by Daniel Harrell
For followers of Jesus, righteous obedience was aptly reduced for a seasons to the letters “WWJD” or “what would Jesus do.” Wearing these letters embossed on a bracelet or T-Shirt was designed to ping the conscience in those moments when ones ethics were in the balance. Jesus is our model. Do what he did. The challenge, of course, is one of context and culture. Many decisions confronting 21st century Christians are different from anything first century people faced. Moreover, as I delineated last Sunday in the park, an important distinction exists between us and Jesus even if we could decipher the right thing to do. Throughout the gospels, Jesus referred to himself as “the son of Man,” a phrase normally translated as “human being.” However, by tacking on the definite article, Jesus hinted how he was not just any human. Calling himself the Son of Man, emphasized the distinction between you and me as only human, an adverbial phrase we use to excuse our bad behavior, and Jesus as truly human, the one like whom we are redeemed to be. Regrettably, even as redeemed sons (and daughters) of men, distance remains between us and the Son of Man; between who we are and who we really are. And yet there are moments when our own true identities shine through, when Christ in us, the hope of glory, is revealed. We saw it shine in the murderous aftermath at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston.
We see shine here in the book of Acts in almost direct correspondence. In last Sunday’s passage, Jesus healed a paralytic and forgave his sins. In the prelude to this morning’s passage, a crippled panhandler begged for change outside the Jerusalem Temple Gate. Peter and John, power-packed apostles of the now-risen Jesus, appear to be walking by the way many would do—pleading our own poverty because we’re suspicious. However, Peter and John, though all out of change, intend to change everything, just like Jesus did. In the name of Christ they commanded the disabled man to rise up and walk. The man rose up and danced, and caused a wild rumpus. Seizing the teachable moment, Peter gave all the credit to Jesus, then took the Jewish crowd to task for not believing their Bibles enough to realize the Jesus they killed was in fact the Savior their prophets foretold. He called on them to repent of this sin and believe, and some 5000 did.
It was one red hot revival. So hot that the Temple police charged in, broke up the party and hauled Peter and John to the Jewish religious authorities on charges of disturbing the peace.
You may remember a story I told about disturbing the peace while in Boston. My former church sat on the corner of a busy downtown intersection, right across from the Boston Common and the busiest subway station in the city. Years prior, the church had attached to its exterior on that corner, this elevated wrought iron platform we called the Mayflower Pulpit, though it had nothing to do with the Pilgrims. It was donated back in 1945 by the owner of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. The donor’s intent was to provide a platform from which Park Street preachers could preach to the hundreds who roamed the Boston Common. In 1945, these hundreds included soldiers returning from World War II. Concerned for the souls of these war-weary veterans, the church initially set up services on the Boston Common itself. But the city put a stop to that, so the hotel owner stepped forward with his offer. Thus the Mayflower Pulpit became the means by which the church boldly circumvented city ordinances in order to share the gospel.
Over time, however, the Mayflower Pulpit lost its effectiveness due to changes in city life, traffic and noise—the incessant horn-honking from hecklers. By the time I arrived, nobody had been out on the Mayflower for years, except for the many occasions when the church staff would climb out on it to view all those pro sports championship trophy parades downtown. However, one year, remembering how baptism, that most public of Christian sacraments, is often conducted outside for the whole world to witness, I thought maybe we might dust off the old pulpit and use it for that. One Sunday I invited any in our service who’d never been baptized and desired to join the entire church outside on the corner. Ten people were baptized, with 600 others from church gathered beneath them to watch. These ten confessed their faith to the city from that pulpit with a PA system we’d set up before being blessed with water.
Plenty of passersby stopped to gawk. They scratched their heads, pointed their fingers, shrugged their shoulders. Others, in classic Boston style, simply sauntered by as if 600 people weren’t really standing in the middle of the street cheering on others suspended twenty feet in the air as they got water poured on their heads—not unlike the joggers who jogged through our church service last Sunday in the park as if we weren’t having church. Since we had the thing miked, most couldn’t help but hear the baptized talk about dying to their old selves and desiring to follow Christ. No one could dismiss the boisterous ruckus erupting at the finish of each baptism. Some even followed us back inside afterwards. Plenty, however, mocked the proceedings. It made what we were doing all the more authentic, I thought. The police intervened too. Wanted to know if we had a permit to assemble—we didn’t. Only had a permit to baptize. Not wanting to create a situation, they sent over a few officers to direct traffic.
We did these outdoor baptisms several more years, though from then on we made sure to give the police a heads up, which I’ll admit took a some of the fun out of it. But we knew we needed to heed civic authority if we wanted to baptize without going to jail.
Sort of like the Jewish religious leaders here in Acts. They had to obey Roman authority to keep their Temple running like they wanted. But more than that, they obeyed Roman authority so they could exert some of the Roman political power themselves, and they compromised their own faith and principles to do it. It’s a lesson religious folks never learn: we think that if can get our values legitimized by secular authorities we can affect societal change. But history teaches over and over that whenever the church seeks civil legitimacy it almost always loses its salt. That’s why Jesus said render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what is God’s.
The Jewish religious establishment tried to flex their political power and press Peter and John into line. But Peter and John appealed to a higher power: “You’ll have to judge whether it’s right in God’s sight for us to listen to you instead of Him.” They said. “How can we keep quiet about what we’ve seen and heard?” Scoring them points for their courage, and wanting to avoid a popular riot, the religious rulers let them go back to their little band of Jesus freaks.
