Sermon Title “Act of Faith” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning. I had no idea when I planned this sermon series on the Acts of the Apostles and this Sunday’s text about an act of faith how relevant that would be to me and my family and the events of the past week. Faith and crisis are not opposites — they are brother and sister, or at least close cousins. We need faith the most when faced with the unexpected or the unimaginable, and we may be most aware of God’s faithfulness when the comfort and structure of our ordinary routine has been turned upside-down and we have to find our way in a new reality. This is the process the McFadden family has been faced with after my sister-in-law’s death, and I know we are only at the beginning of that journey.
Before I wade into our text from Acts 5, I want to make an important distinction between our faith and God’s faithfulness. There is no room for discussion about which comes first: our faith must be rooted in God’s faithfulness. Our hope does not lie in our own strength, or own abilities, or own wisdom, or our own plans for the future. Those are all fine things–take care of your health, use your gifts, plan ahead, whatever — but those things can all get thrown out the window with a single event or diagnosis. Faith in ourselves is a structure which is built on sand, and there are storms in life which can wash that all out from under us. I have heard some of your stories and prayed for you and your families and loved ones in difficult times; I know you have experienced this. What gets us through the storms is the promise of God’s faithfulness: God’s steadfast love, the promises kept in the resurrection of Christ Jesus, the continuing comfort, guidance, and challenge of the Holy Spirit. Without that faithfulness, we would be lost: left to try to save ourselves. We cannot save ourselves.
Some important things have happened in the Acts of the Apostles since last week, when I talked about Peter and John’s boldness before the Jerusalem council. They had been arrested for healing a lame man outside the Temple, and for taking him inside the Temple with them and preaching to thousands of people about Jesus Christ, who was crucified and rose from the dead. The Council couldn’t think of a good reason to keep Peter and John in custody, so they released them, with a stern warning to keep quiet and not teach or heal on Jesus’ name. To which Peter and John said, “Yeah, we’re not going to do that. We cannot keep quiet about what we’ve seen and heard.”
They were released, went back to the community of believers, had the experience of holding all things in common, except for a couple named Ananias and Sapphira, who sold a property and lied about how much they were paid for it. There are many more unspecified healings and casting out of demons.
The same Jerusalem council decides that this is too many good deeds, and Peter and John must be punished. Peter and John are arrested and put in prison, but during the night, and angel of the Lord comes and opens the doors and tells them to go back to the Temple and preach about Jesus’ life. Which they do, first thing in the morning. In the meantime, the high priests have assembled for the council meeting, and send for the prisoners to be brought in — only the prisoners aren’t there. They’re preaching in the Temple. So the priests have to arrest them again in the Temple, carefully this time, because there are lots of people watching. Peter and John are hauled up before the council once again and reprimanded for teaching about Jesus. And Peter — predictably — says, “We obey God, not any human authority. God raised up Jesus and you crucified him. God has exalted him, and given the Holy Spirit to those who obey him.” The priests — predictably — are enraged by this and want to kill the apostles right there.
And into this powder keg of religious dispute and retribution steps a Pharisee and a teacher of the law, Gamaliel [I have been practicing his name all week]. Gamaliel is respected by everyone on the council, and he suggests that the apostles be taken outside for a bit. He addresses the council with words which may be instructive for us. It is Gamaliel’s act of faith which I want to highlight today. He mentions some other teachers who rose up and claimed followers, were killed, and then their followers scattered. And then he says, “So in the present case, we can let these guys alone. If their plan is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is of God, you won’t be able to stop it — and you might end up fighting against God.” It is a wise speech, and the council is convinced to let the apostles go — after they flog them, but still.
Gamaliel’s act of faith is to let go of control of the situation, and to trust in the faithfulness of God. He recognized that human plans will fail. We don’t have to make them fail to prove a point, they will fail because humans are mis-guided and imperfect. More importantly, Gamaliel realizes that if these guys are obeying God, as they say they are, the Jerusalem council cannot stop them, and should have sense enough to get out of the way, because God has a way of accomplishing the things which God sets out to do. We shouldn’t try to stop it because if this is God’s will, there’s no way we’ll be able to stop it.
