First Reading: Acts 5:12-32
12Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, 15so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. 16The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed. 17But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy 18they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. 19But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, 20“Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” 21And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach. Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council, all the senate of the people of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22But when the officers came, 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.” 24Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. 25And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” 26Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. 27And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights. 2Praise him, all you angels of his; praise him, all his host. 3Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. 4Praise him, heaven of heavens, and you waters above the heavens. 5Let them praise the name of the Lord; for he commanded, and they were created. 6He made them stand fast forever and ever; he gave them a law which shall not pass away. 7Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps; 8Fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, doing his will; 9Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars; 10Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds; 11Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the world; 12Young men and maidens, old and young together. 13Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name only is exalted, his splendor is over earth and heaven. 14He has raised up strength for his people and praise for all his loyal servants, the children of Israel, a people who are near him. Hallelujah!
Second Reading: Revelation 1:4-18
4John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. 8“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” 9I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” 12Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. 17When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
Gospel: John 20:19-31
19On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” 24Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” 26Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Obedience is such an Ugly Word
I heard a man bragging on his dog the other day, he said, “He’s a great dog. He’s smart, and obedient, too. All I have to do is tell him what to do and he either does it, or he doesn’t!” The same is true for us human beings; when it comes to obedience, either we do, or we don’t. In the case of the gospel, it’s success or failure hinges on our acceptance or rejection of the word “obedience.” If we truly have faith, if we truly put God first in our lives, then we will obey God. Obedience implies that we understand that we’re not independent, that we are accountable to another, that we do have someone over us, and we accept that there is a higher authority to whom we must submit.
In a world where we’re taught that it’s our “right” to do “our own thing,” “to be our own person,” to do whatever we want because it “feels good” – as Christians, we acknowledge that God expects us to lay all that aside and obey Him! Naturally we’ll conform to others when compelled. We won’t speed too much above the limit lest we get caught. We won’t lie, cheat, or steal unless we’re relatively certain we can get away with it. Given the chance, we’ll give ourselves permission to do as we please.
A television commercial advertising for Burger King encourages the same kind of disobedience by saying, “Sometimes you’ve gotta break the rules!” After all, as the saying goes, rules are made to be broken. The truth is, for many folks, obedience is an ugly word. We don’t like submitting to others and will only put up with it if we’re pushed to do so. So, when we’re forced into compliance, we give token obedience to parents, bosses, the law, or to “higher authorities”. However, willing obedience is rare, and in many cases, it’s looked down upon. After all, who wants to conform to someone else’s ideas, commands, or orders?
A woman went to her pastor and asked, “Will you please tell me what your idea of obedience is?” Holding out a blank sheet of paper, the pastor replied, “It’s to sign your name at the bottom of the blank sheet, and let God fill it in as He sees fit.” The pastor is right. Obedience is to bow to the Lordship and authority of Jesus Christ. One cannot make Christ the King of their life until they willingly submit. Kierkegaard claims, “To be fully obedient, we must hold onto nothing and surrender ourselves totally to the promptings of God’s Spirit.” It’s this total, absolute, and willing obedience that becomes the central focus in our reading for this morning.
The fuller narrative of our first reading for today is an account of the events which took place after Pentecost. You’ll note that the history of the early Christian church is filled with solid evidence that wherever the obedient disciples went, they were sure to find three things: God’s power, trouble, and joy. Our first glimpse of the apostles post Pentecost, finds them busy doing exactly what God had told them to do, and great and powerful events followed them.
As Luke explains in our first reading for today, the Apostles were teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus. They performed miracles in Jesus’ name. They healed the sick in Jesus’ name. They exorcised evil spirits in Jesus’ name, and powerful results followed their obedience.
The disciples were fully aware that they couldn’t do these mighty acts alone; they recognized the Holy Spirit was the One who worked within them. St. Luke records, “And so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those that obey him” (Acts 5:32). The witness we make for Christ is always a mutual witness. None of us can be faithful disciples without the help of the Holy Spirit. Our witness for Jesus must always be in cooperation with God’s Spirit. And willing obedience on our part is necessary. When God is at work in His people, He will give us the power we need, and we’ll also find that we have the second of the three things I mentioned earlier, we may well have trouble. Just because we’re obedient, doesn’t mean that God insulates us against the hard knocks of life.
