The Insecurity of Power - thrive UMC Official Blog

The Insecurity of Power

Last week, we read about how the Apostles Peter and John had stepped up in Christ’s place to continue on the ministry of Jesus.  While they were on their way to the temple, they came across a man who had been unable to walk since birth, and they extended healing to him in the name of Jesus Christ.  And then Peter reaches out his hand, pulls the man from the ground, and God restores his legs.  From there he practically jumps up and starts moving around and praising God.  Then our reading had stopped where they all entered the temple together.

            However, the story itself keeps going. Once they’re all in the temple, this newly-walking man can’t keep quiet about what God has done for him, and this gets a lot of attention from others in the temple.  Peter then goes on to announce what’s happing, and the whole crowd is delighted and amazed –everyone, that is, except the big-wigs.  This is where our reading for today picks up, in Acts chapter 4, verses 1-12. 

          While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees confronted them. They were incensed that the apostles were teaching the people and announcing that the resurrection of the dead was happening because of Jesus. They seized Peter and John and put them in prison until the next day. (It was already evening.) Many who heard the word became believers, and their number grew to about five thousand.

The next day the leaders, elders, and legal experts gathered in Jerusalem, along with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and others from the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and asked, “By what power or in what name did you do this?”

Then Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, answered, “Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? 10 If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! 12 Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.”


            Now there are lots and lots of stories in the New Testament like this one, where those under Jesus’s banner butt heads with the varied Jewish authorities.  For instance, in all of the gospel accounts, whenever Jesus gets into an argument with someone, it’s going to be with the Pharisees, the Sadducees, or the scribes 99% of the time.  And since most of us today know of Judaism and Christianity as two different and distinct religions, we are usually tempted to conclude that the message here is that Jesus and Christianity are right, and ‘the Jews’ are wrong –and the language of the gospel of John does not help us any on this matter.  But this is the exact opposite of what these stories are trying to teach us.  These are not stories of ‘good guys’ verses ‘bad guys;’ but it is instead a story of how good people with good intentions end up causing great harm. 

            So, instead of looking at this story from the comfortable vantage-point we’re used to –which is taking the side of Peter and John- I want to invite you all to do your best to sympathize with the temple authorities.  Try to see this same story through their eyes, and try to wonder about where their hearts were and what might have been motivating them to take these actions against the apostles.  Once we start to make some comparisons between their circumstance and our own, I think we’ll find it’s really not so hard.

            First of all, let’s remember: everyone in this story is Jewish!  Peter and John are Jewish; Jesus is Jewish; the Sadducees and Pharisees –the whole lot are all Jewish.  Christianity is not a separate thing at this point in history, so they’re all on the same team –and this is a very important detail. Jesus was simply one Jewish Rabbi among many –and all of them were unique in their own way.  And this is an easy comparison to make to our current circumstance.  There is one Christianity, but many denominations.  And there are many leaders and pastors and priests within the denominations that each have their own distinct character –and even we Christians sometimes wonder at what holds us all together.  After all, we live in a world where Joel Osteen, Pope Francis, Pat Roberts, Nadia Boltz-Weber, Rob Bell, and Fred Phelps have all been publically recognized as Christian leaders.

            And Judaism back then was a lot like Christianity is now.  Think of the Sadducees as being a rough Jewish equivalent to Catholicism; and the Pharisees were a lot like modern Protestants. 

            The Sadducees were the most institutional form of Judaism, and they had the oldest, longest-standing tradition.  Just as the Catholics have the Vatican and the Pope, the Sadducees had the Temple and the High Priest, and the other priests functioned somewhat like the Cardinals.  Also, their authority was primarily based in people and the tradition –especially the bloodlines of the priests.

            The Pharisees, on the other hand, were like our Protestants: what they lacked in traditional authority, they made up for in piety, scholarship and they were more in-touch in some ways with the contemporary circumstance.  And their authority was not based in institutions, or bloodlines, but it was based in the scriptures, and especially on the prophets (the Sadducees were more interested in the Torah).

            Then, on top of all of that, there was a third group of Jewish people, and they were called the Essenes.  Now what’s interesting about them is that we have some scant historical records about this group, but they are never mentioned in the New Testament.  And this is a very curious detail because John the Baptist may have belonged to this group, and many of their values and practices sound hauntingly similar to those of the early Christian communities.  In fact, some scholars even believe John the Baptist may have been the leader of the Essenes before he was executed.  But that’s not entirely clear.

            What is clear is that the expressions of Jewish faith and culture were very diverse and tense at that moment in history.  There was tension between the three sects; tension between religion and politics; and tension between the Jewish people and Rome.  In short, these Jewish people were living in very tense times. And I feel quite confident that we can relate to at least a taste of that tension, because I’ve seen what happens here (or among American Christians more generally) when conversations turn to our current President.

            So, with that as our background, lets’ go back to our story, this time trying to see through the eyes of the authorities.  There at the temple, the priests are doing their thing. Presumably, they spend a great portion of the day just offering sacrifices.  People would line up with their offering, the priests would accept it and enact the ritual, and then do the same for the next person, and on and on and on, perhaps dozens or even hundreds of times a day. 

            And in the midst of that, a commotion arises in the back: a man comes in claiming to be healed, and he’s told everyone it happened at the hands of these two men. Then one of those men steps up and starts addressing those who have started to gather around, and he supports what he’s saying by referencing the prophets.

