Not by ability or piety, but by the name of Jesus
The following sermon was preached by Peter Perry, Instructor in Biblical Greek, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, April 27, 2009.
While the man clung to Peter and John,
all the people ran together towards them
in the portico that is called Solomon's Portico.
They were utterly astonished!
When Peter saw it,
he addressed the people,
Why are you amazed by this, (and)
why do you stare at us
as if by our own ability or piety
we have made this man walk?
The God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,
the God of our ancestors has glorified God's servant,
whom you not only handed over and
rejected in front of Pilate
(who had decided to release him)
but you also rejected the holy and just one and
asked for a murderer to be given as a favor to you!
The Patron of Life you killed,
who God (then) raised from the dead
of whom we ourselves are witnesses.
And by faith in (Jesus') name, his name itself has made this man strong,.
(this man) whom you have watched and know.
And faith through (Jesus) has given him wholeness
in front of all of you.
And now, friends,
I know that you acted out of ignorance,
just as your leaders did.
But in this way, God fulfilled all the things announced in advance
through the mouth of the prophets
that the Messiah will suffer in this way
Repent, therefore, and turn in order that your sins are erased.
Peter says, "Why are you amazed by this, (and) why do you stare at us as if by our own ability or piety we have made this man walk?" This is good news, sisters and brothers, for those of us who are stressing over papers and studying for exams to demonstrate our abilities, who go to MIC, CPE, internship, and Growth in Faith events to develop our piety. Yet, it is not by ability or piety that this man walks. Let's dwell with this verse a bit.
'Ability' in Greek is dunamis from the word dunamai, which means "I am able." (One of the benefits of preaching in chapel at a seminary is that I can use Greek words. In most parishes, the work with the Greek text has to sit in the background, but here I can bring it forward to encourage you to study and use your Greek!) It reflects the capacity to function in some way. Peter is saying that this man walks not because he has any ability as a physician, magician, or even gifted politician; not because he has some creams or medicines, not because he knows some magical incantation. He doesn't know the special words to say, or the wave of the hand. Peter never went to seminary to learn healing liturgies or theologies of God's agency. Faith in the name of Jesus made this man strong, not Peter's ability.
It wasn't his piety either. The Greek word here is eusebeia, which literally means reverencing well, making the appropriate external expressions of faith; we usually translate it as "piety." The Church historian Eusebius gets his name from this word, so we could call him "The Pious One." Luke describes Cornelius the centurion in Acts 10-11 as eusebēs because he feared God, gave alms to the Jewish community, and prayed constantly. The three classic marks of eusebeia are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (cf. Matt 6:1-18). But Peter did not fast for forty days, give money to the temple, or spend days in prayer so this man could be healed. He didn't go to Growth in Faith or meet with a Spiritual Director. Faith through Jesus gave this man wholeness.
Can you hear the good news, sisters and brothers? Healing and wholeness do not come through our ability or piety. One of the jokes when I was in seminary was, "What do you call a seminarian who graduates with C's for grades?" "Pastor." God's work of healing, forgiveness, transforming lives, moving people from sickness to health, despair to hope, inaction to action, death to life does not depend on your paper for Systematics. Speaking God's word of peace to someone who is hurting does not depend on your grade in Pastoral Care. Proclaiming the Gospel does not depend on how well you parse aorist passive verbs. Ultimately, people's lives are not changed by our ability or our piety, but by the name of Jesus.
God is the benefactor who moves people to go "walking and leaping and praising." God gives the gifts of healing, forgiveness, life, hope, and resurrection. God moves this man in Jesus name. Whew! This is such a relief. I can stop studying as if the world depends on it, or at least as if my future depends on it. I can stop agonizing over every word I speak, wondering if I have enough ability to speak about God. I can stop feeling guilty when my prayers are anemic, my tithing small, and my piety less than pious. "Not by our ability or piety" but the name of Jesus.
On some level, we may have already experienced this. The call to ministry comes often through people who say to us, out of the blue, "you would make a good pastor, leader or teacher in the church." We perhaps had no idea that people had experienced our listening, speaking, comforting and cajoling as God's movement through us. One of the reasons I am here today is because I listened to a young woman tell me her troubles, and she said later, "You listen well; have you thought of being a pastor?" Not by my ability or piety! It must be the name of Jesus.
But then why do we need to go to seminary? This is a burning question if you are feeling tired or overwhelmed with everything that needs to be done right now. If God can use us without abilities or pieties, frankly why bother with all this reading and writing? Why do I need an MA, MDiv, ThM, PhD to demonstrate my abilities? MIC and Spiritual Formation? Internship, CPE? Why not go to the candidacy committee, and say, "Hey, Peter and John didn't need to go to seminary, why should I?"
