Can’t Help It: Sermon by Keith, 6.16.13, Acts Sermon Series

Text: Acts 4:1-22

Peter and John were standing on holy ground.  Just a few weeks previous, Peter had stood outside the gates of this same room that he now found himself standing in the middle of.  The same people as before were there today; Annas, Caiaphas, and the rest of the high priestly family.  Then, Peter watched as Jesus was tried and condemned for blasphemy and sent to Pilate for execution.  And Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times that day, ashamed that Jesus wasn’t measuring up to be the Messiah he had hoped.  But things had changed since that day.  Things had changed a lot.  Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven.  The Holy Spirit had come blowing into Jerusalem like a mighty rushing wind allowing for Jews from distant lands to hear in their own languages the good news of Christ’s resurrection.  A new community of the church was growing, responding to the Spirit in their midst.  And now Peter and John had healed a lame man in the name of Jesus Christ.

“By what power or by what name did you do this?”  In asking this question, the temple leaders were attempting to determine what side of the theological/political line that Peter and John stood.  And it was an important question.  On the theological side, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body, but they were also the ones who held the power in Jerusalem.  They could not help but take note of the new 5000 followers of Jesus, and they knew the Romans would take note as well.

But Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, boldly turns their question around, making it about the good deed represented by the person that is now standing with him and John before the council.  Many of the priestly family had walked by this man their entire lives as they came into the temple.  They had even given alms to him many, many times.  There is no argument or hoax going on.  This man is healed.  And Peter clearly gives the name of Jesus, “whom you crucified, and whom God raised from the dead,” as the power responsible for raising this man up.  Peter is no longer ashamed to call Christ the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel.  And then Peter gives the temple council an invitation.  In letting them know that Jesus is the cornerstone they have rejected, he is inviting them to accept and receive Jesus as Israel’s promised salvation.   But instead of heeding the call to follow Jesus and the salvation found only in him, the temple council becomes fixed on the boldness of both of these uneducated, ordinary men.

Boldness.  What does it look like to be bold for Christ?  I think for many of us, we don’t like the picture that jumps to our minds.  We image of brash, obnoxious people, trying to strong-arm others into believing the Christian faith.  I met a college professor in Texas that had grown up in a tradition where it was considered to be every member of his church’s responsibility to convert as many people as possible.  Everyone was a potential convert.  And “being converted” meant they went to that particular brand of Christianity.  Now, this wasn’t so bad for him as a child and youth because he was basically surrounded by people from his church.  They were ok.  But then he went to college, he was surrounded by heathens.  And just knowing that he was supposed to ‘convert’ these people started eating him up inside.  It led to a life of a recluse.  He would even go to the laundry mat at 2AM to do his laundry, praying as he went that no one would be there so he wouldn’t have to make a convert.    And if someone was there, he would turn around and go back home.

So what does it look like to be bold in the faith?  It can’t be something that eats us up on the inside and afraid to be around others.  There is a difference between being bold and being coercive or even violent with the faith.  And Peter demonstrates a Holy Spirit-produced boldness to preach, teach, and heal in the name and authority of Jesus Christ.  And that is summed up when he says, “There is no salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Now this passage has been used to create an “I’m in and you’re not” mentality and exclude groups and people, especially people of other faiths.  Maybe it can say that if you rip it off the page and try to have it stand alone as a solitary passage.  But in the larger story, it says something different.  Peter is saying, first and foremost, that the healing isn’t about him.  But Peter, you healed a man!  No I didn’t.  At a time when healers were running a round claiming to have power to do miraculous things, Peter was saying that healing had came through Jesus and that healing can only come through Jesus.  If you look at Peter’s credentials, he was a nobody fisherman from Galilee who rejected his teacher.  The healing could only be about the Holy Spirit moving in and through him.  If it was about credentials, that temple council should have been making some healing happen.  So, friends, it isn’t about who you are or where you are from, how long you have been a member of the church, or even what is on your resume.  If what you have done or are doing is not in response to what God in Christ is doing in your life, it is for nothing.

Peter is also saying it isn’t about the institution of the temple.  The temple didn’t save anyone.  And likewise the church doesn’t save anyone.  God in Christ does the saving.  It’s about the living God that is encountered in the sanctuary of the temple and in the church that offers salvation.  It is about the Holy Spirit spilling out of the doors of the church and into our neighborhood and communities that does the saving.  And God seems to want to use us, the church, so others can embrace his salvation.

