Sunday, August 31, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Unbelief"

Acts 5:21 to 32

21 Early in the morning, they went into the temple as they had been told and began to teach. When the high priest and his colleagues gathered, they convened the Jerusalem Council, that is, the full assembly of Israel’s elders. They sent word to the prison to have the apostles brought before them. 22 However, the guards didn’t find them in the prison. They returned and reported, 23 “We found the prison locked and well-secured, with guards standing at the doors, but when we opened the doors we found no one inside!” 

24 When they received this news, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were baffled and wondered what might be happening. 25 Just then, someone arrived and announced, “Look! The people you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” 26 Then the captain left with his guards and brought the apostles back. They didn’t use force because they were afraid the people would stone them. 

 27 The apostles were brought before the council where the high priest confronted them: 28 “In no uncertain terms, we demanded that you not teach in this name. And look at you! You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. And you are determined to hold us responsible for this man’s death.” 

29 Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than humans! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God has exalted Jesus to his right side as leader and savior so that he could enable Israel to change its heart and life and to find forgiveness for sins. 32 We are witnesses of such things, as is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Common English Bible)

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

The Israeli rabbi’s beard in his news picture ordinarily would bring to mind, say, Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series, or maybe one of the members of ZZ Top when they’re all in an assisted living facility together many, many moons from now.  But just above that beard was one of the biggest, most contagious smiles ever, and you wouldn’t even think it to look at the guy that he was suffering from something we just talked about together in a sermon of mine a couple of weeks ago: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis: ALS, better known as either Lou Gehrig’s disease or that thing that has gotten everybody and their mother to post videos to Facebook of them dumping literal bucketloads of ice water over their heads in the name of raising both awareness and funds for the researching of a cure for this seemingly incurable, inexorable disease.

But today, at least, there is cause not only for Rabbi Refoel Shmulevitz to smile, but for any and all of us who have been following the ALS ice bucket challenge as it went viral throughout the world, because earlier this year, he was given a second round of an experimental course of treatment aimed at reversing, or at least delaying, the onset of his ALS symptoms…treatment that at first wore off, but before that had caused him to show substantial improvement even in being able to walk unaided, give speeches to audiences again, and to, well, live life again.

And while we live with the reality of ALS as an incurable disease, we have lived with the same reality with HIV/AIDS…but with the latter, we have created such advanced medication regimens that HIV positive people are now able to live out close to a normal lifespan, to the point that some doctors are beginning to classify it as chronic rather than terminal.  None of that was thought possible thirty years ago with the medical technology available to us then, but here we are.  Change, evolution, progress, all of it is always possible even when we are absolutely convinced that it otherwise cannot be or will not be. 

And here, in this final installment of our summer sermon series, that is exactly the sort of narrow, myopic mindset that Jerusalem’s religious authorities have once again found themselves in.

This is a sermon series that has been ongoing now for a while, and we’re wrapping it up today!  We began over two and a half 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.  This week, though it is not really the end of the stories of the early church (Acts does go on for 28 chapters after all!), we see the reaction of the religious authorities to the miraculous escape (by means of an angel of God) by the disciples after their imprisonment at the hands of those very same religious authorities…and their reaction does not disappoint.  Or, rather, it does, but it should be wholly unsurprising to us, because it is entirely in character for them despite all that they have seen and heard so far.

So the newly liberated Apostles are back to their usual tricks of teaching the public about some dude named Jesus, meanwhile, the authorities, not realizing that the Apostles had pulled a Shawshank Redemption escape the previous night, summon their supposed captives, only to be informed in no uncertain terms that despite the locks, bars, and guards, the prison was found empty.  So everybody goes through the whole rigamarole of hauling the disciples before the high priest and his cronies, only this time Luke adds a particularly salient detail: the guards did not use force to arrest the disciples this time around because they were afraid of being stoned to death by the people who were assembled.  In other words, the tide of public opinion has really begun to turn against the powers that be, and they know it.

That’s why they sound so vehement and, dare I say it, desperate in this newest confrontation with the Apostles beginning in verse 27, and I think that we would be right to take those things away from even a one off reading of the text.  Let’s hear it again:  “In no uncertain terms, we demanded that you not teach in this name.  And look at you!  You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.  And you are determined to hold us responsible for this man’s death.”

