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By what power? By what name?

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Apr 26

Text: Acts 4:1-13

Peter and John have gotten themselves into trouble.  They have been healing, teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus Christ.  They are arrested and thrown in prison and they find themselves called before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem—the council of rulers and elders—and called to account.  “By what power or by what name did you do these things?” they ask.

 All of this trouble, not long after Jesus, himself, stood before the high priests and elders.  Not long after Peter, trying to save his own skin, denied that he even knew Jesus. But Peter has changed.  He is bold in his declaration, so bold that witnesses are amazed.  “Rulers and elders, 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, let it be known to all of you that this many is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” 

 How often do we proclaim publically, or even to our closest friends, that Christ is a power that motivates our actions?  That Jesus is the name of the one we follow?  That we have discovered a source of meaning that brings wholeness and purpose to our lives? And even, sometimes, conquers our fears?

 Do we dare to be bold like Peter?  Do we dare to name the power of Jesus in our lives?  It’s certainly not going to make us popular at work or school.  There’s nothing sexy about it, for sure.  (There are no good pick-up lines.) In this complex, secular, multicultural world there’s just not much cachet in Jesus. 

 And in fact, if we do claim Christianity as a primary part of our identity, we are likely to be misunderstood.  Here in the U.S., Christianity is often associated with particular beliefs and ways of thinking that are not characteristic of the United Church of Christ and have little to do with my experience and understanding.  Biblical literalism and social conservatism have strong voices that often speak more loudly than progressive Christian voices. 

There’s a whole other sermon in that!  What is distinctive and important about the UCC within the landscape of American Christianity?  But that’s not where I’m headed today.

Suffice it to say that, when we tell people we are Christians, they are not likely to imagine a place like First Church in Cambridge—where we have a public witness that Black Lives Matter, a witness against gun violence, a bold proclamation that all people —Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Intergender, and Asexual—are beloved in God’s eyes and to the heart of this congregation.  That’s who we are—and you can see all that just from our lawn signs.

 Are we bold enough to claim the name of Christ as the reason for our witness?  And the power of Christ as the fuel for our love?

We are fortunate to live in a time and place where proclaiming Christ is unlikely to cost us more than bewilderment or misunderstanding on the part of our acquaintances.  Unlike Peter—in first century Palestine—who had good reason to fear for his life.  Unlike Christians in current-day China, where public meetings for worship might put you on a government watch list.  Unlike Nigeria—right this moment—where Boko Haram has adopted a intentional, bloody strategy to stamp out Christianity. 

But over the centuries, Christians have been the aggressors, too.  I confess that when I first read the lectionary passage from Acts—our scripture reading for this morning—I had a sinking feeling.  “Oh no, is this one of those texts that has been used to justify violence against Jews?”  That painful legacy that demands our constant vigilance?

It is a challenging text and we need to work through it honestly.  Here are Peter and John, arrested because they have been preaching and teaching in the temple, proclaiming Christ, and preaching the resurrection of the dead. We need to ask very carefully what is going on here.  Is this an attack by Jewish authorities against the burgeoning Christian sect?  We know that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead and would have opposed this preaching on theological grounds. 

One scholar points out that the New Testament often portrays Jesus, himself, “in fierce dispute with the leaders of various Jewish groups.” The halachic form of the debate makes quite clear “that [it] is an internal Jewish debate.” The ways in which Jesus reasons, place him “within the fold of Judaism. However fierce the debate may be, it is no more so than, for example, internal Jewish dispute between the Qumran sect and the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”

This is undoubtedly an element of the Sanhedrin’s reaction to Peter and John.  But here’s where it gets dicey.  When questioned, Peter gets in their face and names the Jewish leaders as the ones responsible for crucifying Jesus.  It cannot be stated strongly enough that the Romans crucified Jesus, not the Jews.  Acts gets this wrong and we need to get it right. 

That’s not what I want to speak about this morning, but it needed to be addressed.

What I do want to focus on is something else in our reading from Acts.  Somehow Peter has found a new boldness.  He is no longer clinging to the shadows to avoid being identified as a follower of Jesus.  He is out in the bright light of day, proclaiming the power of Jesus’ name.  It’s stunning. Peter proclaims that, “There is salvation in no one else! There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” 

That Greek word that Peter uses for salvation—is soteria.  It has a wide range of meanings, including physical healing, rescue from bondage, and spiritual wholeness.”  I suspect Peter know something about these.  Hence his boldness. 

And he knows that naming matters.  What we call ourselves.  How we talk about each other.  What power we claim at the center of our lives.  Are we, like Peter, bold enough to claim the strong name of Jesus? 

We did it this morning when we baptized babies.  Our ministers asked “who is this child?”  “By what name shall we call this child?”  We claim these little ones by their names—reminding us that God calls each and every one of us by name.  “I have called you by name and you are mine.”

We baptize in the name of “God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the familiar Trinitarian formula that binds us in communion with other churches and denominations through the ages.  Here at First Church we add another line, an intentional way of naming what is holy: “One God, Mother of us all.”  We remember that God is beyond gender and language.  A enormous life-force, beyond, even our understanding. 

Naming is powerful. Feminist theology and other liberation theologies advocate for the right of peoples to name themselves.  A right that has often been denied to marginalized or minority groups, who have been named by the powerful and dominant.

Naming ourselves is a way of claiming the power and beauty of who we are.  Claiming our belovedness before God.  Not who someone else says we are, but who we are to ourselves and in the eyes or our Creator.  It often happens that names which start out as derogatory are claimed and transformed from within, so that they become powerful and good. Black. Gay. Queer. Christian.

The issue of how we use language here at First Church came up earlier this year.  In the “Understanding Gender” series led at our 10:00 hour by Katie Omberg and Richard Heck, we discussed gendered pronouns, gender-neutral and gender inclusive pronouns in the context of the transgender movement.  Some expressed discomfort using gender-vague pronouns, unfamiliar pronouns.  Some grammarians cringe at the use of the singular “they.”  Some asked why these words matter. 

They matter because naming is important, honoring peoples’ self-determination matters.  Radical—sometimes uncomfortable—inclusion mattered to Jesus and it matters to us.

Last week I was at a talk where the speaker introduced herself and stated her preferred pronouns: “she, her, and hers.” It was a way of introducing herself that clearly named that binary gender was not her normative assumption.  Her naming herself in that way created a safe space for gender fluidity.  It was profoundly welcoming. 

Naming is powerful.  On the lawn in front of the church are small flags which stand as public testimony to the presence of gun violence in our community.  Red flags for those injured and white for those whose lives have been taken.  I often see passersby on Garden Street stop to read the sign and spend a moment in contemplation.  But the powerful moment for me, is when—several times a year—we read the names aloud and the flags are no longer abstract. They stand for people.  Beloved children of God. 

Friends, Jesus is the power and the name behind our lives here at First Church.  The foundation of this community where we call ourselves Christians.  May we be so bold as to claim this name and this power.  The God of all creation is at loose in the world and that power knows us intimately and calls us by name.  


Prof. Pieter van der Horst studied classical philology and literature. In 1978, he received his PhD in theology from Utrecht University. After his studies, he taught the literature and history of early Christianity and Judaism. Prof. Van der Horst is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. http://jcpa.org/article/the-origins-of-christian-anti-semitism/

Paul W. Walaskay, Feasting on the Word, p. 435.

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