If you ever needed proof that the Bible is, in fact, quite dangerous, then you can use this text as your prime example.  It shows us, here in this moment in Acts when Peter and the other disciples have been called before the Sadducees – the religious authorities of the time – to account for their actions, their daring to preach on the Temple grounds.  We see in this passage what a revolutionary text – what a revolutionary preaching, this is.  There is recognition in this moment that the living and the preaching of the Gospel is not always popular, not always safe.  It is a reminder that preaching, and teaching, and living the Gospel, we are all of us called to difficult choices and difficult places.

We don’t have to go far back into history at all to recognize that.  If you’ve ever seen the movie Dead Man Walking, then you know Sr. Helen Prejean, who accompanied those who were on Death Row.  People who had done horrible things.  Her call was to minister to them.  It didn’t necessarily earn her any accolades among people who had been good all their lives, didn’t necessarily earn her any accolades among her own religions community.  But it was the Gospel.  I don’t need to remind you of what it is that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did – his own way of living the Gospel, his own way of calling us all to that mountaintop.  And I don’t need to remind you of what it cost, either.  Those of you who have heard me preach for a while know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer who gave up a position at Columbia University in the 1930s, to return to his native Germany, despite the risk, and to start there a Christian community that wouldn’t be co-opted by the authoritarian regime.  He went back to show people how to be Christian under an authoritarian regime.  That, in itself, should have gotten himself locked up in that time and in that place – well before he ever decided to dabble in politics.  Living and teaching and preaching the Gospel can get you into trouble.  Ask the Massachusetts Conference Minister, the Rev. Jim Antal, who was arrested with several others about a month ago for protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline in Washington DC.

These people are not weirdos, but a part of our sacred tradition, following in the footsteps of Peter and the other disciples, arrested on charges of… preaching the Gospel.  And living the Gospel.  In these few verses, in this tiny sliver of a very long story in the book of Acts, we have a stunning call to, not only a joyful discipleship, a Resurrection discipleship, but a costly one as well.  We have a wake-up call for everyone who attends worship every Sunday and yet walks away untransformed, unmoved by what can happen in this place.  This text is a wake-up call for all of us who value convenience, and comfort and pleasure – which is, I believe, everyone.  We’re human, after all.  This is a wake-up call that reminds us that following God, rather than following humanity, isn’t always going to be a simple case of standing up to fearful, power-hungry authority, as we see with the Sadducees in this case, that indeed the lines aren’t always so clear-cut.  They’re nearly never quite this black and white, with somebody coming to us, saying, “Now, don’t you preach in Jesus’ name anymore!”

Because that would be easy, wouldn’t it?

But that brings us to the other reason that this book is so dangerous.  This book out of which we try to live our lives, this Gospel narrative; this Bible is dangerous because it can be so easily misused.  It can be so easily used to justify our own worldviews, rather than challenging us to see things in the way that God does, and the way that God would have us do.  To suggest that we have a right to do all of the violence that we want – to each other and to creation.  Which sounds a little harsh, but let’s just take one verse: Genesis 1:28, where God says to Adam, “Fill the Earth and subdue it.” We took that one and ran with it, didn’t we?  Seven billion people later, and what have we done with Earth’s resources?  I’m pretty sure that when God said that to Adam, God wasn’t talking rape and pillage.  Just a gut feeling.  But that’s certainly how we took it, and a lot of that has been done with religion as the justification.

The Bible has been used throughout history to subjugate people.  Just in the past couple of hundred years, the Bible has been used to justify colonialism, racism, sexism, slavery.

This forces us to an inevitable truth, although it’s one we don’t particularly like to hear: we all cherry-pick.  We’re all “cafeteria Christians” – we walk along with our tray, picking what we want and leaving the rest in warming trays.  We have to read the Bible that way, it’s the only possible way to read it.  Because it is not one great, coherent text, is it?  It was written over too many hundreds of years, in too many times, in too many places, by too many  different authors speaking to too many audiences, with too many agendas in mind.  It was a text written in too many languages, all of which have been translated, and updated, and interpreted, and distilled down into sound-bytes and images, especially ones that fit well into a given time and place.  We don’t see the Bible as justifying slavery anymore, because we’re not trying to justify slavery anymore, although if you dig a little bit in the text, it’s not that hard to do.  We justify other things, now, instead.

