[Transcript of S3E5: “Who Is In Charge Here?” on PreacHer Podcast]
Okay, here’s where we are headed today. After a quick recap of last week, we’re going to look at some background stuff and think about the sort of world out of which this story emerges. Next, we’ll dig into the story and we’ll try to peel back a few layers so we can see the dynamics at work. Finally, we’ll see what God might have for us today.
Last week we were left with a cliffhanger…we were going about our business as usual when we got a holy interruption. We remember the tension in the air–these three guys, Peter, John, and the lame man–they’re all locked in this soul-penetrating eye contact. And then BOOM! God’s Spirit breaks in and heals this guy who has never walked a day in his life. Now he’s jumping and praising God and we’re faced with a choice.
Will we accept and affirm that this is the work of God? Will we set aside our insecurities and our defensiveness? Will we admit that we aren’t really in charge? Or will we grasp at our illusion of power? Will we reject this sign and try to silence them?
Before we get to those questions, we need to talk a bit about what it’s like in Judaism at this time of Roman occupation. Already they are under Rome’s microscope. They’re only allowed to continue their religious traditions with the permission, and at the mercy, of the Roman Empire. During this period of Roman occupation, things are politically tense and dangerous. The Romans are ruthless in their pursuit and enforcement of the pax romana. We remember that’s the supposed peaceful Roman rule. But we won’t let the word “peace” fool us–we know that if you step out of line, the consequences will be swift and severe to maintain control and order.
And so these Jewish leaders walk a delicate line: balancing on the one hand their Jewish heritage, beliefs, and traditions, and on the other hand, the rules laid out by the Roman Empire. They find themselves caught in the middle: they’re not going to please either side 100% of the time. They have power and authority over the Jewish commoners, but they’re answering to and at the mercy of their Roman overlords.
But in matters of religion, they are in charge. You see, they have this all figured out. This religion stuff. Sure they used to follow the pillar of cloud and collect manna from the ground, but that was ages ago. They have the law now, and they know what it says. They’ve built walls around it to keep it safe and make sure they don’t transgress it. They’ve got the “right” interpretation of God’s word. They know how God desires the worship of God’s people, and they’re doing it right. For generations, they have told and retold the stories of God’s faithfulness even despite the unfaithfulness of their ancestors. But now they have it right. They aren’t wandering in the wilderness anymore. They have arrived. They are in the holy land, the land promised to their people. They have figured it all out, and now they are the ones calling the shots.
As long as they don’t do anything that’s a threat to the Roman Empire–like affirm someone as the Son of God, a title reserved only for the Caesar… As long as they play by Rome’s rules, they get to continue to rule over their little social and religious pocket in the Mediterranean. And they have their temple guards, their own security force, that they use when necessary. Because the Jewish leaders are supposed to keep their people in check. They’ll bring something to the Romans when they need to–like when they need to have a criminal executed–but for the most part, they want Rome to stay out of their business. And if this crowd turns into a riot, or if Rome perceives it as a threat to the empire, then they’re ALL in trouble. So for the Jewish leaders, keeping their people in check is both an obligation and an entitlement, because THEY’RE the ones in charge.
So, back to our story. Will we accept that this is the work of God, or will we reject it? We see two very different responses to the miraculous healing and teaching. On the one hand we see the crowds–
They’re hearing and believing. In fact, we’re told that a SUBSTANTIAL number of them believe. Thousands of them affirm that this is the hand of God–that Jesus is indeed alive and at work in our world, and this healing is evidence of that.
And on the other hand, we have the rulers–they’re hearing the same message, but they’re not believing. Their hearts are hard and their ears are closed to this message. THEY are the ones being rooted out from among the people. They are the ones Moses prophesied about; the ones who are rejecting the cornerstone.
It’s not just that they’re not believing, the text actually tells us they are much annoyed or exasperated. They are irritated that Peter and John are proclaiming resurrection from the dead through Jesus. But why is this a problem? I mean, does it strike anyone else as an overreaction to throw someone in jail just because they’re annoying you?
Well, we’ve got a huge power struggle here, don’t we? You’ve got these two ordinary guys who have done this extraordinary thing and thousands of people saw it and are now followers. And Luke tells us that the Jewish authorities got together and brought in the big dogs–the high priest and others from his family. They try to show who’s boss by throwing Peter and John in jail overnight. When they finally get around to the trial, the one question we hear the authorities asking is–on whose authority are you doing this? What gives you the right, the audacity, to do this? Don’t forget who is in charge here.
They question them, they order them, they threaten them. They’re strategic. In this situation, they decide against punishing them because there are thousands of people outside supporting them and believing their message. They would have a riot on their hands if they punished them. But this message, it could go viral. So they try to suppress this story, control the media. They do their best to make them keep quiet.
Don’t forget who is in charge here…
Remember the significance of all of this taking place at the Temple, the seat of religious authority. The lame man is healed and he goes dancing into the temple for the first time in his whole life. His healing signals his acceptance among God’s people–one who was an outcast has been brought in. God is doing a new thing here. Salvation isn’t only for those we thought were on the inside. God is bringing more people in. God is doing things we aren’t expecting. And right here in front of the temple, in front of the seat of the establishment–Peter is preaching a message that resists the establishment. This is a rally on the steps of the courthouse. Of course the authorities are going to intervene. They’ve got to shut this down. This is THEIR TURF. They are the ones with the power and authority. Authority to speak for God, to interpret the Scriptures, and to interpret the Law.
