In Times of Change
A message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, UCC
June 14, 2020
ACTS 4: 17-42
17 Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, OF the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, 18 arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison.
19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, 20 “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” 21 When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching.
When the high priest and those with him arrived, they called together the council and the whole body of the elders of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 But when the temple police went there, they did not find them in the prison; so they returned and reported, 23 “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were perplexed about them, wondering what might be going on. 25 Then someone arrived and announced, “Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” 26 Then the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.
27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”
They were convinced by him, 40 and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41 As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. 42 And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.
“We must obey God rather than any human authority,” Peter said to the religious officials trying to demand they stop speaking about Jesus. That statement challenges us today to discern what is of God, and what is of human authority, and where do the two diverge, where do they separate and need to be reconciled under God’s authority?
Some of you think this is about partisan politics, but it isn’t. The problems we are facing in our nation today have existed under both parties, in all parts of this nation. The call to obey God rather than human authorities is a call to change laws, systems, and also to change any authority that supports or demands that we ignore what is just and right. If we have any idea that God is not interested in human governing or that somehow spirituality is separate from the world and its issues let me give you some examples of both Biblical and historical actions by those who believed in God’s authority to call for and work for greater fairness for all people – especially those who suffer from injustice should answer any objections. Much of this comes from a sermon by the Rev. Dan Clenendin, so I want to acknowledge that source.
“On Sunday March 11, 2007, Morgan Tsvangirai, former presidential candidate and founder of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change, drove to a suburb of Zimbabwe’s capital to attend a prayer meeting that local churches had organized. He knew that Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s eighty-three year old dictator and the country’s only ruler since independence in 1980, had brutally repressed all forms of political dissent, but he hoped that they might fly under the radar.
They had come ‘to seek divine intervention,’ said Tsvangirai, to pray for an end to 27 years of Mugabe’s autocratic rule that had plunged Zimbabwe into economic free fall with 1700% inflation and 80% unemployment. His rule also had brought electoral fraud, massive starvation, political terror, and egregious human rights abuses. Three million citizens, a quarter of the population, have left the country. Life expectancy at birth is barely 40, and a quarter of the population has HIV-AIDS.”
“Riot police prevented people from entering the prayer venue. When Tsvangirai saw that the police far outnumbered the prayer-protesters, and that ordinary citizens were in grave danger, he canceled the event and returned to his home 12 miles away. Besides being committed to peaceful protest and non-violence, he wanted to avoid a confrontation.
“Later that day, when Tsvangirai returned to the Police Station to see some 40 of his supporters who had been jailed, police savagely beat him and his driver. He lost consciousness and awoke in ‘a crowded, hot, filthy and cockroach-infested police cell.’ But he remained defiant rather than deterred.” He said, “‘Far from killing my spirit, the scars they brutally inflicted on me have re-energized me. I seek no martyrdom. I only seek a new dispensation in my country, in which citizens live freely, in prosperity, and not in perpetual fear of their own rulers.’ ]
“Tsvangirai personifies the truth of the text, that ‘we must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29). Revelation 1:5 reminds us that “Jesus is ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth.’ If Jesus is King and Lord over all earthly rulers, then the Roman caesar was decidedly not lord at all, despite its claim that the Roman state was divine and its cult of imperial worship.” These words “remind us that Christians should never confuse the relative claim to ‘render to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ with the absolute and unconditional claim to ‘render to God what is God’s’ (Matthew 22:21).” As much as is possible, we ‘honor the king,’ but as Tsvangirai so bravely demonstrated, it is God alone whom we worship and obey first of all.
Tsvangirai example follows in the footsteps of many Christians, both famous and anonymous, who’ve challenged state power that has terrorized people and propagated a rhetoric to legitimize it.” Here are two more examples of Christians who ‘obeyed God rather than human authority.’
In March of 1933 the Nazi regime under Hitler opened Dachau, the first of the extermination camps of his Third Reich. “In 1934 in defiance of this Germany’s ‘Confessing Church’ published the Barmen Declaration to repudiate the nationalism and anti-Semitism of the part of the church in Germany that used the Bible to support the Nazis: ‘We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special [i.e., limited] commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfil the vocation of the Church as well.’” The Christians of Germany’s ‘Confessing Church,’ would not stand for the National Government to take over the truth of the Gospel of the demand that we “obey God rather than human authority.”
In South Africa, “at the instigation of Frank Chikane, a black pentecostal pastor, in 1985 more than 150 clergy from 20 denominations drafted the Kairos Document to protest South African apartheid. It disavowed what it called ‘state theology’ that is ‘simply the theological justification of the status quo with its racism, capitalism and totalitarianism. It blesses injustice, canonizes the will of the powerful and reduces the poor to passivity, obedience and apathy.’ It also critiqued so-called ‘church theology’ which in a ‘limited, guarded and cautious way’ was superficially critical of apartheid. Its timid criticism of the state, moreover, was defective because it was based upon an individualistic and privatistic piety that ignored a rigorous analysis of the South African social and political dynamics.
These two examples do not include such government holocausts of the past hundred years including “a million Armenians under the Turks; two million Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot; Kurds under Saddam Hussein; Muslims, Croats, and ethnic Albanians under the Serbs; nearly a million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus by extremist Hutus in Rwanda.” Sadly the list goes on and on.
“In light of these atrocities of the past hundred years, the words of Acts 5:29 assume special importance. To obey God rather than man, wrote the Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan, ‘and to protest that human laws of the state and nation cannot contravene the divine law of the sovereign God, has been the unanimous teaching of both the Old and New Testament, as well as the subsequent history of the church since the earliest centuries. Moses before Pharaoh, Elijah before Ahab and Jezebel, John the Baptist before Herod, Paul before the Sanhedrin and before Festus—and Ambrose before Theodosius, Theodore of Studios before Constantine the VI, Luther before Charles V at the Diet of Worms, and Martin Luther King before the power structure of White America—all were expressing this obligation to appeal from the abuse of political power by human authorities to the ultimate sovereignty of God.’
We face much work as a nation and as people to find a greater way of “justice for all.” We who claim to follow Jesus Christ need to not let this moment slip away in order to preserve a bad status quo. We must commit to listening, learning, praying to understand God’s purpose and priorities. We must commit to working to change things, with governmental officials if they are willing to work for true change for true justice, or we must work to change those who rule. In our system their power comes from us, not over us. They must remember they are elected to be public servants, not profiteers and pirates for personal gain or glory at the cost of justice, and truth, and the authority of God.
These are difficult times. Will we remain committed to obeying God’s authority? Are we committed to an ongoing dialogue that allows us to step away from long-held assumptions and prejudices. Are we willing to acknowledge God’s rule is one that calls for just and fair governing, not just a “pie-in-the-sky” when we all die? Those first Christians were committed and they changed the world. God is waiting for us to claim that same spirit and to follow that same authority. AMEN.