Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Acts 5:12-16 The Apostles Heal Many
12 Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, 15so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. 16A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.
The Bible begins in darkness. Genesis 1:1-2 says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Notice how busy God is in the darkness. The theologian Catherine Keller, in her book On the Mystery, argues that what is often translated as “formless void” is better translated as “waste and wild.” And, she says that the darkness can be understood to be hovering, pulsating, over the deep chaos.
Genesis tells us that God breaths over this deep, dark abyss and that depth... dark as rich soil... dark as good coffee... dark as the woods around my house last night before the storm... was full of potential. In her sermon “Embracing the Light and Darkness in the Age of Black Lives Matter,” Dr. Wil Gafneys says, “We are afraid of the dark but God is not. Darkness is a creative space to God.” God works in this fertile chaos and draws out creation... first light and then water and the sky and the land and then plants, stars, planets, all creatures that swim, slither, run, and fly... and finally, us... humanity. But, before there was anything else, there was wild deep and darkness and God. God was there, working in the dark.
In another sermon called “Conspire with the Spirit,” Dr. Gafney notes that throughout scripture, God is shown abiding in the darkness. In Exodus 20:21, Moses approaches the mountain where God is said to be. It is all sound and fury, smoke and lighting and trumpet and thunder. The people stay at a distance, but Moses approaches God in the Thick Darkness. That same thick darkness is also described in Deuteronomy 4:11. Second Samuel 22: 12 and Psalm 18:11 describe God making darkness a canopy around Godself. 1 Kings 8:12 and 2nd Chronicles 6:1 each describe God as dwelling in thick darkness. The text in Dr. Gafney’s list that probably most poetically describes the holiness of the dark is Isaiah 45: 3, God’s word to Cyrus: “I will give you the treasures of the darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.” While some parts of the Bible use darkness and light to contrast distance from God and nearness to God, it is clear that there is a vibrant biblical tradition of God being in the shadows and the deep and heights and the dark.
So, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to read that there is something holy and healing about a shadow here in Acts 5. Now, I’ll admit that I think the signs and wonders here are more likely intended to mirror the signs and wonders of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Acts is the sequel to Luke, after all, and shows us how Christ’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, lived on through the Apostles. Just as Jesus healed people, so will the Apostles. In a story that mirrors in many ways the story of people lowering their friend down through a roof so that Jesus may heal him in Luke 5 and the story of the bleeding woman who sought healing by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment in Luke 8, here in Acts 5, we are told that people were bringing the sick to lay on cots and mats in the street near where Peter was preaching, so that if he walked by them, and his shadow cast over them, like God’s breath cast over the deep, that they would be healed.
You might read this as a sign of the sheer desperation of the ill. The stories from Luke certainly seem to be the acts of those desperate for healing. How sick must you be and how greatly might you be suffering to look for healing in a shadow? I appreciate that these people are never described as somehow pathetic or foolish for going to such measures, though their need is obvious. If healing and wholeness are so close, obviously you will draw near, as Moses did to the Thick Darkness of Sinai. You might find treasures in the shadows and God in the shade offered by Peter’s moving form, as he goes about preaching and teaching and healing on behalf of the Risen Christ.
Now, I’m not saying that the shadow of Peter is exactly like the Luminous Darkness of God. Peter was not God though the Holy Spirit was with him. But, I do wonder if the people who hoped to even be touched by his shadow, if not his healing hands, had some spark of memory of their mysterious God who drew light and life out of the abyss and direction and care from the deep. They might not understand how the shadow might help but they are willing to seek out its holy potential. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Anyone who tells you that goodness and holiness are only found in the light, in whiteness, in that which is clear and easy to understand has missed this message of the Bible, that God abides in the dark.... that life can be born from the deep and the wild... that the shadows can bring healing and that God is bigger and more mysterious than our tidy and often incorrect orderings of the world can contain. The white supremacist who murdered 10 people in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo yesterday... he thought goodness could only live in whiteness and in tidy, racist social categories. He destroyed lives because he had more faith in whiteness than in God, who abides with us in both the light and the dark. May we who know the God who abides in the thick darkness, the Christ of the Empty Tomb, and the Holy Spirit who flows even through the densest of shadows never follow down his same path. And, may we work with the Holy Spirit, as our forebears the Apostles did, for a world where all may be made well.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, "Fifth Sunday of Easter" Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Also, these two sermons of Dr. Gafney's:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.