In Mark Burnett’s recent visual adaptation of the entire Bible, some scenes from Jesus’ passion still stand out for me. Weeks have passed since the dramatic events of Holy Week and Easter. So, I ask you, to rewind the tape for just a minute. And recall with me when news of the upstart prophet from Galilee first came to ears of the high priest in Jerusalem:
The scene in the temple is dark, illuminated only by the flickering flame of candlelight sending fleeting shadows throughout the cavernous room. The religious leaders draped in their flowing robes shuffle about.
An anxious member of the religious elite makes his way to the high priest, catching his attention: “There are reports of a man performing miracles, and some five thousand followed him to Galilee.” At first, news about Jesus does not worry the high priest. He turns away without saying a word. But the messenger persists, pulling at the high priest’s shoulder. “He calls himself the Son of God!”
The high priest’s mouth stretches in a cold smile, “They all do.”
Then, the night before Jesus’ death, Pilate consoles his wife who is disturbed by news of Jesus’ arrest and trial. Pilate’s wife tries to convince Pilate to have nothing to do with Jesus and let him go.
But Pilate, feeling caught between a stone and a hard place, is playing a delicate political game in order to keep control. He says to his wife, trying to justify his own actions to have Jesus condemned to death: “Don’t worry, in a week this man will be forgotten.”
Both the high priest and Pilate, struggling for political control, convince themselves Jesus is a no one, or at best, a pretender. And will be forgotten, like all the rest of them.
We fast forward now, to life in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Now, in the Book of Acts, the focus shifts to the disciples. A man who is disabled, sitting by the gate near the temple in Jerusalem, finds healing. Peter and John meet him on their way into the temple. “In the name of Jesus Christ”, Peter touches the man, and he is able to walk again.
“By what power or by what name did you do this?” the religious leaders in Jerusalem ask Peter and John when they are arrested. The Sadducees, who were a powerful religious group in Jerusalem, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.
Strike one, against Peter and John who did not stop preaching the resurrection of Jesus and all who believe.
It is said that five thousand people converted to Christianity after hearing and seeing what miracles and words Peter and John performed.
Strike two, against them. Five thousand people is a huge threat to the religious establishment. And to social stability. Rome held Jerusalem’s religious leaders responsible for keeping the pax romana – Caesar’s idea of political control over each region in the vast Mediterranean empire. There was no way the Sanhedrin were going to allow Peter and John to continue their disruptive work.
So, they were arrested and brought before the religious council called the Sanhedrin. Did Peter and John know that a few weeks prior, Jesus stood in the same place before the religious leaders?
Strange, I find, that something obviously positive – the healing of a person – turns into something negative so easily where human nature is concerned. Questions of resurrection, the mercy of God and healing turn into a question of power: “By what power or by what name did you do this?”
It is also clear, as the author of Acts present, that the religious leaders were “jealously protective”of their franchise on religion. They wanted the masses to be prayerful and faithful. But they wanted people to do so under the exclusive banner of the temple.
Yet, from the beginning, the Christian movement was an outbreak of the Holy Spirit, spreading like wildfire. It cannot be contained in any one, exclusive denomination, group or church claiming to be the only, right way. That is not the nature of the Christian movement, from day one to the present. Exclusivity is not the preferred style of Christian life.
“By what power or by what name did you do this?” Peter and John have an answer: There is no other name by which we all are healed. Jesus Christ stands for all.For God shows no partiality, for there are people in every nation who are acceptable to God.
There is no other name. Other gods will give up on you:
The god of war and violence will give up on you when you turn the other cheek.
The god of consumerism will give up on you when you give what you have to those in need.
The god of power and control will give up on you when you let go of any pretence of being in control of others, forcing them to be like you.
The god of competition and hatred will give up on you when you welcome, affirm and show mercy to those who are different from you and your kind.
All these false gods of the world will forget you. They will be forgotten. The high priest of Jerusalem and Pilate were right because there were so many claiming to be the Messiah who were just that: fakes. These are the false gods who will be forgotten.
But not Jesus. Even after his resurrection and ascension, Jesus will not be forgotten.
Peter and John may have had a couple of strikes against them standing as prisoners before the religious leaders in the temple’s portico. But they, and the Christian movement, would never strike out. God was about to blast a grand slam out of the park of history.
The God of resurrection and new life will continue to inspire, to push us forward, to pinch our consciences, even challenge us to move forward. There is no hiding from this God who will not give up on you and on us.
The God who created you, who loved you,
Who, even in your sin forgives you and shows you mercy,
The God who gives you a second chance, always,
The God who is your loving shepherd, compassionate friend,
This God will never, ever give up on you, nor forget you. Nor any lost, hurting person or creature in all of creation.
Whether it is Peter or John, or the voice of God speaking this through the church and in the world today …
There is no other name under heaven by whose power all can be saved.
Thomas C. Long cited in David L Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008) p.432