Sunday, 23 June 2013

Acts 4 - In whose name?

I feel a little betwixt and between!

Last Sunday we had our Church weekend away at Brunel Manor and we were joined by Jonathan Rowe whose family has been very much part of the Highbury Church Family for something like 125 years, if not more!

Next Sunday we hope to be joined by Eric Burton who was Minister here at Highbury nearly 50 years ago and we will delight in sharing with him in a celebration of the 60th anniversary of his Ordination.

And here we are continuing to read the Acts of the Apostles.

Something leaps off the page at me that connects last week and next week here as we read Acts chapter 4.

The first thing that leaps off the page at me is the importance of hearing one another’s stories and the importance of telling the story.  Jonathan last week got us telling in one minute why we are a Christian.   Seeing the way Eric has been preparing his services for next Sunday, Eric will be sharing with us what is important to him about his Christian faith and the last 60 years.

Both Jonathan last week and Eric next week find themselves turning to Peter, whose story is told in these opening chapters of Acts.

It’s fascinating to see how Acts works – it is very much the story of the way the Holy spirit is at work through the followers of Jesus who form the church in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

And it begins in Jersualem,

And it is in Jerusalem that Peter is the focus of the story.

He’s the one who speaks for the others on the Day of Pentecost and his sermon is recorded in chapter 2.   He is the one who brings healing to the lame man at the beautiful gate and the sermon he shared is recorded in chapter 3.

And now in chapter 4 we come across a third sermon Peter preaches … this time in response to the challenge he receives from the powers that be in Jerusalem who have him imprisoned.

Put on the spot, Peter is prepared to give an account of the hope that is within him.

Very much later when he writes a round-robin letter to the Christians who have by that time reached out beyond Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth – Peter’s letter speaks of times when Christians will face difficulty, even suffering and persecution and he gives them a challenge.

This is the verse Jonathan made a great deal of last week.

This is the verse that Eric has included in his plans for next Sunday’s servivces.

I feel it is becoming something of a theme!

I like the NIV

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,

This is exactly what Peter does here in Jerusalem.

I must make one aside that is really important.

Acts 4 and what goes on in Jerusalem is one of those dangerous parts of the Bible that has been used to justify all manner of awful things particularly to Jewish people, culminating in the horrors of the holocaust.

It’s so easy to read Acts and see the followers of Jesus and the Church as over against Jews and Jewish people.

It’s important to read the text more carefully.

And this is a moment to do that of supreme importance.

Look carefully at the opening verses of chapter 4 of Acts and Luke spells out for us just who Peter and those first followers of Jesus were up against.  It is not Jews as Jews.  It is a particular set of people within the Jewish world of that time.  And it is clear from the way Luke names them and identifies them that they are the set of people who are very much bound up with the Herodian dynasty and all they stand for in working closely with the Roman powers in a way that many Jewish people found abhorrent.

4While Peter and John were speaking to the people,

It is very easy to lose sight of the fact that Peter and John are both Jewish and ‘the people’ are all Jewish at this point.  They are differentiated from the ones that take offence at what Peter and the first followers of Jesus are saying.

the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them,

the priests, the captain of the temple and the Sadducees are the powerful element in the Jewish aristocracy who control the temple very much in the Herodian way in collaboration with Rome.

2much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead.

This was offensive theologically to the Saduccees but also it focused on the point at which Jesus took on the powers that be and offered a very different way of being Jewish from their understanding of it.

 3So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening.

They are the powerful aristocracy in Jerusalem.

 4But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.

These are ‘the people’ and these are all Jewish.

You can see how easy it is to overlook the Jewishness of the first followers of Jesus.

5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.

As if it wasn’t already clear enough Luke now goes out of his way to name the ones involved and they are all Herodians who are part of the Herodian take over of power in collaboration with the Romans that was so offensive to many, many people in the Jewish world of the time, not least Jesus and his first followers.

Herod the Great had introduced a regime in the temple drawing the High Priests from newly designated families.  When the Romans took over the responsibilities Herod the Great’s son had initially it was the Roman Procurator who appointed the High Priests – so these people who are the ones opposed to the first followers of Jesus are ones very much at the heart of what many Jewish people saw as the Herodian perversion of the Jewish way.

Then comes the response Peter makes.

And this is what I want to focus on.

Explaining the hope that is within you … giving an answer to those who ask is actually scary.

Here it goes without saying – accompanied as it is by persecution, imprisonment and the suffering that went with it.  But it is scary in any situation.

So much easier to duck the issue.

To change the subject.

Indeed, so many places we are in say it is rude socially to talk religion and politics.

It can be scary.

But we are not alone.

Jesus had promised Peter and his followers that the Holy Spirit would give them the right words to say when they were put on the spot.

And that’s the starting point for Peter.

Verse 8.  Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them.

Lord, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that you and I together can’t handle.  The plaque on my wall!

The unseen strengthening of God in the Spirit.

Peter does not focus on what he has done – but immediately looks beyond to Jesus.

That’s so important.  The Christian faith is not measured by the strength of the stories we tell, but by the strength of Jesus Christ.

Yes, we can tell something of our story.

But the most important thing is to turn to Jesus.

The suffering, the death and the resurrection of Jesus.

There is a common thread going through all these summaries of the sermons of the first followers of |Jesus – their focus on Jesus.

The power of the name of Jesus – there is salvation in no one else.

‘Rulers of the people and elders

Not all Jewish people but the rulers and the elders – the powerful ones -

, 9if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10let 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,

The focus on Jesus is all important – not on the things I have done.

 whom you crucified

NOT all Jewish people as over the centuries so many came to read these words – but a particular set of people within the Jewish world – those who had claimed power the Herodian way in collaboration with Rome.  They were the ones who had crucified Jesus.

, whom God raised from the dead. 11This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
   it has become the cornerstone.”
12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

Salvation – health – wholeness – a wonderful play on words in what is going on here.

And the power of the Name of Jesus.

Wonderful response – amazement.  They recognised them as ‘the companions of Jesus’.

Friends of Jesus.

Wonderful thing for people to say of us – that we were companions of Jesus.

Then the powers that be seek to silence Peter.

And Peter and the others will not be silenced.

They must speak out.

They are released.

And the people pray.

Wonderful prayer – spells out the Herodian – Roman alliance

There is an outpouring of the Spirit and they are strengthened to speak the word with boldness.  And the story finishes with them sharing all they have with each other.  Living in community, a community that itself is the message of Christ.

Betwixt and between?

Last week at Brunel Manor, next week all being well with Eric we celebrate being church, being community – most important of all that we are companions with Jesus – the invitation to answer people and give an account of the hope that is within us by turning people to the story of Jesus, not in our own strength but in the strength of God through the Holy Spirit.