Today’s Acts reading is from the middle of a great story. We heard part of the story last Sunday, and another section of it the Sunday before. It started in chapter 3 with Peter and John going to the Temple for the evening service, and outside they see someone they’ve seen before, a lame man, a beggar who is always sitting there with his little cardboard sign. He says, “Spare any change?” They tell him they’re broke, but they have something better to give: “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”
And he does; imagine that! -- even though he’s in his 40s and lame from birth. And they all head into the service together. But of course, everyone there knows the guy, because he’s been at that door begging for years. He can’t just slip in. And as people run over to gawk, pandemonium breaks out and everyone wants to know what on earth is going on. That was the part we read last week.
So then Peter begins explaining to the crowd how Jesus, whom they saw killed, has been raised from the dead, and how it was in the Bible all along. And by the way, this kind of stuff, healing and transformation is the kind of stuff that that happens when you connect with Jesus’ risen life. This is what it looks like, Peter says, when the life of the world to come begins breaking into the life of this old world. It’s happening now. Who wants in? Everyone is starting to say, me, me, and that’s when the police show up.
They put Peter and John in handcuffs, likely on the technical charge of disturbing the peace, but really because they have the reaction that all established power has to the news of Easter: No. Death is king. Maintaining control depends on the established structures being able to wield that threat. No life of the world to come breaking in here. Death is king. No resurrections allowed.
So Peter and John get a night in prison to sober them up, and then we come in with today’s reading from chapter 4, when their trial starts. The bench begins by asking the defendants what authority they have for their actions, which is meant to intimidate them since, of course, they have no authority at all in the eyes of the world.
But see, Peter has tasted resurrection life, so he is full of the kind of authority that comes when you know that death is not king. He points to the healed man and says essentially, “Oh, you mean, how did this guy who has been sick his whole life become whole? That would be the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead,” and he begins explaining how all Scripture points to God’s plan to begin deploying the life of the world to come now through the risen Christ -- and here you want to picture, like, a farm hand lecturing the faculty senate, right? It’s just funny.
So the authorities have no idea what to do. They’ve got nothing. The arrest didn’t faze Peter and John. The night in prison didn’t faze them. The intimidation didn’t faze them. The evidence that this resurrection stuff is real, the beggar who has been healed by it, is standing right there. So in the next bit after today’s reading, they clear the court and go into executive session, and then they get a brilliant idea. They say: “We’ll just tell them not to do it anymore.”
So they threaten them and let them go, under orders to stop blessing people around them by sharing the life of the world to come: In this world, death is king. Follow those rules.
So what should they do? What would you do? …Well, Peter and John go back to their church community, and before making any plans or decisions, the very first thing they do is they re-connect with God and with Scripture. No point doing anything else until you’ve done that, because that’s where the energy of the life of the world to come is. You can never assume you are already all set. You always have to go back to that.
So they pray, and they base the prayer on a Psalm. God, and Scripture. They’re taking these words from the Bible they thought they knew, and seeing them flower into a whole new depth of meaning when connected with what they’ve seen in Jesus. They ask for God’s power and pray Psalm 2, which is all about how the powerful join together to resist God -- and the energy of this Word works! The text of that Psalm is the channel by which the power available in Jesus’ death and resurrection now gets re-expressed in their lives.
And so their reconnection with God and Scripture generates, as it nearly always does, an outward movement. They again become confident that death is not king. Christ is risen, the Spirit is active, and they are set free to go back out and keep offering themselves as points through which Jesus’ risen life can make contact with the world. They keep telling the good news that everything is different. They keep healing. They keep letting the new creation they’ve begun to receive from Jesus break out through them so that everyone around can benefit.
This is what it looks like, when Christian communities do what Dwight Zscheile calls “going deeper into the core narratives that shape us as a people.” Going deep enough that we are not just working from our own superficial strengths, but drawing living water from the well, down in the depths where God’s life meets the human condition. Mining those core narratives to find God afresh is, he says, is how we become able to imagine “God actively present and at work.”
I’ve seen it so many times: Without going deep over and over like that, the church, any church, loses the ability to imagine that God is actively at work, and gradually slides into being just a non-profit religious organization tweaking its programs in the hope of doing a little better, pleasing its customers, and recruiting additional pledging units. Living as if death is king.
When all around us God is on the case! When in our world the life of the world to come is looking for collaborators! When through our hands and hearts the Risen Christ is waiting to take action!
One of the most frequent things I heard when I was one of the candidates in your search process here at Emmanuel was that you wanted more hands-on outreach. I think the only thing that came up more frequently than hands-on outreach was the worry that your new rector might change the Prayer Book.
After being here awhile, I understand why you sent that message about hands-on outreach to your search committee so loud and clear. We are wonderful here at supporting other people in doing ministry, at raising funds for things like the school in the diocese of Tabora Tanzania, and at writing local organizations checks from our outreach budget. All of that is stuff we can be very proud of, but it’s not as close to the core of the Christian life, or as frequently mentioned in the Bible, or as full of potential to touch and shape your heart and your family, or frankly as fun, as letting the power of the Risen Christ express itself in ministry through you. I think even before the search process you guys already knew that, and I’m happy to see us taking steps in that direction.
The outreach discernment committee has their survey available this week to help them listen to what God may be saying to Emmanuel about how we move forward in answering this call for more hands-on outreach, and I hope you will all fill it out today, and remind your friends who aren’t here to fill it out online. I also hope every one of you that asked for expanded hands-on outreach at Emmanuel will let the group know how you want to be involved in what you asked for.
God doesn’t call everyone to focus on outreach ministry, of course, any more than he calls everyone to heal a beggar at the Temple gate, but if outreach is not your invitation, there is some other invitation from him with your name on it. And if that sounds like a chore or an obligation, perhaps it really is time to reconnect with those core narratives, and to drink deep of the living water. It’s those churches that have slid into being non-profit religious organizations trying to recruit additional pledging units that act based on chore and obligation. We don’t have to do that. We have a resurrected Savior to turn to.
Yes, we forget that over and over, but all we have to do is keep going back to the well. And besides, everyone forgets, even the apostles. In the very next chapter of Acts, there’s a shady little falsified donation by a disciple who wants to keep most of his stuff while still getting credit for generosity. A few chapters later there’s a tiff between the Jewish disciples and the Greek disciples about whether there’s ethnic bias going on with the food distribution. These are human beings. They’re not there yet any more than we are. Like us, they’ll forget. They’ll fall away.
But right now, this morning, in Acts 3 and 4, the life of the world to come is present and available for them. They are being filled with energy to proclaim Christ and spread the power of the new creation boldly. Us too, or at least, we can be. After all, now that Easter has happened, we like them are not living in a world where death is king. We are living in a world where death is defeated and the life of the world to come is breaking in. After the resurrection, that’s the real world, both for them and for us, if we can receive it. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.