And that’s not even talking about all of the times when this book that we hold so dear is twisted and perverted in ways that are so subtle that we often miss them.  We read a quote, a little while ago in Bible study, and it was shocking to hear it: it started off really familiar, but it didn’t end in the way that people thought it did.  Because it started off, “Whoever is not…” and it seemed like something we’d heard a lot recently and knew well.  But the quote is actually, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:20) Funny, that’s not the way we usually hear that one, anymore.

We don’t like to admit to picking and choosing. We don’t like to call ourselves cafeteria Christians, despite being so.  But the more we use this book for our own self-justification, the less likely we are to admit to how we read it in reality.  And that makes it more dangerous.  Because it turns the Bible, an already-dangerous, already-revolutionary text, into a weapon.  One we can wield, against those who disagree.  Something we can use to bash them over the head. Which makes the Bible not just revolutionary but really violent.

I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, if you’ve been reading this blog for more than one post or so, that I’m a fairly political person.  And for someone like me, this has been an interesting week in terms of the examination of violence.  A lot went on this week.  There was a DA in Texas killed, as well as a Prison Official in Colorado – and those two cases seem linked.  There were admissions this week that state legislators in several different states have been given extra protection because they brought up the issue of gun control in their states.  Just bringing up that issue was enough for one state legislator in Maryland to call, on his Facebook page, for the formation of an armed militia to overthrow the government.  It’s been an interesting week in violence when we consider the attempts at voter suppression in North Carolina.  It’s been an interesting week in violence when we look at the firing of the Rutgers University basketball coach after a video showed him abusing students.  It’s been an interesting week, when we look at the commemorations in disparate places over disparate issues, commemorations of lives lost to violence and violence that broke out as a result of lives lost.  The life of George Tiller, the only physician who performed abortions in Kansas, who was shot dead in church, but whose clinic will reopen this week.  The life of the Rev. Dr. King, with the anniversary of his assassination this week.  The suicide just the other day of Matthew Warren, son of the evangelical pastor Rick Warren.  It’s all spurred a lot of discussion in many circles in my life, around violence and mental health and theology.

It’s spurred a lot of thought in my own head, around violence, and power, and fear.  Because these are very closely intertwined.  People who are afraid, who are insecure – and I think that’s a lot of us, frankly – will find and hang onto power in any way possible.  They will take whatever authority is granted them and hang onto it with both hands, white-knuckled.  And when they feel threatened, they will perform acts of violence.  Not necessarily physical – there are other forms, as well.  They will perform acts of violence, as this week demonstrated time and time again, as the past weeks have demonstrated time and time again.  And nearly always, it is a fear response, whether the threats are real or perceived.

And we see that in today’s scripture as well.  Because what we see is not Peter and the disciples hauled in for breaking the law, precisely: they were just hanging out in Solomon’s Portico at the Temple, preaching their own brand of reform Judaism with a resurrection thrown in for good measure.  But the Sadducees didn’t see it that way – the Sadducees who were already in a precarious position, who were already clinging as hard as they could to whatever power they were allowed by the Romans.  And they saw this little group – granted, this growing group – but still, this relatively little group in Jerusalem of Jesus followers, and they were afraid.  Insecure in their position already, they feared their own loss of power.  They feared what the Romans would do to them, if they allowed this to continue.  One among them – if you kept reading in this passage, you would hear about Gamaliel – the one among them who argued against killing the disciples only did so because he was afraid too.  He, at least, had the good sense to be afraid of God, and to sense that killing the disciples might not serve the establishment well in the long run, but what he couldn’t do was to totally dispel the fear response of the Sadducees.  Now that they had hauled Peter and the disciples in, now that they had heard what they had to say, they had to respond to it in some way, shape or form – because the disciples were questioning authority.  So the Sadducees took them out and had them flogged.  Their fear of God only went so far against their fear of losing face, losing status.

