Resistance and Resurrection

[special_heading title=”Resistance and Resurrection” subtitle=”by Louise Westfall” separator=”yes”]

Last month my two sisters and I hiked at the Grand Canyon.  I asked for your prayers partly in jest but partly because it is quite a climb. You descend to the Colorado River a vertical mile on a seven mile trail and return on a less-steep, twelve mile trail.  As my sister Sue observed, “Hiking down is optional; hiking out isn’t.”  We knew we would have to prepare.  While I walk regularly, the experts recommend adding “resistance training” to one’s regimen because it increases muscle strength.  Lunges, squats, leg lifts on a fitness machine — anything that makes your muscles work against a weight or force will help.  Resistance makes you strong.  The hike, while strenuous, went well, and we were gloriously rewarded every step of the way by stunning vistas and incredible geologic history spanning 3 BILLION years.  A sign at the rim put it well:  My feet are tired, but my soul is wide awake.

I’ve been thinking about resistance these days: resistance as response to perceived injustices in the status quo.  Young people walking out of school to plead for sensible gun legislation; teacher walk outs to call for better wages; congregations and cities designating themselves as “sanctuaries” to protect immigrants.  Our nation’s civil rights history is built on resistance: bus boycotts, lunch counter protests, sit-ins and marches.  Resistance is an effective way to “build muscle” in a scenario between the weaker and less powerful and the strong ones who hold the power.  This is nothing new, for so it has always been.  We’re Protestants, after all; our spiritual forebears resisted the absolute authority of the Roman Catholic Church to reform an institution steeped in corrupt practices.  We’re United States citizens, members of a nation who resisted the rule of the English monarchy to form an independent country, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  Well, “men” meaning women and African-Americans brought here as slaves … eventually; those changes too came about through protest and resistance.  More the rule rather than the exception, resistance seems part of our DNA.  The Star Wars saga, a kind of archetypal story of human history, features the Resistance as the small, rebel group holding fast to the values of human rights, compassion, and justice in the face of both the tyrannical First Order and the compliant New Republic fearful of confrontation.  The Rebel’s rallying cry is a Jedi Proverb: Strength of character can defeat strength in numbers.  Resistance makes a community strong.

Today’s Scripture reading is another glimpse of Jesus’ disciples after the resurrection. They can’t keep silent about the seismic shift that has occurred.  The book of Acts which chronicles this part of the early church’s history crackles with action verbs and constant movement.  The backstory for this text is the healing of a man born with a condition that rendered him lame.  He’s well known as the guy begging near the door of the temple.  Peter and John tell him they have no money to give him, but they can invoke the power that will make him walk.  They do, and he does.  Fast forward a couple of days, long enough that word of this healing has reached the ears of the religious leaders.  They’re not pleased.  A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in the fourth chapter at the first verse.   Listen for God’s Word to the church.  [Acts 4:1-22]

While Peter and John[a] were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand. The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John,[b] and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners[c] stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,[d] whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus[e] is

‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’[f]

12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” 13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. 14 When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15 So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. 16 They said, “What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. 17 But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” 18 So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; 20 for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” 21 After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. 22 For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old.

No good deed goes unpunished, they say, and it’s an apt summary of this text.  Why the strong reactions of the religious leaders to the healing of a person who had clearly struggled his entire life?  You’d think they’d be pleased and join the chorus of praise to the living God.  But no.  It’s not so much the healing they object to, but what it represented.   And that is really not so different from the reason Jesus was executed.[callout_box title=”No one would have minded had Jesus confined his ministry to doing good: multiplying bread for the people; welcoming outcasts and sinners; blessing children, and healing the sick and infirm. ” subtitle=””]What got Jesus into hot water with both religious and civil authorities was the connection he made between those actions and the rule of God on earth as it is in heaven.  Jesus inaugurated a new way of life, certainly based on Jewish religious tradition, but infused with Spirit that broadened and deepened it far beyond the sacred law.

Jesus threatened the status quo.  Everyone thought his death meant the end of the matter once and for all, a problem solved.   But then there was this talk of resurrection.  Jesus Christ, alive.  It wasn’t a flash in the pan, either, but was gaining traction and appeal.  First his followers, who couldn’t keep from speaking about it.  And now an incredible healing, attributed to the power of the risen Lord.   It wasn’t the good deed; it was the provocative challenge to tradition and entrenched power.

Of course, we know the disciples did not obey the authorities’ command to cease and desist.  They resisted.  They kept on proclaiming good news of God’s defeat of death through the power of love, and then walking their talk by extraordinary acts of love and life-giving deeds.   Resistance builds strength for the long haul.

That’s hardly news for followers of Jesus today in Nigeria, Iraq, North Korea, Egypt and elsewhere where human rights groups have documented high levels of persecution.  Yet the church survives and even thrives.   I think of the Syrian women I met a couple years’ ago whom I dubbed the “feisty women of Aleppo.”   Their church building had been targeted, first with hate-filled, threatening graffiti and eventually destroyed through bombing.   Each one had lost loved ones in the bloody civil war, yet they were filled with joy and purpose.  The Church’s ministries of service and healing and prayer and hope have continued courageously.  Their testimony echoed that of Peter and John:  How could we stop?  We have the power of God behind us.

Their witness came to mind as I thought about Church in our land, where freedom to practice our faith is guaranteed by Constitutional mandate.  I’m deeply grateful for that inalienable right for Christianity and every other religious tradition.  Yet I wonder, beloved people of God, if that reality makes us a bit complacent and even careless in our exercise of faith in everyday life, the choices we make, how we spend our time and resources, and how we seek to fulfill the prayer we pray at least weekly: … Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.   Is there anything distinctive about the way we live that might point to a God whose love is bringing heaven to earth?  Is there anything we do that suggests we believe in the power of God to raise the dead?   If we were arrested for being Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict us?  That old question makes me wonder if the Church could use a little more “resistance training” to make our witness stronger and more vibrant.   To keep us from drifting through life as spectators, complacent and even complicit in its death-dealing forces.

I wonder if we could reclaim “resistance” as a spiritual practice. A way of slowing down the relentless pace of activity to look for signs of God’s redemptive work; a way of examining the status quo, identifying places where it crushes life and making conscious choices to reform it; a way of life filtered through the twin commands to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.   Active and pro-active; speaking up and sometimes acting up; demonstrating the truth we have seen and heard.

Friends, have we been so eager to distinguish ourselves from expressions of faith that judge and separate that we forget to share what’s different and actually great good news?  Have we been so eager to demonstrate acceptance of all that we camouflage evidence of faith in order to blend in?  Resist!    

It takes practice for sure, and it isn’t easy.  Resistance is not merely naysaying, stamping our feet and holding our breath petulantly until we get what we want.  On the contrary: it’s a way of discerning what God wants; of seeing tombs as doorways to resurrection.  It’s a way of engaging the world in its complexity and beauty and danger and recognizing the hope that is its cornerstone.   It’s a way of spreading that hope among the people, among all the people, until the world itself is a vast, grand witness to the life-giving love of God.