I’ve never, ever cancelled a worship service before. I wasn’t expecting to cancel this Sunday either – I know that I can walk to church, even if the roads aren’t drivable. And I know there are those of you who will faithfully show up, even when it would be safer for you to stay at home. And there’s always the possibility that someone we don’t know yet will be looking for a place to worship on a Sunday morning. So cancelling worship is a big deal for me.
But sometimes our expectations don’t match up with reality. When April dumps a foot (or more) of snow on top of hail, sleet, and a couple of inches of rain, we go beyond amazed or surprised. We are utterly astonished. But maybe the reality of a foot of snow in April is God’s way of getting our attention, to get us to try a different way of ministering and worshiping than the way we normally do it.
For the first three Sundays after Easter, our readings in Acts depend on the story of the crippled man healed at the Beautiful Gate. Each reading refers back to this miraculous healing story, but never includes it. It’s a story full of amazement, astonishment, and wonder. And yet, amazing as it is, the healing isn’t what’s important here.
The healing is simply a prompt to get our full attention. The real point of the story is Peter’s sermon. Just like the first sermon Peter preached on Pentecost, the purpose of this second sermon is to point people to Jesus. These are people who have been amazed and astonished (2:7) by the events at Pentecost; they were “perplexed” (2:12).
Now, a short time later, the people worshiping at the Temple are “filled with wonder and amazement” (3:10) to watch a crippled man dance. This was someone they’d seen every day for his entire life. He was part of the landscape – perhaps not even a real person in their minds. When Peter and John stop and look intently at this man, it might be the first eye contact he’s had with anyone in years. His expectations are not very high – neither are the expectations of the people around him.
But when Peter takes his hand, he gets up and walks and leaps. His ankles are strong for the first time in his life. People are “utterly astonished” (3:11) and start running from all over the place to come see this miracle. They gather in Solomon’s porch, and look on in wonder and amazement as the Beautiful Gate cripple praises God. What happens next is what our author Luke wants to call to our attention.
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.
“And now, Friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.” (Acts 3:12-19)
Why do miracles surprise us, if we say we believe in Jesus? Shouldn’t we be anticipating – even expecting miraculous signs with some certainty? When Peter asks the crowd, “Why do you wonder at this?” he’s really asking, “Why are you surprised that God is at work here? Did you think we had the power to do something like this?” And Peter uses the opportunity to redirect attention away from the crippled man leaping around the courtyard, to get it focused where it belongs: on Jesus, the Son of God.
Peter is quick to assign the credit for this healing miracle to the name of Jesus. He grabs the opportunity to explain why Jesus’ name has the power to make a lame man walk for the first time in his life. Yes, Jesus was crucified, a form of death that God condemned in the Law (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). But now the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has glorified the one who was crucified. The very Jesus who died, who was traded for a murderer, is the Author of Life.
The people gathered there in the Temple may have been squirming a little to hear Peter’s words. And we should be squirming, too. Because we are just as guilty as the crowds who cried out “Crucify him!” We are just as responsible for betraying Jesus, for having him killed and choosing a murderer like Barabbas to go free.
We are just as responsible for Christ’s suffering as those first century Jews who gathered around Peter in the Temple courtyard. Peter knows exactly how we feel. He denied even knowing Jesus three times. If anyone can feel our guilt, Peter can. “We are witnesses to all of this,” he says. We know exactly who to blame.
The accusation from Peter is for us all- we have all crucified Christ. In the Lenten hymn, “Ah, Holy Jesus” one of the stanzas asks,
“Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.”
This is not an accusation against the Jews but against us all – when we remain silent while the innocent are killed, when we resort to violence, when we don’t love ourselves, neighbor or enemy – we participate in the power of crucifixion.
However, Peter tells us – and this is a Holy However! – there is mercy, and you can claim it. You had no idea that you were killing the author of life. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) must have been ringing in Peter’s ears. But the good news of resurrection declares that your worst sin, killing the Author of Life, does not get the final say. There is mercy, and you can claim it.
Repent, and turn to God, so your sins can be wiped out. Repent, turn to Jesus – who is God – and have faith in his name. That name is so powerful, it can heal those who put their trust in it. It can turn them into Resurrection people. Together, they become the Easter Church.
What does that look like? Here are a few aspects of an Easter Church:
It’s not a solo operation. Peter may be speaking but he is not alone. John is with him, even though we do not hear John’s voice in this passage. He will be arrested with Peter and he will stand and bear witness. This story isn’t about Peter, it’s about being witnesses together to the power of Christ’s name.
An Easter Church is devoted to proclaiming and bearing witness to Jesus. Proclamation includes both the prophetic (speaking truth) and the pastoral (an invitation to healing) that must go hand in hand. Jesus healed out of compassion, but he did it to draw attention to the power of God.
An Easter Church submits to Christ’s authority. Acknowledging the power of Jesus’ name. The crippled man wasn’t healed through Peter’s preaching or to provide entertainment to the crowds – he was healed because he responded to Christ’s authority and had faith in the name of Jesus. “His name itself has made this man strong,” Peter proclaims.
Healing is never an end in itself in the Bible. It’s always a signpost, pointing people back to God. What healing in our lives points people back to God? Or maybe we need to ask, “What still needs to be healed in us, so that we can give God glory and claim the power of Jesus’ name at work in us?”
How are we like the beggar at the Beautiful Gate, such a fixture in the landscape that we’ve become invisible to those who pass by our corner every day? What would it take to get us on our feet, leaping for joy and giving God praise in such a profound way that people would flock to see what the commotion was all about?
Next week, we will follow Peter and John as they are called to appear before the Sanhedrin, or Council. They will affirm once again that Jesus is Messiah, that he was killed, but that he lives. The temple authorities are not going to like this. Peter and John will be thrown into jail, they will be beaten, and then they will be released with strict orders to stop preaching about Jesus. But they persevere.
“As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. (Acts 5:41-42)
This is what an Easter church looks like. The power of Jesus’ name cannot be suppressed. An Easter church keeps healing, proclaiming, and persevering in Christ’s name, assured of his presence. Why do you wonder at the miracles you see? Why are you astonished to see God at work? This is his church. It is an Easter church. This church has only one purpose: it points people to Jesus. That’s why we say that, at First Church, we stay centered on Christ, so we can offer Christ. Amen.