July 10, 2016 “By What Name?” – Acts 4:1-22

Acts 4:1-22
“By What Name?”
July 10, 2016 – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Our daughter is praying for long life for the queen of England. Susan is well on her way to becoming a Canadian citizen, to having dual citizenship. But because Canada is part of the British Commonwealth, the citizenship ceremony includes swearing allegiance to the British monarch. And Susan would much rather swear allegiance to the beloved, Christian and feisty Queen Elizabeth II than to her rogue of an unbelieving son Charles. She cares about the name by which she receives citizenship.

To a lesser degree I experienced that when I was ordained nearly 30 years ago. The Covenant had a presidential election that year and my ordination certificate was signed by the outgoing president, a man I admired. But the ministry office spelled my name wrong. I sent back the certificate and by the time they got it right after two tries my final certificate of ordination was signed by the new president, about whose name I was less excited.

Our text from Acts today is about Christians, about the Christian church, operating in the name of Jesus. By calling on that Name the miracle we read about three weeks ago in chapter 3 happened. Peter said to a crippled beggar, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk,” and the man did stand and walk. In chapter 4 we see some of the furor and jealousy generated by that miracle and even more by that Name.

At the end of chapter 3, Peter preached to the crowd who came to see the healed man about the death and resurrection of Jesus. In chapter 4, verse 2 we find the authorities disturbed because the resurrection of Jesus implies the resurrection of the dead in general. When the Messiah came, many believed, there would be a general resurrection. But the Messiah would also bring a revolution, a revolt against Roman rulers.

None of the authorities, whether priests or temple police or Sadducees named in verse 1, wanted to rock the political vote, to bring down the wrath of Rome. They practiced a policy of accommodation, of going along with Roman authority at all costs. The Sadducees in particular were from wealthy aristocracy. They had an economic interest in the status quo. They wanted to keep the peace. In return, the Romans almost always appointed a Sadducee as high priest. The Sadducees’ primary concern in any public disturbance was to avoid a confrontation with the Romans.[1]

Sadducees also had religious reasons to worry about the name of Jesus. They only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament. They did not believe in angels or demons or immortality or resurrection. To them this life was the only life. They believed in God, but that was about it. With no hope of a future life, they may seem to us like religious liberals, but they were political conservatives operating out of fear to maintain their security. Together with the other authorities they had Peter and John arrested in verse 3 and put in prison overnight. Meanwhile, the first church took another huge leap in numbers from the three thousand mentioned in chapter 2 to five thousand now in verse 4.

As Christians living in the middle of our own stormy political climate, you and I should perhaps note how the first church grew. God’s work does not depend on who is in political power. We don’t need to accommodate ourselves to political forces from the left or the right in order for God to bless us. God’s people grow not by strategy nor by good government, but by faithfulness to the name of Jesus. Peter knew that.

After Peter and John spent a night in prison, in verses 5 and 6 what’s often called the Sanhedrin, all the Jewish religious authorities, gathered to question them. The first question in verse 7 was “By what power or by what name did you do this?” We might say, “Who gave you the right to do and say these things?”

Maybe Peter should have offered some sort of defense for what they had done, explained how healing a man and preaching to the people was perfectly legal and politically acceptable. Yet verse 8 says Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit did not lead him to play the political game.

Peter knew the politically correct, legal answer. He alluded to it as verse 9 begins, “if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick…” He could have appealed to compassion and justice. He could have, like Christians often do today, simply affirmed that he and John were men of good will, working for what everyone wants, help and care for people in need. Those are good things.

But instead, in verse 10, Peter was specific and offensive, “let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” Asked for a name, Peter would not pass up the opportunity. The name is Jesus, and not just Jesus, but Jesus Christ, which means “Messiah,” the very title the Sadducees feared would disturb the public order and foment revolution.

Peter’s answer was in the very same terms he preached to the crowd in chapter 3, that the name of Jesus has power because, even though Jesus was put to death, God raised Him from the dead. That’s the Christian hope. That’s the center of our salvation. That’s what the Old Testament passage quoted in verse 11 is about, “the stone that was rejected… has become the cornerstone.”

The name of the Man who rose from the dead is the cornerstone of our faith. That’s what gives us hope and confidence like Peter’s in any political situation, no matter who is in office, no matter what government controls things around us. We as American Christians are being forced to relearn what Peter realized. We have to get over the idea that our government is going support and reinforce our faith. Instead we find ourselves where so much of the world is and always has been, where Peter and John were, in a situation where the name of Jesus and faith in His resurrection puts us at odds with the powers that be.

Yes, it’s awful that in our coming presidential election it seems we will only have two bad and perhaps evil people to choose from. And it is absolutely horrible that fear and racial hatred are rising among us again in ways that remind us who are older of the 1960s. I grew up in the shadow of the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Yet as Christians we trust a Name that means the end of fear and death, means that we can see beyond to a new life in that Name.

As hard as it is to understand, it’s clearer where our hope is in times and places where there is hope in little else. That’s why Christianity has stopped growing in the United States and is thriving in China and in Africa and in South America. Just like those two thousand new Christians who converted the evening Peter and John were arrested, those millions of believers in countries where they are persecuted know the Name of their true hope.

Christian sociologist Peter Berger recently wrote about a time in the history of the old Soviet Union. He said that the Communist party would conduct “campaigns to propagate ‘scientific atheism.’”

