Monday, April 30, 2012

A Question of Authority

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, yesterday.]

Acts 4:5-12
True story about a family in one of the parishes I served as pastor: They were very devout. They showed up for worship every Sunday and saw to it that their children were not only in worship, but also in Sunday School, Catechism, and youth group. They had a daughter who, unlike so many, didn't treat Confirmation as though it were graduation from the church. She stayed involved, evidencing a real faith in Christ.

This young woman went off to college, where she did well. While there, her commitment to Christ only deepened. She got involved with a campus Bible study. She got active with a local congregation in the college town, even going on a few mission trips. In telephone calls to her folks, she gave every evidence of being on fire for Christ.

I was talking with her mom one day and I asked how things were going. "OK," she said, "but I'm really concerned about Mary." "What's wrong?" I asked. "She's really gotten into Church, really into the Bible, really into telling others about Jesus," she told me. I wondered what the problem was. Her mom explained: “We raised her to be a churchgoer, not a fanatic.”

You know, there are people in the Church who have just enough of Jesus to be inoculated against Him. They warm a pew. They go through the motions of being "church members." And most importantly (to them), they are rostered members of their congregations who put money in the plate. What more could any normal--non-fanatical--person expect of them?

I've actually had church members say to me, "You know, Pastor, that was a beautiful sermon. It's great that we're called to love God and trust in Jesus above all else. But it doesn't work in the real world." I ask them, "Have you tried?"

But the fact is, there are lots of people in the Church who don't want to try. They want to keep God at arm's length. That's why they can be so hostile to people like Mary, who take their faith seriously and who strive to keep Jesus as the center of their lives. Do we, in today's world, need the kind of fanaticism Mary evidenced? Desperately!

But you know what? The unwillingness to stand under the authority of Christ and of His Word that Mary's mother articulated can also be seen among so-called "leaders" of the Church, respected pastors and theologians.

About ten years ago, I attended a meeting with other clergy. We had a guest speaker, a New Testament scholar who participated in something called the Jesus Seminar. Basically, the Jesus Seminar is a group of New Testament scholars from established denominations and prestigious universities and seminaries. They get together, hear papers presented, have discussions, and then vote on which parts of the New Testament are true and which parts aren't true.

The Jesus Seminar scholar who spoke to us said, "I don't remember the exact tally, but we voted against the resurrection of Jesus. We're confident that it didn't happen."

One of the pastors screwed up his courage, raised his hand, and said, "I understand that the Biblical writers don't agree on every particular detail of things. And each of them--the gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and the others like Peter, Paul, James, and the preacher in the book of Hebrews--have their own particular theological slants and emphases. But among the things that none of them disputed and on which they staked their lives is that Jesus died on a cross and was raised on the third day by God the Father. How can you take a vote and say that's not true?"

"Well," the theologian said, "have you ever met a person risen from the dead? It's not within the realm of the experiences of anyone else you might meet either. And if it can't happen today, it couldn't have happened then."

What he was doing was holding his experiences and his intellect as higher authorities than the Scriptures, the revealed Word of God. And whenever we do that, we're in trouble.

Now, people like these New Testament scholars or Mary's parents are what we might call nihilists. It's a term that comes from the Latin word, nihilo, meaning nothing. Nihilists, as I'm using the term here, are people who basically believe in nothing. If you can't see it, touch it, hold it, own it, buy it, sell it, or gain weight from it, it isn't true. To the nihilist, there's no heaven, no hell, no omnipotent, immortal God. Nothing.

There are a lot of their tribe these days, both inside and outside the Church. But the phenomenon is nothing new.

Turn to Acts 3, if you would. There, we're told that one day a few years after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, the apostles Peter and John were entering the temple in Jerusalem. Like all the first Christians, these two were devout Jews and they maintained their religious practices even then, seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of God's promises to His people. As Peter and John were going into the temple, they met a man who had been lame--paralyzed--from birth. He was sitting there, hoping that people would give him some money. Peter looked at the man and the man thought that Peter was going to hand him a coin or two. Instead, look at what Peter says in Acts 3:6:  
“Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”
This took place in a section of the temple known as Solomon's Portico or Solomon's Porch. It was teeming with people. You can bet that when this crowd saw this paralyzed man walking, leaping, and praising God, it got their attention!

So, this crowd came rushing toward Peter and John. They're about to hail the two apostles as miracle workers. But look at what Peter says to them in Acts 3:12 and beyond:
“[People] of Israel, why do you marvel at this? Or why look so intently at us, as though by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go. But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses. And His name, through faith in His name, has made this man strong, whom you see and know. Yes, the faith which comes through Him has given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all.
The typical term for miracle in the Greek in which the New Testament was written is semeia. It means sign. It's like the exit sign over there. The sign doesn't point to itself. It points to the place where we can exit from this room. The miracles of Jesus were never ends in themselves. They had a point. So does this miracle Jesus performed through Peter on Solomon's Porch. All of these miracles represent signs of the fact that Jesus has power over sin and death.

The reason for that is simple. The bigger question in all of our lives--just as was true with this lame man--isn't whether we're healthy or not. The bigger question is whether--healthy or ill, weak or strong--you and I are reconciled with God. The miracles recorded in the New Testament are meant simply to point us to the only one who can overcome sin and death and decay and reconcile us to the God Who, alone, can give us new life: the risen Jesus! 

