Witness Without Compromise (Sat. May 7)

The word of the day is “obey.”  In every revolution, there is a moment when the rebels defy authority.  Without the courage of some to do so, there is no change.  There is only compliance. Today we find in our reading of Acts 5:21-33 that such a moment occurred when the apostles again appeared before the high priest and members of the Sadducees, the religious sect that ruled the temple.  When the high priest sternly reminded Peter that he was told to cease speaking of “this Name of Jesus,” (OSB 5:28), Peter was defiant.  “We ought to obey God rather than men,” he said (OSB 5:29).  That was the decisive moment that would free the new Christian movement from any deference to its opposition, any compliance with contrary earthly laws, any chance of appeasing the powers of this world.  In the light of this narrative today, we consider what it means for us “to obey God rather than men.”

Escalating Conflict With the Religious Authorities

From the time that the apostles had begun to teach the Resurrection of Christ in the temple, Luke reports an escalating tension between the apostles and their followers and the court of the Sanhedrin.  Headed by the high priest, this legislative body ruled over the religious and political life of the people under Roman oversight.

When these legal authorities heard of the apostles’ preaching, Luke reports that they were “greatly disturbed” (OSB 4:2).  So, they arrested them, not to punish them but to detain them for questioning.  When they inquired about them, they found that they had no legal grounds to hold them.  They could only instruct them to cease “speaking or teaching” in the Name of Jesus.  Peter responded that they would have to judge whether God would think it right for the apostles to listen to you or Him.  But, he said, we can only report what we have seen and heard (OSB Acts 4:20).  Then, to the elation of the assembly of believers, the court let them go (OSB Acts 4:23).

An Angel Opens the Prison Doors

But the apostles ignored the order of the officials to be silent.  And by their preaching and miracles, they attracted more and more attention and followers.  At this defiance of their authority, Luke reports that the authorities were indignant (OSB vs. 17).  They arrested the apostles and put them into prison.  Once again, the apostles eluded imprisonment.  This time, an angel let them out of the common jail.

When the “rulers, elders, and scribes” gathered in assembly, they heard that their prisoners had miraculously escaped.  They ordered their guards to catch them (OSB vs. 24-27).  Their squad soon found them.  There they were preaching, teaching, and healing in the temple– again (OSB vs. 21).  Back they went to court.  This time, the high priest reprimanded the apostles as if they were children.  He castigated them, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name?” (OSB vs. 38).

Obeying God Rather Than Men

Now Peter was brazen, “We must obey God rather than men” (OSB vs. 29).  Then he charged these revered men with “murdering” Jesus, the One God had now exalted to be “Prince and Savior” (OSB vs 31).  And he concluded with the warrant for His action.  He claimed that they were witness to what had happened along with the Holy Spirit (OSB vs. 32).

Peter had appealed to the authority of the Risen Christ.  After He had risen, the Lord Himself gave the command that the apostles were to be His witnesses when he said, “You shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (OSB 1:8).  Moreover, He commanded His apostles, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” (OSB Mathew 28:19).   And again, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15-16).

Three Kinds of Witness

The apostles were to be witnesses in three different senses (Strong’s #3144, 157).   The first was the legal sense of giving testimony in court.  We have found that Peter stood up in court and said that he and the believers were witnesses who had a testimony to share.  Therefore, they could not stop speaking of Christ.  The second sense was historical.  Peter conveyed this meaning when he says, “We cannot but speak of the things that we have seen and heard” (OSB 4:20).  The third sense was that martyrdom that testifies to the truth of the faith by suffering a cruel death for its sake.  Indeed, soon the martyrdom of those who bore witness to Christ would begin with the stoning of Stephen.

For Reflection

We who believe in the Resurrection of Christ are ourselves links in a chain of witnesses that goes back to the apostles.  At the 14th All-American Council, Fr.  Alexander Schmemann said: “To recover the missionary dimension of the Church is today’s greatest imperative. We have to recover a very basic truth: that the Church is essentially Mission, that the very roots of her life are in the commandment of Christ: ‘Go Ye therefore and teach all nations’” (Matthew 28:19) (Tossi 2007).

No Compromise Witness

As heirs of the apostles, we should consider ourselves “sent” into the world to testify to the saving works of God whose teaching has been passed along to us.  And should remember that we are “commissioned” to share the mercies of God that we ourselves have heard and seen.

Of this witness to the essentials of the faith, there can be no compromise, no watering down of the truth, no deference to other persuasions, no obedience to any official or unofficial mandates that conflict with the Truth of the Gospel.

Works Cited

Tossi, Eric George. 2007. “Ten Simple Ways to Encourage Orthodox Missions.” Orthodox Church in America https://www.oca.org/parish-ministry/witnessmission.

 

About Fr. Basil

Now retired, the Very Rev. Archpriest Basil Ross Aden has served as a parish priest, parish pastor, diocesan mission director, writer, and college teacher of New Testament and Religious Studies. He has a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the University of Chicago and has published daily devotional and stewardship materials as well as a college textbook on Religious Studies. He also has published papers and/or lectured on the Orthodox perspective on Luther and the Reformation. religious freedom, current issues of religion and society, and St. John Chrysostom. He is married to Sandra and has two sons and three grandchildren. He is still active as a priest as well as a writer of articles and materials on Orthodoxy and topics of faith and life today.

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