In her preaching this Easter season, Mother Sara has set before us what she calls the resurrection mandate. That in community we are to go and tell, witnessing to resurrection. That as community we are to be Jesus’ hands and feet, his very limbs in the world. Sara hinted that the go and tell part – even the word witnessing – might prove awkward for us. So, she suggested that we can witness not only with our lips but with our lives. This morning’s reading from 1 John seems to reinforce her suggestion: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (3:18). Or it would have, if only John didn’t go on to the command that we “believe in the name of [God’s] Son Jesus Christ” (23). Our reading from Acts seems to ensure that we remain with the awkwardness around our lips and speech and not move on too quickly to our lives and action. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved” (4:12); no other name but the name of Jesus. Familiar words. Awkward words for some of us, tied up with witnessing. But I wonder if beneath or behind such words there is an invitation to hold lips and lives together? I wonder if – transposed – witnessing to resurrection in word and speech can itself represent love in truth and action?
This morning we heard the end of a long, three-part story spread out over two chapters in the Acts of the Apostles (3-4). The first part of the story, not included in our Sunday readings, tells of a man, lame from birth, who is carried by others and laid each day outside the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem so he can beg for alms. Entering the Temple to pray, Peter and John see the lame man, stop, and look at him so intently that he is convinced they’re about to give him money. Instead, Peter shifts the terms of exchange: “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (3:6) The man is raised, his feet and ankles made strong. He doesn’t just walk, but leaps and jumps his way into the Temple along with Peter and John, praising God joyously as he goes.
Last Sunday, we heard some of Peter’s words to the crowd that saw the healing of the lame man (3:12-19). Remember? Why do you stare at us, Peter asks, as though by our own power or piety we made him walk? Faith in Jesus’ name, faith through Jesus’ name, made this man strong. But then the Temple authorities, annoyed by Peter and John’s words, arrest and jail the apostles. They interrogate them the next day. We heard Peter’s defense in our first reading a few minutes ago (4:5-12).
Now there are plenty of other sermons in this story of the Temple and the lame man and Peter and John. Sermons about who is outside and who is inside. About those who cannot make their way in the world but are reduced to being carried by others. About God’s mission to strengthen those at the margins to stand up and become who they were meant to be. About officials and institutions and structures that thwart human thriving. And about the supposedly lame outsider who brings leaping praise and jumping joy back to the center, transforming community. But our work here in this sermon lies with Peter’s words witnessing to the name of Jesus.
If the apostle Peter had been the stereotypical television preacher of our own day, I imagine that his witnessing would have been quite different. He would have demanded the last and the first word and it would have been a declaration or a threat about believing in Jesus and being saved. Instead, the first century Peter of the book of Acts is a prisoner standing before the rulers, elders, and scribes, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high priestly family (4:5-6). The first word belongs to them and it’s a threatening question: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (7) Instead of drawing attention to himself, Peter’s defense points away toward another. How long it takes Peter to answer the question. How slow he is to speak. How many times he defers and deflects.
“Rulers of the people and elders,
-if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick
-and are asked how this man has been healed,
-let it be known to all of you, - and to all the people of Israel,
-that this man is standing before you in good health
by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (8-10).
And no sooner does Peter proclaim the name of Jesus, than he brings up the matter that for most would have dis-qualified Jesus of Nazareth from being the Christ – the matter of crucifixion and resurrection. This man stands before you in good health by the name of Jesus, “whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (10).
What if, in all this deferral and deflection, Peter is transposing the name of Jesus?
In mathematics, to transpose means to shift a term with a changed sign from one side of an equation to the other so as not to destroy the equality of the other terms. In music, to transpose is to move a chord, a melody, a composition upward or downward in pitch while retaining its internal interval structure. Peter transposes the name of Jesus. “This Jesus,” he says, “‘is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders: it has become the cornerstone’” (11) – quoting Psalm 118. Jesus – the wrong stone: the wrong size, the wrong shape, too light, too heavy, too rough, too smooth – and so rejected, crucified, only to be raised from the dead and installed as the center and anchor of the archway. Jesus’ very name points away from itself toward another, defers, deflects, transposes. “Jesus” is the Greek rendering of a Hebrew name that means “God saves.” Except that the J E part of the name Jesus abbreviates the mysterious proper, personal name of God revealed to Moses out of the burning bush that means I AM WHO I AM. The name is spelled something like Y H W H or J E V E, but out of reverence pronounced Adonai (the Lord) or ha Shem (the Name). Except that the S U S part of Jesus’ name – the saves part – could just as well be translated salves (as in salv-ation), or heals or makes whole. So, the name Jesus transposed might read “the God whose proper, personal name is pronounced ‘the Name,’ that God saves, salves, heals, makes whole.” The God whose name is embedded in the name of Jesus saves and salves by raising from the dead what we crucify in ourselves, in others, and in the world. The J E God of Jesus heals and makes whole by choosing the wrong stone, wrong-sized, the one 5 with the wrong shape, too light or too heavy, too rough or too smooth, as the stone that holds the entire building together.
In class this past Tuesday, one of my students spoke words that transposed for me both the story in Acts of the lame man and what it means to proclaim the name of Jesus. The student was recalling a hospital internship. He was asked one day by the nursing staff to check in on a man who had just undergone the emergency amputation of his legs. At first, the man expressed absolutely no interest in talking to my student – because, the man said, “You’re a chaplain and all you’ll want to talk about is religion, because you just want to try and convert me.” But bless his heart and thanks to his training, my student didn’t get defensive. He stayed in the room. Talked about other things. Asked a few questions. Listened. At one point, my student commented on the huge construction crane visible out the window of the man’s hospital room and all the construction work going on in downtown Seattle. To that, the man without legs began to voice his fear, his deepest fear, that he would never again be a full man, never be able to work again, never be valuable again. My student visited the man several more times during his hospital stay. By the end of their time together, the man volunteered that maybe he could start making dinner each night for his wife, now that she was the sole bread winner in the household and he would be the one at home.
Witnessing to resurrection by being Jesus’ very limbs in the world; his feet and hands, to be sure, but also his lips. Believing in the name of Jesus, proclaiming 6 the name of Jesus, that God saves, God salves, God heals, God makes whole, even when we transpose the name spelled J E S U S.