Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Acts 4: 1-10
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
St. Stephen Presbyterian Church
April 29, 2012
Recently I think we were all impressed by the mayor of Newark, NJ, Cory Booker, who defied his security detail by running into a burning building to save the life of his next door neighbor. It’s hard not to be impressed by somebody like that. The very fact that he is willing to put his life on the line for somebody else makes you want to take what he says or does as a politician that much more seriously. And a friend on Facebook found something he said worth noting:
“Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people. Before you tell me how much you love your God, show me how much you love all His children; before you preach to me the passion of your faith, teach it to me through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.”
It sounds like Mayor Booker lives by the standard he promotes. Actions speak louder than words.
That is the situation the apostles are in in our reading from Acts today. They have demonstrated the power of their faith and compassion through their actions. They’ve gone to the temple and in front of a huge crowd, they have healed a man lame from birth. Now that they’ve done that, the crowd wants to hear what they have to say.
They say they have the power to do this because of Jesus Christ. “This man whom you see was made strong because of faith in Jesus’ name,” Peter tells the crowd.
But Peter then says, “You handed Jesus over to be killed,” he says. He tries to take the edge off a little. “My friends, I know you didn’t realize what you were doing. Neither did your leaders.”
At this point, Peter’s words, never mind the healing of the lame man, have drawn the attention of the very leaders Peter just mentioned. The headquarters of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, were located right there on the Temple grounds. Several of the very men Peter is referring to, the ones responsible for the death of Jesus, are hearing what Peter is saying. They are nonplussed, and for a number of reasons, and not just because Peter is preaching the resurrection, which they don’t believe.
But Peter is also making what could be viewed as veiled accusations about their complicity in the death of Jesus. If Peter gets the crowd to believe that Jesus was a prophet sent by God, that puts the people who had him killed in a pretty awkward position. They decide they need to shut him up.
But the problem is, that the reason Peter’s words carry so much weight is that everyone has seen his actions. The Sanhedrin can’t just announce: these people are lying and can’t be trusted. People will say, well, what about the healed man?
So what to do?
They take Peter and John into the chambers of the Sanhedrin in private. Acts tells us who is there, and we need to pay attention to the list. “Annas, the high priest, was there. So were Caiaphas, john, Alexander and others of the high priests family.”
There’s a history problem here in that Caiaphas should still have been high priest, not Annas, but I’m betting the mistake was made because Annas, Caiaphas’ father-in-law, was the real head of the family. He’d been high priest 20 years before, and it was he who’d turned the high priesthood into a family-run crime cartel.
The author of Acts, Luke, wants us quite clear who Peter and John are dealing with: cold, vicious men who somehow think they have God’s sanction for criminality. To these the people Peter says, “You nailed Jesus Christ to the cross, but God raised him from the dead.” Peter challenges them, and they, these powerful people, don’t really know what to do. They try to order them not to preach about Jesus, but Peter and John say, “we’ll preach what God calls us to preach.”
And these powerful, cold blooded men can do nothing, because the healed man is standing right there with them.
Actions speak louder than words, but actions also give the words that we say power. Peter’s preaching wouldn’t have been a threat if the lame man hadn’t been healed first.
But the healing changed everything. It gave these unlearned preachers’ words power that they wouldn’t have otherwise. People were more likely to listen to what they said because of what they did.
Never underestimate the power of doing good.
But we do. We so rarely believe that doing good has any power at all, that it makes any difference at all. Whereas we tend to believe that evil has all sorts of power, and is extremely effective.
Let me suggest that our tendency sometimes to believe that evil is bound to be more successful than good is a kind of faith—a terrible, cynical, negative faith that buys into the power of death and denies the power of resurrection. I don’t mean to sound harsh here, but that’s what it is. Every time we say, that good thing won’t make a difference; every time we say, I better not try to help my neighbor, there’s too many risks; every time we think that helping the poor or the weak or loving our neighbor or our enemy is fruitless and a way for them to exploit us—we’re falling into a cynical faith in the power of death and the meaninglessness of the resurrection of Christ.
I’m not saying, don’t be realistic or practical. I’m not saying, run into every burning building because that’s what Cory Booker did. What I am saying, though, is that from the Christian perspective, buildings are burning all around us; people need saving right and left. And God calls us to do what we can, and to believe it makes a difference. Maybe it’s something we do by ourselves. But more likely, we form a bucket brigade with fellow church members. We do what we can, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But we cant just thro words at it: the building is burning, somebody needs to do something! We are called to act in compassion, trusting the power of the resurrectin.
the one thing Christians can’t do is believe that the fire of evil is undefeatable, so let’s hide away and protect ourselves. The world tempts us to believe in this negative faith, that good will never overcome evil in order to stop us doing what’s right. But we’re called by God, by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to practice a different sort of power, the power of good. The Biblical witness is always that doing good is hard and risky—there could even be a cross at the end. But if doing good was easy, it wouldn’t be so necessary. The people of the resurrection are called to have faith in the power of doing Good in the name of Christ.
Some friends of mine had that faith sorely tested recently. I did, too. When I was on the board of Presbyterian night shelter, we hired as an assistant executive director a man who had a criminal record but who, once out of prison, had reformed, been to grad school, and become a leading expert on homelessness in the state. We thought Dwayne would set a good example. I thought of Dwayne as a friend.
About a month ago, Toby Owen, the executive director of PNS, called to warn me that they’d initiated a criminal investigation against Dwayne. Turned out he’d been using two dummy corporations he’d invented to steal money from the shelter and from our vendors.
It was a shock to those of us who’d trusted and believed in Dwayne. It was tough on people like Toby, who is a strong Christian who truly believes in the mission of the shelter and believes that they are doing God’s work.
It was awful to see the headlines in the paper: “Former Shelter Executive Arrested.” Those words hurt. This is the sort of thing that other people notice and they say, see? That’s what’s wrong with the whole system.
They don’t notice that the Shelter has been placing clients in housing and in job training and in real actual jobs, that the Shelter is providing real hope and opportunity for vets and recovering addicts, that the lives of real people are being changed. Ironically, some of the most effective programs were designed by Dwayne himself. In spite of the evil he’s done, the good he has done is also making a difference.
No doubt there are people who think that the whole mission of the shelter is undermined by this. But not Toby. Not the other folks who work there. They’ve been shaken, by evil, but evil hasn’t derailed them, and it hasn’t overcome their faith in the good that God is doing through them. They still believe.
And because they believe, more and more lives will be changed. Quietly, without any headlines. But that’s okay.
Because actions speak louder than words.