Texts: John 10:11-18; Acts 4:1-14
Over these past few weeks we have been thinking about what it means to be an Easter community. Today the question I would like to put before us is more personal: What does it mean to be an Easter person?
If someone was going to tell your story someday would it sound like the story of an Easter person? This isn’t a question about the body or the circumstances that you were born into, though those things are important, but about the choices that you’ve made. It’s a question about the many, small choices that make up a life, the habits each of us cultivate, the goals we set for ourselves.
Is there some way in which those things might mark you as an Easter person? An Easter person is someone whose life is shaped by the story of Jesus, that is, by an ongoing interface with the life, death, and, yes, the resurrection of the Anointed One.
If we were going to name Easter people, who would we name? Maybe we would name some of the ‘saints’. Maybe someone from the early church like Phoebe, a woman mentioned in Romans 12. She was a church leader and patron. Maybe we would name some of the early Anabaptists, women and men who were not afraid of death, people willing to contradict the civil order because that order had overreached and misused the name of Jesus. We might say those were Easter people.
Who else? Maybe some of the usual suspects from the last century: Mother Teresa, who followed the example of Jesus and dedicated her life to the poor, Martin Luther King Jr., who saw in Jesus a companion in the fight for justice. Or maybe we would look further back to someone like Florence Nightingale, who experienced a divine call to nursing and radically changed care for the sick. Her sense of that call was initially rejected by her well-positioned family. Maybe along the same lines, we would name the unnamed, those members of ancient Christian communities who cared for the sick and started hospitals, who risked their own lives for strangers.
Those are all Easter people. They followed the pattern of the good shepherd described in John’s gospel. They voluntarily laid down their lives, knowing that death was no longer the fearsome beast it still pretended to be.
What does it mean to be an Easter person? Let’s hold this question in our minds as we consider several Easter people presented to us in the book of Acts. We’ll offer our attention to two Easter people from that book, one who is named and one who is unnamed. The most prominent of two is the Apostle Peter. Peter, like the other apostles, had encountered Jesus after the resurrection. The first portion of Acts tracks describes what this meant for him.
The second character we will watch today is simply described as a man, more than forty years of age, who was born with impaired mobility. We’ll start with him.
At the beginning of Acts 3 we learn that every day people would lay this man beside the temple gate where he would ask for money, or alms. Giving alms was a part of the Jewish piety that Jesus and his disciples knew. The Wisdom of Sirach, a deuterocanonical book from the time between the two Testaments, says that giving alms helps us overcome sin as effectively as water extinguishes a fire (3:30).
One day, not long after the resurrection, Peter and his ministry partner John, were headed to the temple to pray when they encountered this man. He asked them for alms.
Peter stopped and said, “Look here, I don’t have any silver or gold for you . . . .”
Now, let’s think about this. What this man hoped for was a fistful of coins that would help him get by. This was the pattern of his life. This was how he survived. He got just what he needed. There are times in our lives when we are in the same situation. We can imagine nothing other than the next installment. The horizon of our hope has sunk to feet. We can’t imagine flourishing, only another chemical boost to get us through the day or night. Let’s not stretch this analogy too far, but this fellow is a bit like someone wrestling with an addiction that can’t imagine not needing the next installment.
Peter doesn’t have what the man wants. What Peter offers is something quite different. Instead of a momentary fix, he offers healing and freedom. Channeling the power of Jesus’ resurrection, he offers a new way of doing life.
This fellow becomes an Easter person. Easter people are those who have experienced healing. Easter people are those who have been drawn out of the wheel rut. There are Easter people, I’m quite sure, who do not know that they are Easter people. They have been cared for by a Peter or by a Phoebe and they have experienced healing.
These stories, our stories, are gifts.
The story of this man was hard to not tell. People demanded an explanation. Peter obliged by telling the story of Jesus. He told the crowd how, through their fear and scapegoating, they had killed the Author of Life, but how God had raised him from the dead. Yes, Easter people are people who have stories of healing.
