Storm's a Brewin'
A Homily by Rev. Tom Hall
based on Acts 5
In The Grand Inquisitor, a visitor enters the town square softly,
unobserved in Mother Russia. People immediately crowd this visitor, strangely drawn
by his aura of compassion and love. The visitor is filled with compassion for the poor
peasants that crowd him and he begins to heal their infirm, even raises a child from
death. His popularity grows even larger, and more people gather round him. But another
figure enters the story, the Grand Inquisitor. The Grand Inquisitor, an old man,
almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes, is drawn not by
the compassion and healings, but by the gathering crowds. The Grand Inquisitor has the
visitor arrested and sentences him to be burned at the stake as a heretic. Yet under the
guise of night, the Grand Inquisitor pays his Prisoner a visit.
Is it Thou? Thou? he asks, thinking that Jesus has once again visited
What bothers the Grand Inquisitor is the commotion, the potential tipping of the
apple cart should his Prisoner be hailed as Messiah among this new generation of peasants.
After all, the religious, institutional, political machinery is all in place; they control
the people. This prisoner has suddenly come on the scene and now confronts a structure
that has taken centuries to perfect. Even the Grand Inquisitors status, prestige,
and power might be jeopardized by his Prisoner. He, the Grand Inquisitor, is the one who
gives people their tasks, their food rations, and elaborate worship ritual. So this
visitorhis Prisoneris very dangerous in the eyes of the Grand Inquisitor.
There would be much to lose if the Prisoner is freed to show compassion on the poor. So
the two meet in the dark cell of the prison.
And he asks, Is it Thou? Thou?
. . . he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed
down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently
in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for him to say
something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence
and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man
shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: Go and
come no more . . . come not at all, never, never! And he let Him out into the dark
alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.
I cant help but to notice the same kind of disruption and change that the
resurrection creates for the earliest Christians. I want to be honest with this text and
with you this morning. Acts 5 is notwas never meant to bea story that pits one
religion against another. We are not looking to distinguish the good guys from the bad
guys. To go down that road is to become arrogant, unloving and racist. There are good,
guys bad guysand then there are paradigms.
Were dealing with something much more insidious, much more ingrained. We are
dealing with the kind of conflict that erupts when a fresh vision of God confronts the
status quo. When existing institutions and structure allow no changes, no challenges, no
variation. In this case the conflict erupts between the leaders of the Jewish faith and
the leaders of a nascent sect, much later called Christians. The conflict will continue to
erupt again and again within the Church when the old is confronted by the new. When the
old needs to be replaced by the new.
Peter and John have discovered a new paradigm for lifea new way of ministry,
a new way to believe and worship. The problem occurs when their paradigm runs into a
head-on collision with the existing paradigmthe time-tested way of doing business,
the accepted way of believing and worshiping God. So with the Easter script firmly in
hand, Peter and John come with their new paradigm. When these two paradigms collide,
deadly conflict results. As one conflict manager has said, Conflict is two things
[two ideas, two agendas, two paradigms] trying to be in the same place at the same
time. Easter faith has quickly moved beyond church hymns, alleluias, and Easter egg
hunts. The celebration of Gods victory of life over death now impacts and threatens
politics and structure. Thats what our first lesson is about this morning. Easter
signals what God intends to do in our world to bring us from the grip of death into
the power of life.
Jesus' once disheartened followers are running loose in Jerusalem doing all sorts
of "signs and wonders" among the people (Acts 5:12). The common people
"hold them in high esteem." Furthermore, despite their fringe status, great
numbers of both men and women are joining their ranks. The poor of Jerusalem are bringing
their sick out into the street in the hope that Peter's shadow might fall upon them and
make them well--the poor who have no other access to health care, the poor who have no
hope other than the power of these disciples to heal. And when the bigwigs toss them in
prison to shut them up, God simply pulls them back out of prison--for the resurrection
tells us that God is not nervous when it comes to locked tombs or prisons.
So we salute them this morning as they stand on trial--these poor fishermen--who
now meet the leading authorities and minds of the day with responses that blow the
Sadducees' accusations out the window. Yes, they do suffer because of their mouth--many
cruel blows with whips, no doubt. But they leave the torture chamber more joyfully than
most of us enter church! They're singing Psalm 150, they're up there in the front with the
kids playing those instruments and having a terrific time! And they continue to visit the
ghettos, to heal the poor, to bind up the wounds of the powerless. They have had a change
of perspective--a paradigm shift. They have become convinced of God's love for they have
seen God hurt and bleeding; God knows all about suffering. And they own a vision that sees
triumph of God and justice in the end.
The Easter faith of Acts 5 confronts structure, paradigms, agendas, and systems;
it turns the tables on worship-as-usual, challenges the status quo. But for most of us who
have been in the way, of Christian life for quite some time, such an
announcement is not always welcome. Nor was it welcomed among the established religion of
their day. Such news is fearful newsespecially if weve found our place in
church; especially if weve invested long years and energy into my
church, especially when we know the way things work around here, especially when we know
the rules and Book of Discipline. For those of us who have grown quite familiar to church,
the Easter message of Acts 5 may be uncomfortable. Because it threatens our own structures
and institutionalized religion.
I recently listened to a minister describe his experience in Chicago during the
race riots of 1968. During the week of April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been
assassinated. In the aftermath of King's death, racial riots flared in ghettos across
America. He says, "Everyday on my way to seminary, I walked through the ghettos
feeling so heavy inside; right past the places where people had been beaten or shot. I
walked right past bushes that still had dried blood on the leavesblood leftover from
the riot where several young people had been killed."
The minister recalled how he felt overwhelmed during that chaotic, violent week.
And when Sunday came, he brought to church a deep spiritual yearning to hear the gospel
help him make sense of the violence he had walked through during the week. Yet, when he
got to church, when he sat down to worship, he said, not a word was uttered by the
minister, nothing at all was mentioned during the entire liturgy about King's death, about
the riots, about the utter hopelessness that had gripped Americans in the spring of 1968
and specifically that week. It was as if the church had completely buried its head in the
sand and at a time when people so desperately needed to hear the hope of the gospel.
Worship as usual.
Worship as usual? Not if you let Acts 5 get under your skin. This story reminds us
that we cannot, we must not, bury our heads in our hymnals and go about business as
usualin or out of the church.
But hear the Good News: In Jesus Christ there is a power let loose in the world, a
power that has risen from the bottom up, a power for good which cannot be stopped, cannot
be contained, cannot be beaten down. No prison, police, white supremist group, system or
structure, paradigm, or law can abort the power of God's love.
So today we look at the way its always been in the face Easter faith and we
tremble not. For the Easter message is a gospel that promises reversals, conflict, and
challenge as well as hope and life. For despite what we've witnessed in our world, in our
families and personal lives this week, we are convinced that "neither death nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height,
nor depth, nor any other thing in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love
of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
So though we must acknowledge that conflict occasionally erupts even within the
family of faith, we also own a faith that sees our world full of people made in God's
image, people who have responded to God's love and are living out that response in
obedient service to others. Amen.