United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“Be Bold”

 April 24th, 2022

 Rev. Rebecca Migliore


       Congratulations!  You are in church the Sunday after Easter.  Although I don’t think it’s official, the Sunday after Easter is often called “low Sunday.”  Everyone got themselves up and dressed and out for Easter last Sunday—but this Sunday it’s back to the same old/same old.  So, let’s take a moment to pat ourselves on the back for being faithful, not only on the big days, but on the small days as well.  Go on, pat yourselves, since in this “still Covid” climate I can’t ask you to pat your neighbors back.

       Great!  Now for the good news—we have a lot of work to do.  AAAWWW Pastor, we just got out of Lent, with the church asking extra of my time and talent and treasure.  We just finished 40 days of giving something up or adding something on.  We just put out for Holy Week.  We’re exhausted.  Don’t we get a break from having to work so hard?  That’s certainly what I’m feeling—and the message I hear from our reading today is—pat yourself on the back, take a breath, and get ready—we have work to do.  And not, sit at your desk and slowly push papers from one pile to another work.  And not, quietly, behind the scenes, methodical work that many of us find so comfortable.  No, what we are faced with as we emerge from our chocolate Easter bunny (and multi-colored peep) haze, is that Easter is supposed to make a difference in our lives.

       I will say that again, because I need to hear it myself.  Easter is supposed to make a difference in our lives.  And it’s not just the Easter shift that I talked about last week.  It’s not just that we are to stop focusing on absence and set our sights on presence.  It’s not just that we are to stop allowing TOMB to be the soundtrack of our lives.  It’s not just that we are to change our mindset, step into the resurrection moment and be sent back to the ones we already know, with a message that might seem unbelievable.  No, Easter asks more of us.  Easter asks us to “Be Bold.”

       And we are shown an example of being bold in today’s reading from Acts—where Peter and the apostles refuse to stop talking about Jesus’s life and death and resurrection.  The religious authorities have told them to stop.  And they don’t.  And now they have been brought before the council, stood in front of the high priest.  They are facing the most powerful people in their world (other than their oppressors, the Romans).  And they are bold.  They don’t back down.  They were, in the words of John Lewis, engaged in “good trouble.”

       And what does it mean to Be Bold?  Well, to Peter and the others it means “obeying God rather than any human authority” (preaching the good news) even if that gets them in trouble.  Seasons of the Spirit suggests that in addition to considering what parts of our lives might ask us to get into “good trouble” for the gospel’s sake, we might have to look within as well as without—they call it self-reflection and change.  And they have suggested a topic for this self-reflection and change during each of the weeks between Easter and Pentecost.  This week the suggested topic is Anti-Semitism.

       It is so appropriate, since this week the Jewish world, and its allies celebrates Yom HaShoah (on April 28th)—a day of remembrance of the Holocaust.  A date in April was chosen because it was the month of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943.  The topic of Anti-Semitism is so appropriate because of our reading as well.  Acts 5:27-32 can be misread as a text supporting anti-semitism.  Peter says to the high priest “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom YOU had killed by hanging him on a tree.”  And for millennia, this type of text, along with the passion narratives (especially from the gospel of John) have been used to undergird feelings of hate. 

       What is so important to remember is that all the people in this story were Jews.  Jesus was a Jew.  Peter was a Jew.  The high priest was a Jew.  Peter even says, “The God of OUR ancestors” (yours and mine)—this is an inter-family disagreement.

       But as years began to pass, Christians, especially Christians who were not Jews first, began to read/hear this as an us/them argument.  So when Peter says “The God of OUR ancestors,” we forget that the high priest, the whole council is included in that OUR.  And that “who YOU killed” was not intended as a scapegoating of a whole religious people.

       I will confess that I was unsettled after this year’s Good Friday Service—because I had not changed the language of John, or at least reminded us all that when the phrase “the Jews” is used, it means “those in power” or “those who aren’t with us.”  We don’t get to pass off the responsibility of turning Hosanna to Crucify onto someone else.  Peter, of all the disciples, would know that.  He denied being a follower, denied even knowing Jesus on that fateful night.

