Sunday, April 29, 2018
Sermon Audio
Full Service Audio
A subject of great debate in the twentieth century was which trial was the trial of the century.  Was it the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925?  It certainly was one that caused a furor and had everybody interested in its outcome.  Or, was it the O. J. Simpson trial of 1995. A trial brought into the living rooms of nearly everybody simply because it was about somebody who was well known?  It is hard to know what the most important trial of the twentieth century was, because there were so many that you could mention.  There is something in a trial’s very essence, because it is often combative, with opposing forces, evidence presented, and all manner of emotions that define what a society is thinking at any given moment.  It is as if a trial is a mirror that is held up to our society.  If you were to turn to the first century, there is no question that the most publicized, most talked about trial certainly within the western world, would have been the trial of Jesus of Nazareth, the trial the world remembers every year.
However, it was a few weeks later that there was another trial, less spectacular, but nevertheless as revealing as to precisely what was going on at the time. In our text this morning from the Book of Acts.  This was the trial of two men, both were unschooled fishermen from a remote town called Capernaum on the coast of the Sea of Galilee in the middle of Israel.  As those who had been the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who had been at trial some weeks before, they found themselves to be in this cyclone, this rush of power and judgement.  They had to defend themselves, but they weren’t sure what for.  They appeared before a group that is known in Greek as the Synedrion, which simply means a council.  It was set up in the Greek world for communities to be able to deal with local matters.  When the Roman Empire came along, it adopted the Synedrions and created councils that they could oversee, but were nevertheless locally run.  We know those Synedrions as the Sanhedrin.  
The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was governed by a very august group of people.  We are told that in this particular case some of the big names of Jerusalem were there:  Annas, the High Priest, Caiaphas, the best known, John and Alexander, both of the priestly tradition.  While these councils often oversaw other matters, such as political, military, trade, or legal matters, they also dealt with religious matters, for it was an important part of society as a whole.  These two fishermen from Capernaum, Peter and John, came before this council to answer a charge.  We are never sure from the text in Acts what the charge was, and they weren’t sure precisely what they had done wrong.  Clearly, the Sanhedrin wanted to know by what power and by what name they had done something.  The something was the healing that had taken place days before when a lame beggar, who was sitting outside the Temple’s wall, was encountered by these disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.  With that encounter, the beggar was healed in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  We are told that he got up and sort of danced around.  This man, who had been lame, begging outside the Temple, was now leaping and dancing – transformed.  The people in the Temple, who would have walked past him almost every day, wondered by what power this had taken place.  
The disciples did not know what to say, but what they did say ended up being very powerful.  Again, from the text itself, this is their response to the charge by the Sanhedrin:
Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick, and are asked how this man has been healed,
let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, who you crucified and whom God raised from the dead.
Suddenly, the two trials come together:  the trial of Jesus and the rejection of him by the Sanhedrin, and subsequently by the Romans, and the trial of the two fishermen, who in the name of that man, who had been executed, but was raised from the dead, was now healing and restoring broken lives.  You can understand then why the Sanhedrin was apoplectic:  “By what power and in what name are you doing these things?”
The great preacher Tom Long, who has preached from this pulpit, and Jean and Lori know I mention quite a lot because I am a fan of his, suggests that primarily this text is about two things, the first of which is control.  The council, the Sanhedrin, were a franchise – that is what they were, really.  They were a religious franchise.  They had given power to themselves; they were the arbiters of truth, of right and wrong, and had power and control.  The relationship between power and control is a sophisticated one.  Not long ago, there was an essay written by Hagan, Gillis, and Simpson, three professors in the criminology department at University of Toronto, whose work has gone far and wide in terms of its impact in the legal community.  Hagen, Gillis, and Simpson argue that the relationship between power and control affect family lives and gender delinquency.  What happens in families is because of parental control and power, traditions are set, ways of acting are established, and the power and control can either be egalitarian or oppressive.  It can either be liberating or restrictive.  It can go either way.  But, the relationship between power and control is one that is often indissoluble and hard to separate.
There is no question the Sanhedrin wanted to know what power the disciples were using to do this, because they wanted to maintain control of what happened in the streets by affirming the importance of the Temple, and if it wasn’t happening in the Temple, but it was happening in the streets, they were losing control.  The irony of this is that these two fishermen from Galilee were hardly desiring of institutional power.  Peter and John had no desire to take over the reins of power in the Temple.  They did not want to usurp Caiaphas or Annas or any of the other High Priests.  They did not want to overturn or destroy the Temple.  In fact, they encouraged people who were healed to go to the Temple.  They did not want priestly power or control and no one was more surprised about what was taking place than Peter and John and the disciples.  But the power that they did have was not institutional; it was charismatic.  It was a gift of the Holy Spirit.  When Peter stood up to speak, it was the power of the Holy Spirit that enabled him to address the Sanhedrin.  Can you imagine how incredibly intimidating it must have been for Peter and John to stand before the supreme council in Jerusalem of all places to defend the work and the name of a person who had just been put to death by that very same body?  It was an awesome experience for them.  They had the power of the Holy Spirit, and it was the Holy Spirit that constituted their authority.  They did not want control, but they had power, and that power was from God.
