Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 25, 2021
Acts 4:5-12 Commentary
Until now, the story of early Christianity has been all good, very good, in fact. Pentecost has filled the infant church with the Holy Spirit. Peter has preached the first Christian sermon with the crucified and risen Christ at the very center, and the result was spectacular—3000 converts in one day! Then came the first recorded miracle, the healing of a man who had never walked in his 40 years of living, which led to a stampede in the direction of Peter and John. That became the occasion for Peter’s second sermon, another Christ centered message that expanded on the world changing effects of Christ’s death and resurrection. That resulted in 2000 more coming to Christ. What a beginning! It was all good.
But then the inevitable happened. The hubbub around the cripple and Peter’s second sermon drew the attention of the power structure of the Temple. “The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees… were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” Here is the first sign of opposition to the preaching of the Easter Gospel.
It wouldn’t be the last, which makes this a very relevant text for our post-Christian pluralistic society. In fact, I see three gnarly contemporary issues that must be confronted in this text: speaking truth to power, word versus deed evangelism, and the offense of the gospel’s particularity.
This is the first time power confronted the church and the church responded by speaking truth to that power. That power was the Supreme Court of Judaism. After imprisoning Peter and John overnight in order to marshal their forces, the rulers (the priests whose family pedigree earned them a place in the Sanhedrin), the elders (men of social prominence), and the teachers of the law (for whom education was their ticket to the table)—all the powers that were, summoned Peter and John and began to question them.
This was a very dangerous situation. These were the very people who had killed Jesus. They thought they had put a stop to that blaspheming traitor who threatened their nation and their leadership. Now these rubes were stirring things up by talking about a risen Jesus. The people in power were threatened by that message.
So, they questioned Peter and John. Their question centered not on the fact of that miracle of healing, but on “the power or name” by which the apostles did it. The powers never did argue about whether the miracle occurred; everyone knew the cripple and there he stood in their midst. Their concern was with how it got done, and particularly what it had to do with this Jesus. In fact, they knew the answer to their question; they just needed to hear it in court, so they could legally get these troublemakers out of the way.
How does Peter respond? He speaks truth to power. In our day that often means challenging things like racism with calls for social injustice or confronting abuses of governmental power with reminders that we are a government “of the people.” Those are important words to speak. But that’s now how Peter speaks truth to power. He speaks the simple Gospel.
Well, it wasn’t so simple. He starts with the basic historical facts: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you today.”
That was confrontational enough, but then he took it a step further when he asserts that their rejection of Jesus was the fulfilment of a major Old Testament prophecy (Psalm 118:22. Jesus is “the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone or cornerstone.” With the Temple in the background, Peter says, in effect, you men are in charge of the Temple and the religion it represents. But you have rejected the one who is the very capstone of the whole religion.
If that wasn’t enough of a punch in the nose and a kick in the gut, Peter goes on to make a claim that has offended and saved millions: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
I will deal with that last universal/particular claim later, but for now let’s focus on the way Peter spoke truth to power. He boldly proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He was asked how “did you do this?” But he deflected attention away from himself and focused it entirely on Jesus. Rather than being cowed by the powers that be, he challenged their power, named their sin, and proclaimed how they could be saved.
While the church definitely has a role to play in confronting the powers of our age when they are guilty of injustice and unrighteousness, Peter shows us that naming sin and challenging power are not enough. Until and unless we preach Christ this boldly and clearly, we won’t change the world as deeply as it needs to be changed. But, out of fear of opposition or offending, we have often not spoken Gospel truth to power.
Instead, we have substituted good deeds for speaking the Gospel. Everyone knows the famous dictum attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. “Always preach the Gospel and when necessary, use words.” Peter and John show us that, while good deeds are necessary, so is the preaching of the Gospel.
It was a good deed, “an act of kindness shown to a cripple,” that drew both an amazed crowd and an angry Sanhedrin.” That miracle gained the Gospel a hearing. Doing acts of kindness (and we might add, justice) are an absolutely crucial part of the church’s ministry to the world, even as it was part of Christ’s ministry. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is essential to Christian discipleship.
But we cannot make disciples unless we “teach them everything I have commanded you (Matt. 28:19).” Deeds without explanatory words will leave the attention focused on us; “how did you do this?” It is always “necessary to use words,” for “how shall they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have never heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14).”
Many of us hesitate to “preach” because we’re not preachers (and even many of us preachers hesitate to speak truth to power when we are out of our pulpits). We aren’t comfortable; we are intimidated into silence; we don’t know what to say. Peter’s example is very helpful in three obvious ways. First, he was “filled with the Holy Spirit (verse 8).” Second, he spoke simply of Jesus—his death and his resurrection and his power to save. While his sermons to inquiring crowds were complex and detailed, his words in a threatening situation were simple and direct. And, third, he “had been with Jesus (verse 13).” We don’t have to choose between “acts of kindness” and speaking boldly of Jesus. Both are essential to making disciples.
But often we are silent these days not because we are afraid of persecution, but because we don’t want to offend people of other faiths or no faith. I mean, it’s one thing to say that Jesus is my Savior and Lord. It’s quite another to say, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Gabriel Fackre puts it well: “How dare we declare the ‘scandal of particularity’ when we need to get along with the variety of religions on our doorstep? When there is so much good in people of other religion or even no faith?”
It was one thing for Peter to confront the Sanhedrin with their sin in rejecting and crucifying their own Christ. At least he wasn’t rejecting their whole religion. But how can we tell people that, however beautiful and helpful and true some elements of their religion may be, there is only one Savior and his name is Jesus? This concern about sounding arrogant and negative and narrow has silenced the church in many places. Or at least it has reduced our conversation with other religions to interfaith dialogue in place of Gospel proclamation.
How shall we preach this today? Some have moved in the direction of an accommodating pluralism which sees Peter’s words as time and culture bound. He was speaking metaphorically in a situation of high stress, staking out the claims of the infant church in strong terms that don’t fit in our situation. Others, pointing out that the church back then was enmeshed in a culture as pluralistic as ours, maintain that we must speak with the sharp particularism of Peter. He was speaking not metaphorically, but metaphysically. Jesus actually is the only Savior, for everyone.
That last phrase is important—for everyone. As particular as Peter’s gospel is (“salvation in one else”), there is also a universalism in his claim. This is a Gospel, not just for one nation or people, but for everyone “under heaven.” There is no intent to exclude people in this particular gospel; Peter’s bold message includes everyone who will come to that Savior.
It is worth noting that, whereas other Gospel messages in the New Testament include a call to repentance and faith in Christ, this one does not. Which leads some to suggest that, while no one can be saved apart from this Savior, it may be that God will save people through this Savior, even though they didn’t have faith– either because they had never heard about him or because they weren’t able to believe because of age or mental ability or because they had been so damaged by sin that faith was impossible. This is a whole other question, of course, one best left to God alone.
So, yes, there are difficulties with this message of Peter. But if we ever want to see the church grow and thrive and change the world the way it did back then, we must speak Gospel truth to power, combine good deeds with Gospel proclamation, and dare to say that Jesus is the only Savior there is for anyone and everyone.
I have a cluster of keys in my pocket—keys for two cars, keys for my house, keys for my office, keys that open I know not what. They all look nice; they all function for opening something; they all promise that they will do something helpful for me. But the simple fact is that none of them will open my house except the house key. There is only one key to my house. That may be narrow, but it is the truth. So it is with the only Savior of the whole world.
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