Ironically, the answer is also given in Peter's speech in Acts 3. Although God's work does not depend on our ability or piety, God does work through our ability and piety and that makes it worth our time and energy. Luke shows us how God uses the speaking abilities of Christian leaders and expressions of their faith in God through Jesus.
Peter has speaking ability. Luke describes him addressing the people like a trained Greco-Roman orator, using the best rhetorical style. In fact, the speeches by Peter, Stephen, and Paul in Acts are all polished gems of oratory. In part, Luke offers them to his readers as examples to imitate, so that we may have polished skills to communicate the name of Jesus. Luke expects Christians to read Acts and develop their abilities and pieties.
Peter first speaks the Law (in the theological sense) to the Israelites gathered there in the temple: he accuses as residents of Jerusalem of complicity in Jesus' death. We should be careful here: this, along with so many other passages in the New Testament has been used to justify oppression against the Jews. This not only violates our core ethic of love of God and love of neighbor, but this is to misuse Acts. Luke uses this kind of accusation only in Jerusalem. The reference here is very specific to those who were in the temple who cried out "crucify him" and to their leaders. When Christians speak to Jews outside Jerusalem, they do not use this kind of accusatory language.
The point is that Peter has the ability to discern the needs of the audience. He speaks a word of Law to this specific audience, a word that exposes sin and drives the sinner to Jesus for forgiveness and life. As in all the speeches in Acts, the speaker addresses the particular audience from their point of view, whether here in the Temple in Jerusalem or Paul's speech about the "Unknown God" on the Acropolis in Athens in Acts 17. Peter is shown with the ability to speak, and the ability to discern the way the Law functions to condemn this specific audience's sin.
The other side is that Peter also discerns how to proclaim the good news of forgiveness to this audience. He first uses the healing of the lame man as an example of the gifts, the benefactions, that God gives through Jesus. The crowd knew this lame man, perhaps watched him day after day. When this man went walking and leaping and praising God, they knew that something amazing had happened. The first step for Peter in proclaiming the good news through Jesus was to name Jesus. He could not leave Jesus' name unsaid. Otherwise people would continue to think that Peter and John were the cause of the healing. We need to give Jesus all the credit for doing good through us.
In order for this audience to understand that this healing was only one of many gifts and benefactions given through Jesus' name, Peter also had to persuade the audience that Jesus was the fulfillment of God's promises. The shameful death on the cross, contrary to what they might think, is the validation of Jesus' identity as the Messiah. He suggests that they and their leaders were ignorant of their role, but that even their rejection of Jesus was a part of God's plan to fulfill everything spoken through the prophets. The Messiah will suffer, the prophets said, even by your unwitting hands. This kind of argument requires that Peter know the prophets.
So, ability-especially speaking ability-is critical for Christian leaders: to speak in ways appropriate to the audience, helping them recognize their sin, announcing forgiveness through Jesus, speaking Jesus' name as the means of God's gifts and benefactions, and knowing God's promises given in the Old Testament. Luke assumes Christians will study Acts as an example of how to speak. So, I'm guessing that Luke would encourage us to go to class.
Piety also comes to play in this story. Peter and John, after all, are going up to pray when they met the lame man. Faith in Jesus' name made this man strong; but whose faith? It can only be Peter and John's faith: He did not offer silver or gold (which may be considered alms?) but offered the name of Jesus and a right hand to pull the man up. His piety was reflected when he said these words and pulled him up. "Faith through Jesus gave this man wholeness." This man was healed by faith in Jesus' name. But Peter is not shy about practicing his piety publicly: he proclaims Jesus as the "Patron of Life" and asserts that through Jesus, the slate of sins will be erased. Piety, eusebeia, reverencing God well, is not necessarily alms-giving, prayer or fasting, but expression of faith in God first by offering Jesus' name to the lame man, then proclaiming Jesus as Patron of life and means of healing, and calling for repentance. Peter reverences Jesus' name well.
So, I have been unable to see any rationale to avoid seminary. Peter's speech is an example of speaking ability and expression of faith. God uses our abilities and piety to offer Jesus' name for healing, to explain strength and wholeness as gifts of God through Jesus, to persuade others to trust God through Jesus, and to witness to what we have seen and heard.
God's work of bringing life, salvation and forgiveness to the world is by Jesus' name, through faith in Jesus, not faith in our abilities or piety. The reason we study, go to CPE, internship, classes, candidacy retreats is so that when God does choose to change a person's life through us, we can speak clearly and boldly: "by faith in Jesus' name, his name itself has made you strong. Faith through Jesus has given you wholeness."