A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter
Sunday, April 29, 2012
“When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7).
Open my mouth, that I may proclaim your Word
Open our eyes and ears, that we may see and hear you
Open our hearts and minds, that we may joyfully receive you.
How did you get here this morning? I do not mean did you walk or did you drive? I am not interested in what route you chose in order to avoid traffic or to get a coffee on the way. I mean, how did you end up here, at St. Matthew’s on a rather chilly Sunday morning in April? How did it come about that you are part of this particular community? Well, I would hazard a guess that most if not all of us are here because we have some sort of faith in the risen Jesus. But how did that happen? I’m sure that for every person here there is a unique answer to that question. Yet, what all of our stories likely have in common is that we ended up coming to the place where we express some sort of faith in the risen Christ in large part because of somebody else. This just seems to be how people generally come to faith in Christ. Typically, the gospel does not simply drop out of the sky into our laps. Rather, it comes to us through our neighbour. I remember when I was seventeen years old and was sent off to a Christian camp for the week. I was thrilled at the chance to spend a week away with friends. I was less thrilled to find out the day before that none of them were going anymore and less thrilled all the more when my parents forced me to go anyway. What could have been a terribly lonely week turned out to be life altering in large part due to a persistent camp counsellor and friend who towards the end of the week must have sensed what God was doing in my life and asked me if I would like to pray with him. To be sure, that moment when I glimpsed what God had done for me in Christ Jesus and surrendered to him, was an act of God. Yet, it was an act of God that required my saying yes to a neighbour whom God chose to use in the power of the Holy Spirit. The point is this, God has bestowed upon the Christian community the power of the Holy Spirit, which is the power of the risen Jesus Christ, so that we can participate in God’s redeeming work in and for the world.
Our reading from the fourth chapter of Acts began with the words: “The next day…” (4:5), which of course begs the important question, “What happened yesterday?” Well, yesterday a crippled beggar was healed. Peter and John were on their way up to the temple as was their daily practice when said crippled beggar, whom Luke makes sure to tell us was lame from birth and had to be carried to the place where he would beg, asked Peter and John for alms. To cut to the chase, Peter has nothing to give the man besides everything: “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk,” says Peter. Not only did the man stand up and walk, but he entered the temple with them leaping about and praising God (3:8). Of course, this all drew the attention of the crowds, the man was lame from birth, after all. All sorts of people gathered around, amazed and filled with wonder (3:9-10), they were “utterly astonished” (3:11) says Luke. Peter turns to the crowd and asks, “Why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” (3:12). Peter is clear, this man was not healed because of them. Rather, it is by faith in the name of Jesus that this man is healed. The Jesus who was dead but is now alive, that is. Luke then notes that as Peter and John were saying all of this to the crowd the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them and they were, to quote Luke, “much annoyed” (4:2). Peter and John are arrested by these religious leaders and thrown in prison for the night and thus we arrive at the beginning of this mornings reading.
The next day the leaders reassemble and with Peter and John standing in their midst they inquire, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (4:7). Indeed, “power” is an important theme for Luke in both of his books. The birth of Jesus comes about by the power of the Most High (Lk 1:35). Jesus’ ministry begins in the power of the Spirit (Lk 4:14). This same power is characteristic of Jesus’ ministry as he casts out unclean spirits (Lk 4:36), heals the sick (Lk 5:17), and enters Jerusalem on the way to the cross (Lk 19:37). Further, this power is characteristic of Christ’s return and the redemption of the world (Lk 21:26-27). Yes, this power is characteristic of Jesus’ own person (Lk 22:69) which cannot be separated from his work. Luke tells us that people wanted simply to touch Jesus, for power would on occasion come out from him and heal all those who touched him (Lk 6:19; 8:46). Luke continues on to tell us that Jesus gives this very same power and authority to his disciples (Lk 9:1), “and then he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal,” (Lk 9:2). Included in this power bestowed upon the disciples by Jesus is authority over “all the power of the enemy,” (Lk 10:19). Luke finally ends his gospel with Jesus telling the disciples that they are his witnesses and that when the Holy Spirit comes upon them they will be “clothed with power from on high,” (Lk 24:48-49). And here’s the point, that in Acts the very same power that was characteristic of Jesus in Luke’s gospel account becomes characteristic of the Christian community in order that “you will be my witnesses,” (3:12; 4:33; 6:8; 19:11).
