Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The coup

“But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than human authority.’”  Acts 5:29

There are a few Sundays a year when it would be nice if the lectionary creators had lined up our Scripture lessons in chronological order. Today would be one of them. We started with a story from the early church, then moved to a vision of the last days and then back to one of Jesus’ first resurrection appearances: that’s enough time travel to make Marty McFly’s head spin.

So let’s start again, and tell the story in order this time.  It begins with the disciples, hiding that first Easter evening in a locked upper room. They were terrified, confused, grieving, and lost. They were afraid of those who held the power, especially the temple authorities who had handed Jesus over to be crucified, and who might have them next on their list. They were still mourning Jesus’ death and the way that it had dashed all their hopes.  They were confused about the events of the morning: an empty tomb, a vision of angels, maybe Magdalene had even seen the Lord.  But what did it all mean?  Where was Jesus?  When would they see Him again, and what would He think of them?  What comes next? 

And in that tense moment, Jesus appears to them. He stands amid them, and He breathes peace into their troubled hearts. His Spirit fills them with courage and clear vision.  He shows them the marks of the nails in his hands and his side, and suddenly, while looking at those wounds on His resurrected body, the events of Good Friday began to make sense.  Now they begin to see that Jesus had done what no one else could.  He conquered death, returning in victory.  And that meant that everything they feared—ridicule, abuse, coercion, physical harm, even death—nothing frightened them anymore.  In place of fear, they had only peace. 

Fast-forward a few months, and Peter stands before us.  This is the very same Peter that was cowering in the upper room with the other disciples for fear of the temple authorities, the same Peter who denied Jesus on Good Friday because he was afraid to be associated with Him. Now, he’s standing before the Sanhedrin and the high priest, the very same men who had Jesus handed over to be crucified. The events of recent days haven’t changed the religious authorities at all.  They’re harassing Peter, and questioning him.  They have arrested, beaten and jailed Peter before, and they are reminding him what they told him the last time.  He had been commanded not to teach in “this Name”—notice that they can’t even bring themselves to say the word Jesus. “We are in charge of this religion,” they were saying.  “Stop trying to bring this man’s blood on us. If you don’t listen to us, you’ll be sorry.”

Instead of denying Jesus or hiding away, this time Peter gives an incredibly bold answer: “We must obey God rather than human authority.   The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at this right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things.”  Note his audacity: “we must obey God rather than human authority.”  He’s speaking to the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of Palestinian Judaism.   It’s like walking into a meeting of the college of cardinals and asking, “when are we going to get a little religion around here?”  He stands here in Jerusalem, in the shadow the temple, a stone’s throw from Calvary hill. 

Peter leaves no doubt that the religious authorities’ worst fears have been realized.  This a coup.  There’s a new high priest in town. His name is Jesus. Your services, elders of the people, they won’t be needed any more.  The best thing you can do is come along with me and join up: repent and be baptized, take your place in this new thing that God is doing.

Note that this is not how coups usually work.  Nobody came to Bashar al-Assad back in 2011 and announced, “This is a coup we’re starting.  We’re not listening to you anymore. We just thought you’d like to have a head’s up.” Things wouldn’t have ended well for Brutus and Cassius if they’d said to Julius Caesar: “we’re going to assassinate you on the Ides of March.  You might as well pick out your funeral toga.”  You can bet they never breathed a word to Caesar until the knife was in his back. 

What kind of man could stand before the ones who held all the power and speak such words of insurrection? Well, only a fool, or a man who knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt that the coup would be successful. Only someone who knew that the alternative power structure was already in place, the masses were behind him, a force powerful enough to guarantee victory.  Only that sort of person could speak like this. 

And that’s exactly what Peter knows.  The coup has already happened.  Peter has seen the risen Lord, and has received the Holy Spirit and he is certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that victory belongs to his Lord and his God: He who is, as our Epistle Lesson proclaims: “Alpha and the Omega, he who was and who is and who is to come, the Almighty.”  

“You want to kill me?” Peter dares them. “Go ahead. You saw how well that worked with Jesus. You can kill me, but you can’t keep me dead. You can lock me in prison, but you can’t keep me there. You can cut off my tongue, but you can’t stop the Good News of Jesus Christ from spreading. There is nothing you can do that frightens me because we have already won. You have no real power over me.  The future belongs to Jesus Christ alone.”

Easter changes things.  Our Risen Lord steps into people’s lives, and he drives out fear, pours in courage and new life, and sends out his own with a story for the world.  “We are witnesses of these things,” Peter says.  We have seen it in our own lives.  We know it is true, and nothing can hold us back from sharing it with a world so desperately longing for peace and hope. 

Would that each of us had Peter’s audacity.  Would that we all could speak with such power and conviction about how Jesus Christ has changed our lives.  Because He still turns the world upside down, one person at a time.  Today we see Christ doing this in Holy Baptism, as Caleb receives new life.  He is united to Christ, and committed to “continuing in His risen life”—the path of bold discipleship.  Christ continues to bring new courage, to urge people to take risks, to discover new ways of serving Him.  He still brings healing and peace, still pours out forgiveness.  

Jesus is here today amid His own: with us in our fear, doubt and weakness.  But today He says again, “Peace be with you.”  He sends you out today with nothing in the world to fear and with every possible reason to tell your story, to be His witness today. 

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