Winston Churchill was, by his own admission, not a Christian man. At Harrow School he attended three services every Sunday, besides morning and evening prayers throughout the week. He later remarked: ‘All this was very good. I accumulated in those years so fine a surplus in the Bank of Observance that I have been drawing confidently upon it ever since.’ After several brushes with death he had a strong belief in Providence but not in Christ, despite being sympathetic to the church. He was amused to have appointed more bishops than any believers that he knew and once famously remarked ‘I could hardly be called a pillar of the Church, I am more in the nature of a buttress, for I support it from the outside.’
That the cause of the gospel has benefitted down the centuries from those have treated believers and the church sympathetically from the outside is obvious. It is a gift of God’s providence and a matter of thanksgiving. This should not surprise us as readers of the Hebrew scriptures. If God can use even the Babylonians as His servant to warn and judge his people how much appropriate that a ruler like Cyrus, who returns the exiles to their land, be praised as God’s servant.
The sympathetic treatment of the early believers by outsiders, even when they do not embrace their message, is a major theme of Acts. In the second century Christian apologetics became a major theological enterprise. It was aimed not just at converting people to Christ if they will allow their hearts to be opened to the gospel. Apologetics also intended to protect the church’s freedom to proclaim the gospel by getting those in authority to acknowledge the healthiness of her faith even if they do not themselves adopt it. For the early Christians this was not about gaining political power or influence, it was the honest articulation of their faith to those who were afraid of what did not understand. It was a matter of survival and of winning a social space to live and speak for Christ in a hostile world.
This principle goes back to Acts and the incident that we heard today. What is surprising here is not the sympathy with which Christians are treated – throughout Acts a long list of Roman provincial governors and their underlings treat the early believers with remarkable sympathy. What is surprising is that the sympathiser is an influential Jew – the respected Pharisaic teacher called Gamaliel. Peter has defied the Jewish authorities by continuing to preach Jesus despite being bound over not to do so – a nice and important counterpoint to what Paul teaches about accepting civic authority in Romans 13. For Peter it’s not an even ethical dilemma – forced to choose between obedience to human authority and God, there is no choice at all, a point made in both chapter 4 and chapter 5 of Acts.
Gamaliel does not defend the apostles on the basis of some general principle of live and let live. The principle that success of a religious movement can be used to judge it truthfulness is so obviously nonsense that that’s not it either. Gamaliel simply gave some examples of recent movements that seemed popular at the time but eventually dispersed. The criterion by which to judge a movement is not success or popularity but it’s divine inspiration. If you oppose it and it is God’s work you will be working against God. The apostles are still flogged and told not to preach but their lives are saved and the gospel continues to be preached in the Temple and from house to house.
Perhaps like so many Jews, Gamaliel understood instinctively the value of a sympathetic outsider to God’s people.
One of the most moving days of my life was visiting the Holacaust memorial centre Yad Vashem outside Jerusalem. Its title means ‘a hand and name’ and is a quote from Isaiah 56.5 where the Lord promises to the childless in Israel ‘a monument and name better than sons and daughters’. It was powerful, shocking and tear-jerking in to see over six million names constantly scrolling down a huge wall and it punched home the vast horror of the Nazis attempt at industrialised extermination of a whole race. But I wept most and I still weep now thinking about it when I came upon The Garden of the Righteous amongst the Nations – the memorial inscribing and honouring the names of those gentiles who risked their own safety and wellbeing to protect Jews. Some did this out of simple common humanity, others from deep Christian conviction. There was the name of industrialist Oskar Schindler – of Ark or List fame hardly a righteous man in the conventional sense. There too was Corrie Ten Boom who lost her beloved sister Betsie in Ravensbrück concentration camp after they hid Jews in their Haarlem house for two years before they were betrayed and sent to a concentration camp. The Jews hidden behind a false wall in Corrie’s bedroom escaped detection. Inscribed there too was Dutch Calvinist family related to a Dutch family in my home church growing up.
Initially I did the traditional British thing and controlled my tears. Then I did the emergency British thing and found a private corner in the garden and wept buckets for half an hour. I gave thanks quietly for the sheer compassion, conviction and courage that so many of Jesus’ followers showed in standing with his fellow Jews when the reputation of the church in this respect is so often traduced. They repaid at great personal cost part of what Gamaliel had given them in his day: doing what he could for the other when it was right in God’s eyes not because it was expedient.
Lord, as we consider our daily walk make us wise to see what we should do day by day to adorn the gospel and glorify the Lord Jesus in the eyes of those around. And help us also to see what we might do to aid those who need us to stand with them and so shine the light of Jesus into the darkness of our world. Amen.