Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Power to Speak”
Rev. Art Ritter
April 22, 2018
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John,* and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners* stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,* whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus* is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.”*
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. They said, ‘What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.’ So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old.
Lou Nicholes tells the story of the 19th century Methodist evangelist Peter Cartwright, whom I don’t know if was related to our own Peter Cartwright. Cartwright was known for his uncompromised preaching. However, one day, when the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, came to Cartwright’s church the preacher was tested. The elders warned the evangelist not to say anything that would offend the President. When Cartwright got up to speak, the first words out of his mouth were, “I understand the President Andrew Jackson is here this morning. I have been requested to be very guarded in my remarks. Let me just say this, Andrew Jackson will go to hell if he doesn’t repent of his sin.” The entire congregation gasped with shock at Cartwright’s boldness. How could this young preacher dare to offend the tough old general and Commander in Chief, in public? After the service, everyone wondered how the President would respond to Cartwright. When Andrew Jackson met the preacher at the door, he looked him in the eye and said, “Sir, if I had a regiment of men like you, I could conquer the world!”
It may be hard for my wife Laura to imagine, but there was a time in my life when it was very difficult for me to speak with women. I was extremely shy and introverted and afraid to ask a girl out on a date lest the invitation would be refused and my world shattered. I think back, with a great deal of embarrassment, to the first time I actually asked a woman out. I had been on some group dates but had managed to avoid high school proms and formal dances. It was when I got to college that I decided that I had to take the risk of asking out a woman named Linda. It took me a couple of weeks to work up the courage. I decided it would be better to call her than to ask her in person, let she refuse the invitation. I recall picking up the phone several times before dialing her number. I know that I rehearsed my smooth invitation script tens of times. It seems silly now but it was one of the most frightening moments of my life. I finally summoned up some boldness and made the call. When her voice appeared on the other end, I began my speech, all without taking a breath. “Linda, this is Art Ritter from your 9 a.m. Political Science Class. I was wondering if you would like to go to the movie at the Dow Center this Friday night with me.” Without hesitation, she said yes. When I think about it, I believe Linda said yes before I finished the invitation. But I was so nervous that I kept on talking. And when I realized that she had said yes, I was stunned. I think that I was quiet for the next several seconds. The date went OK, just OK. But there was some kind of reward for what I perceived as boldness that made it much easier to survive the ordeal in the future.
The early chapters of the book of Acts describe the followers of Christ living with the power of resurrection. Some of them had witnessed the empty tomb. Jesus’ disciples had encountered the Risen Lord. But now Jesus had ascended into heaven and these followers were left with the task of spreading the good news of the gospel. At first glance, this seems like a rather impossible task, because the leaders of this group included those who denied Jesus, those who doubted his resurrection, and those who fled following his arrest, for fear of their own safety and lives. As a context to the specific Scripture lesson we hear this morning, we must remember that Peter’s lame denials of Jesus on the night in which he was arrested make him almost a patron saint of the timid and the tongue tied. The untrained, ordinary Galilean who could not answer a question put to him by a poor serving girl in the courtyard, has been called before the Jewish equivalent of the United States Supreme Court. It was like a timid young man who couldn’t ask the girl next door for a date, suddenly finding the will to invite Miss America to the prom. In the wake of resurrection, the quiet and reserved and fearful Peter is the one who has to speak for the Risen Christ.
Peter and John are standing before this tribunal because they had healed a lame man at the Temple. Following that healing the two men taught confidently, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. The leaders of the Temple, the scribes and the Pharisees didn’t like that for more than one reason. First of all, they didn’t believe in resurrection, in fact they claimed that the ancient Torah thoroughly rejected such a claim. And now Peter and John were telling everyone who would listen that Jesus’ resurrection had launched a new and long awaited moment in the history of the world. The blessings of the end time were and resurrection age were now available to anyone who believed in Jesus. The temple authorities weren’t too happy to have these ordinary fisherman claiming that they had information about a new religious age that would bring salvation and would not involve any of the power and prestige of the priests and scribes. They were angry that someone or something was threatening the status quo and the way of the world as they knew it.
Peter and John were arrested and escorted to stand trial before the very same court that condemned Jesus. It is a bit ironic to think that in a period of a few weeks, followers who ran and hid while Jesus was sentenced where now bold and brave enough to stand before that same court and defend themselves. The author of Acts describes the court specifically: Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and all who were of the high priestly family. John Holbert writes that we don’t who John and Alexander were, but Annas and Caiaphas were the most famous high priests of Israel during that time period and they served at different times. It would be as if someone appeared before Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson together. This was not a historical scene but a deliberate described confrontation between the old and the new. Peter and John were standing in front of authority and tradition representing the change that the Risen Christ had brought.
The multiple high priests ask the same question that Peter and John were asked when healing the lame man. “By what power or in what name did you do this thing?” Peter’s answer was typical of those early followers of Jesus. “Let it be known to all of you and to the entire people of Israel, that it is through the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. It is through him that the man was healed and it is through him that all can be saved.”
The writer of Acts notes that the court took note of Peter and John’s boldness. These uneducated and ordinary men spoke about Jesus with authority. They knew who he was and they knew what his gospel meant for the world. They were healing and teaching in ways that he exampled and called them to do. They were living as if they really believed that God was not just referenced in history and in law but in the words and deeds of the present age. The priests and scribes, these men of power who were so ruthless to Jesus, did not know what to do with such boldness of faith. If locked doors couldn’t keep the Risen Christ from his disciples, not even jail cells and threats could keep the Holy Spirit from doing God’s work among Jesus’ bold followers.
Tom Long, professor of preaching at Emory University writes, “Whenever political or religious authorities set themselves up as the only legitimate broker of what people need and defend that authority, inevitably, the Holy Spirit breaks down those structures.” All too often we are too timid to challenge the powers of the world. We are afraid that we are not capable. We are afraid that they are too strong. We are not certain if we really want things to change. We are comfortable with old patterns of behavior and thought. We are comfortable keeping things stable and quiet and peaceful.
German Johann Goethe wrote this about boldness, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back- concerning all acts of initiative, there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans. Then there is the moment one definitely commits oneself and Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic. Begin it now.”
Easter and resurrection is supposed to be a radical departure from the status quo. In Easter we are reminded of the power of the Risen Christ to transform and the need we have as followers of that Christ to speak and act boldly. In the stories from the book of Acts, we read when these early Christians were so empowered that they could not refrain from talking about their new life. They were so emboldened that they stood without fear in front of the very earthly courts that condemned Jesus.