It’s been over 30 years since Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while presiding over the Eucharist during worship in El Salvador. Originally picked for the position because he was a cautious, thoughtful man, some said because he was conservative. He took up the cause of human rights in his own country as he witnessed the death of his friend, Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who had been helping to organize the poor of El Salvador with self-reliance groups. Romero thought that he, too, would have to walk the same path that his friend had walked. Romero began to speak out and advocate for the poor of his country. He took up the cause of social injustices, assassinations, and torture that were prevalent in his country. He was a witness to the love of God for those on the outside of the halls and walls of power. He was a witness to the risen Christ.
We can tell from this short passage from the book of Acts that the apostles, Peter and his crew, are headed for trouble. The apostles, those disciples who witnessed the risen Christ and went to spread the news, were on fire. If we read a couple of chapters earlier, we know that the sound of rushing wind came to Peter and John and the rest of them and they were filled with God’s Holy Spirit – so much so that they had defend themselves that they were not drunk!
It was this same Spirit that led them out from their upper room in Jerusalem to tell the good news of Christ’s resurrection and to bring healing to those who needed it.
According to Acts, this stirred up the high priest and the religious council in Jerusalem. The Sadducees, who made up most of the council, did not believe in the resurrection. They thought that, having obeyed Rome, and having done away with Jesus, that his movement would die with him. Acts tells us that the council was “annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” They were irritated that Christ’s disciples kept at it – kept witnessing to the good news of the resurrection, kept healing people in his name.
The Greek word for witness is martyr. When we hear the word martyr we think of people like Oscar Romero who died for his faith. We know that Peter and other apostles die as well for their faith. But the word really means “to witness”, not to be a passive observers to what you have seen, but to actively make known what you have seen.
At this point in Acts, the apostles have already been called before Annas, the high priest, and Caiaphas, to explain themselves as they had been ordered to stop teaching in Jesus’ name and stop healing in his name. They were arrested and put into prison but an angel of the Lord opened the prison door and they went to teach and tell their story in the temple again. The people stand in the way once again for the chief priests and elders to do anything rash because the apostles, Peter and John and the rest, were so well loved.
Here is our passage for today – the chief priests and elders of the council are uneasy about the role they played in Jesus’ death – and they would rather have the whole thing just go away. They want Peter and John and the rest to stop. Peter claims a higher authority than the council, saying he and the others must obey God.
What our short passage from Acts doesn’t tell us today, is that when Peter finishes his story of Jesus’ death on a cross and God’s vindication of Jesus by raising him from the dead, the chief priests were so enraged they wanted to kill the disciples. It is a Pharisee on the council, Gamaliel, who is the voice of wisdom.
Gamaliel cautions care to the council on how they deal with these men and women who follow Jesus. He names a couple of popular leaders who came and went and nothing came of their movements, their followers scattered after the deaths of their leaders. Gamaliel says that if this Jesus movement, this plan, is human in origin, then it will likely go the same way as the others that came before it. But if their plan is from God, then the council might be found fighting against God, and they would not be able to stop them. The council listens to Gamaliel’s advice and they let them go.
It is important to see in these early accounts of the Jesus’ movement, the early accounts of the church, that this is in fact a family feud. Sadducees, Pharisees, Jesus and his disciples were all Jews. Unfortunately, for too long, these texts in scripture were used to lay blame on the Jewish people for the death of Jesus. The consequences of that interpretation were made clear in Anti-Semitic hatred over the centuries in Christian Europe which culminated in Hitler’s final solution and Holocaust. But it was Rome that killed Jesus.
In these stories in the early chapters of the book of Acts we have a family feud going on and those who claim to know the truth are all vying for their positions. There is the religious establishment, the Sanhedrin, made up mostly of Sadducees. There is a Pharisee named Gamaliel who urges caution. And there are the apostles, witnesses to the risen Lord, filled with God’s Holy Spirit who continue the work of the one they call Leader and Saviour.
This kind of family feud isn’t uncommon ground to us, as Christians. We have had an often bloody history fighting with each other. Think of reformation history in Germany, England, other parts of Europe. It wasn’t clean and easy change. Those political and religious reforms lie on piled up bodies and bones. In our recent memories, intermarriage meant between a Catholic and a Protestant and many families did not condone the marriages or support them.
This family feud isn’t uncommon ground within our own walls as we struggle with what the resurrection means for us today as Christians in secular North America. As Christians in the 21st century, we are divided along theological lines, we lock ourselves up in our doctrine, or stand on either side of a liberal or conservative fence. Unfortunately, we haven’t always provided a very good witness to the world or to our own communities.
We have seen it in our own church, we have fought together long and hard over the issue of whether to be welcoming to gays and lesbians in our churches, whether pastors can and should be able to marry consenting adults of the same sex, whether pastors can be openly gay or lesbian and keep their positions as clergy. Sometimes, talking broke down and family members left. Sometimes, there was an uneasy truce. Sometimes, people decided to stay and figure out the conversation out together.
Even the early church, those first followers of Jesus, had their disagreements, their fears and their posturing for position. You just have to read through Paul’s letters to know that not all people saw or understood things the same way.
But there is a movement of the Spirit. We are not alone in this.
Bishop Pryse spoke about some of movements in his sermon when he was here with us in March. The Spirit has moved us to put away some of our long standing family feuds. Ecumenism, the working together of Christian denominations, is more prevalent today than ever before. Seeing each other as members of the same family, in all its configurations, and on the value of our witness to the risen Lord. We still disagree, to be sure, but we are less willing to only look at the differences and are more willing to search out common ground.
Being in human community is never easy. It takes practice to be together as Christians, as Lutherans even. It takes grace, and it takes forgiveness. All work of the Spirit in our midst.
To sit across table and take on the heavy issues facing us today as disciples of Christ, we come with our different experiences and vision, so we don`t always see eye to eye. So we need to practice. National Bishop Susan Johnson talks of that kind of practice in spiritual renewal for our communities – those practices of regular worship, daily prayer, the reading of scripture, studying, serving the church, and the wider world, giving thoughtfully and generously, and telling our story of faith. Hers is a call to a renewed commitment to community, and a renewed commitment to share the good news of Easter.
Perhaps some of you saw the news the other day. Pastor Nancy Kelly, who has served St. Mark’s Lutheran church on King Street in Kitchener for 17 years is retiring today after her last worship with the congregation as their pastor. She was featured on CTV’s news “Local Heroes” segment for helping to build community. In her interview, Pastor Nancy spoke of being in El Salvador for a human rights delegation. There she saw a church with no walls, just poles and a roof. That church made a huge impact on her, she said, “they walked out of their church space and into the community to do their healing work.” It was an image of church that stayed with her and informed her own ministry. She never forgot it.
Whatever our differences, we are family and we are church, united by the Spirit to renewed discipleship, called to be witnesses to the One who has given us life and offered us love.
The world today still hungers for the same good news. The world today hungers for healing, for connection, for community, for God.
In our practice, people need to see the good news in us. They need to see Christ at the centre of our lives. Like the apostles we are called to be bold and proclaim Christ crucified and resurrected for the life of the world. Like the disciples in John`s gospel we are called to leave the security of our walls, to leave the space, and go out to do our healing. But the grace is that we don`t do this alone. We have each other and we have God`s Holy Spirit.
Pr. Katherine Altenburg