            Now, one more quick detail: all of us –if we’re going to be honest with ourselves- favor particular parts of the bible, while neglecting other parts, right?  It’s just a thing we do –and for some people, the more of the bible we can avoid reading, the better. But in our particular tradition, our focus falls on the gospels, right? The stories of Jesus. And then maybe we like some of what Paul has to say, and maybe we like to read parts of the Psalms now and again, but otherwise we are very selective of the bits we read from the Old Testament.  Meanwhile, we stay away from entire books like Judges, the Song of Songs, Lamentations, and most of us didn’t even remember there’s a book in the bible called “Haggai.” I was reminded of this tendency we have as I tried to lead a study on the book of Ecclesiastes this past week at the Midwest Christian Ashram.  I had hardly gotten through sharing the opening line of the book when someone blurted out, ‘oh, I just don’t like that at all!’ And it sort of went downhill from there.

             But this is a thing we do: our hearts gravitate to certain parts of the bible, and where we go suggests something about our faith, and the brand of Christianity we participate in.  For instance, all of us probably know Christians who really like to quote the rules from the Old Testament, right?  Or for me, whenever I hear someone start to go on about Revelations, I look at my watch and make silent bets to myself about how long it’s going to take for imminent predictions for the end of the world to come out. Because different denominations or brands of Christianity tend to favor different parts of the bible.

            This is not a new phenomenon.  People have been using the scripture to make their case since before the scriptures were written down.  So, when the temple authorities see a crowd gather, and then they hear this guy quoting from the prophets –who tend to be very critical of the priesthood- their warning-lights immediately go off.  It’d be like attending a rally for the National Rifle Association and hearing someone explain an article they heard on MSNBC or NPR about gun control –and not be sarcastic.  It’s just not going to fly, because what they hear is: these people are against us!

             And what’s happening here around Peter and John is disruptive enough that the story tells us that even the priests, along with the temple guard, come to confront them. This is a striking detail, because the priests should have been up behind the altar making sacrifices.  Remember, Peter and John were going there for afternoon prayers at about 3 p.m.  So if the priests are coming to confront them, it’s either a slow day for needing forgiveness in Jerusalem, or Peter and John are woefully disrupting the lines.  The suggestion here is that the size of the crowd that is gathering around these two men is in the hundreds, or perhaps even thousands! And their message makes it sound like you don’t even need to make a sacrifice to turn your life back to God!

            Can we see how that would look and feel for the Sadducees –how it would feel for anyone who cares for the temple?  In this moment where it seems like everything just might be on the brink of falling apart, these rabble-rousing disciples of a rebellious rabbi are jamming up their system! Before anyone can even get to the altar, they’re leading the people away!

            So they arrest them and then they bring them before the entire Jewish counsel –a counsel made up of all of the upstanding leaders of the Jewish community, both Pharisees and Sadducees alike.  And they ask Peter and John this question: “By what power or in what name did you do this?”

            “Then Peter,” the scripture says, “inspired by the Holy Spirit, answered, ‘Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him?’”

            In other words, “Wait a minute,” Peter says, “before we get started, I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page here. John and I are on trial today, and the accusation that’s been brought against us is that we’d had a hand in the healing of this guy over there, which we can all agree is a good thing, right?  In other words, the case against us is that we’ve done good. Is that right?”

            This is such an important moment in the story, because it brings to our attention what’s really going on and what matters most.  In the heads of the priests and Sadducees, John and Peter were not on trial for the healing –they were there as temple-terrorists.  Their teaching and action had disrupted the sacrifices, and upset what was supposed to be a holy moment.  And what’s worse, it was messing with the whole temple economy: if there are no sacrifices, then there will be no money for the priests and the building upkeep, and for the budget!  And as that comes to light, it also reveals the hint that this whole counsel cared more about their institution than they did about the healing of persons.  

            Brothers and sisters, this old story reflects where we are today.  Again we find ourselves in a moment of political and religious tension.  And many of us in the Church find ourselves totally preoccupied with budgets and fewer people coming to the altar and which kind of politics –right or left- that ends up on top.  And we care more about whether or not someone is a Christian than we care about their health or their needs or their love.  We care more about ideas and institutions and abstractions than we care about real living, breathing human beings who created in the image of God! 

            Remember, this is the whole critique that Jesus had against the Judaism to which he belonged: too often it prized rules and tradition over actual people.  And when he and those who came behind him tried to challenge the system to reorient its heart toward God and the people in need, those at the top resisted.  They became defensive and reactionary, and they responded by clinging to the vain idol of the power that was slipping through their grip ever more tightly.   Instead of letting their hearts be softened by the desperation of those under their care, they doubled-down on hardheartedness.  And this ended up greatly diminishing the power and the blessing of their movement.

            Brothers and sisters in Christ, our central call –our single focus is to love God and love people.  That should be the guiding cry and decision-maker of all we do: if it’s action out of our love for God and people, then let’s do it!  If not, then don’t.  If we care about the future of our church, then there’s only one thing to do: as soon as you leave this building, look for someone to love.  Do you know of anybody who is hungry, or sick, or lonely, or lost?  Go to that person and be with them.  If it’s a choice between coming to church and helping someone out, skip church!  If you skip church to help someone, then you’ve already learned what you need to know here.  Because our only purpose on this earth is to live and serve for God’s goodness. 

            So love someone today –and not just someone in your family, but someone on the other side of the line.  Be there with them in their need.  Maybe you can solve their need –but probably you can’t, so just be with them.  Be present and see them as real and precious children of God.  Witness them as worthy of your time and attention.  And then give them some small share of  the blessing you’ve received from God.  For we are all on the same team here. 

            Let us grow to become a people fanatical about sharing goodness. 

            For this we will need help from God.  Let us pray.