October 31, 2004

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Obey God
Acts 5:12-42

People sometimes react rather strangely in certain situations. I recently returned an exam at the college, for example, and I couldn’t help but notice that a few of the students who did the worst on the test—and some of them failed gloriously!—smiled and even laughed when they saw their grades. Needless to say, I never expected them to react that way. I certainly wouldn’t have, nor would I have wanted to. The followers of Jesus react rather strangely here in Acts 5, too. In this case, however, I only hope that I might do the same.

The story is, in a sense, an enlarged version of one we read previously in Acts. In chapter 3, Peter and John had healed an invalid, and the resulting commotion led eventually to their interrogation at the hands of the religious authorities (4:1-22). One miracle performed in God’s name, and trouble arises. In the present case, Luke, who demonstrates no reluctance whatsoever to recount a wide variety of miracles—Paul, it seems, was a bit more reserved in this way—informs us that signs and wonders now abound (5:12-16). So much so, Luke points out, that people placed the sick along the road so that Peter’s shadow might fall upon them as he passed by! If one miracle riled everybody up just a short time ago, we can only imagine what might happen now.

Well, we need not wonder for long. With considerable haste, the high priest and his associates arrest the apostles and imprison them. When they send for the inmates a short time later, however, they find the cells bolted but vacant. Luke, without hesitation, assures us that God lies behind their disappearance. And where are our fugitives? Hiding in a closet? Ducking under the bed? Escaping on a midnight train to Georgia? Hardly. Amusingly, we find them preaching again, smack dab in the middle of the temple in broad daylight!

“What has gotten into you?” the high priest asks them. “Didn’t we instruct you just a few days ago to stop teaching in the name of Jesus?” “You did,” Peter and the other apostles respond, at least by inference. “But,” they continue, “we must obey God rather than any human authority.” That is a phrase worth saving on our mental hard drives. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” “Hear and obey!” Martin Luther said some 500 years ago, adding, “That is the greatest service of God.”

Our early Anabaptist ancestors in the 16th century and beyond, however, took the implications of this phrase even further than Luther ever did. This phrase—“We must obey God rather than any human authority”—became one of their primary slogans, a purpose statement of sorts. I can even imagine them wearing orange pins and putting bumper stickers on their wagons that broadcast their convictions. As a community of believers very distinct from the surrounding world, they believed, as do I, that our fundamental allegiance is to God and to no one else. What God asks of us and what God expects of us is infinitely more important than what anyone else expects of us. When the expectations of others, whether friends, parents, teachers, employers, religious leaders, the media, or government officials, conflict with what God expects, we recall the words of Peter: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

But what is so striking about this story is the unexpected mood that runs throughout the narrative. We sense no morbidity. None of the characters are singing funeral dirges, nor does anyone, least of all the apostles, hang their heads and cry, “Poor me.” Nobody in the story complains about what God asks of them, and he is the one who told them to go back and preach in the first place (5:20)! “Oh, God is so demanding, so unreasonable, and so unsympathetic with our situation. God seems to like nothing better than to put us in difficult situations and to stifle our fun. Who in their right mind would ask us to go on witnessing with so much turbulence in the air? Why is this happening to me?” There isn’t even a hint of that sort of attitude here, although God elsewhere invites us to bring our difficult, soul-searching struggles to him. What we find in Acts 5, much to our surprise, is unbridled and seemingly inexplicable joy. Joy.

Look ahead to verses 40 and 41. Out of sheer desperation, the officials whip the apostles and send them on their way. “Do not, under any circumstances, speak again in the name of Jesus,” they ordered. Yet, as the apostles walked out of the hall, they rejoiced! It is outrageous. I remember one of the few times when my mother spanked me—she has reminded me of it on more than one occasion. I looked up at her with my big, blue eyes and said, “That didn’t hurt!” Boy, was she annoyed. Unfortunately, she told my dad! The apostles have just been whipped, and yet they rejoice, saying, “That didn’t hurt!” What Luke describes here is no simple sense of relief, as thought the apostles where merely glad to have the entire ordeal over with. They rejoiced! They counted it an incomparable privilege to have been beaten for the sake of Jesus.

And what enabled these early Christians to rejoice under such hardship? They were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they were—and Luke is very precise here—compelled by Christ’s love. Did you notice the rest of the disciples’ response to the authorities in verses 29-32? After answering, “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” they go on to explain why:
God raised up Jesus from the dead
God exalted Jesus as Leader and Savior
God has forgiven our sins
God has given us the Holy Spirit
What enabled these believers to obey God under such difficult circumstances? What freed them to rejoice when so many others would murmur, fuss and complain? In one word—gratitude. “God is good,” you can almost hear them say if you listen carefully enough.

The summer after my freshman year in college, I drove truck for a man who owned a series of markets in the Allentown area. He was, and I don’t say this lightly, the least likeable person I have ever known. Stan—and that is not his real name—was overbearing and the consummate micro-manager. He followed every move of each of his drivers, knowing precisely when we should be where. If we were even a minute late, Stan let us know about it with an unforgettable look upon his face and told us never to let it happen again!

Nobody—at least nobody I was aware of—liked this man. He was even obnoxious to his customers. On one occasion, a woman was squeezing a tomato at one of the stores to see if it was ripe. When Stan told her rather rudely not to touch the fruit and vegetables, the woman instinctively shoved the tomato in his face. There was, as the Bible phrases it, great rejoicing among us workers that day! Stan was tough to work for. We did what we were told as best we could, often out of fear for our jobs, but we never seemed to please him. I honestly dreaded even the sight of his large, tan-colored Buick appearing in my rear-view mirror.

Is your God like Stan? Difficult. Unbearable. Condescending. Easily annoyed. Always micromanaging our affairs. You try, but you never quite please him. “If we invest him [God] with unlovable qualities and cringe before his glance,” Brennan Manning suggests, “we will dismiss the way of trust….” How can we joyfully serve a God who we don’t even like? The God of the disciples, Luke clearly spells out, is not like Stan. While it is true that he takes our sins seriously—the story of Ananias and Sapphira will never let us forget that—it is no less true that God loves us with an everlasting love. Through Jesus Christ, our sins are permanently covered and we are set free. “Never was a mother so blind to the faults of her child as our Lord is toward ours,” Daniel Considine wrote some 70 years ago. God, the early Christians learned, is good and gracious, and if God is good and gracious, then so are his expectations.

The Love of Christ compels us and the Holy Spirit empowers us to obey God. A holy God who calls us to be holy, too? Absolutely. A God who sometimes allows us, perhaps even calls us, to go through difficulties and trying times. I can’t deny it. But a God who is also good, loving, and gracious. A God in whose care we can trust our entire lives. And if we learn, as did the early Christians here in Acts 5, to bask in his goodness rather than dwelling on our own hardships, we too will obey him with unfathomable joy.

I remember the Sunday morning that I visited a small church in the Arab village of Abud, situated just north of Jerusalem. Abud had been decimated by the Israeli military, and the remaining residents had little left to call their own. As I sat in the second row of the church, I couldn’t help but over hear the prayer of an elderly Palestinian woman who was kneeling in front of me. She kept repeating one word: “shochran, shochran, shochran.” “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Surely this old woman had read Acts 5 at some point during her life. Like the disciples, her gratitude enabled her to follow God through everything that life brought, and to follow with great joy.