Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Gospel power

Sermon written for evangelism class at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and then preached at the Des Plaines Methodist Campground. It is based on the scripture Acts 3:1-10.

During the summer after my sophomore year of college I worked as an intern at a large United Methodist church in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I did mostly youth ministry, which was evident from a goatee on my chin, acoustic guitar strapped around my shoulder, and a couple Frisbees in the back of my ’96 Geo Metro. Ah, those were the days. The church was having a kids’ fair in their ample parking lot one night, and that’s when the news came. A young man who had grown up in the church had suffered an accident while doing gymnastics, and he had broken his back. The young adults and youth who knew him best gathered in prayer circles and called out for God to help Brian. Within a week, it was apparent that Brian would be quadriplegic for the rest of his life. Within a blink of an eye, he went from being the Eagle Scout who chose his college based on the rock-climbing nearby to someone who couldn’t even feed himself with his own hands.

And so the “Pray for Brian” campaign began.

I promise that I’ll come back to add to that story, but it’s events like Brian’s accident that really make the stories in the Bible true. It’s not just that the events of the ancient Hebrews, the prophets, and the New Testament apostles happened once upon a time; it’s that they happen in our lives over and over and over again. That’s how we know the Bible is true.

The story in the third chapter of Acts is like that. Peter and John, two of the leaders of the apostolic community in Jerusalem, walked up to the Temple with the intention of praying to God, as was their custom. It was a regular day, just like any other day, complete with the cripples and devastatingly sick people who had to panhandle to survive from day to day. The scene reminds me of the Catedral Metropolitana in the Plaza de Mayo of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s a holy place and a place of incredible political power, located only a quarter-mile away from the president’s office. And every time I went by there while I was studying in Argentina, there were always dozens of homeless people sitting in the neo-classical façade. People would walk by them to see the mausoleum of José de San Martín, the George Washington of Argentina, or snap pictures of the Casa Rosada where the president worked, or protest whatever the cause-du-jour happened to be. The homeless, the crippled, the sick—they stayed there even when everyone else left.

Back in Jerusalem, one of these homeless people called out to Peter and John and went through his well-rehearsed spiel about needing money because he is just SO hungry and could they help a lame man with only a few coins, God-bless-you-sirs. Peter was one of those few people who actually stopped, and he said with some funny, redneck Galilean accent, “Look at me.” I can only imagine what was going through the lame man’s mind at this point. Would it be another lecture about pulling himself by boot-straps, because that one is SUCH a hoot with his shriveled legs on display for all to see? Or maybe it would be some amateur rabbis who would debate who had sinned to make him crippled. Or, then again, they might just give him something useful for once…

Here’s what Peter says, “I don’t have any money (dammit!, thinks the crippled man) but I give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up.” And much to the man’s own dismay, he stands up.

Friends, we need more stories like this, not just because more cripple people should be able to walk given the amazing advances in medical science, but because the Gospel of Jesus Christ has this kind of power. My Methodist upbringing doesn’t usually lead me to believe in spiritual healing, nor does my seminary training to this point, but my life experience does confirm that faith in Jesus Christ is accompanied with POWER. It is power from the living God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all that is, seen and unseen. It is power that breaks through systems of oppression that cripple as surely as a disease or gymnastics accidents. It is power that breaks through the apathy of a crystallized status quo. It is the power that strengthens sinews and quickens compassion of all that it touches. It is the power that raises an army supplied not with guns and tanks and Hellfire missiles but with empathy, solidarity, and a zeal for God’s holy justice.

See, the formerly lame man suffered not only his personal disability, but he was also caught in the social disability of his time. Anyone who couldn’t care for her- or himself due to a disability, whether in mind or body, had to survive on the charity of other people. Praise God, he was in a Jewish community that was governed (at least socially) by Mosaic Law which mandates care for those who can’t care for themselves. Of course, in desperately poor society where most people were just north of starvation themselves, it’s hard to imagine that panhandlers knew any kind of security, whether in food, lodging, or body.

Peter and John enter the scene with the knowledge and personal witness that the status quo is not the only option. They knew, not just with head knowledge but with the unshakable experience of an encounter with the greatest power the universe has ever seen or will ever see again, that pain, suffering, and death don’t always win. They knew that the new rule, the new reign, the new emerging reality is resurrection. Peter and John, empowered by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, are two of the first evangelists, that is the heralds of the new reign of the resurrected Christ.

Before I go on and on about how earth-shattering and hell-harrowing this Good News really is, I feel the pragmatism of my Methodist upbringing surging up. You see, friends, Peter and John are able to be vehicles for God’s grace because they were prepared to do so. The passage that precedes this healing story is perhaps the most famous description of the first-generation apostolic community. Acts 2:43-47 tells how the believer shared all their possession in common so everyone would have enough to live well and they spent “much time together in the temple”, yes, that same Temple where Peter and John had the occasion to heal the lame man. Peter and John were evangelists in the traditional sense, proclaiming the Gospel to folks who had never experienced it before, but they were also living a life that made such proclamation possible. When Peter said, “I give you what I have”, that’s just what he had been doing since Jesus ascended into heaven some undisclosed time earlier. His reality was marked by sharing with the folks around him, including the power of the resurrected Christ, so the healing was simply the most natural thing in the world for Peter. Similarly, the practice of “going up to the Temple” where all manner of people would be, provided the perfect stage for sharing the Gospel. We don’t know how many times Peter and John passed by this group of panhandlers in the Temple before the miraculous healing occurred, but the discipline of being with people outside of their small, tight-knit apostolic community provided the opportunities to share what they had. In the Wesleyan tradition, I think that falls somewhere between personal and social holiness, but it is certainly sanctifying grace at work.

