In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During the Paschal season each year, my brothers and sisters in Christ, the church dispenses with the reading of the apostolic epistles in order to concentrate on the apostolic actions. That is to say, during these few weeks each spring we give our attention to the book of The Acts of the Apostles, which is read along with the Gospel of John. Those are the marks, one of the marks, of the Paschal season. We do this with a view to discerning, in the lives and ministries of these men, the power of the Resurrection. To see what the resurrected life looks like, we go to the history of the early church. In this pursuit, I believe we may adopt as our guide a single question: What difference does the message of the Resurrection make in the thinking and actual lives of those who believe it?
It’s a very, very important question. It’s important to ask it as well. Otherwise we may presume that we live pretty much the same way everybody else does, except a slightly different lifestyle. See, the end of the Gospel of John today did not say, “These things have been written that you may have a new lifestyle,” but a new life. So it’s very distressing to find Christians who, if a tragedy or misfortune touches them, they react exactly the way the world does, no difference at all, no difference. That’s most distressing. There’s no witness to the world.
Among those who were admitted into our church a week ago was one person who told me that he came here in curiosity because of somebody he knew. I can’t remember how he knew this person but he said he knew this person. He was very impressed by how this person reacted to tragedy and misfortune, because the reaction was different, this person was dealing with it differently. Today’s reading, I believe, indicates at least three answers to the question: What difference does the Resurrection make in the thought processes, the affections, and the worldview of those who believe in it?
The first thing in this morning’s reading, the message of the Resurrection places the human conscience completely under the dynamic sovereignty of God.
This is the thesis St. Peter enunciated today in his testimony to the Sanhedrin: It is necessary to obey God rather than men. He goes on to root this obedience to God in the historical fact of the Resurrection. Listen closely to these lines you heard this morning:
But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.” (Acts 5:29-32)
Now twice within four verses, St. Peter speaks of obedience to the God of our fathers who raised up Jesus. Those in whom lives the power of the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, will never concede to any human philosophy or political power, an ultimate authority over the conscience. Listen closely to this. In this respect the Resurrection asserts resistance to all political absolutism, even a political absolutism of the Church. The Holy Spirit speaks to the conscience of Christians and liberates them from every oppressive system.
Please understand this. We are not talking here about the U.N. list of human rights. We are not talking about your constitutional rights, such as the amendment that gives you the right to the freedom of religion. That’s not what we’re talking about. A Muslim has that, a Buddhist has that, an atheist has that. Peter is not appealing to any natural rights of men. The apostles were not early versions of Locke and Jefferson.
When the Sanhedrin inquired: “Did we not strictly command you not to preach in His name?” the apostles did not seek refuge in the authority of their political rights. They didn’t make a political statement at all directly. They starkly affirmed, “It is necessary to obey God rather than men. Why? God raised Jesus from the dead.” This was not the first occasion in which the Sanhedrin heard this message. They were slow learners. The previous chapter of the Book of Acts tells us what transpired the day before. Here’s a quotation:
So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:18-20)
Notice there is no appeal there to a natural right of freedom of religion. No appeal is made to that at all. The appeal is made, “We have no say in this, because God has grabbed our conscience by overcoming death.” In taking their stand against the absolutist pretensions of the Sanhedrin, the apostles were doubtless aware of standing in the place of Moses before Pharaoh, Elijah before Ahab, and John the Baptist before Herod, but resistance to absolute political power has now been placed in a completely different and more solid setting: the sovereignty of God over death itself and the triumph of the Resurrection: “We cannot but speak the things that we have seen and heard.”
I’ve mentioned to you before that the first challenge that the Resurrection makes to the political structure is directed at the Bureau of Vital Statistics. I’ve always wondered about the Bureau of Vital Statistics, since the last column of everybody’s life is the date of their death. Apparently death is a vital statistic. See, the Resurrection tells even the Bureau of Vital Statistics: “You need another column.”
Now this was a most serious and even revolutionary claim to put forward in a political setting. It was also dangerous. Through the rest of the Acts of the Apostles we will repeatedly find the messages of the Gospel in prison and suffering other forms of political coercion. Yet we find their claim asserted all throughout this book. Whether in Jerusalem, Damascus, Philippi, Corinth or Rome, to Caesar and to the wide empire that he ruled from Egypt to the border of Scotland, the Christian people shouted out: “Jesus is Lord, get used to it.”
Second, the power of the Resurrection places the Christian soul under the protection of the angels. Thus we read this morning:
Then the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with indignation, and laid their hands on the apostles and put them in common prison. But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.” (Acts 5:17-20)
It is very significant that it is the Sadducees who did this. The same people who did not believe in the Resurrection did not believe in angels. They threw the apostles in prison. St. Luke tells us that they did not believe in either of these doctrines much later in (Acts 23), Luke writing for Gentile readers who didn’t know what the Sadducees believed in. You know the Sadducees were rather modern with respect to the things they did not believe in. I’m always struck by the things the Sadducees tend not to believe in. And of course, being modern people, if you don’t believe in them, they don’t exist. I’ve met all sorts of people like that. In fact I used to teach them. For years I taught them in college.
