Today’s reading and message for the Gentle Shepherd is from the Jerusalem Bible version of the Book of Acts, Chapter 5, verses 27 to 32 and 40 to 41:
“The high priest demanded an explanation of the Apostles. ‘We gave you a formal warning’ he said ‘not to preach in this name, and what have you done? You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and seem determined to fix the guilt of this man’s death on us.’ In reply Peter and the apostles said, ‘Obedience to God comes before obedience to men; it was the God of our ancestors who raised up Jesus, but it was you who had him executed by hanging on a tree. By his own right hand God has now raised him up to be leader and saviour, to give repentance and forgiveness of sins through him to Israel. We are witnesses to all this, we and the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’ They warned the apostles not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them. And so they left the presence of the Sanhedrin glad to have had the honour of suffering humiliation for the sake of the name.” This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
It is safe to say that the Jewish religious elite were not best pleased with the disciples. They were upset that the disciples did not obey their authority. These Jewish religious leaders were not treated deferentially by the disciples simply by virtue of their status, their social position, their religious reverence, and their demands. Jesus’ message had not been eradicated by death on the cross. It had not been muzzled by arrests, imprisonments, nor by loud denunciations. Indeed, in today’s passage, the religious leaders sound a bit desperate. They have lost their ability to control and manage those in their charge.
Central to the passage is the accusation of the high priest that the disciples were blaming Jewish religious leaders for the death of Jesus. However, by focusing on blame and accusation, they miss the point of Jesus’ life, ministry, and message. God’s purpose in resurrecting Jesus and in preventing harm to the disciples is not because of some divine will to condemn or destroy. To the contrary, God is here to grace humanity with the gifts of repentance and forgiveness. It is divine mercy, not divine vindication nor divine retribution, which lies at the heart of the Easter message.
In response to the high priest, Peter is preaching not revenge but the eternal truth of the Gospel. Yes, the Gospel does challenge and lead to the destruction of the power of the oppressors. But the real story throughout is the constancy of God’s mercy in the face of human fear and efforts of self-protection. Our own discipleship as Christians is lived in tension between God’s will for us to bring our existence closer to the Kingdom of Heaven and the version of the world pursued by earthly powers and principalities.
In Peter’s words, we have the unmistakable instruction to obey God and not human authority. This instruction has sustained Christians ever since that time, who faced prejudice or even outright oppression at the hands of military, political, or social elites. And yet, how do we know that we are not simply projecting our own personal baggage, desires, and politics onto God? How can we be sure that we are serving God, and not using our faith as a mere fig leaf to cover our own self interest? I think Peter’s reference to God raising Jesus is critical here during our own personal process of discernment. God promises – and God accomplishes – things of life and not things of death. God brings us freedom and not imprisonment. God brings us mercy and hope through forgiveness and repentance. If we come from a place of life, of freedom, of mercy, and of hope, we are honoring everyone and not just ourselves. In this way, we the church faithfully bear witness to the Kingdom that lies just beyond the veil in our thoughts, in our words, and in our deeds. Amen and Amen.