The preacher has some choices to make during the season of Easter, a season of 50 days, seven Sundays and then the festival of Pentecost. You’ll have noticed that our readings are a little different than usual. Instead of the first reading coming from Hebrew scripture, we’ve read a portion from the book of Acts, which is really an abbreviation for the book’s full name: the Acts of the Apostles. The second reading came from the infrequently read book of Revelation; and the Gospel reading came from the Gospel of John, which doesn’t get a year to itself in our three-year cycle of readings, but instead gets read in every year during the high holidays and festival seasons.
Further, this pattern will hold throughout the season of Lent. Each week for the next two months we’ll be reading from Acts, Revelation and the Gospel of John. In Acts we’ll be following the story of the explosive growth of the church following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. From Revelation we get a message of hope and life to the struggling churches of the first century written in a kind of code that is one part poetry to one part dream. And in John’s gospel we will hear how Jesus came to those he loved and led following his resurrection to prepare them for the power of the Holy Spirit, with flashbacks to moments from his ministry in life that pointed ahead to his expectation that it would be us, the Church, that would continue his work.
If we had an extra hour each Sunday, I could preach on all three stories, and I know some of you think I’d love to give that a try, but I promise you I won’t. So, I’ve made a decision to focus on one set of these readings throughout the fifty days of Easter, the story of the Church’s earliest days, the Acts of the Apostles.
Clearly this morning’s story has dropped us in the middle of some intense action.
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in his name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” (Acts 5:27-28)
Here’s what you need to know:
The book of Acts begins with Jesus alive among the disciples after his resurrection, and the promise that God will send the Holy Spirit. The disciples stick together in Jerusalem, waiting for that moment, and select Matthias to replace Judas in their inner circle of twelve. Then, in a familiar story that we’ll return to at the end of this fifty day season, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples at the festival of Pentecost and Peter preaches his first great sermon, at the end of which the scripture says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) And if that pattern sounds familiar to you, it should. It is the pattern of worship, and this is the birth of the Church.
The disciples’ worship leads directly to action, which is the source of the trouble we read about in this morning’s portion. In those early days of the church there was a fire burning in the hearts of the people such that it says,
They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:45-47)
So one day, as they were headed to the Temple for more of this intense communal fellowship, worship, prayer and praise, Peter and John come across a man who had been lame since birth, whose lot in life was to lay just outside the doors of the temple and beg for offerings from the people coming in and out of the Temple. You know who I’m talking about, the people we pass on the way to and from church, or the office, or the gym. The ones crippled by disability, or war wounds, or mental illness, or addiction. Going from soup kitchen to pantry. Living off the handouts of others. This man sees Peter and John coming to worship and asks them for money, but they have none since all that they had was now being held in common by the community of believers, so they offer that instead. Peter tells the man,
“Look at us. I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat at the [door of the Temple begging]. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. (Acts 3:6-10)
Recognizing that the healing this man truly needed was not a life of ongoing dependence, but instead of unconditional welcome, Peter and John heal him by raising him up and bringing him inside the walls of the Temple — no longer unclean, inconvenient, embarrassing, or irritating. Now one of them, a member, an equal, a brother.
And Peter, who had three times denied Jesus on the night of his betrayal now just can’t stop preaching. With everyone looking at him in awe and wonder following the healing of the man born lame, Peter says,
“[People] of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? … the faith that is through Jesus has given this man this perfect health in the presence of you all.” (Acts 3:12,16)
And this is what gets Peter arrested (the first time). The powers that be thought that by killing Jesus on a cross, by making a public example of him, that they would silence the power of God being unleashed in the world, a power set loose for the sake of healing and reconciliation. But, filled with God’s spirit, the church picked up right where Jesus had left off, and the power that had been contained in one man was now multiplying — loaves and fishes. By the time Peter was thrown in prison, the community of the Church had already grown to five thousand people.
