Second Sunday of Easter (April 15, 2007)
“The Freedom of Talking about Jesus” (Acts 5:12-32)
What can you say and not say in public? That’s been all the talk this week following the reprehensible comment that radio host Don Imus made about the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team. I’m not going to repeat what he said. If you listen to the news, you’ve already heard it. If you don’t, then you’re probably better off anyways. The whole thing has sparked a new debate about free speech, offensive speech, politically correct language, and what you can and cannot say in public.
But really, the debate over offensive speech and politically correct language is nothing new. This was even around in the first century. Just look at what happened to the apostles in today’s first reading from the book of Acts.
Offensive Speech Gets You into Trouble
After Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost, the apostles followed Jesus’ command to be his witnesses. They went out and preached the death and resurrection of Christ. They preached that all who repent and are baptized into Christ’s name receive forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. Jesus also gave them authority to heal and cast out demons...some of the very same things he did in his earthly ministry. These actions were in a sense their “calling cards” as Christ’s authoritative witnesses and representatives.
But there were some who didn’t like what they were doing. The Jewish leaders were jealous of all the attention the apostles were getting. Nor did they like the message that came with the healings and the exorcisms. Our text today doesn’t mention that they preached Jesus when they healed people. But it’s certain that the apostles made it clear where their authority came from. For example, two chapters earlier in Acts 3, Peter says to a lame beggar, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he did. Peter clearly was testifying that this Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior of the world. And it is he who gives healing not only of the body but primarily of the soul through the forgiveness of sins.
The mention of the name “Jesus” got the apostles into trouble. It was not politically or theologically correct to talk about him. And so they were put into prison. But God had other plans. He sent an angel to open the prison doors and led them out, saying, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.”
Now, normally, fugitives from the law will high-tail it and find a suitable hiding place. But not these fugitives. They went right back into the public arena and started preaching again. And this from men who not long before this were hiding in fear behind locked doors. When the officials heard about this, they had them brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. The high priest said, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the other apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Talking about Jesus and upholding the teachings of the Bible in our world today is clearly not politically correct, either. On the TV show “The View” Rosie O’Donnell recently said, “Radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam.” A couple of years ago, a Swedish pastor was sentenced to a month in prison for preaching against homosexuality. In 2004, a Spanish Cardinal went on trial in Madrid for the same offense. Also, a law was recently passed in Canada outlawing speech that could “incite hatred against an identifiable group.” I’m not aware of any pastors being arrested in Canada under this law, but that language is pretty broad. It could be interpreted to include any negative statements against any group whose behavior or beliefs conflict with yours. And it certainly seems like the atmosphere in our own land is becoming eerily similar to George Orwell’s novel 1984, where the government’s “Thought Police” attempts to control the speech and actions of its citizens. And lately, it’s become quite fashionable to criticize Christianity, but everyone else seems to get a pass.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not excusing insensitive, insulting, offensive behavior. That’s part of what the 8th Commandment is all about...the part about not slandering our neighbor or hurting his reputation, but instead defending him and speaking well of him. And what comes out of our mouths only reflects the attitudes and insensitivities in our hearts. “Evil thoughts,” “false witness,” and “slander” are three of the things that Jesus said come out of our hearts. James, in his epistle, talks about what a dangerous and hurtful weapon the tongue can become: “The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness,” he writes. “The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.”
Certainly, racially offensive remarks must be avoided. Degrading someone because of their gender is wrong. God has created both men and women in the image of God, and we must uphold that truth. We honor all human beings no matter what their economic status, racial background, or educational degrees because of who they are as God’s special creation.
But talking about Jesus is another matter altogether. When you talk about him, this may also get you into trouble. But we must talk about him, no matter how offended people get.
It’s a matter of obeying God rather than men. It’s a matter of not keeping our mouth shut when it is time to testify about Jesus. If you do shut it, you may be keeping someone from hearing the truth about Christ. The Law has to be preached so that people know their condition as sinners and are led to repentance. The Gospel has to be preached so people know they have a Savior from sin to whom they can turn in repentant trust. Who cares if talking about Jesus is politically incorrect? It’s theologically incorrect not to talk about Jesus. It’s eternally threatening, both for you...because by not talking about Jesus you disobeyed God...and for the other person, because they need to hear that Jesus died and rose for them.
Preaching about Jesus gives freedom
Preaching the death and resurrection of Jesus got the apostles into hot water. More than that, it got them into prison. And today’s text is not the only example of that. Throughout the Book of Acts, we see other instances where they were arrested for talking about Jesus. In today's reading from Revelation, St. John says that he is in exile on the island of Patmos because he was talking about Jesus. Over the centuries, and even today in parts of the world, Christians have been incarcerated...and even executed...for talking about Jesus. But even though there are some who would like to take our freedom to talk about Jesus away from us, talking about Jesus is the only thing that brings true freedom. The death and resurrection of Jesus brings freedom from the fear of death, freedom from the accusations of the devil, freedom from the slavery to sin and shame that we all have because of our guilty consciences.
The high priest accused the apostles, saying “you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” In other words, he was saying, “You are blaming us for this man’s death.” Peter did indeed say, “You killed [him] by hanging him on a tree.” But in reality, all of us sent Jesus to the cross. It was our sins that sent him there, not just the schemes of the Sanhedrin. And the intention of all preaching of Jesus is to truly “bring [that] man’s blood upon us,” because it is only through the shed blood of Jesus that our sins are covered. So bring it on, Lord...bring it on! It is only through the death of Jesus that we are forgiven. It’s only through Jesus that we have true freedom, even if we are imprisoned for preaching his precious name. St. John declared that he is the one who “loves us and has freed us from our sins and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father.” (Rev. 1)
By virtue of our Baptism, you and I have the same Holy Spirit that was breathed upon the disciples. To his Church Christ has given the responsibility to forgive the sins of those who are repentant and to withhold forgiveness from those who are impenitent. Through the witness of the apostle John in his Gospel, we get to see the nail marks in his hands and the spear mark in his side. We hear the words “Peace be with you” spoken to us, and real peace between us and God is delivered to us because we are reconciled to the Father through Jesus. We bow down with Thomas and the other disciples and call him, “My Lord and my God!” The Risen Jesus comes to us personally through his Word and through his Sacrament, and we believe and have life in his name.
Living in the light of the resurrection, the resurrection life of Jesus empowers us to “obey God rather than men.” It may not be politically correct to make exclusive claims about Christ, but that is what the Bible teaches. Therefore, that is what the Church preaches. So go...and “speak to the people all the words of this Life.” Life with a capital L. The Life of the Risen Lord.