I remember the day that I first encountered a street corner preacher. I was familiar with them, of course, having seen them depicted in movies and TV, but I grew up in the suburbs. The suburbs, among other things, are not conducive to street corner preachers—nobody walks, everyone zips by in their cars as they hurry from one destination to the next.
No, it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago for seminary that I would meet my first street corner preacher. It was a sunny day on State Street in the heart of the Loop, just outside the entrance to Filene’s Basement. The man had a small microphone and speaker to project his voice above the traffic noise. He was standing on something to give himself a few inches of height over the pedestrians, his soapbox was a milk crate, I believe.
As he spoke, most people hurried by, averting their gaze to avoid making eye contact with him. A few people though, myself included, paused to take in the scene. Who knows, maybe some of them even listened to what he was saying. I didn’t. He sounded crazy. But it was captivating to watch; he had a dynamic energy to him. His conviction was compelling. However crazy his message was, he believed it.
I find myself thinking about this street corner preacher as I read today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter and the others had been making quite a scene in Jerusalem, and the religious leaders had taken notice. They had been preaching on the street corners and in the porticos of the city. Though many were afraid to join them for fear of being seen with these crazy disciples, many others stopped, listened, and found their message captivating. They found the Good News compelling. It wasn’t just the preaching, though, Peter and the other were performing signs and healing people. Wherever they set up their soapbox, crowds would soon appear as people brought out the sick in hope that they might be healed.
The religious leaders had enough with it all. They had Peter and the others thrown into jail in order to silence them. But even that could not hold them down, for overnight an angel appeared to the Apostles, freed them, and told them to go back to the temple and keep preaching. And they did.
When the religious leaders came the next morning to speak with the Apostles, they found their jail cells empty, the guards still keeping watch out front. When the temple police eventually found the Apostles teaching in the temple, they hauled them off to the now very exasperated religious leaders. Which is where our reading this morning begins.
You can almost hear the frustration in the voices of the leaders as they question Peter. “Did we not tell you to stop your teaching? Did we not make it clear that you were to not use Jesus’ name anymore? Do you have any idea of the problems you are causing? Do you not know what will happen if you rock the boat too much? Do you really want the Romans to step in and restore the peace?” they asked him. For indeed, the Pax Romana came at a price. Sometimes a great price.
But Peter was undeterred. In the face of the religious leaders, with the possibility of Rome hanging over them, Peter does not flinch. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
We do not follow human edicts. At one level, Peter is talking about the direct command to cease and desist being given them by the religious leaders. At another level, Peter is talking about something much bigger. For the religious leaders seem to be just as concerned about what other people will think—specifically what the Roman officials will think—if Peter and the others continue to make waves and cause disturbances, as they are about having their authority questioned by these new teachings. Peter’s rejection is not just of the authority of the religious leaders, but of the authority of the norms and mores of society. He is rejecting the assumptions and biases of his community, and of the Romans who occupy them. He is rejecting the social contract that holds it all together.
As you might imagine, such a move is not without some risk, both back then and now. We may not live under the threat of a Roman crackdown, but even today making too many waves comes with real consequences. Refusing to follow human edicts comes with real cost. If you do not believe me, look only to the social reaction to the #MeToo movement, or the Black Lives Matter protests, or going back a generation, the price paid by conscientious objectors to the draft and the Vietnam War. It costs people their social standing, their family, and their friends; it costs people legally; and in some cases, it costs people their lives.
Obeying God’s authority sounds great when it doesn’t challenge the status quo. But so often God’s command stands in direct contradiction to human authorities, to human expectation, to human edict. And when it does, the cost is real. The cost is significant.
So, where do we find the strength and conviction to obey God’s authority over human authority? After all, Peter and the others seem very sure of themselves in a way that they were not in the Gospels. Peter and the others seem to finally “get it,” after spending so long, being confused, asking Jesus to explain things over and over, and generally not getting it. It is like they have found a backbone, after having betrayed, fled, and denied Jesus in the lead up to the crucifixion.
Though the transformation from last Sunday to this Sunday seems sudden to us, it didn’t happen all at once. The strength and conviction with which Peter and the others now plow ahead was the result of a long journey. It was a journey that first began all those years ago when they first hear Jesus calling their names from the shore as they labored with their nets in the sea. It was a journey that lead them through many questions and doubts as they walked with Jesus through the countryside. It was a journey that led them ultimately to the cross and the encounter with the risen Christ.
So it is with us as well, my friends. We do not wake up one day and suddenly find that we have the strength, the courage, to pay the price of obeying God’s authority rather than human authority. Rather, it is a journey for us as well. It is a journey that begins at baptism, as we first respond to hearing Jesus calling our names. It is a journey that continues for many years as we try to follow Jesus, wrestling with our own doubts, our own questions that burn deeply within our hearts. It is a journey that leads each and every one of us, eventually, to the cross and our encounter with Jesus’ triumphant resurrection.
For it is only when we encounter the cross, only when we encounter Jesus who gives up everything in obedience to God, do we at last find our own strength, the strength to add our own voice to Peter’s as he proclaims his obedience to God’s rule above all else.
Preached by Adam Yates