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Oct 01, 2017

Reflecting Jesus to our world | Acts 3:1-10

Reflecting Jesus to our world | Acts 3:1-10

Passage: Acts 3:1-10

Speaker: Rev. Jerry Deck

Series: Acts | Reflecting Jesus in our world

Category: Weekend Message

Because we have communion today I don’t have quite as much time to preach this morning (which I know disappoints all of us!), and so we’ll dive in a bit more quickly. One of the things we’ve been talking about in our series on Acts is the theme of witness, of reflecting Jesus in the world. Another way to put this is to say that we as followers of Jesus desire to be a part of God’s coming kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. When we ask the question of what exactly this kingdom looks like we would be wise to go back to the great Hebrew word “shalom.” Shalom as you probably know means peace, but that peace is not simply an absence of war. Rather it means a sense of wholeness, of being complete. In other words it’s much broader than just one particular thing, but is a community and world that is flourishing in every capacity.

I bring that up this morning because this fairly short story, just 10 verses, does a remarkable job of demonstrating what this shalom looks like and how two disciples, Peter and John, were able to help truly reflect Jesus and God’s coming kingdom. It would be easy to just see one layer of this story, the physical healing, and think that that is all this story has to teach us, but it’s really more complex and rich than that. It reveals the wholeness of shalom in a remarkably beautiful manner. 

Let’s start though with the obvious, and remarkable, physical healing of the lame man. Peter and John tell the man that they have no silver or gold to give him, but instead, much to the surprise of this poor beggar (and to the many who had known him over the years), they offer him, in the name of Jesus, something much better: an opportunity to finally walk. Just like that, we are told, the lame man is able to stand, his feet and ankles were made strong, and he was healed. A part of being a witness then means that we do what we can to try and physically take care of those who are in need.

Now, the uncomfortable part about that, if we’re honest, is that most of us may not be a part of a healing that is quite that miraculous. After this passage Peter will be very clear with those who are amazed at what they had just seen, that it was not them, but Jesus who did the healing. But, the reality is that we will not always see Jesus work in this way and that can be a hard thing. Truth be told one of the most difficult parts of being a pastor is not being able to answer why some people are healed and others are not. I’ve discovered that in the moments when healing did not occur that the best witness I can be is not to come up with trite answers, but simply to be with people in the midst of their mourning and their questions. Sometimes the kingdom simply has not come nearly as quickly as we would like.

That said, there are still powerful ways in which we seek after the physical welfare of our community. We continue to pray for healing and when we see it we are sure to rejoice and give God praise. But we also see it in our food pantry, or the Shepherd Totes we fill each Christmas which gives students food during their Christmas break or in giving shelter and food to the homeless when they come to stay in our building. It’s also important to see though that the doctors and nurses and physical therapists and pharmacists and others in our community of faith are taking seriously the call to bring physical shalom to so many. I know that it is easy in these fields that have taken on a more business model to lose sight of this, but my hope is that each of you who are in these vocations frame what you do in light of being witnesses to God’s coming kingdom. What you do is more than just making money to put food on the table, but you are continuing in the line of witnesses, like Peter and John, in reflecting Jesus and helping others to experience wholeness in a new way.

But, what we see in this passage is more than just a physical healing. As we look at our story it may be helpful to remember a similar story in John 9. In that passage, when the disciples see a man who is blind they ask Jesus who it was who sinned, the blind man or his parents? In their eyes there could be little other reasoning and so Jesus had to dispel their sense that it was because of sin that he was blind. What that story reveals is the sense that when someone was physically handicapped that there was a belief that this person was also separated from God. This is why the man was outside the gate because he wasn’t allowed to go inside the temple. So, when Peter and John help to heal this man, the impact was much greater than just a physical healing, they were also making him spiritually whole.

This is why when Luke tells the story he doesn’t just say, “Peter picked the man up and he walked…the end.” Instead Luke tells us that the man, after being healed, then entered into the temple, “walking and leaping and praising God…” This is probably the first time that he has ever gone into the temple the main place where God was thought to have resided. So, it is this great celebration where this man who thought he had been rejected by God is all of a sudden realizing that God has not forgotten him and that he is loved and that he matters. No wonder he is walking and leaping and praising God! 

There is a spiritual restoration, or shalom, going on here and a part of our calling as followers and witnesses of Jesus is to point to the restoration between God and humanity that has occurred in Jesus Christ. We hold worship each Sunday morning, not because we have nothing else to do, but because we want to create space for people to be reminded of who God is, what God has done for us and how we can respond to that. This is why, as we did last week, we spoke of the importance of repentance and forgiveness. These are actions that help to restore and deepen our relationship with God. Far too often, I have a feeling that we don’t recognize the spiritually poor who are in our midst and we forget what it is like to be stuck outside the temple, not knowing how much we are loved by God. If we were to understand that more deeply I have a feeling that we might be more intentional in trying to see the spiritual beggars that surround us and that our worship in here might be a bit more full of people leaping and praising God or at least singing and giving an occasion “Amen!”

So, reflecting Jesus and God’s coming kingdom is about bringing shalom physically and spiritually. But we also see in this story how it also restores people into the community, making sure that they are no longer isolated. Again remember that this man is brought and dropped off every day, living isolated and away from the community that is on the other side of the gate. Can’t you imagine that each time a person passed him and went through the gate that his reality, that he was alone and not allowed to go in there with the community, became more and more stark. It’s kind of like when you’re growing up and the two captains are picking the teams and each time someone else is picked you get more and more sad until you look around and realize you’re the only one left. For this man, his healing meant he was no longer stuck in isolation, locked out of community. This should not be news to anyone here, but a part of our witness to Jesus is to create space for people to be in relationship, to be in community with one another.

