“… The high priest questioned them, “We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop teaching in that name….” But Peter and the apostles said in reply, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:27-29)
St. Luke tells us in his chronicle of the missionary activity of the Apostles, that the party of the Sadducees had St. Peter and his companions locked up out of “jealousy”. The Apostles had been very successful in the Spirit winning over new disciples for the ascended Jesus through convincing preaching and miraculous healings. The Jewish authorities judged preaching in the name of Jesus to be a heresy that offended the Lord, the God of Moses. Even the sincere and pious Jew likely believed that the name of the one LORD was threatened by the name of Jesus. Such a one failed to understand his Messianic faith.
Yet, the most reasonable Jew in authority should never have set out to mistreat a fellow Jew who followed this new way. In fact it was a Pharisee of the Sanhedrin (which interrogated the Apostles) who suggested that the authorities let the Apostles be (Acts 5:38). He surmised this new teaching would either self-destruct or prove the will of God. This Pharisee, Gamaliel, “a teacher of the law” likely saw Peter as a devout Jew who, misguided or not, taught the spirit of the Mosaic Law. Gamaliel knew of other (false) Messiahs, and that the true Messiah could not be gainsaid in life or death (and certainly not in resurrection). Gamaliel proposed a policy of watch-and-see: would Peter “peter-out”?
If only our own authorities would take his advice. Our civil authority often refuses to watch for the benefits to society of the full Gospel message. The state would rather command this message suborning the Gospel to its own purpose. Even some in Church authority have become accustomed to presenting a pre-packaged Gospel, judged suitable for the world, while they stow away faithful traditions and true teachings. However, any institution, civil or religious, that refuses to acknowledge an obvious benefit of a tradition in favor of a blind obligation to an innovation, will find itself in a perpetual state of loss and frustration.
Now we could not find a proper image of Peter standing before the Sanhedrin, so instead we are placing on our bulletin cover for this 3rd Sunday in Easter a work by the great Florentine, Dominican-religious painter, Fra Angelico, which depicts St. Stephen in his interrogation before the Sanhedrin. It is entitled, Dispute before Sanhedrin (1449). We can easily imagine St. Peter fixed in Stephen’s place, brought before the authorities for preaching about the life of Jesus after being charged not to (Acts 5:28).
This beautiful fresco in the Niccoline Chapel in the Vatican Palace is a wonderful example of an Early Renaissance work which makes its point with the multiple gestures of its figures. Stephen expresses the same hope Peter would have shown in the life of Jesus Christ, even in the face of great threat by an authority seeking to crush it. We too are called to go out and profess our faith in Christ and His Church even as we face ever-new threats and suppressions to the love and truth of God.
–Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services