Sermon #230 St. James the Less #137 4/25/21
The 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."
Over the past two Sundays, we’ve heard Peter preach in our reading from Acts. Unlucky for us, we were given no context about where and why Peter is saying what he’s saying.
The lectionary is usually a gift, but when we are given no context in a given passage then it’s hard for the reading to not go in one ear and out the other. We need to know the larger story to have an appreciation for what’s being said. Context matters: it gives us a fuller picture of what’s going on.
And so, we need to flesh out our reading from Acts a little bit. Last week we heard Peter preaching to a large crowd in the portico of the Temple after healing a man who couldn’t walk. Because a crowd gathered to hear Peter’s preaching, he and John were arrested for disturbing the peace and proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Today our reading picks up at their subsequent trial where Peter and John are face to face with the Jewish Council, which is made up of many of the same men who put Jesus on trial and called for his death.
There is a lot of irony in this courtroom scene. Peter has literally come full circle. Just a few weeks ago during Holy Week, we heard Peter deny knowing Jesus while his Lord stood before this very same council—not once, not twice, but denied him three times!
We must not forget the impact this denial made on both Peter and Jesus. While Judas, driven by greed and selfishness, ultimately betrayed Jesus. Peter on the other hand was Jesus’ guy—a member of his inner circle—the one Jesus named Petros/Rocky.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to claim that Peter’s denial may have hurt Jesus more than Judas’ betrayal. Judas was a disciple, Peter was a friend.
As for Peter, after Jesus’ execution, he must have been a broken man—a shadow of his former self. Riddled with guilt that he wasn’t brave enough to stand up to those who questioned his identity, not strong enough to go before the council and defend Jesus while he was on trial.
Instead, he denied his Lord and disappeared into the shadows as they nailed Jesus to the cross. Calling Peter broken would be an understatement.
But today we see a new Peter, a man who is boldly proclaiming the One whom he denied has risen from the dead, and he is saying all this in front of none other than the council.
The same familiar faces are on hand: Annas and Caiaphas, the scribes and elders, and they are all dumbfounded at what is coming out of Peter’s mouth. It’s not only his message but that he’s saying all of it with so much courage and authority. “There is salvation in no one else,” Peter says, “for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
The One they decided to crucify and the One he denied in that very same place, Peter is now claiming is the One whose name is above all others. Above the chief priests, above Abraham and Moses, and most definitely above Caesar.
The man before them has changed—he’s not the same broken person from just a few weeks ago. He has gone from telling lies and denying to confessing and proclaiming Jesus as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.
Something has gotten into him, gotten a hold of him, and that something was the Holy Spirit.
This really is a testament of Peter’s transformation, or rather, the Holy Spirit’s miraculous power to transform Peter. Remember the story of Acts is not about the apostles’ actions, but what the Holy Spirit does through them. It is God who is the primary actor, energy, force—Peter just happens to be caught up in the Spirit’s work—he is merely a vessel, a conduit of God’s good news.
And this news of Jesus conquering death and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost has changed everything, and Peter is case and point. He is a man with passion and purpose and is recklessly preaching to anyone and everyone who has ears to hear.
It is evident in our passage that Peter is not afraid of the council or the consequences that may follow. There is no fear in his voice—he knows for a fact that his Redeemer lives. He won’t be intimated by Jerusalem’s religious elite.
What is astounding is just how quickly this transformation happened. Within a matter of days and weeks, the Spirit had completely changed Peter and his fellow disciples.
The Patient Work of the Spirit
Now some here may be able to relate to this kind of sudden transformation. Maybe you had a powerful encounter with God that made you do a 180 in your life like Peter, but I think for most of us we’ve probably experienced a slower, more patient form of God’s life-changing power.
I was listening to a podcast the other day that was interviewing an Old Testament scholar from Australia. She talked about being raised in a non-religious household.
She told the story of growing up in a home that had a beautiful garden at the bottom of her backyard. As a child, she would spend time in that garden and she said while there she would meet a “mysterious, invisible presence.”
In her childlike wonder, she didn’t think it was strange to sense this invisible being. The presence felt as real as the roses and daffodils around her. She said she never talked to the presence, rather “he just was.” She felt safe in the presence, and so, on many warm days she would make her way down to the garden; day after day just to be with this presence.
Years later she ended up becoming a Christian, and during some quiet time in prayer, she had an epiphany. She said to God, “I know you. You’re the guy from the bottom of the garden!”
Her experience of the Holy Spirit is quite the opposite of the dynamic energy and force that Peter experienced, and yet it is the same Spirit. In this case, though, the Spirit was a calming and patient presence, always there in the garden, waiting for her to come down for a visit. Years passed and yet the Spirit was still present in her life, slowly guiding her towards the truth of his mysterious identity.
Whether it’s a matter of weeks or years, the Holy Spirit’s work is the same—transforming people through the good news of Jesus. The same result happened to Peter and this woman, but the timelines were very different.
The Holy Spirit is an otherworldly power who breathes new and abundant life into this broken world. And through this life-changing power he’s not simply making us be “better” people, but God-shaped people—people of his Kingdom, with his values.
And he’s not just changing individuals, but whole communities. It wasn’t just Peter who the Spirit was working on, but all the disciples, men and women, young and old together.
The question that comes to my mind is, what does it look like to be transformed by God’s life-giving Spirit?
What parts of us are like the pre-resurrection Peter? Broken, stuck in shame and hopelessness, in need of God’s transformational love and power? But also thinking collectively as the Body of Christ: what parts of our church need to have new life and energy breathed into it by the Holy Spirit?
Maybe it’s better not to ask what does it look like to be transformed by God, but are we ready to receive God’s abundant life and love? The Spirit can’t help but be a change-agent, a force, and energy who shapes everything in its path. This is the story of Acts, the story of Peter, and it is our story too.
I’ll end with a story I think I’ve told you before. The potential candidates to become the next bishop of Massachusetts were being paraded through a church, and they had to respond to different questions. One candidate was asked to describe a Damascus Road moment in his life, meaning a time that God had revealed himself in a powerful way like he did when shocked Paul on his way to Damascus.
The candidate sat in silence for a moment and then said, “To be honest, I’ve never had an experience like that. Mine has been more of a Road to Emmaus journey. Instead of being knocked off my horse like Paul, I have found the Risen Jesus walking with me along the road, teaching me as I go, and sometimes I never realized it was him. It’s only later that I discovered he was there all along, guiding me the whole way.” He ended up becoming the bishop.
Whatever our experience of the Holy Spirit is, his work of transforming our lives is the same. We may not even be aware just yet how he’s moving in our life or in the life of this church, but there will come a day, most likely while we’re sitting quietly in prayer when it’ll dawn on us and we’ll exclaim in one form or fashion, “You’re that guy from the garden, and you’ve been here all along.”
4th Sunday of Easter. Year B. Acts 4:5-12. Context Matters (podcast) Dr. Jill Firth Season 2, Episode 11.