This reminds me of the Irish comedian, Hal Roach. He told of a doctor who came into the hospital and said to his patient, “We have bad news and very bad news for you. The bad news is that you only have 24 hours to live.” The patient inquired, “What is the very bad news?” The doctor replied, “We should have told you yesterday.” A life of discipleship isn’t always filled with tribulation, but as we see in the lives of the apostles, being obedient to God’s call means there, quite possibly, will be times of trouble. The devil will see to it.
We cannot invade satan’s territory without him putting up a fight. The name of Jesus and the prince of this world have always been – and will always be – at odds with each other. The powers of evil are real, and evil will not easily, or willingly, submit to the power of God invading his domain, certainly not without a fight! And the tools the devil employs are vast. For example, the jealousy of the high priest and of the Sanhedrin prompted them to have the apostles arrested and jailed for teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus.
When the apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin to be questioned, the high priest said, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this Name, yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” What we see is a conflict of authority. Peter and the apostles answered their accusers with irrefutable logic, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” In other words, “You told us not to preach in this Name, (that is the name of Jesus), but the Spirit told us to preach in this Name, so who is the higher authority? What possible option did we have, to obey God or you?
The angel of God said, ‘Speak!’ The rulers of the city said, ‘Speak not!’ ” St. Paul reminds us in Romans that those currently in authority are ordained of God (13:1), and generally it’s our Christian duty to obey them; but there may be times when the higher authority of God demands obedience in defiance of the lesser human authorities. The disciples insisted, “We must obey God”. That was their commitment, and it should be ours as well. The apostles were not anti-authority, they understood obedience to those in power, but the pivotal issue was which authority do we obey and under what circumstances? God always has the final word.
God is the supreme authority, His statutes and teachings come first. The apostles would have gladly acquiesced to human authority, that is until it clashed with divine authority, and then the choice must be for God. And of course, this obedience to God over man brought with it trouble. The Sanhedrin wasn’t happy with Peter’s reason for obeying God. Peter said, “You killed Jesus by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead.”
This same Jesus whom you crucified is risen, has ascended, is reigning, and is saving. Our Savior, whom governments ignore, whom the media ignores or casts aspersions upon, whom many disdain, is on the throne of the universe in glory; “God exalted Him at His right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5:31-32). What wondrous news we have to share; Christ has died. Christ is risen. And Christ will come again! His sovereign gift is salvation, “To give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” But this good news isn’t accepted as good news by everyone. The religious authorities were furious and wanted to have the apostles put to death.
The religious authorities were guilty of crucifying Jesus, and they knew it. Now they wanted that truth stopped, so they wanted to kill the messengers. Yes, we might encounter problems if we faithfully and obediently walk with our Lord. Not everyone will speak well of us because of our witness. Sometimes, in spite of all we do, things will go awry. Where did we ever get the distorted notion that we, as Christians, have a right for things to always go well for us?
Why would we expect life to be a bed of roses without thorns? Why would we expect to have no sickness or pain for ourselves or our loved ones? Why expect that those who are near and dear to us will never die? Why would we expect that thieves would never steal our property, or expect to have no insoluble problems? It certainly didn’t happen to those early disciples, and it won’t happen to us. But all is not bleak, God never abandons His people. And sometimes God can send an advocate from some rather unexpected sources.
Gamaliel, a Pharisee, and a renowned teacher of the law, spoke up and addressed the court and said, “I advise you to leave these men alone. Let them go. If their purpose and activity is of human origin it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men, you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” Even Gamaliel realized that you can’t stop those who are obeying God!
Gamaliel’s logic prevailed, and in response, the court had the apostles flogged, and ordered them to speak no more in the Name of Jesus, and let them go. In light of what had transpired, it was, of course, an utterly wasted warning to men who were fully committed to obedience to God! I like the story that’s told of the nearly 500 passengers who were seated in the California Bullet Train as the inaugural journey got underway.
