Harrowing Of Hell
April 24, 2022

The Unstoppable Hope Plays Out

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Happy Eastertide. I hope you had a meaningful Holy Week and a joyful Easter. I preached Easter morning about the “what” and the “who” of Christianity. I built this sermon on the theme of unstoppable hope; about how hope is something we seek through expectations, and dreams, and optimism, and I pointed out that it is the “who” of Christianity that undergirds the “what” we do as Christiansthat makes the hope unstoppable.

Jesus is the “who” of this unstoppable hope: Jesus who is God; God that is love; love which is the unstoppable hope. The resurrection of Jesus is God personalizing, perpetually, the unstoppable hope of love.

Today we look at how that hope plays out by examining the “who” and how he undergirds what the early church became. This is the story of the Book of Acts, incidentally; it tells the story of how the unstoppable hope of Jesus started to change the world.

I’ll begin with where we find ourselves in the lectionary today, chapter five in the Book of Acts.  Peter and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, have been arrested by the Sanhedrin, which was the religious authority in Jerusalem. This was the second time they had been detained. In fact, it was just the day before that they were thrown into jail for the first time. Their crime? Telling people about Jesus. Seems a lot of people were listening and drawing the connection between what they witnessed the disciples doing and who Jesus was.

The Book of Acts tells us that in a few days 5,000 people claimed to be followers of Jesus. And this… was a real problem for the Sanhedrin. Which is why they kept arresting Peter and John.

The first time they were put in jail they were kept overnight, almost…for in the middle of the night, an angel came and led them to freedom. And what did they do with that freedom? Did they run away? No! They went right back to the Temple to teach about Jesus.

In the morning, the captain of the guard was startled to find them gone, but heard, in short order, that they were at the Temple teaching about Jesus. So, he arrested them again and brought them before the Sanhedrin.

The Sanhedrin claimed that Peter and John were filling the people of Jerusalem with a teaching that was subversive; meaning to say, I suppose, a teaching that was not under their control. And so, they ordered Peter and John stop teaching about Jesus.

Peter’s response was clear: “We must obey God, rather than human authority.” In other words, the “who” that was Jesus was more important than the “who” that was the Sanhedrin.

Here is what happened that brought them to this point.  Chapter 1 in the Book of Acts opens with the ascent of Jesus into heaven. Chapter 2 talks about the coming of the Holy Spirit at the feast of Pentecost and how this caused the church to massively grow. The vision that unleashed this growth was simple: “The believers came together and shared all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as they had need. Day by day they spent much time together in the Temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and expressing goodwill to all people. And day by day the Lord added to their number” (Acts 2:43-46 para).

That was what they did. They took care of each other. When someone needed something, they provided it. Unconditionally. Basically, they just acted like Jesus would act if he had their life.  That is the point of Christianity, incidentally, to live our lives as Jesus would if he had my life or your life.  We do the “what” that Jesus would do, because of the “who” that Jesus is. This was a problem for the Sanhedrin because it undermined the laws that determined who was in and who was out based on what one did or what one didn’t do.

The followers of Jesus flipped that premise on its head, teaching the message of Jesus that proclaimed: that whoever you are, you are included in God’s world; because you were made by God, and God loves you. So, because you are loved by God, you were cared for unconditionally by those who followed Jesus. They were just doing what they knew Jesus would have done if Jesus had their life.

This radical inclusion played out through the presence of miraculous healings in the name of Jesus. Let me explain, because I know we are not all on the same page around miraculous healing. I know some of you don’t believe in miraculous healings. I also know some of you have been healed miraculously, and some of you know people who have been healed miraculously.

So, we are not on the same page, and that’s OK, because the bigger point of these healings is that they reincorporate into communal life those who had been previously cast out by the policies and procedures held in place by the ruling authorities. And so, the point of these healings is it not that a deformed limb was made straight, but that one who was outcast because of a deformed limb is now included whether that limb is straight or not.

What matters to the Christians was not “what” one could do, but “who” one followed; or more importantly that all of the whos met along the way are loved and known because of the “who” that was resurrected from the dead. Jesus who is God; God that is love; love which is the unstoppable hope… which is why even the shadows cast by Peter and John brought healing to the outcast – for the unstoppable hope is as inclusive as sun and shadow; and so, Peter says to the Sanhedrin: “We must obey God, rather than human authority.“

For Peter this just makes sense, because he has met the risen Jesus. He has witnessed firsthand, face-to-face, the resurrected Jesus. And when this happens nothing makes more sense in the world than obeying divine injunction over human hierarchy, or law, or idiosyncrasies. After you have met the “who” of Jesus, nothing other than following Jesus makes sense, even if it pushes up against the power of the Sanhedrin; even when it pushes up against the power of Rome, the mightiest empire ever; nothing makes more sense than following the “who” of the unstoppable hope which is the love of God. Nothing makes more sense, which is why Peter and John just keep doing what they’re doing…teaching about Jesus.                

There is an epilogue to the story that we find in chapter 6 of the Book of Acts. Here we meet a man named Gamaliel. He sat on the Sanhedrin and had been the mentor and teacher to Paul. He was a wise man who knew the Old Testament, as well as anybody in the world at that time. And what he knew, because he knew sacred scripture, is that the “who” matters more than the “what.” His God, after all, was a personal God. That reality was well known, though sometimes subserviated as we hear in the Book of Acts; but it was known to Gamaliel and his community because of Moses. You may remember that when Moses met God at the burning bush he asked God’s name, God replied: “I am.” First person, singular. God is who, not what.

And so, Gamaliel, with wise words, reminds the Sanhedrin of the possibility of a personal, present, perpetual God by saying, in a sense, that they should let the “who” of Jesus be what it is, because if he is from God, and his personhood unveiled the preferences of God, then there will be no stopping his followers. Their hope will be too strong. And it turns out Gamaliel was correct. The hope of Jesus was, and remains, unstoppable.

So, I guess what I’ll leave us with today is a question around the unstoppable hope of Jesus. What are the authority systems in your life, and how are the “what’s” they require of you undergirded by the “who” of Jesus? And if they are not undergirded by Jesus, why are they part of the “what” that you participate in? Is it possible for you to say, as Peter did, “I must obey God, rather than human authority.“ That is my invitation for your contemplation this Eastertide.