We read the following passage in our House prayers this morning, and I was struck by something.
“Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by.”
I can honestly say I’ve never really “gotten” this Biblical passage, primarily because I’ve been mystified by how it progresses. “Is the author confused?” I would ask, “How can you say no one dared to join them, yet in the next breath say great number of men and women became believers? Weird.” And I often left it at that, mainly because I didn’t have the follow-up effort to sit and reflect on it.
Which is stupid because while authors can have huge oversights in writing when certain sections are far apart from one another, this one would have had to be an idiot to place them back to back with one another.
I think I understand it now, and it holds great potential for reflection on leadership. All I had to do was consider the wider context. I needed to ask the simple fundamental interpretive question; “What is the social context of this statement by the author?”
These apostles are the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was a revolutionary figure who, because of his willingness to simultaneously challenge the raw power of both the oppressive Roman occupiers and the Jewish authorities, was conspired against by those Jewish authorities and eventually executed “for the good of the people.” The Jewish authorities may not have taken this step if Jesus hadn’t emphasized loving one’s enemies and giving one’s life for the folks on the margins so much.
After all, the role of the Messiah was to kill their enemies (the Roman occupiers), to unify the nation under one righteous standard (to either bring the sinners within the nation to heel or eliminate them), and to bring Israel back to the prominence of the days of David. Because Jesus was teaching and embodying a message radically different than this, they “knew” that he couldn’t be the Messiah, and had to be eliminated.
And the Romans, well, anytime the rabble they occupied got a little worked up, they would just crucify someone and let their bleeding, pain-wracked body sit out for all the public to see. Effective. So they were more than willing to comply with the Jewish power elites. The powerful believed this would bring an end to the Messianic expectations of the followers of Jesus, just like all the other false Messiahs.
Jesus, by every major standard (which we still apply today) was a failed revolutionary.
Yet an unexpected thing happened. This Jesus arose from the dead (that really can happen? It’s not just a metaphor, a concept, a theory, a belief that good things can emerge from tough situations? So John Dominic Crossan is full of s$%t?), the God of the universe vindicating his message, and providing this clear example that the Way of Jesus, that loving-one’s-enemies supposed silliness, is backed by a Creator whose power is stronger than death (and certainly stronger than the piddly-by-comparison Romans).
So these formerly crushed disciples now are empowered to follow the teachings and example of Jesus no matter what. And surprise surprise, they face the same threats Jesus faced early in his ministry, when his words started to seem a threat to the status quo. This same Simon from before has now become Peter (the rock), who stands before powerful persons and the same crowd that went along with the execution of Jesus and instead of shrinking back, saying things like “On the other hand,” or “I see your perspective,” says things like “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.”
The sin of killing their enemy for the sake of the people. The sin of allowing the wealthy to oppress the poor. The sin of a religious system bent toward increasing the power of the religious elite at the expense of the common person. The sin of following the will of the mob even when you know what they’re doing is wrong (as mob common wisdom goes, isn’t survival more important than faithfulness, isn’t ‘getting by’ more important than the truth?) The sin of ignoring the deep wisdom of the Scriptures and creating a folk religion that shapes God in their image rather than being shaped into the image of God.
As could be expected, Peter is commanded to cease this talk, with the ominous implication that something could happen to him and those he cares about.
Yet Peter and the other apostles ignore the threats from the authorities (and certainly the well-meaning warning from their grandmas).
They begin to practice God’s Jubilee economic practices together, modeling a way that exposes the sin of the current understanding. They create an alternative economy based on meeting one another’s needs rather than holding each other at arm’s length. They do not allow the wealthy to think this is some sort of voluntary charity opportunity; but instead command them to give up their grip on possessions. God backs this up by striking down a husband and wife who think they can control what they give to the common pot.
These are dangerous activities, starting alternative economies that care for the marginalized rather than stomping on them. This is how dangerous social movements happen. This is dangerous talk, offending the civil authorities of a system that everyone accepts to be “the only one.” And God striking down Ananias and Sapphira threw a whole new dynamic in the mix. What is happening here? Why won’t the apostles shut up? Who wants to associate with folks quickly becoming “public enemies,” according to the authorities? Yet who can stay away, when people are being healed, and needs are being met?
All of this is the political and social and religious context of the Acts passage we read today, and all of that transforms the hard-to-understand two sentences from before into a perceptive glimpse into subversive fervor and its impact on the common person.
“No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.”
The apostles and the community they led had integrity. They were speaking the truth and pursuing the truth. People could sense this, could see it in their way of life. Yet such a challenge is not comfortable. For one, the leader of the apostles had just been brutally beaten and executed. Couldn’t they see the path they were on led to the same end? “They may be speaking the truth,” some may have thought, “but I’m not going to get my quality of life affected by associating with them. What about my job? my reputation? my life? my family?”
So this fledgling church community was highly respected, yet isolated. Persons were urging them on in their spirits, yet unwilling to take the social risk to associate with them. The apostles understood that true leadership sometimes requires becoming isolated for the sake of greater unity somewhere down the road. They understood the tension, the rejection, the struggle of following an alternative pathway. They understood that they would need to walk this path without many true brothers and sisters, for the sake of witness. Witnessing to another world with radically different priorities and choices. They were compelled by God to be a witness, even if it cost them their very lives.
Witness, and faithfulness, are higher priorities in the kingdom of God than survival, it seems.
It seems so often we hide in cowardice behind comments like “Isn’t it more faithful to die of old age and challenge the system in smaller ways, tweaking things here and there? Isn’t it unfaithful to be so brash and put one’s family’s economic position at risk?”
So the apostles are walking a Way of danger on behalf of those who respect them but are unwilling to join them. This explains the comment “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” The apostles’ leadership has a secondary effect of shifting the priorities of others (even if just on the subconscious level). And it seems that God does acknowledge that shift in persons, that awakening to what we were created for, even if it’s still buried under layers of cowardice and “common sense” perceptions about what is possible and what is not. This reminds me of the saying, “God is easily pleased, but never satisfied.”
Is God pleased that these persons are “believing,” even when their belief isn’t yet embodied? It seems so. Yet will God allow them to remain there on the sidelines, living vicariously through the brashness and innovation of the apostles? Certainly not. The way of the apostles, the Way of Jesus, is an echo from Eden of what we all we created to be and do. God will not rest until this Way comes to pass in its fullness.
So while we can affirm that many “believed” in this passage in Acts, we cannot rip it out of context to extol it as the fullness of faithfulness. The completion of belief is action. And we are to create a community as disciples of Jesus that is so committed to one another that if a father or mother is picked off by powerful people, their family is picked up and carried by the community, and their children are told stories and asked, “Remember the courage of your father?” The wives are held in high regard, and told “Remember the faithfulness of your husband?”
Because in a community of resurrection, death is scoffed at, and fullness of life is embraced. The actions of the apostles teach us this. God’s Jubilee is at hand, and we will not shy away because of a fear of what we may lose. We will choose this way as a witness. And we will know we may not have many companions on this tough, steep, perilously dangerous way; but how many are standing on the sidelines, watching, wishing they could overcome their fears, their cowardice, their self-protection, their way of life, their “obligations”?
May we be courageous people, in our own unique ways. And complete our belief by embodying the Way.