Sermon for April 17th, 2016
1One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” 5And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6But Peter said, “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.” 7And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
First Church: Walking and Leaping and Praising God
Today's scripture passage centers around the apostle Peter and a miraculous healing...so I'm reminded of the story about St. Peter and the medical professionals: Three medical professionals died and find themselves standing at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter speaks with them and asks them what good they have done in their lives. The first one says, "I'm a doctor. I have devoted my life to the sick and needy and have had a part in caring for and healing thousands of people. "St. Peter replies, "That's great. Come into your eternal reward."
Encouraged, the second medical professional steps forward and says, "I'm a nurse. I have supported the doctor and his patients my entire life as an adult, have taken time to explain things to patients, and have helped them lead healthy lives." "Wonderful," says St. Peter. Please enter your eternal reward in heaven."
By now the third medical professional is looking quite confident, and says, "I am the president and CEO of a very large Health Insurance Company. I am responsible for the health care of millions of people all over the country." St. Peter says, "I see. You can come in... but your plan only covers the first two nights!"
When I was a young undergraduate student at Oral Roberts University, which was founded by the famous (or infamous) televangelist and faith-healer Oral Roberts, from time to time we would gather in the university chapel for a service of healing. Oral Roberts, or more often his son Richard, would take to the stage and say something to the effect of "I'm sensing someone in the audience right now who has a pain in your left forearm." Or sometimes it would be your right leg, or your head, or some other part of your body. I swear, whenever he would say that, part of me always felt like, "Hmmmm...yeah, maybe it kind of does hurt there!" Of course, next he would say, "If that's you, raise your hand, and come down to the front right now; God wants to heal you today!" And suddenly I felt much better. Not because I was miraculously healed, but because I didn't want to go down to the front.
I have seen and observed many so-called "faith healers" throughout the years, and usually with a fair amount of skepticism. It's not that I don't believe God is capable of working miracles through pastors, preachers, televangelists, or just about anyone. I'm open to being surprised. But as a fairly rational, analytical, non-supernaturally inclined personality...I'm just far more likely to put my faith in well-educated, professionally trained doctors, nurses, technology, and modern medical science. All of which are quite miraculous in their own right, and all of which I consider to be gifts from God.
Incidentally, about a decade after I graduated from Oral Roberts University, I went back to school at one of the country's oldest, esteemed, and thoroughly Presbyterian institutions, Princeton Theological Seminary. I can assure you that in four years of Princeton chapel services, I never once heard someone say, "I'm sensing someone in the audience right now who has a pain in your left arm..." And yet, I consider that place, and that time in my life to be one of great healing, growth, and at least one miracle: His name is Jonah, you've probably seen him running around here a few times!
So there are many ways in which a person can be healed; there are many ways in which the simple things around us can be miraculous, and I'm inclined to look at today's scripture passage in that light. Many of the stories in the book of Acts (written down only decades after the time in which they were supposed to have occurred, by an author who was admittedly not there to witness them firsthand) are not meant to be taken literally, but are rather to make a point, or to teach something about what life in the church ought to be like, and maybe was a long, long time ago.
I suppose there may have been actual miraculous healings in the early church—there are certainly plenty stories like that throughout the New Testament—but whether they are historically, factually, medically "true" or not kind of misses the whole point. And in any case, Peter, John, and most of the characters in the book of Acts had long faded from the scene by the time Luke puts pen to parchment to tell his version of the story. A better question is, what point was he trying to make to his audience with this story, and what can we make of it in our situation today?
Throughout Acts, Luke is telling the story not just of amazing miracles that happened to random people, but he's telling the story of what the church should look like, what a real, dynamic, powerful, faith community can look like. And if you look all around the edges of this story, and don't get too distracted by the big miracle...you'll see that amazing community in action, and a lot of little miracles at work, too.
Let's jump right in, with verse 1: "One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon." This little verse is not a "throw away" verse to lay the scene, it's there for a reason. Luke wants us to know that the foundation for all that happens next is what Peter and John and all the other Jesus followers were doing on a regular basis: They were gathering together in a sacred place with other people of faith. Amazing things happen when the community comes together to pray and to worship together.
Verse 2: "And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple." We're tempted to place all of our focus on the lame man, but notice that he is being "carried in" by "people" every single day, in order that his needs might be taken care of.
Now, I've seen plenty of panhandlers on the street corner asking for alms. But I don't think I've ever seen a whole group of people carrying one to the church every day. This lame man already has something special...he has a community behind him, that loves him, that wants to help him, and that knows exactly where to bring him.