Of course, evangelism has its dangers as well. When Peter explains to the gathered crowd where exactly the power that healed the lame man came from, namely Jesus Christ of Nazareth, they got folks’ attention, and not only well-intentioned kind. They were proclaiming the power of the resurrection of a man who had been condemned and executed within a few miles of the very spot where they were standing. Oh, and all those people did the condemning and executing were still there. Um, awkwaaard. According to Acts, it was the Sadducees, a Jewish sect who had made a name for themselves by denying any sort bodily resurrection, who heard them first. Peter and John were threatening the power of the Sadducees by demonstrating the power of resurrection, and the Sadducees reacted in the way that people of status quo power often do: they had the apostles locked up.

I want to be sure that we recognize how common this phenomenon is. A lot people in our 21st world make an excellent living off of denying the resurrection, and they even go further by making record profits off industries of death. The military-industrial complex is giddy at the thought of selling more bullets and bombs to our government and government far across the ocean. Insurance companies fight tooth-and-nail to keep from paying their customers after catastrophe strikes. And corrupt politicians and government bureaucrats build up their Cadillac pension plans by using whatever means available to maintain the status quo. My experience tells me that locking people up is their preferred means to maintain the status quo. Walter Brueggemann, one of the preeminent Hebrew Bible scholars of the late 20th century, calls such a situation the “royal consciousness”.

Praise God, we are a people of a different consciousness! Jesus Christ has awakened us to the truth that death does not win the day. Instead the resurrection continually announces that life and love wins. In fact, in the presence of the redemptive power of the resurrection, death looks pathetic. When the court came together to judge Peter and John following their arrest, they had no choice but to release them because “all of them praised God for what had happened” (4:21). Not even all the assembled political power could quell the surge of the Good News to the masses!

So what does all this have to do with us today? I see three lessons that emerge from Peter and John’s evangelism: 1) preparation leads to perfection, 2) the Spirit will give us the power for and the opportunity, and 3) love wins the day. Dealing with the first lesson, Peter and John were empowered to share the Gospel with the lame man, the crowd in the Temple, and even the court because they were already living in a community where such sharing is natural and incarnational. We, too, need to create communities where the common good is held up as God’s preferred way of living. We also need to boldly go out as representatives of the resurrected Christ among people where opportunities abound. This means we must be missionaries every time we go out into the world.

Second, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will provide what we need when the opportunity arises. In the campus ministry where I work, we go out to Lower Wacker and that maze of streets that literally undergird downtown Chicago and hand out sandwiches to homeless people there. Opportunities abound to share the Gospel, and though I am often caught completely off-guard by the requests and stories I hear from folks on the streets, the Holy Spirit gives my comrades and me the power to minister to these folks. Sometimes the Holy Spirit kindles my righteous indignation at how our country, the richest in the history of the world, can allow such suffering. And you know what? The Spirit keeps that righteous indignation with me when I go and visit those corrupt politicians in city hall and at the capitol. Never box the Spirit in, friends.

Third, despite a menacing mountain of terror and intimidation, not so unlike Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings books and movies, God’s love wins the day. I am reminded of Paul’s words to the Romans: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). The keepers of the status quo may not like it when we proclaim the resurrection, and they may even lock us up from time to time, but folks will be too busy praising the living God for the signs happening among them to keep us down too long. Our hope and faith in the love of God is so great that we can laugh and sing when they put the handcuffs on us. Dear friends, I know this is true because I’ve done it!

Brian with his three brothers and a producer from the show. 
So what about the “Pray for Brian” campaign? Brian’s friends originally set out to raise money for his medical treatment, which we did by selling LiveStrong-style bracelets, doing carwashes, and a variety of other fundraisers. However, after I left that church to continue my studies and eventually go to Chicago as a missionary, I learned that word of Brian’s story reached the producers of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”. They were touched by the tragedy of the accident and the faith of Brian’s friends, so they decided to do an episode at Brian’s family’s house. They raised millions of dollars to completely renovate the house so that it was completely wheelchair accessible. The story reached millions of viewers with the ABC broadcast. Now that’s evangelism.

Friends, I am continually dumbfounded by how God works in the world, both inside and outside the church. Sometimes all I can do is collapse to my knees with tears running down my cheeks and praise God for being so much bigger and better than I can ever humanly conceive. So how will you respond to God’s goodness? If you don’t have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, if you’ve fallen away from a relationship with God, I invite you to come to God and begin the journey of faith. If you are already a follower of Jesus Christ, then I invite you to reflect on how God is calling you to share the Gospel with the world. God gives us so many different gifts, and we can use all of them to join in the liberating reign of God! Finally, I invite all of you, as a body gathered together to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, to see how we can share the Gospel with our neighbors, all of together. We are bearers of Good News, and the most natural thing in the world is to share it everybody else around us. Amen.

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