Listening to a news analysis program on the radio a few months ago, I was struck by the comments that were made by one of the reporters, revealing his personal perspective. The news story reported that stem cells no longer needed to be harvested from embryos; using new techniques, researchers discovered they are able to alter ordinary skin cells to become stem cells. In reviewing the story, senior correspondent Dan Schorr made the following comments: "It’s wonderful to have good news!…Science, which usually makes problems for us, has solved a problem…Hooray for the scientists."
Science usually makes problems for us. That’s quite a statement. Apparently, Schorr felt there would be sufficient agreement in his audience to make him comfortable including this claim in his remarks. So, for hundreds of years, human efforts in the sciences have been seen by many as a savior. But today, despite all that the applied sciences have produced, there is widespread disappointment—even cynicism, about the world science has created. And science, a field created of human effort, has fallen into disfavor.
This change in attitude leaves many seeking hope in a world of hurt. It’s not hard to survey commentary pieces such as Schorr’s and conclude there is a profound lack of hope in the world. Yes, science has made our lives more comfortable. But it has also introduced new diseases, spread new pollution, and brought us to new levels of species extinction. And many who have lost faith in science aren’t seeing much to replace it; they are seeing nowhere else to place their faith.
Not even religion! Again, for many, the role of organized religion in postmodern life today is ambiguous at best. Religion is often seen as a co—conspirator in corruption and greed. Clergy sex and money scandals don’t help that reputation. We flip on the news and we see fundamentalist organizations and individuals staging elaborate protests over the characters featured in children’s programming—all this in the name of religion. It’s no surprise so many people have come to see the church itself as both self righteous and lost.
Many people even identify religion as the source of humanity’s problems. Consider, throughout history, the crusades, the 100 years war in Europe and the many ethnic clashes in which the battle lines are drawn according to religious loyalties, such as in the more recent war in Kosovo or the current civil war in Darfur. Many Muslims today see the war on terror as a war on Islam. And some on the outside see it as a continuation of the same old battle.
Such dramatic failings by people of faith have left organized religion with a tarnished image. So it’s no surprise that when fictionalized accounts of the underbelly of faith appear, people who are already cynical are inclined to accept much of it as truth. For example, consider the way many people latched on to Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, determined to believe that the story told was not fiction, but history. And beyond that, there is also a tendency for a number of people to prefer the worst stories about, not just the church, but the Christian faith.
And so, disillusioned, people seek solutions in what we might call ‘disorganized’ religion, a kind of do—it—yourself approach to having a faith. It was surprising to me at first to discover, soon into my years as a pastor, how many people take this approach to their foundational world and life view. I’ll confess to being an occasional watcher of Survivor, a reality TV program. I was once reading on the internet some of the self—written biography materials on some of the contestants. A few of them ascribe to traditional religions, such as Christianity or Islam. However most, if they talk about their spirituality at all, describe themselves as being held together by a philosophy woven from the threads of mainstream religions, New Age mysticism and common sense. This approach is not unique to game show contestants. Flying across Canada a while ago, I struck up a conversation with a young woman sitting next to me, and as the discussion touched on matters of religion, she described her own faith as incorporating distinct elements from evangelical Christianity, traditional Roman Catholicism, and Hinduism.
Perhaps this approach to religion describes you. Not you exactly, of course, but maybe you too have looked over the variety of religions and religious beliefs, and thought of them as more of a smorgasbord to choose a meal from rather than distinct entrees on the menu. Maybe you too have grown into a deep suspicion, or cynicism, about the church of Jesus Christ. Is there anything of value the church today can offer? What would it take for you to take seriously the claim that the ministry of Jesus Christ is alive and well today?
Or perhaps you are yourself a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, and you look back on the stories of scripture and wonder, what happened? Where is the power of the Holy Spirit we can see so clearly and convincingly active in the ministry of Jesus Christ? In a world of such cynicism, what voice do we offer that could be heard? What is our mission in a world of cynicism about faith?
In the Bible text for today’s message, Acts 3, both hardened cynics and concerned Christians can hear assurance that the positive, healing power of Jesus did not die at the cross. Here, the post—Pentecost church first meets the poor and needy of their time. Peter and John meet a beggar, one who was being carried to the temple. He was carried because he could not get there on his own. He was disabled, from birth. For him to get to the temple gate, he to be carried.
He arrived there at three in the afternoon, just as prayers were being offered. For the Jewish people, coming to the temple for worship, there were three times set aside for daily prayer: nine in the morning, twelve noon, and 3 in the afternoon. So perhaps this beggar was returning to his favored spot after having been there for the noon prayers and seeking shelter over the hottest part of the day. He was returning, because the temple gate was a good spot for begging. People on their way into and out of worship do tend towards being generous, at least, more than the average person.
