The next day 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. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ Acts 4.5-12
Although this the fourth Sunday of Easter, I promise I won’t mention anything about eggs, chocolate or real!
I wonder if any of you noticed that on today’s readings sheet, it says that ‘The reading from Acts must be read as either the First or Second reading’. So I thought I better look at this reading more closely. I found that I certainly had not preached on the passage before and that on reading it, it seems a little out of context unless you also know something about what went on before. In the previous chapter we can read about how a lame man came to be cured by Peter and John, who then started to explain what had happened and preached to the people in the temple. The priests, the chief of the Temple police, and the Sadducees then arrived and they were thoroughly annoyed that they were teaching the people and proclaiming that ‘the resurrection of the dead’ had begun to happen through Jesus. So they arrested them and put them into prison. So that explains why they were under arrest, and why the Chief Priest thought it necessary to go mob handed the next day to interrogate the disciples.
Bishop Tom Wright retells the story about another bishop who complained, that he didn’t seem to be having the same impact as the first apostles. ‘Everywhere St Paul went,’ he said, ‘there was a riot. Everywhere I go they serve tea.’ But as we have seen, it wasn’t just Paul but the other earlier disciples as well, who caused trouble when they preached the good news. So why doesn’t the Gospel message make such an impact today?
Let us examine the facts. The message about Jesus as Messiah and rescuer meant trouble long before Paul started preaching in the name of Jesus and declaring that God had raised him from the dead. So what was it about this early message which got the authorities, and others so alarmed and angry? Wouldn’t it be simply great news to know that God was alive and well and was providing a wonderful rescue operation for all through his chosen Messiah? Well, NO, not if you were already in power. Not if you were one of the people who had rejected and condemned that Messiah. And certainly not if you were in charge of the central institution that administered God’s law, God’s justice and the life of God’s people. To understand all this we need to get inside what these people believed on the one hand and what the news of Jesus’ resurrection actually meant on the other; and in a similar way, and at the same time, see how it relates to the world today.
As we know from other passages, the Sadducees were Jewish aristocrats, including the high priest and his family, who wielded great power in Jerusalem and among the Jewish people. They guarded the Temple, the most holy place in Judaism, where the system of animal sacrifice had been practised for a thousand years and where the one true God had promised to meet with His people. In so doing they, exercised great power economically, socially and politically. It was with the high priest and his entourage that the Roman governor would normally do business. They could get things done, or stop things being done; and that is why they strongly disapproved of the idea of ‘resurrection’.
Today, the Gospel story is old news. It has been discussed, debated and denigrated. For at least the last 200 years in the Western world people have laughed at ‘resurrection’, whether that of Jesus or that of anyone else. Those who have stuck out against this mockery, lies and disinformation and declared that they do believe in resurrection anyway, have been thought of as ‘conservatives’ rather than the modern ‘liberals’. But resurrection always was a radical, dangerous doctrine, an attack on the status quo and a threat to existing power structures. Because Resurrection, is the belief which declares that the living God is going to put everything right once and for all, He is going to ‘restore all things’, to turn the world the right way up at last. And those who are in power, within the world the way it is, are quite right to suspect that, if God suddenly does such a marvellous, drastic thing, they can no longer expect that they will stay in power in this new world that God is going to make. What’s more, people who believe in resurrection as did the Pharisees (a radical populist group of the time), tended to be more ready than others to cause trouble for the authorities. They believed, after all, that the God who will eventually put the world the right way up is likely to bring about some advance signs of that final judgment, and they were prepared to die for that belief.
Resurrection, whichever way you looked at it, was not what the authorities wanted to hear about. So what made the authorities angry wasn’t just Peter’s announcement that God had raised Jesus from the dead. It was, as Luke puts it, a much larger thing: that Peter was preaching the resurrection of the dead, and also announcing this revolutionary doctrine ‘In Jesus’. In other words, Peter was saying not only that Jesus himself had been raised, but that this was the start and the sign of God’s eventual restoration of everything. This may have been be bad news for the chief priests and the Sadducees, however it was exactly what plenty of others wanted to hear. (St. Luke, who wrote The Acts of the Apostles, notes that a further 5,000 came to faith on the spot). But the really sinister thing about this section is the further question the authorities ask. ‘What name did you use to do this?’
This reminds us of the accusations that were hurled at Jesus himself: was he, after all, in league with Beelzebub? Was Jesus – and were the disciples, – the kind of people that they had been warned about in Deuteronomy. In Chapter 13 there are warnings to guard against false prophets leading people astray from the one true God. Jesus answered that question by reference to the holy spirit, at work in and through him to launch God’s kingdom project, so Peter, himself filled with the holy spirit, announces boldly that the ‘name’ in question is that of Jesus, the Messiah, from Nazareth. He continues, in words that would hardly endear him to the authorities: ‘You crucified him’ (not that they did, as we know; it was the Romans who did it; but the chief priests had planned it and pressed Pilate for a verdict to crucify).
The name of Jesus, in other words, isn’t just the name through which healing power can flow into people. It is a name which can change the behaviour of people throughout the world. It is not surprising that the last verse read, Acts 4 verse 12, is so unpopular within the politically correct climate of the last few generations in the Western world. That verse says:- There is Salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.
‘No other name’? People say this is arrogant, or exclusive, or triumphalist. So, indeed, it can be, if Christians use the name of Jesus to further their own power or prestige. But for many years now, in the Western world at least, it is the secularists and the so called politically correct, who have acted the part of the chief priests, protecting their cherished ideas of modernist thought, within which no credence can be given to the teaching or the resurrection of Jesus.
And so we should answer like the apostles, Well, who else but Jesus Christ is there that can rescue people in this fashion, and offer them peace, freedom,
and a new life in this world and the next?
I pray that the Holy Spirit who was so evident in the lives of the early Christians, be within us, and embolden us, to tell all we meet, of the good news of the risen Jesus Christ.