Witnessing

Acts 5:17-42

 

Well … finally the disciples got it. At last they have realized and accepted what Jesus was teaching and living. They were now living the way Jesus taught them and expected of them. It took Jesus’ death and resurrection to get them here. But now they were prepared for the inevitable martyrdom… but the Kingdom of God was too good, too hopeful, too right for them not to proclaim it to all the people. What they were experiencing is too wonderful not to offer a witness to Jesus and to who God really is.

But the powers that be, the powers and principalities, are shaken by this whole notion. And the Pharisees who have the survival of the Jews in their hands must have been terrified … and even jealous that the people were not only listening to Peter and the other disciples, but starting to live the Kingdom too.

We, modern Christians cringe at the idea of martyrdom. The whole notion of a martyr has been debased in our age. Some folks blow themselves up for some ideological or political reason and their comrades call them martyrs. They are not martyrs … indeed they are just misguided pawns in an evil scheme to coerce folks. The meaning of martyr is “a witness who will proclaim God no matter the cost.” Martyrs do not intend to die or loss their livelihood. But they believe that proclaiming God is the most important action that they can take and therefore are willing to risk death or jail or impoverishment.  This is what the disciples were doing right after Jesus’ resurrection. Indeed, I would imagine the disciples and their followers all hoped to live to see the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately the powers and principalities didn’t get it … and destroyed them out of fear and jealousy.

But what of the Pharisees? Indeed, this passage is more about the response of the Pharisees than of the disciples. The Pharisees had to be living under great stress. Jesus was dead and they probably assumed that they had been able to stamp out one more potential uprising. They no doubt took a deep breath on Good Friday. As cruel and as wrong as it was to sacrifice Jesus, they felt more secure. Rome who could drive out the Jews from their homeland was now satisfied. And the people were disappointed with Jesus and so would turn back to the Pharisees … the familiar always seemed more secure. They though it was all over with.

But Jesus may be dead, but his followers weren’t. The Pharisees felt that Jesus’ followers had been frightened and disappointed so much that they would break up and fade into history. They didn’t. Indeed, they took up where Jesus left off and now the people were once again turning away from the Pharisees and to this Jesus movement. It’s worse than what it was. The Pharisee certainly felt jealous that the people would trust these wandering preachers and not the established, hardworking (and the Pharisees were hardworking) council that was desperately trying to keep the people safe. But fear, too, was deep in their thinking. Deep down they knew a bomb was ticking that would one day explode when the people had had enough and would rise up against the Romans and against them … and they were right. It did happen in 63 C. E. (AD) and resulted in the Jews being driven in exile … what is now called the diaspora.

So they resorted to the traditional and common practice of the powers and principalities – a practice that continues to this day – they jailed Peter and the other apostles to punish them and discourage them. But when they discovered that the apostles had escaped from prison – by some miraculous way – they were infuriated. They captured them again and demanded they stop preaching. The apostles refused. Now they just wanted to get rid of them by any means – and so talk of executing them.

But then Gamaliel stepped in. Gamaliel was a wise and thoughtful Pharisee. He had the good sense not to overreact. So he counseled them to wait. If this Jesus movement was of human origin it would, like all the other uprisings, just fall apart. But if it truly was a movement of God’s own making, then there is nothing the Pharisees could do to stop it. Gamaliel was right. God spoke through Peter and all the disciples and our movement exists to this day.

I wander if Gamaliel knew it would be this last case. In all the other uprisings when the leader was killed, the movement fell apart. But the Jesus movement, when its leader was killed, actually took on momentum. Surely Gamaliel knew this. Maybe he was the one among the powers who knew that the time had finally come …

But what the Pharisees – and we – are missing here in the fog of all of the immediate fears of transformative change, is that Peter and the disciples are not trying to out wit the Pharisees or attract the favor of the masses. They are not plotting a revolution or uprising against the Pharisees or the Romans. Rather, they are bringing hope to the people and the opportunity of the powers – the Pharisees and the Romans – to partake of the hope that God is offering. The Pharisees have fallen into a dangerous routine of keeping order in their society and resisting any change that they do not originate. Peter and the disciples by challenging the status quo are uplifting the people out of their despair and their hopelessness. They are offering what the Pharisees and Rome do not: hope for everyone even the least among them. And the despair is so deep, that even the safety of the familiar routine could no longer blind the people of a better life or shield the powers and principalities from the demands of the people. The disciples are heralds of Hope and Re-Birth. Jesus is resurrected as a sign and certainty that God offers new life even in the depths of despair and tyranny. And it is a Hope that leaves out no one. Even the powers are invited to participate.