But Peter also opens wide our understanding of salvation.  The term salvation as Peter uses it has a wide range of meanings including physical healing, rescue from bondage, and spiritual healing.  In fact, most biblical scholars believe that the idea of “going to heaven” when we think about salvation wasn’t even on Peter’s radar when he said that salvation can only come in the name of Jesus.  Peter was living in the Kingdom of God at that very moment, and he was inviting the temple council to join him.  For Peter, the idea of salvation was the restoration of broken relationships.  The man who God had healed could never go farther than the temple gates for 40 years.  Now, no one could hold him back.  His relationship with the community and with God was now made whole.  He was saved.

So to be bold in your faith of Christ is first to embrace who God is, what God has done, and what God will do.  God is our loving creator who stepped out of eternity in Jesus Christ to mend the relationship between God and humanity.  And Jesus continues to be with and within us in the Holy Spirit.  And it is through the Holy Spirit working in us that Christ continually is reconciling us to one another and to God.   To be bold is not just handing someone a tract with a prayer in it and telling them that is what they need to get to heaven and ignoring their empty stomach.  Nor is it just handing someone a plate of food and walking away.  God in Christ by the Spirit is calling us to be concerned about the spiritual and physical needs of others so salvation can take place.   And salvation always begins with relationship building and relationship mending.  We sit with people, we hear their stories, and we learn of their needs and we share ourselves.  And God will do the saving, because in sharing ourselves, we share Christ, because Christ is ever present and moving with us and it is through us people get their first glimpse of a relationship with Christ.

The man who was healed wasn’t the only one who found salvation that day.  I think Peter did, too, by standing in that same court where Jesus had just recently stood, and boldly sharing the good news of the salvation that is found only in Christ.  Friends, we too stand where Christ stands, because he is here with us.  He calls us to follow him, to boldly share ourselves with others in his name’s sake so they too may come to know him and live restored, healed lives.  He offers salvation to the world through us.  Amen.

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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.

Devoted Life: Sermon by Keith, 6.2.13, Acts Sermon Series

Note to readers: This sermon is the first in an ongoing series Keith and Laura are preaching in summer 2013 on the Book of Acts. 

Text: Acts 2: 22-47

As a pastor, I can only stand in awe of what was just read.  I get excited at the sheer abundance of new converts.  Peter’s sermon reaches into the heart of those who hear it and the community jumps from a few beleaguered followers of Christ to a megachurch.  And then the community continued to grow!  Lives are radically transformed as this new church embraces communal living, with those who have, selling and giving to those without.  People were eager to learn more about this new way of life, coming together to eat and learn and pray together as they celebrated the goodness of the Holy Spirit in their midst.  Wow.

And then we look around at the state of the church, or state of the churches on every corner, and wonder what happened.  The standard set by this passage is beyond my reach or the reach of any church.  In fact, it goes beyond the reach of our imaginations.  We are tempted by the nostalgia of these early church days, and in fact many people have continually tried to recreate it.  If you were to go home and type ‘Acts 2 Church’ into your Google search engine, you would come up with over 2 million links.  Some of those links lead you to commentaries, but many lead you to a plethora of groups, churches, and congregations that go by the name “Acts 2 Church.”  There are networks and programs and processes to becoming an Acts 2 Church, all attempting to recreate the early church.

But can we recreate the original?  As much as I want to say yes, I don’t think we can.  We can’t for a couple of big reasons.  First we are separated by 2000 years of cultural and historical differences.  We can’t go back in time.  It’s like the parent who keeps their child’s bedroom exactly the way it was when that child went off to college to try and hold on to the feelings they had as Johnny grew up.  But Johnny’s gone, off creating his own life.  The church of today can never be the church of 2000 years ago.  In fact, we can’t even be the church of 10 years ago, or of last year, or even of last Sunday, even though many of you are sitting in the same pew.  We will always be the church, but we can’t be the church of yesterday or even of tomorrow.  We are the church of today.

The other reason we can’t recreate what happened in the early church is it wasn’t created by people.  It wasn’t created by the apostles or those first 3000 converts getting together and talking about what kind of programs they were going to have.  It came into being by the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that is moving with us today.  The Holy Spirit breathed life into the church and what we read about was the effect, not the cause.  The Holy Spirit is not a program.  We can’t regime when the Holy Spirit will come blowing in.

