“We must obey God rather than men.” —Peter, Acts 5:29

This phrase comes Sunday’s Readings from Acts in which Peter and the apostles respond to the authorities when they are questioned for their activities, which included not only teaching and “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” but also healing the sick, announcing salvation in Jesus’ name, incarnating what the Catechism calls the “universal destination of goods” by the disciplined sharing their possessions and having “everything in common,” gathering crowds witnessing their signs and wonders.

As one preacher put it recently, when Jesus said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” the “them” is church folk. It was especially the religious leaders of the day who were more worried about their relationship to the reigning Roman authorities than the Lord of Heaven and Earth. What a contrast we see in John’s Gospel is the abundant provision of Jesus who knows and shares with them just where to catch their nets and also in the call to Peter to lay down his life in loving care for Jesus’ sheep.

Thank God for all those who stand up to the abuse of political power and seek to follow instead the God of the universe, even at a cost to themselves. May God give us strength as we seek to pursue witness to life, justice, and peace in the face of a culture that often fails to honor the life and dignity of the human person.

Here is church historian Jaroslav Pelikan’s litany of such heroes of the faith (to which I had a few others!):

“Moses before Pharaoh, Elijah before Ahab and Jezebel, John the Baptist before Herod, Paul before the Sanhedrin and before Festus—and Ambrose before Theodosius, Theodore of Studios before Constantine VI, Luther before Charles V at the Diet of Worms, and Martin Luther King before the power structure of White America—all were expressing this obligation to appeal from the abuse of political power by human authorities to the ultimate sovereignty of God.”

And surely this list is incomplete (and falls prey to “man”) without (for starters) remembering Rahab before the spies, Deborah before Sisera and the Canaanites, Esther before Ahasuerus, Mary Mother of God before Gabriel, Mary Magdalene before the tomb, Junia before the scribes, Perpetua and Felicity before the military games of the magistrate, Catherine before Avignon, Joan of Arc before the English occupying government, Sojourner Truth before all manner of 19th Century white supremacy, Edith Stein before the Nazis, Dorothy Day before Capitalism and the weapons of this world, Leymah Gbowee before Charles Taylor—may God grant us such courage in the face of contemporary challenges.

 

–by Greg Walgenbach, Director of Life, Justice & Peace, Diocese of Orange