Sunday 22 April 2018
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
We are in the third week of our Eastertide journey through the Book of Acts, which is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Two weeks ago, we heard from the end of chapter four about how the early church in Jerusalem shared their possessions so that no one was in need. Then last week we turned back to chapter three to hear the story of how Peter and John healed a paralytic man in the name of Jesus. Our reading this morning continues the story of Peter and John and the consequences of their apostolic ministry.
Peter and John had been on their way into the temple for afternoon prayers when they encountered a paralytic man in front of one of the gates, begging. Peter had no money to give him, but he said, “In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk.” Then he reached out and lifted the man up, and he began to walk and dance and leap. A crowd gathered, right there in the temple courtyard, and Peter began to preach to them, saying that this man had been healed in the name of Jesus. The story of Jesus had not ended on the cross. He had been raised by God. He really was the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed. Jesus had been vindicated by God, and the sign of his vindication was the healing of this man who had been disabled from birth.
And that’s right where we pick up the story this morning, in the middle of Peter’s sermon to his fellow Jews in the temple. “While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead.”
They were much annoyed. And why wouldn’t they be? Imagine if a bunch of Latter-Day Saints missionaries were greeting people outside the door of the church on Sunday morning telling them that salvation is found only in their church. It’s rather bad form, isn’t it?
But that’s not all of it, either. Luke tells us that there are three groups of people upset at what Peter and John are doing. One group is the priests. They are in charge of running the temple. So they would be upset that Peter and John are disturbing the worshippers who are coming in for afternoon prayers. They are disrupting the regular order of the worship. In addition, they would be upset that Peter and John are teaching on the temple grounds without the proper authority. We would be upset if people from another church just showed up and started a Sunday school class in one of our classrooms, right? And we’d be especially upset if they were teaching something that was very different from what we thought was right. They think that Jesus is a rabble-rousing country preacher who was executed by the Roman government for insurrection. But here are Peter and John telling everyone that salvation doesn’t come through God, or through the liturgy of the temple, but through the name of Jesus.
Another person who is much annoyed by the disturbance that Peter and John are causing is the captain of the temple. That sounds a bit strange. Why does the temple have a captain? Well, the Jerusalem temple is a huge center for worship. At the time, it was considered by many to be the one and only place where someone could properly worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. People came from thousands of miles to worship at the temple. Any place that has that many people coming in and out is going to need some kind of security. It seems strange at a small town church like this, but many larger churches do have security or a police presence on Sunday morning. I’ll never forget when we were first meeting our son, Karthik, and we went to worship at the cathedral in Bangalore, India. The gates were guarded by Sikh soldiers with sub-machine guns.
So the temple in Jerusalem had it’s own company of soldiers. They were partially to keep order in the temple, but they did more than just that. In the time of the early church, Judea was not ruled by Jews. They were under occupation by the Roman Empire. But the city of Jerusalem was tricky. It wasn’t the biggest city in Judea, but it was a holy city. In order to avoid offending people, most of the time there was no direct Roman military presence in Jerusalem. Instead, local soldiers, under the command of the Jewish nobles, would keep the peace on behalf of Rome. This is the job of the captain of the temple guard. He’s not only upset with Peter and John for causing a disturbance on the temple grounds, he’s also upset that they’re preaching in the name of Jesus. It’s only been a few months since Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey, disrupted the operations of the temple by turning over the tables, started a kind of public uprising, and created such a stir that Rome had him executed. If Peter and John are trying to stir up that whole mess again, it’s going to mean more Roman soldiers, more crucifixions, more violence. And who is Rome going to blame for letting things get out of hand? The captain of the temple guard. He needs to shut Peter and John down before things escalate into a riot.
The third group of people that are annoyed by John and Peter are the Sadducees. They are elite, Jewish aristocrats, and so they are upset for all of the same reasons that the priests and guards are. But they’re also upset about something else. Unlike some of the other Jewish groups at the time, the Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection. They still believe in God, they just don’t believe that there is an afterlife. But here are Peter and John preaching not only that there will be a resurrection of the dead at the end of time, which would be bad enough, but they are also preaching that Jesus has already been resurrected from the dead. It’s heresy. Peter and John need to be silenced before they corrupt the people any further.
So, they arrest John and Peter. It’s late in the day, so they put them in prison overnight until things can be sorted out in the morning.
And in the morning, all of the leading Jewish authorities gather together to question the two disciples. It’s the same sort of gathering of the Sanhedrin that Jesus was brought before on the night before he was crucified. They ask John and Peter to explain on whose authority they think they are allowed to disrupt the normal operations of the temple.
But Peter changes the subject. He knows that the council must be upset at their preaching and teaching, but he pretends that what they are really upset about is that the disabled man was healed. By focusing on the healing, Peter makes the authorities seem cruel and heartless. But then he pivots from the healing to the name of Jesus. It is by the power of the name of Jesus that this man was healed. You rulers rejected him, but God has made him the cornerstone.