What people happen to believe in however does not really affect the structure of reality. For example, it makes no difference whether a man believes in the laws of gravity or thermodynamics. These laws are just as effective on those who do not believe in them. If I climb a tower that’s holding high tension wires, for example, my views on electricity are absolutely insignificant. If I stand on the edge of the top of the Sears tower, it wouldn’t make any difference if I believed in these laws or not. I’ve never been up there. The reason I don’t go up there is because I believe in the law of gravity, but it wouldn’t make any difference if I believed in it or not.
In their denial of angels and the Resurrection, the Sadducees held to what we may call a defective cosmology. See, cosmology has a way of asserting itself. Somehow or other we believe things can be settled, however, by a vote of experts. So if the American Medical Association meets or the American Psychiatric Association meets and they say that such and such is not really a disease, or such and such is not really a malady, then it’s not. But see, people’s health is still destroyed, they still die, homes are still broken up.
There are those who don’t believe that alcoholism is destructive. It makes no difference. Families still get destroyed by alcoholism. A defective cosmology is a very bad cosmology. You see the Sadducees were quantitative thinkers who believed only in things they could see and measure, but other things were going on all around them of which they were unaware, but they were still going on. These things included the ministering spirits sent forth to minister to those who will inherit salvation.
We find this pattern of angelic intervention all through the book of The Acts of the Apostles. Later on we will read in chapter 12:
Now behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him, and a light shone in the prison; and he struck Peter on the side and raised him up, saying, “Arise quickly!” And his chains fell off his hands. (Acts 12:7)
After Peter had escaped prison and gone to where the Christians were at prayer, these Christians debated amongst themselves whether it was really Peter or his angel:
And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a girl named Rhoda came to answer. When she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her gladness she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter stood before the gate. But they said to her, “You are beside yourself!” Yet she kept insisting that it was so. So they said, “It is his angel.” (Acts 12:13-15)
And at the end of the same chapter 12 it says an angel of the Lord struck Herod:
So on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat on his throne and gave an oration to them. And the people kept shouting, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died. But the word of God grew and multiplied. (Acts 12:21-24)
At the beginning of the Book of Acts two angels announce to the Church at the moment of the Lord’s Ascension that He will come again just as they have seen him go:
And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10-11)
Likewise too, an angel comes to carry Philip to Azotus:
Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing. But Philip was found at Azotus. And passing through, he preached in all the cities till he came to Caesarea. (Acts 8:39-40)
An angel comes to enlighten Cornelius in Caesarea:
About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius!” (Acts 10:3)
In short, the life of the Christian, the life given in the Lord’s Resurrection, is a life, a communion with what Hebrews calls “the innumerable company of angels.” Now the deeper significance of that, I believe, is this: A Resurrection life is already a participation in the life of heaven, that is, when we pray, we come to God, the wall between ourselves and the throne of God is paper thin. It’s not transparent, but I’ve told you many times it is translucent, the light shines through, and we see things that other people don’t see. We are aware of things of which the world does not know.
Thirdly, the energies of the Resurrection convey a real life. Among the modern expressions of which I do approve, and there are very few, the one expression is, “Get a life.” Get a life. In fact I find myself using this all the time. Get a life. Unfortunately I say this to fellow clergymen, who complain about this or that that I’m doing. My argument is, “Oh, get a life.” But it’s not just “get a life.” It’s “get the life.” The Greek word that’s used there is not bios, its not bios, that means living things, as in biology. It’s zoe, it’s a real life. Thus the angel tells Peter today:
“Go stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.”
Πορεύεσθε καὶ σταθέντες λαλεῖτε ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ τῷ λαῷ πάντα τὰ ῥήματα τῆς ζωῆς ταύτης.
“Go stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.”
“Poreuesthe kai stathentes laleite en tô ierô tô laô panta ta rêmata tês zôês tautês.” (Acts 5:20)
This is a striking and curious expression — panta ta rêmata tês zôês tautês — all the words of this life. What is that a reference to? Surely the Gospel, the Gospel, the full Gospel. The content of the Gospel, its words ta rêmata is instruction about a reality identified as life. The apostles are to teach about this life first of all by taking a stand, “Go stand in the temple and speak all the words of this life.” Take a stand and speak. All the words must be spoken, because this life is an integral whole. It is life according to the Gospel.
Now this means infinitely more than being alive. Plenty of people are alive but they don’t have a life. It certainly means a great deal more than a lifestyle, although I don’t deny that Christians should live a different style of life. This life refers to a new principle of life. It is not life in a physical sense. It is not even life in a psychological sense. It is a new source of life. It is life that is drawn from a completely new principle. It’s a life that death cannot overcome. It is a life that tramples down death. It is the Holy Spirit, enlivening each member of the church, as the soul enlivens each part of the body.
To be in Christ, my beloved, is to live in a completely new sense. It is to immerse ourselves in an atmosphere, which is the Holy Spirit. An atmosphere is something in which we live, but also lives in us. The breath is there, and that’s what the word spirit means, the breath is there, we just take it in, so we are completely immersed in the Holy Spirit. We purge from our lives everything that is inimical to the Holy Spirit. We root all vice, mendacity, all selfishness, every species of darkness which fights against the life and put it away from ourselves in order to liberate the Spirit to take complete charge of us and to give us a life.