Title: Who are you?
Date: May 3, 2009
Texts: Acts 4:5-12; I Jn 3:16-24
Author: Isaac Villegas
Who are you? There are a number of ways to answer that question. You can give your name: Hi, I’m Isaac. Or maybe your job, or talk about your parents, or about where you’re from.
Who are you? It’s also a scary question if you think about it long enough. It asks you to give an account of your self, of your life—what you’ve done, what you’ve left undone, what you shouldn’t have done.
Who are you? It’s a question that makes me want to run. But I can’t. I can’t because it is the question at the heart of our faith, at the heart of the gospel, at the heart of the ongoing story of Jesus. And it is scary, completely frightening… but also good news. I’ll give you the frightening stuff first. The book of Acts is a scary story—in a good way of course, if you are ready to repent.
The heart of the matter comes in Acts 4, verse 10. Peter confronts the leaders of the people with the truth about themselves. He gets up in their faces and says, You killed Jesus; and God raised him from the dead. It quite a bold accusation to make to the people who just had Jesus killed. Peter has guts. The religious leaders wanted to make Jesus go away, to put an end to Jesus’ trouble making, but to do so without getting their hands dirty.
That’s the thing about powerful people. They can kill without getting blood on their hands. They can get rid of the people in their way without looking like the real bad guys. The powerful simply need to suggest to the right people that so and so is making life uncomfortable. It would be much better, they say, if you could take care of the matter. And so the powerful religious leaders got the Roman authorities to do their dirty work. End of story. Everything gets back to normal.
Or so they had hoped. The problem is Jesus wouldn’t stay dead. Jesus came back and commissioned his disciples to continue his mission on earth and speak the truth. Speaking the truth about the world and our lives is the heart of the gospel. For the truth sets people free from the miserable slavery of deception. Confronting people with the truth about themselves is the healing and liberating work of the Holy Spirit. That’s why the book of Acts, the story of the spread of the truth, begins with Pentecost, the outpouring the Holy Spirit, where people are enabled to speak the truth about Jesus to everyone, even in foreign languages.
But some people don’t want to hear the truth. Some people don’t want to know who they really are. Some people don’t want to be confronted with the truth about themselves. They would rather live a lie: Everything is ok, we tell ourselves. This is just the way the world works, it’s the best we can do, the best system we’ve come up with; sometimes an insignificant person has to die so that the rest of us can keep on going, collateral damage. It’s always better for one person to die for the people than for the entire order of things to be disrupted (Jn. 11:50, 18:14).
But here comes Peter and the rest, empowered with the Holy Spirit to speak the truth, to be the truth, to represent the man the leaders tried to erase from history. Peter tells the leaders the darkest truth about themselves; he makes public their dirty little secret: You killed Jesus, he says. Sure, Pontius Pilate did it; but you made the call; you were pulling the strings; Pilate was your puppet.
Now at this point you probably think you’ve seen this movie before. This is how the Hollywood version of the story would go. Some nasty gangsters need to show their power over the town so they pay off some cops to kill some rival upstart who is stirring up trouble—that’s the Jesus character. He’s a kid from the neighborhood, a local hero because he is standing up against the gangsters who run the town. The gangsters think they win because they send their thugs to kill the guy.
But, a few months later, out of nowhere, people in the neighborhood start talking about the local hero all over again. The gangsters overhear the news. People are whispering the name of the dead kid. There are rumors that a neighborhood movement is forming, a bunch of people who seem to be making the same kind of trouble as the guy they killed. So the gangsters send their thugs to capture the ringleaders of this new movement so they can see for themselves what’s going on—and probably rough them up a bit.
Now, this is when it gets good… An all out urban war breaks out. The people won’t tolerate another day under the rule of the gangsters. So they organize. They form an underground guerilla movement. The gangsters have to watch their backs. The guerilla movement has people everywhere—around every corner, down every dark ally. And when the movement strikes, they kill. They slowly kill off the leaders of the gangsters—one by one… just like those gangsters killed off their neighborhood hero. Blood revenge.
That’s how the Hollywood version of the story of Acts would go. It’s a story that makes sense and would sell tickets: oppression, revenge, rival gangs, blood and murder. Those are things I look for in a good action movie. But that’s just not the action of the book of Acts. And that’s probably why I find the story usually so boring.
Here’s what happens in Acts. As this movement of Jesus followers picks up momentum, they get the attention of the same people who killed Jesus. And when they encounter them, they do the craziest thing. Instead of declaring an all out urban warfare, they ask the same people who killed Jesus if they want to join the movement. That’s just plain crazy—and bad plot development, if you ask me. Maybe this is why there aren’t a whole lot of movies about Acts…
When Peter appears before the leaders, he confronts them with the truth. He rubs their face in it: You killed Jesus. That’s who you are: a bunch of good-for-nothing murderers. But this isn’t a declaration of war. Instead Peter offers an invitation: God raised Jesus from the dead so that you may be saved. Come, join us.
And that, my friends, is the way of the gospel. Jesus returns from the dead and commissions his followers to offer forgiveness to his murderers. Why? Because Jesus wants to create an ever-expanding communion of God’s love. Restored relationships. Reconciled enemies. Friends and strangers sharing life together.
That’s what this movement in Acts is all about. The early church is a place where people are confronted with the truth about who they really are—that they killed Jesus, that they abandoned Jesus in his time of need, that they fled from the cross out of fear instead of being driven to Jesus’ side by love.
The gospel speaks the truth about all of this, about who we are—but Jesus doesn’t come back from the dead to settle the score. He comes back to offer forgiveness, an ever-expanding union of love. That’s what forgiveness looks like—people who speak the truth to one another so that they can love more deeply, without illusions, without deception, without lies. Forgiveness births a communion of love where hostilities are healed, where oppositions are dismantled, where rivalries are dissolved, where people abide in the joy of the Holy Spirit.
Now, what does this mean for our lives? Two things come to mind:
1) God knows who you are: what you’ve done, what you’ve left undone, what you shouldn’t have done. God sees through the facades. And God never stops coming back to offer you forgiveness. That’s what resurrection is about. Jesus always comes back; not even death can stop Jesus from coming back to you. God never stops offering another chance at new life, another opportunity for repentance and joy.
But this forgiveness isn’t a private matter. It looks like something. It looks like a group of people who are learning to live truthfully, learning to live without deception, without deceiving each other and themselves, people who no longer live a lie.
So, ask yourself this question: Do you help people be who they are, do you love your neighbor—your sister or brother—in such a way that they feel comfortable being who they are? Or, do you get the sense that people have to be something else in order for you to accept them?
2) Christians are people who believe that God is love—that’s the heart of the gospel: that Jesus comes back to overwhelm his enemies with love. And the message of I John is that the only way you can be sure that you believe in God is by looking at your life. You have to ask the question: Who am I?
Who are you? If you love, then God is at work in your life, drawing you close, abiding with you, returning to offer you new life. Your doubts don’t matter. The certainty of your faith doesn’t matter. As I John puts it, if we have doubts in our hearts, we can prove our hearts wrong by pointing at how our lives display God’s work. The real trouble is if we don’t actually have any proof of love to point to in our lives.
John says it clearly, I think. This is I John 3:17 and following:
“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”
God is greater than your heart. God is greater than your doubts. God is greater than who you think you are. God knows everything about you. And that’s why God calls you “Beloved.”