Take a Good Look: Sermon by Laura, 6.9.13, Acts Series, Pentecost 3,

Text: Acts of the Apostles 3:1-21

“Why do you wonder at this,” Peter asks the gathered crowd, “Why do you stare at us?”

It’s kind of a strange question. Isn’t the answer obvious? There’s been a miracle, Peter. After all, next to Peter and John is standing—standing!—a man they knew to have been born lame. Just minutes earlier, people had seen him being carried to his post outside at the Beautiful Gate, the place he had made his living by begging.

Actually, most people probably hadn’t really seen him, as they had gotten so accustomed that they really didn’t notice him any more. They just occasionally dropped some pennies in his palm and moved on. Or maybe, as many of us have learned to do with beggars in our streets, the people actively avoided looking at him.

At any rate, if they gave it much thought, people would never have expected to see him inside the temple, not just walking, but jumping and leaping with God’s praises. It’s not just that he couldn’t get there himself.  His physical impairment limited his movement, but according to practices at the time, it also barred him from entering the temple. Clearly, something momentous has happened, and of course a crowd gathers. They want to take a good look.

There must be a human instinct that draws us to crowd around and stare when we perceive something important is going on, whether we are rubber-necking a highway accident or viewing a concert or a sporting event. These days, with 24-7 media coverage and cameras in every telephone, we don’t even have to leave our homes to gather and stare at spectacles across the world. But I wonder, what exactly are we looking for in our staring? Is it our curiosity that drives us? Are we looking for deeper meaning, connection with other human beings or a higher power, or do we just want to be entertained? Does so much looking actually lead to seeing?

Now, it’s interesting that Peter should mention staring, because this story is set in motion when he does just that. Notice how the author of Acts narrates Peter and John’s initial encounter with the lamed man. “When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.”

Why do we need three full verses of “seeing” action? Maybe to help us begin us to notice the difference between just looking and truly seeing. The man’s basic visual awareness of Peter and John is just enough to reach out to them for alms. He probably saw them from ground-level, because he was unable to stand and look them in the eye. He has learned, over his forty-something years, that this is all he can expect from relationships with other people. But Peter stops and “looks intently”—it’s actually the same Greek word used for the crowd’s staring—and he asks for more attention from the man as well. Even before Peter or John lays a hand on this man, they are actively choosing to invest in relationship with him in this intense exchange of attention—and they believe something more is possible from him and for him.  Maybe the apostles’ basic willingness to really see and be present with this man what sets his healing in motion.

But all this reciprocal looking also functions like a magnet for us listeners, drawing us to stop our relentless forward momentum and pay closer attention, too. “I have no silver or gold,” Peter says, “but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” Taking the man by the right hand, the text very carefully says that Peter “raised him up.” The Greek verb used here is the same used elsewhere to say that God “raised” Jesus.[1] We are meant to understand that what’s happening here is more than a healing miracle—it’s a resurrection.

Here’s a little personal testimony. As you know, my father, Ron, had a stem cell transplant for his multiple myeloma cancer this past Wednesday (going well so far, by the way). Now, a week before that, I had finally gotten around to reading some information about this procedure, and as it began to sink in to my brain just what my dad was about to do, I started to get anxious.

Last Sunday morning before worship, I was in our office, starting to study the scripture for today. I often begin by writing the text out by hand, because it slows me down and helps me to pay attention. As I was doing this, Randy Jones stepped in. Having listened to me talking about my anxiety, he offered care and encouragement. It’s not much, he said, but it might help a little to remember others who had gone through this procedure. Yes, I said, what a comfort it is to see David Fratzke in our congregation looking so well after having the same procedure. Randy smiled and went back to the sanctuary, and I turned back to my scripture study.

It might have been a passing conversation, but when I resumed writing, I had come to these words: “All the people saw him walking and praising God…and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.” And I realized that, though I had been glad for David before, I hadn’t fully recognized the testimony of God’s healing he has been demonstrating to us. It was just a little holy coincidence, you might say, but those words about the man in Acts 3, set next to Randy’s words of encouragement, and David’s witness, suddenly became for me the Living Word. I felt like God was saying, “Look and see and trust: there will be healing for your Dad, too.”

