Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Sermon April 7, 2013 - Putting Away Easter

Acts 5.12-42

            Have you put away Easter yet? Well, most of us do – put Easter away as soon as the last echoes of the “Hallelujah Chorus” fade away. It is time to turn to baseball and gardening and prom season. The idea that we will linger to reflect on the lasting impact of Easter and Christ’s resurrection never gets a chance in our busy lives. Well, at least on Sundays let us continue to reflect on the impact of Easter. We are going to turn to the Book of Acts over the coming weeks to tell what happened as a result of Easter. The disciples moved from trembling and denying Jesus to powerful witnesses to the continuing work of Jesus in the world. They went from hiding to proclaiming boldly the work of Jesus. They were convinced that Jesus’ work did not end with the cross but continued in their time and continues in our time.

            We are going to read a passage from the Book of Acts that we call: “Peter and the Apostles before the Council.” Some time has passed since the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. As we join the story, Jesus has already ascended to the Father; even Pentecost with its gift of the Holy Spirit has passed. Peter is now a bold witness to his Savior. He is preaching daily in the Temple. He is causing worry among the Temple leaders. They want to stop him, but Peter is not going to make it easy.

+      After Easter, after the Ascension and after Pentecost, the Apostles, led by Peter, go boldly to the Temple where they preach Jesus daily. They heal the sick; crowds come to hear them.
+      The High Priest, in a fit of worry, has them thrown into prison to silence them.
+      But, God sends an angel to release them with the directions: “Go back to the Temple and preach.”
+      The Temple police find them there and bring them back to the Council. Peter and John have been here before; this is the first time for the other apostles.
+      The Chief Priest lights into them: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.” (How interesting that the High Priest cannot bring himself to utter the name, Jesus.) “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.”
+      In response, Peter speaks his famous defense: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” The High Priest hauled them before the Council as disobedient boys; Peter turns the debate into a consideration of the work of God. Is this God’s message Peter and the apostles are delivering or something else?
+      Then, Peter charges them with responsibility for the death of Jesus and at the same time points to God’s great act of raising him from the dead on Easter.
+      To no one’s surprise, the Council was enraged at Peter’s words.
Next, this new leader on the Temple Council appears – Gamaliel. He addressed the Council this way:
34 “Fellow Israelites, be careful what you do to these men. 38-39 “If this work is merely human, it will fall apart, but if it is of God, there is nothing you can do about it—and you better not be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5.34-39).

Most Biblical scholars take this wise counsel of Gamaliel and breathe a collective sigh of relief. If the Council managed to get Jesus crucified, it would have been pretty easy to get these weak disciples crucified, too. They *dodged a bullet*, as the saying goes, and for that, we should be grateful.
            But, examine his message carefully. I believe that this is the kind of conviction that ultimately undermines and weakens the Christian movement; it does not strengthen it.
Hands off these men! Let them alone. If this program or this work is merely human, it will fall apart, but if it is of God, there is nothing you can do about it (Acts 5.38).

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Christ, is it? Instead, it sounds like “Wait and see.” It reminds me a couple similar situations:
            C.S. Lewis’ book, *The Screwtape Letters * imagines a series of letters between an old devil and his young nephew. The nephew’s job is to lead some unsuspecting Christian to abandon faith so he will land in eternal torment. It takes a Devil’s cunning and wisdom to lead a believer to ruin. One of the points the old Devil made to his nephew about this task, which sounds a lot like Gamaliel’s counsel to me:
**“Indeed the safest road to hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

In another passage, the old Devil said:
“A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all - and more amusing”** (1).

In Gamaliel’s hands, the courageous faith of the apostles following Pentecost should be met with benign neglect. So what if they shout about their Jesus all day in the Temple? They are only here to stir up a reaction. When no one pays attention, they will just wear out and go home.
            The other place that echoes of Gamaliel’s counsel is found in John’s letters to the churches in the Revelation of John. In the letter of the Spirit to the church at Laodicea, John writes:
**16 "I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing. ' You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked**.( Rev 3:15-17).

The church Laodicea is the result of Gamaliel’s sort of counsel. They had in their possession the greatest story ever told. They had a gospel that would change the world. But, they chose to hold it as used goods – no need for real commitment. They slept while they should have been working. They are the great example of treating the gospel as just another program designed by human beings. As Gamaliel said:  “If this program or this work is merely human, it will fall apart. Leave it alone; let’s see what happens.” When we hold the gospel without urgency, without commitment, and without passion, then Gamaliel’s plan works its destruction.
            In contrast to Gamaliel’s *wait and see* thinking, recall what happened when the angel appeared at the prison.
But during the night, an angel of God opened the jailhouse door and led them out. He said, “Go to the Temple and take your stand. Tell the people everything there is to say about this Life”(Acts 5.20).

The message of the angel who called them from the prison was not one that Gamaliel could have delivered. It was urgent; it was pointed; it was motivated. The angel’s words are direct and strong: “Go. Tell.”
            So, all this brings us back to the question we raised at the beginning of our time together: Have you put away Easter yet? While it might not have been on target on the day he spoke in the Temple Counsel, the wisdom of Gamaliel is proving to true. Easter Sunday was amazing; it was glorious. Now, let some time pass. Let the grass grow and require some attention. Let March Madness pass and baseball season begin. Let the joy of Easter fade, and let people get distracted. It will soon be over and we can return to normal. The noise about this Jesus will fall silent and we can pretend nothing has happened.
            As a result of poor planning, Dennis, from Katy, TX, needed some same-day dry cleaning before he left on a trip. He remembered one store with a huge sign, “One-hour Dry Cleaners,” on the other side of town, so he drove out of his way to drop off a suit. After filling out the tag, he told the clerk, “I need this in one hour.”
            She said, “I can’t get this back to you until Thursday.”
            “I thought you do dry cleaning in an hour.”
            “No,” she said. “That’s just the name of our store.”
You see, they had forgotten why they were in business. // In the same way, those of us who carry the name *Christian*, but fail to act like the one whose name we bear, create confusion and disillusionment for those who have yet to believe (2).

            This Easter faith in us is a source of joy and drive by which we will make the world whole again in Christ’s name. We have work to do. We have a joy to share. We have been empowered to offer this to all the world. Like Simon Peter and John and the other apostles, let us make it our task to bear witness to all that God has done and all that God is doing in us and through us for the world. Let us keep the keep the joy of Easter going – in our living, our working, and in our way with others. We are the ones the angel now sends to take a stand for Christ.

1. Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters.
2. Rowell, Ed. “Sign of the Christian.”

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