David A. Davis
October 30, 2022
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I am going to begin the reading from Acts 5 this morning at v. 27 but let me tell you what comes just before. Peter and the apostles were doing many signs and wonders among the people in and around Jerusalem. The crowds and the followers continued to grow in large numbers. People were carrying the sick out into the streets just hoping that loved ones would be healed if Peter’s shadow fell upon them. The high priest and the rest of the Sadducees were very jealous of the attention and the crowds so they had them arrested and thrown in a public prison. But in the middle of the night the Lord sent an angel to open the prison doors, lead them out, and tell them to “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” The apostles went right over to the temple at the break of day and continued to teach. The high priest, the council, and the elders of Israel were gathering in the morning to decide what to do next with the apostles and sent word to have them brought from the prison. Of course, they weren’t there. The doors were still locked and the guards were standing watch. Amid the confusion and perplexity, someone arrived to announce they were back in the temple teaching the people. The temple police went over and brought the apostles to the meeting of the religious leaders. The text records that they were brought without violence because the police were afraid of being stoned by the crowds. That brings us to verse 27.
Gamaliel, a Pharisee, “a teacher of the law, respected by all the people”. He had the apostles removed and with authority told the other leaders to think carefully. He gave two examples of leaders “claiming to be somebody” who had garnered quite the following. Those two somebodies were killed and the followers disappeared. Gamaliel doesn’t say whether they were killed by the Romans or religious leaders. Neither does he mention what the reader knows, the somebody leading the apostles was not Peter but Jesus. He had already been killed and the crowd of followers was growing according to scripture by “a great number”
The teacher of the law respected by all the people offers the snippet of wisdom worthy of preservation by the tradition. Let these people alone. Gamaliel, said. “If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”. If it is of God. If it is of God, it will last. Just a tidbit of lasting wisdom from a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, and remembered in the church by so very few.
In our linked in series for this week, adult ed leader Dr. Heath Carter invited participants to read a very famous sermon by Harry Emerson Fosdick entitled “Shall the Fundamentalist Win? Fosdick preached that sermon at First Presbyterian Church in NYC in May of 1922. At the time the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy was raging in the church. Put way to simply, the conflict was about how to read and interpret the bible, how to understand biblical authority amid the rushing waters of intellectual and cultural development in the early 20th century. Fosdick’s call in the sermon was for intellectual hospitality, open-mindedness, tolerance with the Christian fellowship of the church. In the sermon he references this text from Acts and the words of Gamaliel and call for the urgent need of the attitude of Gamaliel amid the fundamentalist apparent intent to drive out those who held liberal opinions. Fosdick was forced to resign from First Pres. NYC in 1925 and John Rockefeller built him a little preaching chapel called Riverside Church.
An interesting side note from closer to home, at that same time, old First Presbyterian Church where we gather this morning, Second Presbyterian Church then St. Andrews a block away at Chambers Street (now the Nassau Christian Center), and Princeton Theological Seminary were all in the thick of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. A year and a half after Fosdick’s sermon, Dr John Machen, faculty member at the seminary and then stated supply pastor at First Presbyterian, preached a sermon titled “The Present Issue in the Church” in which he “excoriated modernists with his usual vigor.” In the collection of essays on the history of First Presbyterian Church edited by Arthur Link, that Sunday sermon led to what is referred to as the “van Dyke incident”. Henry van Dyke was a Presbyterian clergy person and professor of English literature at Princeton University. Dr. van Dyke wrote to the session and said he was wasting no more time “in listening to such a dismal, bilious travesty of the gospel. Until he is don, count me out, and give up my pew in the church. We want to worship Christ our Savior.”. The essay indicates that First Presbyterian Church of Princeton made national news in all the papers.
Contemporary readers of Fosdick’s sermon will sense a compelling, if not disheartening timelessness to it. Students of church history, specifically the history of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy will likely have a similar reaction. For when it comes to that context and the question raised, there is a relentless relevance for the church today; for church, for theological education, for the Christian life. But the wisdom of Gamaliel might not be the most timeless, telling, lasting, predictor when it comes to the church and the fifth chapter of Acts.
