“We must obey God rather than men.”
This sentence, spoken by Peter to the Sanhedrin in today’s first reading from Acts, gives us pause and makes us feel proud to be Christians who speak truth to power. We admire Peter’s courage, knowing that he had acted in a cowardly way before Jesus was crucified, and knowing that this was the same Sanhedrin, Jerusalem’s Supreme Court of the time, that could sentence him to death for blasphemy. In fact, they had already put him and some other disciples in prison for preaching “in his name.”
Yet we also remember that there have been many who have used God as the justification for their actions. So with this first reading on the Third Sunday of Easter, we are firmly set down in a conundrum that has perplexed the whole world, probably from the beginning.
Whom do we follow? And how do we know if they are truthful? And how do we know that what they are teaching and preaching is the truth?
Let’s take a look at the very next verses from this chapter of Acts:
33 When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. 34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. 38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
As Christians, we can look back on over 2,000 years of our history. Not many human enterprises last this long…nowhere near this long. So we must acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit over this time; yes, even during the darkest days of the Inquisition, the subjugation of untold numbers of “unbelievers,” the holy wars fought against other Christians and Muslims and Jews. Somehow, the Holy Spirit has guided the righteous, in spite of the wicked, so that we can agree with Gamaliel that we cannot fight against the teachings of Jesus. God…and good…has always prevailed.
So let us look at the world today. Many religions, sects, causes, parties, and factions are using God as their justification for dubious and even despicable actions. What are we to do? Shouldn’t we oppose them?
Or then, are we to take the words of Gamaliel and “let them go”? Doesn’t that condone evil?
OK, let’s put that aside for a moment and look at today’s Gospel. The disciples were fishing and catching nothing. Jesus tells them where to throw the net. They catch so much they can’t pull the net into the boat. Peter, hearing from John that the person on the shore who told them where to fling their net is the Lord, puts on his clothes and jumps out of the boat and into the water. Peter gets to shore before the boat and greets the disciples, even helping to drag the net ashore.
They have breakfast and Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times he answers yes, the third time, perhaps, with some unease that Jesus asks him three times.
And the Lord’s reply to Peter’s affirmation is to take care of his sheep and feed them.
Now let’s go back to the Sanhedrin and Gamaliel advice. What to do in the face of unquestioning belief and the preaching of this belief to the masses?
I think that today’s Gospel is teaching us how to respond to leaders – or would-be leaders, or factions that ask our allegiance and obedience.
We are told by Luke in the Gospel passage that we may be judged by our actions in following someone. We see the most enthusiastic follower, Peter, who jumps out of the boat to get to Jesus as fast as he can. He is a true believer. And at some times in our lives we are all true believers…to the point of hasty, maybe even foolish actions, like jumping into the Sea of Galilee. We see the evidence of our belief since we are rewarded: honor, position, power, so many fish we can’t ship them. And we all get together and have a feast with the leadership who feeds us.
But the Holy Spirit is teaching us through Gamaliel: Leave them alone. “For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
But what is the proof of that? The answer is found in Jesus’ command to Peter: Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep. Take care of all of humanity, even those not of the present sheepfold, as Jesus tells us in John 10:16.
Our question then, to any leader, party, faction, group? Are you feeding and tending to all the sheep and the lambs? Or are you selecting just the special ones whom you want to be with? Does the leader, party, faction, or group make breakfast just for a few people, or for the whole world?
Feed the lambs. Tend the sheep. Feed the sheep.
Ye shall know them by their fruits.
Let us pray. Lord, help us today and every day to have the enthusiasm to jump into our own Seas of Galilee and make haste to feed the lambs of the world. Help us to gather the fruit of Jesus and share it with all we meet. In his name, Amen.