But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all of the people stood up [and said] I tell you, keep away from these men [the apostles] and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them…(Acts 5:34, 38-39a)
This past Memorial Day weekend John and I started our annual summer movie marathon. We go to the movies a lot in the summer, and we started out the summer of 2009 seeing Demons and Angels and Star Trek. Both of these stories are dominated by the struggle between good and evil, the hero of each story representing the good and the villains representing evil. In Star Trek there is no question about who is evil and who is good and which one is going to win in the end. In Demons and Angels, however, you are kept on the edge of your seat as the plot unwinds. You are never quite sure who is the villain until the bitter end when all is revealed. You also know, without a doubt, that the good will overpower the evil but the film does a pretty good job of teasing you along and making you doubt the outcome.
In our scripture reading from the book of Acts, we know without a doubt the identity of the heroes of the story – the Apostles. It’s not hard to find inspiration in their faith and nerve and their willingness to undergo prison and torture for Jesus. If you read their story carefully in the book of Acts, you can’t miss the excitement and high adventure of their lives, traveling into hostile territory, preaching in the midst of angry crowds and confronting the religious leaders, all the time being filled with the confidence of their faith. They are, as the Star Trek motto says, “willing to boldly go where no man has gone before!” The apostles’ faith seems so alive and so concrete. They weren’t worried about their job or their next house payment. They lived unencumbered by all the things that weigh us down – wealth, prestige, success and ambition. In fact the book of Acts is filled with the apostles’ joyful experiences of the miraculous – of new life popping up all around them as the sick were healed; as they escaped from prison; as people heard the message of Jesus and believed. They lived in the presence of an active and powerful God.
The high priest and the council made up of Pharisees and Sadducees and the temple guard, on the other hand, are so obviously, to us, the villains of the story. They were the enemies of Jesus, the bad guys that we all love to hate. In fact, it’s so easy to hate them that it’s the portrayal of this group in plays about the passion of Christ that has stirred up anti-Semitism over the years and it was the portrayal of this group in the movie The Passion that has created such controversy.
In Jewish life, however, the Pharisees were good guys. They were members of a Jewish religious-political party who were committed to living a pious life. The Sadducees were another Jewish party that focused their work and attention on the temple. However, you seem to hear much more about the Pharisees in the Bible because they lived and worked out among the people. When Jesus said in Matthew 5:20, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” he wasn’t being sarcastic. Being more righteous than a Pharisee would not have been something you could easily achieve. They were the most faithful Jews, scholars, William Placher says, and though some of them would have been obsessed with the minute details of Jewish ritual, others would have been more relaxed and tolerant. They were the religious, respectable, pious Jews of their time. But as often happens to religious, respectable pious people, they were so steeped in the traditions of the past that they were unable or unwilling to be open to something new. And as religious and political leaders they were more interested in preserving their own power and authority and place in society than they were interested in welcoming God breaking into their world in a new and fresh way.
So let me ask you, with whom do you identify? Do you see yourself as open to seeing the possibilities of living differently or are you a person more comfortable with tradition, with what already is? It is said that the phrase most often heard in church is “But we’ve always done it this way.” Most of us know on which side of the aisle we stand – whether we want to or not. As the frozen chosen, which is how some people refer to those of us in the main line church, we often ignore the hot breath of the Holy Spirit because we are afraid that some new thing that has appeared will challenge our way of life and just make things messy?
Unfortunately the history of the church is full of stories of people who have ignored the new life of God’s spirit emerging or repressed God’s spirit because of fear or lack of trust. Like the high priest and the Jewish council in Jerusalem, many Christians have clung to the status quo in order to feel safe and secure. In Germany, as Hitler began his rise to power in the 1930’s a popular group known as “German Christians” gave their support to Hitler and his ideals of National Socialism. A majority of Germans took the union of Christianity, nationalism, and militarism for granted and equated patriotic sentiments with Christian truth. The German Christians exalted the racially pure nation and the rule of Hitler as God’s will for the German people. The Barmen Declaration was written in 1934 by those who opposed the church’s captivity to National Socialism. It was written to encourage the Evangelical churches of Germany to stand firm against the German Christian accommodation to National Socialism and the Nazi party and as a result many of the 139 people who participated in the writing of the Barmen Declaration died as a result of their opposition to Hitler.
