Fourth Sunday of Easter
The first four verses of Acts 4 set the stage for the reading we get in the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Easter:
“While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand” (NRSV).
The larger context of this reading is equally important, as Peter and John have just invoked Jesus’ name in order to heal the man begging at the Beautiful Gate. This leads to amazement among the crowds and an address from Peter, calling the crowd of 5000 to repentance and belief in the Risen Jesus.
Peter challenges this crowd – and us with them – to reckon with their complicity in the execution of Jesus and God’s vindication of the Crucified One: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” Just as the Palm Sunday liturgy puts the words of the crowd on our lips, calling for Jesus to be crucified and Barabbas to be released, Peter’s address compels us to stand with the crowd and repent of the ways in which we have stood behind the power of the state and its violence to maintain order.
But this reckoning of the crowd brings us to our reading from Acts on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. The first four verses of Acts 4 (quoted above) reveal the context of the questioning: Peter and John have been arrested for their proclamation and are on trial. They have compelled the crowd toward repentance – the same crowd who will, in a few short verses, “be of one heart and soul” and among whom “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” The proclamation of resurrection has led to repentance, but the shape of that repentance is a common life turned away from order by force and toward a life together in solidarity.
No doubt this newfound solidarity has troubled the power brokers. Criminalization is the power of the rulers, those with the authority of judgment and maintenance of order and the power of enfranchised coercion and violence. Some commentators suggest that these chief priests and Sadducees are among the elite, those who have been given authority by Rome to maintain order in their region (though always under the threat of imperial consequence). They have heard the proclamation – or they have at least seen its consequence in the converting crowd – and they see the power of Resurrection baptizing the people in its abundance and possibility.
Notice that they question Peter and John about this act of healing from chapter 3 and the authority by which they grant such gratuitous empowerment. It is this act of hope – hope made present and real – that draws both the awe crowd and the dangerous attention of the powers that be. God’s power for liberation is met with the world’s power of incarceration and threat of retaliation. The power of the Risen Jesus manifests in this man’s empowerment – his literal uplift – and the power brokers start rattling the chains.
Peter speaks to these power brokers of the Cornerstone. He calls them the builders, but he reveals that they have rejected the chief cornerstone – a callback to Jesus’ own prediction that “not one of these stones will be left on top of another.” The kingdoms of this world collapse under the weight of their own coercion, brutality, and violence; they have rejected the building of a new Kingdom and the principal cornerstone upon which it is built.
This is the beginning of the church, where the proclamation of resurrection and the end of death’s power leads to a community of such solidarity and hope that it becomes a criminalized community, a fugitive belonging. Because the church is built on this rejected cornerstone, she herself will expect to experience the same rejection by the powers that be. But resurrection and the defeat of death strips the powerful of their source – brutality, coercion, and violence – and it does so, not by returning brutality, coercion, and violence, but by empowering a community to experience a non-rivalrous abundance and the breakdown of a life siloed by private ownership and the scarcity inherent to the protection of such an existence.
If the church is to be a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God, then we must begin by practicing the hope of life in solidarity with one another. This is not an easy life because, as Peter demonstrates in this story, it calls us to account for our complicity in the violence and inequity of the world. It requires the vulnerability of daily conviction, repentance, and conversion together toward Jesus Christ. But in such a conversion, we draw nearer to one another as we are built as living stones upon the chief cornerstone into a shared household, where the abundant life of the many is distributed to each as any has need.