Beijing, People's Republic of China
19 November 2006
Text: Acts 4:1-14
Many people feel insulted if they are referred to as ordinary. Parents do not like it if their child in school is said to be quite an ordinary child. People who consider themselves as being successful in life or as people of high reputation believe their achievements are based on the fact that they are extraordinary. Nobody, it would seem, wants to be ordinary because of what the term ordinary denotes.
Yet, as Christians at least, we must confront the fact that our faith is founded upon the experiences and expectations of ordinary people, men and women who do not shake or shape the world on the world's terms. When you consider the story of the Christian Church from her inception to date, it seems God prefers to entrust the witness and the propagation of the Good News to the ordinary people. The birth of Christ was announced not to the kings and the mighty, but to shepherds - the most ordinary folk in Bethlehem at the time. Jesus' disciples, for the most part, were chosen from among the fisher folk - another ordinary lot. The first to witness the resurrection of Jesus and therefore the first to tell the Good News were women - considered then, and in large measure even today, as not only very ordinary but also marginalized in the society. It was not to the politically powerful or the most educated of the day, but to the ordinary and perplexed people, just like ourselves, that the witness and furtherance of the gospel was entrusted. So there is an intimate relationship between the Christian faith and "being ordinary".
The text in the fourth chapter of Acts reminds us that Peter and John were illiterate persons, untrained in the schools, uneducated, common men, people from whom very little was expected and, more to the point, people who expected very little of themselves. Ordinarily, ordinary people have this characteristic of expecting very little of themselves. We recall that it was only some weeks earlier that Peter and other disciples had acted in a very cowardly manner: they abandoned Jesus when he was arrested, and after Jesus was crucified, died and was buried, the disciples cowed in the house under lock and key, fearful of the authorities. But in the text we have just read we find these same people confronting the same authorities with extraordinary boldness. Here they are causing all kinds of trouble, all kinds of tumult, getting themselves arrested, curing the lame, preaching long sermons to a huge crowd of people, causing the authorities to arrest and throw them in prison. The authorities on their part considered these people to be behaving in a manner likely to cause a breach of the peace and a threat to security. So what happened? What accounts for this total transformation? That is what our message today is all about.
There are at least two places to look for the action that demonstrates what is new in Peter and John. The first is the long sermon preached by Peter (Acts 3). Here, at Solomon's Portico, Peter preaches the sermon about the doings of Jesus Christ in the world. In his sermon Peter sets out to explain the miracle that God himself comes into the world in the form of Jesus Christ. He invades the world, he transforms the world, he claims it for himself. That is the substance of the gospel, and because it is, those who hear it are transformed, emboldened and greatly encouraged. It is the word that changes and transforms, and that is what happened with Peter's sermon. Many of those who heard the word believed: and they numbered about five thousand (Acts 4:4). And this is the central message - words have incredible power. When the word is trustworthy and true to experience, it can transform night into day and the dead into living. Successful as the power of the word was, though, it is not the most important lesson meant to be learnt in the text. For that we must look beyond words.
The most obvious answer, one may want to claim, is in the miracle that causes all of the trouble. On the way to the temple, Peter and John are confronted by this crippled man who begs of them for something small. We read that Peter and John looked intently at him and said, "Look at us." And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, silver and gold have we none, but what we have we give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand and walk. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple, walking and leaping and praising God (Acts 3:3-8). Now this miracle happened in front of many people who knew this fellow as a cripple who for all those years had been brought and laid in front of the temple to beg. When they witnessed this miracle they were filled with wonder and amazement at what happened to him (v. 10).
And so here are the two actions - Peter's great sermon leading to the conversion of about five thousand, and the whole history is made clear, and then this vivid, unambiguous story of healing and leaping for joy. Yet I would say that none of these two, great and wonderful as they are, constitute the main subject of the passage we read. The subject, the central message, the great lesson to draw from the passage is this, that those very ordinary people, Peter and John, "uneducated and common men, illiterate and uneducated in the schools", who, "because they had been with Jesus", were themselves transformed and could now say and do things that had transforming power. This, brothers and sisters in Christ, is the miracle; not the sermon and not the healing, but the transformation of Peter and John from what they had been to what they had now become. Not so much that they were transformers, but they were transformers because they had been first transformed by the presence of the Living Christ in their lives.
