Sermon for April 18th, 2021
Picture it: Jerusalem, the year 33AD.
Jesus had been crucified, and three days later rose from the dead. Forty days later his disciples witness him ascend into heaven. Ten days after that was the Feast of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples and they are given the power and the ability to preach the gospel in every language. Jesus’s followers are being transformed into the early church right before our eyes; that is the story that we are told in the beginning of the Book of Acts. And one day, during these early days of the church, Peter and John were going up to the temple to pray. Remember that even though Peter and John were followers of Jesus and were believers in his resurrection, they were also still faithful Jews. They had no problem worshipping God in the temple; after all, the God that was worshipped there: the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, they believed that that very God had shown his glory in the person of Jesus Christ, so they were headed up to the temple to praise the God that raised Jesus from the dead.
And as they are headed into the temple a man who was born lame stops them. He asks them for alms; some spare change…anything. And Peter stopped and looked him in the eye, so did John. And Peter says to him “look at us.” Now this is kind of a strange moment, because how often do we avoid making eye contact with people, especially if we think they are going to ask us for money? I’ve done it and you probably have too. But here Peter and John look this man in the eye and they invite him to do the same; it is a very intimate moment between strangers.
And Peter says to the man “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.” Now let me say that I am willing to believe Peter here that he didn’t have any money. I’m sure that the lame man had been told hundreds of times by people rushing into the temple, people that wouldn’t look him in the eye, that they had no money, but Peter doesn’t do that. Peter and John stop, they look him in the eye, Peter takes the man’s hand, and offers him something more precious than gold…the name of Jesus. Peter says “in the name of Jesus, stand up and walk” and he helps him up. And not only does the man stand up, he jumps up, leaps and walks and goes into the temple with them to praise God. And people saw it and were amazed.
Incidentally, this episode is represented in this stained-glass window over here. Anyways, after all this happens a crowd gathers around and Peter begins to address them, and that is where our first reading from Acts begins this morning. And Peter says to the crowd: “hey folks, don’t look at us. We didn’t do this through our own power. This man isn’t walking again because John and I have magic words or superpowers, or because we are especially holy. This man is walking again, because we called on the name of Jesus. Do you remember Jesus? You know, the man that you rejected as a blasphemer; the man that you had killed so that a murderer could walk free. Do you remember that man? Well guess what, God has raised him from the dead. The God that is worshipped here in this temple, that God has raised a man you killed from the dead. This God raised up something that you rejected, and guess what…he just did it again. That is why this man is walking: through the name of Jesus, God has restored his health.”
And Peter goes on to say: “look, I know you didn’t do this on purpose. You didn’t know that this man was the lord of life; you didn’t know that this was Emmanuel, God with us, you didn’t know that this was the Messiah; it’s ok because all of that was predicted in the scriptures.” Peter says, “it is OK if you rejected Jesus in the past…you can turn to him now. Turn to him, listen to him, and he will wipe away your sins and refresh you. The man that you rejected will raise you up too.”
And before Peter and John can even finish their address to the crowd, they are arrested. Why are they arrested? What did they say that was so controversial? Well, the scripture tells us: “they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead.” You see, Peter didn’t just say that God raised up Jesus, Peter also said that through Jesus God would raise us up too, and the temple authorities they didn’t like that one bit.
You may recall that in Jesus’s day, there were different groups of Jews that didn’t always agree with each other and didn’t really get along, and the two biggest groups were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Well, the Pharisees believe that the prophets foretold of a future day when God would raise the dead back to life and make his whole creation new. So, you get images of God restoring Jerusalem and images of dead bodies coming back to life like Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones. The Pharisees were longing for and hoping for that day of Resurrection. That is why in the Gospel of John when Jesus meets Martha outside the tomb of her dead brother Lazarus, she says that she believes that her brother will rise again on the last day. The Pharisees believe that there will be a last day when God will raise the dead back to life.
