A World Where Death Is Not King

By Beth Maynard

Today’s Acts reading is the end of a lengthy story which we heard part of last week. Just to get the context before we look at today’s text, I want to run through the story quickly. It started with Peter and John going to the Temple for the evening service, and outside they see someone they’ve seen before, a lame man, a beggar who is always sitting there day after day at the door with his cup in his hand.  He says, “Spare any change?” They tell him they’re broke, but they have something better to give: “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”

And he does; imagine that! — even though he has been lame from birth. And they head into the service together. But of course, everyone there knows the guy, because he’s been at that door begging for years — and as people run over to gawk, pandemonium breaks out.

So Peter begins explaining to the crowd how Jesus, whom they saw killed, has been raised from the dead, and it was in the Bible all along… and by the way, this is the kind of stuff that happens when you connect with his risen life, and who wants in on it? Everyone is starting to say, “me, me, I want in on it!” — and that’s when the police show up.

They put them in handcuffs, most likely on the charge of disturbing the peace in the Temple precincts, but really because they have the reaction that all power has to the news of Easter: No. Death is king. Maintaining our control depends on our being able to wield the threat of administering the power of Death, who is king. No resurrections allowed.

So Peter and John get a night in prison to sober them up, and then they’re put on trial before an impressive array of three powerful groups — the rulers, the elders, the scribes, and then just for good measure some powerful higher ups from the high-priestly family. (This is the section of the story we read last week.) The trial starts with the bench asking the defendants what authority they have for their actions, which is probably supposed to intimidate them since, of course, they have no authority at all in the eyes of the world for their actions, and everyone knows it.

Guess what, though? Peter is even bolder now than he was the day before! He points to the healed man and says essentially, “Oh, you mean, how did this guy who has been sick his whole life become whole? That would be by the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified and God raised from the dead,” and he begins explaining how all Scripture points to the risen Christ — and here you want to picture, say, a lumberjack lecturing the House of Bishops, right? (With a big grin on his face.)

So the authorities have no idea what to do. They’ve got nothing. The arrest didn’t faze Peter and John. The night in prison didn’t faze them. The intimidation didn’t faze them. The beggar who has been healed is standing right there. So they clear the court and go into executive session, and then they get a brilliant idea: “We’ll just tell them not to do it anymore.” And so they tell them not to do it anymore, and this is where we come in in the lectionary today.

“When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God.” While it doesn’t directly say so in the text, I suspect that once they get out of court and the adrenaline fades, maybe they are a little shook up by the threats, and they all feel like they need to be fortified.

So they pray, and they base the prayer on a Psalm. They’re taking these words they’ve always known and seeing them flower into a whole new depth of meaning when applied to Jesus. They praying Psalm 2, all about how the powerful join together to resist God — and the energy of this Word works! Not only does it work applied back to Jesus’ death and resurrection, which is good enough, but also applied to what they are going through right now, as that same death and resurrection are re-expressed in the life of Jesus’ body, the Church.

Because see, it’s the same story. It’s about Jesus, but it’s every bit as much about who they are when Jesus is living in them. And who we are, when Jesus is living in us.

So they pray that Psalm and then they add, “And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” In other words, keep doing what you’re doing, God, but please make sure we don’t let you down by being faithless or timid in the face of opposition.

Now I want us just to take a second to think about what they could have done instead of that prayer. Because asking God to give you the confidence to keep repeating exactly the things that have been getting you arrested is not prudent, right? It is not sensible. So they could have been sensible and, say, tried to work some connections: “Now does anyone here know any of the scribes or the power people? Oh Silas, you do? Great. Could you take them to lunch?” Or they could have been prudent and said, “listen, what if we only preach in private? We can still accomplish a lot that way. There’s no need to get in everyone’s face.”

Those would be very normal things to do — very normal, in a world where Death is king. But they are not living in that world. They will slip back into it at various points, as all of us who have been raised with Christ inevitably do now and again, but right now, this morning, they are not living in a world where Death is king. They are living in a world where Death is defeated and New Creation is breaking out on every street corner. The real world, if we can only believe it.

So they pray this prayer asking, in essence, for help to believe it. And in response they receive a renewed empowerment by the Spirit, and renewed boldness. It actually says, “The place in which they were gathered was shaken.” And two things follow in the text. And these two are, as it were, the takeaway I’d want you to pack into your travel kit this morning, if you’d like a takeaway.

The experience generates first, essentially an outward movement. Now that they are again confident that Christ is risen, the Spirit is active, and you can count on it, they go back out and keep offering themselves as points through which Jesus’ risen life can make contact with the world. They keep telling the good news that everything is different. They keep healing. They keep helping new creation break out everywhere so that everyone can benefit.

So that’s an outward result. But the other thing that follows on their confidence that Christ is risen, the Spirit is active, and you can count on it, has essentially an inward direction. So there’s an outward way that Jesus’ risen life is manifested by the community, but there’s also an inward way it’s manifested.

The text says, “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common… and great grace was upon them all.” Not only has this risen life impelled them to go out in service and proclamation, it has also impelled them to love one another and to share what they have. And I just want to spend a little time to break that inward result down.

Now the disciples did not live in nearly as materialistic a culture as ours, but nearly every culture ends up coaching people to say, “Hey, this is my stuff. Don’t touch my stuff. Get your own stuff.”

Why do we say that? Well, to cut to the chase, because we think Death is king. Death is king and all his henchmen, like precariousness and anxiety and vulnerability and pain, need to be bought off and kept at bay, and a really great way to do that is with stuff. At least it’s a really great way to do it until it stops working, which it always does. But when the disciples are immersed in the risen life of Jesus, the disciples don’t need stuff anymore, because they have seen death and precariousness and pain and vulnerability turned inside out on the Cross.

And they did not live in nearly as individualistic a culture as ours, but nearly every culture ends up coaching people to say, “I come first, or my family comes first, or my tribe comes first.”  Why do we say that? Again, because we think Death is king. And all those henchmen, anxiety, vulnerability, etc, still need to be kept at bay, and another great way to do that, until it stops working, is for you and yours to band together against everybody else.  But when the disciples are immersed in the risen life of Jesus, the disciples don’t care about that anymore either, because they’ve seen Jesus change the world by emptying himself of power to unite everyone, not by seizing it to divide them.

So they don’t feel the need to protect their own interests or their own financial security. Because they know Death isn’t king. And that truth, communicated to them and to us in Jesus, is what gives the shape to this second, inward transformation of loving each other rather than just taking care of your own, and sharing what you have rather than just hoarding it.

Now we will see this same group of people lose their grip on both these things. In the very next chapter there’s a shady little falsified donation by a disciple who wants to keep most of his stuff while still getting credit for generosity. A few chapters later there’s a tiff between the Jews and the Greeks in the community about whether there’s ethnic bias going on with the food distribution. These are human beings. They’ll forget. They’ll fall away. They’re like us.

But right now, this morning, the place where they are is being shaken, and they are being filled both with outward energy to proclaim Christ and spread the power of the new creation boldly, and with inward energy to build a community of generous love that transcends human divisions.

However, there as well, they’re still like us. Or rather, we’re like them. Or can be. After all, we also are not truly living in a world where Death is king. We are living in a world where Death is defeated and New Creation is breaking out on every street corner. The real world, both for them and for us, if we can only believe it, in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

The Very Rev. Beth Maynard is rector of Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church in Champaign, Illinois.

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