Prayer: God our helper, by your Holy Spirit, open our minds that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may be led into your truth and taught your will, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This morning, we are going to be reading Acts 4,verses 1 through 14, but let me orient you to this particular story before we read the text because we are dropped into the middle of the action. In Acts, chapter 3, Luke describes the healing of a crippled man. He tells the story in a matter of fact way, but records that the crowds who witnessed the healing were utterly amazed. Peter directs the crowd’s attention away from the healed man and any attribution of personal power and instead boldly makes the claim that it was through Jesus’ name and all that Jesus had done in his life and in his death and in his resurrection, together with the faith that comes through him, which healed the man. It was after this sermon, and the conversion of thousands, that ultimately caused the religious authorities to arrest them.
Our scripture this morning comes from Acts Chapter 4, versus 1 – 14. Hear the word of God:
While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, 2much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. 3So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. 4But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.
5The 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.”
13Now 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. 14When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition.
Friends, we celebrate the written word of scripture.
Thanks be to God.
We celebrate the Living Word, Christ Among us.
Thanks be to God.
This first wave of persecution of the early disciples was initiated by the Sadducees. The Sadducees, if you recall, trained in theology and philosophy, and were part of the ruling class of wealthy aristocrats. They came from families of noble birth. Politically ambitious, they ingratiated themselves with the Romans and followed a policy of collaboration. They were the powerful religious rulers. They were the religious authorities. They maintained religious control. They were in charge of the central institution that administered God’s law. And they liked the power and influence that they held.
The Sadducees rejected all notions of life after death, resurrection, angels, and eternal punishment or reward. They believed God to be utterly remote, a kind of divine hands-off policy. They believed each person had free will and therefore was responsible for the events of his or her life, including sickness, poverty, and misfortune. Thus, the Sadducees saw the apostles as agitators and heretics, disturbers of the peace and enemies of the truth. Enemies of their truth.
The Sadducees are greatly disturbed by what is happening for a number of reasons. First, that Peter and John were teaching the people though Peter and John were unknown to them. They demanded that a teacher be a formally educated person with credentials or at least be someone who could answer their questions about doctrine and law. Peter and John did not meet either of these criteria. Second, and more disturbing is that they were proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus had been executed as a blasphemer, but if He is resurrected, then they, especially the Sadducees who deny any resurrection, are exposed as the false teachers. Peter and John, in their preaching and teaching about the powerful name of Jesus, were subverting their power and authority. And, not surprisingly, they wanted to reassert their control and restore the balance of power.
And so, led by the captain of the temple guard they seized Peter and John and put them in jail to await trial the next day. No doubt Peter and John had a rough night. Imagine for a moment how Peter might have felt. Remember at the time of Jesus’ arrest, that Peter denied Jesus, afraid that he too would suffer the same fate as Jesus. Annas and Caiaphas were both were prominent figures in the trial and condemnation of Jesus. In the dark of the night, waiting for the rulers, or the Sanhedrin to convene, it would have been understandable if Peter succumbed to his fear. Memories of Jesus’ trial must have flooded the apostles’ mind. Was history to repeat itself? Were they to suffer the same fate? Would they too be handed over to the Romans and crucified?
The next morning, Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish civil and religious court in the land. Rulers, elders, and scribes refer to the members of the Sanhedrin, of which there were about 70. The Sanhedrin convened in a semi-circle. People appearing before the court would stand in the center. Council members would be seated, probably in elevated seats, looking down – literally – on those below them. The people being examined would stand and face their accusers. However, there is no specific charge made against John and Peter at this trial. Using their best intimidation tactics, the Council instead demands an answer: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Notice that they don’t deny that a miraculous healing has taken place. The man who had been healed was there, for all to see as a testament to this miracle. But they do recognize that there is power in the name. And so they challenge the authority of Peter and John. How could they – ordinary men – do what clearly has been done? After a night of imprisonment, would Peter deny Jesus again? Would he bow under pressure and recant?
He did not. Peter is done with denying Christ. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he boldly responds “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.”
