Healing the lame (last week’s text from Acts 3) may lie far beyond our abilities. But is Peter and John’s courageous speech to the authorities any less miraculous for us?
The church’s speech in our pluralistic setting is increasingly muted and indistinct.
Sure, the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but that “freedom” works out to be only operable in acceptable times and places: Sundays mornings within a self-identified arena of worship, but not Monday mornings in the workplace or classroom. Our kids’ elementary school banned biblical characters in this year’s hero essay project after a second-grader from our congregation wrote about Jesus last year. To punch through such invisible yet resilient barriers in American public life, Christian speech turns strident, either trumpeting messages that merely parrot a particular brand of politics or commending personal belief that leaves public idolatries intact. Even worse, to sidestep such barriers, the church resorts to appealing to American appetites for self-fulfillment and self-satisfaction.
In our little congregation in San Francisco, we have historically avoided even using the word “evangelism” because it conjures up too many old practices that make us cringe (some practiced by us in other settings and some practiced by others) and a truncated message that leaves too many assumptions in place and raises too few questions. Since talk is cheap, we have tried to emphasize the role of embodiment before speaking—in essence, following the pattern of Acts 3 and 4 (deed followed by interpretation).
But in trying to retrain our speech, have we become fearful of speaking the name of Jesus? In attempting to speak distinctively, have we lost the capacity to speak at all because we have become so respectful of public orthodoxy, so intent on maintaining our respectability? The voices of our cultured despisers ring loudly, “On what authority do you say these things?” We shrink back and speak only within the privacy of our homes and houses of worship. If we speak publicly, we had better be backed up by the credentials of the academy; by the support of experts or the successful; or by our good works, our track record of making an impact on our community. Anything short of appealing to these authorities for political cover leaves us exposed to the threat of castigation. Although it is our vocation to announce good news, we are silenced into deference to the authorities of our day and cowed by their weapons of fear, death, and exclusion.
Peter serves as the patron saint of the tongue-tied. His lame denials on the night of Jesus’ arrest befit a church of mumblers and mutes.
But a few short weeks after he could not answer simple questions from a poor serving girl, this unlettered, ordinary Galilean makes a stunning address before the Jewish equivalent of the Supreme Court. In the wake of the Resurrection, Peter’s tongue is loosed for speech.
What makes Peter’s speaking distinctive is not its heat, eloquence, or volume. (He is rather respectful of the authorities, though not deferential.) What is positively unnerving to the authorities is that Peter speaks at all. The authorities had put Jesus on trial and demanded, “On what authority do you do these things?” Then they killed Jesus in order to silence him. But here are Peter and John, companions of Jesus, facing the same question and the same threat but not remaining mute despite what the authorities did to Jesus.
According to the settled order of the day, the dead stay dead, the powerful get their way by punishing the lowly, and the wealthy consume at the expense of the poor. But the act of Peter’s speaking and the content of his words testify to the same irrepressible reality: the once-muted church speaks because the dead don’t stay dead. The authorities may have pronounced death on Jesus, but God has overruled their words by raising him from the dead. Far more than a one-off anomaly, Jesus is the beginning of the resurrection of the dead—the beginning of the Easter Revolution that ends the settled order based on death. The dead don’t stay dead, so the rule of power and wealth has come to an end. New creation is at hand.
The temple authorities put Jesus in the lowest place they could—an outcast’s death outside the city walls, the ultimate in exclusion from the community, the ultimate in silence. But God has raised Jesus to the place of highest honor and authority, at the very center of God’s new community. Armed with the words of Psalm 118, Peter puts the temple authorities on notice that, in raising Jesus from the dead, God has made him the cornerstone of a new temple with the only power under heaven to heal. On what authority does the once-silent Peter speak? On the authority of the resurrection and God’s gift of speech to the church, Peter and John say, “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (v. 20).
At the end of the story, it is the authorities’ turn to be speechless. The accusers of Jesus and his people are now silent. The reversal is sudden. Maybe this story seems fantastic, too miraculous, a daydream. But since God raises the dead, perhaps like Peter, we too will wake up to the reality that Easter has ended death’s reign and that we no longer need to defer to the authorities that seek to regulate or silence the church’s speaking.
The Easter church is a speaking church, a community entrusted with words that no one else can speak and that have the power to heal the world: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. O Church, speak!