Earlier this week I was in Oklahoma for a board meeting of The Outreach Foundation. The Outreach Foundation is a mission organization that helps to connect primarily Presbyterian churches in America with what God is doing in the rest of the world. We have partnered with them in our mission to Brazil and have also supported some of the work they’ve done in Syria. At the meeting a staff member was talking about a recent trip he took to Ghana in West Africa. Much like we saw with the disciples in John 9, in certain villages in Ghana if something bad happens then it is assumed that someone is responsible and has done something wrong. So, for example, if a husband dies then it is assumed there is a good chance it’s because the wife is a witch, so they throw a chicken up and if it lands on its front then the woman is a witch and if it lands on its back then she is not. If the person is deemed to be a witch then he or she is thrown out of the village which, especially if it’s a woman, means that she is completely isolated and vulnerable.

So, the Presbyterian Church in Ghana began to set up little camps like these where those cast out of the villages could go. They give them a place to sleep and eat and teach them skills so that they can make money. They give them community and hope. And, much like the man who was healed in our passage today, who leapt and praised God, you can clearly get a sense of their joy for having been given a community. [Play video.] How great is it to be able to see the lives of those who were once isolated becoming a part of a community. That is reflecting Jesus.

We don’t just do that in Ghana though, we must do it here as well. Of course, here it is not usually nearly as obvious who is isolated or feels alone. Most folks in our area do a tremendous job of hiding their loneliness and sense of isolation, such that if we do not have the eyes to see then we can blindly believe that everyone has community and feels a part of things. This is why I am increasingly convinced that a part of our role in reflecting Jesus in the world means that we have to be proactive and not reactive. That we have to realize that most folks around here are not going to be yelling out, “I’m so lonely, I need community!” Instead, we have to be on the look out and we have to get more comfortable with inviting people to be a part of what we are doing and a part of our lives. I’ve said before that I think we all too often erroneously assume that everyone around us is doing okay and unless we invite them into our lives we may never know. Invitation was always an important part of what Jesus did when he was on earth, in fact he seemed to not have much of a problem inviting himself into others’ lives. Think about the story of Zacchaeus, someone who had money and probably seemed on the outside to have it all together and Jesus simply said, “Hey, I’m coming over to your house!” and Zacchaeus’ life was never the same.

In our neighborhoods we invite ourselves into people’s lives by engaging with them, inviting them into our homes, inviting them into conversation. You don’t start by saying, “You’re pretty lonely, huh?!” but we also have a passion for making sure that we aren’t content that so many are alone without our being aware of it. Of course, here at church we also have to be invitational, welcoming those who are visiting or whom we simply don’t know. You might be interested to know that in the last couple of years when it comes to our home groups I would say (and I’m not exaggerating) about 90% of those who have joined a group have been personally invited. They haven’t voluntarily signed up on the board. That tells me that the vast majority of us do want community, we really do, but we are much more likely to be a part of that community we long for if we are asked rather than just voluntarily saying, “Ok, I want community.” Again, much like Peter and John, our actions should be those that are inviting people into community.

So we see shalom coming physically, spiritually and communally, but I think we also see it coming emotionally for this man. There is this fascinating part of the story where Luke explicitly points out that Peter and John looked intently at the man. My guess is that it was a little bizarre or awkward for the man to be looked at so intently by these two guys. Not only though, do they look at him intently, but Peter goes on to say, “Look at us.” And if you’ve ever seen someone who has clearly been rejected for most of their lives or, quite honestly, if you can remember the times when you have struggled or been down or depressed, you know that more than likely what is happening is that the man is not used to looking at people’s eyes or at even having people want him to look at them. In moments of shame or embarrassment or depression there is a fear to let people look into your eyes and see who you are or have become. But in this seminal moment, Peter and John begin to restore this man as a human, as a child of God and they both want to look into his eyes as a way of restoring that and to make sure that he is paying full attention to what is about to happen. It is a beautiful part of the story.

But as I thought about this scene a bit more there is something else that I think is interesting to point out and that is how important looking into one another’s eyes, face-to-face, is for our faith. Like last Sunday, to be able to look into people’s eyes and remind them that they are forgiven is so much more meaningful than just reading it somewhere or even me saying it from up here. But that’s not the only physical part we see in the story. We’re told that Peter takes him by the hand and picks him up. Then we’re told that together, in close physical proximity, they all go into the temple together. I don’t want to read too much into this, but I think all too often we forget the importance of having our faith be done in physical community with others.

I was thinking about this because a few weeks ago the senior pastor of a large church in our area told his congregation that they had been doing research on how frequently children and their parents attended a worship service and had discovered that on average they come once every four weeks. Now I don’t tell you that so that we can say, “Haha, we’re much better than that,” because quite honestly I’m not sure we are much better. As a staff and session this is something we talk about with some frequency. But I also don’t tell you that in hopes of guilting us into coming to worship more regularly. Honestly, it’s not much fun if you’re here simply because you feel guilty if you don’t come. We can rest assured that we will not be a people leaping and praising God if we are weighed down by guilt. 

But, I do say it as a way of inviting all of us to remember just how important it is that we, as followers of Jesus the one who came here in flesh, to physically be with one another. Live streaming worship or listening to sermon podcasts, while convenient, are not a substitute for looking into one another’s eyes, for shaking a hand or giving a hug or standing next to one another praising God. We are best shaped into witnesses who bring shalom in all of its beautiful ways—physically, spiritually, communally and emotionally—when we support one another, love one another and challenge one another. And those things will always be better done when we are with one another literally and not virtually. 

And so, brothers and sisters, as we prepare to eat of the physical bread and drink from the tangible cup, may we remember our call to join the Spirit of God in bringing wholeness out of that which is broken. For God’s coming kingdom and for his kingdom alone. Amen.