We picked up the story at the beginning of the next chapter, Acts 4. Same drama, new scene, some new characters: the temple authorities. The temple authorities are from the priestly class. Some are called elders or rulers. Others are scribes. The key thing to know is that this set of characters are most likely the aristocratic collaborators.
Rome used a similar strategy in many of the regions it conquered. After deposing the king, the conquering Romans would give power to a select circle of the wealthy. Perhaps they were the ones that already emulated the Greek culture of Rome. The Romans would allow these elites to retain their social standing, so long as they kept the rest of the population under control and so long as they generated sufficient revenue for the Roman treasury.
The advantage for the Romans was that they didn’t need to maintain a large occupying force. They didn’t need to get terribly involved in local police matters or the intricacies of local culture or economics. This set of wealthy aristocrats would mostly take care of those things. In first-century Palestine this meant a circle of priestly families. Historians tell us that during a 60 year period at the start of the first century there were 19 different high priests in Jerusalem, but all of them came from only four families. The Roman authorities appointed the high priest. Some sources say they even kept key to the high priest’s vestments.
So when Peter’s explanation of the middle-aged man’s healing begins to attract attention, these authorities are naturally interested. They have power; they arrest both Peter and John and detain overnight. The heart of our reading is the public interrogation the following morning.
Peter and John are placed in the midst of the Jerusalem temple leaders, these rulers, elders, scribes—many of whom are preoccupied with maintaining their own privilege. They were rightly concerned. It was not uncommon for religious teachers to threaten the public order. In fact, there existed a group of cultural traditionalists known as the sicarii. These sicarii were assassins loyal to religious teachers. Their targets were the occupying Romans and their local collaborators. It was important for the temple authorities to keep an ear to the ground. So they brought Peter and John before them for questioning.
I wonder if you’ve ever had to undergo questioning like that—in public, carried about by people who were better informed than you, more educated than you, better connected, more well-read, better born, more urbane and cosmopolitan. Hopefully not, not quite like that at least. But maybe you’ve had an interview or a tryout that made you nauseous and gave you sweety palms.
Peter and John were immediately at a disadvantage. Their accent may well have been what gave them away. The Jerusalem authorities could tell that they were not from the city. Even the author of Acts, who is doubtlessly on the side of Peter and John, admits that it was obvious that the two were uneducated and ordinary.
But being ordinary is not a barrier to being an Easter person. Being an Easter person doesn’t require good breeding or an elite education. It doesn’t require being on familiar terms with mayors and MPs and editors. In fact, we should notice that this shows up in Peter’s description of Jesus: “The stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.”
Peter may not have been a scribe or a cultural gatekeeper, but he knew the Psalms. The verse he has in mind is Psalm 118 verse 22. He changes it a bit though. The verse actually reads like this: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” Instead of “The stone that the builders rejected,” Peter says, “The stone that was rejected by you, the builders.”
The psalmist was thinking about himself. He was the stone rejected by the builders. That is, he was like a quarried stone, deemed useless by the masons and thrown aside, not hewn to shape, not dressed and squared. He was rejected as unfit. Rejected, that is, until he was picked up by God and placed into a position of significance as the corner stone. God has a much better sense of worth and purpose.
Peter takes these poetic words and refashions them by adding that key word “you.” He redeploys the verse as a description of Jesus and a critique of the leaders. The Jerusalem authorities had nothing to say in opposition.
It was obvious that something remarkable and positive was going on. It was disruptive, but it wasn’t violent. It was lifegiving. So the temple authorities told Peter and John to just stop telling the story of Jesus. Stop raising him up as an example. Stop identifying yourself with him.
They didn’t of course. They were Easter people. They knew real power when they saw it. They knew who had really earned their allegiance. You see, Easter people are a storytelling people. It’s true, the man who was healed would eventually die. Peter, John, Phoebe and the rest would suffer. They would face disappointment. But they had saw signs, wonderful, hopeful, transformative signs of God’s lifegiving Spirit. They told the stories.
Easter people are a storytelling people. They tell a story with their lives, with their habits and choices. They also tell a story with their words, even in tense and intimidating situations. The story they tell is one of God’s self-offering love and transformative power. It is a story of new life.