Your Piety Ain’t Worth A Hill of Beans (Acts 3:12-19)

There are always two sides to every story.  It’s a dictum as old as time itself.  As we’re learning in on our era, there are actually multiple versions to every event.  There’s the truth, versions of the truth, fiction, multiple fictions, what we’re told is fake news, that what we want to believe is true, and that which we’re convinced is false.  Does any of this sound familiar?  I long for the quaint era of a two sided debate when persuasion, facts, and reason might convince someone of a particular position or idea.  However, here’s my observation.  I’m not certain such a time ever existed.  I know American history has always been marked by a diffuse brand of debate.  Then, when I read the stories of the disciples, especially in the contentious days and weeks after the resurrection, I see the same patterns.

No one expected Jesus to die.  Even fewer people believed he’d live.  As such, the common ground the community shared following the resurrection was contested in every imaginable way.  Going into the crucifixion, life was fraught and unsettled.  Now, after it was all over, the disciples were still faced with the unresolved religious and social tensions that remained from prior to Jesus’ death.  Their message of Jesus’ resurrection was going to exacerbate the threats that hadn’t gone away (and quite possibly continued to endanger their lives).  Surely, the best approach wouldn’t be to stride right back into the temple with Jesus proclaiming, “See, we told you so!”  Guilt is a wonderful to build a healthy relationship with God.

Some people wouldn’t believe that Jesus was back no matter what they said or showed them.  Others would be too fearful to listen.  So you see, just from this overview, how we think preaching, teaching, and establishing the church would have become much simpler following the resurrection.  That’s not true.  If anything, it became harder.  In a conflicted world, a culture that’s got a snappy comeback for everything, reasons not to believe in anything, and will doubt the blue sky right over the head; the disciples have their work cut out for them.  Nothing simply fell into their laps.

What was the best way to be church in such a convoluted world?  The disciples had to tell their story (our story) in relation to the most indisputable facts anyone else might muster.  In other words, how could we respond to and tell the Christian story around the points of the story that everyone agreed to, witnessed, and saw over that long, horrific weekend.  If someone was in the crowd (and many people were) at Jesus’ trial before Pilate and then they’d witnessed the crucifixion, how would you put that in a larger, more meaningful context?  How can they give that common experience of sharing in collective brutality meaning?

Remember, the two disciples are preaching within the gates of the Temple.  So the scenery and the grounds are familiar as a backdrop to where the events Peter is describing.  Peter’s not talking about ancient history.  This is yesterday, last week, fresh gossip, and tension still lingering in the air.  As any good storyteller knows, with the right words, you can take the audience back in time, even to yesterday.  They have the gift of a backdrop.  When combined with their word pictures, their congregation can see the contrasts they want them to begin to notice.

Peter, speaking from a place called “Solomon’s Portico”, was in a spot he’d been known to frequent before.  I like to imagine it was one of Jesus’ favorite hangouts.  Teachers and rabbis had their places.  People would know where to go to find the teacher they like to explicate on the scriptures.  Jesus was probably found over by the “Solomon Portico”.  Jesus wasn’t available this morning.  So he and John went instead.  Like clockwork the people who came to hear and see Jesus came to see them.  They started to spread the news.  “You’re not going to believe this but he’s alive.”  People were being healed, they were jumping up and down; it was just like the good old days.

Some people outside the portico heard the rumors and they certainly didn’t like to see the Jesus of people having fun.  They were loud, rowdy, and generally disruptive to the public order.  Luke doesn’t come right out and say it but somewhere between verse 10 and 11, a message got back to the goody two shoes higher ups that ran the place.  “The dead guys followers are back and they are creating a disturbance over in Solomon’s Portico.  What are we going to have to do get rid of these people, kill them all?  Send someone down there to see what’s going on.”

Enter verse 11.  “While he clung (a guy they healed) to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.  When Peter saw it, he addressed the people.”  Here’s Peter’s chance to put everything into context.   You’re all having fun.  The power of Christ is great.  We’re doing some wonderful things.  How did it go all wrong and lead to his murder and execution?  Why did you kill him? How did we get here?  This is the direction Peter’s message begins to take.

Here’s what Peter says, “Why are you amazed at this?  Why are you staring at us if we walk by our own power of piety?  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-the God of our ancestors-has glorified his servant Jesus.”  I love his first line.  Why do you stare at me and look at me like I’m crazy?  I want to say that nearly every week.  Peter says, “We’re not saying or doing anything under own will.”  We’re here because of Jesus.  Jesus makes all of this possible.  The same goes for church this morning.  I know we say and do some crazy things up here. No one is up here of our own power or volition.  We do what we do, when we are here, for God.  This is an act of worship to bring glory to Jesus.  It shouldn’t be amazing, what God can do.  As the old hymn says, it is so secret, what God can do.  When miracles start to amaze us, it means we’ve lost touch with God’s amazing grace.  Peter says we should not be dumbstruck and amazed at what God can do

This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence, though he had already decided to release him.  You rejected the holy and righteous one, and asked that a murder be released to you instead.”

No one likes to be confronted by the failures and mistakes.  Nonetheless, regardless of what side of the Jesus debate you called home, Jesus was handed over and denied (by the guy preaching, he’s a little culpable here).  A murder, by the name of Barabbas, was also released instead of Jesus.  This all happened.  We all play a role in the denial and share in the guilt.  As Peter goes on to say, “Brothers and Sisters, I know you acted in ignorance”.  None of us knew what we were doing.

Peter and John want us to hear the Good News despite our ignorance and unwillingness to acknowledge God’s grandeur.  Rather than alienate those who haven’t encountered the risen Lord, Peter ask us to connect to the story of the resurrection in ways that deemphasize guilt and shame.  Instead, we are called together to see who we are and where we were in relation to Jesus, the cross, and the promises of life; post-Easter.

It is frustrating when people are amazed at what God can do and stare at us and say, “who are those Christians, praying, fasting, and doing for others?”  That’s when we say, as Peter reminds us, don’t look at us.  We are not doing these things.  None of the actions any of us take are by our own power.  That last mile work (giving, caring, baking, praying, and visiting-whatever we do) is not by our power or piety.  If it were, it wouldn’t be worth a hill of beans.  We do what we do as mainline Christians and ignorant sinners; because thank God, Jesus believes in giving everyone a chance.

Richard Lowell Bryant