First Thoughts on Year B First Reading Acts Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 3

William Loader

Easter 3: 19 April Acts 3:12-19

Luke, the author of Acts, has just reported an astounding miracle. A lame man begging at the temple gate receives not a gift of money from Peter and John, but an act of healing, enabling him to stand, walk and leap for joy. The crowds are amazed and Luke pictures Peter as then responding with an explanation. His claim is that the power which Jesus exercised as a faith healer was again evident in this act. In Jesus' name and with his power the man had been healed. It was in part a proof of Jesus' resurrection and so the starting point for Peter to comment on his execution.

Such stories were in circulation in Luke's time both about Jesus and about the disciples. Such stories were always prone to exaggeration, as a look at Matthew and Luke's use of Mark shows, and sometimes generated ever more spectacular legends until Jesus seems in the second century more like a magician. We have no way of testing their validity, but it is clear that behind the human tendency to make up stories about heroes there is some basis in reality. Jesus in his time was known as a healer and exorcist and in his world that meant having the ability to liberate people from the powers and plights which oppressed them. Precisely how that happened, whether through shock, focused faith, or confronting challenge we cannot recover, but making people whole was seen as doing God's work and evidence of God's action. So it is here.

At a superficial level one could conclude that this should mean that everyone with a disability or an illness can be healed and made whole if only they would have faith. The prospect of the world being flooded by such magicians who could do such things is something wonderful, but this is not how it happened nor is this the underlying understanding. Simplistic magical faith of this kind marginalises all those people for whom disability or illness is part of life. They don't need to be made to feel guilty for being the way they are. So there are dangers when faith is too focused on the miraculous. Indeed other New Testament writers deliberately undermine faith based primarily on miracles. Famously, John's gospel tells us that when people believed in Jesus because of the miracles he did, he did not believe in them (2:23-25). Faith meant something deeper than following for marvel's sake. Similarly Matthew pictures Jesus as dismissing those whose cvs paraded mighty miracles, because they failed to heed the core of his message which was love - as in the Sermon on the Mount (7:21-23). Using miracles as propaganda was a standard strategy of people seeking a following. Roman emperors employed it also to press their claims to authority.

Notwithstanding Luke's tendency to treat the time of Jesus and the first apostles as a golden age of wonders, he still knew that if Peter had spoken to the crowds in those days he would have put the focus very much on Jesus himself and what he shows us about God. So he provides us what he imagines Peter might have said, a common practice of historians of the day. Such historians composed speeches to give profile to the figures of the past, often including within them ideas and images known to belong to the period. Luke's speeches in Acts are therefore a rich source for understanding how he as a historian of his time understood what was going on.

Here the message put simply is: "You thought you had snuffed out the liberating ministry of Jesus. You didn't. It's alive and well because God has raised him from death, elevating him to his presence, and so demonstrating that Jesus was indeed God's Messiah." The message and mission of Jesus goes on. Peter hails him therefore as the prince or pioneer of life and confronts his hearers with the stark and bitter irony that they put to death the one who came to bring life. They brought hate upon the one who brought love.

They could have met with hate in return. This happened later in those awful pogroms and their sequel in the holocaust, where Jews were ostracised as God-haters and later consigned to gas chambers. Luke is far from having Peter, a Jew, promulgate Jew-hate. Nor does he want to offend the Romans who were ultimately responsible for the execution. With one hand, as it were, he has Peter acknowledge that they acted in ignorance, but with the other he calls them to repent: face up to what they had done, regret it, and express remorse. Ignorance may not be an excuse when it is wilful and careless. Peter offers not condemnation but opportunity for change.

Our passage cuts off mid sentence at the end of 3:19. The full sentence deserves to be heard. They are to repent and be received with forgiveness, but there is more. They are to look forward to times of refreshing and renewal, the vision which Jews commonly associated with the coming of the Messiah who would set up a community of justice and peace. Luke has Peter still look forward to Jesus fulfilling the role of the Messiah in those terms, though his ministry had given a foretaste of how it could be. Luke's portrayal of the first Christian community in Jerusalem also depicts it as a foretaste of that great vision. Breaking bread in communion was a foretaste of the great feast for all peoples and still is. The true magic of faith is not to be found in exceptions and wonders, imagined or real, but in compassion and caring in community.

Gospel: Easter 3: 19 April Luke 24:36b-48
Epistle: Easter 3: 19 April  1 John 3:1-7

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