In a sermon on Pentecost 1940, during the dark days of the Second World War, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the following:  “The Holy Spirit is the living God, not some inert concept. The church community has to trust the Holy Spirit in every decision, and believe strongly that the Spirit continues to be present in the community and at work in it.  The Spirit will not permit our community to grope about in darkness, if only we are willing to take the Spirit’s teachings seriously.”  In the midst of the maelstrom of war, to his very own people, he is speaking these words.  The church’s power, institutional or otherwise, is nothing if the Holy Spirit is not present.  It is the Holy Spirit that is the ultimate power of God in the Church.  At times, I feel we forget this.  We get caught up in our western traditions with institutionalism.  We are not so different from the Sanhedrin.  The church for a long time has had power and control and in the west it has been able to help guide decisions.  Not that there is anything wrong with that per se, but when that becomes the object or the purpose of the church, or the church is more interested in its own institutional power and influence than it is in the power of the Holy Spirit, then we need to listen to the disciples.  The disciples had purely the power of the Holy Spirit, nothing more, nothing less.
I mentioned that I was involved in a world mission conference some six years ago here in Toronto – The IAMs Conference.  You might recall that at that time I made mention in passing of a group of young women who at the conference were allowing those attending to see what mission is like right here in our own city.  They took us to some pretty scary places.  Places where young women were being trafficked – moved around and abused.  These young women were facing grave danger, and like chattel were being sold off from one group to another, and some moved out of the city or even out of the country.  These young women, Christian young women, felt that they should do everything in their power to help these broken lives.  These young women placed themselves in great danger trying to reach out to these young women who were being abused.  Just recently, I heard that there were signs of this happening in our own very neighborhood on Yonge Street.  When I did, I thought back to their courage, and the work that they still do. 
We asked them at the time, “How do you find the courage to do this?”  
They went very quiet and said simply, “If we didn’t have the power of the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t have the courage.”  
They were moved, they were animated, and they were involved in restoring broken lives because of their faith in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The trial in Jerusalem before the Sanhedrin for those two fishermen was a clear sign that these women were in a great tradition.
It was also about freedom; it wasn’t just about control.  It wasn’t just about institutionalism; it was about the freedom to respond to Christ.  The disciples were completely overawed by the power of Christ’s name.  They didn’t even know what to do with it.  They were astonished, as they were by the Resurrection itself that somehow the power of the name of Jesus of Nazareth was such that it would change lives.  But it did, and they saw it, and it was completely and totally awesome for them.  They knew it was so powerful that they had to treat it with great caution.  
I think another great preacher, Fred Craddock, once said that the power of Christ’s name is just like looking at a solar eclipse:  You look at it through a pinhole.  You don’t look at it directly because it is so awesome, just like the power of God appearing to Moses in a burning bush:  “I am who I am”.  Moses could not look and see God in God’s fullness, he had to see it in a bush.  These disciples were overwhelmed by the power of what Jesus of Nazareth could do.  They were astonished at the things that were done in his name, and overwhelmed by it.  The Sanhedrin, on the other hand, was embarrassed by it.  After all, they were hearing that these things were being done in the name of Jesus of Nazareth and they themselves had been partially responsible for his death.  Now, they find themselves embarrassed, frightened, but wanting to control the situation, and take away the freedom of those who were espousing the name of Jesus.  The reason that Peter and John appeared before the Sanhedrin was to restrict them in what they were doing, to prevent them from bearing witness to this great power and this great deed.  
They emphasized control, but they also wanted to take away the freedom of the disciples.  Very often, my friends, religious traditions like to do that.  They like to hold back the freedom of people to respond honestly and openly to the power of God.  They are more concerned with their own wishes or gripes or concerns, more interested in their own plight than they are in the plights of others, or indeed the very will of God himself.  I was reading a paper by Christoph Sauer, now a professor in Holland, but was at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.  He is with the International Institute of Religious Freedom in Cape Town, South Africa and has written and spoken all over the world.  He has been writing recently about the problems in the world related to forced conversions, where people are being coerced to move from one religious tradition into another.  Young women in particular are vulnerable to the forces that seek to enslave them for the purpose of converting them.  This is happening globally, and at an alarming rate.  We sit here quietly and have no concept of how so much of the world is living with these issues.  Sauer has been arguing for a person’s right to have freedom of religious conviction.
When you go back and look at the Sanhedrin you realize this was a group who wanted to preserve their political and religious power. It is wrong, therefore, to blame a whole race of people or another religion for being so hard on the young disciples. That is vile racism!  However, what the religious leaders wanted to do was restrict the freedom of the disciples from proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, which after all is simply taking a lame beggar and restoring him.  That is what happened.  When we get caught up in our institutional and religious mindsets, when we think that somehow those are more important than restoring broken lives then we are like the Sanhedrin.  But when we proclaim the name of Christ, when we rely on the power of the Holy Spirit, and when we acknowledge the love of God and God’s presence, then we are like the disciples.  Amen