Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Saint Mark United Methodist Church
Sermon: Acts 3: 12-26
Sunday, April 26, 2009
"Not by our own power and piety!"
One 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. 11While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon's Portico, utterly astonished.
12When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, "You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? 13The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you. 17"And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. 19Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, 20so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, 21who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. 22Moses said, 'The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you. 23And it will be that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out of the people.' 24And all the prophets, as many as have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, also predicted these days. 25You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, 'And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed.' 26When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways."
There was a time when we walked in the presence of a great light. There was a time when our needs were met, and we felt as though we could do nothing but good. The truth seemed so clear, so present. There was a time when our focus was so singular, so distilled, so purposeful, that we talked and prayed and healed with the confidence of the children of God.
That time was not so long ago.
When you're in the presence of the one who has been promised to you for so long, it's hard to do much other than listen and respond with both assertion and utter befuddlement. It was so unlike any other time in my life. Once, many years ago, I was a fisherman. A good one. I provided enough food for an entire village in a single trip. My brother, Andrew, and I worked well together. I was good at what I did, but I never felt then like I felt during those three years. How quickly they passed, those three years. Like a flash of great light, and now, all I can do is try to ignite everything around me to see if it will shine as brightly.
I remember the day he healed my mother-in-law. It was so quick. So simple – he touched her, and her fever abated. She was so grateful, her only response was to get up to make dinner. I think it might have been the only time in my life she's ever approved of me and the company I've kept. Until then, she didn't understand what I'd done. Why I'd stopped fishing and left to follow this man around. It seemed peculiar to her, and I can't say I blame her. It was peculiar to me. Why me? Of all people. I'm simple and dense. To me, the world was not a complicated place. We ate, we drank, we fished, we rested. My brother, Andrew, seemed a much more logical choice. He was always more straightforward than I. But, Jesus chose us both, and both of us followed, leaving our nets and joining James and John, who left their father Zebedee behind.
Looking back, I could kick myself at how foolishly I behaved. I begged Jesus to let me wash his feet – and not just his feet, but his head and his hands. I tried to walk on water to see if it was really him coming to greet us during that awful storm. I denied him, just like he told me I would. Not once, but three times. I rejected this man who loved me more than I've ever been loved, trusted me more than I've ever been trusted, and called me his Rock: Peter - The Rock upon which the church would be built.
Most days, I felt more like a pebble in Jesus' sandal that nagged him constantly and wore a sore on his sole. His stories and analogies sailed over my head, as I desperately tried to understand what on earth he was saying to us. He was obtuse and vague, opaque and unclear. My feeble, stone-like brain could only take him literally. I had some crazy sense of audacity when it came to Jesus, though. I said things to him I never could have said to anyone. In a particularly idiotic moment, I had the nerve to rebuke him. I took him aside and reprimanded him! Can you imagine? On what authority did I do such a thing, other than my own foolishness. I did this to the one who called me blessed, and promised me the keys to the kingdom of heaven. In response to my audacity, he shouted, "Get behind me Satan" and reminded me where my head was – I couldn't get past my fear that he would be taken from us. I couldn't imagine that his life would end and mine would continue. So I did what I knew to do: I tried to stop him from saying these things. But nothing could stop the truth, not even my own ignorance. And, yet, he never denied me and never turned me away.
And that week, that awful week… when we went from waving palms to weeping at the foot of the cross. I thought… I thought when that week began that we were making headway. That the countryside was truly beginning to resonate with the truth and understanding that this man, this Jesus, is truly the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. It had taken us so long to spread this news, but we finally joined with the company of believers who shouted their Hosannas and welcomed him into the city. But, when they shouted "Hosanna! Save me!," they didn't believe that this man was the one who could actually save them. They thought he was a prophet – pointing beyond his own words and witness. They couldn't hear his testimony that the Kingdom of God was here and now.
And who am I to blame them? I couldn't understand, either. This man, the person to whom I've been most strongly drawn, remained something of a mystery to me. Even the day – the moment – that I got it right when Jesus asked us who we thought he was… .I still didn't get it. My words were no match for this one – THE WORD – who had come that we might know how much we are loved by God.
I didn't get it until days and weeks after we saw him die, buried him in the tomb, and could not find his body. The women came to us, and their words seemed an idle tale and we did not believe them. I had to go and see for myself. Thomas is blamed as the doubter, but I harbored just as much doubt and disbelief. I ran to the tomb, and stooped to look in. There, I saw the linen clothes by themselves, and I went home, amazed. He appeared to us, later, on that road while we were walking to Emmaus. He broke bread. He returned once again so that we could see him ascend to heaven, and he left us with the promise of blessing and power from on high.
What, then, O Lord? What then?
