Reading the Acts of the Apostles each day during the Easter season gives us a taste of the “first fervor” of the early church in the weeks and months after the resurrection. Group adrenalin is high, to say the least. Several followers of Jesus were disciplined by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, and imprisoned overnight before a Sanhedrin meeting. The story says they were let loose in the night by an intervention of an angel and sent by the Spirit back to the Temple next day. Needless to say, the leaders were flabbergasted that their detainees had vanished from the jail, and even more when they heard reports of renewed preaching in the temple area.
Once our heroes were back in custody, they were duly reprimanded, “We gave you strict orders not to preach about this man.” But this cease and desist order falls on deaf ears, because the followers of Jesus are listening to a different drummer to whom there is no comparison.
“We must obey God rather than men.” This is their pledge of allegiance to a higher authority than the Sanhedrin. Reading this bold claim two thousand years later, we affirm their steadfast commitment to spreading the new faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, despite the objections of the highest level of Jewish authorities. We are the recipients of the faith because of their courage.
At the same time, we recall how that pledge of allegiance can express the conviction of a fanatic who may harm others “because God told me to do it.” The zeal to announce the gospel no matter what human leader may object gives energy to overcome human obstacles. But the presence of the faith community serves to support authentic evangelization in the face of resistance.
Of course, fanatics also claim such divine authority for their destructive actions, caught up with their expressed convictions of being on a mission from God. Sorting out the authentic prophets from God is a necessary but challenging task. Often we don’t know whom to follow until the dust settles.
(Father Paul Zilonka, C.P. is Director of Formation for the Passionist Community in Chicago, Illinois).