Sunday, October 21, 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 just a few 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.”

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Strange Wonders of God [Acts 2.1-13] (12 June 2011)

I was introduced to The Lord of the Rings very late in my life. It is true that we had a copy of The Hobbit at home but the cover of the book, which depicted a deformed frightening creature, just wasn’t inviting enough for me to take the plunge into Tolkien’s rich world. So I was well into my twenties before a friend at seminary recommended the books to me. Both of us were persuaded that non-violence was Jesus’ way and he recommended the book telling me that it was a critique in prose of the atomic bomb. Of course, after reading the books I actually read the foreword in which Tolkien clearly refutes any such intent on his part. Yet, for many even today, the Ring of Power represents atomic power, something that ought to be unmade and never used.

If ever there was a passage in the bible that has been interpreted in a similar one-dimensional manner and given rise to a lot of controversy, it is this one. Whole theologies have developed around what happens in the first few verse in Acts 2. And entire families of denominations have sprung up, each with a slightly different take on the significance of the events recorded here. It would be presumptuous if I thought we would settle these issues here in a few short minutes. And hence, while I enjoy a good debate, and enjoyed many lengthy ones with some of my good friends at seminary, we will not open that one-dimensional can of worms today.

You see, it is unfortunate that this passage has been high jacked and made one dimensional, as though it referred to only one thing, when in actuality Luke has woven many threads into his narrative. As people who believe that this is scripture, it behooves us to follow as many threads as possible, so we may understand this Father who gave his Son for us, this Son who is now our Lord, this Spirit who moves in and among us even today. We obviously cannot follow all threads today! But we can follow one.

After the Spirit had been poured out and the first disciples experienced the effects of that outpouring, the other people were divided into two groups. One group, Luke tells us, was amazed and perplexed and asked, “What does this mean?” The other group ridiculed the disciples and said, “They have had too much wine.”

The same behavior of the disciples caused different responses in the observers. But what does the first group refer to? And why do the second group come to the conclusion that the disciples had had too much wine?

Was it some sort of ecstatic behavior  This is the claim of those who focus on the charge that the disciples had had too much wine. The idea is that they were drunk and their drunkenness caused them to behave unbecomingly. However, no sane person would ever be amazed and perplexed at someone’s drunken behavior  I mean, it you saw a drunk tottering down the road, are you going to be perplexed? Are you going to think, “Could this be God’s doing?” 

So those who were ridiculing the disciples were not referring to their behavior  If not their behavior  then to what were they referring? What could cause the responses “how can that be?” and “you must be drunk!”?

The only clue we have is the declaration, “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues.” Too much ink has been spilt – not to mention blood – because of the focus on the words “tongues” and “languages” – both the same word in Greek. 

Now we know that it is not difficult to acquire a new language if we put our minds to it. Many of us have perhaps learnt a new language well into our adulthood. So these people would not have been amazed that Galileans had learnt to speak languages other than Aramaic. And surely no one who heard her own language being spoken would say that the speaker was drunk! I mean, if Santosh suddenly spoke excellent Malayalam, I might ask him where he learnt the language. But I certainly would not say, “You’re drunk, man!” So the amazement and ridicule must be not be because another language was being spoken.

What then could it be due to? Here Luke is an excellent storyteller. Suppose I told you, “A week ago Uncle Ken and I had a conversation. He had invited me to the ACTS office. I reached a little early. But he got there since we were supposed to talk about things. Some others also came. And then we spoke.” What would your response be?

Luke does a similar thing with the reader. In v. 4 he tells us that the disciples began to speak in other tongues. Then in v. 7 the people ask, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?” and then they go on, “how then do we hear them in our own language?” And by this time we are asking, “What were they saying?” In other words, Luke is telling us where to focus. The people are not commenting about the languages being spoken but about the content – the wonders of God.

Now Luke tells us that the people who responded were God fearing Jews from the world over. What would cause such people to either be amazed or scoff? Consider this. I am a Christian. I visit a church in Mumbai over Christmas. Would I be amazed if I heard about a virgin giving birth to a baby boy? Certainly not! That is already a part of my faith. I would agree with it. But I would neither be amazed nor begin to scoff. What I already know and acknowledge to be a wonder of God will not cause me to be amazed or to scoff.

No! Amazement and ridicule are reactions when presented with something new – something that does not fit the mold  something we did not expect. For example, if I visit a church and the preacher proclaims that Jesus had returned, I would perhaps scoff, knowing my skeptic nature. Another person may be amazed. And we know that many people have lost their lives believing that Jesus has returned. The questioning attitude and the dismissive one are human responses to something new and unexpected.

And so we must ask ourselves, what is this something new and unexpected that these first disciples were speaking about? What had they experienced and witnessed that would have been new and unexpected to a Jew?

They had just witnessed the death of Jesus. But the death of a would-be messiah would be neither new nor unexpected. Every few years the Jewish people presented a would-be messiah to their oppressors only to see that person quickly silenced. No, the death of Jesus was quite expected.

The manner of his death too would have not been much of an issue. The Romans had crucified many messianic pretenders to deter future messianic pretenders. But it seems that had as much success as many of our modern schemes of deterrence!

What was unexpected was the resurrection of Jesus. Why was it unexpected? To answer that we must understand what was expected. Let us understand this visually with the aid of some timelines. 

First, the Jewish timeline. This is the template for all timelines based on the might is right view of life. See for yourself. Here is the World War II Allied timeline. Exactly the same apart from context specific details.

But what the disciples were announcing amounted to a different timeline. Here is the New Testament timeline.

There are some remarkable differences. First, the Messiah – the deliverer – is rejected and killed. This was not supposed to happen. How could God work through a dead deliverer? Second, this rejected Messiah undergoes a resurrection. Resurrection was supposed to be after the defeat of God’s enemies and the inauguration of the Messianic kingdom. How could it happen while rebellion against God continued? Third, the Spirit had been poured out. This was supposed to happen only to righteous Jews who were raised after the inauguration of the Messianic kingdom. How could this happen while Jerusalem was still under pagan rule?

These are world view altering claims. No one can truly hear them and remain unresponsive. A person who listens will respond – either with a dismissive attitude or an questioning one. Either with “you must be drunk” or with “how can this be?” Either with “no way” or with “show me the way.” When faced with something new and unexpected, humans respond in two ways – disbelief and belief.

We have perhaps lost the ability to see how shocking this timeline is. How can we say our God is victorious when we see evil all around us? The corruption that Anna Hazare and others are fighting against is just the tip of the iceberg compared to the evil that lurks in the human heart. We know it for we too have the thoughts well up inside us, thoughts we may not act on, but thoughts that are nonetheless ours. How can we say our God is victorious when our struggle against evil continues? What does it mean to say that Jesus has conquered death when our loved ones still die, when people are murdered, children killed daily? How can we say that Jesus is king when millions suffer due to illnesses and injustices?

These are the questions that cause people to scoff when the “wonders of God” are told to them. Because they are not blind. They can see evil inside and around them. The scoffing is a genuine response to the bizarreness of the gospel. If we mean to address even those who scoff, we must not be complacent with our answers. The coexistence of a victorious God and widespread evil is something we should not deal with lightly. Rather, we must once again engage the other question: What does this mean? For it is in going back and being surprised anew by the bizarreness of the gospel that we learn what is good about this news we are called to bear.