(May 18)

Then the captain went with the officers and brought them without violence, for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned. And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest (ὁ ἀρχιερεὺς) asked them, saying, ‘Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!’ But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey (πειθαρχεῖν) God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.’ When they heard this, they were furious and plotted to kill them.” (Acts 5: 26-33)

Today’s reading from the Book of Acts is yet another passage from the New Testament that appears at odds with contemporary Orthodox Christian church-culture. The behavior of the Apostles in the above-quoted reading seems to challenge two things we value very highly: 1. The authority of a traditional “council”; and 2. Obedience to men. I mean, to men endowed with traditional, religious authority, like a High Priest or “ἀρχιερεὺς.” Let’s remember that before His passion Christ did tell His disciples that the Jewish religious authorities “sit in Moses’ seat. So, practice and observe everything they tell you.” (Mt 23:2-3) He did add, “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach…,” yet this did not change that they owed these authorities their obedience.

But after Pentecost, something changed in this regard. And in today’s reading, we see the kind of obedience that the Apostles practiced and professed before the highest religious authorities of their time. St. Peter and the others do agree to be brought before the Supreme “Council” and court of the Jewish people, the Sanhedrim “without violence,” but they do not cease to testify to the truth “in this name,” in the name of Jesus Christ, which is something the Council “strictly commanded” them to stop doing. “We ought to obey (peith-archein, from “peitho” meaning trust/faith and “archo” meaning “rule/(have) authority”) God rather than men,” says Peter, reminding us that the apostolic Church is to trust/have faith in, and obey first and foremost God, and not any council of men, however traditionally-authoritative, when this council is not obeying the Holy Spirit.

As we read the Acts of the Apostles this liturgical season that leads to Pentecost, known as “the birthday of the church,” we’re reminded of certain basic aspects of being a church “apostolic”; of being a church that shares the kind of faith, witness, and obedience that were practiced and professed by the Holy Apostles. This is a season of ecclesiological reflection, especially vital in our time of ecclesiological crisis, when in our Russian Orthodox Church a “High Priest” presides over a “Council” (the “World Council of the Russian People”) that professes a murderous heresy of “Holy War,” blaspheming the Holy Spirit and demanding from his clergy absolute obedience to his agenda. Do we owe this “High Priest” our obedience? What would the Apostles do? I think today’s reading helps us answer that last question. Holy Apostles, pray to God for us!