That's where the boldness came from
That's where the authority came from
That's where the power came from
That's where the courage came from
That's where the joy came from
That's the power of the resurrection
That is the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ - that ordinary people are given in Christ a chance to do extraordinary things and to take nothing and make something, to go from nobody to somebody.
Why is it that people respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Even more so, why is it that the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the disinherited, the old, the weak respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ? And this is the case in all ages, at all times, in all places. Is it not because those are the categories of people in the society who have expectations of transformation? They know that their condition need not be permanent. It can be transformed. They know that what they are, where they are, is not enough and therefore needs transforming. And so they look to the Risen Christ to perform in them that which will transform and renew them.
Now let us consider this transformation we are talking about. What is it? Does it happen because of our cleverness, ability, goodness, skill or power? Certainly not. Remember that the text says that Peter and John, and no doubt most of the other disciples, were uneducated, illiterate common people, and that is why they wondered at what they were able to do. But then they realized these people "had been with Jesus". They recognized that the power, the boldness, was not in the peculiar characteristics of Peter and John, but that it had to come from somewhere. They had not been born saints, they were not born heroic; so where did it come from? There had only to be one explanation; they had been with Jesus. They had caught the infection of the resurrection and believed themselves to have the same power as Jesus Christ. That is the only reason for them to have the audacity to say to the crippled man, "Silver and gold have I not, but what I have I give to you; walk in the name of Jesus." Note that they say what I have'. It means they believed they now had the power of Jesus Christ. How else could they have the confidence to say to the man, stand up and walk; how else could they have the courage to stand up to the civil authorities; how else could they stand before the multitude of thousands of people and proclaim the gospel? There is only one answer to these questions: because they had been with Jesus.
Being a window of opportunity, being a means of grace, being the place in which the Holy Spirit makes its dwelling, is the vocation of ordinary people. That is why the shepherds are summoned to the manger to be the first witnesses of the new-born Prince of Peace, that is why the women are summoned to the empty tomb to be the first to witness the resurrection of the Saviour of the world, that is why the fishermen and most ordinary people are summoned into the vanguard of Jesus' movement, so that through them, through ordinary people like you and me, Christ might be seen and known.
When I behold the Christian Church in China, I see you being a window of opportunity, I see you being a means of grace, I see you and the church in this great country being the place in which the Holy Spirit had made its dwelling place. I see you being summoned by the Risen Christ to be witnesses to the world today. I see you being summoned to be the vanguard of what the Church of Jesus Christ is to be in the 21st century. The church in China and Chinese Christians are very well placed to testify to the words of Paul to the Romans that "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us".
This kind of testimony needs to be given everywhere because it is inspiring. Many people in China need to hear it, as do many in other parts of Asia and indeed the world over. The Christian Church has survived down through the ages because so many ordinary people have gone through suffering and endurance and they have come out victorious. Their hope does not disappoint them because it is solidly grounded in the love of God that has been poured in their hearts. The Christian Church cannot survive without the ordinary people and nowhere else is this truer than here in China. Many in the world continue to ask, how home the church in China is vibrant and thriving? You have your testimony to tell in answer to this question. But what I know is that it is because of the work and witness of ordinary Chinese who have been with Jesus. It is precisely because you have been with Jesus that you have done extraordinary things without which the church could not have survived and thrived through difficult circumstances. Just as Peter and John were empowered to do extraordinary things, so will many Chinese Christians who are ordinary people be empowered by the Holy Spirit to do extraordinary things and witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as Peter and John and other ordinary folk were transformed and did mighty deeds, so will the ordinary Chinese, and indeed many ordinary people elsewhere in the world, ordinary people just like you and me, receive the transforming power of the Risen and Living Christ if we put our full trust in him. This is the continuing miracle of the power of the Good News, the gospel. Not only just because Jesus Christ rose from the dead, but that you and I may rise from the death in which we now find ourselves, and become in our ordinary lives beings of extraordinary witness to Christ so that in addition to the ample silver and gold that we may possess, we may give something that our today's world needs: power and love of our Saviour Jesus Christ. That is the vocation of the ordinary people in the Chinese church. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the abundant love of God the Father, and the inexhaustible power of the Holy Spirit empower you in fulfilling this vocation here in China and in the world that God so much loved and still loves.