Sunday, April 24, 2022

Sermon: “The Path of Greater Resistance”, Joshua 5:13-15/Acts 5:17-32 (April 24, 2022)


“Obedience” is such a loaded term. While there are certainly times and places that obedience is seen as a positive quality, being told to obey something or someone usually offends our modern, freedom-loving sensibilities. For many of us, “obedience” implies an unquestioning deference to authority. As heirs to the legacies of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, obedience just doesn’t feel like a natural part of our communal identity.

Interestingly, though, human beings appear to be hardwired for obedience. In the 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram explored this topic in a famous experiment. He discovered that, contrary to his original hypothesis, most people will follow the instructions of an authority figure even when those instructions conflict with the individual’s own senses of empathy and morality.[1] Although Milgram’s experiment doesn’t explain WHY people behave this way, the indisputable fact is that we do, even today: newer versions of his study have all produced similar results, including several conducted in the 21st century.[2]

For some reason, obedience is an instinctive part of the human experience. My personal suspicion is that it has something to do with another reality of human psychology: we’re lazy. More scientifically put, when given a choice, human beings will almost always choose the path of least resistance.[3] Obedience and laziness may seem unrelated at first, but the path of least resistance doesn’t just refer to physical challenges – we’re lazy when it comes to mental and moral obstacles, too. And it is SO much easier to defer to someone else’s judgement than to do the hard work of decision making ourselves.

The well-established systems in human society make good use of this knowledge. They operate under the assumption that the best way to ensure continued obedience is to make the consequences of disobedience as difficult and unpleasant as possible. This ensures that compliance is always the path of least resistance. As a result, we’ve come to associate obedience with coercion, and we assume that it’s the only way for society to work. Misbehaving children get things taken away from them; naughty pets get yelled at; lawbreakers get thrown in prison. It’s how the world works.

It’s no wonder that the idea of obedience so often leaves a bad taste in our mouths. The choice between punishment and powerlessness is unpalatable, yet all too often, it’s the only choice that we’re given. As the path of least resistance, obedience is usually the choice we wind up making, and so the system that humanity created continues, unchallenged.

So it should come as no surprise that the high priests default to these same methods of obtaining obedience from the apostles. Of course, we read them as the “bad guys” in this passage, but in reality, they’re just doing what we would do in their shoes. They’re on the side of the law, the side of social order. They represent the human understanding of obedience. All of their experience tells them that punishment for disobedience is what keeps people in line: imprisonment, censure, and oppression are the tools of social order. Submission leads to obedience, which leads to a successful society.

We, like the biblical authorities, have become so invested in this “obedience or punishment” narrative that it’s subconsciously become the paradigm for all aspects of our lives. We read the Scriptures through the lens of human power dynamics – which, conveniently, keeps them from conflicting with the status quo. We live our faith according to the path of least resistance, doing whatever we can to keep ourselves out of trouble with both God and one another. Christians – especially U.S. American Christians – have decided that obedience to God looks just like obedience to earthly powers: keeping to ourselves, toeing the line, and avoiding trouble so that we can live our lives unperturbed. We assume that it’s what God wants, and we tell ourselves that it’s what the Kin[g]dom of Heaven looks like.

We seem to have forgotten that while God does indeed demand obedience from us, it’s very different from the sort of obedience that human beings demand from each other. Obedience to God is not a choice between eternal damnation and quiet submission. Unlike obedience to human authorities, obedience to God doesn’t restrict; it liberates. It doesn’t look like staying put; it looks like following where the Spirit leads. It doesn’t sound like holding your tongue; it sounds like bold proclamation. It doesn’t feel like defeat; it feels like resurrection. Obedience to God breaks the mold of what the word has come to mean over centuries of human interpretation.

The apostles understand this; the high priests and Sadducees do not. They’re perplexed by the apostles’ unusual behavior. They sputter, “Why are you acting like this? We did everything right! Prison should have sent a clear message: STOP TEACHING! And yet you refuse to obey us.” The authorities made the path of least resistance clear, but the apostles were determined to choose a different path. As Peter explains, we owe obedience to our creator, redeemer, and sustainer God before we owe it to each other. And when the two conflict, obedience to God wins every time. In Peter’s case, this means putting himself in risky positions, speaking up when others are trying to silence him, and pushing back against legitimate earthly authorities.

