May 29, 2016 – In the name…

Pentecost 2    May 29, 2016   (Ps 113) Acts 3:1-21, 4:1-12   In the name….

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Life has probably not been all that beautiful for this man, lame from birth, who begs every day at the Beautiful Gate of the temple. Someone has to carry him to the place where he begs, daily. Asking for handouts every day probably gets very old… And…

He’s probably seen these guys, Peter and John, going to the temple for prayers many times… (They do this every day, we’re told in Act’s previous chapter.) Now the man asks for alms as usual, but this time Peter says, “I’ve got no money, but what I’ve got I give – In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth – Stand up and walk!” And Peter reaches out and gives a hand – and suddenly the man born lame is walking, leaping, and praising God. Leaping in the air for joy, as he heads into the temple, where everyone recognizes him as the one who used to be outside the church every day, begging. Now he’s inside, praising God for all to hear. On fire with faith – people coming to watch him burn… Everyone’s amazed and astonished…. And…

Alleluia! Such a beautiful scene… As now the disciples of Jesus are healing the lame, as Jesus did. (In Luke’s gospel, remember, friends of a lame man lower him down through a hole they make in the roof of the house where Jesus is preaching – wrecking the roof – but getting their friend in front of Jesus for his healing word. And Jesus says nothing about the roof – but he does commend their faith… And then, and now again in Acts, the faith commended by Jesus is not the faith of the one healed, but the faith of the community that prays and carries the wounded person into the presence of Jesus…)

And just as the faith that saves and heals is not always the faith of the person themself – so now the apostle Peter insists this healing’s not about us doing anything miraculous. It’s only by the power of the name of Jesus this man is walking, leaping, and praising God. (So give all glory to God.) And what a beautiful story’s happening here at the Beautiful Gate today…

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Yet this spectacular healing is only scene one in a larger drama… As next, scene two, here’s Peter, making this healing a lead-in for his main mission – preaching and teaching the gospel of Jesus resurrected and the coming of Christ’s kingdom… Which also means repenting and turning to Jesus, the one in whom healing and salvation happens…

And here’s the apostle, re-working the same repent, come-to-Jesus theme he preached on Pentecost…. Again indicting everyone in hearing range of complicity in the death of Jesus…Again inviting one and all to come to Jesus, whom you killed – now alive, risen from the dead… Inviting all into the blessing of repentance…

And not to belittle the physical healing of the man born lame. (Which is for sure to be celebrated.) But the same New Testament Greek word means both healing and saving. And this story is about both salvation and healing, with no clear border between the two…

And this story is about ordinary walking, and walking with God… Ordinary physical walking is good – I walk every day, I thank God I’m able to…. But even Olympic runners’ legs wear out eventually. And whether we’re walking or in a wheel-chair or on crutches – we can be walking with Jesus equally well…As long as our heart’s turned to God… Which is the walk that matters most. But the story works on more than one level.

The book of Acts tells this story in ways that help us see this man born lame as both a particular person in history – and as a metaphor for the human condition – a sign and symbol for all of us – with all our diverse human frailties – all the human stuff that makes us spiritually lame, crippled, or in any way unable to properly walk our walk with God…

And the story’s about our need for continuous repentance, continuous turning to God… Turning to Jesus…in whose name all healing is given…

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And… the story is also about the cost of discipleship…. As now, scene three, we’re reminded of what Jesus taught us about loving and serving God, and doing the right thing…never being any guarantee of worldly reward. In fact, Jesus says, when we do what he does we should expect opposition, even persecution… One of only three or four places in the New Testament where we hear the phrase ‘leaping for joy’ is in Luke 6, where Jesus says, “blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of (me)…. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven….”

This is not quite to say “No good deed goes unpunished.” People won’t be upset about everything good we do. Hardly anyone takes issue with selling pumpkins to raise money for the Food Pantry. Few object to our Imagine No Malaria Campaign. And probably the religious authorities in Acts would be fine with the healing of this man – if that was the end of the story. But as soon as we go from a simple good deed to talking about the power of Jesus and the need for repentance… Now we’ve gone from preaching to meddling…

When we get to speaking and acting in the power of the name of Jesus, we will meet with opposition… In the Boston Globe story I talked about last week about the West Medford church that sold it’s large old church building and moved into a store-front, there’s an incident mentioned where a passer-by takes offense at a cross displayed on the sidewalk outside their new place of worship… ‘This is public space, that cross shouldn’t be there…’ was the gist of the irate message… As long as we keep the word to ourselves inside our churches no one’s upset… But when we take faith into the streets, as the early church did, we will sometimes meet opposition… Which will usually be very mild in comparison with the arrest of disciples we hear of in Acts today… Which is the first of at least half a dozen arrests and imprisonments in Acts. This is the New Testament pattern: The story of healing and salvation is also the story of the world’s opposition to God. It’s all one story. Healing, salvation, and opposition… We need to remember this – and not be discouraged for the wrong reasons.

