Sermon: We Must Obey

April 28, 2019
Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 5:27-32

by Eric Anderson

Among certain circles, this text gets a lot of attention. Oh, I don’t mean the one we’ve just read. I mean these words from the 13th chapter of Romans:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” (Romans 13:1-3a)

Apparently, Paul had forgotten what he’d written to the Corinthians about his relationship with the authorities (this is from Second Corinthians 11) when he asserted what made him a great minister of Christ: “…far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-25)

Paul’s relationship with governments, police, and courts was, shall we say, rather more complicated than the simple statement in Romans.

This simple story in the book of Acts is also somewhat longer and more complicated. Our lectionary editors have shortened it. It began with Peter and the apostles preaching in the temple, declaring the resurrection of Jesus, and doing signs and wonders. “They even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by.” (Acts 5:15)

The high priest took action. He ordered their arrest and imprisonment. Trial would follow when they were ready. The apostles, however, escaped when an angel opened the prison doors in the middle of the night. When the priests sent for them, the guards found them teaching in the temple again rather than behind bars.

I give the apostles full marks for courage, focus, and determination. As a successful jailbreak, however, they get a zero.

Afterwards, the council ordered that Peter and the apostles be flogged and released – remember Paul’s list of floggings? “As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.” (Acts 5:41)

As Kathryn Matthews writes about this section in Acts: “Even if we didn’t know ‘the rest of the story,’ we can sense from today’s passage that Peter and the other disciples are headed for trouble. However, we do know the rest of the story: they will all end up as martyrs, dying for the sake of the truth they are preaching in the name of Jesus.”

Paul died a martyr as well.

We must obey.

I’ll tell you, if I were a member of the council and I’d heard Peter declaring “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” I would be horrified. People who obey God rather than human authority sometimes do terrible things. In the last six weeks we’ve seen deaths by gunfire at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, committed by a Christian. We’ve seen bombings in churches in Sri Lanka, committed by Muslims. And we’ve seen a shooting in a synagogue in San Diego this very weekend, committed by a Christian.

Christianity and Islam both worship a God of peace. Yet adherents of Christianity and Islam have claimed the direction of God to do horrible things.

I can’t say that human law offers that much more reassurance, nor does obedience itself comfort me. The Mueller report documents several instances where members of the Administration refused to carry out what they considered to be unlawful orders of the President. Yet these are the same people who ordered the separation of children from their parents, who justified travel restrictions based on religion, and who continue to order the imprisonment of entire families for the act of appearing legally at the border and filing an application for asylum.

In Hawai’i, human law approved the grace and power of hula until 1830, when Queen Regent Ka’ahumanu banned it – to little effect, it must be said. King David Kalakaua restored it to the official life of the kingdom after 1874. Much the same activity: endorsed, banned, and endorsed again in the course of fifty years.

As has been pointed out many times, the activities of those who attempted to free African Americans from slavery in the 19th century were illegal, as were the efforts of those to hide Jews from the Nazis in the 30s and 40s. The overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani was illegal, but in a remarkably short time the usurpers were able to assert themselves as the legal government of the Hawaiian nation.

No, human law doesn’t comfort me that much.

Yet to live without common standards invites chaos.

To blithely accept standards invites tyranny.

To obey human beings risks oppression.

To obey God alone risks delusion and self-deception.

What are we to do?

Mitzi J. Smith writes, “God’s people should be agents of reversal. We are to embody good news to the poor, imprisoned, and those oppressed because of their religious affiliation, culture, gender, race, class, or sexual orientation. The religious entities, authorities and communities to whom we often submit do not always side with the oppressed or with justice. Authoritative communities and institutions sometimes allow themselves to be hijacked by their own biases, dogmas, racism, sexism, classism, and prosperity gospels. We stifle God’s voice.”

I’d add, God’s authentic voice.

It’s easier to do this in the negative sometimes.

If the voice of God or human being direct you to oppress another, do not obey.

If the voice of God or human being direct you to lift up another, do obey.

If the voice of God or human being direct you to harm another, do not obey.

If the voice of God or human being direct you to heal another, do obey.

The apostle Paul, in that same 13th chapter of Roman, quoted the ancient commandment (that Jesus had quoted as well), “Love your neighbor as yourself,” adding, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10)

Rabbi Hillel said about thirty years before the ministry of Jesus, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

It hardly seems fair to tell you how difficult this matter of obedience this is, and come down to saying, “Obey the Golden Rule,” and yet that’s pretty much where we’ve come. I can’t think of a better standard for obeying the claims of human law or a better standard for evaluating the promptings of the spirits, the ones that claim to be from God.

Having the standard doesn’t make it easy. Having the standard only show you the magnitude of the task.

Having the standard is the start, not the end. For even with the Golden Rule at hand: we must obey.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

We Must Obey

It is often the case that Pastor Eric changes things as he goes along. Today was very much one of those days, particularly toward the end.

The image is Saint Peter as portrayed in the Egbert Psalter by an unknown 10th century monk – Self-scanned, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on April 28, 2019

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