Only by the name (part 1)

These days, I read a lot of memoirs (actually, I listen to them, often on long commutes). Most of them have to do with individuals and families struggling with mental illness or some related challenge. The stories are heart-wrenching, sometimes terrifying. But they can also be inspiring, especially when the narrative takes a redemptive and hopeful turn.

A popular genre of memoirs supports what’s known as the “Great Man” theory of leadership (I apologize for the inherent sexism of the term!). It’s the idea that crises — in countries or corporations — are solved when the right person with the right qualities takes command of the situation, becoming the hero that saves the day.

The Acme Widget Company, for example, may be on the brink of financial ruin, until Joe Blow, rising through the ranks from his humble beginnings in the mailroom, becomes CEO. His controversial but visionary leadership at first earns him enemies. But eventually, rising profits and market share convince even the most ardent skeptics, and Joe becomes a corporate legend. He is the Widget King.

The question is, though, what happens when Joe retires? Will Acme’s stock continue to rise, or will it take a tumble? Has Joe groomed a successor to take his place? And if not, will another great leader emerge when the next economic crisis hits?

And what does any of this have to do with the gospel?

Across several previous posts, we’ve been unpacking the story of a miraculous healing and its aftermath. It’s the first miracle done by Peter in the book of Acts: a 40-year-old beggar, born crippled, is healed in the name of Jesus to the astonishment of the crowds in the Jerusalem temple. The temple authorities are upset, and haul Peter and John in for questioning, hoping to intimidate them into silence. No deal: Peter is confident and articulate. In the end, after making useless threats, the council has no choice but to let them go.

Though we’ve touched on it before, I want to highlight one thing before we move on. Here’s a selection of snippets from the story:

  • “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (Acts 3:6, NRSV)
  • “And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong” (vs. 16)
  • “[The council] inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this [miracle]?’ ” (4:7)
  • “This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (vs. 10)
  • “There is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved” (vs. 12)
  • ” ‘Let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.’ So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (vs. 17-18)

Okay, pop quiz: what’s the theme that unites these verses?

(Hint: I’ve already highlighted the answer. No wonder so many of my students get A’s.)

Obviously, there’s an emphasis here on the name of Jesus — and that emphasis will continue to crop up throughout Acts. But it’s particularly important here in the early chapters. Why?

As said before, the book of Acts is the second half of Luke’s two-volume work. Part 1 is his gospel, and Jesus is naturally the hero of that story.

Who’s the hero of volume 2? Peter? Paul? Both?

Nope. I think it’s fair to say that Jesus is the hero of both volumes.

In a Great Man memoir, Joe Blow may in fact groom one of his disciples to take his place — say, John Doe. And at first, Doe may act in such a way as to honor his mentor’s name and legacy. But at some point, Doe will probably want to be a Great Man in his own right, to write his own memoir, to have his name go down in history.

That’s not Peter’s aspiration.

Nor should it be ours.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t wish to live memorable lives. The question is whose greatness we seek to embody. In whose name do we live and act?

More on that in the next post.

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