Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 21, 2024

Acts 4:5-12 Commentary

This Sunday’s text picks up in the middle of a story in which a man is healed in the name of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit. This becomes the platform for gospel proclamation in the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to humans by which we must be saved.”

Five thousand people heard that message and agreed with it. But this happy ending isn’t the end of the story.  According to NT Wright, good news isn’t good news “if you were already in power … and not particularly (good news) if you were in charge of the central institution that administered God’s law, God’s justice and the life of God’s people, and if you strongly suspected that this new movement was trying to upstage you, to diminish or overturn that power and prestige and take it for itself.”

People who believe in the resurrection are more likely than others to be trouble-makers. After all, this story tells us that the leaders “were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.”

People who believe in the resurrection are more likely to get into good news trouble because, #1 what can the world do to us that Jesus has not already overcome? Death is the worst of it, right? And Jesus stands ready to overturn our death sentence on appeal. The second reason people who believe in the resurrection should be up for some Gospel-trouble-making is that we believe Jesus is coming back to put things right in the end. We know who wins this thing. And he’s our team captain. Jesus told us to be on the look-out for signs of redemption and, when we see the kingdom on its way, to jump on board and hang on for the ride.

But, instead of getting into some good, wholesome gospel trouble, it has become the prevailing fault of many Christians that, as Willie Jennings says, we “believe somehow that (we) can be loved or at least liked or at least tolerated or even ignored by those with real power in the world.”

Peter & John had no such illusions. The inevitable result of resurrection people acting in the name of Jesus and the power of the Spirit is that economic, political and social structures *will* feel threatened and react. As resurrection people, they knew that the things resurrection people say will put them at odds with those in power.  And they said them anyway.  As resurrection people, they knew that the things resurrection people do put them at odds with those in power. And they did them anyway.

Willie Jennings writes, “Speaking holy words has serious consequences … the holy words that bring consequences are words tied to the concrete liberating actions of God for broken people. Such holy words bring the speakers into direct confrontation with those in power. Jesus not only spoke such words but he was such a word.”

Anyone can claim that they are speaking “in Jesus name” and a lot of people do. NT Wright observes as much when he writes: “Now of course it is always possible for anyone to claim the name of Jesus and the right to speak in his name and to use this as justification for any sort of rebellion against authority that they choose.”

This is what’s really at stake in the third commandment about using the Lord’s name in vain.  Dragging Jesus into your swears is tacky and not terribly uplifting. But the real damage is done when folks baptize the flag of any country in Jesus’ name. When religious leaders align themselves — and their Jesus — with a political party or a leader to the extent that they lose the ability to speak a prophetic word or a challenge against “their guy” or “their party.”

The difference in Peter & John’s case, NT Wright goes on to argue, is that what “distinguishes it from many claims that might be made which simply borrow the name of Jesus as an excuse for running with an agenda someone has reached on quite different grounds, is that the people making the claim have already shown they are living by it, and that it has power, kingdom-power, healing power.” It is the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit that holds us fast and propels us forward.

But this work of following Jesus out loud is not for the faint of heart or the lazy or the undisciplined.  Boldness takes work.  Though perhaps not the work we might imagine.

Again from Jennings, “Peter speaks boldly, but this boldness is not the result of character refinement or moral formation.  Peter has not become the great man who stares down his enemies with epic courage, the kind that creates an odyssey or a heroic tale. Indeed, there is no such thing as individual boldness for the followers of Jesus. Of course, each disciple can and must be bold, but their boldness is always a together boldness, a joined boldness … the modern lie of individualism is more powerful when we imagine that boldness comes from within. It does not. It comes from without, from the Spirit of God.”

The early church prays for boldness — great boldness — to continue speaking in the name of Jesus and acting in the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s it. Not for easier circumstances or a change of heart for those in power.  God may or may not sort those things out along the way.  But as for the church:

We pray for power to keep being the church in the face of opposition.
We pray for boldness to keep speaking as those who follow Jesus out loud.
We pray for courage to keep acting like the trouble-making resurrection people we are.

As I thought about Peter & John’s words and actions and I imagined the church’s prayers for boldness, a very specific song came to mind and has been rattling in my brain all week. I know it probably should have been a hymn or a praise song or just something explicitly Christian. And yet, when I hear the early church praying for boldness, I hear Johnny Cash. I wonder if prayer in the early church might have sounded a bit like this:


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