Or going much farther back in history, think of the story of Galileo – a faithful Christian who was able to scientifically prove what others had only imagined – that the sun not the earth was the center of the universe. But the church was so fearful that this new information would undermine scripture and church tradition that Galileo was censored and he spent the last years of his life under house arrest, condemned by the church he loved. Eventually, of course, Galileo’s picture of our solar system was confirmed without the death of Christianity or the church.
In the book of Isaiah the author predicts a change that is coming for the Israelites living in Babylon.
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing’ now it spring forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43: 18-19)
What they could not imagine was that God was planning their release from captivity and making a way for the Israelites to return to Jerusalem. We too are challenged to imagine what God has in store for us. God always wants us to be open to possibility of change….of new life that is out ahead of us that we can’t always see or control. God asks us to trust, to wait and see, to take a chance, to be open to seeing things from God’s perspective.
Deeply embedded in this story of the apostle’s confrontation with the religious hierarchy of Israel is the healing presence of God, as new life, spiritually, emotionally and physically was emerging throughout Jerusalem. A great number of people flooded into that great city to hear the apostles preach about Jesus and to be healed, and the scriptures say that all were cured. People were even healed by the shadow of Peter passing over them. But the council ignored not only the prophetic tradition of scripture that warned them to never become too smug and self satisfied with their relationship with God. They also ignored the miracles all around them and ordered the apostles to be killed. Their minds were closed to the possibility that this new thing, Jesus, might just be the real thing.
It is very easy for us to become stuck in our habits and traditions and to forget the primary reason for our existence – to live in close connection to God and to be open to the Holy Spirit who is in the business of transforming lives into God’s image. Dostoevski, in The Brothers Karamazov, wrote about the resistance within the church of his day to the emergence of new life through the spirit. In the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor”, he expresses his feelings in a chilling and terrifying story. The setting is the Spanish Inquisition and Jesus has just returned to earth. Jesus is walking toward the massive gothic cathedral in the vast square when a funeral procession for the child of a noble citizen moves slowly toward the cathedral steps. Suddenly the people see Jesus and recognize him. He has come back as he promised. He is among them and he can give new life to this innocent child as he did long ago in Palestine. The people call out to him, “Heal this child!” The mother falls on her knees in front of him. “Have mercy on me. If you will you can put new life into my child.” Jesus pauses, then raising both hands high into the air, cries out to God, “Let this child live!” And to the utter amazement of everyone, the child moved, sat up, smiled and called out to her mother. Then the people begin to chant. “He has come to us!”
However, standing in the shadows of the cathedral is the Grand Inquisitor, the powerful Cardinal of the church who does not like what he sees. The arrival of Jesus is not an occasion of rejoicing, but a threat to his authority, so the Cardinal has Jesus arrested and thrown into a solitary prison cell. Late that night he visits Jesus and demands, “Why have you come? We no longer need you. We are now in charge of your church. Why have you come back to disturb our peace and authority. Leave us and do not come back. We have no need of you!” Then Jesus looks long and lovingly into the empty eyes of the Cardinal, kisses the cardinal lightly on his thin, bloodless lips and walks out of the cell, leaving the cardinal alone with his great cathedral.
The last thing we want is a church without God. But the spirit of God is not very prim, proper and predictable. How then can we stay open to the new life that is always waiting to emerge in us and in this community of faith? How can we avoid being like the Jewish council who became so anxious and were so provoked by the challenges to the status quo that they wanted to kill God’s messengers?
Don’t automatically resist change, says the Pharisee Gamaliel. Don’t divide the world into heroes and villains, into good and bad, before you have a chance to really observe what is going on; trust in God; if something is of human origin, it will fail, but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it – in fact if you try you may even be found fighting against God. Be patient and be willing to let things get a bit messy and chaotic at times. It is so much easier to believe in our own ability to make life happen than to have our lives determined by the power of God’s presence within us to give us life; and not just life to us but to our community and to the whole world. We want to hang on with a death grip to our own ways of understanding and living when God’s answer is to let go and try something new. God calls us to be open, to be surprised by God, to try new things and new ways of being, God calls us to a life of faith and into to a deeper relationship with God.
On this day of Pentecost, when we celebrate the birth of the church through the work of the Holy Spirit, God generously fills us with new life as we receive the cup and the bread in the Lord’s Supper. This supper strengthens our relationship with Christ and the new life God has for us as the Holy Spirit brings us into the powerful presence of a God who loves us and generously feeds us. We eat this meal in a spirit of gratitude and wonder because in Christ, God has shown himself trustworthy beyond all comprehension to bring new life to us. Let us be open to all the new things God has in store for us. Amen.