“Teaching in Jesus’ Name”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 28, 2014 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture:  Acts 5:27-42

 

Before we consider what happened in this story or what it means for us today, it is important to get one thing straight. When we read stories like this one, stories of conflict between the followers of Jesus and the religious authorities of the time, it is important to be crystal clear who we’re talking about and why. We contemporary Christians are heirs to a tradition that includes within it some virulent strains of anti-Semitism. Texts like this one have been used over the centuries to justify discrimination and prejudice, violence and genocide. And so, when we read stories like this one, we must do so with the utmost care, lest we fall into the same deadly trap that snared many of our predecessors and continues to snare many of our sisters and brothers today.

Some Christians read in this story and others like it a blanket indictment of the Jewish people. Some would say that the message of this story is that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, and that’s why they didn’t like what the apostles had to say. Some would say that the Jews continued in this vein by attacking the followers of Jesus once their master was gone. This is not a faithful reading of the text.

It is true that there was conflict between the followers of Jesus and the chief priests and leaders of the synagogues. However, those leaders were often in league with the Roman imperial forces who ruled Palestine in that time. A few may have chosen that allegiance, but many were forced into it for fear of losing their jobs or their lives. The ordinary, everyday Jewish people resented the Roman occupation and would have viewed those leaders’ actions as corrupt and disloyal. Most Jews likely did not share in the official condemnation of Jesus and his followers. In fact, the Jesus movement, as it grew, included many Jews as well as Gentiles.

In the verse that immediately precedes the passage we heard this morning, we are told that the authorities brought the apostles to the council “without violence” because the disciples were held in high esteem by the people, and the guards wanted to avoid provoking the anger of those great multitudes of followers. It is the Roman-backed officials who stand against the apostles—not the Jewish people of that time, and not their descendants, the Jewish people of our time.

 

With that important caveat in place, here’s what I wonder. What was so infuriating about those apostles?

This is not the first time we have heard a story like this one, and it will not be the last. The Book of Acts is full of stories of arrests, persecutions, trials, condemnations, and punishments. Those apostles did not have an easy go of it. They were locked up, thrown out of town, beaten, even stoned. But why? What was it about them that was so infuriating?

It doesn’t seem to be the fact that they were healing the sick that got them into trouble. The accusations the chief priest makes in today’s reading have nothing to do with healing. It doesn’t seem to be the fact that they were feeding the hungry that got them into trouble. The accusations have nothing to do with food. It doesn’t seem to be the fact that they were living communally and sharing their belongings with one another that got them into trouble. The accusations have nothing to do with possessions.

What got them into trouble in today’s reading was this: teaching. More specifically, teaching in the name of Jesus. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” says the chief priest, “yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” A little teaching, it turns out, can be a dangerous thing, especially when it is the kind of teaching that the apostles would have been doing.

The official party line of the Roman Empire, the kind of teaching they would have been doing, was this: “might makes right.” If you have power, you hold on to it through the use of whatever force is necessary. According to this logic, you can’t let anyone else gain power, because power is a zero-sum game, and their gain will mean your loss. So you build taller walls, better weapons, stronger armies, and you flex your muscles intimidatingly. You come down hard on anyone who dares to challenge you, and you show them who’s boss.

The teaching that the apostles would have been doing, on the other hand—well, it didn’t exactly agree with this “might makes right” philosophy. Because the teaching that the apostles would have been doing was rooted in the paradoxical logic of the gospel. If you have power, you don’t keep it for yourself, you use it for the benefit of others—or, better yet, you give your power away so that others can exercise their own power. If others gain power, it will benefit you, too—we rise and fall together, for we are all connected, we are all one body. So you open your eyes, you open your heart, you open your hands, you open your arms, and you take whatever comes—no matter how bad it might be—and you transform it into love.

This logic, the paradoxical logic of the gospel, teaches us that God—the very epitome of power—chose to give up immortality for the sake of mortal life. God chose to give up infinity for the sake of bone and flesh and sinew. God chose to give up invulnerability for the sake of solidarity with all who suffer. There was no reason God had to do this. God could have stayed above the fray. But instead, in Jesus, God chose to become a frail, fragile human, just like you and me, because God wanted to make sure we understood the incredible strength of God’s love.

God came to earth as love incarnate to teach us the nature of God’s power, which does not look like a mighty army, an impenetrable fortress, a bristling array of weaponry. God’s power shows itself through kindness, through mercy, through vulnerability. In Jesus, God takes whatever comes—and we know that what came was pretty bad—and God transforms even that into love.

This is the kind of truth those apostles would have been espousing when they went about teaching in the name of Jesus. According to the logic of empire, the logic of “might makes right,” it looks like weakness, like foolishness. But according to the paradoxical logic of the gospel, it looks very, very strong. To the Romans, who had built their empire on “might makes right,” the notion that those who seemed to have the least power might actually be the mightiest of all was very, very uncomfortable—and the notion that this idea might spread was terrifying. It was not their healing or feeding or sharing that got the apostles into trouble—it was their teaching. Just as slave-owners in the American South did not want their slaves to be educated… just as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan does not want girls to be educated… the Romans did not want the populace to know the kinds of things the apostles were teaching, because a little education can be a dangerous thing indeed.

 

Paolo Freire, the great Brazilian educator and philosopher, put it this way: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”[1] This latter kind of education, the kind that leads to nothing less than the transformation of the world—this is what the apostles were about, and it is what we are called to be about, too.

Some of you spend your days in classrooms, so the label of “teacher” is a natural one. But whether it is your job or not, teaching is part of every one of our vocations. Part of what it means to be a Christian is to contribute to this kind of education—to share the good news you have heard, the mercy you have received, the grace you have seen, the love you have felt. Part of what it means to be a Christian is to teach the people around you that they do not have to be captive to the logic of empire. They do not have to play by the rules of might makes right, of more is better, of competition and scarcity and zero-sum games. There is another way, a way of love, a way that can transform a life, a way that can transform a world.

Paolo Freire also wrote this: “Apart from inquiry… individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”[2] Knowledge emerges only through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other—and, I would add, with God. This means that not only are we called to be teachers, but we are also called to be learners, to be engaged perpetually in that kind of restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry, and to be transformed perpetually by God’s love.

Because when we come face to face with that kind of love, when we open our hearts to that stream of mercy, when we drink deeply of that fountain of living water, we will find that we become full to overflowing with the power of God—not the forceful “might makes right” of empire, but the vulnerable, compassionate strength of the gospel.

Teaching and learning, transforming and transformed, growing in faith and in that paradoxical logic—that is what the apostles were about, and it is what we are called to be about, too. For as we are each formed and re-formed by God’s love, as we share what we have experienced and teach that way of love to others, we participate with God in making all things new.

When the powers that be start telling us to “stop teaching in that name,” we will know that we are doing something right. To the forces of empire, that kind of teaching is terrifying. To God, it is very good news indeed.

 

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[1] Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

[2] Ibid.