Sunday, August 24, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Angel"

Acts 5: 17 to 20  

17 The high priest, together with his allies, the Sadducees, was overcome with jealousy. 18 They seized the apostles and made a public show of putting them in prison. 19 An angel from the Lord opened the prison doors during the night and led them out. The angel told them, 20 “Go, take your place in the temple, and tell the people everything about this new life.” (Common English Bible)

“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week Ten

The image is seared in my mind as the signature image of one of my favorite films of all time: Tim Robbins, standing in a downpour of rain, his eyes closed and his arms outstretched, taking in his first moments of freedom after 19 years of incarceration for a crime that he did not do, a 19 year stretch of hell that was only ended by his own ingenuity in how he planned and executed his escape attempt.

In stories like those: the film The Shawshank Redemption, or the novel it references, The Count of Monte Cristo, wrongful imprisonment tends to end in a dramatic escape plan that is executed to perfection, but in real life, the truth, as is so inconveniently often the case, is often far harsher.  One of two outcomes is almost invariably certain: in one, the innocent person is either eventually exonerated, usually after years upon years of appeals, legal wrangling, and delays.  But in spite of those obstacles, that outcome is the infinitely preferable one compared to the other, which is quite simply this: the innocent person dies in captivity, or, even worse, is executed, sometimes summarily.

Like many of you, I was shocked, stunned, and appalled beyond words at the news that American photojournalist James Foley had been beheaded by the Islamic terrorist group ISIS.  What ISIS is trying to do in Iraq (and which, it must be noted, literally untold numbers of other Muslim imams have condemned in the strongest of terms) is nothing short of callously misrepresenting and viciously misapplying centuries of religious tradition and interpretation of sacred scriptures.  It is, what President Obama accurately termed, a cancer upon God’s creation.  But the problem at the very core of ISIS’s devilishness…its profound misinterpretation of God’s Word…is a trap that we all can fall into, albeit in less extreme ways, but nonetheless to the direct harm of our fellow believers and followers of God.  And that is the trap that the Jerusalem leaders have fallen into, yet again, in today’s Scripture passage as told by Luke in our continued series on Acts of the Apostles.

This is a sermon series that has been ongoing now for a while, and we’re in the home stretch of it now!  We began over two months ago, a couple weeks after the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles), which fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off, and we began with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people, and today, we actually sort of rewind to the beginning of the series when Luke more or less restates an accounting that he also includes in Acts 2, after Peter’s sermon, about how the early church lived out the faith, which contrasted with the standalone story of Ananias and Sapphira, and then the story arc returned to more usual stories of healing and miracles.  This week, though, we see the second intervention by the religious authorities on the disciples, which results in their imprisonment, but, then, in turn, their release, again by miraculous means.

Now, I referenced James Foley’s execution with a very specific purpose in mind: it isn’t enough that the high priest and the Sadducees (who were, along with the Pharisees, one of the two main schools of religious leaders who held authority in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus) felt intensely jealous towards the Apostles and imprisoned them as a result of that jealousy, it is that the religious authorities made a huge show of doing so.  Their actions of arresting and summarily imprisoning the leaders of the early church were done expressly for public consumption, just like, clearly, Jim Foley’s murder was, considering that it was videotaped and that the tape spread like wildfire in the news.

It’s bad enough to commit such horrible crimes purportedly in the name of a loving God, but ISIS and the Sadducees here are doubling down by making their ostensibly religiously motivated sins for public viewing, even though Jesus warns us extensively throughout the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel NOT to practice our religion for the purpose of other people seeing us do it:

“Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people…I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get…(And) when you pray, don’t be like hypocrites.  They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them.  I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get.” (Common English Bible)

There may be a few…a deranged, dangerous few…who will praise the public sins of a group like ISIS, but what about our willingness to praise, say, the public sins of someone we actually agree with?  What about us praising blatant publicity stunts or self centered attention grabs?  Are they not actions of our own innate selfishness as well?

And this is where God’s actions are most powerfully contrasted with our own.  The religious leaders in Jerusalem make a big production out of arresting and incarcerating the Apostles, but the angel of the Lord appears in the dark of night to spirit them away unnoticed.  Presumably, God could have torn the prison walls in two like He did the temple curtain during the crucifixion, He could have stricken the disciples’ captors down like He did with Ananias and Sapphira, He could have brought down the wrath of His own thunder down upon the church’s persecutors, all of which probably would have garnered more attention and head snaps and wild eyed news reports, but God did precisely zero of those things.  God practiced His miraculous ways silently, stealthily, but still, ultimately, effectively.

What a model for us to follow.

I have been drawing from Bible professor Paul Walaskay’s work on Acts extensively throughout this sermon series, and there is still one more bit of his work that I want to bring to your ears.  He says:

The phrase “angel of the Lord” is used dozens of times in the Old Testament and refers to the typical agent of God’s miraculous intervention.  In Acts, Luke continues this traditional way of describing God’s activity on behalf of believers…the angel has instructed them to “tell the people the whole message about this life” (v. 20).  Though the phrase sounds strange, it is probably the case that “this life” also means life giving “salvation.”  The apostolic message is about “life” (“salvation”) which Jesus brings to the believer.

A miracle is done in secret, and the takeaway message from that miracle is “tell the people the whole message about this life.”

An act of oppression is done in public, and the takeaway message is, “Do what we want or die.”

Anybody see a difference between the two?

That difference is, in a nutshell, the difference not between Christianity and 1st century Judaism, or between Christianity and Islam, or even between Christianity and anything else.  It is the difference between living out Christianity in love and living out any belief system (including one presumed to be based on Christianity, just look at Westboro Baptist Church that protests funerals with their “God Hates F*gs” signs or the Dove World Outreach Center that started burning Qurans) in hate.

Hate wants to be noticed.  Hate has to be noticed, because attention is its lifeblood.  God does not create us to hate, we do not come out of the womb knowing how to hate, we have to be taught how to hate, and so hate requires people to hear about it and be shown how to do it because that is the only way it will ever grow.  The terrorist who beheaded James Foley, the soldiers and guerillas exchanging rocket fire in Palestine, the warmakers and warmongers in Syria, they were not born wanting to do what they are doing.  They may think that they are doing God’s will, but they were not taught by God to do such things.  They were taught by us, by humans, and by our hatred and its plague like need to infect us.

But love?  Love can be administered in silence, in secrecy, and still have a profound impact because it can still grow from there.  Hate may grow from public acts and propaganda, but as I am sure all of you know, it only takes one act of love, often done individually, in a one on one setting, for you to realize that you are wanted, that you have worth, that God is not, nor ever will be, finished with you.

God is not finished with the Apostles.  He liberates them from bondage and the angel charges them anew with their mission.  The problem with that, though, is the implication that God must have been finished with James Foley, because he was not rescued…for me, in fact, the most wrenching parts of his story was reading the accounts of how his rescue attempt had failed.  There would be no The Shawshank Redemption ending for him, no peaceful future on a sandy beach anywhere.

But that does not mean that God wanted it to happen, either.  God either did not or could not prevent the Apostles themselves from eventually getting martyred as well: Peter, James, Paul…all of them would summarily executed too.

Because that is what happens when we allow the hate we teach ourselves to win.

But that is not what has to happen to any of us.  God’s provision of this angel, and of the angel’s message of life, is proof enough that for each of us, if we close our ears to the clanging cymbals of hatred, and lend an ear to the voice in the silence and the darkness telling us to live for love, then we too may be able to achieve salvation, to place ourselves in right relationship with the God who is the source of all things love.  

And then, love will finally win out.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 24, 2014

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