Today’s readings are full of expressions of faith in God’s glory. It is a glory at which, as all the readings make clear, we cannot help but marvel. But what most hits home for me is the example in the lesson from Acts of how direct experience with that glory instills in men a courage they had not previously exhibited.
The scene in Acts is rather dramatic: The Sanhedrin, the very body that asked Pilate to put Jesus to death, has now summoned the Apostles to chastise them for disobeying direct orders to stop preaching in Jesus’ name. The underlying message is clear: The Sanhedrin holds de facto power over life and death, so the Apostles’ disobedience to the council is a life-risking endeavor.
Indeed, in the verses that follow today’s selection, we see that only the intervention of a wise Pharisee named Gamaliel stayed a death warrant – and even then, the Apostles were subjected to a beating for their disobedience.
Yet despite the threat, the Apostles stayed true to their Lord. “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” Peter said. This was, of course, the same Peter so previously fragile that he three times denied any association with Jesus during Jesus’ last hours on Earth. Yet now, facing the threat of death, Peter insists that his group’s experience of having been witnesses of the resurrection overcomes all other considerations.
In the later verses that complete the story, even after being beaten, the Apostles “departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were deemed worthy to suffer shame for his name.”
We can, and should, learn from this. No, of course nobody is calling on us to subject ourselves to beatings and then rejoice at them. But we should follow the Apostles’ examples of being willing to take stands on principle – especially when the principle involves our faith – even when there may be consequences that at least in the short-term are uncomfortable.
The man who goes along with the crowd even when he secretly knows the crowd is wrong is not a winner but a weakling.
Granted, it is also true that taking a contrarian’s position not for real principle, but just for the sake of standing out, is not heroic but merely vain (or worse). But if the lonely stand is deeply and prayerfully considered, and if it is taken for the sake of a cause greater than self, then it is what we are called to do.
Think of the freedom marchers crossing the Pettus Bridge near Selma, Alabama. Think of the student standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square in China. Think of Martin Luther (whatever else you think of him or his theology) taking his then-lonely, and risky, stand against the sale of indulgences – a stand the Catholic Church itself later acknowledged was largely correct.
Luther said he could “do no other” because it was his duty.
Indeed, sometimes such stands are our duties, too.
And, if our duty is done in service of the Lord, in celebration of His resurrection, His glory, and His love, then it is a duty that should lead us to rejoice.