And in this particular scripture, we certainly see the disciples as sympathetic characters, and we don’t want to see anyone get flogged – bad enough that we had to see that happen to Jesus, who was flogged and killed for a very similar fear response.  We look at the disciples and rejoice that they’re finally getting everything right, but we also have to remember that this is a very parenthetical moment in the Bible.  The disciples get it, finally, but back in the Gospels, that never happened.  The disciples were the one questing after power and authority; they were the ones promoting violent revolution.  Peter himself was the one who cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, when they came to arrest Jesus. Fear response: leads to violence, yet again.  Just a year before this scripture, it was the disciples themselves.  Soon enough, there will be epistles to the young churches, letters that address the struggles for power and authority that always come up when you have a group of human beings hanging out together.  We read Paul’s responses to what was going on in those churches, begging them to do exactly what Peter said to the Sadducees.

When we read the Bible, we can’t help but be reminded that it’s a human book.  It is a book full of human weaknesses and human understandings, of people who are not unlike us, who don’t want to change.  Who don’t want to be challenged, and who certainly don’t want to relinquish control because the status quo is just fine, thank you. And that only serves us once again as a reminder of just how dangerous the Bible really is, how dangerous it can be when we start thinking of God being like us, rather than of ourselves as striving to be like God.

Which is what we’re called to do.

That’s Peter’s great call, in this moment as he faces the Sadducees: we must obey God, rather than human authority.

Which leaves us where, exactly?  When our scriptures are so dangerous, so often misused and so prone to humanity: that leaves us on thin ice.

Some will say – I have often said, and you will hear me say it again – that if there is any love within us, that should be the lens.  That should be how we read these scriptures, the guide to how we treat one another.  But even love is corruptible.  The people at the Westboro Baptist – I cannot call that a church – you know, the ones who picket military funerals with hate-filled signs?  Do you know why they do it?  In their own words, they do it because they love us all so much.  They want us to be saved.  They don’t want us to burn in hell, which they are absolutely convinced that every last one of us is going to do.  That is their version of a loving response.  So you can see how that, too, can be dangerous.

It makes us realize that love is not the first step on the path to discipleship.  It can’t be.  Because when love is the first step, then you can tell a grieving mother at a military funeral that you love her so much that you’re going to make her grief worse.  It starts before that, this path to discipleship that we’re all on.  It starts a long time before that, before we’re ready to step up and love anyone else.  Perhaps we, too, as Christians, need to take a Hippocratic Oath: remind ourselves to first, do no harm.

We need to turn this whole thing around, and examine the violence that we continually do to one another in God’s name.  Physical hurts, because that still does happen on a regular basis.  But more commonly, more subtly: the shaming, the bullying that we continually inflict one upon another.  The denial of humanity, of equality, of dignity, even of the right to have a voice.  We have to start there.  We have to start well before the imagined future reactions of the other, the one to whom we are speaking so lovingly; we have to start before we imagine, “Oh, aren’t they going to be so grateful for all the love that I am turning in their direction!” – which is really quite patronizing.  We need to see underneath all of that, our own motivations, our own reactions, our own fears, that keep us from hearing God saying anything other than what we want God to say.  We need to recognize the motivations, the pulls of comfort and complacency, of the knee-jerk resistance to change that exists within each and every one of us, especially if it really asks something of us, in the process.  We have to start with the need to see others – however it is that we “other” people, by race or gender or religion – we need to start by seeing them as something that isn’t simply “less-than”.  We need to start by seeing that this is a large creation and that we, all seven billion of us, are not the sole inheritors.  Are not the sole beloved of God.  Are not the only ones with lives at stake.

Before we can ever love, before we can get to that point on this road set before us, on the Way that is Jesus Christ, we must ask ourselves: what on earth are we afraid of, anyway?

We must obey God rather than human authority.  We must be called outside of ourselves, able to see beyond ourselves; but first we need to take the initial steps.  We need to be able to see one another in love, and to treat one another with respect, humans and all of Creation. You’ve heard that from me before, and believe me that you will hear it again.  But we have to be ready.  We have to be able to hear the still, small voice of the still-speaking God whispering from among the myriad of human voices that pervade our scripture and our tradition.  To hear within our own hearts the pervasive fears, the ease with which we hurt each other in the name of a God who would hurt no one.  To ask ourselves what really is at stake as we worship, and pray, and bring our faith out into the world.  We have to know our own hearts, before we can call them God’s, before we can call ourselves obedient.

We must obey God rather than human authority.  What better place to start than with ourselves?

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