Sunday, April 27, 2014

Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 5:29-42
Psalm 148
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

But Peter and the apostles answered and said, We must obey God rather than men.

British dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse has this to say about the obedience of dogs. “In a dog’s mind, a master or mistress to love, honor and obey is an absolute necessity. The love is dormant in the dog until brought into full bloom by an understanding owner. Thousands of dogs appear to love their owners, they welcome them home with enthusiastic wagging of the tail and jumping up, they follow them about their houses happily and, to the normal person seeing the dog, the affection is true and deep. But to the experienced dog trainer this outward show is not enough. The true test of real love takes place when the dog has got the opportunity to go out on its own as soon as the door is left open by mistake and it goes off and often doesn’t return home for hours. That dog loves only its home comforts and the attention it gets from its family; it doesn’t truly love the master or mistress as they fondly think. True love in dogs is apparent when a door is left open and the dog still stays happily within earshot of its owner. For the owner must be the be-all and end-all of a dog’s life.”

This is the kind of obedience that is called for by Christ. This is not to say that we are like dogs to our Master, but that we are willing to stand firm with Him even though we are given the freedom to wander. Some would like to think that we are able to do whatever we want because Christ forgives our waywardness. While it is true that we are forgiven, we are not given new life in Christ to run rampant around our neighborhood, like the dog who has taken advantage of his master’s grace.

In today’s first lesson, Peter and the apostles answered the questioning of the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men.” The movement of the followers of Christ was called The Way; it was growing daily. This made the Jews nervous and jealous. The temple leaders persecuted the disciples, having them arrested, beaten and threatened with death. But God was with the disciples, giving them strength, peace and hope in the midst of their troubles. God even sent angels to help them at times, and gave them opportunities to share the Gospel through their persecution. Nothing was going to stop them because they loved their Lord with their whole being and they were willing the stand for Him no matter what happened. The leaders met to discuss the problem.

The disciples didn’t mince words when facing the Sanhedrin. They said, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew, hanging him on a tree. Him did God exalt with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins. And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God hath given to them that obey him.” This made them extremely angry, and they wanted to kill them.

But there was one man, a Pharisee, who brought calm to the situation. He told his fellow councilmen to be patient and let God take care of the situation. “Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will be overthrown: but if it is of God, ye will not be able to overthrow them; lest haply ye be found even to be fighting against God.” This was wise advice, although I’m certain the council was hoping it would turn out much differently.

Gamaliel, however, may have had a concealed motive for speaking such wise words. We know that this Pharisee was a Jewish scholar and teacher of the Law. His most famous student was Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as Paul. Tradition holds that Simeon, the old man in the Temple who recognized Baby Jesus as the Messiah, was Gamaliel’s father. If this is true, he most likely told his son about Jesus. Did Gamaliel know that the men standing before the Sanhedrin were followers of that baby in the Temple? It is believed that Gamaliel did become a Christian and was baptized by Peter and John, but that he kept his Christianity a secret until his death so that he could remain in the Sanhedrin and offer aid to the Christians who were being persecuted. The Jewish account of his life maintains that he remained a Pharisee until he died. But his speech at the trial of the apostles gives some credence to the possibility that he had faith.

It is easy to see the obedience of Peter and the apostles in this story as they stood up for The Way even against such a great risk. What about Gamaliel? Gamaliel was risking his power, position and reputation for a bunch of misfit prophets. It didn’t matter if he was a believer or not; Gamaliel was willing to trust God in this situation, and he convinced the others to trust Him, too.

This was a most extraordinary thing that they were doing. Jesus died and you would think that His death would have put an end to any movement of faith that would follow His name. And yet the stories in the book of Acts tell us that the people believed in extraordinary numbers. Three thousand were baptized on Pentecost, and the scriptures tell us that people were being added to their numbers daily. These were people who believed by the word of those apostles: they told the stories and the Holy Spirit instilled faith. There is no way that the council would be able to stop the growth of The Way, even if they killed all the apostles. By the time they had been arrested, others were already spreading the Good News. The people who had witnessed the Pentecost miracle were traveling to the four corners of the earth with stories about Jesus.