       I wish I could say that we don’t have to worry about this issue in our world.  I wish I could say that the Holocaust, the killing of six million men, women, and children who were marked Jewish with the six-pointed gold star (along with five million others), has brought us to our senses.  But I cannot.  All I have to do to know otherwise is put my toe into the social media morass of Holocaust deniers.  All I have to do to know otherwise is remember the assault on Jewish houses of worship (or targeting Jewish people) in this country (Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas; or Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, PA; or Chabad of Poway Synagogue, San Diego, CA or a kosher market in Jersey City, NJ; or a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, NY)—all in the last four years.

       So let’s go back to that story of Peter and the religious authorities—and let’s try to strip out any thought of Christian versus Jewish.  What was bold about Peter and the other disciples?  They were going up against the power structure of their day—the religious power structure and claiming they were acting in God’s name.  They were enflamed with the Spirit, and willing to shake the very foundations—to go up against leaders that were stuck in their ways—in other words, they were acting very much like Jesus.

       This has happened in other times and places—like Martin Luther nailing complaints against the stuck in their ways Church of 1517, trying to ask for reform.  Or like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who found himself within a Church that decided to be on the side of Hitler, and felt he was staring into the very face of evil.  Or like Martin Luther King, Jr. writing to white pastors everywhere in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, trying to shake the Church away from segregation and Jim Crow.  Or like the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina, who began gathering in the Plaza de Mayo, eventually wearing diapers as headscarves, embroidered with the names of their children, trying to be a witness, standing with God against all other authority.

       There have been so many who have been bold in their lifetime—a few of their stories we know.  How many more slipped into the cracks of history and are known only to God?  But that is to say that we can be bold too—we can look around ourselves, and our church and be willing to try to listen to the Spirit talking to us in this age.  Are there ways that the Church, even our beloved church, is stuck and might be missing out on the Spirit’s proddings?  We are being asked to be bold.

       Are there ways that we personally can live out anti-semitism, being bold to speak up wherever we need to, bold to hear and learn the deep truth of the Holocaust, bold to work against any that would pit one of us against another.  We have work to do.  As Amy-Jill Levine writes in her book The Misunderstood, “…any prejudicial commentary that divorces Jesus from Judaism and then uses the story of Jesus to condemn all Jews is not a “Christian” message.  It is, rather, a recycled anti-Judaism that depicts Israel as a country of Christ-killers”  (Harper Collins, p. 185).  We have work to do.

       And why does the Spirit push us to be bold?  Because Easter gave us a taste of what might be.  Because after being worn down and manipulated by the forces of evil and death, Easter put a snap-shot of a different world in our heads.

      Because Easter is the newest push of the wave of God’s love that radiates out through time and space, calling us back to our truest selves—as children of God.

       I keep hearing the shouts of praise from Psalm 150.  Voices of all tambors and languages, instruments of all different sizes and pitches.  The holy din of jazz and rap and classical and folk and country, played/sung at the same time.  The laughter, the clapping, even the moments of silence.  That is the vision people caught on the first Pentecost.  Of the beauty of our diversity, all standing hand in hand before God.  It is a vision from long ago, as we see in the prophet Isaiah, who captured a glimmer as he talked of people gathering on the Holy Mountain, from east and west, from north and south, able to praise God together.        

       So when I talk about being bold, I’m holding onto that vision—a vision of a world where everyone is invited to the table, a vision where children are our leaders, a vision where healing is possible and needed, a vision where love is the highest currency, a vision where we recognize our own faults even as we find the gifts in others.  I’m pretty sure that Peter needed to be full of the vision to be able to stand in front of that Council and say he was on the side of God.  And I believe that if we keep holding up that vision before our eyes we will have what we need to Be Bold and do our part.

       Christ is Risen.

       Christ is Risen Indeed.  Alleluia.  Amen.