Acts 4: 5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ 8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10let 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. 11This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”
12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’
(Plus John 10:11-18)
I’m continuing to ask, as I asked on Easter Day, what is the Good News for us this morning?
So this is what we’re considering this morning. First, the fact of the resurrection: it’s happened – it’s OUT THERE and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Second: some people are going to come up against it. Third: What happens today when that righteous power that raised Jesus from the dead, meets injustice? Fourth: What is the challenge for us who live 2000 years after the resurrection? And Finally: What is the Good News for us?
Today we continue in Acts and we see Peter and John brought before the religious authorities after encountering a man who couldn’t walk, begging at one of the entrances to the temple. It’s always awkward to see somebody begging so close to a religious building. It makes us feel bad. One can hardly ignore it. It makes me recall a time when Chris and I were in Chartres Cathedral on Easter Morning. On the way into the cathedral, just at the door, there was a man begging and taken by surprise, I filed pas like everyone else, and did nothing.
But it played on my mind, and as we went out, overcoming my inward battle, I parted with the large slice of home-made pizza we had bought at the nearest boulangerie before the service had started.
Peter and John do something a whole lot more useful though. “Silver and gold I have none, but what I have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk!” At once the man’s feet and ankles are made strong; he jumps up and begins to walk. He enters the Temple we are told: ‘walking and leaping and praising God’. As a healed man he can now take part in Temple worship; he can get a job and make his way in the world. His begging days are over.
The power of the resurrection coupled with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the believers is OUT THERE and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. That’s the picture we see here this morning. It’s like something’s been let out of the bag and it cannot be put back in again.
The healing of the crippled man is the very next thing recorded after Pentecost. So, the resurrection life – the life of the Spirit is OUT THERE and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. But some will try, and this is what we see in the reading from Acts.
Peter and John heal, in the name of Jesus, the man at the Beautiful Gate. When the people hear what’s happened, they run towards the scene utterly astonished, and Peter gives an impromptu sermon. At this moment, the priests, the captain of the Temple and the Sadducees come out ‘much annoyed’ (for this, read ‘steaming with fury’). They’re annoyed because of two things: Peter’s teaching the people and claiming that in Jesus there is resurrection. Not just Jesus’ resurrection but the possibility of resurrection for all.
So the religious authorities react in the way that people of power do when they’re threatened, which is: to use force and try and put the lid on it. They arrest Peter and John and put them in jail overnight. Meanwhile, the number of those that come to faith as a result of Peter’s sermon, is 5000. The following morning the prisoners are made to stand in front of the ruling elite, who enquire how they have done this healing. And we are talking about The Elite of the Jewish religion. We hear a lot about elites these days. Elites do whatever they want, with minimal regard for the consequences on ordinary people.
Many harmful readings of this episode in Acts have led to condemnation of the Jews as a people – but the New Testament shows that it is the powerful Elite, who claim to know God, whom Jesus stood against and who now stand against his followers. This is about a power struggle and about the powerful Elite sensing that something greater than them is afoot. It is difficult not to call to mind here the verdict against Derek Chauvin, the police officer who this week was charged with the murder of George Floyd, a black man who was arrested and forcefully pinned down until he literally expired.
Which leads us onto a question for today. What happens when the righteous power of the resurrection is out there, and no one can stop it, and that power encounters injustice? The short answer is: conflict. Nick Page, in his book Kingdom Fools, about the unlikely rise of the early church, says that ‘the resurrection is a political message. The early church preached resurrection. That is what Peter and John are saying to the temple powers: the man you killed came back from the dead’ (p.32).
The Roman Empire was built on the premise that if you dissented, you were got rid of. Some societies work like that still today – we know who they are; we often mention the people who live in societies like that in our prayers. But here are two disciples of Jesus, who are not theologically educated, preaching to rapt crowds and performing an astonishing sign, like the ones performed by Jesus. And it is seen as a direct challenge to the Elite.
