Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year B)

How quickly things can change, and how differently people can interpret the same event!

May 3, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on Acts 4:5-12

How quickly things can change, and how differently people can interpret the same event!

Last week’s reading from Acts 3 featured the people’s amazement at the apostles’ healing the lame man who had long begged for alms at the temple gate. They were so taken with the apostles’ miraculous work, they worshipped them. Yet Peter pointed the crowd away from himself and John to the true source of power, to the strong name of Jesus whom God raised from the dead (Acts 3:11-16).

However, we soon learn that while Peter and John continue teaching the awestruck audience, the temple authorities comprised of chief priests from the Sadducee party burst on the scene “much annoyed.” They are angry with the commotion over the lame man’s up-rising in the holy place and, especially, with the apostles’ crediting this wondrous event to the risen Jesus Christ (Acts 4:1-2).

In fact, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead under any circumstances (cf. Luke 20:27; Acts 23:8). But they would have been particularly disturbed, and not a little jealous (cf. Acts 5:17), over the people’s rapt attention to the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus. For it was Jesus whom the chief priests had delivered over to the Roman prefect Pilate as a blasphemer, traitor, and “perverter of our nation” (Luke 23:1-2, 13-14).

With the wisdom and authority of the temple leaders being seriously challenged on their own turf, they place Peter and John in custody overnight planning to interrogate them the next day (Acts 4:3, 5).

The apostles’ ministry of healing in Jesus’ name thus evokes diametrically opposite responses: wonder and excitement from the common worshipers, but suspicion and vexation from the religious authorities. Lauded by one group, Peter and John are locked up by the other.

During the examination, the Supreme Council, headed by Annas the high priest, cuts to the chase: “By what power or name did you do this [healing]?” (4:7).

Peter had already addressed this issue before the people (3:13-16) and is happy to repeat his Christ-centered response before the temple rulers. But first, “filled with the Spirit,” he tacitly challenges the Council’s line of inquiry: “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…” (4:8-9).

Peter intimates that the inquisitorial leaders have lost sight of the vital matter at hand: an act of benevolence, a truly “good deed,” has been wrought on behalf of an infirm man. Rather than receiving a few alms to get through the day, a lame beggar has been healed! Surely rules and regulations, procedures and protocols should take a backseat to rejoicing and praising God with the former cripple for his dramatic cure. And where better for such a glorious event to take place than in God’s house (temple)?

If a friend with terminal cancer suddenly becomes well, with all trace of disease gone from her body, this is no time for scholastic debates or political posturing over who or what cured her: an adroit surgeon, a new drug, a positive attitude, a prayer group, divine intervention, or some combination of these.

A religious community in particular, whether temple, synagogue or church, should exult in rehabilitation and redemption, however and through whomever they occur, as part of God’s good purpose for humanity. As Sovereign Maker and Ruler of all creation, God works through all sorts of processes and personnel. Nothing and no one, including the “highest” religious officials, have a monopoly on God’s grace.

Nowhere is the scandal and mystery of God’s saving work more evident than in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom Peter now heralds before the priestly council.

Reprising his announcement from the previous day in Solomon’s Portico, Peter confirms that the remarkable “good health” now enjoyed by the long suffering cripple owes entirely to “the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (4:10).

He further elaborates, drawing on Psalm 118:22, that “this Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone'” (Acts 4:11). The architectural image is especially apt for the chief priests tending the magnificent temple structure “adorned with beautiful stones” (cf. Luke 21:5). But tragically, they rejected the true foundation stone of God’s house. They crucified God’s Messiah.

How can any good possibly come from such a miscarriage of justice and misapprehension of truth by religious leaders charged with serving God’s interests and nurturing God’s people? We could chime in with our own laments over Christian leaders’ shocking betrayals of their calling or over constructions of self-advancing programs, schemes, and structures thinly based, if at all, on God’s foundation in Christ.

How can good come out of corrupt, callous institutions? Answer: because God remains faithful. Good comes because God refuses to let human rejection have the last word. It comes because God raises the rejected and crucified Jesus from the dead; because God lifts up the disabled and destitute lame man in the name of the risen Jesus. God has invested in this name, and made available to all who will receive it, the full bounty of God’s health and salvation.

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). God saved Jesus from the clutches of an unjust, ignominious death so that God’s suffering people might access God’s salvation in Jesus’ name.  As a metaphor, I think of “Jesus” as a computer password leading directly to God’s heart.

God took the rejected “stone” of Jesus and made him head of the corner supporting all God’s kingdom. To continue the Psalmist’s point: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23). It is indeed.