Sunday, September 2, 2012

Count your blessings, Count on Jesus [Acts 4.1-22] (10 July 2011)

I have often had my attention gripped by the sign boards that read “Church of God (Full Gospel) in India”. Very common in Kerala and now even in Bangalore, the boards imply that there might be something as a not full gospel, or an incomplete gospel. And indeed there is. The text we read today indicates what such an incomplete gospel would be.

I must point out that the incompleteness mentioned in our text is not the incompleteness suggested by the sign boards. The sign boards allude to the perception of that group of Christians that other Christians do not experience what they would call visible signs of the baptism of the Holy Spirit – normally centred around speaking in tongues.

But our text speaks of another kind of incompleteness – the kind that is most rampant today both inside and outside the church. So let us go back to our text with a little background.

Can you imagine what the talking point among the Jewish leaders would have been in the days immediately following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and immediately following the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost? These were all events that could be dismissed. The first two were private events. Jesus’ resurrection appearances were only to his disciples, not to Caiaphas or Pilate or to Jews who were not in his little group. His ascension too was witnessed only by his disciples. Pentecost was a public event, but they could always blame it on drunkenness. 

But the increasingly public nature of this new movement would have been a cause for concern among the Jewish leaders. Peter’s sermon, recorded in Acts 2, would have been really troubling because these former timid people, who had deserted their leader upon his arrest, were suddenly claiming the most extraordinary things. And they were laying the blame for his death firmly at the doorstep of the Jewish leadership.

What the leaders had hoped for had not materialized. The movements around all prior messianic pretenders had fizzled out as soon as that person had been arrested or killed. But this one was like a bad coin that just wouldn’t go away! Jesus had died. But less than two weeks later he was back in the preaching of his formerly cowardly followers.

And now they have themselves seen that the man who was formerly crippled, was walking. As they themselves say in today’s passage, “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it.” They would have loved to deny it! But they could not. This event was too public, the former cripple too easily recognized, for them to deny it.

So they come up with a solution. It appears once in v. 17 and then again in v. 18. They warned Peter and John not to speak in Jesus’ name.

You see, when they had first taken the two apostles into custody they had asked them, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” But in v. 2 we read that the leaders were perturbed because the disciples were preaching about Jesus. So they knew the answer. But presumably the leaders were not present when the healing actually occurred. So they wanted the apostles to testify. They perhaps hoped the apostles would incriminate themselves.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter is no longer a naïve person. He asks them if they are interrogating him because of the good deed that had been done. This puts the leaders in a Catch 22 situation. They know they cannot deny that a good deed had been done. But they cannot then say that they have detained the very persons through whom the good deed had been done because that would mean that they do not approve of such healings.

We will hold off on the rest of Peter’s response and continue to the final command of the leaders. They do not ask them to discontinue the healings, but to discontinue preaching in the name of Jesus.

There are many within the church who are willing to do this. This is because most people simply want the healing – no questions asked. In the words of one paraplegic person who attended a healing crusade, “We’ve tried everything. Feng shui, wind chimes, crystals and positive thinking. We really wanted to give this a go.” Another, born with spina bifida and now suffering scoliosis thought that maybe the pastor could do something for her.

Our country is filled with such religiosity, such searching for blessings and miracles. People make pilgrimages to this and that holy place seeking for all kinds of blessings – a new job, a child, restoration of a marriage, healing from a devastating disease. And I am not talking about non-Christians only. 

They go to these holy places and holy people at holy times of the year to hear something like:
Come in! Please have a seat. What can I do you for? Uh! I mean, do for you? Oh that? That is not a problem. But one must show that one is genuinely asking for this. Just sign here. Good. Consider it done.
That’s all Peter and John needed have done and things would have been smooth sailing for them. They would have been allowed to set up shop in the temple precincts itself. A good miracle once in a while is always good for religious business. And the very fact that a miracle is supposed to be rare would only make people who do not experience a miracle get disappointed. But they would not question the whole enterprise. No! Rather, they would come back at the time of the next big miracle crusade. 

Most humans are like that – extremely gullible. When they are at their wits end, they will believe anything. And so many peddlers of healing would make King Midas seem like a pauper and many sites of religious pilgrimages are bursting at the seams with the offerings of people who come with anxious and expectant hearts. 

And if only Peter and John had realized it, they could have made a real killing, instead of getting themselves killed later. Instead, what does Peter say? “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. 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 we must understand something of the language Peter is using. When he speaks to the former cripple in chapter 3 he says, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” The phrase “in the name of” does not mean that they are using Jesus’ name in some incantation. 

Nor that they are using it as some kind of formula. They are not saying that if we repeat “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” - the Jesus prayer – often enough he will forgive us. The view that the very name of Jesus and its utterance have power is not supported in the bible. Moreover, it is quite a ridiculous view when you consider that Jesus was not really his name. It is an Anglicized version of his name. No one ever called Jesus, Jesus!

What “in the name of” means is “by the power of” or “by the authority of” or “as the representative of”. If you think that this lessens the meaning of the phrase let me offer you a few things to consider.

First, a name is not unique. Many others in the New Testament itself bore the same name as Jesus. This is why Peter has to add “of Nazareth” to specify which Jesus he was talking about. If it is the name itself that had power, then it would have had power regardless of ... ah but that would be to give the game away!

Second, the authority of a person is bound to the person’s being in a position from which he could act decisively. So Mr. Vajpayee, Mr. Gowda and Mr. Gujral, although having held the position of Prime Minister, no longer have the authority to issue orders as the Prime Minister.

Third, representation of a person cannot take place after that person has died. In legal practice there is such a thing as a durable power of attorney under which a person is permitted to act for another person – the latter called a grantor. However, once the grantor dies, the power of attorney no longer has effect. This is because a dead person cannot act for himself, nor can he delegate others to act for him.

You can see now how devastating the phrase “in the name of Jesus” is. If the phrase only meant that Jesus’ name could be used to work miracles, the leaders would have had no problems. 

If Peter and John were promulgating Jesus’ name as some kind of fetish or totem, the leaders would have had no issues precisely because fetishes and totems related to people almost always have to do with people who are dead.

But the Jewish leaders understood the language being used. Peter and John were not saying that Jesus’ name had power, but that Jesus had power – right then and there. And that could only mean one thing – he was alive at that time and in a position of authority. When Peter says “in the name of Jesus” what he is saying is this: Jesus is right now in a position of authority, meaning that right now he is alive.

The resurrection is central to the Christian message. When we pray “in the name of Jesus” we are confessing to the world that Jesus is alive and we are telling the Father that we believe he raised and exalted Jesus.

For Peter and John, the option that the leaders gave them was unthinkable. They could not stop speaking about Jesus, not because not using his name would have made them powerless. Rather, they say it quite matter-of-factly, “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” They could ask the former cripple to stand up only because of what they had seen and heard. They had seen Jesus raised from the dead and they had heard him tell them to do similar things as what he had done. They knew that it was Jesus they were dealing with because he looked like Jesus, talked like Jesus and had the same priorities as Jesus. And as the saying goes, “If it walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.”

If Peter and John were around today, they would have something to say to people who clamour for blessings of various kinds. A vow here, a pilgrimage there, a fast here, some self mutilation there. The things people do could form an endless list.

But to us Peter and John would say, “You must go, like we did, in the name of Jesus.” But we can only represent a person we have met and whose mind we are thoroughly familiar with. This means that anyone who intends to use the words “in the name of Jesus” must have a living, vibrant relationship with this Jesus. And then to those millions who mindlessly grasp at miraculous straws, blindly hoping that something might work we can say, “If you want to count your blessings, you must learn to count on Jesus.”

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