Since we can’t recreate what the early church was, do we just gloss over this passage so we can hurriedly get through the book of Acts and into the meatier letters of Paul?  No.  This passage doesn’t mean we be church in a certain way for the rest of eternity.  What it does give us is insight into the life of the early church following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, giving us a shape and vision to what a 21st century Spirit-led church just might look like.  It points to what the church can be when people get out of the way and respond to the Holy Spirit moving in their midst.  So, we can’t recreate what the early church was, but we can’t ignore it and set it aside, either.  We can’t revive what happened, but there are things that are happening in this text that we have to pay attention to.   We pay attention to them because we want to be intentional in what we do.  We hope and pray that the Holy Spirit is guiding us as we make decisions as the church today, that we aren’t doing things and creating programs because we ‘should,’ but we are responding to the gift of the Spirit by the grace we have received in Jesus Christ.

And that is where we begin, Jesus Christ.  The early church’s foundation was built on repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.  Those first converts accepted Peter’s message of the Gospel.  They experienced the forgiveness of sins found in Christ and received the Holy Spirit.  This is one of the reasons why every Sunday one of the first things we do in worship is confess our sins, repent, and receive forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ.  I’ve been asked why every Sunday we have to go through the downer of being reminded we are sinners.  Because the forgiveness we have found in Christ is good news.  We are redeemed sinners.  Sin and death no longer have a claim on us.  We are new people, called to live and experience new lives like those new converts to the church.  The grace and forgiveness we receive affects the way we live and our relationship with God, each other, and all of creation.

And we respond to that new life like the early church did, as they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.”  It would have been awesome to have sat a Peter’s feet, hearing his stories of Jesus, but the early church has handed down the teaching of Biblical truth as central to the business of the church.  We are called to explore these wonderful rich texts that have come down to us in their names.  Now, no specific way is given, just active effort.  We are called to dwell into Scripture here on Sundays as a community, but also in small groups and as individuals through the week.   Delving into the Word of God takes us deeper into a relationship with the living God that we experience in the pages of scripture.  I once read that a church that has the Spirit and not the Word of God will blow up, a church with the Word of God and not the Spirit will dry up, and a church with the Spirit and the Word of God will grow up.

We also respond to the Spirit in our midst by devoting ourselves to fellowship.  Now, this go beyond what happens in the back of the sanctuary after services on Sunday.  It’s more than that, and I like to call it Divine Fellowship.  It’s about the relationships that exist between members of the church and the effort to include others into those relationships, because a commitment to Christ is a commitment to his community.  And those relationships are built and sustained by the Holy Spirit when we walk out the doors of the church.  Fellowship means nurturing the practice of hospitality, taking the courage to notice and welcome the newcomer, to invite them into deeper relationship for a meal or a cup of coffee outside the walls of the church.  With Divine Fellowship, people are made to feel at home, growing close enough for rejoicing in each others joys, and sharing tears over their greatest losses.  Divine Fellowship is about the ever increasing size of the family of God.

The breaking of the bread together by early church appears to be a combination of that divine fellowship and eating with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper together in worship.  In that time it was called the Agape or Love Feast, a celebration of the community.  For them, it happened in both the home and the temple, formal and informal.  Gathering here for worship around the Lord’s table is as important as gathering around your dinner table at home.  Christ is present at both.  Next time you set the table for dinner, leave an open spot for Jesus.  Just having that visible reminder of his presence will want you to invite others to the table.  And as those bonds of fellowship are increased and strengthened because of Christ’s presence, we will find that our table becomes his table, and the one who was our guest also because our host.

And we lift up prayers together as the early church did.  We respond to the forgiveness that we have found in Christ and the new life we have been given by the Holy Spirit by praying.  More than a part of worship, prayer is for each of us the opportunity for communion with God.  The text uses the word “prayers”, giving the indication that the early Christians were learning different set prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer or the Psalms.  There are many ways to pray, here as a community, and as individuals at home, and those prayers must be done intentionally and with energy because the Spirit is moving us to call upon the name of the Lord for what he has done in our lives.

Friends, we can’t be the 1st Century Church, but we can be First Presbyterian Church of La Grande today, responding to the gifts of forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ that have been lavishly poured out upon us by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is here, with us and alive, moving in our midst and we respond to what God has done in the Spirit by being a learning congregation, a worshiping congregation, a caring congregation, and a praying congregation.  Amen.