I sometimes think people have forgotten what the 4th of July is really all about. It’s not fireworks and parties. That’s just what makes it fun. The 4th of July commemorates the freedom we have every day.
Actually, freedom is something people have struggled for in every age. Today’s Scripture is a freedom story.
The period we’re talking about is still just a few weeks after Easter. Jesus had been executed by the religious authorities only 3 or 4 months before this. Being a Christian was very dangerous. The freedom that we enjoy – the freedom we take for granted – didn’t exist for them.
Let’s read the story and listen to it together.
The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.
As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.
Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” the angel said, “and tell the people all about this new life.”
At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.
When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.”
On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to.
Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.
The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
– Acts 5:12-32
People in this country don’t remember how costly spiritual freedom can be. We take our freedom for granted. But we should remember. There have certainly been plenty of battles fought, when one religious group tried to overpower another, or stamp it out of existence.
One of the mistakes we make is when we say that people came to the American colonies in search of religious freedom. That’s wrong! Many people came here looking for freedom for themselves. But for almost two hundred years, people were perfectly willing to deny that same freedom to others.
Somebody once said that religion is kind of like a pair of shoes – find a pair that’s comfortable for you, but don’t expect anybody else to wear them.
So, I may be convinced with all my heart and mind that I’m right, and that’s OK. But I can’t compel anyone else to adopt my point of view.
I am free – free to believe, to pray, to preach and organize in most any way I like. But my religious beliefs are not the law of the land. I can’t compel anyone else to pray my prayers, to accept my teaching, to pay the running expenses of my church, to enforce my beliefs and prejudices as public law, or to do anything else in the name of my religion.
Elected and appointed public officials do not have to belong to any specific religion. You cannot be disqualified from voting because you belong to a particular church. You can’t be denied public services, or the justice of public courts, because of what religious group you belong to.
Those are all freedoms we enjoy here, and those freedoms have not always been the case. Quakers should know that better than anybody.
In the early days, Quakers weren’t allowed to vote. We weren’t allowed to enroll in many schools and universities. Our weddings were not recognized as legal.
Off and on for almost fifty years, holding a Quaker meeting for worship was against the law. Public officials could and did harrass Quakers for getting together to pray. Special laws were passed, back in England and here in several of the colonies, which allowed Quakers to be punished, imprisoned, exiled or even executed. More than 7,000 Quakers were imprisoned in that first generation, and over 400 Quakers died in prison.
We really ought to be the experts on the paying the price for religious freedom. Today’s reading starts out by describing how popular Peter and the apostles were. They met together every day, to pray and teach in a public place, in the colonnade outside the Temple.
“No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.”
That’s quite a picture. They were brave. They were spiritual. Their prayers were effective. The results were amazing! Even though people felt intimidated and couldn’t join the movement publicly, their numbers were secretly growing.
The authorities were jealous and afraid. They wanted to stamp out this new group before it got any bigger. They saw the apostles as a threat to their power. So they had the apostles arrested, using their own private police.
I think that the worst tyranny often isn’t political tyranny, but religious tyranny. Anywhere that religion has its own police or its own army, there’s going to be trouble. I think that’s true of any country on earth. If one religious group has the upper hand, they’re going to use it.
Religious freedom is the freedom to practice my own religion in peace, and to be free from laws, threats or coercion by any other religious group.
And that’s equally true of everybody else. I can’t make them obey my beliefs, either. Freedom works both ways, or it isn’t freedom at all.
After the apostles were arrested, they were put in jail overnight. But during the night, a miracle took place. An angel of the Lord came and unlocked the prison doors, and told the apostles to go right back and preach again. So they did!
The same thing happened, by the way, with the early Quakers. There are lots of great stories. When the Quakers were locked out of our meetinghouses, we went ahead and met outside. When our leaders were arrested, new leaders stepped forward to take their place.
On one famous occasion, a mob burned a Quaker meetinghouse, and the Quakers came and worshipped on the burned-out ashes. Nothing was going to stop us!
Once in desperation, the authorities arrested every adult in the meeting. The Quaker children came and held worship, for as long as their parents were in prison.
We come by our endurance and stubbornness honestly. It’s part of our spiritual DNA.
In today’s story, the Temple police came the next morning to take the apostles to court. But the jail was empty!
There’s a kind of an echo of the Easter story there. Jesus was executed and placed in the tomb, but the tomb couldn’t hold him. The tomb was empty on Easter morning. No wonder the early Christians weren’t afraid of jail!
Then they heard the apostles were right outside, preaching and teaching in the same place they’d been arrested the day before. Now the religious police were afraid. They thought the crowd might stone them instead.
So they went and brought the apostles back, more respectfully this time. They brought them before the Sanhedrin – the high council of Israel, the top religious court – and said, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you are doing it again!”
The answer that Peter and the apostles gave is so great. Their words shine with courage, two thousand years later. “We must obey God rather than human beings!” they said.
What bravery they showed. What awesome courage! To stand up for what they believed, to be witnesses to the truth of what they had seen.
And they didn’t just stand up to an enemy. Not to some foreign power. They stood up against the leaders of their own people, their own religious family. The apostles at that time were all Jews. They were standing up to their own people. Sometimes that takes even more courage, than standing up to an enemy.
Many of the people on the council were enraged and wanted to kill them, right there and then.
But one of the Jewish leaders, a famous rabbi named Gamaliel, made a different suggestion. He said, “We’ve seen many different religious groups rise up before. Most of them failed. My advice is, let these people alone. If this plan or this movement is of human origin, it will fail. But if it comes from God, you won’t be able to stop them. In that case, you might even find yourselves opposing God!”
That’s another part of religious freedom. It’s a practical suggestion, from someone who was deeply religious himself. To this day, Gamaliel is one of the most revered rabbis by Jews everywhere.
It comes from thousands of years of religious experience, and we ought to listen to Gamaliel’s advice today. “If it’s not from God, it will fail. If it’s from God, you won’t be able to stop it.”
I think that’s true of many religious disputes, including many in our own generation. We would do much better, not to interfere with many religious groups, even some we disagree with strongly. We certainly shouldn’t interfere with them violently, if that’s at all possible.
Our job is to practice our own faith as best as we can. We are much more productive, correcting our own faults and shortcomings, than focusing on what we think are the religious mistakes of others.
No one should be allowed to be violent. No one should be allowed to cut off the religious rights of others.
All of us are responsible to live in peace with each other. Everyone should enjoy the same civil rights. Stand up for our own religious freedom, but do not use our own religion to try to shut down the religious freedom of others.
Gamaliel’s advice is still good, and we need to remember it. “If it’s not from God, it will fail. If it’s from God, you won’t be able to stop it. In the worst case, you might even be found to be opposing God!”
That’s not quite the end of the story. Gamaliel stopped the apostles from being killed by the Council, but the Council went ahead and flogged them. It was an injustice, but it says that “the apostles rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for
the sake of Jesus’ name.” Sometimes we have to pay the price for religious freedom.
But then, it says they went back to the temple, and “every day and at home they didn’t cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Savior.”
Let’s take this story into our time of prayer.
Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Brown