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And as one who has struggled with the word of God for more than four decades now, I can understand some of the push-back from the world. Jesus does overturn life as we know it. I doubt anyone really welcomes all the changes Jesus brings naturally. Most of us only really believe the gospel as we come to recognize faith as a spiritual necessity…

And yes, sometimes religious people do go off on all sorts of inappropriate tangents in the name of Jesus…Talking about Jesus in ways that bear little if any resemblance to what Jesus said and did. In this country we have free speech… Which is a good thing. But having free speech is not a license to say whatever we like… without regard for what we’re saying, and how we say it…Even in our personal speech, but all the more when we’re associated with the name of Jesus in public, we have a great responsibility, as the letter to the Ephesians says, to always speak the truth of Jesus in love…

Remembering, that much like the first century church, we live in a pluralistic culture that gets very mixed signals (and mixed-up signals) about who Jesus is and what his gospel is all about…Jesus of course plants us in the midst of this culture, and calls us to be in mission to this wider culture. (“You will be my witnesses… to all the ends of the earth…” Jesus tells us in Acts 1.)

So we need to always keep learning to interpret the word of God graciously and accurately, making the word of God no more difficult than it has to be… For example, in our last verse in our readings today, where we hear: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given…by which we must be saved.” We need to be able to both affirm this gospel truth claim – and also interpret these words contextually, with discernment, and as much clarity as possible – for seekers and skeptics, friends and opponents of faith alike…

We need to be able to say, on the one hand, yes – All power for healing and salvation is in the name of Jesus. There’s no other name that works salvation. It would be a travesty, a bad joke, or both to say healing and salvation can happen in my name, your name, or any other human name.

But we also need to be clear – the name of Jesus isn’t magic. Healing and salvation don’t happen through just reciting the name. (There’s an episode later in Acts (19) where free-lance exorcists notice people healed in the name of Jesus. Perhaps hoping to profit from this phenomena, they command spirits – “in the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out…” The man afflicted with the malicious spirit then turns on the wannabe exorcists, and beats them severely… Using the name of Jesus without proper motivation, doesn’t work. And can have serious consequences…

And – the apostle Paul preaches one of his best-known sermons, speaking to the philosophers of Athens, without ever naming the name of Jesus… He talks about a man sent by God, risen from the dead… But never mentions the name in that sermon. Yet the message is heard, and some are convinced and come to believe… We don’t always have to mention his name to be preaching Jesus… Though we should always be bold to speak of Jesus – humbly, faithfully, lovingly, obediently – in all opportune times and situations. Remembering –

The power of the name of Jesus is all about the person of Jesus… “In the name of Jesus” is short-hand for the power of Jesus and the reality of Jesus. The power we always need. The name we’re never to be ashamed of…

And in the name of Jesus, with faith in Jesus, in the love of Jesus…  there is always still great power… Power to make the lame to walk. Power to heal and save those crippled by doubts, bound by fears…Power to make the broken-hearted leap for joy…

In the name of Jesus….the power of God is given, as we believe ever more deeply… And as believers in Jesus, here again is our job description–

Just as Peter and John say stand and walk – and also lend a hand with the getting up – So – now our work of faith is still – both to proclaim the word to stand and walk in the name of Jesus – and to give a generous helping hand for all who need help understanding Jesus… and his words… So –

In the name of Jesus… we pray for understanding and discernment.

In the name of Jesus… we pray for holy boldness… and gentle compassion for all…

In the name of Jesus… we pray for faith, working, always, through love…

In the name of Jesus we pray that all our words, all our deeds will help make known the truth, the power, the love of Jesus –

Alive, risen from  the dead – Coming again in fullness –

With us, in the power of his Word and Spirit, even now.

Thanks be to God. Amen.