Here are some thoughts from last Sunday’s Lectionary text, Acts 5:27-32, about obeying God rather than human beings. When Peter was told by some religious leaders to stop talking about Jesus and doing good in Jesus’ name, Peter responded,
“We must obey God rather than human beings.”
I want to suggest to you this morning that is easier said than done. The meaning of this verse is often trivialized to some bumper sticker slogan you shout or taking some stand in the culture war between Christians and secular humanists! It is often hard to discern what it means to obey God rather than human beings. Let me give you an example.
A high school valedictorian inserts a prayer into her speech at graduation, despite being warned by the school principal not to do so.Many Christians will applaud her and say she was obeying God rather than human beings. However, other Christians would say that in a nation that is founded on religious freedom for everyone, to subject a captive audience of people with varying faiths and no faith at all at a public event to your prayer is not an act of courage, but of bad manners.
So, how do we know how to obey God rather than human beings? Let me suggest some guidelines to help us determine the difference between obeying God and just having bad manners.
First, when we obey God rather than human beings, we are “for” something and we act in love. I see a lot of Christians who think they are obeying God rather than human beings because they are against something and they often act in ways that are unloving. The apostles were not against anything. They were for people finding wholeness and new life in Jesus. They went about doing acts of love and kindness. They were persecuted for that.
They were not marching around telling people how sinful they were. They were not against anybody. They did not act in unkind or hateful ways. They were obeying God instead of human beings, so they were acting in love. That is one way to tell. Are we taking a stand “for” something and are we willing to work toward that goal in love? Even treating those who disagree with us with love.
A second way we can tell the difference between obeying God and bad manners is this. May I say this bluntly.
“Don’t be a jerk!”
I will never forget, I was a teenager and a young Christian, and I went out on visitation with someone one night. Visitation is when you get a card from church with someone’s name on it and you go to their house and “bring them to Jesus”, whether they want to come or not. The person I was with took the lead and was pressuring this person to become a Christian and he repeatedly said, “No.” Then this guy got angry and said, “Okay then, just go to hell, if that is what you want to do.” And he got up and left. At the time I did not know much about witnessing. I did not know much about how to talk to someone about Jesus, but I knew one thing. That guy was a jerk! He thought he was bold. But he wasn’t bold. He was just a jerk. I would rather hang out with my unchristian friends any day. Sometimes we are so convinced we are obeying God that we forget God loves us and the people we are talking to. I am sure there are times when I have been a jerk too. But, if you are being a jerk you are not obeying God. As a matter of fact, you are doing more damage than good to the kingdom of God.
The rest of the story from our Scripture this morning is that after Peter said, “We must obey God rather than human beings!’ many on the council were enraged and wanted them all put to death. But a respected Pharisee named Gamaliel spoke up. (See, not even all of the leaders were against Jesus.) He said, Let these men go. Let this thing run its course. If it is not of God it will fail. If it is of God we do not want to be found fighting against God. So, they agreed not to kill them. They had them flogged and sent them away ordering them not to speak in the name of Jesus again.
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Acts 5:41
After being threatened and flogged, they left rejoicing. And this is the third thing I want to mention. When we obey God rather than human beings, there will be joy in what we do. The apostles suffered for what they did. They were arrested and beaten.
Suffering is often a part of obeying God. A real key is that if we are obeying God then we will most likely be the ones who suffer for it. Our obeying God will not inflict suffering on others. When we obey God and take a stand it may lead to suffering. But we are the ones who will do the suffering, not others. So, if our taking a stand leads to the suffering of others, instead of ourselves, chances are good we are not obeying God, we are just following our own prejudices, or anger or fear.
In the midst of their suffering, they rejoiced. It has been my experience that people who obey God rather than human beings often suffer, but they still find joy in what they are doing.
The world needs to see Christians who are “for” something, instead of “against “everything.” The world needs to see Christians who act in love and who are not jerks. The world needs to see Christians who are willing to suffer, but unwilling to cause suffering for anyone else. The world needs to see Christians who are not angry and afraid, but who are joyous because we are following the risen, Lord of Life. In other words, the world needs to see Christians who obey God rather than human beings.
In the name of the Father,
And the Son, and the Holy Spirit
Don’t be a jerk!
J. Michael Krech, Feasting On The Word, “Homiletical Perspective,” p.381.