How many of you believe that there is healing in this place, that there is love in this community of faith, that we have something worth sharing with the world? If so, then pick up your friends and carry them here, every single chance you get. If all your friends already belong to wonderful, loving communities of faith, then you need to make more friends. Friends who have deep wounds and unmet needs. St Augustine once famously said, "The church is not a hotel for saints. It's a hospital for sinners."
Verse 3: "When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms." It's funny how most of us have a pretty good idea of what we think we need, from the church, from God, from each other. The lame man in this story can't even walk, and yet what he (and his friends) thinks he really needs more than anything else in the world is...money? But we do that, too. Lord, my life, my relationships are falling apart, but if you'll just let me win the lottery, everything will be okay. Really? Lord, I know I don't spend enough time with my family, but if I just had that job that pays more...Really? We tend to forget that more money is just as likely to cause more problems as to solve them. And in any case, our brokenness, our emptiness, our lameness usually has nothing to do with money, so money can't fix it. It's deeper than money.
That's why I love what happens in verse 4: "Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, Look at us." Church, in order to love each other, in order to heal each other, we must first SEE each other. Not the act that we put on for each other and for the world most days, but REALLY see each other in all our messy complexity. Not in judgment, not with critical eyes, but with compassion, and love, and a genuine desire to see the best in each other. Perhaps this is the greatest miracle of all, for the characters in our story, and for us today: To see and be seen as God's beautiful children, fearfully and wonderfully made in his image.
Verse 5: "And he (the lame man) fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them." Ok, sometimes we can be seen, and we still don't quite get it. The money thing is pretty engrained in our psyche. Thank God for persistence and second chances.
Peter says in Verse 6: "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." Once again, I think the least impressive part of this verse is actually "stand up and walk." Everything before that is absolutely revolutionary. "I have no silver and gold." The things the world spends so much time chasing after are nothing to me, and they won't help you much in any case. But what I do have...whatever I have, I will share with you freely, and completely. It may seem like nothing to you. It's only a name. But it's far more precious to me than anything in this world. It's the name of my dearest friend, my lord, my master, who gave up everything that he had, even his life, for me. Let me give you his name. It's Jesus.
Verse 7: "And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong." I said earlier that we may never know if Luke meant this passage to be taken literally or figuratively, but it reminds me a lot of the language from Psalm 40, which is poetry, definitely metaphor—but like all good poetry, MORE true than any history book or textbook could ever be. Psalm 40 says:
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay. He set my feet upon a rock, and made my footsteps firm. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.
This is what we do, as a church, as a faith community. This is what God does through us: When you're afraid, we take your hand. When you're down, we lift you up. When you're lost, we help you find your way again. When you're weak, we gather around you, and together we are strong.
Verse 8: "Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God." This is another little verse we often ignore: The story of the lame man doesn't end when he gets his miracle. That's actually the beginning. Now that he can walk, where does he go? He entered the temple with them. He walks with them. And that's what we do, too: We walk with each other on this crazy journey called faith. Sometimes we might even leap a little (We're Presbyterian; leaping is acceptable as long as you do it in an orderly kind of way!).
Notice also where the credit goes: He doesn't go walking and leaping and praising Peter (or John). They wouldn't want the credit anyhow, and neither do we. We do what we do, we bring what leaping and joy we can into people's lives, and then we give thanks to God, the one who makes all things new. Of course, it doesn't stop there...
Verses 9 and 10: "All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him."
I think it's interesting that the verse doesn't say, "they recognized him as the one who used to be lame, who couldn’t walk." No, they recognized him as the guy who (like most of us) used to spend his time in pursuit of money. When they are filled with wonder and amazement at what happened to him, I wonder if "what happened to him" has more to do with the joy, the leaping, the praising God, the happiness that exudes from him, than it does with his legs.
When you walk into the church (or for that matter, when you walk out of it), the expression on your face will say a whole lot more about your faith, and our faith community, than any words you could speak or write. There's an old saying, sometimes attributed to Saint Francis: "Preach the gospel at all times...and use words if necessary."
People of First Presbyterian Church,
may you find joy and happiness in this place,
among these people, as often as you gather here to pray.
If you can't get here on your own, may someone carry you.
If you fall, may you be lifted up.
If you are lost, then may we all be lost together
So that when we are found again, we may all together enter God's temple,
Walking, and leaping, and praising God.
And may our joy be our testimony to the world.