“If our practice of the gospel is easy, it may be that we have not quite understood the obedience to which we are called” Walter Brueggemann, Gift and Task (143)
My children are eight and ten years old. They are sponges with ears. They hear and absorb everything, whether it be snippets of news stories on the radio or the ruminations of fellow third and fourth graders on the playground. Times being what they are, our “making sense of the world” dinner conversations of late have been a test of my ability to recall 9th grade civics.
After Charlottesville last summer we discussed the first amendment and the right to assemble and protest and express opinions, even disagreeable ones. While we “Marched for our Lives” we talked about the second amendment. We recently got to talk about warrants and unlawful searches and seizures. I’m already refining my explanation of the phrase, “I plead the 5th” and our protection from self-incrimination in anticipation of presidential subpoenas and grand jury investigations.
It is this Constitutionally given right to self-protection that came to mind this week upon a first read of the appointed texts for this coming Sunday and, in particular, the opening lines of the New Testament reading from Acts. This week’s text features Peter standing in front of the Sanhedrin making no attempt at self-protection. He’s not just forthcoming, but boldly so, as he proclaims the power of God in Christ to the powers of this world, knowing good and well the cost of such a confrontation. It’s not the first time Peter has been interrogated with his life on the line. He knows all about the convenient omission of facts and lying for the sake of self-protection.
On the front side of Jesus’ resurrection, Peter was afraid. Here on the backside of the Resurrection, he’s fearless and he’s found his voice. He won’t make the same mistake twice, and he knows that the only way to fail is to be more concerned with self-preservation than with embodying the gospel of sacrificial love in “truth and action” (1 John 3:18).
If the book of Acts is our window into the lives of the first Christians, still fresh from encounter with the Risen Christ who dared them to live as if death no longer had power over them, then Peter is exhibit A. He sets an example for the church of what it looks like to imitate the self-giving love of Jesus in the everyday life of the early church.
Fearless testimony of the power of God over the powers of this world is one way that Christians embody the “new commandment” that Jesus calls disciples into. The paradox of the Easter gospel modeled first by Jesus, the good shepherd, is that life is gained only insofar as we give it away. In fact, the conscious decision to not be afraid; to generously and sacrificially give oneself for the sake of another, becomes a means of claiming a power far greater than the powers of this world who depend upon our willingness to tremble in their presence. That’s what we see on Calvary and in the Resurrection. It’s the power now entrusted to the Church through the power of the Spirit insofar as it’s willing to exchange a narrative of scarcity, fear, and self-protection for a new narrative of life in Christ.
Hospitality extended, abundance shared with those in need, friendship with the outcast, and care for the sick may be risky and sometimes dangerous bets, but by the terms of the gospel they are the path to a peace, freedom, and provision that no government or religious authority can guarantee. In the midst of a death-dealing culture whose functioning narrative is that of scarcity, self-protection, and individual rights–where freedom is promised to those who play by the rules of these core values– embodying the gospel by “laying down our lives for one another,” loving one another as Jesus first loved us, has never been more risky or subversive. And yet, if these texts tell us anything, it is also the way that leads to life. May it be that we, and our children, live as those whose first identity is citizenship in this Kingdom.