W. H. Davies was a poet who was homeless during the late 19th century. Early on in his travels, a friend advised him that, when he’d finished riding the rails and was looking to stay somewhere for a while, he ought to scan the skyline of a new city, looking for a steeple with a cross on it, and head there to do his begging. The beggar here in Acts 3 had learned much the same lesson.
This man is an outsider due to his disability. He’s an outsider on multiple fronts. First of all, he’s outside the economy. He is, apparently, unable to find steady work. Yet he still needed to provide for his own welfare. Begging was as close as he could get to a real calling. Second, he’s an outsider in regard to full participation in religious life. There were, in the Old Testament laws for holiness and purity, rules governing worship at the temple, which was the center of the universe as far as the Jews were concerned. Listen to this: "For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed…"
That law meant this man had never been in the temple courtyard where his brothers, his father, and all the men of Israel came to offer sacrifices. He cannot cross the threshold of the gate. He is by decree, literally, an outsider. He sits at the gate begging, and that’s as close as he can come.
Now it has to be said, he was not completely outside. After all, there were those who cared enough for him to carry him in. He had helpful friends; there were others looking out for him, like another man healed by Jesus some time before. This man was, presumably, carried by at least four others who took him to Jesus on a cot. And when the crowds were too great to carry him into the house where Jesus was, the friends lowered him down through the roof.
Here’s a question to consider: had this man, the beggar at the temple gate, heard the account of healing? I think he must have. I think it’s most likely this beggar had heard that story, and perhaps dozens of others, recounting Jesus of Nazareth healing the sick, the blind, the lame. I think we can also assume that this man at the temple never met Jesus himself. I say that because it seems from the Gospels that Jesus never met anyone whose needs he did not satisfy, or at least offer to satisfy.
But now of course, by the time of Acts chapter 3, Jesus is gone. He has been very publicly executed. Many people who were not very well connected to either Jesus or the establishment were unclear about the reasons for his death, I’m sure. They just knew that the Romans had crucified him, right outside of Jerusalem. For this beggar, and all others who’d heard the stories, any hope of healing through Jesus died at Calvary. So here he is, yet again, begging for money at the temple gate called Beautiful, as the afternoon prayer meeting crowd gathers.
This afternoon, he sees two men confidently striding towards the gate. He sees them, calls out, but then looks away. Did you notice that in the reading? When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money." But then he must have looked away, because Peter and John looked back to him, and had to call him to make eye contact. "Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, ‘Look at us!’ So the man gave them his attention…"
So why did he look away? Was it shame? Was it simply the way of this man, that he was not able to sustain eye contact as a beggar, even after doing this nearly his whole life? Or perhaps he had a kind of hopeless cynicism about him, born of experience. He’s already looking to others in the crowd, sizing them up for donation potential. Maybe there’s some of both in his looking away, mixed in together. But now with Peter’s call, ‘Look at us!’ he gives them his full attention with expectation: Luke writes, "So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them."
The disciples give him what he is not expecting. Silver and gold, oh no, but what Peter has, he gives freely. Peter probably couldn’t give away any of his own money. He had already surrendered it all—twice actually. He did so once in walking away from his fishing boat and nets, and a second time as described at the end of the previous chapter, at the time of the birth of the church and the gathering of the first Christians: "Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need."
Peter didn’t carry any cash with him, but he freely gives what he has. Peter releases the life—giving power of Jesus’ name. There are no lengthy and complicated magical incantations, in fact, there’s not even a prayer—there’s no "O Lord, please heal this man." Peter speaks in the name of Jesus, making a simple declarative statement "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." It was the way Jesus healed. He just declared it to be so. And thus Peter was doing as Jesus had done.
Such a healing, by Jesus himself, was relatively common in the Gospel accounts of his ministry. Two weeks ago I spoke about how Jesus healed a leper just by touching him, recorded in Mark 1 at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus became famous for such authoritative healings. And now Peter, the rock of faith upon which the church will be built, takes the hand stretched out to him. He restores the man at the gate through the healing of his body. The physical restoration is pretty obvious. But there’s more. This will also prove to be an economic restoration, for now that man is far freer to develop a capacity for self—support without relying on the charity of strangers.
But Peter also restores to him a full life as a member of the faith community. Really, through Peter, Jesus Christ gives this man new life, which is exactly what miracles represent. It’s a new life, a fresh start; it is for him the coming of the kingdom of God.
His first act is to enter the temple. Remember, this guy has been banned from the temple courts. He’s never been in there before. This is his spiritual restoration, and he proves it by dancing in the inner court! He’s jostling men carrying doves and trying to hold on to lambs. That healed man is creating a commotion, to be sure, because there is joy in his legs—he’s walking and jumping. There’s joy in his voice, he is shouting out praises to God.
This is the new life Jesus brings, the joy God promised already back in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
"Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.’ Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongues shout for joy."
