Sunday, May 26, 2013

"Look at Us"

Scripture: Acts 3:1-16 (NRSV)
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 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. 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. But 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.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 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. While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.

When 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? 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.”

Sermon: “Look at us”
Let us pray together:
Patient teacher,
we give you thanks for the leadership of the early church,
for its messages that still speak to us.
We ask that your Spirit move among us today, help us to look at you differently,
so that we too may stand up and leap for joy in praise to you. Amen.

Peter and John are going to the temple. The brief glimpses we have had of the Book of Acts in the last two weeks as we spoke of the Ascension and Pentecost, showed us a people of prayer and worship. So we aren't surprised to see Peter and John going to the temple, but I have to admit that I can't help but be a little surprised when I read what happens next. For as I read this miracle of healing, the words of the story kept echoing with other stories I've read about Peter and John in the Gospels.

Maybe you, too, remember what happened with the disciples after the Transfiguration, when this very same Peter and John, along with James, followed Jesus up a mountain and saw him with Moses and Elijah and heard a voice come down from heaven naming Jesus as Chosen. Such a powerful mystical experience that surely filled them with certitude of who Jesus was, but it was followed up by this experience from the ninth chapter of Luke:
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.2

Faithless and perverse. These are the harsh words that Jesus uses in his frustration with his disciples, men he has spent day after day with, talking, teaching, sharing in visions. And yet, their imaginations remained too small, their faith too shaky, and they cannot save the little boy. “I begged your disciples to cast it out,” the father says, “but they could not.” Faithless and perverse. These are the words that echo through my head as Peter and John look intently at the man asking them for alms at the temple that day.

When I meet John and Peter again on the road to the temple after Pentecost, I still see those men, who when reflecting the light they saw in Jesus up on that mountaintop could not heal a boy in need. The author of Acts does not make that connection for us, instead pointing to a chapter earlier, to Peter's sermon on that Pentecost Sunday. But my brain makes that connection for me. And those words, faithless and perverse, echo in my head. How did we get from those disciples to these great healers?

Many of you may have noticed this before, but each of the Gospel writers characterize the disciples in different ways. We sometimes conflate the four gospels together, but there are distinct differences in the ways they are written. And even though the Gospel of Luke, written by the same author as the Acts of the Apostles, paints the disciples in a more positive light, my perception of the disciples is always colored by Mark's depiction of the disciples as this clueless bunch of guys who hang around Jesus and give him headaches. I read Luke's story of the disciples' inability to heal even though they have seen the Glory of God, and I shake my head at the disciples, saying it is too bad they just don't get it.

Except I'm the one who just doesn't get it, and I suspect maybe that most of us just don't get it. I like the story in the Gospel of Luke because it lets me stay a bit smug and self-righteous. It lets me say: well the disciples saw the glory of God and still couldn't heal somebody, and here I am two thousand years from sitting at the feet of Jesus and soaking him up--- how can I be expected to perform those kind of miracles? It lets me off the hook, or so I tell myself.

That's why I am frustrated, frankly, by these confident men strolling up to the temple who look intently at this man at the gate of the temple asking them for alms. I search for the transformation, how these two men can go from bumbling disciples to calm, confident healers with bold words. I do not have to search far, as I'm sure some of you could see easily from the beginning. The difference here is the power of the Holy Spirit. The difference is that Jesus has equipped them in spite of their inadequacies and calls them to spread the gospel.

Now that being said, the Holy Spirit is very difficult for most of us to understand, the kind of black sheep of the Trinity. Father and Son we may not understand, but we know those relationships. Very few of us can say that we've felt a rush like the wind and felt flames like fire inspiring us to do God's will. So sometimes when we talk of the Spirit it is another cop-out for us. Another way we let ourselves off the hook, to say that we cannot expect miraculous transformation because the Spirit doesn't work like that anymore, not in our reasonable day and age. We can go back to living comfortably, just telling ourselves that the early church's mission and calling was so different than ours. We can go back to being the disciples before the arrival of the Spirit, praying and worshiping, maybe even standing around being clueless, in our isolated little worlds without having to look intently to what is going on around us and do something to change it.

I know that may sound a little harsh, for surely nothing is wrong with praying and worshiping, but I spoke to a friend this week who is going to a church who told her they didn't want her to preach on Acts because the focus on sharing and reaching out to one another through the power of the Spirit was more communist than the Gospel.3 They told her that her job was just taking care of the people in the church. But while the community and context of the Book of Acts are much different from the ones we live in today, the message of love and life is the same, and so that Acts community has a lot to say to us still today. The Spirit continues to work in our church, maybe not in the same way as in the early church, but the Spirit is always empowering us to look into the eyes of our neighbors and offer them this message of life that Peter and John offered to the man at the gate of the temple.

This man, we read, has not been able to walk since he was born. Every day he comes to the temple to beg. In the ancient Roman world, people believed that your outer characteristics were tied to your moral character; their moms never told them not to judge a book by its cover. Still today there is a lot of stigma around disability, but at the time of the early church, this man would have been seen not as unfortunate, but as “morally weak, corrupt, or even evil.” Yet Peter and John look intently into this man and welcome him into the church. They did not seek to build a church of their friends or family, a church of rich folks, a church of folks who dress nice and aren't too loud--- the Holy Spirit moved them beyond their worship and prayers to reach out to this man asking for alms at the gate of the temple.4

When Peter and John heal this man, they are again leading us on a transformative journey. They show how the Holy Spirit empowers us to transform one another, both by welcoming those the rest of the world turns their noses up at, and by offering love and life to those they welcome. The Holy Spirit had transformed them from clueless disciples to bold healers. The Holy Spirit would transform this man physically and spiritually, causing him to leap for joy praising God.

Peter and John looked intently at the man asking them for alms and said, “Look at us.” And now Peter and John look intently at me, look intently at you, and they say, “Look at us.” Look at the ways we have let the Spirit transform us to preach the gospel of our Risen Lord. Look at how far we have come, from those disciples who said that they could not heal a boy in so much need to apostles overflowing with confidence in the life-giving power of God. Look at this man who came to us for a few bucks and yet remains with us to dance in praise of God.

So look at us, Peter and John say, and let the Spirit transform you too.

2Luke 9:37-43, NRSV.
3Julia Singleton.
4See Mikeal C. Parsons, “The Character of the Lame Man in Acts 3-4,” The Journal of Biblical Literature 124.2 (2005): 312. “...Luke invokes the categories of physiognomy and cultural biases against the disabled only to overturn them. The lame man (along with the bent woman, Zacchaeus, and the Ethiopian eunuch) would have been viewed by Luke s auditors as morally weak, corrupt, or even evil, yet Luke claims that the eschatological community is comprised of such as these, a community in which "God shows no partiality" (Acts 10:34). If the lame mans body language in standing with the bold apostles fulfills physiognomic conventions, his actions of leaping and praising defy them. In other words, the literary character(ization) of the lame man is unfolded in the story of the transformation of the lame mans (moral) character. And this without uttering an audible word in the story. In a curious (and perhaps unintended) way, Ambrose was right, 'the movement of the body is a sort of voice of the soul.'”

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