April 25, 2021
During the season of Eastertide – that is, the 6 Sundays after Easter – the lectionary replaces the Old Testament lessons with readings from the Book of Acts. In other words, rather than drawing our attention to the ancient witness of the scriptures that Jesus read as inspiration and instruction from God, the lectionary draws our attention to the word and witness offered through the lives of the early followers of Jesus and the birth of the church. It makes sense if you think about it. We’ve just celebrated Jesus’ resurrection, so why not read about the next part of the story, the lives of those who lived in his absence, which turned out not to be an absence at all, but a new and surprising kind of presence?
Eastertide is really the only time the lectionary pays much attention to Acts, so I like to use it for worship during this time of year, but honestly, the passages have been so bad that it’s been tough to highlight them, and I certainly haven’t been real inspired to preach on them. My colleagues in lectionary group all said that Year B drew the short end of the stick for Acts passages. (There are years A, B, and C, and we happened to be in B now.) Anyway, the other years are better, they say. And, going on memory I would say they are right.
I’m thinking that today’s passage may strike you as an especially uncomfortable B-year selection. (In fact, I kind of wondered how Kirsten would feel reading it!) Peter ends his little sermon here saying, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” Of course, he’s speaking of the name of Jesus here, and to read it as a line in a brief selection of verses (as we do today) it’s hard not to hear the passage as anything other than a message of supremacy that obviously negates other faith traditions and excludes from the table of salvation any of the adherents of those traditions.
But, to get a sense of what Peter is saying and what is really happening here we have to go back to the beginning of chapter 3 when Peter and John were making their way into the temple to pray. Just at the same time a man “lame from birth” was being carried in as well so that he might sit at the gate and ask for alms. The man calls out to Peter who replies, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” The man’s healing causes quite a commotion and then attracts a crowd to which Peter then begins to preach.
In essence, the story is about something that should be seen as an unquestioned positive ending up being viewed with suspicion and animosity. A story that begins with a healing turns into a story about Peter and John finding themselves arrested and under interrogation by the temple authorities. They ask, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” And, that’s when we get today’s passage. What Peter wants them to understand from his defense is that he really didn’t do anything. It was the Jesus that they rejected and he denied who did this. It was the Jesus whose life all the powers that be put to death who did this. It was the Jesus who lives nonetheless, the Jesus whose Spirit is now being poured out, who healed this man and made him walk again. “Not me, but Jesus!” That’s Peter’s message. There’s no other authority on earth because the authority you see in action is God’s; it is not mortal authority, but divine authority.
The dynamic that unfolds here reminds me a little of a discovery we made at our Boost on Wednesday as we read a bit from the non-biblical “Gospel of Thomas.” It’s guessed to be from about the same time as the other gospels, but ultimately not accepted into the library of books considered to be authoritative. You’ll get a sense of why when you hear the following passage:
Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like.” (That part sounds like something we’ve heard before, right? “Who do people say that I am?”)
Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a righteous angel.”
Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.”
Thomas said to him, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like.”
Jesus said, “I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.”
And he took him and withdrew and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?”
Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.”
Apart from not telling the story of Jesus’ life, not saying anything about the crucifixion or resurrection, The Gospel of Thomas was likely excluded because it was too Gnostic. That is, it reflected a Christianized philosophy about the power of gaining secret spiritual knowledge as the key to enlightened existence and salvation. You can see it in that passage that I read. Jesus revealed a wisdom that Thomas could attain. Salvation was an enlightenment that Thomas was able to realize with a little help from Jesus who had already figured it out.
This, however, was not the truth that the church of the disciples and those who followed discerned. What they discerned was not a bit of secret, or even divine, knowledge mysteriously passed along by Jesus, but rather, the discovery of the actual divine presence of God in the person of Jesus who gave his life out of love and faithfulness and who now continues to live among them. In other words, the church discerned not something that they could attain, but something that they could only receive. Not knowledge, but grace. Not a heightened self so much as a new kind of life that was colored and characterized by its sharing in the ongoing life of God poured out in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
It’s Good Shepherd Sunday, by the way. You likely picked up on the theme from the other two readings today. In John Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” I’m not going to spend much time on the particulars of sheep and shepherds other than to say that what makes the shepherd good is his willingness to sacrifice, to give of himself, which is just a reiteration of what we’ve already said. What God gives us is not information but God’s self, which is divine, eternal love to fill us and form us and express itself through us.
The other passage is Psalm 23 with its very well known opening line: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” But the words that seemed most relevant to me for these times we’re living through is, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil.” Let’s say that darkness is Covid and all the loss and loneliness that has rippled out from the virus. I think our message today helps us think about fear just a bit. I’ve seen quite a bit on social media about not letting fear guide us and about fear’s power to paralyze us. But, often these concerns seem to imply that we should just do what we want and that the exercise of caution is just another way of succumbing to fear. From a Christian perspective that’s just not the case. The opposite of fear is not being cavalier or even courageous; it is love. Fear is a poison not when it blinds us to risk but when it blinds us to the love poured upon us, the love out of which we act, the love that is the source of whatever power we might exercise.
It seems that our part of the world is on the brink of opening up quite a bit more. With warmer weather upon us, vaccines more widely distributed, and restrictions loosening we may have more and more opportunity to emerge more freely from our distancing. With you, of course, I celebrate the possibility of being with one another, with friends and family, in ways that feel more present, and as we move in that direction I have a couple of thoughts. First, for me and I know for many of you, Covid distancing, while difficult, has also allowed for some more intentional time for spiritual care; for some more focused attention on the relationship that God is inviting us to share with God. Though crisis may have driven us to it, I do believe there’s grace in that. The space we’ve lived through has given us opportunities to seek and find our God, and what I want us to do is to carry that same intention as the opening of our worlds unfolds; to claim that love – that God – that divine grace – that is given to us to make us who we are. Then, as we do and as we emerge into the days ahead I want us to see the unquestionably good mission of being able to share that love – that God – in all the ways in which we will gather with friends, and family, and neighbors, and strangers, and those in need, and any anywhere for whom the love of God is being poured out.