I notice that when baby announcements are made in families, no one has to be reminded to spread the news! The parents make the initial announcement, and then the word just seems to mysteriously travel. The parents maybe make a few phone calls, and then just as they think they’re finished, one of them says, “Oh, we forgot about Aunt Susan – you know, the one who’s not really related to us, but we always called her ‘Aunt’ anyway!” So they pick up the phone and call Aunt Susan, and she says, “Oh yes, I already heard – your mother called me an hour ago!”
That’s what seems to happen with good news in the world, isn’t it? No one needs to tell us to spread it. We have some wonderful experience that really enriched our lives, far beyond anything we were expecting, and no one has to tell us to share the story with others. We can’t keep it to ourselves. “The Edmonton Symphony were fantastic last night. Are you a subscriber? Well, you really should be – I know you’d really enjoy it!” “We went to that new Indian restaurant the other week and it was fantastic. Have you ever been there? Well, we would really recommend it!” “I just read the new book by J.K. Rowling. You know about her, right? No! Wow! Well, let me tell you…!” And so it goes on. Something wonderful and memorable happens to us, or we get word of some really great event that’s going to take place, and we can’t help ourselves – we just have to share it with others.
We get that same sense of excitement in the Book of Acts. Acts is a collection of stories from the early church, from just after the resurrection of Jesus until about thirty years later, when Paul made it to Rome as a prisoner and began to preach the gospel there. I’ve heard Doug Sanderson describe Acts as the most exciting book in the Bible, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that point of view. What we see there is the overwhelming sense of joy of those first disciples, who had seen the risen Lord after his resurrection. They had thought it was all over, but then to their amazement they discovered that it was just beginning! Jesus filled them with the Holy Spirit and gave them a deep sense of wonder at his continuing presence with them, and they just couldn’t keep it to themselves.
And so it’s appropriate that every year during the Easter season our lectionary gives us readings from the Book of Acts. These readings are very significant for us. Like us, the Christians in Acts no longer had access to Jesus as a physical presence in their lives. Like us, many of them had not actually seen him when he walked the earth, and they came to believe the stories of his resurrection on the testimony of others. But also like us, they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit as God’s own personal presence in them and among them, and that same Spirit helped them when they went out to share the joy they’d received with other people.
Our Acts reading today is from chapter five, but the lectionary only gives us a snippet of the chapter, so let me set the scene for you. The time frame is probably several months after the Day of Pentecost. The Church’s mission is going strong in Jerusalem; sick people are being healed, and the number of new believers is growing rapidly. But the religious establishment – in other words, the collaborators who are in bed with the Romans – are getting jealous. So they have the apostles arrested and throw them in jail overnight, intending to bring them before the ruling council the next day. However, during the night an angel lets them out of the jail and tells them to go back to the Temple and keep spreading the word of the new life in Christ.
Morning comes and there is consternation in the ruling council – where are the incarcerated apostles? Word comes that they are back in the Temple, preaching about Jesus! The council sends guards to bring them in, and when they arrive the High Priest gives them the tongue-lashing we read at the beginning of today’s portion: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us!” (v.28).
This context is important. When Peter explains the Gospel in this passage, he isn’t speaking like Billy Graham at an evangelistic crusade after months of prayer and hours of careful preparation. He’s on trial, possibly for his life, and he only has a few minutes to make his points. He chooses to use those few minutes, not to save himself, but to summarise the Gospel, the good news he has been announcing. He does this by making three affirmations about God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The first affirmation is that God is victorious.
In 1944 C.S. Lewis’ close friend Charles Williams died suddenly. Writing to another friend a few days afterwards, Lewis tried to describe the extraordinary experience of not really being able to feel as if he had lost Williams, even though he was dead. He said something like this: ‘What the idea of death has done to him is nothing compared to what he has done to the idea of death. Knocked it for six! And it used to be a fast bowler!’ If he had been speaking to us North Americans Lewis might have used a baseball illustration instead of one from cricket; he might have said ‘He’s hit death for a home run – and it used to be a fast pitcher’!
Death is the last and greatest enemy. If a criminal wants to intimidate you he pulls a gun on you, knowing that the fear of death is often the strongest persuader of them all. We work hard to avoid the thought of death. We fill our days with business successes, with the accumulation of wealth, with happy family activities. Some of us work hard to keep fit, and use medication to smooth out our wrinkles or paint out our grey hair. And we may be successful for a while – but it’s going to beat us in the end, and we all know it. We sometimes say ‘Love is stronger than death’ – but how can that be, since death seems to end all human relationships?
The answer for us Christians, of course, is that we know love is stronger than death because of Jesus’ resurrection. In verse 30 Peter says “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree”. The Pharisees and Sadducees had used this old enemy, death, to silence Jesus – trusting that the ‘God of their ancestors’ was on their side! But it turned out otherwise. Against all the odds, God did something unheard of: he raised Jesus from the dead. If Jesus was victorious over death – the last, the greatest enemy of all humanity – then nothing in all creation could be beyond his power.
But God’s victory over evil goes even further than that. Did you notice the word Peter uses for the Cross? He says “…whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree”. Why did Peter call the Cross a ‘tree’? There is a text in the Old Testament that says ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’. The apostles of course were well aware of this text, but instead of downplaying it, they proclaimed it boldly. Over and over again, in Acts and in his letters, Peter calls the Cross a ‘tree’. Why? Because he believed that on the Cross Jesus took the curse of our sins, the barrier which had come between us and God, and in winning the victory over evil he removed that barrier forever. Not only is death defeated on Easter weekend – so is sin. The plan of the evil one to separate us from God forever is defeated at the Cross, and instead the way of salvation is opened for all people.
