Acts 4:13-21; Acts 5:27-29
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, July 3, 2011



We still have six months to go before the end of the year, but I suspect we already know how 2011 will be remembered: The Year of the Revolution.  One young street vendor in Tunisia could no longer tolerate the control and corruption of his government, so in protest, he set himself on fire.  This desperate act of self-immolation sparked a wildfire that quickly spread to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Libya and other North Africa and Middle East countries.  No longer intimidated to remain silent, protestors took to the streets in country after country demanding the overthrow of their dictators and a desire for democracy.  The Arab Spring, as it has become known, finds several nations struggling to reinvent themselves as their citizens put their lives at risk by defiantly speaking out against governing authorities that have repressed them for decades.

On the Fourth of July, we in American celebrate the revolution that won our nation's independence from Britain and began the process that created a constitution that enshrined certain liberties and a new notion of limited political authority in which leaders ruled, not by military might, but by the consent of the people.

As we celebrate the freedoms we enjoy as citizens of the United States, we cheer on the courageous protestors fighting for freedom in their own lands, but we also fear that the vacuum will be filled by religious extremists who seek a theocracy rather than a democracy.  Today's passage from the Book of Acts prompts us to reflect on the intersection of religious belief and governing authorities.

This morning's text tells of the activities of the followers of Jesus in the early days following Christ's resurrection and the Day of Pentecost.  Peter, John and other disciples are teaching and healing in Christ's name and the religious authorities in Jerusalem seek to silence them.  Peter and John are ordered to stop speaking in the name of Jesus.  The authorities threaten the disciples with punishment; then dismiss them.

However, Peter, John and the others refuse to obey.  They refuse to be intimidated into silence because they are no longer the frightened, cowering disciples who ran and hid behind closed doors when Jesus was arrested and crucified.  They are now bold, determined disciples who have been transformed by the resurrected Christ and filled with energy and passion by God's Spirit.  They defy the religious authorities by picking up where they left off, teaching and healing in Christ's name.

The authorities drag them before their council and the high priest declares, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching."  Peter and the others respond with words that have thundered down through the ages: "We must obey God rather than any human authority."

Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan said, "To obey God rather than man, and to protest that human laws of the state and nation cannot contravene the divine law of the sovereign God, has been the unanimous teaching of both the Old and New Testament, as well as the subsequent history of the church since the earliest centuries.  Moses before Pharaoh, Elijah before Ahab and Jezebel, John the Baptist before Herod, Paul before the Sanhedrin...Martin Luther before Charles V and Martin Luther King, Jr. 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."1 As followers of Christ, our loyalty to God obligates us to stand up to the abuse of political power and to express our religious beliefs.

How far does our loyalty to God extend?

Our loyalty to God trumps all other allegiances.  That does not mean that we have no loyalty to our family, no loyalty to our work, no loyalty to our nation.  It means that all of our commitments are practiced in ways that do not conflict with our faithfulness to God.  When we pledge our allegiance to our nation, we do not do it at the expense of the call of Christ to love God and our neighbor.  Our devotion to our nation does not free us to demonize our enemy because that would conflict with our faithfulness to God who creates every person in God's image.  Our loyalty to our nation does not give us permission to neglect the demands of justice, because God calls on us to seek justice for all people and to keep a special eye out for the poor and the neglected.

In every nation, there are calls to give one's country ultimate allegiance.  First Century Christians were persecuted because they placed God before Caesar.

In the 20th Century, we witnessed the evil that can result when loyalty to the nation is given priority over loyalty to God.  After taking power in 1933, Adolf Hitler called upon the citizens of Germany to give allegiance to their nation above all else.  The people were instructed to obey the new laws of the Nazi regime even when those laws conflicted with God's law.

Ironically, it was on the Fourth of July 1933, when the first of 430 laws aimed at excluding Jews from German society was passed.  It was called the "Law for the Reconstruction of the Civil Service" and it removed all Jews from civil service jobs.  That was just the beginning of the racism and antisemitism fostered by the Nazi regime.  Other laws prohibited Jews from walking in public or having a driver's license.  One law prohibited landlords from renting to Jews, making many homeless.