As the train left San Francisco and began speeding through tunnels and over bridges along the San Andreas fault, an assuring voice came over the public address system: “Ladies and gentlemen; there is no crew on this train, but there is nothing to worry about. This entire system is fully computerized and automated, it represents the latest developments in modern technology. You will be transported to southern California at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour in perfect safety. Every single operation has been tested, re-tested, and tested again. Be assured that there is not the slightest chance that anything can go wrong … can go wrong … go wrong … go wrong … go wrong …”
Yes, sometimes things will go wrong, and you may well pay a high price for being obedient to God. But, before I make it sound too difficult, and before I talk you out of this required obedience, let me remind you of the other certainty of obedience. Always with the promised power and the possible trouble, you’ll find, they had joy! When the apostles had been arrested and jailed, an amazing thing happened. The angel of the Lord came and opened the prison doors and encouraged them to “Go and speak to the people all the words of this new life.”
Had there been no troubles, there would have been no angel! And so, now free men, they started to preach again at daybreak. The very idea of persecution makes most of us shudder, but Jesus disagrees. Persecution is a priceless privilege that should make us leap for joy when it’s done for righteousness’ sake (Luke 6:22-23). Somewhere along the way we’ve been convinced of the constant need to be on a happy high all the time. God nowhere promised His followers a life of happiness, instead we’re promised joy. Joy is that inner delight, that quiet satisfaction that isn’t affected by possessions or the praise of others. If we remember that the Holy Spirit is given to those who are obedient, and that one of the evidences of His presence is joy, then we know that the outer factors, be they good or evil, cannot interrupt nor destroy Christian joy.
In The Little Flowers of St. Francis, Francis is teaching Brother Leo the meaning of perfect joy. As the two walked together in the rain and bitter cold, Francis reminded Leo of all the things that the world, including the religious world, believed would bring joy, adding each time, “Perfect joy is not like that.” Finally, in exasperation Brother Leo asked, “I beg you in God’s name to tell me where perfect joy is!” In response, Francis began enumerating the most humiliating, self-abasing things he could imagine, adding each time, “O Brother Leo, write that perfect joy is there.”
These words may be hard for us to deal with today, and yet, it’s said that it wasn’t until St. Francis gave himself up to God, silver and soul, that he started singing and dancing in the streets. Christian joy is really never complete until we surrender unconditionally to obeying God. When the apostles left the court, they weren’t weeping and groaning and crying with pain from the flogging they had received. They weren’t grumbling that God had let them down when what they were doing was His will. Instead, they left the court rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.
Doesn’t that make us feel shame when we’ve been silent thinking we’d be laughed at, or labeled as a religious fanatic? Day after day the apostles went from house to house, in the courts and to the Temple; they never stopped teaching and preaching the good news that Jesus is the promised Christ. If the church today could get back to that kind of obedience, our biggest problems wouldn’t be that we’re harassed for our witness, but the challenge of how we minister to all these new Christians! The bottom line is always obedience. And from that obedience comes joy.
History records that the apostle John, who led Polycarp to Christ, had warned him that suffering might follow, but as the years passed, Polycarp managed to escape serious persecution. He became bishop of Smyrna, and he became the leading Christian figure in Asia. But at 86 years of age, a Roman proconsul ordered some Christians thrown to the lions to provide amusement, and decided to include Polycarp. The crowd exploded with shouts and calls when they saw him led into the area.
“Curse Christ!” the proconsul ordered, and Polycarp’s reply was eloquent in its simplicity. “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King, who saved me?” Polycarp died at the stake, one of the early Christian martyrs, but with joy in his soul. It certainly wasn’t a life without struggle and trouble and persecution for Martin Luther, but his life of obedience was one of great joy. Obedience to God is the key to faithful discipleship and to true joy.
Is there anything we Christians today need more than an uncompromising, unreserved, continuous willingness to obey our Lord? When we give ourselves in obedience to God, God will fill us with His joy. So, all things considered, maybe obedience isn’t such an ugly word after all!