If we are not already convinced that faith in Jesus constitutes a matter of utter life and death, we surely should perceive this clearly from the sections of Acts we are now reading. Of course we should know this from the crucifixion of Jesus. In case we do not, though, we must understand it from events involving followers of Jesus as described in Acts.
As reported in chapter 4, the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem had already detained and threatened Peter and John once for proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. Then, as recounted in the first part of chapter 5, a husband and wife associated with the community of Jesus-followers dropped dead after they tried to deceive the apostles about their supposed donations to the community! Additionally, as we read in today’s reading, the renown and authenticity of the good news increased as the believers gathered in public in the temple precincts and many healings took place.
People found the good news appealing and responded to the believers with approval. Many, though, showed reluctance to join the community of Jesus-followers out of fear of the authorities. The authorities justified this fear by imprisoning the apostles again to squelch the Jesus movement. Who among the believers and the crowds would not have understood and pictured vividly what happened to Jesus at the instigation of the authorities? Could it have been any clearer to all that faith in Jesus was a matter of life and death?
We have so many ways we try to compartmentalize, manage, and domesticate Jesus and faith in him. On a personal level, for example, we might convince ourselves that an hour in church on Sunday mornings fulfills the measure and duty of being “religious.” It is as if we could add Jesus to our lives as just one more nice component. Then on a cultural level, for example, we might think we have found the right place for Jesus and faith through an absolute and uncritical insistence on “separation of church and state,” or through relegation of religion to the private and not the public sphere, or through homogenization of different belief systems with talk of “spirituality” and “faith” in generic, non-specific senses.
What we see in Acts strongly indicates we cannot compartmentalize, manage, and domesticate Jesus and faith in him. The truth of Jesus – as we see in Acts, in the early church’s bold and wide proclamation of the good news (witness her martyrs!) – is that true faith in him, both then and now, means reputation, comfort, and even earthly life may be at risk. But then Jesus gave all for us. Can we give him less?