This sermon was delivered by Wendell L. Griffen, pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark, on November 22 2009.
When Peter and John healed the un-named lame man that we read about in the third chapter of Acts, they probably did not expect to be arrested. For that matter, the lame man must have found it rather odd to be arrested by the religious authorities because he had been praising God in the Jerusalem temple. Being agents of healing does not violate any moral or religious code that comes to mind, and it is even more difficult to name any moral or religious reason for suspecting people of immorality when they praise God for being healed.
Yet, Acts 4 records that those three fellows were in trouble with religious authorities because of a healing. Somehow, the religious authorities viewed what Peter and John did, and what the now healed man represented, as an outright threat. We read later, at Acts 4:17-18, that the Sanhedrin Council was really concerned about keeping the gospel of Jesus Christ, with the claim of his resurrection, from gaining more followers. Peter, John, the healed man, and the early followers of Christ were casualties in a struggle about religious power.
Power conflict is one of the reasons people often mention for their dissatisfaction with organized religion. The Bible does deny or sugar-coat the harsh reality that religion has been beset with power struggles in every period of human history. That, in and of itself, is reason to shake one’s head when people say they do not want to become followers of Jesus Christ and associate with the Church because “there is always some kind of trouble going on.” Religious in-fighting—along with the persecution that goes with it—has long been a challenge for Christianity. Yet, there are several reasons why people who refuse to be involved with Christianity because of power struggles should not be taken seriously.
Conflict happens! This is simply another way of phrasing a popular saying that I can only paraphrase in this setting—”Stuff happens.” Conflict happens in education, but that is hardly a valid reason to refuse to attend school. Conflict happens in family living, but that no reason to refuse family ties. Anyone who has ever held a job knows that conflict happens in the workplace. Still, no person would be taken seriously who used that as an excuse for refusing to seek and hold a job. Children and feeble-minded adults may engage in such foolish thinking. However, we do not commend them for thinking that way, and we certainly do not recommend that others follow their example. If anything, we call those people, and the way they think, childish.
Humans live, my brothers and sisters, in a world where conflict happens and has the potential for happening about anything and everything, including religious life. Sometimes religious conflicts stem from honest disagreements about what is true. Some religious disputes boil down to personality clashes. Some religious disagreements involve competing ideas about what methods work best, or even which methods should not be used at all. But make no mistake. Conflict happens in religious life because conflict happens.
What happened to Peter, John, and the healed man was not right. Make no mistake about that. But Peter and John would have been fools to stop preaching the gospel of resurrection because religious authorities disagreed with them doing so. The healed man would have been an even greater fool to stop praising God because the Sanhedrin didn’t like for the name of Jesus Christ to be associated with his miraculous healing. The same is true concerning people who stop praising God and drop out of organized religious life because conflicts inevitably happen.
Truth is worth the trouble! Because religious life, like everything else, is susceptible to conflict, the true issue is whether the truth we affirm is worth the trouble we must endure. Every person must decide, personally, that issue. In doing so, we must deal with some basic principles.
First, we must decide whether the trouble we face involves the truth. Peter, John, and the healed man were hauled before the Sanhedrin because Peter and John professed to have healed the man in the name of Jesus Christ, who they publicly claimed had been resurrected from death by God. The man praised God for his healing. In doing so, he was affirming his confidence in the authority of Jesus Christ over the power of his previous condition. If Peter and John were frauds or were preaching a counterfeit gospel, the religious authorities should have been concerned. If the healed man was an imposter, the authorities should have been concerned. The three of them did not waiver because the truth they knew and had experienced was worth the trouble they faced!
Aside from being childish, people who withdraw from following Jesus to avoid conflict with others are essentially saying they do not believe the truth they have experienced in Christ is worth the trouble they may face by living it. They want religious identity without moral and physical rigor. As the elders would often say, they want to go through life on “a flowery bed of ease.” Here is a tip. Righteousness always carries the risk of a rigorous confrontation with trouble. At some point, a person who is morally serious must decide whether the truth he or she believes is worth the trouble that comes with living it.
That is why Peter’s faith statement at Acts 4:9-10 is so moving. “[i]f we have been brought to trial today for helping a sick man, put under investigation regarding this healing, I’ll be completely frank with you—we have nothing to hide. By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the One you killed on a cross, the One God raised from the dead, by means of his name this man stands before you healthy and whole. Jesus is ‘the stone you masons threw out, which is now the cornerstone.’ Salvation comes no other way; no other name has been or will be given to us by which we can be saved, only this one.” [The Message]
Peter did not try to duck the trouble. He did not try to talk his way out of it. He did not suggest that there had been some mistake. He simply looked the people who had brought false witnesses against Jesus in the face. He proclaimed the same Jesus he had abandoned to these people only weeks earlier. He straightened his back, steadied his voice, and directed his words because he had experienced the resurrection of Jesus. Peter had seen the risen Christ. Peter had spoken with him. The resurrection truth had, moreover, been followed by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Peter had seen too much, lived too much, and had been brought too far with God to deny God’s role in the man being healed. He was not about to be bullied or bluffed into hiding the truth about and denying the risen Christ.
If we believe that God is love, if we believe that God has given His transforming love to the world in Jesus Christ, if we believe that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and if we have seen God heal and redeem people from oppression based on the authority of Jesus Christ, then the issue isn’t whether we will face trouble by acting on those convictions. No, the issue is whether we consider the truth we believe worth whatever trouble we may face. People who have experienced the power and presence of God in those ways cannot be bullied or bluffed by the threat of trouble for following God.
Healed people are great silencers! Peter and John were “unlicensed” and unlettered preachers. They had not studied religious history and theology anywhere. Yet, there they stood. And the healed man was standing with them, perhaps quivering with excitement because he was spending the second day of his life able to stand, walk, and run. None of them needed to spend a lot of time arguing with critics.
The challenge for you and me, as followers of Jesus Christ today, is to spend less time arguing with our critics and more time and energy being the healing agents of Jesus that he saved us to be. Our challenge is to confront oppression and the sin that makes it possible as followers of Jesus Christ. Our challenge is to lend our will and skill and strength, by faith in Christ, so that the Holy Spirit will make miracles happen. When we do so and the miracles happen, there will always be critics. In some situations, we will be misunderstood, even deliberately misinterpreted.
But remember the healed man! Remember him standing there, bristling with new strength by the power of God. Remember him, and follow Jesus. Remember him, and love oppressed people in the name of Jesus. Remember him, and look critics in the eye without fear. Remember him, standing upright—so healed!
And in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the One who some people rejected, but who God raised from the dead, be agents of healing, hope, truth, peace, justice, and joy in the world. In the name of Jesus Christ—the Love and Truth of God made Personal—be agents of healing to a hurting world. In his name, face the certainty of trouble knowing that the truth is worth it. In His name, know that healed and loved people are the best response to those who criticize the gospel of Jesus Christ. Be agents of that healing in His glorious name. Healed people will help silence the critics. And if they don’t, wear the criticism with honor and the knowledge that you are experiencing the same things that happened to Jesus Christ, and all who have followed God.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.