The first Sunday after Easter (April 28, 2019) provided the saints at the First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights with the opportunity to consider what happened to the disciples in the weeks and months after the resurrection. We saw them as people whose minds had changed – for the better… and we wondered whether we, too, have seen signs of such change and growth in our own lives. Our texts included Luke 24:45-49 and Acts 5:27-32.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the Media Player below:
Well, well, well. Get a load of this guy! Can you believe it? Who does he think he is? Did you catch what Ronald said in the reading from the Book of Acts? Evidently, the followers of Jesus have been arrested, for what is apparently not the first time. They have been hauled in front of the Council – the Sanhedrin – and the High Priest, because they keep talking about Jesus of Nazareth and preaching in his name.
And did you catch the name of the ringleader, the spokesperson, the only apostle named? Peter. Yes, that Peter. The last time we saw him in this room was just the other day, when we read from Mark 14, the night that Jesus himself was arrested. Peter was close to the Council and the High Priest on that night, too. Do you remember?
Only on that night, he tried to hide. When he couldn’t hide, he lied. When he was found out in his lie, he ran away weeping into the darkness. That’s the last we’ve heard from Peter in this room. And you will recall that it was not, by any means, Peter’s best day. And yet it was Peter. The same Peter who we heard speaking confidently and even defiantly to the religious hierarchy a moment ago.
What’s happening? What’s gotten into him?
Some of you know my friend, Sophie, in Malawi. She and her husband lived with us for several months many years ago, and she had a habit that confused me. She often began a story by saying, “the other day…” Now, I imagine that you’ve used this phrase yourself. You’ve said something like, “You’ll never believe who I saw in the market the other day!” Perhaps you’ve asked me when my last dental exam was, and I responded, “Oh, it was the other day. I’m good.” When we use those words, we understand “the other day” to mean a date in the fairly recent past.
But for Sophie, “the other day” meant simply any day that is not “today”. She would start to tell me about the other day when she was learning to drive, and it would take me a while to catch on that we were talking about an event that took place decades ago. As you know, the passage of time adds a lot to the meaning of a story.
So when I said that we saw Peter “the other day” as he was fleeing the courtyard of the High Priest’s home on the night of Jesus’ arrest… which “other day” was it? How much time has elapsed between Peter’s running away in shame and his standing before the Council in such boldness.
This is a tricky thing for those of us who want to read the Bible. I mean, we’ve just finished a study of Mark’s Gospel, which takes 240 verses to narrate the events of one week. Conversely, the book of Exodus sums up 400+ years in fewer than 8 verses. So what is the relationship between the stories we’ve heard from Mark in recent weeks and those in today’s reading from Luke and Acts?
Jesus’ ascended into heaven about six weeks after his resurrection. That’s the conversation that Carly shared with you from Luke. The events described in Acts chapter 5 could be from the same year; if not, they are from the following year. In other words, the amount of time that has elapsed between Peter’s denial and his sermon here is to be measured in weeks or months, and certainly not in decades.
So I’ll ask again: what gives? Who is this guy? What has gotten into Peter and the other apostles that they should be so bold and brash only weeks or months after having failed so miserably?
My hunch is that if we had the opportunity to ask the apostles themselves, they might point to Luke’s account, and say something like, “Well, things really began to change for us – to take shape – as we met with the risen Christ. Our minds were opened. We understood that he was calling us to be witnessesto his resurrection, witnesses to his presence.
In the time between the burial of Jesus and this trial in Acts, these followers of Jesus came to see themselves as witnesses. I’m here to suggest that this is a new understanding. Think back to the day of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. On that day, they saw themselves as managersor maybe cheerleaders. Jesus was coming in and was loudly proclaimed as the coming Messiah – it was unmistakable. And so it fell to the disciples to help facilitate the crowds and maybe even get themselves positioned as a kind of a “transition team” between the current religious and political establishment and that new order which Jesus would bring.
However, as the situation in Jerusalem devolved during Holy Week, things changed. Jesus was betrayed, and then arrested. If the dream of the Messianic Kingdom with Jesus as its head was going to come to pass, then those who were with him would have to take quick action. We saw that in the Garden at least some of the disciples were ready to fight for Jesus, and for this new Kingdom, and to defend him. That’s not the first time that these folks saw themselves in that way – the Gospels are full of occasions when those who were closest to Jesus sought to protect him from others whom they deemed to be unworthy: children and foreigners, mostly.
When we interpret the disciples acting as protectors or defenders, then perhaps we can construe the running away in the Garden of Gethsemane and even the denials by the High Priest’s home not as acts of cowardice but rather as strategies for buying time. After all, in this view, the arrest of Jesus is a horrible thing – but if everyone gets taken in there will be nobody to save him. If all of them run away now, the disciples could have thought, they can break him out of jail and get back to plan “A” – Jesus coming in, bringing his Kingdom, and a new world order! Here we go!
But then, of course, came the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus. At that point it must have seemed to the followers of Jesus (and they said as much to the “stranger” on the road to Emmaus) that they were sadly mistaken. He was evidently not the Messiah. He had evidently notcome to liberate the people of God.
