May 5, 2019
Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41
Last week, the Spirit sent Peter and the Apostles back into the streets to perform signs and wonders. The effect was powerful and immediate. Miracles were accomplished and many were added to the church. This did not go unnoticed by the authorities. In the section of Acts which immediately follows the incident and precedes the section we read today (Acts 5 17-26), the party of the chief priest (Sadducees) have the Apostles arrested and put in jail.
During the night, an angel leads them out of the jail and tells them to go back to the temple to preach the next morning. When the leaders of the people call an assembly (Sanhedrin) to interrogate the Apostles they find the guards on duty, the doors locked, but the Apostles gone. Eventually the guards found them and quietly brought them in. They needed to do so without force because they were afraid of a riot among the people.
This is where our passage begins today. The leaders remind the Apostles that they were told not to preach or teach previously. The leaders were insulted that uneducated men dared to speak up to them. How dare they not recognize and submit to their authority! By this time, they are seeing that the terms have changed. The Apostles have become the new leaders of the people and the power that comes from the spirit of God is greater than the power the Romans allow them to have.
Far from backing down, the Apostles escalate the severity of their attack on their authority. By their law and tradition, He is cursed and damned:
22 “If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his corpse hung on a tree, God’s curse rests on him who hangs on a tree. Deuteronomy 21:22–23
The Apostles take this on directly 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus, though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree. Acts 5:30
And to make this crystal clear: 31 God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins. Acts 5:31
God then rejected the curse of the official leadership and not only gave Jesus new life, but placed him on his right hand. The leaders knew what this meant:
“Take your throne at my righthand, while I make your enemies your footstool.”
The Apostles next make the consequences clear:
32 We are witnesses of these things, as is the holy Spirit that God has given to those who obey him.” Acts 5:32
Through the Sprit they have the power of God. Not unsurprisingly the leaders are displeased:
33 When they heard this, they became infuriated and wanted to put them to death. Acts 5:33
Luke is a major literary talent, but he is not a creative theological genius like Paul. Nonetheless, we should take his insights very seriously. Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of God’s favor and power – then and now, here and everywhere.
The next section follows the deliberation of the Sanhedrin and is not used in this week’s reading. We return with the Apostles being whipped and released. Rather than being chastened they are honored to suffer for Jesus and emboldened to continue to preach and teach.
To truly understand St Luke, we need to see how this is found in the life of Jesus and is continued in St Paul.
When Jesus spoke to his neighbors in Nazareth, they were initially positive until he told them that this message was not only for Jews. Indeed, he reminded them of their role to be a light to the nations.
27 Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury.
29 They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.
30 But he passed through the midst of them and went away. Luke 4:27–30
They did not see that salvation must be shared.
Not only do we see here that Jesus is operating on a different timetable. He will be executed as will the Apostles, but only when all has been prepared; also so for the the Apostles.
17 Then the high priest rose up and all his companions, that is, the party of the Sadducees, and, filled with jealousy, Acts 5:17 (NAB)
Luke will drive this point home later in Acts
9 “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into slavery in Egypt; but God was with him. Acts 7:9
They fear of the people who recognize the authority of Jesus. After the parable of the tenant farmers, Luke says:
19 The scribes and chief priests sought to lay their hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people, for they knew that he had addressed this parable to them. Luke 20:19
This power continues – first again with Peter, who is next incarcerated by Herod, the representative of Roman power.
5 Peter thus was being kept in prison, but prayer by the church was fervently being made to God on his behalf. the angel of the Lord stood by him and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and awakened him, saying, “Get up quickly.” The chains fell from his wrists.
8 The angel said to him, “Put on your belt and your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Put on your cloak and follow me.
He rightly thinks that it is a vision but he eventually “wakes up” and goes to the house where the church has been meeting:
13 When he knocked on the gateway door, a maid named Rhoda came to answer it.
14 She was so overjoyed when she recognized Peter’s voice that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate.
15 They told her, “You are out of your mind,” but she insisted that it was so. But they kept saying, “It is his angel.”
16 But Peter continued to knock, and when they opened it, they saw him and were astounded.
The final instance is St Paul. Paul and Silas have been put in the most secure cell in the prison, but at midnight
there was suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook; all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.
27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew (his) sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped.
28 But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.”
29 He asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas.
30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
The jailer was so upset because by Roman law he would have to face the penalty that the escaped prisoner would have endured. Death by a self-inflected sword wound was far superior.
We see in this as in all the other instances the power of God is beyond all others. Also, every act of civil power that desired to end the mission of the Apostles furthers it – in this last case, even bringing the jailer to faith in Jesus.
We also see a good deal of humor. This is intentional. The power of cult and state were all arrayed against this fledgling movement, and yet they overcame it so completely that the underlying weakness of the powerful was unmasked. Powerful people who are revealed as weak are comic, and deserve laughter not fear.
As we begin the presidential campaign season, it is good for us to realize this. Those who act as if they are the major players in the world are more than just wrong, they are comic. We may be doing a lot of laughing in the next two years.