Peter introduces the word sozo—a word with two meanings. It can mean healed, but it can also mean saved. The lame man was healed physically, but this word sozo is used more often in the New Testament to refer to spiritual salvation. Peter reminds the council that the formerly lame man is standing in their midst—proof of Jesus’ power to sozo—to heal and to save. He views one man’s physical cure as a picture of the salvation that is offered to all in Christ. The man has been healed, saved, but it was not through the power of Peter or John; it is through the powerful name of Jesus Christ that has done it. Peter quotes from Psalm 118. In biblical times, a cornerstone was used as the foundation upon which a building was constructed. Once in place, the rest of the building would conform to the angles and size of the cornerstone. In addition, if removed, the entire structure could collapse. Jesus Christ, as the cornerstone is vital to God’s plan to redeem all people.
The Sanhedrin expected these men to cower and to collapse under pressure, but instead the council was amazed at Peter and John’s boldness, especially since they were uneducated, untrained men. The boldness of Peter and John reminded the council of the boldness of Jesus Christ, who also was not trained in their schools. They recognized that it was not the education, status, or accreditation of these men which made them so bold. The only thing which the Council knew about the two apostles was that Peter and John had been with Jesus, walking alongside him, developing a deep relationship with him, as his close companions. They had seen and heard Jesus pray and preach. They had witnessed Jesus’ acts of compassion; they watched him heal bodies. They watched him save lives. In fact, Peter and John’s own lives had been transformed by their relationship with Jesus. Their authority was directly tied, once again, to Jesus’ authority. Peter was filled with the Spirit – the same Holy Spirit, friends, that is available to you and me.
The early disciples experienced opposition and persecution as they disrupted structures of power and authority. For many of us here today, in the pews or online, persecution is a foreign idea. However, even if we don’t experience it firsthand, our lives should be ones that are determined to be faithful to Christ in all circumstances. Following the verdict of Derek Chauvin this past week, Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote that “one of the reasons this trial has captured the attention of the world is that it is not an isolated incident. We have seen in our history the ways in which over and over again authority has been used not to provide justice but to deny it…Our structures and our systems, of course, belong to us. For them, we are accountable. We might not know how to fix everything, but we know where we can start. And we must. That will require long and hard work in our callings as citizens, but also for the church of Jesus Christ – to bear one another’s burdens, with white Christians standing with their African American and other minority brothers and sisters. When one part of the Body of Christ suffers, we all do. If we are in fact, joined together as brothers and sisters, if we belong to one another we should act like it.”
What do we do when we are confronted with injustice? We are called to be spiritually bold. The Greek term translated bold or boldness, means “candor in the face of opposition.” So here is a model for us and a set of challenges. We are to engender a bold and sincere confidence in the Gospel we believe, because we have a relationship with Jesus and are being transformed into His likeness. We are to be bound together, as brothers and sisters, into the Body of Christ. We are to be motivated and empowered by his Holy Spirit.
The last words that Jesus said to the disciples before returning to God, were these: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ “You”—actually it is plural, you all—“You all will be my witnesses,” he said, “tell my story of compassion and grace and love; tell my story of salvation and wholeness and healing; tell my story of how I welcomed the sinners and ate with the outcasts; tell my story about justice and mercy; tell my story that death does not have the last word; tell that story.” Those were Jesus’ last words to the first disciples but they are also his words to us.
Who are we as Christians? What is our identity as followers of God? Christians are Easter people. Easter—the resurrection of Jesus Christ—defines who we are. The reality of resurrection means, using the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. This truth defines us, gives us hope, and brings meaning to our lives. We are Easter people.
Here is the thing, friends: we can be known as Easter people who are empowered by His Spirit and have the courage to walk in bold faith and confident assurance. God wants to use our ordinary and unlikely lives to accomplish His purpose on earth. He will qualify and equip us to do what He has called us to do and to go where He has called us to go. We need to be bold and build our lives on the cornerstone of our faith and conform the angles of our lives to Jesus. We need to be bold and live out our faith openly before others. We need to be bold and challenge institutions of power and authority that oppress our brothers and sisters.
We need to be bold and love God more than any other. We need to be bold and love our neighbor as ourselves. We need to be bold and open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit’s power in our life. We need to be bold and be transformed. And, thanks to the power of Jesus Christ, we can be. Amen.
© 2021 Ariel Mink, published here with permission.