“I, Too, Resist”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 16, 2016
University Baptist Church
In the dystopian reality that is our election season, many of us wish we could just wake up from the nightmare. When the good name of Christianity is hijacked and family members can no longer talk with one another, when we hedge our bets over coffee, wondering whether we can comment on the latest gaffe without incurring the wrath of our co-workers. We would all just as soon take a long snooze until after November 8th.
We appeal to minds and hearts, but can’t get people to move away from their beliefs enough to engage their minds or hearts. It all seems so futile. And that is just what the devil is counting on. If enough people can disengage, then the forces of evil can do whatever they want to. They already control the media. They control the boardrooms, they control pieces of government and entertainment. They even control parts of the church. And they will win, unless good people resist. It’s time for us to say, I too resist.
Resistance is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a central theme of the scripture, as central as the cross. The fact that the church has been seen as a great assimilator of culture runs counter to scripture. Scripture gives us story after story of resistance. The question comes to us not what will we resist, but also why don’t we resist. Hold that thought and let’s dive into today’s lesson from the book of Acts.
Today’s scripture starts out by saying that while Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the Temple and the Sadducees came to them much annoyed because they were teaching that in Jesus there is a resurrection of the dead. You see, the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection. They didn’t like Peter and John’s preaching so they used their power and threw them in jail. They thought that by jailing them, they could shame and silence them. But their words were very popular and they had already 5,000 converts to their cause. On top of that, it was illegal to hold a legal inquiry after sundown. So they were thrown into a prison holding cell until they could stand trial by the light of day.
Now the issue was not the resurrection, per se. This was the cover issue, the misdirection issue, the issue that the leaders used to make Peter and John seem just a little bit crazy. It was a way to discredit them and score some points at the same time. If you can get people fighting with each other, leaders know, then you can do whatever you want to do.
Many of us are reading Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy. It recounts the work of the Equal Justice Initiative. They tirelessly work to overturn convictions of people on Alabama’s death row. Many of their defendants had poor legal representation, mental health challenges and a corrupt and colluding police department that ignored evidence. The majority of the people on death row were black, poor and seemed to have little hope of a fair trial. The real issue was not their innocence or guilt. It was their race and the state’s interest in holding fear as power. They resisted their false treatment, their wrongful imprisonment, but it wasn’t until someone outside the system with nothing to gain took up their cases that their situation changed. They needed someone to say, I too resist.
The presenting issue for Peter and John was right belief about the resurrection. It masked the real issue. The real issue, the shadow issue, was healthcare and the mirror that Peter and John held up to the good holy people of Jerusalem. The issue was that in chapter 3, Peter and John had healed a man who had been lame from birth. He had been a poor beggar and had sat at the temple gate for years, asking for alms. He was never allowed in the Temple, for fear that he would defile it. Someone who was lame was unclean. The fact that he was a beggar made him the untouchable. If you touched him, you couldn’t enter the temple for you would become unclean. But people could appease their consciences by giving him some change on their way out of the temple.
Peter and John changed the narrative. They were not content with just giving the man some change and say, “I’ll pray for you.” They actually touched the man. Through magic or through faith, they healed him. They provided him what he needed. And the former lame man began to speak. He spoke about the good news that these good men had done to them right there on the temple steps. And then Peter and John challenged the holy and the righteous to welcome him into the temple. Peter and John wanted to change his status. They wanted to grant the formerly lame man dignity in the sight of all. That’s what got them in trouble. We can take the healing of someone, but to ask them to be a part of our community, well that’s going a little bit too far.
The next day, they pull out the big guns for their trial. Do you notice that they name all of the people on the scene? There were rulers and elders and scribes, there was royal family: Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander. This was no ordinary trial. What was the big deal? Just that they offered a different religious and political reality. Would they still resist with all of this authority on the judgment seat? But they were about to get schooled on authority.
And it’s an interesting question that they ask them: “By what authority did you preach?” They were questioning Peter and John’s credentials. You see the High priest family was in charge of saying what was authorized, what is holy and what was not. If you let just anyone preach anything, then you might have chaos. If it’s especially good news then it’s even more dangerous. By what authority are you doing these things?
Peter then explains that he healed him in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And then he adds a little zinger, “the one whom you crucified.” ‘You used your official authority to put a good man to death. You did it to silence the movement. But we are here to tell you that the movement continues. We are here to say that we too resist, and so do all of these people around us. So unless you have prisons and crosses for all of us, we suggest you change your minds.’ I’m paraphrasing here. Scripture gives us the highlights and we get to fill in the screenplay.
