Tuesday, July 6, 2010

May 30, 2010 - We Cannot Keep From Speaking

As some of you are probably aware, I don't really write a word-for-word manuscript but only a bunch of sermon notes that seem to become the conversation that we have on Sunday mornings. So here are my sermon notes from May 30, 2010:

We Cannot Keep From Speaking
Acts 4:1-22

Something that’s been eating at me…why this Messiah? Over 30 figures arose in the 200 odd years between the Maccabeun revolts and the destruction of the temple. In fact, Jesus, the one we know so well, wouldn’t even be considered a major figure.

So why such a life changing impact?

As the door shut behind them, the disciples did not know what to expect. Told to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, they gathered with a sense of excitement but also deep uneasiness. Much of these experience of Jesus involved waiting. The patient flow and work of God, which would one day make sense, at this time seemed almost dreadful. Still they waited and watched for God’s next chapter to unfold.

Maybe Peter felt it first. Although knowing that Jesus had ascended, there was a sense of someone other than themselves in the room. However, what their physical senses were telling them did not compare to what their souls were screaming. He is alive…They looked at one another with the same feeling, that sense of moving forward.

And then Pentecost, the tongues of flame, the sound of the wind, the echoes of a full-blown storm. The room filled with sights and sounds unseen and unheard before. A chorus of voices filled the space, speaking inspired words, telling the story. Finally Peter said, “Listen carefully to what I need to tell you…” And he preached the first of many sermons that detailed the good news of Jesus Christ and to which this new community of faith would devote itself completely.

I sometimes get carried away, primarily because some biblical narratives don't end in just a few passages, just a few verses. They’re not short subjects but rather they're epics. The scriptural passage that we read today was Acts, Chapter 4, verses 1 through 22, but the passage that I really want to focus on is in verse 13. "When they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were ordinary and uneducated men, they were amazed." To give you some background, Peter and John had healed a lame man. There is a children's song that sums it up that goes like this:

"Peter and John went to pray.
They met a lame man on the way.
He asked for alms and held out his palms;
And this is what Peter did say:
Silver and gold have I none,
But such as I have give I thee.
In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.
He went walking and leaping and praising God,
Walking and leaping and praising God.
In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk."

Peter and John have been arrested by the authorities (identified here as "archons," the biblical word for the principalities and powers) for healing a man and preaching the resurrection of the Jesus these authorities had killed. A night in the pokey does nothing to dampen their spirits. Normally, "idiots" (idiotai, common) are cowed by the panoply of power and the bearing of the powerful. But not these goats. They use the occasion of their arraignment as a platform for preaching. "When they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and idiotai, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus." They had, in fact, observed that this was trademark behavior for those who had been with Jesus. Jesus takes sheep and makes them goats. He takes those who have internalized the system of ranking and stratification as divinely ordained and frees them from these delusions. He awakens common, ordinary people who have never before sensed their power and sends them into the very maw of the System to denounce it.

The Powers are not stupid. They sense the genuine threat this empowerment poses for their hegemony. This danger must be met head on. The entire priestly oligarchy turns out: "Their rulers, elders and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family." These Powers ask right away, "By what power or by what name did you do this?" Obviously they couldn't have done it on their own; someone had to put them up to it. And indeed he did. But the frightening thing is that although the authorities had killed the instigator, his comrades were stronger than ever.

The effrontery of these idiotai! They make no effort to plea bargain, or to reassure their captors of their harmlessness.

Walter Wink, professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York calls them obstreperous. resisting control or restraint in a difficult manner; unruly.
noisy, clamorous, or boisterous: obstreperous children.

Instead, they revel in their newfound power. They stick it to the authorities: You murdered the man who has empowered us. It is by his power that this formerly crippled man now stands before you whole. Worse for you, this "criminal" you had the Romans execute is destined to become the cornerstone, for "there is salvation in no one else...no other name under heaven by which we must be saved."

That concluding triumphal statement has caused havoc in human history. Christians armed with the certainty that they alone possessed God's truth tore about the globe destroying religions and spiritualities superior to their own. Let us apologize to the countless victims slaughtered by Christian conquistadors for refusing to convert; let us beg for mercy from God and humanity for the arrogance of Christianity in its spiritual scorched-earth-and-take-no-captives missionary juggernaut.

But if we attend to what Peter and John are up to, we hear the truth in what they say. Jesus was, if fact, the first person to propound a consistent critique of the domination system. Building on the prophets, he stripped away the facade of goodness constructed by the Powers and exposed their violence and greed. In the same way that we might say that Adam Smith was the revealer of capitalism and Karl Marx the revealer of the class system, Jesus revealed the domination system. Docile, sheeplike human beings don't even realize the depth of their oppression, but accept their inferior status as a God-given fate to be endured. The poor have no idea that their liberation is the special concern of God.