Now, Peter’s response to this spleen generated vehemence is, basically, “Hey, if the shoe fits,” but we’ll get to that in a few minutes.  The religious leaders are in such deep denial that they themselves cannot fathom that they are in any way responsible for the death of Jesus, even though they were the ones who not only handed Him over to Pilate to be crucified, but who also manipulated the crowd into persuading Pilate to crucify Him (as opposed to the responsibility of all of Israel: a crucial distinction that is important to make due to the anti Semitism that the misconception that Israel or Judaism was responsible for the death of Jesus…talk about blinding ourselves into believing a patent falsehood with terrible consequences).  It’s the “Who took a cookie from the cookie jar?  Who me?  Yes you!  Couldn’t be!  Then who?” way of rewriting your own personal history, and it’s awful.

But it’s the first part of what they say to the Apostles that I really want to break down.  They demanded that the disciples not teach in Jesus’ name, and of course that hasn’t happened, and now Jerusalem is “filled” with Christ’s teachings.  The religious authorities have been so convinced for weeks, for months now that this can only be a bad thing that they are completely incapable of seeing the good, any good, that can come from, and is currently coming, from such a circumstance.  They simply cannot bring themselves to believe that an outcome they originally opposed could in fact be desirable.

In that respect, at least, we in the church have often tended to model ourselves after these very same religious authorities with our own, well, religious authorities.  Galileo says that the world is round instead of flat and revolves around the sun rather than the other way around?  Well, that contradicts everything we have told ourselves, so he must be wrong.  But then Galileo says to them, “Eppur si muove.”  Yet still it (the earth) moves.  We can deny that reality all we want, but reality is still, well, real, and our fantasies are but merely that: fantastical.

And I could go down the line with this, too: Martin Luther comes along and says that the selling of indulgences to fund gaudily resplendent building projects is wrong for the church to do?  Well, it can’t be wrong because we have always done that.  Deny, deny, deny.

Or when the scientific consensus is that the world is four billion some years old, that dinosaur fossil are over sixty five million years old, and that human ancestors have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, but we say that can’t be right because the Bible only includes enough generations of people to account for around six thousand years of existence, and the Bible never omits ANYTHING (heck, just check out what it has to say about computers and electricity, it’s a thumping good read), so clearly all of the scientific evidence must be wrong.  Deny, deny, deny.

Or when just about every professional medical and psychological association came out and said that so called “reparative therapy,” the abusive counseling process that tries to force a gay or lesbian person into being straight is an unethical practice without any basis in medicine itself, well, it still took years and years for parts of Christianity to abandon the practice, and other parts of Christianity still haven’t in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Deny, deny, deny.

That sort of unbelief is something that we see from other characters in the New Testament, but nothing along the lines of just how strong we are seeing it here from the Pharisees.  My favorite example comes from Mark 9, when the father of a stricken boy takes his son to Jesus for a healing, and Jesus says to the man in 9:23, “All things can be done for the person who believes,” to which the desperate father cries out, “I believe, help me in my unbelief!”

I believe, help me in my unbelief!  This guy may believe, but he knows there isn’t enough…when he has his moments of fear, or his moments of hate, and in that sort of unbelief, he is humble enough to beseech Jesus to help him with it.  But no such humility is shown, or ever has or will be shown, by the religious leaders, and certainly not to this lot that has caused them nothing but trouble.  They have no way of being able to see out past what they have already convinced themselves is reality to actually not only embrace but shape that reality for themselves.  It is like a disease, an inexorable, devastating disease, whose only cure is something they are unwilling to reach for: their own evolution, their own progress.

Which is why Peter’s reply (I told you we’d get there!) is so important.  It gives them a way out.  Jesus is always our way out against the crushing confines of our own constrictions, our own prejudices, our own selves.  Jesus offers us sight to remedy our own blind spots in our lives, wherever they may be, wherever our own unbelief is caused by our own willing something to be true even when we know, deep down, that it is not.  Peter names the sin of the religious leaders: of their responsibility in the death of Jesus.  But he also names a way out for them: in the way of Jesus, The Way, as the church originally called itself, they may find forgiveness for sins.

And as galling as it may be for us, we share that exact hope with the Pharisees and Sadducees of our own lives, the people whose own close mindedness and narrow mindedness shut themselves off from the truth that maybe you yourself can offer with how you live your life according to Christ’s teachings and Christ’s all important, all consuming love.  We share that hope because we have to.  Because without it, all we have is our unbelief.  But that is why Jesus, in turn, helps us through it.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 31, 2014

(original photo credit: Richard Leonard at

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