Sunday, April 03, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, April 3, 2016 Acts 5:27-32; John 20-19-21 Holy Comforter, Richmond “Stand-Up Guys”

We make much of the fact that the disciples of Jesus – with the exception of the females, and in some tellings of the story, the Beloved Disciple – hid themselves after Jesus’ arrest. That is reiterated in this Sunday’s Gospel, where the disciples still appear to be hiding out in the upper room. They are afraid that they will meet the same fate as Jesus. It appears that one of them, Thomas, has some doubts about the resurrection, or at least about the reports that some of their number have made about Jesus reappearing.

Yup, Doubting Thomas.

We know this story. We’ve heard this story a thousand times. It’s been used as a tool to remind us that demanding proof of God and God’s power is a bad thing.

But this Sunday, when we hear this story of fear and doubt yet again, let’s juxtapose the gospel with the reading from Acts of the Apostles that is paired with it.

Here’s the starting point, one in which we can have no doubt: following Jesus is risky business.

The disciples had good reason to hide themselves, as John the evangelist reports, because look what happened. In Acts of the Apostles, this was the second time the disciples were brought up on charges by the religious leadership for preaching about Jesus’ resurrection. The leaders were clear: stop preaching this stuff, or you’re going to regret it. The first time they were hauled in, the leaders are described as having been “much annoyed” by it. This second time, the leaders were said to be motivated by jealousy. Whatever the reason, they wanted the disciples to stop, because it was fomenting unrest. Their authority and power was being challenged, and we know how that works, right?

So Peter and the disciples were called forward to answer for themselves, and they said something that sounds very little like the frightened men in the upper room: "We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him."

They said, “we have to tell really happened, not what you’re pretending. This matters. You were complicit in his death.”  These days, as the New Testament scholar Mitzi Smith says, the hashtag might be #ResurrectionMatters.

Peter and the disciples found their courage somehow. They had to speak out. It mattered. In the words of the rough streets of Jersey City where I grew up, they became “stand-up guys,” ones who told the truth, who did the right thing even if it was the hard thing, who were willing to take necessary risks.

We know the rest of their story – they continued to be stand-up guys and stand-up women (and yes, there were women among those disciples) and most of them ended up dying for it.

But I find myself wondering what the tipping point was, when they were converted from cowering and trembling weaklings to stand-up guys, risk-takers.

Was it when Jesus came back to visit them while Thomas was away? Probably not – they were still hiding out when the second visitation happened.

No, I think it was precisely that time when Jesus came back to prove himself to Thomas. Because the message of this gospel, and of the subsequent story in Acts, is this: Jesus loves us even in our doubts, because he understands our weakness. More importantly, Jesus loves us into courage, into taking risks for the gospel. He keeps coming back, saying “It’s time for you to be a witness to that which is evil in the world. It’s time for you to be a stand-up disciple. I love you and I will be with you, no matter what happens. You won’t get all of the work of witnessing done – it will go on until I return at the end of days – but I will walk with you every step of the journey, no matter how glorious, no matter how painful.”

Now that’s pretty powerful encouragement…great word, “encouragement” – it means giving courage to, right? Giving courage to do the right thing even if it is the hard thing, even if there will be a cost.

There have been countless stories of people who found the courage to speak out even when they were shouted down or when it meant personal risk. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sojourner Truth. Rachel Carson. Malala Yousefzai. Nelson Mandela.

Those are the famous ones. But there are countless others who have become stand-up disciples. In my youth, it was those who marched against the war in Vietnam. In recent days, it has been the voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, decrying aggressive police action against black young men in particular.

Here’s is the sad truth that I will witness to today: this world is still a place of jealousy, of death, of oppression, of injustice. Jesus told us it would be this way. But Jesus didn’t give us permission to take a bye on fighting this.

No. Jesus gave us encouragement. He gave us the courage to do what he did, to name what needs to change to make this world a little closer to the world his heavenly father created for us. To be stand-up disciples, witnessing to the truth of Jesus’ powerful message of hope and love, of the death of tyrants and the power of the resurrection.

Hashtag “ResurrectionMatters.” Get your courage on. Say “we must obey God rather than any human authority, as Jesus taught us.” This is Resurrection Time. We must witness to its power and its promise, regardless of the risk. Resurrection matters, and so do our voices and the voices of all stand-up disciples.