< April 11, 2010 >

Commentary on Acts 5:27-32

 

Luke-Acts in the Season of Easter

Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed! The lessons from Acts for the Sundays of Easter provide the preacher with a great opportunity to reflect with Luke on the present and living power of the resurrected Lord for new life in community. It will be helpful to keep at the ready the themes that inspire these Acts texts with the particular imaginative stamp of Luke's grand two-volume conception of the story of Jesus.

Luke opens his gospel by describing its first characters, Zechariah and Elizabeth, as "righteous" (Luke 1:6). When at the end of the gospel at the foot of the cross the centurion praises God and announces that this man was indeed "righteous" (24:47), the story of Jesus has come full circle. Throughout Luke's gospel, righteousness (or justice) is constantly re-imagined in terms of the necessary "today" of God's salvation, announced by the angels to the shepherds, "To you has been born today a Savior who is Christ the Lord" (2:11). "The scriptures had to be fulfilled" the resurrected Jesus announces to his disciples (24:44), and then commissions them as witnesses to this salvation--constituted in the message of repentance and forgiveness--which now is to be proclaimed to all nations under the authorizing promise and power of God's Spirit (24:47-49).

These central themes, even if not always explicit, continue to energize each episode of the narrative of Acts. They are:

1. The presence and power of God's Spirit ("You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you." 1:8).
2. The commissioning for witness and mission ("you will be my witnesses..." 1:8).
3. The Message: God raised Jesus from the dead ("it was impossible for him to be held by its power..." 2:24).
4. A promise that is for all peoples ("for everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him." 2:39).
5. A promise that shapes a new community ("All who believed were together and had all things in common." 2:44).

"God raised Jesus from the dead" echoes in the numerous speeches in Acts. Resurrection life is here and now. Faith is seeking to born. "Why are you standing here looking up into heaven?" the heavenly messengers ask the disciples (2:11), as if to say, "Get busy." The angel's promise to Mary was that with God every word of promise is possible (Luke 1:37). Acts will teach us along with this early disciple community that in the midst of the "today" of the resurrection promise, each hearer needs to be ready for the surprising ways of God's salvation as the Spirit shapes new identities and configurations of God's people.

In the Name of Jesus

This Lukan horizon of the story of salvation also informs the lesson for the second Sunday of Easter. In its closer context Acts 5:27-32 is part of the larger narrative of the initial missionary adventures of Peter and John in Jerusalem after Jesus' ascension (chapters 3 through 5). This narrative is bracketed literarily by two key summary descriptions of the new community--devoted to apostolic teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (2:42-47), and constantly in the temple and at home teaching and proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah (5:42).

Although Peter and John's acts of healing and powerful preaching in the region of the temple result in their arrest (3:1-26), they are soon released by the power of the Spirit who inspires their bold witness (4:1-31). God's grace is in the community's common caring for those in need, although the reality of sin and greed still stalks them (4:32-5:11). Arrested again because of the "signs and wonders" they are doing, Peter and John are freed by an angel in the night. Yet they insist on preaching and teaching, and as our lesson begins, now for a third time they are restrained and stand on trial before the religious authorities (5:12-26).

In this courtroom competing powers are being tested. The recognized powers of this world, of tradition and the religious authorities, are pitted against the witness of these apparently "ordinary and uneducated men" (4:13). They have ignored the "strict orders" of their parole and have threatened the leaders with the implications of their preaching ("bringing this man's blood on us" 5:28).

Readers are thus teased and drawn into this story by an ironic contrast of power and authority that is only apparent and artificial. The leaders have unwittingly called attention to the reality and have signaled their doom when they refer to the apostles' teaching "in the name" (5:28). It is the name after all that identifies and makes present this witness to the risen Lord Jesus. "There is salvation in on one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (4:12).

This name carries a power and authority that "must" be obeyed. It is the necessity of God's promise of salvation. The apostolic testimony pushes directly to the heart of the gospel. Jesus was put to death by hanging on a cross. But God raised him up and exalted him to a position of power and authority. Death and resurrection. There you have it.

The Gift of Repentance and Forgiveness

There is more. There are implications of this action. Just as the risen Lord gave instructions to his disciples on Easter that "in his name" repentance and forgiveness are to be preached to all nations (Luke 24:47), so now these disciples fulfill their commission by announcing God's purpose to give repentance and forgiveness to Israel by making this Jesus both "leader" and "savior."

Here, care must be taken not to imagine or imply that God's grace comes in response to repentance. Repentance and forgiveness are a package deal, the gift of God bestowed on us "in the name" and by the power of the risen Lord. Repentance is that "turning around," that new life that belongs to the promise, and "forgiveness" the new being, the operating principle, of that new community authorized in this gift.

Finally comes the courtroom summation, outlandish bravado were it not so true. We are witnesses, they say, and then add "and so is the Holy Spirit" (5:32). By the gift and power of the resurrection, our simple experience and witness are joined to the very power of God's Spirit.

In these few verses are the whole of the apostolic witness packed in a nutshell. This lesson provides an occasion to hear and announce that Easter message once again, now coupled with the bold witness and confident life in community that it evidently inspires. We, too, join these apostolic witnesses in the sure and certain truth that God has raised Jesus from the dead, that God has exalted him to be our leader and Savior, and has done so in order that we may receive God's gift of repentance and forgiveness that is ours in the present and living power of the Spirit.

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!