peter and the apostles are not deranged, demented crazies. They know what they are doing. And they go on to say,
"The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree."
And the high priest and his cohorts are called to task. There is an appeal here to the history of the Jewish people, an appeal to prophesy. To invoke the "God of our ancestors" is to invoke Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is to invoke the speaking and writing of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. It is to say that this Jesus did not live in isolation or die in isolation, but has evolved out of all that the Jewish people are and have been.
And even if the chief priests did not know what happened to Jesus after the entombment, they DO know that the tomb is now empty, and they DID try to find a convenient, deceitful means of explaining that away by bribing the soldiers.
They may not understand that "God raised up Jesus," but they can't help but have lingering questions.
And as if it is not enough that Peter and the apostles are preaching the resurrection in their defense, they are also shifting the blame: "whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree." They have turned the tables. The chief priests are probably wondering, "Who's on trial here, anyway? How did we get ourselves into this mess?" They are not being charged with simply executing a criminal; they are being charged with destroying the promised hope, the Messiah, of the Jewish people!
Indeed, they are being charged with the attempted destruction of an idea. They were responsible not only for killing Jesus, but also attempting to kill everything he taught and stood for.
And worse, that death came in the worst manner possible for a Jew: by crucifixion. Yes, folks, that tiny verse is packed with the most stinging indictment possible of those who killed Jesus.
And in a sense, it concludes the apostles defense statement; because what follows is the apostles taking over the forum to preach Christ.
"God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins."
But the preaching is also a definition. It answers the unasked questions, "Who was this Jesus, and what was his purpose, and why are you so excited about him?"
And although we might not answer exactly the way the apostles did, the question is still a good one for us to ask ourselves. For US, who was Jesus? For US, what was the reason for Jesus? For US, why should we be excited about him?
The high priests may not be asking us, just as they did not ask the apostles, but WE need to know.
WE need to know, because that is what church and our faith are all about. WE need to know, because if we canít get excited about Jesus, what ELSE is our faith hanging on?
And the apostles conclude, "And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him."
Those opening words are powerful, because the apostles are telling the priests, "We speak from first-hand knowledge of what we know." Now, we don't have the first-hand knowledge that the apostles had. But we might ask ourselves, what are WE witnesses to?
If the Holy Spirit is a witness, and if that same Holy Spirit has been given to us who obey God, we must also share in the witness of Christ.
We haven't been asked to obey the gag rule imposed on the apostles. For most of our Christian behaviors, we need not fear being dragged before Councils. We have a whole lot less to fear than those early apostles did. But do we take advantage of that opportunity? How do our lives witness to the truth of Christ?
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