Welcoming Peter and John home, the fledgling Christian community broke out in a worship service, singing the second Psalm together as they would have learned it in Hebrew school. They learned that it pointed to Israel’s Messiah, especially the verse, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” They recognized this to mean Jesus because they had heard heaven thunder that very verse at Jesus’ baptism. Here in Acts they sing, “Why did the Gentiles rage (the Gentiles in this instance being the Romans)? Why did the people imagine vain things (the people being the people of Israel)? The kings of the earth (King Herod Antipas in particular) and the rulers (Pontius Pilate) gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah (meaning Jesus).” They thought they could thwart the Lord’s plans by nailing Jesus to the cross, but as the Psalm sings, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.”
The believers knew God would do “whatever his hand and his plan had predestined.” Nothing could stop Him. God takes a vile instrument of execution and transforms it into the ultimate expression of love.
The Jerusalem populace and the governing authorities were the ones motivated by anger. “O Lord, look upon their threats,” the community prayed. But then rather than asking God to protect them from these threats, they prayed for more courage to step it up. They prayed for some more miracles too. Being able to pull off a few miracles does have a way of bolstering anybody’s courage. Why did Peter and John heal only this crippled beggar? Why not wipe out every disability and cure every sickness? The reason has to do with miracles being referred to as signs and wonders. Healing was not the point, but a pointer to the point, namely, the power and authority of the resurrected Jesus among his people. It did wonders for the beggar, but only got Peter and John into trouble.
But trouble was also a sign—it showed them they were faithful to a gospel which constantly disrupts the peace; a gospel that inspires courage to do the right thing even when everyone else thinks you’re crazy.
I was in Grand Rapids this past week as part of a Faith and Science conference sponsored by Biologos, an organization I’ve been a part of for many years. With me there was Steve Aldridge, a member of our congregation, along with his son Gabriel. I learned a lot, as usual; such as how what gets called random and therefore purposeless in quantum mechanics and evolutionary biology—whether particle behavior or genetic mutation—should be more adequately termed stochastic variation. Evolution is not totally a matter of chance, but happened as it did due to probabilities built into the system from the start. Start the universe over from the beginning and its highly likely people would still appear, a view consistent with what Christians believe about the purposes of God.
But stochastic variation doesn’t make for a riveting sermon, especially on a fourth of July weekend when you could have been at the he lake, so I’ll share with you another experience I enjoyed while in Grand Rapids, my visit to the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum. As a child of the 70s—disco music, stagflation, leisure suits and lava lamps—I vividly remember Gerald Ford as the only President whose hand I shook. He passed through our town on a Bicentennial Tour. We remember Gerald Ford as the only person to become President without direct electoral vote. Selected to be Vice-President according to the 25th Amendment after the resignation of Spiro Agnew, Ford assumed the Presidency after Richard Nixon resigned, having been impeached for Watergate. The Watergate scandal stemmed from a break-in that occurred in 1972, when five burglars entered the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. Subsequent investigations revealed the burglars were actually agents hired by Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President. A long chain of events then followed in which the President and top aides became involved in an extensive coverup that snowballed as Nixon and White House aides attempted to use the prestige and power of the presidency to obstruct justice.
Soon after Ford’s inauguration, and after much prayer and against most advice, Gerald Ford committed what amounted to political suicide by pardoning Nixon, his reason being that the country had to move on in order to heal and deal with so many other issues confronting the nation, from the economy to war. Congress cried foul and summoned Ford to Capitol Hill, sure that a deal had been struck between Ford and Nixon for a pardon in exchange for the presidency. Against advice again, Ford appeared before Congress and testified under oath how his presidential grace was free of any political deal, that what he did what he did for the good of the American people, as unpopular as his decision turned out to be.
Announcing the pardon on national television, Ford said, “I have asked your help and your prayers, not only when I became President but many times since. The Constitution is the supreme law of our land and it governs our actions as citizens. Only the laws of God, which govern our consciences, are superior to it. As we are a nation under God, so I am sworn to uphold our laws with the help of God. And I have sought such guidance and searched my own conscience with special diligence to determine the right thing for me to do with respect to my predecessor in this place, Richard Nixon. His is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must. … As President, my primary concern must always be the greatest good of all the people of the United States whose servant I am. As a man, my first consideration is to be true to my own convictions and my own conscience.”
Ford’s approval ratings plummeted. Unable to recover in time for the next election, he narrowly lost the next election to his Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter and faded away into relative obscurity.
Years later, in 2001, Gerald Ford was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. Ironically, the award was given to him by one of his fiercest adversaries at the time, the late Senator and stalwart Democrat Ted Kennedy, who vehemently opposed any grace for a sinner like Nixon. As time passed, however, Kennedy along with everyone else recognized the courageousness and wisdom of Ford’s decision. Asked what gave him the courage to do it, Ford turned to the Proverbs, specifically the well known verses from chapter 3: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” These words are etched on Ford’s gravestone.
If the book of Acts has it right, a chief sign of the resurrected Jesus on earth are redeemed people courageous enough to do as Jesus did. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the earliest Christians and so many Christians since have demonstrated relentless conviction and concern and grace and compassion and self-sacrifice in the face of rejection and resistance. The communion table we share partakes of the flesh and blood of Jesus’ sacrifice; inviting us to give all that we have for the sake of the gospel. Here in Acts we read how “there was not a needy person.” The beggar no longer had to beg. “Everything they owned was held in common.” It’s where we get our word “community.” It’s also where we get our word communion—and its where we get our strength. Jesus’ own life continues to pulse through us as his people so that we can, as his church, strive to do as he would do.