Monday, April 23, 2012

The Gospel of Peter

Acts 4:1-22
by Daniel Harrell

With the Titanic Centennial having sunk back below the surface, it is time to recognize another 100th Anniversary, that of the “lyric little bandbox” known as Fenway Park (yesterday’s disaster of a game against the Yankees notwithstanding. Thankfully they’ve got the Twins starting tomorrow.). My thanks to Rob Kirsch for bringing me a commemorative copy of the Boston Globe. And my greetings to Boston friends here today, one of whom works for the Globe. They’re visiting their daughter at Carleton. I don’t know if you caught any of the Fenway Centennial celebration on Friday. Every former Red Sox player was invited back, with over 200 of them emerging onto that ancient field of dreams: Carleton Fisk, Jim Rice, Pedro Martinez and of course Carl Yastrzemski, Bobby Doerr among so many others. I had the pleasure of being there for 25 of those hundred years, mostly as a guest of the team itself. For years the Red Sox passed out free admission to ministers. You’ve never seen a city with more ordained people. I’m sure the free pass was out of deference to the Kennedys and the Catholic priesthood, but we Protestants were more than happy to go Roman if it got us into Fenway.

The team held chapel before Sunday’s games and customarily invited a local Reverend to bring some inspiration—Lord knows they’ve needed it. I don’t ever remember being as nervous as I was when my turn came. I read some Scripture, gave a short meditation and then said a prayer, after which I went and did the same for the visiting team who had to have their chapel in the shower room (it was the only space available). I’d like to think that the Holy Spirit calmed my nerves, giving me the worlds to say like with Peter here in Acts 4. All I can say is that the Red Sox did go on to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years. Pedro Martinez also came to a service at our church, though I don’t know what the Holy Spirit did to him. I do know he didn’t tithe. Our treasurer would have noticed that.

If Peter and John were nervous before the Jewish ruling Sanhedrin, they didn’t show it. Jesus promised them back in Luke that because of him they’d get dragged before the authorities, but not to worry about it, “the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” Peter and John’s only crime was healing a panhandler who’d been crippled from birth. When he begged Peter and John for money, he given his legs back instead. Calling on the name of Jesus, Peter commanded the crippled beggar to rise up and walk, using the sweet language of resurrection. The man rose up and danced and gave glory to God, astonishing the crowd who marveled at the surge of power. It was much more impressive than the surgeon was able to do with my knee. I’ll not be dancing for a few weeks yet. Modern medicine is amazing, but it’s not miraculous.

Peter went on to hit a homerun sermon—his third in Acts—and church membership exploded to more than 5000. However, the gospel’s popularity with the people threatened the religious establishment, especially the Sadducees who get special mention here because they did not believe in the resurrection. This is what made the Sadducees so sad, you see. They were a by-the-book bunch who rejected the resurrection on the grounds that they couldn’t find it explicitly mentioned in the Old Testament—even though there are lots of hints. The Sadducees were also a practical bunch, choosing to cozy up to the Romans for the sake of the benefits (much like baseball-loving Protestant ministers did in Boston). And they were well-heeled. The Sadducees controlled the Sanhedrin by virtue of their pedigree, a privileged DNA stretching back to Israel’s bluest blood.

We read that they were “much annoyed” about Peter’s sermon—we preachers can relate. But it was the real life application that really got their gevalt. It’s one thing to preach Jesus heals. It’s another thing to do it on the spot. If the Sadducees didn’t nip this in the bud, they’d lose their entire membership to this upstart church plant.
As the ruling aristocracy with political power, the Sadducees had the authority to haul in Peter and John for questioning, just like they’d done with Jesus back in the gospels. Peter had crumpled up like a Kleenex that time, but now filled with the Spirit, he was both bold and brassy. His newfound nerve was nothing to sneeze at. He stepped up to the plate and said to the Sadducees: “You’ve locked us up because of a good deed done to someone who was sick? And now you want to know by whose name we did it?”

Peter told them, of course: “Jesus of Nazareth, whom you killed, but whom God raised from the dead” (sticking it to the Sadducees one more time). Peter went on to quote their own Bible: “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, has become the cornerstone.” The religious establishment had likely understood this stone from Psalm 118 to be referring to them, the rejected nation of Israel, a small rock of a people whom God would make into the cornerstone of creation. But Peter reinterpreted the Psalm in light of Jesus. As their Messiah, Jesus single-handedly fulfilled Israel’s destiny. Because God’s chosen people failed to keep faithful, God kept faith for them in Christ. All they had to do now was to believe in Jesus as their true Cornerstone. Reject him instead, and things would end up as Jesus predicted when he quoted Psalm 118 in Luke’s gospel. “Everyone who stumbles over the stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.”

Peter put this same message in different words here in verse 12: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” There is a double meaning here. “Saved” means both “restored to health” and “resurrected to life.” Again, it’s why Peter told the crippled beggar to rise up and walk. Peter deftly moves from the restored physical health of the panhandler, to address the sad spiritual health of the Sanhedrin.

Christians struggle with this verse. It brings up the sticky doctrine of Christian exclusivism, the assertion that Jesus is the only way to God; inappropriate for our pluralistic and more tolerant times. It’s Jesus fault. He’s the one who drew the line: “no one comes to the Father except through me.”

