Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Easter, Year C
Based on Acts 5:29
When is it more important for us as Christians to obey God rather than any human authority? What does God require of us in a world of conflicting allegiances? When do we say “Yes” to God and “No” to the laws of this world? How do we stay loyal and faithful to God in times of trouble and persecution?
These and similar questions have been around ever since the birth of Christianity. Different Christians have answered the questions in different ways down through the ages.
In our first lesson today, the disciples had been persecuted and imprisoned by the council in Jerusalem because they were preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus. When they were put on trial before the council again, for the same reason, the disciples answered with these words: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
Whenever Christianity has been forbidden, persecuted and oppressed; there have always been some Christians who remained faithful to God by resisting and disobeying the laws of this world. In fact, Christianity thrived and grown stronger because it was forbidden, persecuted and oppressed. A case in point of this phenomenon in our time is the church in Russia under the communist regime. Christianity flourished there under persecution.
In the early church, hundreds, even thousands, died a martyr’s death because they refused to worship and make sacrifices to the Roman emperor, who was considered to be a god. The stories of these ancient Christian martyrs still have the power to inspire and instruct us today. One of the early Christian martyrs was Polycarp.
A disciple of John the Apostle, he became bishop of Smyrna and one of the most important Christians in Roman Asia in the mid-2nd century.
After returning to Smyrna from a trip a youth called Germanicus was killed at a pagan festival; the crowd called out: ‘Away with the atheists. Fetch Polycarp.’ He was found in a farm near by, neither provoking nor fleeing martyrdom, but calmly waiting. He invited his captors to eat a meal, while he prayed alone for an hour. At his interrogation, threats and promises did not shake his constancy. When ordered to execrate Christ, he answered: ‘For 86 years I have been his servant and he has never done me wrong; how can I blaspheme my king who saved me? I am a Christian.’
When the crowd at the games in the amphitheatre were told that Polycarp had confessed he was a Christian, they shouted first for the lions and then for him to be burnt at the stake. He was bound; an official killed him with the sword; his body was then burnt. 1
Polycarp’s courage and his final words have strengthened and inspired the faith of many Christians down through the centuries. Polycarp, like the disciples before him, had to obey God rather than any human authority. Again, in our recent history, we have the profound voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who on one occasion said:
If any earthly institution or custom conflicts with God’s will, it is your Christian duty to oppose it.
I don’t think any society can call an individual irresponsible who breaks a law and willingly accepts the penalty, if conscience tells him or her that that law is unjust. I think that this is a long tradition in our society; it is a long tradition in Biblical history.
The end of life is not to be happy…to achieve pleasure and avoid pain (at all costs). The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may. 2
One of the authentic trademarks of a considerable number of Christian martyrs down through the ages is that they were not prone to worry about winning popularity contests! Many of them could care less about public opinion polls or losing sleep over whether or not others approved of them and liked them. Rather, they were prepared to stick to their principles of faith, keep their personal integrity, and live or die with a clear conscience. On one occasion, writer G.K. Chesterton said, after receiving some flack over getting into trouble by sticking to his principles: “I like getting into hot water. It keeps me clean!” J Now I know what the significance of that old axiom means: “Cleanliness is next to godliness!”J
One 20th century Christian, who followed his conscience and principles, come what may—and who became very unpopular among his own family, was Toyohiko Kagawa, renewer of society—whose blessed memory we in the Lutheran tradition celebrate tomorrow, on April 23.
Toyohiko Kagawa was born into a rich Japanese family and was brought up a non-christian. Through the Gospel, Toyohiko became a Christian. His parents were angry that he had become a follower of Jesus. “You can’t be in our family or share in any of our money if you worship the Christian God,” they warned him. But worshipping God was the most important thing to Toyohiko. “There is nothing so important in my life as having God’s Word and praising God,” he said. When he kept on worshipping God and studied to be a pastor, his parents turned him out.
God used Pastor Kagawa to preach to many Japanese and to lead them in worship. The joy of worshipping and serving God was more important to him than money or even his own family. 3
When we find ourselves in situations that test our loyalty to God, like the disciples before the Jerusalem council; like Polycarp before a hostile crowd; like Toyohiko Kagawa before his own family members; may we too be able to say with conviction, and willing to suffer the consequences that: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Who knows, maybe we, like Martin Luther King Jr., and countless other martyrs of the Church will be seeds or leaven of God’s active grace working in the world to change and redeem injustices, hatreds and divisions—thereby increasing and hastening the coming of God’s realm. For it has often been when Christians “went against the stream” by obeying God rather than any human authority that the Church, ironically, has flourished.
1 David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary Of Saints (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 361.
2 Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream (New York: Droke House Publishers, Inc., 1968), p. 19 & pp. 69-70.