We stayed in the temple, praising God's name for all that we had seen and heard and witnessed. But when you've been in the presence of God, all you want to do is re-claim that sense of overwhelming peace and joy. We did our best to re-tell these stories - these stories and times and events that had happened weeks and years before. We revisited them, and retold them and reminded one another of them. But, sharing theses stories amongst the disciples grew stale. My brother and our friends went to the upstairs room in Jerusalem to talk and pray. But, my spirit could not be contained there. I loved them, but I couldn't keep all that I'd seen to myself or the others. If Jesus was going to call me his Rock, and build the church upon me, then I had to be out in the world, with the sun warming my skin. I would stand among the believers and shout to them about the scriptures that had been fulfilled in our presence. I prophesied and witnessed and healed and rebuked. I spoke with authority, which was given to me by the Holy Spirit. And, when I spoke, people listened.
My life changed again, after he ascended, after the Holy Spirit was given to us. In the beginning, I was a fisherman. When he was among us, I fished for people. And now that the Holy Spirit remains, I have become a prophet and an apostle. The student has become the teacher. I speak with humility, because there is no way that this hard-headed fisherman from Bethsaida would ever dare to speak in such a way. My mouth forms words and phrases that I could never conceive of on my own. I am a vessel for history, prophecy, scripture, and truth. But, I am a vessel that is earthen and broken. My cracks are so deep that the contents spill out without nuance. So, I shout "Repent, and be baptized!" I demand that all who will hear seek forgiveness, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
But it all comes back around. I wake each day, aware of what I've seen and the call I have to testify to the light that has come into the world. But, I awake each day with the reminder of my failings. How I denied Jesus, three times over, on the night that he was betrayed - by Judas. By me. And yet, I was not forsaken as he ascended the hill at Golgotha. I was not forsaken as he was lifted on the cross. I was not forsaken as he took his last breath. Instead, I was forgiven.
And because I am forgiven, I have to give that same gift to others. It is my call, and I am obedient to it. John and I were going to the temple one day to pray, and we saw the man who had been lame since birth sitting at the gate – the Gate that was called Beautiful. It was the entrance to the House of God, where we could come and set all other duties aside and we could worship and pray, sing and lament. To cross the threshold of the Gate was to enter into a place of humility and grace. This man, whom we'd seen so many times before, called out to us, asking for alms. On this day, I looked at him. I saw him. My heart softened, and John and I approached him. I asked him to look at us. And, he fixed his attention on us, expecting, it seemed, to receive something.
But I gave him nothing from my pockets. "Brother," I told him, "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." I grasped his right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. He was so strong, he jumped up, like a child playing with an older sibling. With joy, unbound, and amazement, he stood and began to walk with confidence. His feet walked to the only place they could possibly go: the Temple, and he walked and leaped and praised God. It was quite a sight – this man, more than 40 years old, lame since birth – jumping about like a hyper toddler, shouting and singing. All in the temple took notice - they knew him. They knew this was the man that they'd passed every day for 40 years, who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple. You could see the awe and amazement on their faces.
I should have been delighted, proud, even. But I was furious. These people – this was all it took? Hadn't they seen men healed before? The sight of the blind restored? The wounds of the bleeding healed? The madness of demoniacs cast out? But, here they sat, praising God in the temple as if this was the first miracle they'd ever witnessed. My heart pounded with rage and disappointment. They had seen death defeated! Lazarus was raised! Jarius' daughter was awakened! Jesus returned to us after being buried in a tomb!! What was it going to take for these people to understand how close they were to God – this day and every day? They shake their fists for feeling so far off, for thinking that God had forsaken and abandoned them, but one man walks, and they forget their doubt… at least for today. But, what about tomorrow when nothing astonishing happens? Do you have faith because you've witnessed a miracle? Or do you witness miracles because of your faith!?
The day the man was healed, we walked with him toward the temple, through the Beautiful Gate. The rest gathered around us, surrounding the man and John and I on Solomon's Porch. As they rushed closer, my mouth in all of its boldness began to unleash all I could think to say:
"You Israelites! Why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power and piety we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom YOU handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him!
But YOU rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of Life, whom God raised from the dead.
To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you."
They looked so shocked that it made me soften. My words stung. Their joy was tempered. But they were listening:
"Friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers. But God, who through the preaching of all the prophets had said all along that the Messiah would be killed, knew exactly what you were doing and used it to fulfill his plans. Now it's time to change your ways! Repent, therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out. But, for the time being Jesus must remain out of sight in heaven until everything is restored to order again just the way God, through the preaching of his holy prophets of old, said it would be."
That day, on Solomon's Porch, the man who sat at the Beautiful Gate walked into the temple in wholeness. There, on Solomon's Porch, I testified that it wasn't by my own power or piety that this one man was healed, but in the name of the one who loved me and never turned me away. And there, on Solomon's Porch, our work continued as we waited and hoped and prayed that the people would someday understand that the light that had come into the world had come to enlighten all people. And there, on Solomon's Porch, we stood in that light which broke through the shadows, and for a moment, we knew the truth – that the name that is above all names has more power than any of our actions. And if I can understand that… you know it's something.
Amen and Amen.