A sermon preach April 29, 2012 at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho.
The day before our story in Acts begins, Peter and John were walking into the Temple in Jerusalem and a lame beggar, who had sat at the gate every day for years, asked them for a handout. Instead, they healed him in the name of Jesus. And the man got up, started dancing around, and followed them in the temple. It caused quite a ruckus, as you can imagine. People were impressed at Peter’s mad skillzzz. And Peter said that it wasn’t his skills that were impressive. Anything he did was through the power of Jesus Christ. There was no healing apart from Jesus, he said.
5,000 people that day saw and believed.
So, because no good deed goes unpunished, the religious leaders had them arrested. I read that and think, “I could arrest people?”
I kid. I kid.
But they could arrest people. And they did. So our text picks up when Peter and John are brought before the religious authorities in Jerusalem, after a night in the holy hoosegow. “By what power or by what name did you do this?”
Leaves me wondering if there is any possible answer that would be the “right” answer for the authorities.
Luckily, Peter doesn’t spend any time wondering what the politically correct answer would be. Instead, he is filled with the Holy Spirit and says, “remember that man you crucified? Well, he rose from the dead, with all apologies to you Sadducees who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead. And despite your lack of belief in him and despite your murdering him, he is still healing people. And this man is healed because of Jesus.”
He insults them enough in his little speech that it is a wonder they aren’t put in the dungeon. He even quotes Psalm 118 to tell them that God thinks they rejected Jesus. The stone that the builder rejected…
I was talking about this text this week with Ruth Goldthwaite and her brilliant insight, which I’m stealing here, is what happened to Peter? Isn’t he the guy who denied Jesus 3 times before the crucifixion? How did he become so fearless?
However that happened, Peter speaks with authority, filled with the Spirit, and the Temple authorities are convinced. They see the healed man. They hear the the conviction in Peter and John, two uneducated men who clearly shouldn’t be able to persuade a crowd so effectively. They acknowledge everything that is true about Peter’s speech.
They can’t allow their own minds to be changed. They can’t let go of the status quo to welcome this new reality.
The Sadducees in the room were probably thinking, “if we have to acknowledge the resurrection from the dead, then who knows how many other doctrines people will question.”
The Temple leaders probably wondered, “if any Galilean peasant can heal the lame in Jesus’ name, what would they need the Temple for? Who would pay us 2 turtledoves to be healed when they could call on Jesus for free?”
And, of course, the big question would have been, “since we were the ones who told Pilate to kill him, what would happen if we acknowledge we were wrong and that we killed not just an innocent man, but perhaps the son of God?”
I don’t often feel for the religious leaders in the Biblical narrative, but I do here.
Because any of us are capable of making these mistakes. The religious leaders were only human, after all. And we understand defending the status quo, because most days we’ve figured out a way to make it work. We understand a fear of change. We can understand that they would lose their power, possibly their jobs, if they acknowledged the way God had turned that world upside down.
And we understand not wanting to have to say you’re sorry. Especially if the mistake you made cost a man his life. Especially if that man might possibly have been the son of God.
So they come up with an interesting solution:
“For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.”
Seems cute, doesn’t it? Can you imagine any scenario where Peter, the man who just reminded them of their complicity in Jesus’ death, is going to be interested in their warnings to be silent?
Peter can’t seem to imagine that either.
“Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.
You may have heard in the news recently that American nuns are in trouble. With the Vatican. Because they are spending too much time focusing on feeding the hungry and providing healthcare and not enough time decrying gay marriage and abortion. I’m not making this up. And so American Bishops are being brought in to supervise the nuns.
And the whole thing reminds me of the Acts passage today. In the role of the religious authorities we have the Bishops, and the role of Peter is played by the nuns. Because the nuns are not backing down. The Bishops may try to stop the nuns from feeding the poor and educating children, but I can’t quite see that succeeding.
The New York Times this morning had this story:
Elias Chacour, a prominent Palestinian archbishop in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, recounts in a memoir that he once asked a convent if it could supply two nuns for a community literacy project. The mother superior said she would have to check with her bishop.
