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What Could Be Said Of Us?
a sermon based on Acts 5:27-32
by Rev. Randy Quinn

As we did last week, we will be reading from the book of Acts for several more weeks. Because of that, I encourage you to join me in reading the entire book through. It really won’t take very long to do - it’s only about 30 pages long. But I believe reading it will give you a better sense of the key points of the entire story as well as a better understanding of the setting of each of the passages we’ll read in worship over the course of the next month or so.

One of the first things you’ll realize is that while this book is officially called "the Acts of the Apostles," it really is a record of the work of the Holy Spirit in and through and among the Apostles. In fact, some scholars have suggested that the name of the book should really be "the Acts of the Holy Spirit". [1]

Since you haven’t had time to read the entire book yet, let me give you a brief review of what has happened leading up to our passage for today. In one sentence, what has happened is that the "disciples" have become "apostles."

For those of you who haven’t thought about it much, a disciple is a student. Disciples learn from their master or their teacher. An apostle is a messenger. Apostles tell others about the message they have received. The disciples who had gathered together after Jesus was raised, received power from the Holy Spirit and became apostles.

But the priests and the Sadducees were "annoyed" with them, so they arrested Peter and John (Acts 4:1-3). Unlike the night that Jesus was arrested, however, Peter and John boldly stood before the council and proclaimed their message. They were no longer disciples. They were apostles. Their boldness - along with the stories of the miracles they had performed - disturbed the religious leaders; but there were no grounds for further punishment, so Peter and John were sent away with a warning.

But they persisted in their activities and are arrested again, only this time they are imprisoned. After an angel frees them they are found in the temple still proclaiming their message about Jesus (5:19, 25). Once again they are arrested and brought before the religious leaders. Our text today begins where they are brought before the council - also known as "the Sanhedrin."

Before we go further, let me tell you what I’ve been able to learn about the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin traces its roots to Moses (Numbers 11:16) and was comprised of 70 or 72 elders of the tribes of Israel. For the most part, the Sanhedrin dealt with issues of the community - much like a city council might today.

When Rome occupied the region, however, some roles were changed. First of all, the Romans limited the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin to religious matters. So it became a forum for discussion in which decisions didn’t much matter since they had no authority to enforce them. The result was a lively and ongoing debate among the leading thinkers of the day, a debate that attracted people from a variety of perspectives, most notably the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

But perhaps a more important change was the fact that the High Priest - who functioned as the president of the Sanhedrin - was appointed by Rome. The result of that political appointment was a High Priest who often had more of a vested interest in maintaining political stability than in sorting out religious truth. So when Jesus was brought before the council, the High Priest insisted that Jesus be put to death - not based on religious disagreements, but rather based on political concerns (Lk 23:1-5).

Now it’s Peter and John who are before the council. The High Priest is still concerned with maintaining a political balance with Rome. And in many ways, the argument that Peter makes cuts to the core of the dilemma for the Sanhedrin. He never mentions Rome; in fact, he doesn’t even infer there might be a rebellion. Instead of responding to what is obviously the High Priest’s primary concern, he turns the discussion toward the legitimate realm of the Sanhedrin by casting the issue as a theological one rather than a political one. [2]  And in so doing, Peter makes them realize that for him the answers to the questions do have import and impact.

What you believe about God makes a difference in the way you live.

Peter believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead. As an Apostle, he was being sent to tell the whole world the good news that in Christ we can find forgiveness of our sins and life eternal. And because he knew his calling was from God, Peter was willing to defy the religious leaders of his day.

In a subtle way, his comments seem to be an indictment against the members of the Sanhedrin who sort out truth but are unwilling to change the way they live in response to it.

Perhaps you’ve known people like that, too. I know I have. They ask questions as if they are really interested in learning or finding the truth, but it’s clear they are only looking for a point upon which they can disagree and argue. It’s as if they are more interested in generating heat than light.

Curiously, the most powerful argument before the Sanhedrin that day is made by one of its own members, Gamaliel. His speech seems to shed light where there had only been darkness. While Gamaliel’s speech isn’t in our text today, I’d like to read it for you anyway:

Then he said to them, "Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. 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. 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.

[By the way, unlike Jesus both Theudas and Judas tried to raise up armies to defeat the Romans.]

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; 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!" Acts 5:35-39

It’s as if Gamaliel can sense the sacredness of Peter’s calling. He may not agree with it, but he also knows it would be inappropriate to prevent him from following it. I’ve often wondered where Gamaliel was during the "trial" of Jesus. Was he absent that day or had he come to realize the error of their previous judgment?

Regardless of what he thought of Jesus, Gamaliel sees Peter as a man whose integrity is intact. He is not only presenting a theological argument for the Sanhedrin to consider, he is also courageously living his life in response to his understanding of truth.

Would that he could say the same for all the Sanhedrin. Would that we could say the same for all the Church today. Would that it could be said of each of us here this morning. What a powerful testimony that would be, that we lived our lives in a way that directly reflected our beliefs. People may not agree with us in all aspects of our faith, but they would certainly admire our courage to live out our faith.

Much like I’ve heard people say about other groups - such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who faithfully go door to door with their message or the Mormons who send their young people on two-year missions.

When people look at our church, I wonder what they see. Do they see a people who faithfully, courageously, boldly live their faith? Or do they see a people who say one thing and do another? Do they see a people who know they have a sacred calling? Or do they see a people who gather for socializing? Do they see a people who reach out in love and compassion? Or do they see a people who maintain a clean building?

Would Gamaliel look at us and say, "God is at work here and no one can stop it"? Or would he say, "See, God wasn’t at work and it’s beginning to fail"?

I don’t know. I do know that the answer to those questions is in your hands as much as mine. Each of us and all of us are called to be apostles. We are called to be like Peter and proclaim our faith in word as well as in deed.

My personal hope is that people will see in me a man of integrity who says what he believes, who believes what he says, and shows it in the way he lives. I hope you have a similar goal in your life. Let’s do what’s right in all we do. Amen.

[1] Willimon, p 8.
[2]  It has been argued that the questions posed to Jesus about his royal nature were politically motivated and that his response was heard in political terms as well (Lk 22:67-70).  Peter makes no reference to Jesus as Messiah in his argument, keeping the political terminology out of the discussion.