The verdict against the police officer who killed George Floyd is a landmark moment. What was going on when the largely black crowds gathered outside the courtroom heard the verdict of guilty? They couldn’t help shouting and pumping the air because although the power of God is OUT THERE, the struggle against injustice is slow and often feels brutal. With regards to racism, the struggle is particularly highlighted at the moment. The world is crying out for justice.
This is where a lot of us might begin to squirm, because the Church of England has put its own hand up this week and the Archbishop of Canterbury has said the Church is ‘deeply institutionally racist’. Some of you will have watched the Panorama programme on Monday about this and heard the stories of Black and Ethnic minority priests in the Church of England and some of their depressing experiences. And this at the same time as a Government appointed commission has reported that the UK doesn’t have any institutionalised racism, apparently. I’ll leave you to decide what’s going on there.
The scenes of jubilation outside the courtroom where Derek Chauvin was convicted were not about glee at his suffering, but about a sense that justice had been done, and against the odds. The Black community is used to justice not being done, because the system has often let them down. I was caught up in those scenes of joy because justice is at the heart of God, and the resurrection declares that Jesus is Lord, and Lord over unjust white privilege and violence. To say Jesus is Lord, even Lord over death, is to say Jesus Christ has ultimate authority, not anyone or anything else. And that changes everything.
So, what are the challenges for us who live 2000 years after this initial release of resurrection power? I think we have to be honest and say that while the healing of the crippled man is an exciting story, normally we don’t see this kind of miraculous healing in our situations today. Perhaps we should be more expectant. Maybe our lack of expectancy is a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, it is more complex than that in the West. If we think of that first resurrection power spilling out and the transforming effect it had on the first century society we read about in Acts, we can trace a direct line to the kind of Christ-inspired works of charity, mercy and healing that most people now take for granted as being the hallmarks of civilised society. Universal education, healthcare and end of life care flow directly from the ongoing impulse to heal and save that Christ event propelled into the world, and which eventually flowed out of the monasteries and abbeys of Christian Europe into mainstream society.
In addition, in the 21st C we are rightly cautious about how we proclaim Christ as Lord because we need to find to ways to live in peace with our neighbours of other faiths. The kind of Christianity that aggressively defends orthodoxy, whilst dallying with unchecked temporal power led us at one point into the Crusades. Today the Far Right want to appropriate the English flag of St George to nationalistic ends that have nothing to do with Jesus Christ. So we might want to ask ourselves in this context, what does proclamation of the good news look like in a multi-faith society and how do we sit with the verse in Acts that declares ‘there is no other name under heaven, given among mortals by which we must be saved’?
So we have these challenges: we’re a long way historically from the resurrection and things are complicated because Christendom got tangled up with white privilege. In addition, we already have a sophisticated healthcare system and are unused to instant miraculous healing. And finally, although we want to affirm that Jesus is ‘the only name’, we are also called to humility in a multifaith setting.
So, if this miraculous healing feels like a long way off, what, then, is the good news? The Good News is that it’s still OUT THERE. The power of the resurrection is still reverberating through history and we are witnesses to it because Christ lives amongst us. That is the definition of a church – the gathered people of God, the body of Christ. Every time we meet in his name, he is present. He is present in bread and wine and in our worship and fellowship. He is present in our care one for the other; in our giving and protesting, as we try to make a difference in the world.
And he is still calling others to follow him – those who are ‘not yet in the sheepfold’, as he puts it in John 10. ‘My sheep hear my voice’. We’re still living within the ramifications of the resurrection, both personally, whenever we are faced with loss or a seemingly hopeless situation, and corporately as we seek to work with God’s Spirit in the healing of the world he came to save. He is alive and we are witnesses to his life. As we are formed by his Spirit, others will know that he is alive and so we pray that God will bring us into fellowship with those others he is still calling.
(image credit: BBC news website)