*This post is excerpted from a sermon on Acts 3:1-12a; 4:1-4.
My friend, Jay Yoder, has been supporting Black organizers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and shared a video of what happened when they were filming police badge numbers: as Jay neared the end of the line of officers, one stepped forward and, with no warning or provocation, sprayed pepper spray in Jay’s face.
This is just one example of the images of protests I’ve seen over the past few weeks. And with these images playing in my head and heart as background, there is one phrase from this Acts reading that really stands out to me: “much annoyed.”
The priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees were “much annoyed” with Peter and John. So they arrested them.
I suppose it really is annoying when what is supposed to be a calm and orderly day at the temple turns into a mass gathering where someone other than an authorized temple official is teaching the people. Where someone is encouraging people to question the status quo.
In this story, the authority figures are “the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees.” In studying this passage, I learned that the captain of the temple was in charge of the various units of guards. They were, essentially, in charge of the temple police. It was the captain’s job to maintain order in the temple courts. And these two men, Peter and John, were a clear threat to that order. Annoying.
It was a dangerous system in First Century Jerusalem, and it is a dangerous system in the United States today–when a select group of people is given a mandate to “maintain order” and also given the tools and training and permission to use violence to do it.
This word, “annoyed” stuck out to me in the reading because that seems the only possible provocation for my friend Jay’s pepper spraying. Jay wasn’t threatening physical violence. They weren’t breaking a law. They weren’t even making snarky, insulting comments. They were just . . . annoying people who happened to have pepper spray and flash grenades and batons and guns.
Of course, while Peter and John’s little rally in the temple courts was annoying, it was also more than that. The message of Jesus—while he lived on earth and then as presented by his followers after his ascension—was greatly disturbing, deeply upsetting to the dominant power structure. If we take Jesus’ teachings seriously, it disrupts not just our personal belief systems, but also our comfortable social hierarchies, our economic structures, our so-called “justice” systems.
And these protests–the black-led, Black Lives Matter protests–are presenting a message in-line with the teachings of Jesus. A message as disruptive as the message of Jesus. Because they are not merely asking for a change in people’s personal beliefs. It’s not enough for white people to have black friends and agree that yes, we think racism is bad.
After Eric Garner, after Michael Brown, after Sandra Bland, after Tamir Rice, after Alton Sterling, after George Floyd. After decades of black men having a greater chance of going to jail than going to college. After continuing job discrimination and housing discrimination. It’s not enough to just be nice to black people. There are systems, entrenched social and economic and political systems, that need to be changed.
And boy is it annoying when people say that. Especially when they say it to a large crowd that seems to be listening.
I hope we are listening. I pray we are listening. I hope and pray that Christians today can be just as annoying as those first followers of Jesus.