NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: ACTS 4: 8-12
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER [B]
USCCB Link to all three readings.
Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said:
"Leaders of the people and elders:
If we are being examined today
about a good deed done to a cripple,
namely, by what means he was saved,
then all of you and all the people of Israel should know
that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean
whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead;
in his name this man stands before you healed.
He is the stone rejected by you, the builders,
which has become the cornerstone.
There is no salvation through anyone else,
nor is there any other name under heaven
given to the human race by which we are to be saved."
This is the fourth successive Sunday of Peter’s post-Pentecost sermons, and the flavor of this text is enhanced by its context, Acts 4 in its entirety. In the days following Pentecost the Apostles Peter and John continue to preach and work signs of healing. In Chapter 3, at the “Beautiful Gate” of the Temple, the two apostles healed a crippled man in full sight of the busy Temple precinct, and when a very large crowd gathered round, Peter delivered a masterful sermon, a call to baptismal forgiveness cloaked in the testimony of Moses and the prophets.
Peter’s preaching, and the flurry of high-spirited piety it evoked, was now a matter of great concern to the Temple leadership—priests, Sadducees, [who did not believe in life after death] and the temple guard, the armed protectors of Temple faith and decorum. Acts 4 begins with the arrest of Peter and John by the guard, possibly in response to Luke’s information [Acts 4:4] that the “number of men [converts] grew to about 5000.” The Temple leaders demanded to know “by what power” they had performed these signs. Sunday’s text begins here, as Peter references the healing of the cripple and the popular response. For the Jewish officials, Peter quotes Psalm 118:22; the USCCB commentary on this verse observes “what is insignificant to human beings has become great through divine election. The ‘stone’ may originally have meant the foundation stone or capstone of the Temple. The New Testament interpreted the verse as referring to the death and resurrection of Christ.”
In this text Peter draws a connection between the victory of the Risen Christ and the Temple, the most significant sacramental sign of Jewish worship. Given that the reading audience of Acts lived after the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple, Luke depiction of Peter here has the elements of a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument. Because the official clergy of Israel rejected the true cornerstone of its Temple, literally and figuratively, the Romans indeed destroyed the Temple. It is a curious thing that unlike his other evangelistic sermons, Peter does not urge his Temple audience to repent and receive baptism for its destruction of Christ. The reader already knows that Jesus would never be identified by his own people as the Messiah.
Acts 4 continues after the Sunday text with a narrative about the confusion of the Temple authorities. As the Sunday reading indicates, there is no way that Peter and John are going to quit preaching the Resurrection. The authorities find themselves in quandary; they cannot deny the dramatic miracle of the previous day at their very doorstep, but they are worried about the spreading allegiance to Peter and John, which Luke has been careful to document. The final resolution of this confrontation is a futile warning from the authorities “never again to speak to anyone in this [Jesus’] name.” [Acts 4:17ff.]
Future responses to the successful Apostolic preaching of the risen Christ would become more confrontational and would evoke stronger responses from the Jewish leadership, with arrests, floggings, and eventually the murder of James by King Herod around 52 A.D. [Acts 12] The preaching of the deacon Stephen so infuriated the Temple authorities that he was stoned to death [Acts 6:8-7:60]. Stephen’s death introduces the reader to the Jewish anti-Christian Saul of Tarsus. Saul’s appearance of the Risen Christ and his conversion under the name of Paul begins in Acts 9. By Chapter 13 Paul has become, in Luke’s narrative, the featured preacher of the Risen Christ and the first “theologian” to integrate the model of Jesus as Jewish Messiah to that of universal savior of the Gentile world. In two weeks, Sunday’s first reading will introduce us to Paul’s earliest Resurrection preaching, directed not to Jews per se but to Hellenists or Greek philosophers.
The Gospel next Sunday comes from John 10. Next Sunday has been known for centuries as Good Shepherd Sunday, when Jesus identifies himself as such, stating “I will lay down my life for the sheep.” True to his promise, the chronicler Luke portrays in the Acts the courage of Peter, John, Paul, Stephen, and James, among others, who did indeed lay down their lives for their sheep.