Even more, I felt my eyes were focused again on something I lose sight of all too often, when I find myself plodding through mundane routines as if there is nothing much worth getting excited about in life. Maybe because of all that media coverage I mentioned earlier, I’m all too aware how much suffering happens, how many people are struggling, and how little it seems I can do to change things. God seems absent, and though I say I have faith, I often function as an atheist. But the truth is that the amazing work of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, healing, restoring, and transforming the brokenness of our world takes place all the time, here and now, before our very eyes. Are we looking? Can we see it?

Sometimes we need a little help. I think that’s why Peter asks the crowd, “Why do you wonder at this?” I think he senses the crowd is looking without seeing. The healing is a sign, but signs are easily misunderstood. As Thomas G. Long notes, “Amazing as it was, the healing by itself was mute, ambiguous, and finally misleading. It took the proclaimed word to tell the whole truth.  The healing was powerful, but its true meaning was hidden until the sermon was preached.”[2] We, too, need the act and the Word together.

Now, when we hear Peter’s sermon, we need to remember that Peter is a Jew addressing a crowd of Jews, talking about a Messiah who was born, died, and raised a Jew. Peter is not taking a superior tone, telling this crowd stuff they don’t already know (how can he, when he himself “rejected” Jesus three times?). He is an insider exhorting his own people to look below the surface and come to a deeper, truer faith as God’s people. Peter wants his sermon to refocus their gaze so they may take a good look and come to truly see the crucified and Risen Lord.

His sermon is a Word for the Church as well, all of us Christian insiders longing to experience times of refreshment from the Holy Spirit. We, too, are prone to looking without seeing, to staring miracles in the face without full recognition. Peter wants to clear up some misunderstandings.

First, how often do we misunderstand the source of healing? It’s so tempting to believe that there are certain individuals with have special access to healing powers, especially when they want to make it all better for us for the low, low price of 19.99! Peter tells us, no: not by our power or religiosity was this man healed. Only by the power of God, the same God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose purpose has always been gathering all creation into a harmonious community of security, well-being and joy, does healing come.[3]  Only by the power of the God we know in Jesus, the crucified and risen Christ, in whom God’s purpose comes to fullness, in whom the “times of refreshing” are already here, does healing come. Peter and John could heal in Jesus’ name because they were being healed in Jesus’ name.

Which leads to the second misunderstanding. So often we think God’s healing is special, an incredible exception in a dreary world. But from Peter’s perspective, today’s miracle is just one more extension of the resurrection power God set loose in the world in Jesus Christ. It is just another glimpse into something happening all the time, the deeper reality of God’s kingdom the signs of which are that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”[4] It’s not the exception to the rule, it’s the rule of the Resurrection God, who takes exception to the brokenness and decay in a world created good, who is constantly about the work of restoring creation to wholeness and harmony.

And if that’s the deeper reality, than there is a third misunderstanding. Signs of God’s kingdom call for more of a response than the “Church Lady” might give: “Isn’t that special?” Tom Long writes, “Whenever we see signs of God at work in our world—someone is healed of cancer, a broken relationship is restored, a hungry child is fed, nations put down weapons and work toward peace, despair yields to hope—people of goodwill are full of wonder and joy. But Peter’s sermon lets us know that such events call for an ever-deeper response of self-reflection.God’s healing and restoring work discloses another world, another reality, another sovereignty shimmering amid the wreckage of a decaying culture.”[5]

Friends, we are called, not just to take a good look, but to become people who truly see that “shimmering.” We must become people of attention and imagination. And seeing clearly, we are called to speak and act. But words without action, action without words are indeed prone to misunderstanding. Above all, we must become people who trust in the Living Word, who know the Bible well-enough to recognize the promises of God jumping off the Bible pages and coming to fruition.

So how do we grow in these ways? The Acts church, devoted to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer, gives us some direction. These practices help us grow to become those who look and truly see. And as we practice together, we grow together, becoming those who both pray and act for healing in every realm of our lives, and we become those who are blessed to give Christ’s powerful name as a gracious gift in the world.

May it be so, Lord Jesus! Amen.

 

 


[2] Thomas G. Long, Pastoral Perspective in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 408.

[3] Diana Butler Bass, quoting Walter Brueggemann in Christianity for the Rest of Us,110-111.

[4] Matt. 11:5

[5] Thomas G. Long as above, 410.

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