This must have made the authorities even more annoyed. Not only are they being impertinent, not only are they insisting on defending the troublemaker Jesus, not only are they saying that the Sanhedrin is working against God, but they are doing all of these things by quoting a scripture: Psalm 118:22, the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. What do these illiterate fishermen from backwater Galilee think they are doing trying to quote scripture to the greatest theological minds in the Jewish world, the scribes and the priests? The arrogance!
In fact, Luke tells us that the council is shocked that Peter and John would be so bold and presumptuous, because the Jewish leaders think that Peter and John are ἀγράμματοί (agrammatoi) and ἰδιῶται (idiotai). Α-γραμματοι means that they are illiterate, without grammar. And I’ll bet you can guess what ιδιῶται means. It’s where we get the English word ‘idiot.’ The authorities must be more than a little annoyed that they are being talked down to by a couple of illiterate idiots.
The problem for the council is that the man that Peter and John have healed is still hanging around. Everyone knows that they performed an amazing sign. If they punish Peter and John, they will look cruel, petty, and foolish. But they can’t let these men continue to run around preaching that Jesus has been resurrected and stirring up the people. They can’t risk another riot that would bring Roman soldiers back to the city to restore order at the point of a gladius. And so they do the most they think they can. They order Peter and John to stop using Jesus’s name.
But of course, Peter and John are having none of it. And this time, they don’t quote the Bible to defend themselves. Instead they quote the legendary Greek philosopher, Socrates. When he had been brought up on charges before the council in Athens, he said: “I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy.” And so Peter and John quote him, “It’s up to you to decide whether it’s right before God to obey you rather than God. As for us, we can’t stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
It kind of sounds like another rabble-rousing preacher we know who was told by the authorities to stop preaching his crazy new theology. And what did he respond? “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Who said that?… [Martin Luther]
I am not a rabble-rouser. I am not a radical. I prefer to follow the rules. I prefer to do things by the book. On the Enneagram personality test, I am type six: the Loyalist. If I think that something needs to be changed, I make sure I go through the proper channels. I’ve mastered Robert’s Rules of Order. And I’m a bit risk-averse. Before I try something new, I want to make sure that I have anticipated every possible thing that could go wrong and corrected for it.
Our denominations are kind of the same way. Lutherans are steeped in long-held traditions and worship according to pre-defined liturgies. Methodists, on the other hand, are so methodical that someone decided to make fun of them by calling them Methodists. We have our ways of doing things. We have the Book of Discipline. We have the constitution and by-laws. We have processes, institutions, that are designed to make sure no one tries anything too crazy. They are designed to limit what is possible so as to avoid any catastrophes.
Sisters and brothers, that is not enough anymore. We are not living in the fifties and sixties anymore. We are not living in an environment where the church is going to thrive so long as we don’t do anything crazy.
We need to start channeling the boldness of apostles like Peter and John. We need to be willing to try new things. Trying new things means taking risks. Trying new things means be willing to fail spectacularly sometimes. I am preaching to myself here.
Yesterday, I was with a couple of members of this congregation at an Oregon Synod Regional Gathering in Pendleton. Lutheran churches, mostly from NE Oregon, were gathered together with the bishop and synod leaders to tell our stories and dream for the future.
And it was wonderful to see the risks that congregations are taking. Many, many churches are starting or exploring ecumenical partnerships like the one we have here. The church in Bend is planning to start a brand new congregation in their area. The church in La Grande is becoming the means by which their whole community thinks about and responds to homelessness. Even those old, died in the wool, cradle Lutherans are thinking about new ways to be church.
Peter and John have a mission to share the healing, life-giving grace of God in Jesus Christ. They don’t wait to go to rabbinical school before they start their work. They just do it. And they continue to do it, even if they might fail spectacularly.
We have the same mission: to share the healing, life-giving grace of God in Jesus Christ. What is holding us back? For Peter and John, it was the risk of arrest. It was outside persecution. But I don’t think that’s what’s holding us back. I think the thing that is holding us back… is us. It’s our desire to follow the rules. It’s our aversion to risk. It’s our fear that if we do what we know we need to do—if we share our faith—something will go wrong. We will look foolish. People will think we are strange. Or even more simply, we will feel uncomfortable. Again, I am preaching to myself here.
Well maybe it is time for us to feel uncomfortable. Maybe it is time for me to feel uncomfortable. I feel it. I feel the Spirit calling. And I pray that you and I will have the courage to be reckless. I pray we will have the courage to fail and have fun doing it. I pray that we will have the courage to trust that God is doing a new thing, if we will only follow. May God grant us that courage today, and in the weeks, and months, and years to come. Come, Holy Spirit. Move in us today. Dream a new dream us, and grant us faith to make it reality.