“Face-Off” A Sermon on Acts 4:5-13

In Sermons by Natalie Webb

 

Scripture Reading: Acts 4:5-13

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem,with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.

 

We’re picking up close to where we left off last week in the Book of Acts, the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, that Luke wrote to chronicle the birth and growth and development of the church. It’s kind of like the church’s baby book – here’s the birth certificate (or in this case, the story of Pentecost); instead of lists of baby’s first hiccups, first time to sit up, first steps, Acts remembers the first Christian sermon, the first Gentiles to receive the Holy Spirit, the first commissioned missionaries, the first church big business meeting at the Jerusalem council. Instead of measuring weight and length and height, Acts records numbers of believers and what churches were started where. And like in a baby book where you might see a sweet snuggly picture of a calm angelic child on one page and a screaming, drooling mess on the next, and baby’s first trip to the ER after that, Acts bears witness to moments of beautiful moments of joy and hope alongside moments of uncertainty and risk.

Today we read part of Peter’s defense to the rulers, elders, and high priests of Jerusalem – an especially tense moment when the fledgling church has its very first face-off with the authorities. Just a few months before this moment, Peter and the other disciples had avoided such a face-off by, well… running away from it. The rulers, elders, and high priests they are now facing make up the same council that Jesus faced alone, not long before. These are the same authorities who came to arrest Jesus in the garden on Good Friday, who found Jesus guilty and passed him to Pilate for sentencing, who scoffed at Jesus hanging on the cross, daring him to save himself if he were really the messiah. The same people who brought Jesus before Annas & Caiaphas, the high priestly family, to accuse him of blasphemy, now bring Peter and John to the same priests, Annas & Caiaphas, to accuse them of heresy.

“By what power or by what name did you do this?” They’re referring to the incident that we read about last week: Peter and John were on their way into the Temple to pray when they noticed a disabled man begging outside the gate. Peter stretched out his hand to the man and invited him, “in the name of Jesus, stand up and walk.” Next thing we know, the man is up and in the Temple, frolicking around with joy and praise in a place that had excluded him his whole life. The people who saw what happened were amazed, and Peter preached to the crowd from the porch just inside the gate, with the newly healed man holding onto him with gratitude. We read part of that sermon last week.

But then… mid-sermon, the priests and temple police show up, “annoyed” by all this talk about Jesus and healing and resurrection. They arrest Peter and John and throw them in jail for the night. It’s a demonstration of power, a predictable tactic of bullies, to shut down the people they can’t control and to scare them into silence. This time, it doesn’t work. Peter and John walk into the assembly for judgment the next morning, heads held high. I wonder if they stood in the same spot Jesus had stood not long before? “By what power or by what name did you do this?” the assembly demanded. When they ask this question, they are asking “What god or demon did you call on in order to heal this man? He’s been sitting outside the gate every day for 40 years, this healing was not authorized, it did not come from within the temple, so it must have some unholy origin.” It doesn’t even occur to them that the power behind this man’s healing is their own God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus of Nazareth does not fit into their carefully crafted, thoughtful, traditional theologies, so they cannot fathom that this healing is from their God.

“By what power or by what name did you do this?” Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and answered them, “This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth…” but Peter doesn’t stop there. He goes on to make his own accusation: “Jesus… whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” Peter picks up his bible (metaphorically) and points to Psalm 118: “the stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone.” Except, he draws his interpretive lines very clearly, making some additions: “the stone that was rejected (BY YOU, the builders), it has become the cornerstone.”

When the rulers of Jerusalem face off with the disciples, we see two totally different approaches to the divine. Let me be clear: this is not a face-off between Jews and Christians. Everyone in this story is Jewish, and the term “Christian” was not yet coined at this point in the narrative. This is a clash between upper-class, power-holding, religious authorities, and uneducated, ordinary, working-class followers of Jesus. The trajectories these groups are on are trajectories we come up against and decide between all the time. On the one hand, we have those with power and authority (and wealth) who are trying their very hardest to keep that power and authority (and wealth). The way they do this is by controlling divine access. “You want to get to God? You’ve gotta go through us.” “You say you’ve experienced God? We’ll be the judge of that.” This was not characteristic of all Jews. This was (and is) characteristic of people in power in every religion. And I’m sure many of them had good intentions: protecting orthodoxy, keeping God’s Law, maintaining the system.

On the other side, we have Peter, our spokesperson, and John standing alongside him, powerless. Verse 13 reminds us that they were uneducated and ordinary people. They had no money to give the formerly disabled man. And even the extraordinary power that healed the man was not their own power. The disciples’ approach to the divine was not one of control, but one of witness. They saw the risen Christ, they witnessed resurrection power continuing to overflow, and they told about it. Instead of managing access to God, they stood and pointed at the release, the overflowing of divine power and life bubbling over all around them.