One day last summer I was listening to one of the podcasts of the NYTimes. This particular podcast is a series called “First Person”. The episode title was “A Pastor Ripped Apart by Our Divided Country.” It was an interview with Rev. Dan White, a Baptist pastor of a modest sized congregation in upstate New York. He describes the stress and tension he experienced as a pastor serving a congregation of divergent political opinions. He was ordained in the early 2000’s. The story he told was about serving the same congregation not during the pandemic, not after the 2016 presidential election. But during the 2012 presidential campaign with Barak Obama running against Mitt Romney. Not to bury the lede of the story, Dan White eventually left ministry after he was diagnosed with cumulative traumatic stress syndrome.
One experience he shared has stayed with me. He had been pastor of the church for about ten years. A woman came up to him, a woman he described as a dear church member he loved. She told her pastor “I have to leave this church. I am a conservative and I don’t feel safe. I feel judged.” Despite his efforts to assure her, she left. Just two weeks later, a young couple who had joined the church since he was pastor came up and said “We can’t stay in a church with people who are so conservative…there’s no space for us. We have to go.” Again he offered a plea but to no avail. He shared with the listener his loss for words and how perplexed he was that the people were listening to the same sermons, the same teaching week after week. What Dan, the former pastor said next to the podcaster had a tone of heartbreak that every pastor can understand. “I was just in shock that both of these people didn’t think they could belong to the same community.” You read the same stories about the church these days that I do. That reality of church life has only magnified all the more, maybe to the nth degree since 2012.
“So in the present case,” Gamaliel said, “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” They were convinced by him, and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and let them go. The chief priests, the sadducees, and the elders were all convinced by the Gamaliel’s tidbit of wisdom. “If it is of God”. But? Yet? Then? They brought the apostles back in, had them flogged, and ordered them to stop speaking in the name of Jesus. Then…..they let them go. “And every day in the temple and at home, Peter and the apostles did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.” Yeah they were convinced by Gamaliel. And they still had them flogged and tried to silence them.
The most timeless, telling, lasting, predictor when it comes to the church and the fifth chapter of Acts is that violent act of flogging that foreshadows humankind’s mark on the church and humankinds desire to demonize the other while always looking to drive them out. But unlike the movements that followed Theudas and Judas the Galilean, those that Gamaliel pointed out had disappeared, the church of Jesus Christ is still here. We’re still here. Because the mark of Christ is always more indelible than the mark of humankind. The power, the strength, the peace, the love, and the presence of the Risen Jesus is and will always be greater. Because that’s what he promised. That’s what he taught. That’s how he lived. That’s how he died. That’s how he rose again. And we’re all, this all, we’re all still here, amid all the brokenness and sinfulness, amid all the ragtaggedness, inspite of and despite our feeble efforts, we’re, we’re all still here.
That’s because Jesus is stronger. I don’t preach that out of flimsy piety. It’s not a toss away phrase for me. It’s the promise that I live by, the promise that rests deep within my heart, the only way I find myself rising to live and serve as a pastor and preaching in the church, in the nation, in the world these days. The mark of Jesus bestowed at baptism is a mark that is always stronger. Or as I have reminded you again and again with the words of the First Letter of John. God is greater than our hearts.
Yes, there is a relentless relevance to that Fosdick sermon now 100 years old, a relentless relevance to the Christian landscape so devoted to tossing the other out…or worse. You and I, the extended community that is Nassau Presbyterian Church, our Savior Jesus Christ still calls us to a bold hospitality, to opt for love over hate, to lean always into tolerance, to welcome the stranger, to love the neighbor and to see the face of Jesus in those we are called to serve. God calls an empowers us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. The Apostle Paul exhorts us to be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is never in vain. And Jesus, well Jesus, he will never forsake us. And his mark is always, always stronger.