It was so extraordinary that even the closest disciples had trouble believing. The disciples were afraid, hiding behind locked doors. They didn’t know what to expect. They did not yet have the Holy Spirit to give them strength. They were still dazed and confused about what was happening. They’d heard the stories: the women saw Jesus in the Garden. The disciples met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. It was crazy and impossible. It was frightening. There may have been rumors of body stealing, and though they knew they didn’t take His body, they may have been afraid that they would be arrested anyway. If Jesus, who was so good and righteous, so gifted and devout, could be put to death, what would stop the religious leaders from destroying them, too? Thomas was so frightened; he wasn’t even with the other disciples in the Upper Room.

Viktor Frankl experienced Auschwitz and Dachau. He’d been condemned to a living death, along with so many others who were devastated by the horrors of the holocaust. It was humiliating to be treated like an animal; they were stripped, whipped, shaved and put into prison. He lost many family members through death in the camps and gas ovens. He had every right to lose hope; what did he have to look forward to? Yet, Viktor knew that the only thing that kept him alive was hope despite the cold, fear, starvation, pain, lice and vermin, dehumanization, exhaustion and terror. Faith in the future kept him going day by day. Many prisoners just stopped living, they refused to move off their beds, wash or dress, even when they were threatened by the guards. They no longer cared; they had no hope and so gave up. This is what Viktor called “give-up-itis.”

We can almost understand giving up under such extreme circumstances, and yet looking at those who survived we can see that God did amazing things through their lives. When we think of the record that has been written by those who lived through the horrors, and the lessons they’ve shared, we are thankful that they never lost hope. Otherwise, we might have lost their witness, not only to the horrors of what happened at the hands of the Nazis, but also the amazing grace of God.

“Give-up-itis” is not limited to people who are in extreme circumstances. Have you ever known someone who felt there was no hope in their job or their relationships, and so they just gave up on them? They stop working to make things better. When there is no room for promotion, a worker will only do what is necessary to get through every day at the job. When there seems to be no future in a marriage, a couple will give up and stop trying to build up their relationship. Sadly, I think there are many people who are living in America today who have “give-up-it is.” They have no hope for a job or a better life, so they just give up trying. There are those who think there is no solution to our problems, so they hide ignoring the possibilities that really do exist.

Our Gospel lesson begins that first Easter night and ends eight days later. The disciples gathered in the Upper Room had no hope. They had glimmers of possibilities because they had heard the stories of the witnesses, but they found it too hard to believe. Suddenly, out of nowhere, through a locked door, Jesus appeared before them. He was alive, but even then their first reaction was that they were seeing a ghost. Jesus answered their fear with a word of peace. Then He showed them His hands and side, and the disciples knew that they were seeing the risen Lord. Jesus said again, “Peace be unto you: as the Father hath sent me, even so send I you.”

In this first appearance, Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit.” This was like a down payment of what was to come: the Holy Spirit that would anoint them at Pentecost. In the days between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus taught the disciples everything they needed to know, but even then it would not be enough. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit could the disciples ever believe and do the work God was calling them to do.

What is that work? What is the word they are called to take to the world? It is the word of forgiveness that is found in the grace and mercy of God through Christ Jesus. Jesus said, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit: whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” Forgiveness is a difficult thing; do any of us really deserve to be forgiven? Even the specially chosen followers of Jesus deserved death. After all, think about the things they did in those last moments of Jesus’ life. They abandoned Him. They denied Him. They were afraid, uncertain, and doubtful despite the words of Jesus. Even more so, I think about my own sin and know that I do not deserve to benefit from what Christ has done.

