Obeying God and Not Human Authority – and Figuring Out Which is Which

(sermon 4/28/19)

fork in road

John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

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Acts 5:27-32

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. 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.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might 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.”

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This Sunday’s gospel text is John’s account of what Jesus did on the evening of the day of his resurrection – after he’d taken that walk to Emmaus with those disciples and broke bread with them, he then made his way back to Jerusalem and had this amazing encounter with the disciples in the locked room. It was the beginning of their spiritual empowerment, and in John’s gospel, it’s here when the disciples receive the Holy Spirit, instead of on Pentecost Sunday as it’s told in the other gospels. I want us to hold this event in our minds, and in light of it, to think about what’s happening in our first reading, the passage from Acts.

What we hear there is part of a larger story about these emboldened, empowered, Spirit-filled followers of Jesus proclaiming his message and running up against the opposition of the power structure of the time. They’ve been arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. This wasn’t the first time they’d, as before, been arrested for what they were doing, or the first time they were warned to stop it. But the disciples’ reply was that they had to obey God rather than any human authority.

To consider this passage on the surface, it would be easy to give it an antisemitic reading. YOu know, it was those bad, nasty Jews who were persecuting the Christians, and so the disciples had to oppose them, and so we should hate all the Jews because of that. And throughout history, many Christians have read it that way, and that mindset has obviously been used to justify horrific evil against the Jewish people – even up until this very day, when we’re dealing with the news of the terrorist attack on the Chabad synagogue in California yesterday.

The real message of what’s going on here, though, has very little if anything to do with the religion of the disciples’ persecutors. For the most part, their Jewish identity was merely an accident of history and the context where these events unfolded; The same thing could have happened anywhere, with people of any religious beliefs. At the core of what’s really going on here is the imposition of power by a group silence voices and actions and movements that are seen as a threat to their holding on to that power. And it’s been repeated in the actions of literally every group that has ever held power over others. Every single one of them, regardless of the specific details of their specific identity and from the highest to the lowest of levels; from kings and congresses and presidents all the way down to your local HOA. So before anything else, let’s set aside any lingering antisemitic thoughts about this text; and not not set it aside, but strongly denounce it. That is not its relevant point or message, and to read it in that light isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous, as we see time and time again.

Having set that aside, now we can consider this very important idea of obeying God rather than human authority. We’ve actually touched on that same idea in recent weeks, as those Lectionary texts pointed toward similar issues. These disciples were engaging in faith-based civil disobedience; claiming that as a matter of their faith, they had to obey a higher moral authority, God’s authority, rather than some human authority. They aren’t the only ones who have been in that position – any time we engage in some act of civil disobedience – disregarding a legally established but morally unjust law, and we’re doing it as an expression of our faith – we’re doing the same thing that these disciples were doing. When Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the head of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness in Washington, and others were arrested as they prayed on the steps of the Supreme Court last year as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, their arrest was the same as these disciples being arrested for their own legally forbidden public proclamation of the gospel.

This is one of the most discussed and debated topics in our culture today. It plays out in dozens of ways, and it often puts us into some uncertain territory. People across the entire spectrum of our faith, from the most conservative to the most liberal, claim to do things, all in the name of obeying God rather than human authority. Claiming to obey God over human authority, Rev. Franklin Graham denounces presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as a fake Christian and an unrepentant sinner bound for hell because he’s gay, and liberal; I’m not sure which of those he considers the bigger sin. For his part, Buttigieg claims to be doing the exact same thing – obeying God rather than human authority – as he advocates various liberal social policies, claiming they’re the most consistent with Christian moral teaching; and recognizes the fact that he’s gay as being a gift from God and just one part of his having been made in God’s image. Claiming to obey God over human authority, conservative Christians protest in front of Planned Parenthood women’s health centers, calling them evil, and the doctors  murderers, because in addition to other things, they perform abortions. At the same time, progressive Christians claim they’re doing the exact same thing – obeying God over human authority – as they organize counter-protests and accompany women through the protestors blockading the entry, so they can get in for whatever health services they’re seeking. You can come up with almost countless examples in our social past and present where two groups holding diametrically opposed viewpoints both claim to be standing up for God’s will, over against some misguided human authority.

So what’s a person to do in cases like this? How are we supposed to know who’s really right, and who’s wrong? How can we really know if we’re on the right side of some issue with absolute certainty?

The short answer is that we can’t. As a matter of doctrine in our Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, we recognize our human limitations, and the reality that as flawed creatures, whether as individuals or councils or other groups, we can, and do, err. Sometimes we just blow it. The history of our faith is full of times when we thought we were right, but the facts eventually showed otherwise. While we pray and try to discern the right way, the truth is that sometimes, we’ll get it wrong.  So while we do our best to seek the mind of God in certain issues, even when we’re really strongly convinced that we’re right, we need to tread respectfully and humbly toward those who share a different view. That doesn’t mean that we have to agree with them, or agree that both views are somehow equally valid or worthy of equal consideration, or that the best approach to the disagreement is always necessarily some kind of a 50/50 compromise; a constant cutting of Solomon’s baby in half. In our assurance, we can take our stands boldly; we just can’t personally demonize, vilify, or spew hatred toward others.

So how do we try to understand God’s will in some issue? Here’s where I think we can look back at today’s gospel text. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into those disciples, and in the process, he commissions them to proclaim the same message and mission that he’s had during his ministry. So let this be our touchstone, too. When a disagreement like this happens, whatever the specifics, just ask: what approach is the most consistent with Christ’s actual teaching and message? What approach is most consistent with Christ, the real life, living, breathing, in-the-flesh and in-your-face explanation of what God’s will looks like in human terms? Are people treated with the same compassion and dignity that Jesus offered? Are they treated with mercy, fairness, equity? Does the approach value people over customs, traditions, and yes, sometimes even laws? In short, what is the most loving approach? Because Jesus’ entire ministry – the entire good news that he entered the world to proclaim  – all distills down to the eternal truth that God wants us to offer love to one another – that this is the foremost way of obeying, and honoring, and in the process, actually worshiping, God.

Honestly, when we struggle with the question of “What Would Jesus Do?” we usually already know the answer; we just might not like it. I get that, because sometimes it can be really, really hard to do the loving thing in certain situations. But we always need to remember that we are the spiritual descendants of those disciples that Jesus breathed on in that locked room. We have received that same Holy Spirit within us, too, and that Spirit can, and will, not only help guide us into understanding what’s right, and good, and loving; but will also give us, if we’re willing to accept it,  the strength to actually follow that path, even when it’s hard.

Throughout his week, look for times when you sense that breath of God in your life, trying to open your mind, and your heart, to something in your life, large or small. Allow that Spirit to guide and strengthen you in having the mind of Christ in something specific. That’s how the Spirit will help you find the peace that Christ offered to those original disciples, and to us as well.

Thanks be to God.

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