While the majority of the people either joined ranks with the Nazis or gave tacit approval, there were some courageous individuals who refused to put the laws of country before the commandments of God.  Christian leaders formed an organization known as the Confessing Church of Germany, and in 1934 drafted the Barmen Declaration which stated that their loyalty to God trumped all other loyalties.  They wrote: "Jesus Christ, as He is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and death.  We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation."2

One of the marvelous privileges of living in the United States is that our nation was founded on principles that respect and protect basic human rights.  These principles are the biblical principles of liberty, justice for all, the necessity of working for the common good and respect and protection for every human being.  The Declaration of Independence states: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all (people) are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

But what about the Arab nations currently in various stages of revolution?  The citizens of Egypt and Tunisia have toppled their tyrants, while the people of Libya and Syria are in active revolt.  In Egypt and Tunisia, the people are trying to form new societies by creating new constitutions.  If they follow this principle of loyalty to God above all other loyalties, does this dictate that their nations will become Muslim theocracies?

Not at all.  No nation should create a society around a specific, narrowly defined expression of faith that consists of rigid religious rules.  In establishing the governing rules for an entire nation, which includes people with different faiths and no faith at all, obeying God means to use the broad themes of religion that the great majority can support, not those that promote one interpretation of faith against others.

By this I mean that it will not do to create a constitution that prescribes restrictive religious practices that limit personal freedom, such as unequal treatment of women or prescribed religious observances.  Instead, obeying God when drafting the governing principles of a nation means creating laws that promote the religious principles of liberty, justice, respect for the individual and concern for the common good.

Some want to insist that the United States is a Christian nation.  Others argue that religious faith played no role in the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Neither position seem right to me.  What has enabled our democracy to weather 235 years and to become an attractive model for others, is that our founders created a constitution based on biblical principles but did not establish a state religion.  The founders of our country guaranteed religious freedom and insured that no religious institution was given priority over others.  Each person can worship as he/she chooses.  You can be a Roman Catholic, a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a Quaker.  You can be a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist or none of the above.

New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman, says that a Libyan friend was watching satellite TV of a demonstration in Benghazi, Libya when a demonstrator held up a sign that caught his eye.  Friedman says that "If there is one sign that sums up the whole Arab uprising, it's this one."  The sign read: "I am a man."

Friedman points out that the Arab regimes had "stripped their people of their basic dignity.  They deprived them of freedom and never allowed them to develop anywhere near their full potential."  This demonstrator's sign that read I am a man meant: "I have value, I have aspirations, I want the rights most everyone else in the world has."3

Judge Learned Hand was one of our country's outstanding jurists.  He has been quoted by the Supreme Court more than any other lower court judge.  Here is what he said about liberty:

"The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women. . .it weighs their interests alongside its own, it remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded. . .the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, 2,000 years ago, taught humanity a lesson it has never learned but has never quite forgotten: that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest."4

All people, regardless of race, religion, culture or economic standing thirst for freedom, justice and respect.  Denying these basic human rights is a prescription for revolution.  Removing dictators from power is step one in the Arab uprisings.  Now, they must do the difficult work of drafting new laws for their countries.  Whether or not they make the transition to democracies will not be known for some time to come.  For the sake of their people and for the sake of our world, we hope and we pray they are successful.

The Arab Spring reminds us that we are incredibly blessed to live in a nation where we cannot be silenced when we feel compelled to speak out against political authorities.  Enshrined in our constitution are the freedom of speech and the freedom to worship as we desire.  Let us pray that those who create new constitutions after toppling dictators, have the wisdom and the will to do the same.



  1. Dan Clendenin, "We Must Obey God Rather Than Men: With Gratitude to Morgan Tsvangirai" journeywithjesus.org April 9, 2007.
  2. The Theological Declaration of Barmen (Germany, 1934).
  3. Thomas L. Friedman, "I Am a Man," New York Times, May 14, 2011.
  4. Joanna Adams, "The Predicament of Freedom," Day1.org July 1, 2007.