Over the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at the same question from different angles: what is God’s mission in the world when Jesus isn’t here in the flesh, and how is that mission carried out?
To put it another way: when the Holy Spirit comes with fire on Pentecost, what does she empower Jesus’ disciples to do?
So far, we’ve seen them turn from students to witnesses, telling the story of Jesus. In the power of the Spirit, we’ve seen them speak unfamiliar languages to meet people where they are and tell the truth with boldness. We’ve also seen the Spirit at work empowering God’s people to face the truth, even when it cuts deep. And last week, we saw two of these disciples offer healing – not just physically, but restoring and rebuilding the bonds of community, grace, and inclusion.
The story we’re about to hear builds on this grand story from Acts. While the disciples were preaching and healing, the religious leaders were becoming increasingly impatient – when he was crucified and humiliated, Jesus was supposed to go away. That was kind of the point. But these people – his disciples – are still sitting on one of the Temple’s porches in Jerusalem, telling people he was raised from the dead and somehow making him an even bigger deal than he was before.
So these religious leaders threatened the apostles with blasphemy charges if they continued.
Scripture: Acts 5:12-32
Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.
Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’ When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching.
When the high priest and those with him arrived, they called together the council and the whole body of the elders of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. But when the temple police went there, they did not find them in the prison; so they returned and reported, ‘We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.’ Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were perplexed about them, wondering what might be going on. Then someone arrived and announced, ‘Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!’ Then the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’
Solomon’s Portico (sometimes referred to as Solomon’s Porch) was a popular meeting place for Jesus’ followers while the temple still stood. There, the apostles would preach and teach, the faithful gathered for prayer, and they broke bread together. It was a public space, and so everyone could hear them—including the religious leaders who, according to our text, were jealous and afraid. They were afraid of being overthrown, of losing their power and their standing, and afraid of the ever-present Roman empire who could take this talk of a resurrected Messiah as a threat.
Even after the healing, the miracles, the signs and wonders, they were unwilling to consider that these disciples might actually be part of God’s work in the world. So, at the opportune moment, they were arrested and thrown in prison. But that didn’t last, either – by the morning, they had been freed and were right back at it.
And this, in itself, is a miracle for these disciples. The last time Peter even thought he might wind up in trouble because he was associated with Jesus, he denied knowing him. After the crucifixion, the disciples hid together in locked rooms in Jerusalem because they were afraid. Some of them left town. Even after they knew Jesus had been resurrected, Peter, James, and John went back to fishing, thinking this whole experiment in following the Messiah was over.
But this time, they didn’t run. They didn’t hide.
Instead, they went right back to preaching in the Temple. The same place they were arrested.
Can you picture that scene? The high priest and the council are preparing for a trial, but when they send the guards to retrieve their prisoners, they’re nowhere to be found. The doors are locked, but the apostles are gone. I imagine there’s a lot of murmuring and facepalming happening in that moment.
And then, an intern pokes their head in the door and says “uh, hey. Remember those people you had arrested yesterday for preaching blasphemy at Solomon’s Portico? Yeah, they’re back outside. Still preaching.”
When they’re finally brought before the council, they’re read the same riot act that those who break the rules for good reasons still hear today.
You were warned.
You were given an explanation.
Nevertheless, you persisted.
Not only did they go back to preaching outside, but they even found a way to tell Jesus’ story to the council.
For the record: this does not go over well. The apostles were almost summarily executed, until one among them stood up and said, essentially: “Listen. We’ve seen movements like this come and go. If they’re lying, and this is not of God, then it will fade out like all the others. If it persists, then perhaps God is with them after all. You don’t want to be found fighting God, do you?”
So instead of killing them, they have the apostles flogged and order them to stop preaching and stop telling this story. Obviously, they didn’t listen – but they did rejoice, because they knew that through the power of the Spirit, they stood firm in their faith despite opposition.
The Holy Spirit is stubborn, y’all. She is dogged and determined to push and prod and occasionally drag you into the calling that God has for you, to help you become the person God has created you to be – and no matter what comes, she will not let you go.
We’ve all heard the line “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It’s on billboards and cat posters and social media posts. But this little piece of the letter to the Philippians is so much more than a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps motivational quote. Paul, who wrote that letter, had been at the heights of privilege and power as a Pharisee – and after he met Jesus and learned the truth of this story, he rode the roller coaster of need, want, and persecution himself. He had been to prison, he had been chased out of at least one city, and he had relied entirely on others for food and shelter.
But what he means here is that no external circumstance, no human power, no suffering or grief or want – none of that can change the truth of the gospel: that in Christ Jesus there is love and hope and joy, forgiveness and healing and grace.
It’s something that wells up inside us, not something we have to go looking for – no matter what your situation, God’s love and God’s power cannot be taken from you.
Writer, professor, and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor wrote an entire book on examining the darkness – both spiritual darkness and physical darkness – called Learning to Walk in the Dark. It’s been a few years since I’ve read it, but I still have one particular quote hung up on the wall in my office. It says:
“Even when you cannot see where you’re going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. There is a divine presence that transcends all your ideas about it, along with all your language for calling it to your aid, which is not above using darkness as the wrecking ball that brings all your false gods down–but whether you decide to trust the witness of those who have gone before you, or you decide to do whatever it takes to become a witness yourself, here is the testimony of faith: darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.”
So, beloveds: persist. When all else fails, fall back on Jesus and trust the Spirit to speak for you and through you. When it seems as though you have nothing left to give, I hope you will cling to the knowledge that God is not giving you up.
And if you must bend the rules, do so in the name of love.
If you must defy direct orders, do so in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, who said “let the little children come to me,” and “whatever you have done to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done to me.”
The Holy Spirit insists on telling this story: for you, Christ came into the world and walked among us. For you he lived, taught, and healed. For you he died, and for you he rose again. Whether you’ve heard this story every Sunday since you were six weeks old, or you’re hearing it this morning for the first time – Jesus’ story is yours, and the Holy Spirit has given you the life and the gifts with which you can tell it anew.
Thanks be to God!