So then, when the leaders drag Peter and John before them and demand an answer to the question, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Peter’s answer can not possibly be, “By our own power, of course!” Remember, the day before Peter had already denied this possibility when the crowds were amazed as if it were they who had healed the crippled man. Two things in particular strike me about Peter’s response to the religious leaders. First, Luke makes sure to tell us that Peter’s answer was possible only because he was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:8). Second, Peter’s answer is premised on, or rather his answer is the reality that Jesus is not dead but is, in fact, risen, living, and reigning. To be sure, these two things are intimately connected (the risen and ascended Christ and the infilling of the Holy Spirit). In John’s gospel Jesus says to his disciples, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you,” (16:7). And again, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…and he will declare to you the things that are to come,” (16:13). In our reading this morning from the epistle of John we read that the good shepherd who laid his life down for his sheep, “abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us,” (3:24). In other words, where the Spirit is there the risen Christ is also. Thus, Peter responds to his interrogators saying, “this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” (4:10). The phrase “the name of Jesus Christ” is Luke’s expression for the presence of Christ. Indeed it was Christ who healed the crippled man, and Christ is present with his community because, as Peter says, this Jesus Christ is the one “whom you crucified, [but] whom God raised from the dead,” (4:10). The leaders whom Peter addresses are the builders who rejected the stone which has now become the cornerstone, the one who by virtue of his death and resurrection we see all things in their proper light and whose presence with us by his Spirit enables us to be the sort of community which bears witness to this risen, living, and reigning Lord. The point not to be missed here is that it was the alive-and-well Jesus who healed the crippled man. Yet, Peter and John had a role to play in it all. Someone had to utter the words. Someone had to reach out their hand to the man and raise him up (3:7). The thrilling bit of it all is that you and I together are invited to actually do something. However, this something which we do is not something we could do by our own power or ability. Rather, the something which we do is to participate in what the risen Christ is currently doing. Just like Peter and John then, we today are invited to participate in the ongoing ministry of the risen Jesus Christ of Nazareth which he accomplishes in and through us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We must on the one hand affirm that Jesus is not only risen and living but has ascended to the right hand of God the Father where he has authority over all things. And then, on the other hand, we must affirm that this very same exalted Christ is present with his community on earth and sustains them by his Spirit. Indeed, it is the very exalted Christ in whom, as Luke will later write, “we live and move and have our being,” (17:28). In fact, Jesus Christ is so present and so identifies himself with his community that to reject and persecute the church is to reject and persecute Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus asks (9:4). Through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus is present to his community and Jesus’ ministry continues on in his servants, but it is his ministry. And this ministry is nothing less than the redemption and reconciliation of all things to God. As Peter says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved,” (4:12). The Venerable Bede commenting on this verse says, “For there is no redemption of human captivity [to sinfulness] except in the blood of him who gave himself as a redemption for all.” Christ’s saving work in and for the world finds it’s locus in the community of the Spirit of truth, where real human beings are reconciled one to another as they are reconciled to God in Christ. This is why, for example, to hold onto bitterness and unforgiveness is not only to reject one’s brother or sister but it is to reject Jesus himself and the power of the Holy Spirit which he has given us.
Elsewhere in the New Testament the Holy Spirit is spoken of as a pledge or a downpayment, a first-fruit. The gift of the Spirit to believers is a foretaste of the reality that is to come for the whole wide world. This gift empowers people and forms a community of truth which bear in their own life together God’s saving work in and for the world. Because Christ is present with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of the risen Christ is given to the community which the Spirit forms so that this community can point away from themselves and towards the risen and reigning Jesus. The healing of the crippled man in the name of Jesus of Nazareth is evidence of this. Notice how Luke passes from the particular to the more general, from the healing of a crippled beggar to the healing of the world. This miraculous sign of healing is meant to direct our attention towards the ultimate act of healing which God accomplished in Christ Jesus. In the same sort of way any acts of healing that occur in the community of St. Matthew’s Riverdale, be they the healing of some physical illness or the reconciliation and healing of a once broken relationship, are signposts that point to the reality of what God has done in Christ and the fact that this work of God in Christ has once-for-all changed the reality of the cosmos as we know it and is indeed bursting through into our present experience of the world in such a way as to point onwards toward the culmination of all things in Christ. The healing of this man reveals Christ as the only Author of Life. Amid the various blessings of God we must take note of this, that He is the source of salvation. This one man’s physical cure is a picture of the salvation which is offered to all in Christ.
This is, of course, all a revelation of the pure grace of God. In Christ Jesus we see the fullness of God. Jesus is the unveiling, the revelation of who God really is. Thus, we cannot know God nor be saved from the powers of sin and death apart from what God has done in Christ. Because human creatures cannot ascend to heaven to attain God, says Calvin, “It is necessary that God should not only invite us to Himself but should reach out his hand and offer salvation to us so that we may enjoy it.” Peter says that this is what God has done in Christ, who came down to earth to bring salvation with him. And this very power, the power of the risen, living, and reigning Lord who has reconciled all things to God is bestowed upon the community of believers that they might participate in this ministry of reconciliation and in so doing bear witness to Christ Jesus in the midst of a watching world. Friends, may we see that this is indeed true of St. Matthew’s right here in Riverdale. Amen.