“We must obey God rather than any human authority.” That is what Peter tells the authorities who have arrested him. And I think that this is how really incredible things get done in the name of God and my friends, this is how really terrible things happen in the name of God.
When I first read this I was all over it. Of course! When we listen to God rather than human constructed society, we would feed the hungry, insist on justice, listen to the voices of the oppressed and share what we have.
Our relationship with indigenous people would be different, our relationship with the LGBTQ community would be different, our relationship with women would be different.
But oh wait. All of our relationships with each of the communities that I just named have been impacted because people thought that they were listening to the voice of God.
We have to be careful about what we mean when we are proclaiming such things. We have to be careful about our interpretation and the ways in which we live out our understandings of scripture.
The thing I learned when I realized that I was probably going to talk about this bit from Acts is that my bookshelf is woefully devoid of resources that would help me to unpack the book.
But what I think about this book is that it is really important. That it is maybe more reflective of our lives now. Jesus is dead and has been raised. Dead but still with us. And mostly we have to figure out how to we are meant to live based on the stories that we have about how Jesus lived. We have to listen to the lessons the communities that tried to follow Jesus learned and are still learning. We have to look for Jesus among us. We have to interpret our own experiences with God or the Holy Spirit on our own or with our communities and try to make sense of them. We have to try to figure out how we are called to live.
We are still learning how to follow God. We are still learning how to be a community of faith. We are still struggling, many of us with faith in general.
We are still working on believing without touching the wounds in Jesus’ hands or sides or feet.
Luke’s audience was living under an oppressive Roman authority who did not like things that they could not control or did not come up with themselves.
So when we hear Peter and the apostles say things like this, we have to know that it was a very different time and a different place than the one that you and I live in.
We have a lot of freedom, you and I.
But still, I would say that there are forces in the world, ways that humans like to organize themselves that are not life giving. We live in a part of the world that mostly understands that there is not one way of living, not one way of following God, not one way of being.
But I would say that we like to be right. That we like to know that the way that we have chosen to live our lives is the ‘right’ way. And I think that is where things can get dangerous for us. As soon as we want to separate ourselves into ‘us’ and ‘them’, as soon as we want to be more right, things become tricky.
I want to think about this line in Acts not necessarily in terms of how we might rise up against oppressive governments – though we might rise want to push back on policies that concern us and I don’t want to undermine political action because there is a place for that, for sure. But I what I have been wondering about as I read this, is what is God’s plan for us verses our plan for us.
Because I think that God’s plan is always about what is good for the whole of creation not just any one subsection and I think when we humans make a plan, we think about the people that we like the best or who hold similar values.
When I read the gospels I don’t hear Jesus only interacting or advocating for people who look just like him. What I hear is a push for turning the establishment upside down. I hear him listening to women, even though that wasn’t a thing then, I hear him pushing against strict rules that held people to an oppressive way of being, I heard him offering forgiveness even to people who other thought did not deserve it.
Commentator Mitzi Smith who is an associate professor of New Testament and early Christianity in Detroit wrote this:
The apostles claimed that they were witnesses not just of the lynching of Jesus but to God’s exaltation of Jesus, Acts 5:30. These events were not something they read about but that they experienced. New experiences/events that we witness should impact what is already written down and can alter in some way our prior knowledge. We search the scriptures to support what we think we already know about God and to affirm, too often, our oppressive ways toward others — others who think, teach, live, and look differently from ourselves. As a result of the disgrace and the exaltation that the apostles experienced as witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection, they could approach life, vocation, and humanity through a different lens or perspective. They see, if darkly, through the lens of the oppressed, devalued, and lynched other.
So what I read in her piece is that we should not be reading scripture to justify what we already might think, but that we have to be opened by our experiences of the living God while we are living in the world and changed by them.
I think that when we meet someone who is not like us and interact with them, we have an opportunity to see things slightly differently. We are being offered a different lens and we might agree with that lens and we might not but we have to be open to at least looking through it to see.
And then we get to choose.
When I hear Peter saying to the authorities that we believed that he and his friends are to live obeying God rather than human authority, I hear him subscribing to kingdom values which look like – and I know I say this a lot: but loving our neighbour, sharing what we have, standing up for people who are not being treated well, and being open to the perspective that people other than us might have and listening.
God doesn’t only have hopes for you and me or this community, but for the whole of creation.
And sorting out what those hopes might be can be complicated and unclear. That, in part is why I come to church. Because I cannot sort this out alone. I need to hear what you think. I need to hear your perspective, I need to study the scriptures with you and I need to hear what your experiences are. Mine are particular but they are mine and not yours. I need yours if I have any hope of hearing God.
And sometimes the church is slower to get it right than the secular authorities and that can be painful and frustrating and hard.
Authority does not only come from political rulers but from communities of faith, from people we respect, from people we think know more than we do, from our peers. Authority comes in all sorts of shaped and sizes.
All of us are trying to work out how to listen to God, to discern God’s voice among the many who would give us direction or opinion or rules.
God does not only dream for one particular group but for the whole of creation. We can do really beautiful things in God’s name and we can do really terrible things in God’s name.
And we need each other to help sort it out.