It may be helpful to remember that at this point in the Biblical narrative, salvation is solely a Jewish concern. As I mentioned last Sunday, there are no Christians yet in the non-Jewish sense of that word. So far, only Jews believed in Jesus. Only Jews, for the most part, had ever heard of Jesus. Even Peter, bold and brassy as he was about sharing the gospel here with the Jewish leaders, doesn’t say a word to non-Jews for six more chapters. Gentiles were unclean. Peter never would have said anything to them had God not given him that vision with the sheet full of non-kosher animals from heaven and declared them fit to eat. A voice will say to Peter, speaking of Gentiles, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” The gospel welcomes the whole world to the table. This passage isn’t so much about the exclusivity of Jesus as it is about the identity of Jesus as Israel’s Savior, the one their Scriptures had promised and their hearts had longed for. And the one through whom all the world would come to God.

Jesus may be the only road to God, but many roads lead to Jesus. Nobody was more surprised about this than Peter once it became clear that the Holy Spirit had come upon Gentiles too. “And since God gave them the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,” Peter declared, “who am I to stand in the way of what God is doing?” –be that the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, life everlasting, all things made new, or that inclusive multitude from Revelation that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, worshipping together in one voice, singing, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Certainly the Sadducees did not appreciate Peter taking them to school like this. Who was he to preach to them? They had their pedigree and their seminary degrees, he had his fishing license. But what could they say? What could they do? Peter delivered the better sermon. He made a lame man walk. He had the Spirit. But they had the political power. So they ordered him to keep quiet and say no more about Jesus. However, keeping a Spirit-filled preacher quiet is like trying to keep the wind from blowing. Peter replied, “You’ll have to judge whether it’s right in God’s sight for us to listen to you instead of Him. How can we keep quiet about what we’ve seen and heard?” Scoring them points for their courage, and concerned about inciting a popular riot, the Sadducees just let them go.
Peter and John’s boldness made an impression on the Sanhedrin, and it impresses me too. Theirs was an act of moral courage—something you don’t see a lot of anymore. Sure, we see occasional acts of bravery now and then: the New Jersey mayor who rushes into a burning apartment building, the Minnesota State Trooper who lined up tractor trailers to break the fall of a suicidal man. But then again, we’ve taken to calling baseball ballplayers who dive for line drives “courageous.” On the other hand, it’s rare to see acts of moral courage, like that American Airlines CEO who resigned rather than file bankruptcy because he didn’t think it right to use the law to avoid financial obligations to workers. Or the Goldman Sachs fund manager who publically resigned on the Opinion Pages of the New York Times because he could no longer in good conscience work for a firm that so devalued its customers.

Even more rare, and less admired, are acts of courage staked out explicitly because of one’s Christian faith: be it the public rejection of violence and cruelty, the deep suspicion of worldly wealth and power, the insistence on chastity, monogamy, and fidelity in personal relationships, the resolve to forgive at all costs. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson asserts that such acts of faithful courage suffer due to what she calls “the tyranny of petty coercion.” Courage,” she writes, “is rarely expressed except where there is sufficient cultural consensus to support it.” This is why people are generally so quiet about being believers. Coming clean about one’s Christianity is un-cool, unless you can play football like Tim Tebow, or dribble like Jeremy Lin, or pitch with a bloody sock like Curt Schilling (who by the way didn’t show up at Fenway Park on Friday). Take away the celebrity, and it’s hard to do the Jesus thing acceptably in America.

Marilynne Robinson’s friends, who know she’s a Christian, poke fun about her being “born again.” They try to rescue her with little lectures about her religion being a cheap cure for existential anxiety. Is she not worried about the embarrassing associations? The assumption that she’s a Jesus freak in cahoots with the lunatic fringes? The fundamentalist home-schoolers and the science-deniers? Though Robinson has spent decades immersed in the virtues of her faith, virtues she’ll carry to her deathbed, she admits being affected by these little coercions. Trivial failures of courage in response, keeping quiet about what you believe because it is un-cool and uncomfortable, may seem minor enough in any particular instance. And yet they have changed history and society. Martin Luther. John Calvin. William Wilberforce. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rosa Parks. Chuck Colson. Even Tim Tebow. Robinson writes how “cultures commonly employ the methods of cults, making their members subject and dependent. And nations at intervals march lockstep to enormity and disaster. A successful autocracy rests on the universal failure of individual courage.” Abdications of conscience can never be trivial.

Who would have ever imagined a faithful band of uneducated fishermen upending the Roman Empire? Who would have ever thought that individuals convinced of the resurrection enough to die for it would shape all of Western civilization, law, economics, art and science? Even now, courageous believers in China and Indonesia and throughout Africa are subversively reforming governments and shaping a new status quo. “How can we keep quiet about what we have seen and heard?” Peter’s rhetorical question still applies.

Not that I am very courageous myself. Even as a professional Christian, I can be pretty quiet about Jesus in public. I’d like to say that I’m reluctant to talk about my faith because it can’t be reduced to simple statements; but mostly it’s because I feel those petty coercions too. I keep quiet even though the dangers I face are pretty insignificant—a little ridicule here, a slight professional disadvantage there, some awkward silence now and then. Never mind that Jesus said if I’m ashamed of him and his words “in this adulterous and sinful generation,” he’ll be ashamed of me “when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

I want to be more courageous. Or at least less ashamed. Maybe that means refusing to take offense when people say things I don’t like. Or better yet, refusing to participate in the offending things that get said about others. Maybe it’s choosing to be more generous than I usually am, or volunteering more time to people who might need me. Maybe it’s choosing to do the right thing instead of the easy thing, to support a just cause, to stand up for the disadvantaged, to say something un-cool. And then when people ask me why I act like I act, I can come clean about my faith in a way that brings glory to that name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and tongue confess he is Lord. If Jesus is Lord, how can we keep quiet?

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