The other group, the Sadducees, don’t believe that at all. The Sadducees worship God and obey the commandments, they are even in charge of running the temple, but for the Sadducees when you’re dead you’re dead; there’s no coming back; there’s no resurrection. So when the temple authorities, all Sadducees, hear Peter talking about a man that came back from the dead, a man that he says will return at a future date that he calls “a time of universal restoration,” they are upset with him because he is teaching the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which they don’t believe. That is why Peter and John are arrested. This isn’t a case of Jews persecuting Christians; this is a case of Jews persecuting other Jews and Peter and John get caught in the middle of it. Peter and John get caught in this fight between the Pharisees and the Sadducees because they have witnessed something that convinced them that on this particular issue the Pharisees were right. They have seen the resurrection of Jesus.
You know, when Jesus met Martha outside of Lazarus’s tomb, he said something rather strange. When Martha said something about her brother being raised again on the last day, Jesus said to her “I am the Resurrection.” Even though Martha said that she believed him, I’m sure that she must have wondered what that really meant, but then when Jesus rose from the dead three days after he was crucified, his disciples began to understand that Jesus was the embodiment of the hope of resurrection that the prophets talked about. That future day of resurrection when God would make all things news…they were getting a foretaste, a glimpse of that in Jesus. Jesus was, what they called, the first fruit. His resurrection would be their resurrection. Peter and John had witnessed in Jesus’s resurrected body a vision of God’s salvation and they felt compelled to share that with anyone that would listen.
When Christians stand up and affirm our belief in the “resurrection of the body” as we do in our creeds, we are essentially saying that we stand with the ancient Pharisees in believing that there will be a future day, at the end of time, when God will raise the dead to life and make all things new, including our bodies. But for us Christians, this isn’t just a theory, because we have witnessed it. We have witnessed in Jesus Christ the resurrection from the dead. He actually was the resurrection, just as he said. This was the Lord of life, the God who creates and recreates the world, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses, the God of the Prophets, the God who forgives sins, the God who has the power to take broken, rejected and dead lives and make them new again…we have witnessed that God walking among us, and he has a powerful name: Jesus.
It is a name more precious than gold, Peter and John knew that, because it is a name that has the power to give us new life, not just in some distant future day, but here and now. Only I wonder if we call on it quite as much as we should. I wonder if we really appreciate, as Christians, the power of calling on the name of Jesus. I don’t think we do. I think we all, from time to time at least, get lured into the trap of focusing on what we have to offer the world, and not on what he has to offer. Even when you are bragging about your church to others, especially folks that don’t go to church, how often do we end up saying things like: well, the people are really nice, the music is exceptional, the building is charming, the preacher doesn’t preach too long, there are some great outreach programs…and all of that may be true, but in the end how much does any of that really matter?
There are nice folks everywhere, there is good music in the concert hall, I can find beautiful art and beautiful buildings at the Metropolitan Museum, If you want a motivational speaker you can find one on YouTube to suit your tastes whenever you want, and you can even mute him or fast forward if he or she gets too boring, and maybe you like to give back to others and make a difference in your community, but you could just volunteer at the local soup kitchen and do that. If those things are all that church is really about then I really don’t blame your non-religious friends for choosing brunch with bottomless mimosas on Sunday morning rather than coming to mass.
When Peter and John met a stranger on their way into the temple, they didn’t tell him how great the potluck suppers are back in the upper room, nor did they pretend to be a social service agency. They offered him the most valuable thing they had, which was the name and the power of Jesus. His forgiveness, his renewal, his hope, his power was the most precious thing Peter and John had, and they knew it, and that is why people started following them by the thousands.
Do you meet Jesus here? Does God’s power touch or transform your life through the ministry of this church? Does this church connect you to the Lord of life? Those are the important questions, and they are the only ones that really matter. We don’t need to try and explain to people why our church is better than some other church. We need to talk about what Jesus has done for our lives and how his power and his name give us new life and hope. If people truly see and believe that Jesus has changed and saved your life, they will follow you to where you found him.