How do you stop a dissident movement? Getting rid of the ring leaders seems to be the most obvious way. A group which finds itself without a charismatic leader often collapses. The authorities in Jerusalem had done just that with the group which had formed around Jesus, the itinerant rabbi. Unfortunately the ploy didn’t work and the movement he had begun grew from strength to strength. Even arresting and threatening his followers had no effect. They carried on teaching and healing and adding to their number day after day after day.
On Sunday the readings were Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 118:14-end, John 20:19-end. In my reflection I looked at the actions of the early church and what that means for us now:
I wonder if you remember the children’s toy which had a weighted egg-shaped base and always righted itself when knocked over. Versions of this have been around for years and brought delight to many a child. The inflatable, large ones around now are great for getting out some aggression. They never cry when punched and don’t run off to mum to tell tales!
I have to wonder if the spiritual leaders of the Jews must have felt as though they were dealing with something similar to this toy in the early Christians. Peter and the other apostles stood before them, this being the second time for Peter and John. Despite the power vested in Annas, Caiaphas, John, Alexander and whoever else, it seemed that whatever they did barely knocked this new cult back for a moment before it bounced back again. Intimidation just didn’t seem to be working at all.
An apparent solution to the problem of this group had been found at Passover when, with the help of the Romans, Jesus’ crucifixion was arranged. So often before there had been charismatic leaders arising out of the people. Jerusalem and elsewhere had numerous Zealots who longed for freedom from Rome and some gathered a band of followers for a time. Each time, once the leaders had been done away with, the movement collapsed and those opposed to Rome retreated in sullen silence, until the next time. In Jesus’ case the solution didn’t seem to work. Despite a seal on his tomb and a guard outside it, somehow the tomb was empty and his followers were declaring to all who would listen that the God of Moses had raised their leader from the dead. Far from dying, the movement started by Jesus took on a new lease of life.
It had been a difficult Passover as a result, with recriminations passing back and to, but no answers found. After Pentecost things were even worse. A huge crowd had gathered and many had hung on every word that Peter had said. There was talk of 1000s believing their tale about their crucified leader. There was constant talk of miracles being done in the name of Jesus. Groups seemed to gather daily in the Temple, listening to this band of Galilean fishermen who must have been barely educated. Even those who hadn’t joined in seemed overawed by the group.
Just recently the two ring leaders, Peter and John, had caused a scene by healing one of the beggars at the Beautiful Gate. Solomon’s Portico became an orator’s platform and once again all who were within earshot heard this crazy tale about Jesus rising from the dead with many seeming to be taken in by it. Enough was enough, and when the crowd thinned in the evening Peter and John had been arrested.
It had been the strangest hearing any of the rulers and elders had been to. These ordinary men should have been terrified of those they stood before. They who had no education were in the presence of some of the best educated people in Judea. They knew the Torah inside out but this didn’t seem to make any difference. On the contrary, Peter had the audacity to preach at them. He even accused them of having Jesus crucified. Peter and John had been incredibly bold, seeming totally oblivious to the inequality of the situation. And what could the leaders say; the healed man was there whole again and everyone knew how it had happened. All they could do was send Peter and John away with instructions not to preach again. Amazingly the two of them had even answered back in defiance! Nothing seemed to stop them. Seeing their leader crucified should have made them frightened but it seemed not.
Since then, the teaching had gone on in the Temple and the people had continued to hang on the every word of this group. People were even bringing out their sick into the streets as rumour had it that the shadow of Peter could cure them of all kinds of diseases. It wasn’t just those from Jerusalem either. Taking sick relatives to Jerusalem from the towns around had become the normal way to get them cured.
Finally the high priest had reached the limit of his patience and had all the apostles arrested and put in prison. Imagine his annoyance and incredulity when he sent for the group the next morning only to be told that the prisoners had escaped. How had this group got out while the doors remained locked? While the leaders puzzled as to what this could mean, they received news that the apostles were back in their accustomed place, teaching as usual. Not even arrest could deter them. They were making no attempt to hide.
It was the turn of the captain and his officers to feel intimidated as they went to bring the group before the council. They didn’t dare use force but amazingly the apostles came voluntarily. All the high priest had at his disposal were words: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” As Jesus had said when told to keep his disciples quiet on Palm Sunday: “If they are quiet, the stones themselves will cry out.” Threats had no effect on Peter and the others because they knew that Jesus had risen from the dead to bring repentance and forgiveness. Peter explained: ‘We are witnesses to these things.’ They could not keep quiet about what they had seen and heard. This same Peter who had denied he ever knew Jesus had been transformed by the truth of the resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit working in him and he could not be silenced. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
Because the apostles refused to obey any human authority, we have been given the chance to hear the Good News. John and the other gospel writers shared the story of Jesus with us ‘that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ We are the ones to whom Jesus referred when he told Thomas: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Unlike Thomas, we cannot gaze on Jesus’ wounds, see him appear in a locked room, or sit at his feet and listen to him open the scriptures but there are still ways that we can become as convinced as Peter and the others were about the resurrection and who Jesus is.
Perhaps like Nicodemus who came to Jesus with questions by night, we have brought our questions to the Bible and found answers that convinced us, our hearts burning within us as we read. Maybe we have witnessed a person being healed in Jesus’ name as the friends of the lame man at the Beautiful Gate did. Possibly we have heard people speaking in tongues as the apostles did at Pentecost and that has caused us to ask questions. Perhaps we have felt the Holy Spirit within us, in our gut, in the centre of our being and we have known the love and acceptance of God. Maybe we have looked back over our lives and seen the hand of God in some of what has happened. Maybe like Mary and Paul we have heard Jesus speak our name and just knew who it was and that we would follow him from then on, no matter what.
Jesus said to the disciples in the upper room: ‘You are witnesses of these things.’ More than once, Peter declared: ‘We are witnesses to these things.’ In our own ways we too are witnesses. In his first letter, Peter urges his readers: ‘always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.’ Our stories may be different but the truth we witness to in word and deed is the same.
Maybe we think that it’s all right for those great men and women of the faith but not for us. We need to take to heart the words of the old spiritual:
If you cannot preach like Peter,
if you cannot pray like Paul,
you can tell the love of Jesus
and say, ‘He died for all.’
Alleluia. Thanks be to God.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor