Easter 3 • Acts 3:11–21 • April 22, 2012
By David R. Maxwell
God Has Glorified His Servant Jesus
This pericope recounts Peter’s speech to the crowds after he heals a lame beggar.
There are at least two “big picture” questions the preacher needs to wrestle with in order to preach on this text. First, what are we to infer from the miracle? Unlike the Gospels, which often depict Jesus’s miracles with little or no explanation, Acts gives us a fairly detailed account of the meaning of at least this one particular healing miracle. Second, where are we to locate our hearers in the narrative? We may want to identify them with Peter, the lame beggar, or the crowds who killed the author of life. Or perhaps none of these identifications is appropriate.
We begin with the question of the meaning of the miracle. When confronted with healing miracles, preachers often infer that the point of the miracle is to prove that Jesus is God. While that may be the case with some healing miracles, that approach misses the point here. Peter’s speech focuses particularly on the fact that “God glorified his servant Jesus” (v. 13).
Why is that significant? Since Jesus is God, and indeed Peter refers to him as the “author of life” in verse 15, why is it momentous or even interesting that God “glorified” him? It helps to remember that immediately after Jesus died, the disciples thought the crucifixion meant that Jesus had failed. In Luke 24, that is precisely why the two men are traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are going home because their hopes had been dashed. Jesus appears to them, however, and provides an alternate interpretation of the crucifixion: it was part of God’s plan, which he prophesied long ago in the Old Testament (see Lk 24:25–27). In Acts, the disciples begin to apply this basic hermeneutical insight. Peter finds Judas’s betrayal of Jesus to be prophesied in the Psalms (Acts 1:20). At Pentecost, Peter argues that the resurrection is implied by a number of passages in the Psalms (Acts 2:24–35). Peter further presents the resurrection as the vindication of Jesus: “Let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). So there were two competing interpretations of the crucifixion: 1) Jesus had failed, and 2) it was part of God’s plan, prophesied in the Scripture. The resurrection is God’s proof that the second explanation is the true one, and so Jesus has the authority to speak as God’s servant.
In the context of that line of argumentation, it becomes clear why, in the present pericope, Peter moves seamlessly from the healing miracle to the resurrection, and why he stresses that in the resurrection God glorified his servant Jesus. Peter’s healing of the lame beggar serves to confirm Christ’s resurrection because it was Christ’s name that effected the healing. Christ’s name has that power, Peter argues, because God has raised him from the dead. So Peter’s main concern is not to show that Jesus is God (he assumes that); rather, Peter wants to stress Jesus’s authority as the one whom the crowds must repent to and believe in.
The second question we must consider is how our own hearers fit into this picture. It would be facile simply to identify the hearers with one of the characters in the narrative. For example, since Peter is preaching to the crowds, the preacher might be tempted to identify his own hearers with the crowds listening to Peter. In that case, the sermon might well take the form, “You killed the author of life, so you need to repent and believe in him to be forgiven.” The problem, of course, is that our hearers did not actually kill the author of life. Granted, Lutheran meditation on Christ’s passion often is predicated on the idea that we are complicit in the crucifixion because of our sin. But that is not the same as literally killing the author of life. We must recognize that, in one sense, Peter’s sermon is not actually addressed to our hearers. We are overhearing his sermon. (If we wanted to address Peter’s sermon directly to our own hearers, how would we apply verse 17: “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers”?)
So the question becomes: What is the message we are overhearing? As we discussed above, Peter is using his own healing of a lame beggar in the name of Jesus to demonstrate Jesus’s authority as God’s servant. So we might ask: What influences might lead us and our hearers to overlook or ignore Jesus’s authority? What kinds of things does Jesus say that we do not want to hear? Since each congregation is different, I will not attempt to provide universal answers to these questions. Once the preacher has settled on answers to these questions that are appropriate to his congregation, he might then structure the sermon as a comparison and contrast of competing claims to authority. This would include both law and gospel kinds of authority. In other words, the sermon could compare false claims of how you should behave with true ones. The sermon could also compare false claims of what rescues you and gives your life meaning with true ones. Hopefully, the law and gospel elements would be interwoven throughout the sermon rather than comprising two separate sections.