God in Acts

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.[1]

“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.[2]

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”[3]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.[4]For God shows no partiality, for there are people in every nation who are acceptable to God.[5]

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.

Amen.

[1]Acts 3:1-10

[2]Acts 4:4

[3]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

[4]Acts 4:10-12

[5]Acts 10:34

The good crowd

I was ten years old when my parents shuffled me and my brother into one of the front rows of the main, outdoor theatre in the small, Bavarian town. The crowd pushed and shoved for privileged seating to watch the story of Jesus’s last days acted out daily by the town’s folk every ten years.

In fact, the crowd on the large stage did not appear any different than the tourists who got up very early in the morning for tickets to the Oberammergau Passion play.  

This coming Holy Week is rich with story. And when we read the stories about the last days of Jesus — full of drama, plot, and character — we will naturally identify with elements of the story-telling. Our worship is designed to help us identify, for example, with the crowds.

This morning, we sing “Hosanna” and wave our palm branches identifying with the enthusiastic crowd that first day when Jesus entered the city. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees …” (Matthew 21:8). Some years in Holy Week we dramatized and therefore simplify the trial scenes. We have individuals and groups speaking the various parts of the story. So, for example, ‘the crowd’ is played by the whole congregation who chants those lines together, such as “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:23) and “He deserves death!” (Matthew 26:66).

Undergoing some mysterious metamorphosis sometime between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, the crowd turns to the dark side. In a tradition that goes back centuries, Christians have most often portrayed the Jewish crowd around Jesus during his last days as rabidly and violently against him. We see it in Passion plays, the most famous of which is at Oberammergau in Bavaria. The evil crowd is also central to Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.”

This over-interpretation has unfortunately led to harmful, anti-semitic justification against the Jewish people throughout the dark side of Christian history.

It may be easy to identify with these ‘bad’ crowds more than anyone else in the stories. Through the journey of Lent, we have struggled with the shadow self of our own lives, carrying our own cross so to speak, alongside Jesus. We have confessed our sin. Indeed, at the climax of Christ’s Passion, we pound nails into the cross on Good Friday. We so readily identify with the crowds, even saying that ‘we’ have crucified Jesus by our sin. It is little wonder why we come to these rather negative views, from Scripture.

What these portrayals fail to address, however, is this: Why, if the Jewish crowd was so against Jesus, was it necessary to arrest him in the darkness of night with the help of a traitor from among Jesus’s followers? Why not arrest him in broad daylight? And why do they need Judas?

What we discover is a positive, more balanced approach to the identity of the crowd. First we need to understand why the high-priestly authorities wanted to do away with Jesus.

“[The chief priests and Pharisees] wanted to arrest him …” (Matthew 21:46).

If the chief priests and Pharisees let him go on like this, everyone would believe in him, and the Romans would then intervene and execute them (John 11:48). Moreover, the authorities were not just afraid of the Roman Emperor, who was the recipient of Judean tax money and demanded political allegiance from those put in a position of power by the Emperor to keep the Pax Romana in the region. Insurrection in Judea would not be tolerated by Rome.

“… but they feared the crowds …”

Pilate and the high-priests also felt threatened by the whole crowd of people who, if they didn’t do something about Jesus, would eventually turn on them, which in 70AD (around the time most of the Gospels were written), did in fact happen. (1)

The Gospels reveal a clear disconnect between the high-priestly authorities who wish to execute Jesus, and the “whole crowd” who are “spellbound by his teachings” (Mark 11:18) and who “regarded him as a prophet” (Matthew 21:46).

This favourable support of Jesus by the predominantly Jewish crowd does not stop after the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday. It continues throughout the days leading to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem.

The crowds aren’t perfect, to be sure. Their motivations for supporting Jesus may very well have missed the mark, especially those who still sought in Jesus a violent solution to the end of Roman rule in Judea.

Yet, they are captivated by his teachings. There is some good, therein. The ‘whole crowd’ can be personified by each of us. Which part of ourselves identifies with the crowd that is for the most part good and supportive of Jesus, even during his last days on earth?

I ask this question, especially in the midst of the most penitential season of the church year. I ask this question, and make this point as a spiritual antidote to what can easily, and so often does, slide into self-hatred on account of all our sinfulness.

We must remember we live in Christ Jesus, and the living Christ lives in us through the Holy Spirit. There is some good therein. We don’t need to be so hard on ourselves.

“The secret of life,” say the American Indigenous people, “is in the shadows and not in the open sun; to see anything at all, you must look deeply into the shadow of a living thing.” (2)

We may begin Lent and Holy Week — indeed our Christian pilgrimage on earth — by confronting our shadow self. It’s important to do so. But by the end of Holy Week we cannot avoid the open sun and see the empty tomb. The ending is always as it was in the beginning when God created everything and everyone, and said that it was good. “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

 
1 — Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem” (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), esp. p.87-91

2 — cited in Joyce Rupp, “Walk In A Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino” (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), p.161