Even their speech came from the outpouring of resurrection power. When questioned, Peter, an ordinary, uneducated man was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Remember back in Luke 12, when Jesus told the disciples that they would be brought before rulers and authorities, but that they should not worry about what to say? “The Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what to say,” Jesus assured them. We see that playing out for the very first time here. The spirit inspires Peter, and he – a man who has no business speaking with any authority or boldness in this situation – a man who should be groveling and pleading with these rulers who he knows have the power of life or death over him – Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, speaks. And then, with some next level audacity, standing before all the leading scriptural experts, Peter, the fisherman, reinterprets their own Holy Book in light of Jesus Christ – YOU are the builders, YOU rejected Jesus, the cornerstone of a whole new existence. He’s come a long way since his fearful abandonment and rejection of Jesus just a few months prior. No roosters are crowing in this text, in fact, I bet you could have heard a pin-drop in the shocked silence of the assembly.

“Rulers of the people and elders,” Peter says, “If we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known… that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” You tried to put Jesus down, you tried to shut Jesus up, but look around! Jesus continues to heal. Jesus continues to save. Jesus continues to speak.

The name of Jesus isn’t a magic formula for healing or a passcode for heaven, the name of Jesus is the power of God revealed, the presence of God overflowing all the boundaries we could ever set up, all the walls we attempt to build. God’s presence is not hidden behind a heavy curtain in the Holy of Holies. God’s presence is not restricted to priests or men or righteous people. Through Jesus Christ, the presence of God is on the loose. And it’s showing up in fishermen and beggars. It’s showing up outside the temple gates, breaking down barriers, leading the outcasts in. Jesus’ name, Jesus’ power, is the creative life-giving resurrecting force that is behind every act of redemption, every reconciliation, every healing, every restoration, whether we know that name, or not. Jesus shows us what God’s power, God’s healing, God’s salvation look like: Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, befriending those who’ve been left behind or cut out by organized religion, empowering the people who the world dismisses and leaves begging at the gate to be bold witnesses to God’s action in the world.

Peter and the early believers invite us to join them in noticing and trusting the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in being bold and taking risks, in interpreting Scripture and our faith tradition in light of Jesus Christ of Nazareth and pointing in awe to the overflowing abundance of resurrection life around us. Will we follow their lead, or will we double down to protect our power, our status, our idea of what God’s kingdom looks like? People of God, God doesn’t need our protection. There are no guards at the gates of God’s kingdom, only welcome committees. This isn’t a one and done decision that we make, these two trajectories (of controlling or protecting the divine vs. bearing witness to God’s uncontrollable, unimaginable salvation), these two different sides of the face-off, confront us again and again throughout our lives, and usually not in such clear-cut ways.

In our story today, Peter is pushing boundaries, but later in Acts he finds himself on the other side of these same two trajectories. Peter is in power now as the leader of the church of Jerusalem that is growing and spreading like wildfire throughout the Ancient Near Eastern world, and Paul – some nobody, ex-fundamentalist missionary has the nerve to press the original disciples of Jesus toward some even more inclusive and even more radical re-interpretations of Scripture than Peter could have imagined at the time. Peter has witnessed the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles, he’s baptized Gentiles, but Paul insists that the church affirm Gentile Christians just as they are – without requiring them to change their identity and become converts to Judaism. God’s grace is enough for them, Paul argues. Don’t burden them with requirements that make them look just like you. The whole point of the gospel is that God’s grace is enough for ALL people.

Peter has to decide whether he’ll double down to protect his own power, his own identity, his own culture, his own understanding of how this church thing was going to go, or whether he’ll take the risk of being open to the Holy Spirit where he sees it, to rearrange the furniture of his own belief system a little more. It takes some convincing, but Peter goes with the trajectory of inclusion, the trajectory of uncontrollable grace, unforeseen healing, unorthodox salvation, the trajectory that is built into our sacred stories from the beginning, but which we continue to be surprised by.

“There is salvation, there is healing, in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved,” Peter concludes as he stands on the mark where Jesus was condemned. When we see wholeness, when we see healing, when we see reconciliation and love and care that gives its own life for the other, Jesus is at work. Salvation/healing/wholeness is found in no one else! So when Peter witnesses Gentiles being saved – it must be by the name of Jesus. When women prophesy and are filled with the Holy Spirit – it must be by the name of Jesus! When new life springs up in our relationships – it must be Jesus! When any kind of brokenness is healed in our own lives and in any part of creation – it must be Jesus!

We can’t control who experiences salvation or how people are healed or what they do once they are healed, we can only notice and bear witness and thank God. Because whether we are willing to acknowledge and affirm where God is at work, or whether we say it just can’t be so; whether we let God’s grace flow beyond our self-created borders or whether we try to control access to God’s people and push down and silence those that don’t meet our requirements, guess what? Jesus continues to heal. Jesus continues to save. Jesus continues to speak.

Covenant – May we join in and bear witness to the abundantly overflowing grace, the undeserved healing, the incomprehensible salvation that pushes us beyond our boundaries, that invites us to let go of our power, to relinquish our control and to bear witness to the resurrection of our world. Amen.