The disciples were not able to believe in Jesus without the power He gives them to believe. The breath He breaths into all believers is the Holy Spirit, and it is by the power of that Spirit that they have faith. To blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to deny His power, to reject Him.

The lesson of that first Easter evening is hard for us to grasp, because quite frankly there are folk we would rather not forgive. Here’s the thing: we aren’t called to go out into the world to condemn those who sin, but rather to proclaim the word of forgiveness into their lives. It is not our job to decide who deserves to hear that word and who does not deserve it. We are commissioned to take it to everyone.

Many will reject the word we speak. They will not believe us. Some believe their sin is too great for even God to forgive. They can’t accept that there is mercy that can overcome. Others do not think we are credible witnesses, like the women who were ignored on that first resurrection day. What have we seen that we can really report? There are others who do not believe they need to be forgiven. The worst reason the Word is rejected is that we do not reveal to the world our own need for forgiveness. We paint a mask that tells shows the world that we are good Christians and they see our calls for repentance as judgment and condemnation. Or they see us as hypocrites because we say one thing but they see our flaws too clearly. They do not believe that we speak the Gospel because we know we are sinners in need of a Savior. They think we see ourselves as their savior. There are yet others who simply need to see something tangible to believe, no words will ever be enough.

Thomas was one of those guys who need to see to believe. Eight days after the first appearance, the disciples were still hiding behind the closed doors of the Upper room. This time Thomas was with them, unwilling to believe their word. Imagine how that must have felt for those disciples. Thomas was like a brother, having traveled with them for nearly three years. He heard the same stories, he learned the same lessons. He was given the same prophecies and promises. If he did not believe them, who would? How could they possibly share their message with outsiders? I imagine they were hurt, there may have even been discord among the disciples. When Jesus appeared the second time, He spoke the words of peace again. “Peace be with you.”

In this greeting, Jesus touched on the greatest problem within the Church even today. For the disciples to do the work they were called to do, there must be peace among them. How can they take the message of the Gospel out into a world if there is no reconciliation between brothers? Whatever was going on behind those closed doors during the week between the first and second appearance, Jesus pointed them in a new direction. Once Thomas was given the same experience, there was nothing to keep the disciples divided.

We pick on Thomas, but can we really blame him? After all, we would probably have felt the same way if we had been out of the loop. We would have had difficulty believing the testimonies of those who were those first witnesses. Instead of recalling the sadness and of the disciples after Good Friday, which Thomas was still feeling on that first Sunday, we are invited to join in the joy of the week after Jesus’ first appearance to His disciples. Jesus said to the disciples, “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” This reprimand was given to all the disciples, not just Thomas. They had an advantage: they saw the Risen Lord. They lived with Him and learned from Him for another miraculous forty days. But the Church would grow out of faith in the word heard, not in the flesh seen. The blessed ones would be those who would believe when they heard their testimony.

It is easy for us to get caught up in the cares of the world, even those that really have no value. Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to be a disciple in those first few days after the crucifixion and resurrection? They were worried and scared, perhaps even rightly so. But Jesus came to them in the midst of that difficulty to give them peace.

We can experience the same peace if we keep our hearts and minds firm in the promises of God. He calls us to obedience. That doesn’t mean that we should be like dogs. As followers of God saved by Jesus, we are called to love God so much that we trust Him completely. Obedience means believing that the best place in the world to be is within earshot of our Master.

Our worries and our fears are really insignificant when we consider the amazing things God has done. He has created the entire world and everything in it. He has redeemed all of mankind by the blood of Christ. He has brought salvation to our lives, ordained His people to service and promised to do even greater things through His Church. We might suffer for a moment. We might have difficult work to do in this world. But no matter what we face, we believe in the God of the heavens and the earth. Let us join with all of God’s creation in a song of praise, spending time each day in adoration and admiration of the God who has done it all, so that when we face those difficult times we won’t use our freedom to run and hide, but instead stand and speak the Word.

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