We must obey God rather than human beings!” (NIV). How do we discern the relation of Christian belief and spirituality to human authority?
Jews in New Testament times already wrestled with this question. Peter expected the high priest and council to agree with him. But people in their position might have held that obeying them equaled obeying God. Not surprisingly, they resisted Peter’s claim that the resurrection of Jesus embodies a direct message from God that is independent of their authority. On the other hand, some of them might have willingly obeyed God rather than Roman authority a few years later when Emperor Caligula ordered a statue of himself placed in the Jerusalem Temple.
In Christianity, the question has been answered differently in different traditions and social circumstances. Established churches with long histories of social status may look askance at claims of direct instructions from God. “Free” churches—Baptists, Quakers, Mennonites, and others—have occasionally undertaken radical acts of nonconformity and civil disobedience. For me personally, Peter’s assertion helped me decide not to cooperate with the draft during the Vietnam War, leading to a short prison term.
In all denominations, however, white Christians mostly see the church as aligned with social and political order and authority. In communities of color, the church may have to defend believers against authorities, or at least mediate between them and the police and courts. It is no accident that African American churches and ministers have held central roles in the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements. Obeying God can mean creative spiritual resistance to oppressive human systems.
Jesus, King of kings, guide us when we must discern where your risen power directs our allegiance. Amen.
After the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples are unable to remain silent. They go to the Temple to proclaim the gospel. Some people receive the message, while others do not. This causes turmoil within the community, but the apostles stand firm in their testimony, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Psalm 150 might be on the lips of those early apostles. Everything that has breath should praise the Lord! The author of Revelation recounts a vision that he receives from the risen Jesus Christ, who one day will return as Lord of all nations. In John we learn more about the source of the confidence of the apostles. They have experienced Jesus in the flesh, and this experience gives power to their proclamation of the reality of his resurrection.
Read Acts 5:27-32. When has your faith compelled you to rise up, stand up, or kneel down in obedience to God rather than earthly authorities?
Read Psalm 150. When have you praised God with great celebration? When have you praised God with quiet service to creation?
Read Revelation 1:4-8. How do you see peace arising out of violence in the Bible and in the world around you?
Read John 20:19-31. How have your experiences of witnessing violence or the results of violence helped you to understand that violence does not have the last word?
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