Similar to what Jesus taught him and the other disciples at the end of Luke 24 (the Gospel lection for this same week in the Year B Lectionary), Peter in Acts 3 suggests that the healing of the crippled beggar—who was even then still hanging on Peter’s pant leg—is less a startling, previously unheard-of event and more a straightforward fulfillment of what the Bible had been talking about all along. The people in Solomon’s Colonnade were standing there slack-jawed in wonder, with eyes wide as saucers over the spectacle of this former invalid now appearing in a completely healed condition.
Maybe Peter was being a little ironic when he said it, but in essence his comments to the people of Israel there that day were along the lines of, “What are you all looking at? Isn’t this the kind of thing you would expect from the God of heaven and earth? The whole Bible has been pointing forward to a day like this right from the get-go! So what’s the big deal, people?”
Well of course it was a big deal, and Peter was surely not so full of the Pentecostal flame that he himself could not feel at least a little giddy over what he was now able to do in Jesus’ name and by Jesus’ power alone. But Peter was not wrong to suggest—indeed, to declare—that a healing like this, the restoration of (and to) community that such a healing represents, has been the goal of God’s Story all along.
God has all along been on the side of life. But humanity? Well, to invoke a traditional Latin phrase used to describe humanity in its fallen state, we have for too long been characterized by amor mortis, a love of death. Or to quote Proverbs 8:35-36, Wisdom declares, “Whoever finds me, finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death” (with thanks to Neal Plantinga for putting me onto this passage). We love death. In sin humanity—originally in an attempt to become like God—became anything but divine looking or divine-like. We began to disintegrate, to fall apart, to become not only not like God but not even like the very humanity made in the image of God that we were fashioned to be in the first place. Sin is often called “missing the mark,” and when it comes to missing the mark, the attempt of our first parents to “be like God” fits that bill with tragic accuracy.
Now (again to riff on Neal Plantinga) we hear about people doing terrible things—rapes, assaults, murders, acts of great vandalism and destruction—but when they are later asked what in the whole wide world could have motivated them to commit such acts, sometimes (and startlingly enough) they reply that they did it “just for the hell of it.”
Just for the hell of it. Indeed. That phrase, though profane, is more descriptive than we usually realize. God created this world to be a place of flourishing, of life, of verdant blossoming. But sin and evil keep causing hell to bust out all over, and hell is the polar opposite of life and flourishing. The realm of the devil seers and blears and leeches life.
Unsurprisingly, when the Prince of Life, the Word of God who created all life in the beginning, came to this planet in person, we killed him, too. That’s our problem, as Peter succinctly details it in Acts 3: people always kill.
But God always raises up to life! That’s just what God does and his goal is to keep on doing it until life is the be-all and end-all of the universe. God has been doing just this all along for those with eyes to see. And the Scriptures that both originate from God and witness to God likewise tell us all along that the aim of the whole divine project is life (and a restoration of life wherever death and sin and evil have messed things up and pointed people in the direction of amor mortis).
“Jesus Lives and So Do We” is the title of a traditional Easter hymn. Peter anticipated that hymn when he connected the restored life of the formerly crippled beggar with the new life that burst forth from Jesus at his resurrection. Jesus lives and so can we all (and for all who are in Christ, so do we all).
Two weeks after Easter it is easy—even in the Church—to go on as though nothing has changed. Yes, we decked out the church in flowers on April 5, but they have long since drooped, and the sounds of the brass quartet that accompanied our singing that morning have also long since faded off into distant echoes. It was nice to celebrate what happened to Jesus on Easter but then, well, come the next day, it’s back to work, back to school, back to the same-old, same-old.
How easy it is to miss Peter’s message, first delivered some months after that original Easter: because of what happened then, now we can and should anticipate a whole new world—a world where we should just expect life to bust out all over.
Some years ago I had a sabbatical in a place where Princeton New Testament Professor Beverly Gaventa was also taking a sabbatical to work on a commentary on Acts. One day she told me the thesis, the core contention, of her commentary. “The Book of Acts,” Dr. Gaventa simply said, “is about God.”
At first that almost sounded like a joke. But she wasn’t kidding. That was her thesis. The Book of Acts is about God. Period. What’s more, in the context of biblical commentaries in recent times, believe it or not, her statement, “It’s about God” is revolutionary! For so long scholars have scrutinized the literary design of Acts, pondered critical narrative, historical, redactional issues, questioned Luke’s accuracy, and just generally buried Acts under a mountain of side issues. But what we forget is that to Luke’s mind, this whole thing is first and foremost about God. It’s about the Christ of God whose power is unleashed through the church. It’s about how God’s power elicits healing for some, astonishment for others, and even anger for those who resist God (or who see God’s power as a threat to their own power in life). But above all, it’s about how accepting this God in Christ brings times of refreshing to needy, aching hearts.
Do we forget this singular truth? When Thomas Aquinas reportedly told the pope that the church had become incapable of saying either “Silver and gold have we none” or “In the name of Jesus, walk,” what he meant was that as the church amasses its own structures, money, possessions, and influence on the world, just maybe all of that tempts us to forget that the church, too, must finally and always be about God. But we do forget that.
A friend of mine often makes the observation that sometimes congregations seem a little like restaurants. All of a sudden, and for some unknown reason, certain restaurants get “hot.” Everybody talks about the food there, and soon the place is jammed. It’s the “in” place to be, the place to see and be seen. And then, for no discernible reason, the euphoria dies down and people start to hype a different, perhaps newer, restaurant and then it becomes the hot and in place to be.
Congregations can be like that, especially in this time of megachurches. All of a sudden one particular church is just the place to go for a time—great parking, great programs, stuff for the kids, video clips in the sermons, a latte bar, a relaxed atmosphere, a pastor with a great sense of humor. Churches get “hot” for such reasons but then, sometimes, after taking off like a rocket for a while, those same churches level off or even decline in favor of some other new place.
But when was the last time you heard someone say, “I went to Church X because there was just so much more of God there than anywhere else!” When was the last time you heard someone explain their move to a new congregation by saying they found more fruit of the Spirit, more Jesus, more God there? Aren’t the reasons folks give more often based on external things? Of course, some of those so-called “external” things may well help us to experience God’s presence and worship God’s glory better, and when that is the case, this is a legitimate point. Most congregations are different, and I think God’s Spirit uses that variety to incorporate into the larger Church the great variety of people in this world.
But the point of all this is to bring into focus that number one issue: the core notion that the church must finally and always be about God.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 19, 2015
Acts 3:12-19 Commentary