Sunday, April 28, 2019
REV. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM
Acts 5 finds Peter and his followers making their way through Jerusalem, as they continue to fulfill the words that Jesus commissioned them: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Peter and the apostles have been preaching in the name of Jesus in the temples and the public places. The authorities arrest them, try them, and throw them in jail. Acts 4 tells us of one such encounter, where the authorities told Peter it was forbidden to speak in the name of Jesus. Acts 4:17-18: “But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name. So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.”
But Peter and the apostles persisted. Peter and the apostles preached in the name of Jesus. They made it their business to walk into any place and preach in the name of Jesus. And once again they were arrested and thrown into prison. But God sent an angel to release them from jail. The angel opened the prison doors, brought them out and said, “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” (Act 5:20) And that’s what they did. They entered the temple at daybreak, and went on with their teaching. (Acts 5:21) Peter said, “For we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
In our passage today, the council questions the apostles about their disobedience to the earlier command not to teach in Jesus’ name. The Apostles respond boldly: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29) Peter and the others will be released, but beaten before they go. And then, “They ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.”
And what did they do? “And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.” (5:42)
Walter Brueggemann writes about the Book of Acts in his book, ‘Truth Speaks to Power’. Brueggemann points out that, “These early Christians, infused with Easter truth, could not be stopped in their joyous public life together. – they were filled with the Spirit, the force of truth that refused the citizenship of business as usual. They told the truth about the world in a way that subverted the world of settled powered – political, economic, and religious.”1
In an interview in the May 2019 MacLean’s magazine, Whitchurch Stouffville Member of Parliament, Jane Philpott talks about her recent exit from the Cabinet and the Liberal caucus. She was asked, “The Prime Minister’s Office wanted to save some jobs, the attorney general wanted to protect the justice system. Shouldn’t these things be reconcilable?”
She responded, “The issue at stake here – the independence of the justice system – is one of the most fundamental pieces that holds our country together as a democracy. People that rise to the levels of senior positions should be expected to hold the independence of the justice system with such solemn regard that stepping anywhere close to crossing the line, to potentially interfere with a criminal trial, should just be something that is absolutely not done, not contemplated, not experimented with. It’s a dangerous thing to try to use political interference or political motivation to interfere with justice.” 2 The caption beside her on the magazine cover reads: “We cannot ever be afraid of the truth.”
Jane Philpott spoke truth to power. How does the church speak truth to power? I know there is one way that we certainly don’t. When our response is – ‘we weren’t there’.
For example, here is a documented response from Canadians re: the residential schools. We weren’t there. We didn’t do it. It’s not our problem. The same with the 60’s scoop, when the government scooped up Indian children during the 1960’s and put them up for adoption with white families. We weren’t there. It didn’t happen in our time. It’s not our problem.
When we say ‘we weren’t there’, we are effectively dismissing our involvement. We are turning our backs on something that happened. And we walk away.
In the Gospel reading, when Thomas heard that all the disciples but him had all seen Jesus, and seen his wounded hands and feet, he realized he had missed out. And he says, “I will not believe until I have placed my hands in the wounds.” The next time they are altogether in one place, Jesus appears and invites Thomas to place his fingers in his wounds, and Thomas believes.
Thomas wanted to be present. Thomas wanted to do everything he could to claim that space and that time so that it would become a part of his life and not just something he ‘heard about’. He wasn’t okay with just walking away. He wanted it to be part of him.
Dr. Frank Thomas wrote a book in 2018 called ‘How to Preach a Dangerous Sermon’. The cornerstone of his book is the moral imagination, which he identifies as the desire to “grasp and share God’s abiding wisdom and ethical truth in order to benefit the individual and common humanity.” 3
And one of the four qualities of the moral imagination is to “envision equality and represent that by your physical presence.” 4 He writes “We underestimate the power of physical presence and the moral imagination that makes it a necessity that one shows up. Showing up creates the opportunity for empathy and understanding.”5
You show up. Maybe you claim some of Thomas for yourself and push your way into the places that make the decisions about Indian claims, about racism, about anything that labels someone as ‘other’ because of their skin colour, religion, race, gender, sexuality identity, economic status, age, or language. Thomas wanted to be able to say I was there. I want to say, I will be there.
A commentary underscores Jane Philpott’s testimony when talking about Peter and the Apostles: “The boldness of Peter and the other apostles … encourages us to take principled if unpopular stands in the workplace and helps us all to be seekers of truth and agents of reconciliation.”6 Jane Philpott bet her career on holding onto the principle of justice and truth, with no room in her mind for compromise when it came to the law which holds up the rights and freedoms of all peoples in this country.
The Book of Acts begins with the words, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) As Christians, we are called to witness truth to power, in whatever way we can. That says through my efforts, whether in prayer, in voice or in my physical presence, I will be there.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1 Walter Brueggemann, Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 162-63.
2 MacLeans, May 2019, 28.
3 Dr. Frank Thomas, How to Preach a Dangerous Sermon, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018), 76.
4 Ibid., xxiv.
6 Feasting on the Word, Homiletical Perspective, p. 383.