So Peter’s first Gospel affirmation is ‘God is victorious over evil, sin and death!’ And this is great news when we stand at the death beds of our loved ones, or when we face our own death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis in 1945, turned to his friends as he was being taken away and said “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life!” And in another place he had written “For the Christian, death is the greatest milestone on the road to victory!”.
So Peter’s first Gospel affirmation is that ‘God is victorious’. His second is this: ‘Jesus Reigns’.
In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 movie Jesus of Nazareth there’s a delightful scene after the birth of Jesus when people are lining up in Bethlehem to be registered in the census. King Herod has sent word that the names of all the newborn are to be noted. Someone asks “Why do they want the names of the newborn?” and another voice replies “It’s no use arguing with them – you just do what you’re told!”
We all know that feeling! It’s the feeling of workers who are the victims of corporate downsizing, or citizens under a tyrannical government, or small business owners whose businesses are closed down because of ‘the realities of the market’. Many of us know that feeling of being powerless, of having our lives controlled by someone else, maybe someone without a face or a name.
In the time of Jesus that ‘someone’ was the Roman emperor. His armies were all-powerful, and as his cult spread around the Mediterranean world more and more people were worshipping him as a god. He claimed the titles of ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’; after all, he was the Lord of the known world, and could save any who called on him if he chose to do so. His puppets in Judea were the Sadducees, the ‘realists’, the rich Jewish families who had compromised in order to win a share of the power from their Roman overlords. They were widely seen by ordinary Jews as collaborators and traitors.
Now, in this context, the apostles bring this great Gospel announcement: “Are you tired of this crowd of self-serving oppressors? Well, the good news is that there’s another King in waiting, Jesus the Messiah, the one who in the end will bring justice and peace for all. We thought his death had disproved any idea that he was the Messiah from God, but God changed all that by raising him from the dead. Now he’s seated at the right hand of God, the place of authority. It’s true that his rule is hidden at the moment; it isn’t yet made obvious to everyone. But don’t be deceived by appearances; he will have the last word! At his name every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!”
So the good news is that the true ruler of the universe is not a Roman tyrant or a greedy multinational corporation; it’s Jesus, the Son of God, the one who lives not by the love of power but by the power of love. We Christians have come to believe this message, and so we’ve have turned away from our previous allegiances and pledged ourselves to Jesus, the rightful King. And we believe that no sacrifice we can make in his cause is in vain, because one day he will reign forever, and, as the New Testament says in its poetical language, ‘we will reign with him’.
So Peter has given us two Gospel affirmations: first, ‘God is victorious’, and second, ‘Jesus reigns’. His third Gospel affirmation is this: ‘The Holy Spirit has been given’.
When you wear a clerical collar as I occasionally do, from time to time someone will come up to you with the request “Say one for me, Padre!”. I’m quite happy to ‘say one’ for anyone who asks, but it always amuses me that people somehow think my prayers are more effective than theirs. I know my own heart, and I often feel like responding in the words of Paul Hogan’s character in the movie Almost An Angel: “I’ll pray for you if you want, but I don’t know if it’ll do any good; the last time God and I spoke, he called me a scumbag!”
Most religions in history have had this idea of an elite, who are somehow seen as being closer to God – priests, who go between God and the people, representing God to the people and the people to God. In the Old Testament the Israelites saw all the thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai, and they came to Moses in fear. “You talk to God on our behalf – we’ll do whatever he tells you – but don’t make us go up there for ourselves!” Negotiating a relationship with God is often seen as so demanding that only a select few are equal to the task.
In contrast, New Testament Christianity announces the astonishing news that God desires an intimate relationship with all who believe and are ready to commit themselves to the Lordship of Jesus – that is the meaning of the word ‘obey’ in verse 32: “…the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him”. The God who made the galaxies wants to live in you, giving you the power to tackle life as a faithful follower of this new King, Jesus. You are not alone! God the Holy Spirit is in you!
You see why this is good news? The common picture of ‘religion’ is of we poor humans gritting our teeth and doing our best to be ‘good’, while all the time God stands over us with a big stick waiting to beat on us for our failures. But the Christian picture is very different: God forgives our sins and comes to live in us by his Holy Spirit, helping us to get free from our besetting sins and to learn his new way of life.
Look at the difference this makes for Peter. Here he is, standing before the Sanhedrin. There really is no equivalent body today; we might envision it as a combination of the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Supreme Court of Canada. Imagine a journeyman welder being grilled by such a body of people on his theology and politics! That’s the kind of situation Peter is in. And yet he’s not intimidated; rather, he boldly gives his words of witness about the Good News of Jesus, in the face of possible execution. This is the same man who, on the night before Good Friday, denied three times that he even knew Jesus. See the difference the Holy Spirit’s help is making to Peter now. And the same Spirit is given to you and me today. Each day we can ask him to fill us, to guide us and strengthen us to follow Jesus and spread his love by our words and our actions.
So this is the good news that Peter announced in those few minutes of tension when he was standing before the Jewish ruling council. This is the difference that the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit was making in his life. This morning, let’s hear again his joyful proclamation: God is victorious over evil and sin, so you don’t need to be afraid of death or judgement. Jesus, the loving Lord who washed his disciples’ feet, is the true ruler of the universe, the one to whom all other rulers will one day have to give account. And you can have a genuine relationship with the God who made you, because he promises to give his Holy Spirit to all who will acknowledge Jesus as their King.