On one such occasion, all the inhabitants of a village, including the local Orthodox priest, had to assemble in front of the church to listen to an hour-long lecture about the illusions of religion. Then the commissar made a generous gesture and said that the priest had five minutes for a rebuttal. The priest came forward and said, “I don’t need five minutes.” He then turned to the assembled villagers and said, “Christ is risen!” They replied with the proper liturgical formula [just like we do on Easter]: “He is risen indeed!” The priest then returned to his place in the congregation.[2]

It’s fine to engage in political controversy. It’s great for Christians to offer good reasons for our faith and hope. But in the end, our best answer is always what it was for that Orthodox priest, what it was for Peter and John. Christ is risen and in His name we have life and hope and salvation. Which is just what Peter tells us in verse 12, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

That Name and its effect on the ones who named it threw the authorities into confusion. Some of them in the Sanhedrin had been part of the trial of Jesus. They remembered how all His followers had run away when He had been arrested. The one suspect that was confronted, this same Peter, had denied even knowing Jesus. Now verse 13 says they saw how bold Peter and John were, even though they were the same uneducated, ordinary fishermen who had been with Jesus.

Believing in the Name of Jesus transforms you. With the hope of new life in Him comes new confidence and strength. As a more literal translation of the end of verse 13 says, the Sanhedrin “recognized that they had been with Jesus.” Trusting in Jesus’ Name, being with Him in His Word and in prayer and in acts of love makes a visible difference. May people around you and me be able to recognize that we have “been with Jesus.”

The Sanhedrin knew the name of Jesus had power, so much power they didn’t want to use it themselves. They are befuddled in verse 14, they send the disciples out to talk it over in verse 15, but in verse 16 they have to admit something notable has happened. So in verse 17, without naming Jesus, they decided to warn the disciples not to speak or teach in “this name.” They avoided Jesus’ name like people in the Harry Potter books avoided Voldemort’s, as if it’s magic, fearfing to say it aloud. Their warning is delivered in verse 18.

Peter and John’s answer in verses 19 and 20 is a model for our reliance on Jesus’ name, “we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” As Christians, His Name becomes our name. The name of Christ is our own identity. It’s who we are in this world. We must not succumb to being simply “people of faith” or a “faith-based community,” as if all the faiths of the world are interchangeable. “There is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

That means we must stick to that one name of Jesus Christ above all other names. No other name is going to save us. There is only one name which saves and it’s not Trump or Clinton. It’s not Smith and Wesson or Glock. It’s not Democrat or Republican. It’s not Apple or Microsoft. It’s not PeaceHealth or McKenzie-Willamette. Politicians and guns and parties and smart devices and healthcare do not save. Only Jesus saves.

That’s the message we have to share in the middle of hatred and killing. We won’t be saved by guns, even in the “right” hands. Let’s lay down the guns, whether literal weapons of steel or the metaphorical weapons we aim at each other through vicious words and injustice. Let us lay down our weapons and take up our best defense, the name of Christ. There is no other name by which we must be saved.

And let you and I represent that Name well. Let it be for us what it was for Peter and John, what it was for the beggar, a source of healing, of wholeness, of salvation. It’s one thing if people take offense at the name Jesus Christ as the Sanhedrin did. It’s another story if they take offense at Christ’s name because Christians are offensive. That’s not how it happened here in Acts 4. Verse 21 says they couldn’t punish the disciples because of the people around who “praised God for what had happened.” People saw that the name of Jesus could work wonders and were attracted to Christian faith, not repelled.

The name of Jesus Christ impresses people when you and I, even in small ways, let His power be seen working in us. As co-workers and friends see you hold up well when life deals out pain and sorrow, His name is being glorified. When you offer love, especially to someone who doesn’t deserve it, Christ’s name is honored. Every time you give something to the poor, you lift up our Lord’s name and reputation.

We can demonstrate the same kind of passion and love Peter and John had for the good name of Jesus Christ. We don’t need to be bored or bashful with His name. We don’t need to use His name as a stick to beat on others who don’t agree with us. We simply make our love for the name of Jesus obvious to anyone who lives or works with us, who observes us or hears us speak.

Jesus’ name has been a constant source of strength and comfort for His people down through the ages. They venerated His Name by its first three letters in Greek, which look to us like “IHS” carved into altars and embroidered on banners. They’re sometimes mistakenly read as “In His Service,” but it’s Jesus’ name.

Some liturgical churches celebrate the feast of The Holy Name on January 1, because Jesus was named eight days after His birth. Eastern Orthodox Christians are constantly praying the Jesus Prayer, a simple plea built around His Name, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Protestants honor Jesus’ name too. John Calvin encouraged Christians, “to glorify His holy name with our whole life.” Martin Luther told us to have “pure faith and confidence, and a cheerful meditation of and calling upon His holy name.” The holy name of Jesus is our great treasure and privilege. Countless hymns and praise songs celebrate that Name.

Today, we are going to sing the hymn, “Take the Name of Jesus with You.” Lydia Baxter wrote the words. Lydia was an invalid confined to bed most of her life, but she was almost always cheerful and patient with her situation. She would tell her friends, “I have a very special armor. I have the name of Jesus. When the tempter tries to make me blue or despondent, I mention the name of Jesus, and he can’t get through to me anymore.” She wrote this hymn from her bed, just four years before she died at age 65. Lydia loved biblical names. She would explain her friends’ names—Hannah means “Grace,” Samuel means “God hears,”, Sarah means, “Princess.” But the name which meant everything to Lydia was the precious name of Jesus.[3]

It’s my hope and prayer that the name of Jesus will mean everything to you, that you will carry it with you, offer it up in prayer, and make it the name by which everyone around you knows what kind of person you are. If His name is new to you, then I’d be happy to talk with you about how to call on His name, how to have His name be yours too, how to be a Christian. As Peter said, there is no other name that saves. May the holy Name of Jesus Christ bless and keep each one of us here today.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] See The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992).

[2] “The Good of Religious Pluralism,” First Things number 262, April 2016, p. 42.

[3]Osbeck, K. W.,  Amazing Grace : 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1990).