Acts 4:1-22; John 10:11-18
4th Sunday of Easter
St Barbara’s 22.04.18
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Last year it may surprise some of you to know I did a lot of weeding in our back garden. I dug down deep pulling the weeds out by their roots. I broke my nails; I strained my back, but it was all worth it. I was confident that I had got rid of the problem. One of the only downsides of the fine weather in recent days has been that I have been out and about in the garden again, and to my dismay, I discover that the weeds, that I had grappled with and erased from the garden, are back! After all my efforts, they have come back in rude health and abundance. Very frustrating!
Well, if you can identify with that story, you may be able to identify with some of the frustrations that the Temple authorities in Jerusalem must have been feeling. Only a couple of months earlier they had taken huge risks – risking their standing with the Roman govenor, Pontius Pilate; risking their popularity with the Jewish people – in order to get the trouble-maker and crowd-pleaser Jesus arrested, sentenced to death and killed. Their gamble had seemed to pay off.
But now their worst nightmare had happened. Far from things settling down, something extraordinary had happened under their very noses, inside the Temple. A crippled man had been healed in the name of this same Jesus, who they had just had executed, and the people doing it were preaching the resurrection of the dead. It was all too much to bear.
But there was more than just frustration amongst the Temple authorities. There was real fear – fear of what they could lose.
They could lose face. For people in positions of power, reputation matters, (as we know just by watching the news) and their reputation was gradually being shredded as news spread that a man had been healed in the name of the very person they had named as a blasphemer and criminal.
They were also in danger of losing control. Luke tells us that the number of believers grew to 5,000 in response to the extraordinary healing and Peter and John’s preaching. Here was a dynamic grass-roots movement happening on their very doorstep which they could not contain.
And most of all, they feared the loss of power. The Temple authorities, the Sadducees, were the most powerful Jews in all Israel. They controlled the holiest building, the Temple, the place where for over a thousand years God had promised to meet with his people. They oversaw the sacrifices by which people could be made right with God. And they were the go-between between the Romans and the Jewish people, a position of huge status and influence.
But Peter and John, uneducated, low-born, poor, from a rural and unimportant northern backwater, present a huge threat to them. For they are preaching resurrection. Resurrection of Jesus, the one whom Peter is quick to point out they were responsible for getting killed. And resurrection for all, a belief the Sadducees tried to suppress. For resurrection means not only life after death; it means putting the world back to rights; turning it upside-down and right way up. It means justice and righteousness; the end of the cosy status quo that favours those in power.
And so they try and shut this mini uprising down. First with threats and bullying. Then with imprisonments and beatings. And then with stonings and executions.
Peter and John are a reminder to us that the Christian faith should always have a subversive edge, that it should always make those in power a little uncomfortable. Certainly the early church was like that. For a movement that taught and practised forgiveness and the love of enemies, it was remarkable how frequently riots were fomented against it, how many beatings, how much torture, ultimately how many martyrdoms occurred.
For the Christian faith challenges power. It preaches an upside down faith of justice for the poor; of a voice for the voiceless; of a home for the refugee, of the paramount importance of love.. Too frequently over the centuries the church has lost its way, embracing the trappings of power, cosying up to those with influence, siding with the Temple authorities rather than with the likes of Peter and John. But in every generation, including our own, we are called to take a stand.
As with Peter and John, we are called to live such lives of love, of confidence in the Christ of justice and resurrection, of healing and compassion, of boldness in the face of wrong, that we may indeed end up challenging the structures of our day, causing discomfort amongst decision-makers. That may mean in our workplaces and in our schools, loving and standing up for those on the margins. It may mean in the care homes and hospitals where we visit. It may mean alongside neighbours and in our community. It may even mean within this church.
Standing up to those in power, those with influence, is not easy. It calls for boldness. And we will find that only as we pray to God and as we encourage and support one another. I wonder in what areas of local, national or international life is God calling each of us to make a stand?
Is it over the way we treat people from other countries as we move towards Brexit? Is it over the plastic waste that is causing such harm to our environment? Is it over local decisions that are having a negative impact on the elderly or the poor? Is it over inequitable trade practices that keep poor countries locked in their poverty? Where are we called to hold power to account?
But, finally, how do we discern when being subversive, making others uncomfortable in their use of power, is of God, and when is it just us being annoying or self-righteous? I’m sure we can all think of people who challenge people and situations just to be awkward or to undermine others. How do we make sure we don’t do likewise?
There is no easy answer but the example of Peter and John may help us here. The reason the authorities found it so difficult to condemn them was that what they had done was to act out of love and compassion. They couldn’t tell them to stop healing people. Likewise coming to structures of power from a place of love, not anger or bitterness, ensures we are more ready to discern God’s lead.
We are to stand up to the abuse of power, the misuse of influence, out of love.
And we get to that place, not by being educated and learned, and having degrees in theology, as even the Sadducees were forced to admit when they looked at Peter and John, but by simply being with Jesus. It is being with Jesus that makes the difference. As it was true for Peter and John, so it is true for us too. It is a life of prayer, of inviting him into every moment of every day, of reading the scriptures, of talking and sharing about him with others, of praying for his kingdom to come in whatever situation we find ourselves in that brings us to that place, where subversive, challenging, living becomes the norm, and where we can do so with godly integrity. May God help us all to live such a life.