And now we move ahead a few months or a year into the Book of Acts and we are re-introduced to these Christ-followers as men of purpose and vision. They’ve got multiple arrest records already for bearing witness to the presence and resurrection of Jesus.
And listen to what Peter says about his old friend and mentor, Jesus. He says that God has raised up Jesus as Israel’s “Leader”. The Greek word there is archegos, and it means one who goes before, or is an example, or a pioneer, or a predecessor. Jesus is the first of many – Jesus is the archetype of that which God intends for all humanity.
Not only is he “Leader”, but he is “Savior”. Again, the Greek helps us understand: soter is a word that refers to a title that the Greeks gave to leaders who had conferred significant benefits on their country. It was used to describe a military or political leader who had really brought about true and significant benefit or advantage for his people. It is worth noting, too, that this is the first time in the New Testament that a Jewish person uses this word to refer to Jesus. In recognizing him as archegos and soter– Leader and Savior – the disciples are acclaiming Jesus as one with supreme power and authority; one who can be relied on to get stuff done; Jesus can be trusted to do as he says he’s gonna do.
And if Jesus is in fact that kindof leader and savior, then the disciples’ understanding of themselves must also change. If that’swho Jesus is, then they don’t need to be his agents, handlers, or managers. If that’s the kind of person and presence that Jesus is, then he surely doesn’t need the kinds of protection that people like the disciples are likely to be able to provide. And so instead of being any of those things, the apostles say plainly, “we are witnesses of these things – we are here to tell you about our experiences of these things, and to invite you to consider the Holy Spirit who is also here as a witness.”
This morning I’d like to reflect on Christ-followers who see themselves as witnesses – as persons who have seen, observed, or participated in an event and then testify to what they saw, heard, and felt. I’m afraid that in the Church of Jesus Christ today, there are not enough witnesses.
I’m afraid that in the church of Jesus Christ today I know too many people who have abdicated the role of “witness” so that they could go back to being Jesus’ protectors. I know too many people who seem to believe that the God whom they say created heaven and earth and the vastness of the cosmos – that thatGod somehow needs folks like me or you to protect God’s self.
We have friends who act as if Jesus needs us to stand between him and those who would harm him – he needs us to point out and call out and tear down the people that could somehow hurt Jesus or his cause – and so these folks lash out self-righteously against Muslims or atheists or feminists or gays. Jesus needs us to have his back when it comes to outrages like the holiday cups used at Starbucks or the chicken sandwiches served by Chick Fil-A. Some people act as though the one who turned water into wine and used a few loaves and fishes to feed 5000 people has now had a change of heart and turns to his followers and says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa… be careful. Don’t be trying to feed or clothe everybody now. You’ve got to take care of yourselves. I’m not sure you can think about letting people like them get too close to your neighborhood…” As if Jesus was somehow less ableor less sufficientor less powerfulnow than he was when Luke and Acts were written.
If he is truly Leader and Savior – then he retains his power and authority, and he continues to expect that we are his witnesses, and not his handlers, agents, protection squad, or defense attorneys.
And that leads me to another question that is raised by this morning’s text. Clearly Peter and the other followers of Jesus grew in their understandings of who Jesus was and who they were called to be. Their minds were changed, and that led them to new understandings of themselves and their Lord. So I wonder, has that happened to you? Where are you growing? How long has it been since you’ve seen Jesus in a new way? Are there things about which you’ve experienced a change of mind or heart?
Careful now… In so many parts of our culture, a changed mind is seen as a sign of weakness. In discussions I’ve had recently of both a political and religious nature, I’ve heard comments like, “Her? Seriously? You know, I’ve heard that she has become really soft on ________ (fill in the blank with some doctrine, cause, or political viewpoint). I’m not sure she’s one of us anymore…” When a politician changes their mind, they are accused of waffling or flip-flopping. And if you didn’t know it, friends, that’s bad. That is very bad for your political career – and, as friends of mine discovered it can hurt your theological career as well.
When someone engages you in conversation by asking you how your mind has changed, or how you see things differently… there’s a temptation to see that as an admission of having somehow departed from orthodoxy or having left the “true faith”, whatever that is.
But listen: we are called to growth! We are built for growth! We long for and anticipate growth in our physical selves, our mental selves, and therefore why not our spiritual selves as well?
There’s not a person in this room who thinks, looks, or acts exactly the same as you did five or ten or twenty years ago. Heck, if you want a laugh, walk into my study with some of the children as they scope out your wedding and baptismal photos and say, “Hey… is that my mom and dad?”, or “Who is that guy with all the hair?” Because you’ve changed, beloved. You’re not the same.
So I’ll ask again: Where are you growing? How are you seeing Jesus these days? And how are you bearing witness to that presence in your daily life?
Today, may we join Peter and the other apostles in looking back at where we were, and who we were, on the other day– and praying for growth, wisdom, discernment, and freedom to find Christ in new places on this day. And as we find and experience the Christ, may we, too, fulfill our roles and thereby be witnesses to these things. Thanks be to God! Amen.
 I am indebted to pastor and writer John Pavlovitz, who has helped me to wrestle with this issue. You can see some of his work on his blog in columns like this: https://johnpavlovitz.com/2019/04/11/the-terribly-tiny-god-of-maga-christians/