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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 earth.

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 Inquisitor’s 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 visitor—his Prisoner—is 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 can’t 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 not—was never meant to be—a 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 guys—and then there are paradigms.

We’re 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 life—a 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 paradigm—the 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 God’s victory of life over death now impacts and threatens politics and structure. That’s 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 news—especially if we’ve found our place in church; especially if we’ve 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 leaves—blood 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 usual—in 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 it’s 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.