It's Not the Same As it Was

It's Not the Same As it Was
Photo by USGS / Unsplash

Following hot on the heels of last week’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John find themselves in a dispute with authorities in Jerusalem. They are preaching and teaching about the resurrection of Jesus and they are performing miracles in his name. This is troubling to the religious and political leadership, so they confront the two men, arrest them, and have a public hearing about what’s been happening.

The Pharisees and Sadducees are two significant religious forces in Jerusalem. Sadducees tended to be upper-class men primarily from Jerusalem, while Pharisees came from all across society and were noted for their rigid adherence to certain behaviours arising from their interpretation of Torah. These two groups often conflicted over power and influence. They were always interested in religious commentary from others, looking for outsiders to add to their “team” and tip the balance in their favour.

Through preaching and teaching, primarily of Peter, the early Christian community in Jerusalem numbered about 5,000 men at the time of this incident in the Acts. Women and children are not accounted for, but we can imagine a truly substantial group who are being influenced by Jesus’s friends and followers. The Pharisees and Sadducees agree that the claim Jesus was risen from the dead is ridiculous. Where they disagree, however, is whether a general resurrection is possible. The Pharisees believe so while the Sadducees deny the possibility. With Peter and John working miracles and preaching about a resurrection, a line has been drawn and both groups want to know more.

It is important to remember here that the people confronting Peter and John are not everyday Judeans. The everyday folks are the 5,000 men and unnumbered women and children who are gathering to listen to their preaching and teaching. This crowd who have arrested and are questioning the apostles are religious and political elites. Acts, like the gospels, tends to refer to these people as “the Jews,” a tendency which has led to much anti-Semitism in churches for centuries. This is not a commentary on Jewish people in general, but on Jewish leadership of the first century. Much in the same way people today might roll their eyes and say “Oh, Americans,” when what they really mean is “Oh, the government and elites of the USA.”

When Peter quotes Psalm 118 in reference to the cornerstone rejected by the builders, he is publicly calling out the incompetence of the spiritual leadership of Jerusalem. By rejecting Jesus as the Messiah, by voting for the status quo, Peter is drawing attention both to their ulterior motives and playing on their unsettled anxieties that Jesus might just have been the Messiah. They have overlooked that which ought to be right in the very centre of their view.

The ulterior motives are of great interest to the crowd gathered for the hearing. They have seen a man healed just the day before in the name of Jesus. Peter and John claim this is possible through the resurrection of Jesus who is God’s salvation for creation. The religious and political leaders are upset at the claims the apostles are making, but seem unwilling to address what has happened in the sight of so many. Put another way, the leadership wants to argue about what species of tree is growing while the crowd are much more interested in just how good the fruit is. People being made whole, both individually and corporately, is very unwelcome to those who profit off of division and brokenness.

The crowd has seen people healed, lives transformed, communities strengthened, and God glorified in it all. What they hear in this passage, through the questions of the leaders and Peter’s Spirit-led rebuttal, is an indictment of the leadership’s desire to maintain the status quo—to do things the way we’ve always done them around here. The status quo does not seem to bear better fruit than this new way, but it does certainly give the leaders an immense level of control and wealth. Peter, like his master Jesus, is demonstrating the failures of “the way we’ve always done it here” and has thousands of people caught up in the discussion, listening for better news. This is dangerous territory for Peter, John, and the other apostles doing similar work. All but one will be martyred for their witness. The twelfth escapes martyrdom, but not for Rome’s lack of trying!

The realities that God has made possible through the resurrection of Jesus challenge the gods of the age. For Peter and John, the gods of the age were Rome, its emperor, the economic and political power that the empire held over Judea, and the power of scribes, priests, and groups like the Sadducees and Pharisees over spiritual truths. I will paraphrase the scholar Willie James Jennings to say that the gods of our age are the social, cultural, political, and economic norms that support or allow without question the grotesque wealth disparities, uneven access to the necessary resources for life and health, and forms of oppression mashed inside social convention. In short, the way we’ve always done it isn’t good for some of our neighbours and we ought to find a new way of doing it.

If salvation is about a restoration to wholeness—a healing of all the broken pieces—then this is true both individually and corporately. We heal as individuals, as communities, and as a whole race of humanity. We cannot divorce ourselves from the salvation of our neighbour because they are intertwined. Your hunger is my hunger; your neighbour’s poverty is your poverty; the extinction of a species is the death of a part of each of us; the pollution of the air is the pollution of our breath, the gift through which God gives life and the Spirit moves.

We take without giving, we use without renewing, we crave more without gratitude for what we have. We do these things in our relationship with God’s creation around us and in our relationships with each other. It’s hard to change the way we’ve “always” done things. We profit from this division and brokenness in relationships. The good news is that we have not always done things this way and we could choose to do things differently again.

We are Easter people. People of the resurrection and all of its possibilities. We, like Peter and John, are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be signs of what it means for the desert to blossom and run with water, for healing to grow from brokenness, for new life to spring out of death. We are called to be living witnesses to God’s salvation in every word and act. How will we reply?

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

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