"By what power or by what name did you do this?"

Over the past two days, the story of the healing at the Beautiful Gate of a man “lame from birth” has been read (Acts 3:1-26). Peter and John encounter him at this Temple gate where he asks for alms. Peter responds that he has no silver or gold, but that he can offer something much better: “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (3:6). As one might expect, much amazement and wonder ensues, but Peter rejects any personal plaudits (3:12) and states that it is only “by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you” (3:16). Peter then uses this opportunity to preach more directly about the forgiveness of sins that has been accomplished through Jesus’ death (3:17-26). Peter ends by saying, “when God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (3:26).

This brings us to the first reading for the Friday in the Octave of Easter, Acts 4:1-12, in which we learn that Peter has succeeded in both riling up the Temple authorities (4:1-3) and leading many people to believe (4:4). The question that the Temple authorities have is direct and straightforward: "by what power or by what name did you do this?" (4:7). Peter answers that “this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (4:10) and later that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (4:12).

Often in Acts “the name of Jesus” is invoked and it is a name that in itself has power according to these accounts because the name represents and makes available the power of Jesus through faith in him. In and through the name, naturally, we represent our relationship with Jesus Christ and make manifest that relationship. These accounts embody an ancient view of invocation and the inherent power of the name, which was shared not just by Christians and Jews but by pagan peoples also. It is important in our own historical context, however, just as it has been at every juncture in the story of the Christian Church.

The power invoked by Jesus’ name is the power to heal, at a physical level but more profoundly at a spiritual level. Peter says, recall, that God raised Jesus “to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (3:26). This is the true healing that each of us needs, even if physically we are in pristine health, and according to Acts while one man is physically healed, 5,000 more respond to the spiritual healing on offer. Such invocation of Jesus’ name comes not only with power to heal, but the power to upset the authorities of the day, who are wary, suspicious of this power. Do they see it, perhaps, as a threat to their own power? If Peter and John have access to this power through Jesus’ name, must they acknowledge this and forego their own access to power through their rightfully held positions? Why rightfully held positions? Because it is God who established the Temple and those who represented it, so how could Peter and John challenge their authority?

If the Church is to be a source of healing then its representatives, frail human beings as they are, just as Peter and John were, must put their faith in “the name of Jesus” and not in structures that are more concerned on occasion to protect power and conceal human weakness. The parallel in this passage to today’s Church is that elements of religious authority today have the same desire to protect what is its own, to circle the wagons, as it did in Peter’s day, to attempt to institutionalize God’s power. It is “the name of Jesus” that still has the power to heal and I know that numerous people of good will cannot hear this voice because either they have been hurt by representatives of Jesus’ name or have seen the obfuscation that seeks to blame others rather than the structures that have allowed sin to flourish in secrecy. There are certainly people virulently opposed to the Church, but it is foolish to say that the moral authority of the Church is attacked only by those out to destroy the Church “because the Catholic Church is one of the few remaining voices that speaks effectively against the moral confusion of our day.” For many people, representatives of the Church have been the very source of that moral confusion and so effective outreach is lost and many souls damaged. This is the case even though the vast majority of priests and bishops have been truly representing the name of Jesus. If the Church becomes bankrupt monetarily by speaking the truth about those who have not remained faithful, it is the truth that matters. “’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’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God” (3:6-8). Peter and John had no money to give, but what they did have was far better. And if the powers of this world are riled up by the healing power of the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, as they were riled up by the activities of Peter and John,  then the Church is doing its job.

John W. Martens

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