This is contrary to everything that this world tells us about obedience. It’s far from the path of least resistance; it’s more like the path of GREATEST resistance. It’s certainly much simpler to obey the human authorities. But that sort of obedience is designed to perpetuate the kingdoms of THIS world. And as a people who regularly pray for GOD’S kin[g]dom to come, we recognize that this isn’t what the world needs. We should be prepared to take a more difficult route, because the path of least resistance isn’t going to get us where we need to go.

This is the last thing that those invested in human power structures want. When we take the path of least resistance, power flows upward, from those obeying up to the authorities. When we choose the path of greater resistance by obeying God, however, this dynamic is turned on its head. While the human authorities use obedience as an opportunity to KEEP their power, God uses our obedience as a means of SHARING it. That’s the gift of the Holy Spirit, “whom God has given to those who obey him”, as Peter puts it. Again and again throughout the gospels and beyond, Christ pours out power and authority on those who obey God, not so that they might CONTROL others, but so that they might EMPOWER others in turn.

This is exactly what the high priests and Sadducees are afraid of. They see power as, at best, a hierarchical resource, and at worst, a finite one. They’re desperate to have the most, and that’s why they throw the apostles in prison, refrain from using force against these popular preachers, and are obsessed with being absolved of Jesus’ death: they’re walking a fine line between silencing their opponents and not giving anyone a reason to rebel. In a way, protecting their power is THEIR path of least resistance, because it allows them to avoid the complications of accountability and compromise. So, their lives become an endless battle to maintain power for themselves while withholding it from others.

But again, God doesn’t operate according to human rules. God has no interest in lifting one group above another. In the book of Joshua, just before the fall of Jericho, an angel appears to Joshua and refuses to affiliate with either the Israelites or the Gentiles. God’s Kin[g]dom has no use for such power delineations. It doesn’t matter who wins and who loses, who has power and who doesn’t. What matters is that God’s kin[g]dom comes to pass. Everything that humankind prioritizes is irrelevant. And when we choose to obey God, we’re committing to that same attitude.

In reality, obedience is about more than a simple hierarchy of power. If we’re hardwired for obedience even in the face of conflicting values, then obedience is ultimately the choice you make about who has authority of your soul. It should be a simple decision. But as logical a choice as it may be, obedience to God is a much more difficult path than obedience to earthly forces. It’s more than just “following the rules” to evade punishment. It’s more than just “backing the right horse”. This type of obedience requires us to think. It requires us to act. It requires us to break down barriers and push back against the status quo in ways that lift up the gospel message. It requires more than hasty political calculations; it requires discernment and measuring each choice we make against divine standards.

It’s nothing like the behavior that we usually associate with obedience. It’s so different, in fact, that we tend to call obedience to God by a different name: discipleship. Because what is discipleship if not willingly and joyfully following God’s will in every single aspect of our lives?

When we decide whether or not to obey an earthly authority, our first question should be whether obedience to them is compatible with discipleship. Is this something that God would ask of us? Is it going to stifle Christ’s message, or proclaim it? Is this something that benefits one side or another, or is it in service to God’s kin[g]dom alone?

It’s so much easier to just comply with whichever authority is the loudest, the most confident, the most powerful, but that’s not the path that we’re called to as disciples. Our human side tempts us towards the path of least resistance, but our imago dei calls us to the path of greater resistance. It challenges us to use the Holy Spirit’s gifts of discernment and wisdom to act in the name of love rather than power. This path is more difficult, but it’s the only one that leads to freedom: not just for the privileged and not just to do what we want, but for all of creation to be restored to lives of abundance and joy through Christ. It’s the only path that leads to genuine righteousness. And the path of greater resistance is the only path that leads to the kin[g]dom of God. “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.





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