Summary: The early apostles, arrested for a second time boldly declared that they should obey not man but God.
There was an item in the news recently, concerning the Bishop of Hereford. The Bishop had turned down a man for an appointment in his diocese because of his gay lifestyle, and found himself in court being charged under the new Sexual Orientation Regulations. Actually, as the Bishop explained to the Court, he had turned down the man, not for being gay, but because of his active homosexuality: he would equally have turned him down if he had been heterosexual, and engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage. But- at the end of the day, he had been obedient to God, rather than to man.
In this morning’s reading from Acts chapter five, we heard of the first apostles being brought before the Sanhedrin for preaching about Jesus, when they had already been warned not to do so. On that occasion they had brought the matter before God in fervent and believing prayer, and had been vindicated by a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Verse 25 actually tells us that someone had told the Sanhedrin, “Behold! The men you put in jail are standing in the Temple courts, teaching the people”.
The Chief Priest shows his true colours when he puts the charge before the apostles, ending up saying, “You are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood”. To which Peter replies “We must obey God rather than men!” He then, with clear courage, goes on the show these self-righteous religious leaders that it is not they who are making them guilty: they are guilty. The fact was that Jesus, whom they had put to death, God had raised him up. That was the declaration of their guilt. Furthermore God had filled them, the apostles, with the Holy Spirit, as indeed he gave the Spirit to all who obey him- and clearly, in this context, those who obeyed God and not man.
At the heart of this incident is the matter of obedience. Whom do we obey: God or man? The pressures to obey man rather than God ever increase as society becomes more secular, and abandons its Christian roots. So, it all comes down to obedience or conformity, and I was us just for a few minutes to think on these themes.
Romans 12 verse 2 tells us: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” That word ‘conform’ has to do with being squeezed into a mould. Don’t let the world mould your thinking, your decision-making, your way of life. It’s so ever-present, that if you aren’t continually being changed by God’s Spirit, you will, by default, conform to the world
Valerie Rampton, in one of her Holy Week addresses spoke very powerfully on this theme. If we conform to the world, we will, bit-by-bit, become ever more alienated from our Heavenly Father. Romans 12:2 also tells us that if we allow God to change us, we will “test and approve his will”. If we don’t, we won’t. If God has given us of his Spirit, showing that he has made us his children, then the Spirit is our guarantee. But- what if we allow the world to seduce us, so that bit-by-bit we fall further away. How sad, how eternally sad, for this to happen to a child of God. Words in 1 Corinthians chapter three suggest that, yes, we will be saved, but only as one passing through flames. Should we not then suffer loss and regret for all eternity.
Obedience to God, to the changes God would make in us. I’m writing this on Good Friday afternoon. At the service for the last hour of the Cross, Philip spoke about Jesus’ obedience in reference to Gethsemane as the ‘Garden of Obedience’, in contrast to Eden, the ‘Garden of Disobedience’. Philip suggested that we often think of obedience in terms of obeying the Headmaster, or maybe a strict father; obedience on pain of punishment, and that’s how we often think when we think about obeying God. But for Jesus, his obedience was an whole-hearted acceptance of what the Father wanted of him. He drank the cup of suffering whole-heartedly and with passion. Passionate obedience is what delights God.
As time goes by, I think we’ll find increasingly legal restraints restricting Christian freedom against the law. But the service of God is ‘perfect freedom’. “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed” (John 8:32). Indeed is not the fruit of conformity, of obeying man, but a full, willing and whole-hearted obedience to God’s known will.
We need to be clear about the choice.
Whom will we obey?
Man? The pressures of a secular, hedonistic, increasingly godless society?, or
God? The God who loves us, whose Son followed the path of total, glad obedience, embracing his Father’s will, that we might be free now and through eternity.