Well, of course all the man’s activity draws a crowd. The people inside recognize him—it’s the guy who begs at the gate! He’s been sitting there for years! This is more than a marvel. This is a sign. And the disciples are quick to dispel any confusion about who is responsible. It’s not them. This was done in the name of Jesus.
For all those with ears ready to hear the good news, the evidence is in: the power of Jesus of Nazareth is yet active in the world, his healing, forgiving, restoring power. It is present, though no longer directly through the physical touch of his hand. It is present through his followers, the disciples, who simply seek to go and do what Jesus did. That was, to all in the temple court that day, and later, to many in lands beyond, tremendous good news.
His Spirit is resident in the disciples of Jesus; it’s active and at work in the world. You see, one of the great things about this story is that it is not done in a private corner. In fact, the disciples became known for this kind of transformative ministry. The word spread: these disciples carry the power of Jesus! They have a ministry of restoration, of giving new life!
Not that their ministry would prove to be quite that easy. The authorities were quite upset, not so much about the miracle itself, but because of the claims the disciples made about the resurrection of Jesus and his power at work through them. So Peter and John spent that night in jail. It was the first of many. And jail time was only the beginning of troubles for them and for the rest of the community of disciples, the church. Ministry in the name of Jesus, and trouble, seem to go hand in hand.
Here is the question for us. Is Jesus alive in the church, is his Spirit living and active and at work in the hands and feet and voices of those who claim to be his followers today? It’s a question for skeptics, all those who have been turned off by ministry in his name that is either powerless to transform lives or speaks a message much different from the one Jesus himself preached. If you are such a skeptic, you ought to consider what Jesus did, and let that be the measure of who is truly a disciple. I certainly can’t find any examples of Jesus holding picket signs and shouting obscenities in protest of what was going on in any part of his world. If you earnestly seek for the power of Jesus in your world, you will be blessed to find it.
An example of the transforming power of Jesus at work in his followers is seen in a story told by Brandon O’Brien, an editor with PreachingToday.com. His own church reached out to a family in need and changed not only their circumstances, but also facilitated a spiritual renewal. Here is the story as Brandon tells it:
"I had been praying regularly with the deacons for one of our members. His wife, Pat, attended our small congregation faithfully, but John hadn’t been to church in years. So every Sunday afternoon before the evening service, we prayed for ways to communicate our commitment to John and his family.
It wasn’t long before we received an answer. During the morning service one week, Pat told us through tears that John had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. A surgery was planned for the following week, and doctors were confident John would make a full recovery.
The bad news was John would be out of work for months. He drove a logging truck and was paid by the mile. There was no way he could recover while spending ten hours a day in a bumpy eighteen—wheeler, but if he didn’t drive, John and Pat didn’t get a paycheck.
The congregation sprang immediately to action. There was no question whether the congregation would pitch in to support the family in their time of need. That afternoon in an emergency business meeting, we sat around a long folding table and our head deacon, a trucker himself, asked with his characteristic boldness, ’How much can everyone give?’ Some pledged $50 or $100 a month; one family committed to pay for utilities and another for groceries, whatever the cost. Beginning immediately, Anchor Baptist Church took responsibility for the wellbeing of one of its families. All bills were paid on time; there was a new supply of groceries on the front steps every weekend; some of the men made sure the lawn was mowed and other maintenance issues around the house were addressed.
John has since rejoined the congregation. Months after his surgery John testified on a Sunday morning that the church’s tireless care of his family had convinced him that the congregation did not simply want another warm body in the seats or an extra dollar in the offering plate; they were committed to sharing their lives and resources with him unconditionally."
Is Jesus alive in the church today? It’s a good question for believers, the people who make up the church, today. Paul taught the Galatian Christians that God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. But do we really believe that? Are we convicted that it’s undeniably true? Do we believe in a way that makes the ministry of Jesus visible in our lives? The people of Anchor Baptist Church believed it, and it changed the lives of people around them.
This is the life of discipleship. As it was in the first century, being a disciple was all about following your rabbi. It was a well known vocation. You spend time with your rabbi. You are called to carry on his teachings. You would live as he lived, and over time you, his shadow, would become like his image.
That’s why Jesus called you, because he believed you could be like him. The disciples became known as little Christs—Christians. For the power of Jesus Christ, the power that comes of good news, the power to restore lives is yet present in the world. The church today has the calling and the Spirit—filled power to be the healing hands of Jesus, his encouraging voice, his prophetic voice, his comforting presence.
Let us so live.
Please pray with me.
Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you for the life of power and healing you demonstrated during the course of your life and ministry here on earth. We thank you too for the assurance that your Holy Spirit was and is released in the world through your church. We pray for faithfulness in following, that the Spirit’s ministry of transformation would be alive in people around the world; anywhere that believers are seeking to be your faithful followers. We pray this for the sake of your name, and the coming of your kingdom. Amen.