Monday, April 4, 2016

Lord of the Conscience

Acts 5:27-32
April 3, 2016

Was it worth it? 

A teacher in high school told our class a story about her younger self during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement. She travelled with a group of fellow students to some place in the deeper South than Nashville, Tennessee. They went with the purposes of registering black people to vote. If you know history, you know that many of the white folks who lived in the South -- deep or otherwise -- were not eager to see this happen. The bus that my teacher travelled on was not greeted with open arms. Instead they were arrested and taken to the local jail. They were all together but the women were in one cell and the men were in the other. The young married couple who were leading them were trying to comfort and encourage the rest of the group to stay calm and to be strong. At one point the wife in this couple was harassed by a guard. When her husband tried to comfort her, he got his arm broken for his trouble. As my teacher described it, and as we can only imagine, it was a horrible time. I don't know how long it took before they were released, but eventually they were. They made it back home, grateful that they had lived to tell about it. Not everyone was that lucky. 

My teacher concluded her story by telling us that this event in her life became a measure. From that time on, whenever she felt called to champion a cause, she would remember that trip and that terrible time in jail and she would ask herself if her current cause was so important to her, so necessary to her that she would be willing to go through another night like that one. Was she willing to place herself in danger? Was she willing to go to jail? Was she willing to endure pain and fear? If she couldn't say definitively, "Yes," than she realized that maybe she was not as committed to the issue as she first believed. Was it worth it?

         Is it worth it? All these years later, and I still think about this story my teacher shared. I have wondered over and over again if I would be able to do what she did. I wonder if I am willing to put my very life on the line because of what I believe. I would like to believe that my answer would be a resounding, "Yes!" But I haven't faced that particular test yet, so I don't know. I don't know. 

Anyone who knew the disciples before the resurrection and immediately after the resurrection probably believed that this motley band of followers would crack under the duress of arrest and persecution in the name of and for the sake of the One they followed. After all, they pretty much fell apart when Jesus was arrested, beaten, interrogated, and brutally executed. Everything he told them about what he must endure, everything he taught them about God and God's kingdom seemed to have gone in their collective ear and out the other. I imagine the general consensus about the disciples was that these people would be unable to stand up to a bee much less the powers that be.

Yet in this passage from Acts we see those who were once disciples transformed. They were apostles. They witnessed the resurrected Christ. They had been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. They were not only determined to share the good news of their resurrected Teacher, they would willingly endure whatever persecution might come their way in order to do so. Immediately before our part of the story, Peter and the other apostles had been imprisoned for teaching about Jesus, and for performing signs and wonders in his name. The crowds who had once flocked to Jesus for healing drew near to Peter and the others for the same reasons. Folks laid their sick family and friends on cots and mats so that Peter's shadow would fall across them and heal them. To say that the high priest and the Sadducees were unhappy at this turn of events is an understatement. They were angry and jealous, so they threw Peter and the others into jail under heavy guard. 

But during the night an angel came to them and told them to go back out to the Temple and preach the good news, the "story of this life." That's what they did. When the authorities heard that the men who were supposed to be securely in jail were once again at the Temple preaching Jesus, they had them brought before the council, the place where we take up the story. 

The members of the council wanted to know, "why." Why were they filling Jerusalem with this story? Why were they preaching Jesus, especially after they had been ordered to cease and desist. Peter responded, "We must obey God, rather than any human authority."

Nine words. Just nine words. But they are nine words guaranteed to bring down trouble on anyone who utters them -- then and now. "We must obey God, rather than any human authority." Another way to phrase these nine words is civil disobedience. Not all civil disobedience is grounded in faith. Not all civil disobedience grounded in faith is grounded in Christianity. However, some of the most profound social changes that have taken place throughout the course of history have come from people who were not only willing but compelled to engage in civil disobedience because of their faith; because they believed with their whole beings that they were responding to and obeying the authority of God, they were following the divine, not humans. 

Obeying God rather than human authority was the foundation for many in the abolitionist movement, women's suffrage, and without a doubt, Civil Rights. Certainly activists on both sides of the marriage equality debate believe that they are obeying God rather than humans. And let's not forget that our country's beginnings were founded in actions that were treasonous by human law. 

Earlier I asked the question, "is it worth it?" Is this cause, this willingness to endure suffering and persecution worth it? But I think the real question is,"Is He worth it?" "Is the gospel worth it?" 

Certainly for Peter and the other apostles their answer was, "Yes!" For that yes they endured terrible persecution, suffering, imprisonment, torture and martyrdom. When Dr. King was willing to put his life on the line time and time again, it was because he knew he was following the authority of God rather than the authority of humans. The leaders in the abolitionist movement saw slavery for the terrible evil it was, and they were willing to obey God rather than the law of the land. Obeying God's authority versus the authority of humans often means engaging in civil disobedience. 

This understanding of God's authority is at the foundation of our denomination. In its historic principles of church order, our Book of Order states, "That 'God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.'" 

God alone is Lord of the conscience. Those are life changing words. They are liberating words. But they are not words to be taken lightly, because within them is a call not just to think about what is right or wrong, what is just or unjust, but to act. To claim that God alone is the Lord of the conscience impacts every part of my life. It impacts my ministry, my family, my parenting, my citizenship. It also means that I must take seriously the reality that obeying God may put me at odds with human authority. If I believe that God alone is Lord of the conscience, then I also believe that I may be called to do and say not only what is hard but what is dangerous. Obeying God and obeying my conscience may require me to stand up to the powers that be, to challenge what I believe to be unjust. It may compel me to engage in civil disobedience and to live more for the greater good than for myself alone. If God alone is Lord of the conscience, then I must be willing to endure ridicule, anger, violence, persecution, even death. As a Christian in this country, I have not experienced persecution for my faith. The way my faith shapes my life and my beliefs has been contradicted to be sure; but never have I experienced persecution. But that does not mean that test won't come. It doesn't mean that I won't have to stand up and be counted. It doesn't mean I won't have to proclaim that I obey God rather than the laws of humans. 

I hope that if that time ever arrives, that I will be able to do what I believe to be right. I hope that I will be empowered with the courage to face the consequences that come with obeying God rather than humans. I hope my trust and faith in God will not waver in the face of threat or danger. 

I do not know exactly how I will be called to live out my faith and my belief that God alone is Lord of the conscience. None of us do. We do not know what challenges or trials we may face or how our faith will compel us to live. But what I do know is that the gospel -- the incarnation of God's love into every corner of our world and our lives, the resurrection of God's Son and the triumph of Love over death, and the gift and power of the Holy Spirit in our midst -- this gospel is worth it. This story is worth it. God's love is worth it. The gospel is worth it. 

Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!" Amen. 

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