It’s a pretty compelling argument, but with emotions running high, I’m not sure the council could have heard that message if there had not been a lot of respect for Gamaliel and his wisdom. He is speaking from deep knowledge of, and faith in God, not simply saying, We don’t know what to do so let’s not do anything. There is a fair amount of Jewish tradition surrounding Gamaliel — his ancestors a couple generations back and even some of his specific teachings about Jewish law. He is mentioned only one other time in the Bible, later in the book of Acts, but it is in a pretty important context. It’s in Acts chapter 22 verse 3. A Pharisee named Saul, who is now going by the name Paul, has been stirring up trouble by preaching about Jesus. Many non-Jews have heard and believed his teaching, and a mob of Jews in Jerusalem gets so angry they begin to beat him with fists and sticks him because he has been preaching against the people, the law, the Temple, and has actually brought Greeks into the Temple. Before the crowd can kill him, Roman soldiers intervene, and Paul is taken before the Jerusalem council. When given permission to speak in his own defense, he says “I’m a Jew, just like all of you. I grew up in Tarsus and studied at the feet of Gamaliel.” This gives Paul credibility: I’m not a wild-eyed radical, I studied with one of your most respected teachers.
I have to wonder, especially as I am preparing for Church of the Brethren Annual Conference next month, who are the leaders who people will listen to when passions are running hot. Who has enough wisdom and respect to make a group of ‘experts’ listen and consider a different course? Gamaliel’s act of faith is not an act of human heroism: it is an act of humility. It is a willingness to hit the pause button and say, “I don’t know about these guys, but I know if they’re trying to do this on their own, it doesn’t have a chance. My faith is in God, and I believe that if God want this to happen, it will happen. And if this is what God wants, I’m not going to get in the way of that.” What is challenging about the kind of faith is that issues do not get resolved immediately; we do not get the credit for bold and decisive leadership.
I am not saying that our act of faith should be to do nothing and let the chips fall where they may. Peter and John were certainly not doing nothing, and were clear that they had no intention to keep quiet about what they had seen and heard. Gamaliel was not doing nothing either — he was using his authority to point toward his faith in God. Gamaliel was clearly a person of influence; he did not use that influence to destroy those who disagreed with him and his religious convictions. He had enough faith to let God’s mission unfold — even at the risk of being wrong. There are many risks we can take for the mission of God — I’m going to be talking about one of them next week — but it is an exceptional leader who is willing to risk having to confess that they were wrong. Most of us would rather double down on why we are right, why other people are wrong, and why I am justified in what I did. Me, me, me.
We know, because we have the entire book of Acts and the church is still hanging around, that no power on earth has been able to stop God’s work of salvation and healing through Jesus Christ. But sometimes the church has gotten in its own way, and even fallen over its own feet. It has always been a temptation to pursue our own agenda, rely on our own resources, and take care of our own interests, but when we do that, we are no longer working for the mission of God. Every act of faith must point to the faithfulness of God — if we lose that, we have lost our way.
After last week’s service, one of you said something which has stayed with me all week. I was still reeling from the news of my sister-in-law’s unexpected death, and Lynne Foland gave me hug and said, “Aren’t you glad for Jesus?” And Lynne — and all of you — I want to tell you that I am. I am SO glad for Jesus: for God’s Son who showed us that death does not have to be the end for those who believe in him; for God who loved the world enough to send his Son to us; for the Spirit which empowers the church but is also present with us in our joy and in our sorrow. I would never wish a crisis like this on myself or anyone, but through you and with the Spirit’s help, I continue to experience God’s faithfulness every day, and I have been aware of it especially this week. So yes, I am glad for Jesus, and I pray for the strength and wisdom to act in faith so that I am working with God’s mission, because nothing I can do will stop it.
Thank you for your love and support. God is good, all the time. Amen.