A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California
April 25, 2021
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 by this healing.
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.
And, because no good deed goes unpunished, the religious leaders had Peter and John arrested.
I read that and think, “I could arrest people?”
I kid. I kid.
But these religious leaders 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. It wasn’t under the sanction of the religious leaders, it wasn’t under their control, Peter and John hadn’t gone to one of their seminaries.
There wasn’t a right answer, I don’t think.
Luckily, Peter doesn’t spend any time wondering what the politically correct or expedient 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. Despite your lack of belief in him and despite the inconvenient truth that you murdered 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 it isn’t just Peter and John, but also God who thinks they rejected Jesus. The stone that the builder rejected…
Here’s my question on this story. What happened to Peter? Isn’t he the guy who denied Jesus 3 times before the crucifixion? Weren’t the disciples hiding behind locked doors a few weeks ago because they were afraid of the religious authorities? What happened? How did they become so fearless?
The bible doesn’t really tell us what happened to transform the disciples.
Other than the fact that they encountered the risen Jesus.
They encountered resurrection. They saw and experienced that God had conquered death itself, and that changes your perception of what is possible.
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 and hearts to be changed. They can’t let go of the what they thought they knew 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. I invite you to open your bibles and follow along beginning in Acts chapter 4, vs 16:
“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.”
Aren’t they adorable? Can you imagine any scenario where Peter, the man who just reminded them of their complicity in Jesus’ death, will 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.
What would our lives be like, what would our world be like, if we were more like Peter, willing to risk it all to heal people, and less like the religious authorities, unwilling to risk losing power?
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 written, 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.
Are we leaving space for people to change their minds? To acknowledge where they’ve been wrong, seek restoration and redemption?
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 lambs”.
“Peter, do you love me? Tend 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 man, begging 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. 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.
“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.
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.
Our goal as disciples is NOT to become the Good Shepherd. That’s Jesus. We also are not called to be the hired hands who flee when things are tough, or the thieves and bandits.
We are called to be the sheep. The sheep who hear the voice of Jesus calling us to share his mercy, his justice, his love. The sheep who recognize that we’ve received grace after we’ve made mistakes. The sheep who recognize the world is different on the other side of resurrection. The sheep who respond to that grace by passing it on in the world.
Morgan Harper Nichols is a songwriter and poet I admire. She writes this about grace, and the way it changes us.
So here’s to new beginnings,
knowing it is impossible to ignore the long history,
opening up to the mystery
that grace still finds you here.
And grace is unmerited favor
but it might not always look the way you want it to.
It will invite you out in the open
and it will also reveal what has been broken.
You might have to unlearn the way you thought things would be.
You might find that being undone
is the best way to move on, humbly, mindfully, wholly.
For how liberating it is
to pursue wholeness over perfection,
finding that grace is more than a beautiful word,
but a daily act of being undone, an awakening, a direction.
Are we willing to be undone, sent in new directions?
Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.
Peter chooses to stand with the man who was lame and begging, chooses to feed that sheep, because that’s what Jesus called him to do.
Yet even in his conversation with the Temple authorities, there is invitation there. Yes, Peter is brutally honest with them. I think that is words also leave room for the authorities to join in. They, too, are sheep Jesus loves. 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.
Where are you on your journey 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 like the religious leaders, able to acknowledge 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.
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.
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 take comfort today in the good news that “good Christians” are 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.