And that's why Peter is so quick to say, "It isn't me who did this, but Jesus, the Lord of all...Jesus, the One you wanted out of your life and put on a cross Who is now risen and alive right now!" He then told them that they could be right with God and have life beyond the grave if they would turn from sin and give their lives to Christ.

After Peter made his proclamation about Jesus, the same leaders who, just a short while before, had petitioned Pilate to put Jesus on a cross, had Peter and John arrested. That's where the lesson for this morning, Acts 4:5-12, begins. Take a look at the opening verses:
And it came to pass, on the next day, that their rulers, elders, and scribes, as well as Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the family of the high priest, were gathered together at Jerusalem.  
Now, it's well-documented that among this crew, especially the priests, were people who were first-century nihilists. They called themselves Sadducees. The Saducees believed that the whole notion of a resurrection of the dead was crazy. They found it inconceivable that God could or would veto the power of death.

In fact, this group of important priests, elders, and scribes had fallen prey to something that one of my professors in seminary, Pastor Bruce Schein, used to warn us against. Pastor Schein told us, "Be careful of handling the holy. Be careful in handling the Word of God. Be careful in handling the Sacraments. You might begin to think that they're nothing. You might begin to thing that they're not important and that you are the only thing that makes them worth anything."

For the priests and others who were part of the Saducees party, religious life was simply a set of motions you went through. Liturgy was something pretty that they did. Participating in worship didn't mean that you really believed in a God Who has control over life and death. They were in control and they didn't need any sign from God pointing people away from them.

So, they call Peter and John out of their jail cell to make an appearance before them. And then we read in verse 7 of our lesson what these religious leaders wanted to hear from Peter and John:
“By what power or by what name have you done this?”
You have a daughter who goes off to college and gets involved with her faith and, exercising your parental authority, you demand of her, "Whatever possessed you to think that Jesus really mattered? Didn't you know that we just took you to church so you could learn good morals and be a nice person?" 

You meet a New Testament scholar who tells you that Jesus' resurrection never happened and the scholar asks you, "By what authority do you--a common layperson or a common pastor, who has never done graduate work or spent years studying the New Testament--have the temerity to tell us that this book is actually true, that Jesus really did die and rise."

The question of authority is what the religious leaders asked of Peter and John: "Who exactly do you think you are? Who told you that you could do and say these things?"

Look at how Peter answers the question in verse 9:
If we this day are judged for a good deed done to a helpless man, by what means he has been made well, let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole.  
You know what? Peter wouldn't have been in trouble if he'd said something like, "Well, I picked up a little magic somewhere along the way and that's how I was able to make the man walk again." Or if he'd said, "I recognized that his paralysis was psychosomatic and that if I simply told the man to walk, he'd be able to do it." If Peter had taken the credit for himself, this healing wouldn't have been controversial. The leaders wouldn't have even arrested John and Peter in the first place!

But the trouble was that Peter ascribed the miracle to Jesus. And the minute you give any credit to Jesus, you get yourself in trouble in this world. 

Jesus once said that for those who follow Him, enemies will not be the outside world, but those of one's own's own's own church. They're the ones who ask, "Who said that you could get so high and mighty with this Jesus stuff?"

The Saducees and others wanted to knock Peter and John down a peg or two. Peter said, in effect, "That's OK. I'm not the One Who did this. It was done by the One Who was killed by our sins, the One God raised from the dead."

Now I ask myself, "Where is it that Peter got the stuff to do this?" Remember Peter on Maundy Thursday, when Jesus was bring tried and faced death on the cross? He denied even knowing Jesus three times. Where does this guy get his guts? Acts 4:8 answers that mystery:
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit... 
We can have the power to live by the faith in Christ we profess, not because we talk ourselves into it or because of some inspiration we pick up along the way, but because Jesus sends His Holy Spirit to those who are desperate enough to acknowledge their need of the Spirit, desperate enough to ask for the presence of the Spirit in their lives. 

I know all about that desperation. When I told my mother that I was going to seminary, she told me that she was apprehensive. "Mark," she said, "you've never dealt well with sickness or death. Are you sure you can be a pastor?" I said, "No." But here's how I've done it for twenty-seven years: In the car, on the way to the hospital, or the death bed, or the funeral home, I pray, "God, I can't. You can. Give me the right words. Give me the right silences. Send Your Spirit."

You know, that God has always answered that prayer? God has never failed once.

That's how Peter was able to share his faith in Christ. 

And that's how you and I, in the face of a world that is increasingly indifferent or hostile toward the good news of new life for all who repent and believe in Jesus, can stand firm. We can stand firm, not out of egotism or an attitude of being holier or better than others, but simply because we love God and we love others and those "others" need Jesus as much as we do.

Look at what Peter says at the very end of our lesson, Acts 4:12:
"Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Now, if we believe that--if we believe Jesus when He says that He is the way and the truth and the life and that no one can be reconciled with God the Father except through Him, we can't have it on our consciences that we have not shared Jesus with others. We can't settle for a hypocritical half-faith. And though we are unable to do it on our own, as weak, at least, as Peter, God can help us share Christ with others when we depend on His Spirit