A piece of the story, that’s all we get here in Acts 5:27-32. A slice of life it is sometimes called. We skipped over Ananias and Sapphira—probably just as well, what a mess that one is. We stopped before we get to Gamaliel, good old Gamaliel, a politician’s politician. Maybe he was trying to do the right thing, or maybe he didn’t want to get his hands dirty. Who knows, but he isn’t in our story this week. We don’t even get the whole trial, or the arrest, or the complaint. It’s just a piece, just a slice of the story.
We don’t even go one more verse and see how angry these words make the powers that be. Verse 33: When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. Wow, overreaction, much? What had happened that caused such a reaction? “Wanted to kill them.” Surely there is something in the rest of the story that would explain the explosion here. Well, root around in there and see what you find. Surely, you think, there must be a rational reason behind the level of anger and frustration with the fledgling movement on the verge of becoming a church. Surely.
But it doesn’t seem so. Not a rational one anyway. And that’s just the point: this whole event defies rationality. The closest we might get is acknowledging that the powers that be don’t like change. And what is the Easter event but change in a dynamic and historic form? Therefore, Easter is unsettling. That’s our thesis for this series. No, wait, that’s a given. That’s a foundational statement. The thesis is because Easter is unsettling for the world, we need to be witnesses to the Easter event. Witnesses in every sense of the word.
Peter declares in his defense, “We are witnesses.” They told him that he wasn’t supposed to teach in the name of the crucified one, and yet he did it. So, what is the defense? We are witnesses. He says we saw something, and we have to talk about it. We participated in something, and we have to talk about it. More than that, he says we became something and there is nothing we can do but be proclaimers of this word. “We are witnesses” does not simply mean they are telling what they saw or what happened to them. It also means they have now become something new, something more, and they have to live out that proclamation every day of their lives. With every word, every encounter, every action, they are witnessing to that which defines their lives in a new and profound way.
You can almost picture Peter’s confusion as they challenge him on this point. In his mind, they are telling him to stop breathing, telling him to stop being Peter. He’s not angry; he’s not belligerent or defiant; he just is who he is. As if his simple statement explains it all: “We are witnesses.” This is who we are, your honor, we are witnesses. It is our life’s purpose, the meaning of our existence. It is what we do—what we will do despite the impediments that might be thrown in front of us.
Neither is he pleading for his life, asking to be let off with good, or at least explainable behavior. He is wise enough to know that judges are going to do what judges are going to do. Courts and laws are going to do what the status quo demands that they do. Likewise, he declares, we are going to do what we are going to do. Get used to it.
Okay, he doesn’t say, “Get used to it.” He doesn’t need to. It’s implied in his simple statement of fact: “We are witnesses.” Simple? Well, no, it isn’t at all simple. It is the opposite of simple, as Peter himself will discover as he continues to walk this path—as we are discovering as we seek to be made disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. There is nothing simple about it; or maybe better, there is nothing easy about it. It is simple, “We are witnesses,” but it is not easy, living every day representing the one you proclaim with your words, living a life of hospitality and invitation, living a life geared toward reconciliation and grace. No, it isn’t easy.
Thankfully there is more to Peter’s declaration than we’ve drawn attention to so far. Indeed, Peter says, “We are witnesses” as the whole of his defense against those who would defend the status quo. But there is more that he declares in that moment. Did you hear it? Did you see it? Do you know it even now?
What does he say? “We are witnesses . . . and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (5:32). Well now, that just changes everything, doesn’t it? If we focus on the first part of the declaration, we make it sound like it’s all up to us, that we have to make ourselves into the witnesses, into the disciples that we are trying to be, knowing that we are going to be lousy at it. But we keep trying and keep failing and keep trying and then maybe, after years of effort, we might be inches closer to our goal. If we start with the second half of the declaration, then it isn’t up to us at all. It is not our work that makes us who we are, who we are called to be, who we can be; it is God’s action through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Pressure’s off, then, right? Well, no, not really. There is still pressure, but it is a joyful pressure. Call it a desire, or a passion, to be a witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. It is a privilege to be a living pointer toward the kin-dom of God. There’s a both/and quality to this task we undertake, or this new identity we claim. There is effort on our part, work to be done, a harvest to gather: “We are witnesses.” But there is also the support and strengthening, the equipping that comes from the Holy Spirit. There is the divine presence that is with us always and is most often experienced in the community of faith that gives us the ability to continue the journey in all its ups and downs.
Declaring, with Peter, that “We are witnesses” may be an identity statement, but it is also an action statement. Dr. Darryl Stephens in Bearing Witness in the Kin-dom: Living into the Church’s Moral Witness through Radical Discipleship (United Methodist Women, 2021) writes, “the moral witness of the church encompasses our participation as Christians in God’s response to suffering and injustice in light of what we believe about God and God’s intention to reconcile all creation” (p.3). To be a witness is to step up to the plate and acknowledge that the kin-dom looks different from what we see around us today. And we want to be part of the effort that moves us closer to what God intends for human community to be. Stephens declares that this is not an optional task, but the responsibility of all who claim a place in the family. “Beginning with the sacrament of baptism,” he argues, we focus “upon what it means to follow Christ in a broken world and to join in God’s mission. Moral witness is a ministry of all of the baptized” (p.4).
When challenged, when asked why we continue in the charade of faith, as some are calling it, what will you say and how will you say it. Peter suggests we start with the simple declaration, “We are witnesses.”