Sermon for May 1, 2011

Acts 5:29-42 (Second Sunday of Easter—Series A)

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT

May 1, 2011

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Our text is the First Reading recorded in Acts 5:

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice, and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.

The Easter Hymn of Praise declares, “This is the feast of victory for our God” (LSB p. 155).  However, as we continue to read the story of the first Easter preachers, the apostles in the Book of Acts, we will see again that it was not immediately obvious to everyone in Jerusalem that there had been a victory and that there should be a feast.  No sooner did the apostles begin to preach in the name of Jesus than they found themselves running into conflict with the same authorities who had opposed Jesus Himself.  These authorities had condemned Jesus to death for “misleading our nation” (Lk. 23:2), and now they are ready to put Jesus’ followers to death for preaching words of life in His name.

The apostles stand before the Jewish council.  They claim to be speaking for God in the name of Jesus.  The authorities deny their claim and demand that they obey them as the leaders of God’s people.  How is such a stand-off to be resolved?  A respected member of the council stands up to speak.  For us who seek a resolution, just as for the Jewish council in our text, Gamaliel’s “if” presents a challenge.

The message of forgiveness and life in Jesus, whether proclaimed by Jesus Himself or by His apostles, was in stark contrast to the way the Jerusalem authorities read God’s Word.  Eternal life by Jesus’ merit alone, apart from one’s keeping of the Law, made no sense to them.  A Messiah who would die on a cross?  Foolishness!

But Gamaliel’s “if it is of God” allows for the possibility that they could be wrong and suggests that the recent events surrounding Jesus may require them to show some caution.  The Jews couldn’t really deny the empty tomb.  Everybody in Jerusalem had heard about Peter healing a lame man in Jesus’ name. (Acts 4:8-10, 13-16)  And somehow these men they’d imprisoned the day before had been set free.  We read earlier in Acts 5, “But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison.  But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.”  And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.  Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council and all the senate of the people of Israel and sent to the prison to have them brought.  But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.”  Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to.  And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.”

What the leaders of Jerusalem needed was to have their minds opened by Jesus to understand the Scriptures.  After all, God had provided His people a way to decide who was “of God” and who was not.  God said in Deuteronomy 18, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers.  And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.  But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’” (18-20)

The events of the last few weeks—if not the past twenty-four hours—should have been enough to demonstrate to the council, including Gamaliel, that this message was “of God.”

Peter’s opening statement that “we must obey God rather than men” required that the followers of Jesus also be clear on what is “of God” and what is only by human authority.  Peter rightly sticks to the message about what God has done in Jesus, the “things” of which Peter and the others had been commissioned as witnesses.  The apostles had seen Jesus on the cross.  They had once wondered whether that was of God.  But now they had also seen Him alive!  Now they knew it was all God’s perfect plan.  Peter and the others drew strength and boldness from the witness of God’s Holy Spirit that confirmed their witness.

That day did end in victory for our Lord and for the message proclaimed in His name.  Yet the question still faces us and the world: Who or what is “of God” and who or what is not?  The rapid spread of Islam, or Mormonism?  Universalism?  The latest fad to grow the church?  A great idea or just something that “seems to work”?  Relationships and behaviors that “feel so right” even if they’re not quite what our pastor and parents taught us?  What is of God and what is not?

As we seek to obey God rather than man today, we are forced to go back again and again to God’s Word to see what, exactly, He has commanded and promised.  History will show which of our proposals and programs and plans and practices are of God and which, well intentioned though they may be, were only human thoughts after all.

Just as the apostles had to be taught to recognize God’s victories when they saw them—imprisonment, beating, suffering dishonor, even the welcoming of the Gentiles into the people of God—so we, too, must walk as much by faith as by sight, not basing our trust on our ability to see the fulfillment of God’s promises.

As we watch history unfold, we trust in what is certain, God’s Word, and do “not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”  The victory is ours in Him.  And the victory celebration will have no end.  Amen.

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