The ones in this story, they’re not only descendants of the covenant and the promise–they come from the right lineage, the high priestly family. They are the ones who are allowed into the Holy of Holies, where precious few enter. They are the ones who get to be in the presence of God. That would make you feel pretty special.
It might make you feel like you deserve to be in charge. They are the establishment. They are entitled to power. Already, Rome has limited their power and that has to make them anxious. They are not about to give up any more of their power–certainly not for some uneducated commoners.
And these uneducated commoners are drawing quite a crowd. They’re preaching the Good News of Jesus, which is in tension with what the Jewish authorities are teaching. They’re stirring up the people. In the workplace, we might call this insubordination. In the streets, we might call this nonviolent resistance.
And when you have crowds of people who begin to listen to a different narrative, when they begin to challenge the system, the authorities that enforce and uphold that system get VERY nervous, and they react in dangerous ways.
And these Jewish leaders know that you’ve got to cut that off quickly and at the source. It’s why they arrest Peter and John and threaten them–they better be quiet or else… History hasn’t forgotten this tactic. It’s why we have police dogs and water hoses are turned on peaceful protestors.
And at a surface level, it’s appalling. It’s confusing–this brute force doesn’t make sense as a response to such non-violent resistance. But when you look under the surface, when you see how power and control and authority are being threatened, then it makes sense. No matter how non-violent the resistance is physically, the resistance alone is a threat severe enough to trigger intense anxiety and brutal reactions.
So when these commoners come in healing people, giving them hope in a resurrection, and continuing this Jesus-as-Messiah nonsense, they’re threatening the establishment.
This “sign of healing,” it’s a HUGE threat to them. It’s a “sign” in at least two respects: first, it is a sign of Jesus’ power working in and through them–this Jesus who they thought they had silenced once and for all; and second, it is a sign of the restoration of all things–the restoration that is coming and that was ushered in by Jesus. God is doing things we aren’t expecting.
So like we said last week–the story really isn’t about healing a lame man. The text doesn’t even say that the Jewish authorities are upset about the healing! Rather, they’re upset about what Peter and John are preaching. They’re teaching about the spiritual and social and physical dimensions of salvation. They’re preaching about the forgiveness of sins, physical healing, and resurrection from the dead–all in Jesus’ name.
Peter and John are out of bounds, speaking out of turn. They’re stepping on toes, out of their jurisdiction…we sure do have a lot of euphemisms to describe this concept. The problem isn’t the healing per se. It’s what this sign means. It’s threatening their power, their control, their authority. For the Jewish leaders to accept the testimony of Peter and John would be to give up some of their power and authority. To accept that God has moved outside of the temple walls and is now at work powerfully through ordinary people. To admit that they might have gone a little too far with the authority and power granted to them.
But the Jewish leaders are unwilling to do that. Instead they cling even more tightly to their perceived power.
Just like that we’re supposed to accept that God is working through these ordinary guys rather than us–the rulers of the people? WE are supposed to be the ones in charge. WE are the descendants of the covenant and the promise, and WE come from the right lineage. We deserve to be in charge.
We know what to expect from God, and this isn’t it. If God wanted to do a new thing like this, he would do it through us. We are God’s spokespeople. We are the ones authorized to interpret the law and maintain order. So if God wanted to change things up, he would do it through us.
Because in matters of religion, we are in charge. You see, we have this all figured out–this religion stuff. We’ve got the “right” interpretation of God’s word. We know how God desires the worship of God’s people, and we’re doing it right. For generations, we have told and retold the stories of God’s faithfulness even despite the unfaithfulness of our ancestors. But now we have it right. We have arrived. We have figured it all out, and now we are the ones calling the shots. We get to decide who is in and who is out. And WE are the ones God works through.
So what is the message for us today? Where do we find ourselves in this story? Are we among the crowd, listening and learning and believing, seeking to know more? Are we Peter or John, boldly and humbly proclaiming the message of Jesus no matter the cost? Are we the lame man waiting for the chance to be let in? Are we the rulers, so convinced that we have it all figured out that we’re missing God’s activity all around us? Who hold so tightly to the belief that we’re the ones in charge, that we’re oppressing and harming others? Where do we find ourselves in this story?
May we find ourselves in a place of openness, a place of humility, a place of seeking and discovering God’s activity around us. May we find ourselves seeing people on the margins and bringing them in. May we know that we are brought in. May we hold loosely and with humility any authority that has been granted to us. May we find our hope in Christ.
S3E5: “Who’s In Charge Here?” with Jen Hale Christy
Wednesday, March 11, 2020
PreacHer: Jen Hale Christy
Summary: We pick up where S3E4 left off – watching to see how the religious leaders will respond to Peter and John and the lame man. Will they accept and affirm that this is the work of God? The questions are for all of us too (especially the religious leaders among us): Will we set aside our insecurities and our defensiveness? Will we admit that we aren’t really in charge? Or will we grasp at our illusion of power? Will we reject this sign and try to silence them? (Acts 4.1-22)
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