Let us pray: You alone are holy; you alone are LORD. You alone are worthy to be worshiped and adored. Mercy you have given, kindness you have shown. Love is you alone. LORD, you commanded your disciples to go to Judea, Jerusalem, and to all the earth to proclaim your gospel message. Yet, sometimes we get stuck in our own hometowns. Help us claim your strength over the obstacles we create. Help us to seek your voice over the voices that attempt to silence us. O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of faithful, grant that we may be truly wise and ever enjoy your consolation. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
In 1999, Walt Disney released an anthology of short animated features entitled, “Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas.” Among the short animated features is a cartoon based on William Dean Howell’s Christmas Every Day. In the Disney animated version, Huey, Dewey and Louie wake up one Christmas morning and open their presents, even though they are supposed to wait first for Daisy, Uncle Scrooge and Aunt Gertie to arrive. After the boys take their new sleds from their Uncle Donald (not reading the included gift card) they go sledding and have Christmas dinner in which Donald yells at them to learn their manners. While Donald, Daisy, Uncle Scrooge and Aunt Gertie sing carols, the boys play with their new toys. Later, it is time for the boys to go to bed and having enjoyed the day immensely, the boys then wishes for it to be Christmas every day. Their wish is granted and at first the three are joyful. After a few days, however, they begin to get tired of Christmas and soon realize that every day will be exactly the same as the day when they first made their wish.
The first few chapters of the Acts of the Apostles reads like Howell’s Christmas Every Day with Peter and the apostles caught in what seems to be a continuous time loop. After receiving the power of Holy Spirit to become witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth and the events of Pentecost during which 3000 people were added to the Church and devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers, Peter and John go into Jerusalem where they heal a man outside of the temple; when the people see this they rush to Peter and John where Peter again teaches God’s reconciling acts through the death, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Upon hearing them teach, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees arrest Peter and John. After appearing before the council of high priests, Peter and John are released. They immediately begin to teach and to heal and thousands more people are added to their numbers. Eventually, people begin to bring their sick out on cots and lay them in the middle of the road, and Peter and the apostles continued healing and casting out evil spirits. Then, the high priests, jealous of all the attention given to Peter and to the apostles, arrests the apostles and puts them in prison again. During the night an angel of the LORD opens the prison doors and orders Peter and the apostles to go and teach in the Temple Courtyard. When the priests arrive at the prison, the apostles are gone, and one of the guards notices that the apostles are once again back in the courtyard of the Temple teaching. It is after this second imprisonment and after hearing the teaching and witnessing the healing of the apostles over and over, that our narrative begins today.
The anxiety of the Jewish leaders, the chief priests, and Sadducees, I imagine is still quite high despite the crucifixion of Jesus some two months or so earlier around the time of the Festival of the Passover. Pontious Pilate is likely back in Caesarea after the feast, leaving the leaders of the temple in charge of the persons living in occupation under the control of the Roman Empire. Although Jesus has been crucified, Peter and the apostles continue to witness as the Holy Spirit equips and leads them, and with each act of sharing their witness, more and more people are following the apostles. Uncertain how Peter and the apostles got out of prison, the high priest questions the apostles, “We gave you a strong warning not to preach in this name, and what have you done?” The chief priest asks questions out of his anxiety and accuses the apostles of not living within the rules set before them. Peter and the apostles respond, “We must obey God rather than human authority. The God of our ancestors raised Jesus up, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as a Leader and a Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”
The captain of the Temple, the Sanhedrin, and the chief priests are concerned about how they are both perceived and received. They watch as thousands and thousands of people line up in the streets just to allow the shadow of Peter fall on them that they might be healed. They watch as more and more people become followers of Christ, and they are concerned because they feel like they have been unjustly cast into the role of villains in this narrative. Yet, listen again to Peter and the apostle’s response: “The God of our ancestors raised Jesus up, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as a Leader and a Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Peter and the apostles standing accused before the Temple Captain and the chief priests begin again to witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Unlike Pilate who washes his hands of the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter offers reconciliation and an invitation to repentance to the leaders of the church. Peter does not say, “My God raised my LORD Jesus up,” but rather refers to God as the God of our ancestors—your God and my God; God who raised Jesus up is God for the leaders of the church as well as for Peter and the apostles, and later we will see the God for the eunuch and for the household of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. God, who raised Jesus up is my God and your God. God, who raised Jesus up, is God of Democrats and Republicans, is God of those who worship freely and those who do not know and have not yet heard of God’s great works.
Peter acknowledges the events of Jesus’ crucifixion; he calls the leaders of the church to account for their role in Jesus’ death, but Peter does not villainize or curse the leaders of the church for the actions they took against Jesus. Instead, Peter, through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, bears witness to the risen LORD and declares that Jesus died and rose again to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. Being eight years older than my spouse, I was in a different place in my life than he was in his when we first met. Right after we started dating, Nick said to me, “Your past is in your past,” and he meant it. In almost ten years of marriage and twelve and half years of being together, he has never used my past experiences or my past relationships against me. Instead, he has only taught me how to trust deeper than I could have ever imagined, to love parts of life I never gave a second thought about before, and to want to offer that same grace, forgiveness, and love to others with whom I am in relationship.
This is what Peter and the apostles demonstrate on behalf of God and of the risen LORD. They do not hold grudges; they do not refuse to engage those who misunderstand their work and/or imprison them. Rather, Peter and the apostles speak words of mutuality and community in the presence of the church leaders. They speak of Jesus’ love and Jesus’ call to repentance for all persons—not just for those who disagree with the apostles, and they speak of forgiveness for all people. The witness that caused the leaders of the church to imprison Peter is a promise of forgiveness for them and for every person.
The Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church released its decision related to the Traditional Plan that was voted upon in St. Louis by the church at a special called general conference session. Among the parts of the Traditional Plan that were upheld as constitutional are new amendments that would prohibit bishops from consecrating self-avowed practicing homosexual bishops and commissioning and ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexual persons even if a conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry and clergy session has approved the candidate; there will be mandatory penalties for pastors convicted by a trial court for officiating same-sex marriages, and the approval or recommendation of a self-avowed practicing homosexual person for candidacy for ministry, commissioning, and ordination is now strictly prohibited. As you might guess, persons on all sides of this issue are beginning to chime in: some persons in the church are raising their classes and singing songs of victory, some persons are completely withdrawing, and some persons are vowing that this is not the end and that they will not stop advocating for full inclusion within the church, and a whole lot of people are somewhere in mix of all of those positions. But, as I read Peter’s witness to the church leaders, I wonder what would The United Methodist Church look like if we would stop dying on whatever hill we stand on, and if we all repented—for none of us is without sin? What if we, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, heard one another in order to listen instead of to respond? What if we who call ourselves United Methodists offered one another the forgiveness that Christ has already offered for each one of us?
The issue of human sexuality has not, and I suspect will not go away. Yet, I believe that if we spent a fraction of the time we spend on disagreeing asking for and offering forgiveness and hearing to listen rather than to respond, then the conversation The United Methodist Church has would look much different, and the witness we offer for the sake of God through Christ in The United Methodist Church might be a beacon and an example for the larger community and world to follow. My prayer for us this day is that we will give thanks in this season of Easter for a God who is big enough and wide enough to offer repentance and forgiveness to all of us. My prayer in this Easter Season is that we, too, will live as witnesses to the forgiveness we have already received through the death and resurrection of Christ, and that, even when faced with those whom we disagree, we will have the grace to preach Christ risen and Christ alone. Amen.