If "saved" means being united and reconciled with God, then Acts 4:12 is palpably false. There are many authentic roads to God, and no religion holds the franchise for illumination. But if "saved" here means being delivered from the bondage and delusions of the domination system, and being empowered to set others free--if it means ultimately transforming the system itself and renouncing domination in all its forms--then Jesus is indeed the one who can yet save the world from the domination system. And that, it seems to me, is a factual statement with which persons of all religions might agree.

As a result of that healing, as a result of that miraculous event, they were hassled, they were admonished and arrested. And while standing in the midst of their captors, they were interrogated. They asked them, "By what power or in what name did you do this healing?" And Peter with all boldness proclaims, "This once lame man is standing before you. He was healed in the name of the One whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, Jesus."

Now Peter, if you remember, had not always been so bold. On the night of Jesus' trial when it would seem that Jesus would really need Peter to speak up for him, Peter was only willing to shut up and run away for fear that the same fate of trial and execution awaited him as well.

What happened to make him so bold now? He was no more educated than he was before the crucifixion. He was uneducated. His social status and his status in the religious community had not changed since before the crucifixion. He was just everyday people.

What changed Peter? What gave him this new-found boldness? The resurrection happened. The Jesus who preached love and forgiveness had risen from the dead. The Risen Christ bears no grudges about what previously had happened. God's love was spoken to Peter and John and all who were in assembly that evening. In spite of all that happened, the Christ appeared to Peter and John and all the others and said, "Do not be afraid. Be at peace."

So now, in light of forgiveness, Peter can boldly proclaim Jesus as the Anointed One of God and heal the sick in his name. He doesn't seem to care any more about the fact that his life might be in jeopardy. They had been forbidden to teach the teachings of Jesus but in light of all that has happened to Peter and the rest of Jesus' followers, Peter says he can no longer shut up. Peter says he can no longer run away. He's on a mission. He has focus and he does what he is sent to do.

Subsequently they were released and they told others of the incident. In the epilogue in verse 31, it says when they prayed they shook the room and all were filled with the Holy Spirit. In turn, all who heard went out to boldly be proclaimers themselves of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Remember again, they were no church officials. They didn't wear special robes or special vestments. They were just everyday people.

What about us? Is the resurrection just a story that has survived hundreds of years? Is it just an allegory that makes for a good television mini-series or book sales? The Church teaches that Jesus rose from the dead. Ministers and priests stand in pulpits and proclaim that Christ is alive. All these things testify to the living Lord, but what do you say? What do you believe? If the resurrection has changed everything, how has it changed your life? If you believe that Christ is alive, if you have been touched by the word of God's love and forgiveness, how can you keep silent about what you have seen? How can you keep silent about what you have heard and how your life has been transformed? You don't have to stand on a street corner with a bullhorn. You don't have to stand in the middle of an auditorium full of strangers to boldly proclaim Jesus Christ is Lord. The most effective proclamation is by everyday people who share their faith and their faith stories with other everyday people.

Like Peter, we may have done some rotten things in our lives that don't exactly proclaim that Jesus is our friend. Oh, we might sing that song, but we have to admit sometimes that the things that we do in our lives bear no resemblance to lives that have been touched by Christ.

A few years back a song, which made a big splash in the country music world, was “Live Like You Were Dying”. It described a young man’s encounter with terminal illness that ultimately freed him to live life to the fullest. He learned to live with reckless abandon, squeezing every moment from every day. God wants each us to find such an intimate connection to living, but not simply in the moment. There is a deeper life that God beckons us to try, and, for the few who test it, God unveils the blessing of setting aside one’s self and discovering the mystery of true relationship. This relationship transforms us and like the dawn of a new day, possess all the potential for hope and redemption that faith in God promises. You see, that is what Christ wanted the disciples to understand: that as they began their journey into the world, it was all new, and yesterday’s woes no longer held power. This inauspicious band of fishermen, malcontents, marginalized, and forgotten was poised to change the world. Jesus taught them something better than to live like you were dying; he taught them to live as those raised from death itself.

The resurrection changes everything. It changed the disciples. It changed the world. It changed me and I'm just everyday people. It continues to change us.

Over the next days, months, and years, the community of believers formed in every nook and cranny from Jerusalem to Rome. The apostles and their message spread to every land, and converts from every tribe and nation ignited this movement of the Way into a potent force that eventually altered human history…sometimes manifesting itself in ways that were very different from the original intention, but always being called out into the world. Craig Van Gelder in his book The Essence of the Church says it best: “The church is more than what meets the eye. It is more than a set of well-managed ministries. It is more than another human organization. The church lives in the world as a human enterprise, but ultimately it is the called and redeemed people of God.

So the church, ordinary, everyday people like us, can go on in prayer and bold proclamations to shake rooms across the planet that the world might know of God's love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Amen.

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