The scripture says that they heard their accents and realized that they were uneducated. They recognized them as followers of Jesus. Maybe they thought they were not a threat. They took counsel and asked what they should do about this. Now, think about those who are arrested for dubious reasons. They often make plea deals to get out of prison. Peter and John had that option, but chose against it. The leaders came back with a sentence, that they could go free if they agreed to no longer speak in Jesus’ name. The jailors tried to release them quietly, as long as they agreed to not disturb the peace. But that very authority that had liberated them could not be silenced. They refused the gag order. They demanded to be released. But Peter and John refused to be let go without an apology. No justice, no peace. Eventually, they got what they wanted, and they went on spreading the Gospel. They could have resisted on their own. But now they had thousands of converts who were finding out what the real truth was about power. For everyone was emboldened to say, “I too resist.”
Peter and John were arrested for making a ruckus, for resisting.
How might we make sure that our words and actions are heard? How might we advocate with integrity? How do we react when someone lies about something that we have done? What about when someone minimizes the pain they have inflicted upon another? How can we best resist?
The Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan, preaching at this summer’s Baptist Peace Conference in Philadelphia said we cannot keep silent about what we have heard. There is good news out there and we cannot keep silent. I think about this as women, and some men, are finding their voices this past week. In response to a Presidential candidate’s bragging about sexual assault, people are saying, this happened to me. This happened to me. I did this when I was younger. This is how I still feel uncomfortable in my own skin. And people try to silence these voices. But there is something in them that will not be silenced. It’s an inconvenient truth. It’s a ground swelling truth that must be spoken. If you have a chance, Google Michelle Obama’s comments this past week. It’s a powerful statement of how we cannot keep silent. Even Glenn Beck said it was the most eloquent political speech since Ronald Reagan. Our silence has let a system continue that creates scapegoats, and we will be silent no more. For we too resist.
Dr. Callahan reminded us peacemakers that Peter and John refused the dehumanization, the intimidation, the silencing of an inconvenient truth, unauthorized by the state. The disciples were put in jail for daring to heal someone. The people had no trouble with him being in his mad state. They walked by him and he had been lame since birth. It says that he had been at the gate for 40 years. What inconvenient truth stands at our doorsteps? What madness have we become accustomed to? What demands to be noticed? What pathology needs to be exorcized? Healing in this context is a kind of resistance. It’s resisting the same old same old. It’s resisting the normality of madness.
There’s plenty of madness in this world. Every election year, it seems that many of us just throw up our hands. The demonization of the enemy becomes so overwhelming.
The competing ads make us all feel a bit dirty. We are tempted to just stay home. And that is exactly what the powers and principalities are counting on. It would seem they have designed this system to make us disgusted or disinterested. The mechanized emotionless voice of the all-powerful Borg in Star Trek, “resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.” But our resistance is what makes us human. And the kind of resistance is the mark of a Christian. And it is not futile. It is liberating.
Oppressions are interconnected. The jail bone is connected to the job bone which is connected to the drug bone, which is connected to the mental health bone, the healthcare bone, the race bone, the gender bone, the rape culture bone. Becca will preach in February about the cradle to prison pipeline. The recidivism bone is connected to the judgment bone that makes a former prisoner always suspect, not available for a job, housing, a place in the community. They come out of prison years later and don’t understand the culture. They are looked down upon when they come to church. They can’t vote. And they long for the fleshpots of Egypt. They were in slavery, but at least they had food. In prison, they had no freedom, but their lives were more predictable. Sometimes prison feels safer than freedom.
This is where the Holy Spirit comes in. When Peter and John were questioned about where their authority came from, they spoke—filled with the Holy Spirit.
Dr. Callahan said that this is where we need to take the Holy Spirit seriously. She said that in church we spend a lot of time spiritualizing the Holy Spirit so as to render it insignificant. We dole out a Holy Spirit that makes no difference. Dr. Callahan reminds us that the Holy Spirit will do things even greater that Jesus. The Holy Spirit comes to facilitate resistance to oppression. It’s about reorienting our entire lives. If we’re not getting in trouble, then we’re not the church as described in Acts 4. Martin Luther King Jr. famously wrote in his letter from the Birmingham jail, that the early “church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”
By what authority do you do this resistance thing? Under whose authority do we take business as usual?
My friends, I encourage you to take a cue from Peter and John. Resist the temptation to take the world as we have it. For when you resist one kind of oppression, you resist the system that keeps us in this state of madness. God’s call to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly is all about resistance to the theme of our world that says, not do justice, but get away with what you can; not love mercy, but belittle mercy; not walk humbly with God, but look out for number one. No, we are called to be better than that. Resist. What is in your bones that must come out? What power, what addiction do you need to resist? When we resist on behalf of another, then we are close to God. And that’s a good place to be. Doing Justice, loving mercy and walking humbly is to live a life of resistance that leads to blessing. And so, when we come to church, may we do so to say, I too resist.
As we sang in our opening hymn, save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore, let the hope for thy salvation be our glory evermore. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage serving thee whom we adore.
May we go enter this new day with a song on our tongues and the Holy Spirit in our hearts that says, I, too, resist.