April 10, 2016
Third Sunday of Easter
First Reading: Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41
You would think that performing miracles would win you the approbation of everyone who witnesses them, but you would be wrong. In this Sunday’s gospel, the apostles are hauled before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem because they have been preaching the gospel and healing sick people in the Temple area. The Jewish leaders view their activity as dangerous, illegal and a challenge to their own authority. Here we watch the showdown unfold scene by scene.
While the captain of the guard and his officers are sent out to arrest Peter and the other apostles in the Temple, when they arrive, they don’t actually take them by force: no chains, no handcuffs, no rough treatment. They ask the apostles to accompany them out of the Temple. Why? Because the officers themselves are afraid the crowd might stone them for maltreating the apostles they had been listening to and watching (Acts 5:26). Yet the apostles go willingly to confront the Sanhedrin.
When they arrive, they are greeted by a refrain familiar to any disobedient child or delinquent student: “We gave you strict orders, did we not?” What the high priest is referring to is the warning that he had issued earlier “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). Notably, the apostles don’t deny the charge that they violated the high priest’s admonition. I suppose, we’re watching a power struggle unfold. For most first-century Jews, a verbal drubbing by the high priest would be more than enough to shame them into silence. Yet the apostles are filled with a Spirit that is stronger than any human soul. They have flouted the Sanhedrin’s orders and are living in open defiance of the recognized religious authority.
In addition, the high priest complains that the apostles have been trying “to bring this man’s blood upon us” (5:28). That is, they are worried that the apostles have been accusing the Jewish leaders of using the pretense of the Roman legal system to murder Jesus judicially. This is a grave accusation and yet, it’s true. The apostles had said several things along these lines (see Acts 2:15; 4:10-11).
The apostles’ response to the charges are voiced by the prince of the apostles, St. Peter. He offers up one of the best lines in Scripture, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29). The high priest is trying to assert his authority, but in fact, the apostles show that the emperor has no clothes, the Sanhedrin’s authority, which derives from God, has been eviscerated by God. They have found themselves outside of God’s plan of salvation. In fact, the authority of the Sanhedrin transfers (in a certain sense) to the apostles themselves, whom we find later on in Acts meeting in a formal council that suggests a re-vivification of the Sanhedrin in a Christian mode (see Acts 15). But Peter’s dictum—“We must obey God rather than men”—is one of the most powerful lessons of the Bible as a whole. While governments, businesses, leaders, and even religious authorities have their proper places in society, ultimately, we must obey God. The Church teaches this strongly in her doctrine on conscience, often called “the voice of God in the soul” to which we are obliged both to listen and obey (see CCC 1795, 1800). Human leaders and authorities are fallible, but God is our Rock: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help” (Ps 146:3).
Rather than leave it at that, the apostles hit back with a counteroffensive. They accuse the high priest and the Sanhedrin of shooting the messenger, of crucifying the one whom God sent to redeem the people. But God’s plan was not frustrated by their malice and jealousy. Instead, the crucifixion of Jesus led to his glorification as “leader” (archegon) and “savior” (soter). Archegon is a word that Acts used earlier when Peter and John accuse those who “killed the Author (archegon) of life” (Acts 3:15). The word has to do with the beginning—the founder, the pioneer, the originator. Jesus is the archegon par excellence. In addition, he is soter, a term that Acts has resisted using until now, one that we haven’t heard since the Christmas story when the angels announce the birth of a soter, a savior, to the shepherds (Luke 2:11). Jesus has done exactly what God had promised before the birth of John the Baptist, bring repentance and forgiveness of sins (Luke 1:77). Jesus came to fulfill all the promises of the Old Testament and bring about the glorious time of redemption, forgiveness, and freedom from sin. In the last part of their defense-turned-accusation, the apostles claim to be witnesses of all of the things that they claim.
The apostles’ testimony is powerfully convicting for the Sanhedrin, so much so that it stirs them into a murderous rage (Acts 5:33). Yet cooler heads prevail and we hear the famous speech of Gamaliel, urging caution (omitted from our reading). At the end of the deliberations, the apostles are not killed, but are subjected to a flogging—probably the synagogue discipline of 39 lashes, a severe punishment by modern standards, which could in rare circumstances result in death. This punishment is meant to humiliate and disgrace people, but in an inversion of common cultural values, the apostles find the flogging to be an honor, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).
Two lessons stand out for us to follow in the apostles’ example: bravery and joy. They demonstrate Spirit-filled boldness in confronting the Sanhedrin, proclaiming the gospel, and insisting on “obeying God, not men.” And beyond that, they show a holy joy in the midst of persecution, even rejoicing in their sufferings and seeing them as honors to be relished. Their example should inspire us to proclaim the word of God with boldness and confidence. In addition, their joy shows us the path to real Christian living, which is undergirded by a persistent confidence in the promises of God, a joy that sustains us even through suffering.