When they bring him to stand trial the next day, they ask him by whose authority and power he has worked this miracle, the same question so often directed at Jesus, and in reply Peter says,
“If we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead — by him this man is standing before you well.” (Acts 4:9-10)
And scripture says that the priests were astonished because these were “uneducated, common men.” As though only they, in their long robes, could act as God’s agents in the world. But, no, here were ordinary people, moved by the power and the presence of Christ to do extraordinary things. Here were ordinary people, no longer content to see other ordinary people begging for food at the doors of the church, the end of the off ramp, the alley behind the store, inviting them to stand up, to come inside, to be a part of this new fellowship of people who shared everything in common and who were increasing in faith and in numbers day by day.
The Temple authorities want to know by whose authority these things are being done and Peter says,
“we are doing them in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, who you killed, and whom God raised.”
And this is where things must have felt crazy to those in authority, this is why I love this story and chose to preach it over all the other options, because they thought they’d taken care of their Jesus problem. But now there seemed to be a little Jesus in everyone who had known him, and even in those who — like us — had only come to know him through the stories and actions of his disciples. They’d hung him on a cross and buried him in the ground, but there was more Jesus in the world now than ever before, so they tell Peter and John to stop teaching and preaching and healing. To stop using that name: Jesus!
And Peter tells them,
“Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)
Jesus had told them, “you will be my witnesses,” and now the apostles begin to understand the meaning and the power of the resurrection. That seed once planted in the earth had begun to sprout. That tree on which had hung the salvation of the world had begun to flower. And now there would be no holding back. Life was rising up from the ground, healing for those who’d been left outside the doors of the church, a new community for a new world.
I love this next part of the story. After Peter and John were released from prison they returned to the company of the believers and they shared their account of what had happened. Immediately the community begins to pray with them, and the scriptures record the words of their prayer in a form that suggests an early Christian hymn, so I take it that they sang as they prayed. They prayed,
“And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:29-31)
Don’t you know that’s why we’re hearing this morning, to pray for boldness? Don’t you know that in the week since we last gathered, people in this room, people in our church, people throughout our city and across the world have been standing before the powers and principalities of the present moment and teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus, who is not dead but alive, in you and in me, for the sake of healing and reconciliation. We are here this morning because we’ve all just come from one prison or another and we need to be fed with this Word, with this bread of life, not because we are so weak, but because we are so extraordinarily strong. So strong, together, that we can hardly believe it.
God answers the community’s prayers for boldness by expanding their mission and ministry.
God answers prayers for boldness by expanding mission and ministry.
Though he’d been put in prison for preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name, and for healing one man born lame; now Peter and the disciples were performing more signs and wonders than the scriptures have space to individually record, so instead they just say,
And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, so that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed. (Acts 5:14-16)
So Peter is put in prison again, to try to shut him up by shutting him in, but in the night the angels come and open the prison doors (though I happen to think that Peter preached to his captors and made converts of them, because when you’re filled with the power of God’s Holy Spirit, every prison becomes a place just waiting for God’s reconciliation to take hold). The next morning, instead of finding him in his cell, they find Peter in the public square, again, preaching Jesus (because, of course, faith is public not private — which is why Peter went to the public square, and not back to his home). And this is where we finally join up with the passage assigned for this morning.
Knowing that he has become too popular with the people, that they cannot have him taken by force, they bring Peter before the Council for questioning, reminding him that he’d been given strict orders not to teach in Jesus’ name, and Peter basically repeats what he’d already told them, that he and the community of the faithful now answer to and live their lives according to a higher authority.
People of God, we are all witnesses to what God has done. We are all apostles with acts of our own too numerous to tell. Baptized with water and the Holy Spirit, we are part of the great, ongoing uprising that is Christ’s insurrection — err, I mean, resurrection in, and from, and for the whole Earth.
Just outside our doors there are people begging for a little of the bread, a little of the community, a little of the life that we experience when we are together.
Why make them settle for a little?
Why not give them a lot. A whole lot.
Why not take them by the hand in invite them to stand tall, to stand proud, to remember the dignity that is their birthright as children of God. Why not bring them inside the temple to pray, and sing, and dance with us?
Brothers and sisters, the new life God wants for us is the new life God is creating through us. We are here this morning to pray for boldness, because we know that God answers prayers for boldness with an ever and ever expanding mission and ministry. We are here this morning because we know that when God’s Holy Spirit takes hold of the church, it is called to act.
Come, Holy Spirit, Come.