“The bishop was very clear in his refusal to allow two nuns,” the mother superior told him later. “I cannot disobey him in that.” She added: “I will send you three nuns!”
What would our lives be like, what would our world be like, if we were more like Peter, more like the nuns, and less like the religious authorities?
What if we were a little less concerned about what people might think, or what it would mean to acknowledge we’d made a mistake?
What if we were a little more concerned with sharing the stories of what we’d seen and heard?
I want to believe that at some point down the road, after the Book of Acts was published, that at least some of the religious authorities did change their hearts and not just their minds about Jesus.
Because faith isn’t always an instant thing. While I’m thankful for those 5,000 people who came to believe in Jesus after seeing one healing, I recognize that it can be a journey for others.
Let’s think back to Peter. Peter started out with great enthusiasm. He abandoned everything to follow Jesus. He tried to make bold claims to Jesus. After the mountaintop transfiguration he wanted to stay there forever and build some tents! When Jesus asks him how many times to forgive, he gives an extravagant number. Peter has enthusiasm from the beginning. But in the night of Jesus’ arrest, he denied Jesus three times. Peter’s journey had many zigs and zags.
John’s Gospel gives us a glimpse into Peter’s redemption after the resurrection. After his three denials, Jesus asks him, three times,
“Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep”.
“Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep”.
“Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep”.
And we wonder if that instruction was in Peter’s mind when he saw the lame beggar outside of the Temple.
“Peter do you love me? Feed my sheep.”
Because Peter does feed the sheep. The man was asking for a hand out. But Peter gave him much more than that. He welcomed him into abundant life.
The other Lectionary reading today is from John’s gospel, from chapter 10.
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Jesus uses imagery that is familiar to his listeners. He uses imagery that reminds them of their favorite scripture passages too. And the Acts passage we heard today gives us a snapshot of a moment of these shepherding images playing out in real life.
Jesus had shepherded Peter. Each time Peter would go overboard or would start heading off in the wrong direction, Jesus would gently redirect him, leading him to greener pastures. Jesus could have decided that he would find a more well behaved little lamb. He could have left the shepherding business all together, because let’s face it—it isn’t the most glamorous work. But Jesus kept on shepherding Peter, leading him beside still water, restoring his soul. And when push came to shove, Peter recognized the voice of his shepherd. “Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep”. And Peter does.
And even in his conversation with the Temple authorities, there is invitation there. Yes, Peter is brutally honest with them. But I think that is words also leave room for the authorities to join in. Just as Jesus had re-proofed and corrected Peter, so he does the same to the leaders. And Peter will go on to build the church, inviting others to join in on the journey.
What would your snapshot show today? Are you like Peter and denying Jesus 3 times? Or are you like Peter and bold in the knowledge that God loves you? Are you able to acknowledge like the religious leaders that there is something to this Jesus, even if you can’t claim it?
Are you are the person who came to faith in an instant, or the person who is still trying to figure it all out? Whoever you are this minute, have no fear. We have a shepherd in God who leads us, who keeps us on the path, who journeys with us through both the dark valleys and at the rich banquets.
I read today in the newspaper that when the whole brouhaha developed with the American nuns, a few of the nuns were worried that their work with the marginalized would have left them with few allies to support them in the public arena. But in Catholic churches and charities all over the country, people have been cheering and supporting on the nuns. They have responded with boldness of their own. When you recognize the voice of the shepherd, when you take seriously his command to feed the sheep, then you can speak with boldness about where you have seen God’s love.
At the end of the Acts passage, Peter goes and reports to the disciples about their encounter with the religious leaders. “When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”
And I pray that we will know what that is like.
But don’t worry if your faith isn’t the same as Peter’s. Don’t worry if you think you resemble a Sadducee. I think we have some notion of what life would be like if we were “good Christians”. And I suspect we feel we can never measure up. So your comfort today is that good Christians are like sheep.
Jesus calls us to be like sheep, animals that need guiding. We aren’t called to be some more impressive animals—I don’t know, Tigers?, Killer Whales?, Elephants?—Jesus calls us to be sheep.
And despite that humble calling, the Good News of God’s love is proclaimed, even sometimes with boldness.