The Promise of Obedience (Easter 2, Year C)

The Second Sunday of Easter, Year C
Acts 5:27-32
April 11, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

In today’s first reading from the book of Acts,
    we hear a wonderfully defiant and strong Peter reject the orders of the Sanhedrin,
    a council of Jewish leaders empowered by the Roman rulers
        to govern matters of faith and day-to-day life.
Just a chapter earlier in the book of Acts,
    a history book of the early church in the days following Jesus’ ascension into heaven,
    John and Peter were arrested for preaching the Gospel,
    proclaiming Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection,
    and healing the sick.
Though the Council found no way to formally charge the increasingly popular disciples,
    they nonetheless ordered Peter, John, and their friends
    to stop preaching and teaching about Jesus,
        fearful of what the spread of this Jesus movement would mean
        religiously, politically, and socially in Roman-occupied Jerusalem.
    But Peter and John didn’t obey the order,
        and instead continued to preach, teach, and perform miracles in Jesus’ name.

So, they were brought again before the Council,
    where again they were castigated for preaching about Jesus,
    and were reminded of the council’s earlier order to stop proclaiming Jesus.
    “We must obey God rather than any human authority,”
        Peter responds, clearly stating his regard for the Gospel
        and his disregard for the orders of the Council.

And we like that, don’t we?  “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
We like the defiance, the strength of conviction, and commitment to principle.
As we hear these words, we cheer Peter.  “You go, Peter,” we say to ourselves.
    “Stick it to ‘em!” we want to shout out.
Yes, in the same way that we love Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death,”
    or Martin Luther’s, “Here I stand, I can do no other,”
    or Ronald Reagan’s, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,”
    we love Peter’s direct and defiant words here.
It’s a great rallying cry, a bold slogan standing-up to an unjust authority.
But … but his words are more than just a rebuking of human authority, aren’t they?
Sure, it is easy to rally around a cry to reject the authority of a repressive council,
    and we love the dichotomy of God’s authority vs. human authority,
    because we always presume to be on God’s side of history.
But look at those first words.  “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
“We must obey God.”
Wow.  When we take off that bit about human authority,
    suddenly this becomes much less of a raucous rallying cry
    and much more of a subject that makes us squirm,
    for talk of obedience is quite difficult these days.
Yes, it has been in the name of obedience –
    to God, to his church –
    that the abuse of countless children has been covered up.
Yes, it has been in the name of obedience –
    to God, to vows made at an altar, and to spouses –
    that so many women have suffered abuse at the hands of their husbands.
Yes, it has been in the name of obedience –
    to God, to those who claim to proclaim him –
    that hucksters have enriched themselves and their ministry empires
    by taking the last mite of the poor
        who believe that their gift is helping to expand God’s kingdom.
Yes, it has been in the name of obedience –
    to God, and to those who claim to be his elect –
    that millions of Jews were murdered during World War II,
    victims we remember on this Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Yes, it has been in the name of obedience that so many bad things have happened …
How, then, given this track record, can we even speak of obedience?
And more.
We are in the midst of a post-modern paradigm shift, in philosophy and theology,
    that questions absolute authorities,
    that questions the notion that there is a single truth …
    and thus questions the need for and the wisdom of obedience,
        for not only can obedience be abused,
        but why should any submit themselves in obedience to an authority or truth
        when many authorities and many truths exist in our world,
            and, indeed, when truth, some say, is found within oneself?
Obedience?  Who needs it?!?!

Well, according to St Peter, we do.
Even though he would defy human authorities in this instance,
    Peter commits himself to a life of obedience – not to man, but to God.
    Are we able to do the same?  Are we even able to speak words of obedience?

Even as they struggled against a church hierarchy that demanded obedience
    in terms that were unacceptable to them,
    some 500 years ago the Reformers of the church
    spoke about something they called a “New Obedience,” (1)
    not an obedience driven by the law, or by some ecclesial authority.
No, for indeed, in the Reformer’s eye, the whole teaching of Christian obedience
    had been corrupted by a church that preached forgiveness as a result of works,
        pilgrimages, the purchase of indulgences, and so forth.
And again, the Reformers saw themselves in a church
    that demanded obedience to a human hierarchy
    rather than to the great traditions and sacred texts of the church.
Yet rather than abandon the notion of Christian obedience,
    the Reformers understood obedience differently, in a new way –
    as that manner of Christian living marked by good works
        that flow from the gift of faith,
        that is, from the movement of the Holy Spirit
        in one who has been given the gift of faith.
So for the Reformers, obedience was not something to be abandoned,
    even though they had ample experience with the misuse of calls to obedience,
    but rather something to be commended,
    as a way of life flowing from the gift of faith.

Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the early 20th century German theologian
    who died at the hands of the same Nazis that massacred 6 million Jews,
    writes of the centrality of obedience,
        despite living under a regime that commanded an obedient loyalty
        from its citizens.
“Only the obedient believe,” Bonhoeffer writes in his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship.
    “For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it,
    and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.”(2)
Obedience, for Bonhoeffer, was the anecdote to the cheap grace of the modern church,
    a grace that forgives sins without first revealing what those sins are;
    a grace that proclaims eternal life without first leading the believer to the cross;
    a grace that is received with intellectual assent but lacks the contrition that results
        from an encounter with the living Word of God.
So unlike the Reformers, who saw obedience as a way of Christian living
    marked by good works following the movement of the Holy Spirit,
for Bonhoeffer obedience is the posture
    that allows one to hear the Gospel in the first place –
    the practice of entering into a Christian community,
    joining them in worship,
    sharing in the reading of Scripture, and so forth.
That is, obedience is that willingness
    to find your way into a situation where faith is possibl
    to take a definite step to encounter the presence and grace of God.
And once we step into that place in an act of willful obedience,
    the pathway of faith will lead us to that hard place of the cross,
    in all its loneliness, darkness, and pain …
    but as Easter people, we know too that new life and abundant grace await
        all who undergo such struggles on account of faith.
    It defines the life of faith that follows the movement of the Holy Spirit,
    or it is that step we consciously take to encounter that Spirit …
Either way, obedience represents a pathway that leads us
    not only into the life that God wants us to lead,
    but into the life that God wants us to enjoy.
That is, obedience leads us to perceive and to live what life is … (3)
    a grace-filled movement from death to life,
    from law to promise,
    from self-reliance to God-reliance,
    from bondage to freedom,
    from fear to joy …
“We must obey God rather than any human authority,” Peter says,
    for the pathway of obedience leads us to freedom in Christ,
    to life everlasting.

(1) Augsburg Confession VI, Concerning the New Obedience
(2) The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. © 1959 SCM Press Ltd. (New York: First Touchstone Edition), 1995.  pg. 64
(3) from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermon, On Repentance, delivered November 19, 1933.  Found in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: Harper Collins, 1995). pg. 218.

Published by Lutheran Zephyr

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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