Sermon - 19th April 2015
Not by our own power
Scripture - Acts 3:12-19
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
On this third Sunday of the Easter season we would normally reflect on a story from Luke’s Gospel about two disciples walking to Emmaus from Jerusalem and their encounter with the risen Jesus. It is a timeless story and is an example of how the gospel writers put forward stories from their own particular traditions which show that the resurrection was something to be believed, something of continuing power, something which affirmed Jesus as God’s anointed one.
But Luke offers us some further insights into how the disciples grappled with the meaning of resurrection over a longer period. He offers these insights in his second book, the book of ‘Acts’, and our reading today brings us into the presence of Peter as he preaches a sermon about the reality of Jesus as God’s anointed one.
We tend to focus on Peter during the season of Pentecost when he and his fellow disciples are empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the gospel by miraculous words and deeds. But perhaps we sometimes overlook how proclaiming the gospel required those first disciples to be able to declare and interpret their witness to Jesus’s resurrection - effectively to be people of the Easter resurrection as the foundation for why they were also people of the Pentecostal spirit.
Just before Peter’s sermon, a miracle had occurred which drew a big crowd to the Temple. A crippled beggar, who was a constant presence at the temple's Beautiful Gate, had been dramatically and unexpectedly healed in the name of Jesus. In response, an astonished and puzzled throng had packed into the area of the temple known as Solomon's Portico, pressing around Peter and John, the men who seemed to be the source of the miracle.
What were the crowd looking for? Spiritual power? Healing for themselves? More miracles? An explanation of the event they had just seen? Who knows? Perhaps they did not even know themselves. But what they got was a sermon. The healing was powerful, but its true meaning was hidden until the sermon was preached in which Peter unpicks various misunderstandings around what had been witnessed.
First, the crowd misunderstood the source of the healing and assumed that it came from Peter and John. “This is not about us”, explains Peter. “This is about God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the one true healer."
Second, they misunderstood the nature of life with God, thinking that brokenness is the rule and healing is the astounding exception. The crowd rushed to Peter and John because their ministry of healing seemed to be an astonishing interruption in the dreary business of life as usual. "Why do you wonder at this?" Peter asks the crowd. And in his sermon he speaks of another world, an Easter world, where the healing and forgiving power of God is as pervasive and present as sunshine and rain.
Third, they thought that the healing called only for astonishment; but it calls for more, it calls for change - or repentance, if you prefer. Whenever we see signs of God at work in our world—someone being healed of disease, a broken relationship being restored, a hungry person being fed, nations putting down weapons and working toward peace, despair yielding to hope—people of goodwill are full of wonder and joy. But Peter's sermon lets us know that such events call for an ever-deeper response of self-reflection, turning around, and new beginning.
The sermon pulls no punches. Peter works hard to convince his listeners that they have made a grievous mistake. Jesus, whom they played a part in crucifying, was God's chosen one, sent by God to wipe out their sins and usher in the time of universal restoration. That they have failed to discern this is incredible to Peter. Are they ignorant of their own Scriptures? Are they incapable of reading the signs of the times? How can they possibly have failed to recognize the one whose coming was prophesied by no less than Moses himself?
Peter’s expectations of his listeners are high. Peter is the most Jewish of apostles and he is preaching to fellow Jews about Jesus, who was also a Jew. He is speaking a few days after the Jewish festival of Pentecost, to a Jewish crowd gathered in Solomon's portico. His sermon is an insider's sermon, in which he argues with the faithful about what it means truly to be Jews, what it means to be the true Israel. And elsewhere in the book of ‘Acts’ we are told that Peter’s preaching converted thousands to the disciples’ reforming cause around the good news of God as seen in Jesus who lived, and died, and rose again.
Moving from the context of Solomon’s Portico in 1st century Jerusalem to the context of our own community here in 21st century Manchester, what challenges can we hear in Peter’s words when we grapple with the meaning of resurrection?
Do we find the courage and energy to embrace change and to seize opportunities for new life? Dare we turn things around and trust our faith in the One who said, ‘I came that you may have life in all its abundance’? Do we sometimes resist resurrection, preferring old habits to new beginnings? Is holding on to guilt, pain and baggage from our past sometimes the less demanding option?
Can we sense the touch of God on our lives when we experience healing, or do we ascribe every improvement in our well-being to the bottle, the tube and the tablet? Is brokenness our normality, with no place in it for God’s healing - healing which is often brought to us by others, and just as often given to others by us, even though we may not recognise what we do as an act of healing?
Shall we let our faith grow and mature by the action of God’s spirit on our lives, or are we stuck in a belief system that we grew up with, even when prophetic voices - from within our own scriptures, and beyond - call upon us to follow Jesus by broadening our understanding, and journeying deeper into the mystery of God?
Peter needed to interpret the miracle his crowd observed into an expression of what God was doing through Jesus as the Messiah of Jewish tradition. Every Easter, we each need to interpret what God is doing among our community here through the act of resurrection which we place at the heart of our Easter celebrations.
Now is the time of year when we look for meaning, when we appraise our values and our choices, when we consider where we are being led, and when we challenge ourselves to refresh and energise the journey of faith to which we are called as Christian disciples. But not only are we Christian disciples: we are successors to those saw beyond resurrection into the Kingdom of God when they heard Peter preaching to them two millennia ago.
May we continue to be a faith community which is blessed by the grace of Easter and which also glimpses the Kingdom beyond the resurrection we all seek to experience through the one who calls us here.