And as it was true for Jesus’ generation it is true for our generation. God’s offer of Re-birth is still open to us, even 2000 years later. And if we are attentive to the various efforts that are quietly working on hopeful changes for people, we will see that Re-Birth is all around us. Re-Birth is not some far distant possibility that may or may not happen. It is happening right now in many ways, both publicly and personally.

For example, the April 2013 edition of Sojourners writes of a farm labor organizer Baldemar Velasquez. We here in urban and suburban New Jersey don’t often hear about projects in the rural farmlands in this country. But there’s a number of efforts happening to improve the life of farm workers… indeed offering Re-birth to them.

Rev. Velasquez founded the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. The committee is based in Toledo, Ohio and uses “David-vs.-Goliath” tactics to encourage the large corporate farm business giants to come to the bargaining table. The intent is to improve the living and working conditions of farm workers who are perhaps the least powerful worker group.

Rev. Velasquez founded the committee in 1967 and has never lost a battle with the corporations. A 1967 strike that Rev. Velasquez lead against large tomato growers in Ohio resulted in two dozen tomato growers agreeing to let their workers unionize. In the 1980s he led a boycott against Campbell’s Soup that resulted in a collective bargaining agreement that raised wages and improved working conditions for the tomato workers.

But maybe more importantly Rev. Velasquez brings his deep faith to these efforts. He insists on loving his enemies and insisting that his followers do likewise. He says, “Everything that we do, everything that we say, and everything that we work around is based on loving your neighbor as yourself – including the grower, including the manufacturer, including the company… We can have righteous anger about bad things, but don’t let your righteous anger get carried away with making wrong decisions. You’ve got to love those people, and because you love them you want to tell them they’re making a mistake because the decision that they’re making is hurting other people and they’re going to be held accountable before the Lord in the end…”

He continues, “Faith is absolutely necessary … If you didn’t have faith …you wouldn’t have any comprehension of God’s kingdom, which is righteousness, peace, and joy… And the Lord wants to see us all living in some kind of harmony, reconciled with one another.”

Rev. Velasquez spiritual perspective challenges us to reflect on Gamaliel’s solution between the Pharisees and the disciples. If the movement is born of God’s Kingdom and the stewards of the movement such as Rev. Velasquez stay on the righteous path that God has made, then the powers, whether Pharisees or corporate farm business, will eventually come to the table and bargain. But both sides come not to overthrow the other, but to find a harmonious solution to their differences. It is this reconciliation that allows Re-birth to come. But such Re-birth can only happen if at least one side witnesses, authentically to God’s Kingdom as Rev. Velasquez does.

And this does not just apply to social-political change. Our lives are full of conflict whether personal or work or public. We, too, are called to witness to Jesus’ teachings. But that doesn’t mean standing on a street corner and crying out that Jesus lives and everyone better get on-board.

Rather we can witness to Jesus’ teachings and actions by how we live and how we confront conflict. As Christians we are called to be witnesses of Jesus’ life and teachings in all that we do from our caring of ourselves to each and every relationship that we have.

Perhaps one of the most important witnesses is that we are all children of God. No one is evil, though any one of us may do evil things. But even a person who is seen as “evil” could very much have goodness inside that shows up under the right circumstances. We are called to judge the act, not the person. Jesus was clear on this. And so the disciples witness to Jesus among the people and the Pharisees when they stood before them… everyone was embraced.

In every one of their actions and in every one of ours, we need, as they did, to ask how would God and Jesus make good out of a circumstance whether it’s a struggle we have within ourselves or a struggle we have with a boss or a police officer or a neighbor or with an institution. Where in our lives and in our relationships does God shine a righteous and loving light? And do we have the courage to step into that light and follow where God would lead us?

We need not be a Rev. Velasquez or a St. Peter. Our struggle need not be some grand social political effort. We can be just who we are struggling with ordinary life. But if we witness to Jesus’ teachings we may very well find that God is offering us Re-birth in our ordinary lives by showing us a way out of our self-centeredness, our bias’, our judgementalness, and our hard heartedness. And when we accept God’s offering of Re-birth, then we have witnessed to God for all those around us.

 

Think about it …

God’s grace and love be with you …

Amen.