God in the present tense: What would you tell them about Jesus?

In my early years I grew up on a Council Estate in Derbyshire. It was quite a close-knit community; where people, shall we say, took an active interest in everyone else`s business. And curiously, one of my most vivid memories is how every so often the word would go around that one of the neighbours had been “Summon-zed”. I wouldn`t describe my hometown as a hotbed of crime but “summon-zed” meant you were up before the local Magistrate and this was cue for the gossip-mongers to have their day.

Now, in our first reading this morning Peter and John have been “summon-zed”. Just outside the Temple, Peter has healed a man in Jesus name and the religious high-ups were none too pleased. But it`s interesting to note WHO has done the “Summon-zing”. We`re told that Peter and John appeared in front of the “rulers, elders and scribes … with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family” (Acts 4.5). It`s a very simple point really but you might recognise these names as pretty much the same group that engineered Christ`s crucifixion; and this simple point, highlights one of the features of this book we call the Acts of the Apostles.

Essentially this book provides example after example of the Apostles; indeed, the first Christians simply doing what Jesus did. We look at their circumstances, the challenges, the things they do and say and the resemblance to his ministry is uncanny. It`s almost as if the Acts of the Apostles is a commentary on the promise Christ gave the disciples in the Upper Room: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father (John 14.12).

So then, Peter and John are `Summon-zed`… Peter had healed a man – he`d done a Jesus-shaped thing and so they are up before a group of people who have killed once… and would think nothing of doing it again; to preserve their position. It`s scary stuff. And there are a couple of things I`d like us to notice to begin with:

Firstly, take a moment to digest the clearly antagonistic reception they receive- even though they`ve done something essentially good. There`s something irrational and incomprehensible in the air. Like Jesus, Peter and John had been led into a place where faith was a matter of life and death. They had to account for themselves.

Now, authentic Christian faith is not a perpetual state of paranoia. People are not all `out to get us` but you sometimes wonder at the response some people have towards us. It helps to remember that the Lord wasn`t joking when he said: ‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you (John 15.18). And what this passage does is invite us to think about those times when we are “Summon-zed”; and how you might reply to the question; “Are you a Christian?” Or someone says “That wasn`t a very `Christian` thing to do”. Our faith may be personal but it`s never private… Sometimes the questioning can have a distinct edge or frostiness to it; and being called to give an account of oneself is a daily issue for far more people than we might imagine.

So, this passage is call is to be ready and more aware of this. In one of his letters, the same Peter tells us from experience, “In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3.15).

And then secondly, just notice the shear boldness of Peter. Peter the one who denied Jesus, is clearly transformed by the working of the Spirit. Yes, it`s the presence of the Spirit that does indeed make the difference but what I want us to reflect on this morning is that it really wasn`t all about Peter. What strikes me is that Peter`s whole response to those who accuse him is all about Christ, not himself. He doesn`t give any kind of biography; he doesn`t talk about any kind of conversion or `religious` experience he`s had… He simple points to Christ. And it`s this… His way of giving an account of himself that I want us to examine for a moment.

Firstly, they ask him, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4.7). And Peter tells them it is Christ who is the power at work among them. St. Paul says something similar in his letter to the Ephesians. He speaks of, “The power at work within us (that) is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine”. (Ephesians 3.20) This is another example of what I`m always calling, “God in the present tense”. He holds together two qualities which are I think essential for an authentic faith. Wonderment and awe… Or shall we call it a tip-toe expectancy… Or something along the lines of, “I`m really not-sure-what-might-happen-next”.

I had some junk mail earlier this week. It was from a company selling cushions that go in pews. (I get all the best stuff!) On the envelope the company slogan was, “Bringing Comfort to your congregation” … I`m afraid the slogan itself was enough to convince me I didn`t want to do business with them. Not because I don`t believe that the Lord, `comforts us in our sorrows`; of course, he does. But what about Peter`s conviction of Christ as `the power at work among us`. This is the kind of faith they encountered in Peter. He drew attention not to himself but to “God in the present tense”.

Secondly, notice Peter doesn`t pull his punches in front of these people. Not only is Christ powerfully at work among them, he insists that Christ is the one with whom his accusers will have to reckon. Again, it`s not about Peter. He doesn`t try to work up a sermon or any kind of explanation… he simply tells them what Christ said.

In three of the four Gospels Christ quotes a verse from Psalm 188 (v22) which he uses to describe how his ministry would be both rejected… and in the end vindicated. He said, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone”. Sure enough, Peter picks this up and says the same. Just as Christ knew full well how preposterous his claims would seem; Peter makes no attempt to sweeten the pill… He didn`t attempt clever rhetorical flourishes and all the rest. He took his Lord at his word and simply passed on the message. No, this isn`t going to make any sense to you. It isn`t what you want to hear… but there it is.

And there`s a really important lesson here. Yes, of course the faith we profess has a credible intellectual heritage but in the end you cannot argue people into the Kingdom of Heaven; you cannot persuade people that regime-change has happened and we`re all called to get on board. You can only present people with the claims of Christ and his Cross. Which is why Paul says, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1.23). And the point is that he was content to leave it at that… He knew his audience; he understood their resistance but he didn`t change the message. He trusted its truth to do its own work.

And this leads us to the third (perhaps troubling) thing. In one of his letters Peter again quotes this Psalm; but he says that this rejected cornerstone is therefore, ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’ (1 Peter 2.7-8). Perhaps like me you know how it feels to stub your toe on something hard. Now this is difficult stuff but it`s all of a piece with that final flourish before his accusers; where Peter tells them “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). In other words, he won`t back down from affirming the uniqueness of what God has done in and though Christ.

So, what are we saying? Well, Peter and all the characters we see in the Acts of the Apostles are caught up in this `resurrection life`. The presence of the Holy Spirit means that they find the life of Christ himself becoming manifest; giving shape to their own life and behaviour as `the power at work among them`. This very point brings them into conflict with a world that resists the Kingdom invasion but Peter`s response to this is full of boldness and conviction.

He says, Christ is the power at work among us`. He says, `Christ the one who, though rejected; is the World`s true King`. And he makes it clear that `Christ is the world`s true Savour… No matter how preposterous or foolish it might seem. He`s the one we ALL have to reckon with`.

So, when we`re `summon-zed`; called to give account it`s worth remembering Peter`s example. Yes, he teaches us not to be coy about our faith… But ultimately, he doesn`t get drawn into a discussion about himself… He simply points to Christ. Because in the end he reminds us that it`s not about US. For example, imagine someone asks you later today “why?” you came here this morning. If you answer in terms of what you received personally, aesthetically, spiritually… then you`ve missed the point. If your answer is something about the person who drew you here; that is, Christ himself, the power at work in your life, your true King and Saviour; then you`ll be following Peter`s example. Put it another way: “What would you tell them about Jesus?

 

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