With All Due Respect…

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and Lutheran minister who openly spoke against Hitler and the Nazi regime, executed in 1945.

PRAYER: (from the Lectionary)

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever, AMEN.

SCRIPTURES: (from the Lectionary)

Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

PRAYER FOCUS: With All Due Respect (Confronting Authority)

Peter and the Apostles had started the night in Jail. Again. They had been in jail before—and recently (see Acts 4:1-22, then Acts 5:17-21). But this time an angel had appeared and let them out, instructing them to “go and stand in the Temple courts and tell the people the full message of this new life.”

To obey the angel would get the good news to the people, but it would put the Apostles in direct conflict with the Sanhedrin, the governing religious authority. The Sanhedrin was a powerful council of more than seventy Jewish religious leaders, flanked by three times that number of clerks. They could have the Apostles flogged and imprisoned, or they could petition the Romans to have them crucified, as they had just demonstrated with Jesus a few days before.

The Apostles had run away in the face of that danger then. They could run now.

But this time things were different. They were different. The Apostles had lost something they never thought they’d lose, and they’d found something they’d never thought they could have. They had changed. And they were about to start changing the world.

The Angel had instructed the Apostles to “Go…Stand…Tell…” So they went to the Temple. They took their stand. They were telling the gathering crowd about the good news of Jesus’ resurrection when the members of the Sanhedrin arrived. The temple guard promptly arrested Peter and the Apostles and brought them 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.”

Note that Peter and the Apostles were not sent to challenge the Romans, but rather, at least indirectly, to challenge the church leadership. Peter tactfully acknowledges the Sanhedrin’s authority and treats them with all due respect, even though they are wrong. But he doesn’t back down from the truth.

Note also that the High Priest doesn’t dispute either what Peter is saying or what he is doing. This is extraordinary, because the easiest way to discredit the Apostles was to call them liars and dismiss their stories as wild ramblings. But there was already indisputable evidence of Jesus’ resurrection—so much that the Sanhedrin tried to bribe the soldiers who were sent to guard Jesus’ tomb (Matt. 28: 11-15). So instead of authoritatively responding to the Apostles’ witness of resurrection, the High Priest was reduced to complaining that Peter and his friends weren’t doing what they were told.

The Sanhedrin wanted to silence the Apostles as they had Jesus. Like some church leaders in modern times, the members of the Jewish High Council were deeply invested in the status quo, more concerned about preserving their own position than about God’s will. By obediently spreading the gospel message Peter, John and the others were standing into serious danger. As it was, they emerged from this confrontation with a flogging and a little jail time.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who lived in Nazi Germany. During the 1930s and 40s, very much like the Apostle Peter, Bonhoeffer challenged the German religious leaders for sacrificing their moral principles for the sake of political expedience.

In the economic depression that followed World War I, German Christians had become divided between doctrines of legalism and what American author Tim Keller calls formalism. Proponents of legalism believed that salvation comes through good works and by clean, disciplined living. Formalists only wanted to hear about how much God loves and forgives everyone—how you lived didn’t matter. Legalists first began to develop holier-than-thou attitudes towards the formalists, then gravitated towards the notions of national and racial superiority promoted by Adolph Hitler. The formalists may have noted the fundamental immorality of Hitler’s politics, but saw no need to risk their safety to publicly oppose them. The consequence of Germany’s divided church was that Hitler enjoyed a meteoric rise to power with little moral opposition.

Bonhoeffer spoke out against the church leaders of his day for compromising their theology in order to accommodate Nazi political agenda. They, like the Sanhedrin, preferred the trappings of position and the prerogatives of power to the consequences of confrontation. The Nazi Gestapo eventually arrested Dietrich Bonhoeffer for sedition, and executed him three months before the end of WWII.

Today the Western Church is similarly divided. On one side we have those who at least tacitly subscribe to a doctrine of salvation-by-works, who try hard to live “good” lives that are at least “better than” those “other” churches, and they’re proud of that. On the other side are libertine formalists who can’t seem to bear any unpleasantness of how Jesus suffered and died on a Roman cross to satisfy God’s wrath against us, and who fixate only on good feelings about God’s love, love, and more love.

Somewhere in between is the costly reality of God’s grace, and what that means. Both sides are in danger of losing this core of the Christian faith.

With the church thus asunder, pop culture has predictably turned increasingly immoral (never mind the political culture). False beliefs such as the prosperity gospel and liberation theology have corrupted the Body of Christ. Abortion—the killing of an innocent unborn child—is actually promoted as good and classified as “health care.” Traditional, biblical definitions of sexual morality and immorality are now ridiculed—even inverted. With very few exceptions, church leaders have run away from controversy rather than risk being offensive to an anything-goes culture.

What will it take to raise up preachers who have been changed by grace the way the Apostles were? Where are the men and women of God who will obediently confront both church leaders and cultural icons? Is the gospel message any less necessary, any less powerful today than it was then? For us, is God’s grace somehow less sufficient?

Yes, obeying God’s messenger may put us in the same danger that the Apostles stood into. And yet we must go and stand in the Temple courts and tell the people the full message of this new life.

Yes, we might collide with church leaders with opposing agendas, and we must treat them with all due respect. But we must never run away from the truth, because we must respect its authority most of all.

As Peter explained to the Sanhedrin, We must obey God rather than any human authority…we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.

It’s Monday morning. Today we prayed that we may “show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith”. That means: Let’s get out and change the world. May it be so, by God’s grace.

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