Being Saved, Being Community

breaking breadOn this 4th Sunday of Easter, our first reading is from Acts of the Apostles 4, and so continues the scene we visited last week. In Acts 3, Peter restored to full health a lame man, who with Peter’s help got up, and jumped and danced. As Peter loudly declared, this healing was by the power of the name of Jesus:

"Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk. (Acts 3.6)

After that a crowd gathered, and Peter calls his listeners to conversion: get up, repent, return to the Lord — it is never too late.

As Acts 4 begins, however, Peter and John have been arrested, thrown into prison, then brought into court. In today’s excerpt from Acts 4 Peter responds to the authorities who are calling him a disturber of the peace:

"Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is “‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ (Psalm 118) Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (4.8-12)

This passage has often attracted attention because 4.12 is famous in considerations of Christian missionary work, as declaring that only by the name of Jesus can anyone be saved. As such, it stands alongside passages such as John 14.6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Together, Acts 4.12 and John 14.6 have throughout history created a sense of urgency: those without Christ, those who do not turn to Jesus alone, cannot be saved.

But what does it mean to be saved? And who is not being saved? What does Peter think this means, on this particular day when he is addressing the Jewish leaders? It seems unlikely that Peter is using the occasion to state a new policy about the entirety of the peoples of the world in his day — or by extension, the many billions of non-Christians today. In context, Peter is more simply challenging the authorities to turn back to the Lord, repent and accept this new power and new life that has come upon them: you cannot silence us, make us forget the man you crucified - indeed, you must turn to him if you are to be saved.

Proof? The man who had been born lame is still there: "This man stands before you healed!” Look at him, Peter cries out, and see that you also can be restored by allowing the Lord to work in your life. To be saved is to be healed, enabled to stand again on your own two feet.

But a greater sign is to follow, the gathering of those who have found their way to form a new community. After the authorities let him go, Peter returns (along with John and the previously lame man, I assume) to the small but growing Christian community. He reports what happened, and the people respond in a single voice:

“When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. ‘Sovereign Lord, you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them… Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ (4.24, 30)

joing handsThe prayer is answered, the Spirit given again:

"After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. (4.31)

But even this gift of the Spirit is only a beginning, not an end itself. What really matters is the extraordinary new community that emerges among those who take the faith seriously:

"All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (4.32-35)

They too have no silver and gold, but they share what they have, breaking down all barriers: this is what salvation looks like, Luke seems to be telling us. Look around you, right where you are, see what being-saved is all about. The opposite to salvation is not damnation, but to be trapped in lonely isolation, fearful, self-protective, hiding behind the high walls we construct to keep others out. This a community of those saved and healed in Christ, not a community of those who envision of the damnation of everyone else.

And why have this reading today, in the middle of the Easter season? To be sure, we are not ready for a full realization of the perfect community portrayed in 4.32-35. (Luke knows this, since Acts 5, the very next chapter, begins with a scandal and several deaths. Take a look!)

hands joinedBut we are (still) on the way from Resurrection to Pentecost. The Resurrection, the name of Jesus, and the gift of the Spirit are about building communities here, where we live, counter to the divisions and exclusions of today's fearful and sometimes spiteful world. We too are invited to heal, and to allow ourselves to be healed. We too are called to stand on our own two feet, putting our lives back together, restoring communities of faith and opening them to new members who likewise have been restored and uplifted. In this country at least we are emerging from the pandemic (though now we must care for our sisters and brothers in every country devastated by a virus our wealth enables us to push back). Now is the time to trust in the name of Jesus and live by the Spirit, healing our communities, demonstrating that only when we can say that black lives matter do we really mean that all lives matter, bringing new life in Christ to our families and neighborhoods and schools — and to parishes such as Our Lady of Sorrows.

(This series of homilies is likely to end on Pentecost, May 23, after 60 homilies since the pandemic shut down the parishes in March 2020. FX)