Third Sunday of Easter
Have you ever seen the movie “Inception”? Like a lot of movies I seem to be drawn to, it’s weird. It’s science-fiction, but I don’t know how much “science” there is. It’s about a group of people who figure out a way to dream their dreams into other peoples’ dreams, so they can make people dream that they are dreaming about someone else’s dream who are dreaming about a dream. I told you it was weird.
I bring it up because the next couple of sermons are an “Inception” kind of thing. I’ll be preaching sermons about a couple of sermons that Peter preached that are about things that Jesus said and did. It’s layered like that.
And like most sermons, they are not going to be all-that deep. They won’t be about anything you probably don’t already know; that’s not why we listen to sermons; that’s certainly not why we preach them. Good sermons—the ones we hear and the ones we preach—are meant to point the children of God back to what’s important. No matter how far we’ve wandered, no matter how wrong we’ve been, good sermons aim to bring us back to what is True. There are different kinds of preachers and there are different ways to proclaiming it, but all good sermons point us back to the Truth that Jesus our Savior is the one who makes us whole forever.
Again, not terribly deep: we know this. What we may not always remember is that this Truth calls us to something. God’s Truth calls us to more than just awe and wonder. As Easter people—as people who have received life eternal—we receive this Truth by our repentance. This Truth calls us to turn around, to repent, to change our citizenship in this world, and to become a faithful part of God’s Kingdom. The power of God calls us to be different.
Our Scripture lesson today begins with, “When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, ‘You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us.’” Obviously, there is something bigger than just his sermon going on here. That “something” he refers to is a miracle. Shortly after Pentecost, when they received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter and John find themselves (as I’m sure they often did) on their way to the temple to pray. At one of the gates leading into the temple, they met a man who had been unable to walk since birth. Since he couldn’t work, he sat outside the temple every day where the people of God could provide him with charity.
This is where the story gets interesting. Peter and John show up and tell the man, “We have no money, but in the name of Jesus get up and walk.” Of course, the man born unable to walk then gets up and walks. Not only does he walk, he leaps. He starts jumping around for joy, following them into the temple praising God for what’s been done for him.
I imagine, when you hear that part of the story, it sounds a bit familiar to you. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything that spectacular happen at an entryway to our church, but we’ve heard stories like this before. Jesus did this kind of thing all the time, right? That’s why great throngs of people followed him around; but it’s old news to us. It’s funny: we may not be so used to the miraculous, but stories about the miraculous are nothing new. We forget that, if we were there—if we were witness to something incredible like this—it would be a big deal! If suddenly, that poor guy we gave money to outside the church, came dancing and shouting into it, we would want to know more; we would go check it out. And check it out, they do. The people Peter addresses—the people who are wondering and staring—have seen something amazing and they come flocking to find out more about it.
In her book The Temple Bombing, Melissa Fay Greene describes the events surrounding the 1958 hate-crime bombing of the oldest synagogue in Atlanta. The very next Friday evening, at the first Sabbath service after—the synagogue’s windows still shattered and boarded up and its doors hanging off their hinges—worship was filled to overflowing; almost as if it were the high holy days. Their rabbi’s name was Jacob Rothschild—a powerful preacher and civic leader—stood up for the sermon. He stood silently for a moment, looking out at the full congregation with a penetrating gaze. Finally he said, "So, this is what it takes to get you to temple!"
People get interested in church for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it’s a high holy day. Sometimes it’s fear and grief. Sometimes it’s because God is doing something powerful and people want to check it out. People don’t flock to church very often these days, but they certainly should. Miracles happen here; maybe not the ex-beggars leaping for joy kind of miracles, but there is healing here. Do you know how miraculous it is to be in a church that welcomes strangers? There is no well-organized program like some churches take on, we’ll just say hi to you and try to convince you to stick around for coffee. We are that rare church of wandering pilgrims, on the lookout for other wandering pilgrims. If this town could get a glimpse of that miracle, this place would be standing room only.
God leads John and Peter into a miracle, and like a miracle should, it draws a crowd. And just like any time that God does something outstanding through us, Peter takes a minute to explain where it comes from to the wondering crowd. He explains that this is simply a God-thing. That this miracle was done in the name and by the power of Jesus. “Oh, and by the way, that is the same Jesus you all crucified not long ago.”
You have to remember that Peter hasn’t been a preacher very long. What he has to say is True and God-breathed, but I think he needs to work on his delivery a little bit. Telling your gathered congregation that they “rejected the Holy and Righteous One” and they “killed the Author of Life” may not always have the desired effect (and we’ll find out more about that next week.) For today, what he has to say is important to us all: the same Jesus that caused this miracle to happen was raised to forgive our sins. Yes, in a manner of speaking, we put Jesus to death; and yes, fortunately that’s not the end of the story. But it is worth remembering sometimes: if Jesus died to save us from our sins and that is good news, we can’t exactly pretend we never had any.
But Peter then goes on to proclaim something amazing. He doesn’t say our sin was okay. He doesn’t make light of the damage we have done to our relationships with God and one another, but he does point out that we didn’t know better. He says, “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance.” We were just dumb. It doesn’t make sin okay, we still need to be forgiven, but Peter knows that we acte out of ignorance.
How does Peter know we acted out of ignorance? Because Peter acted out of ignorance! This is beautiful, because we know Peter’s story. We know how he was always the boisterous, impulsive disciple. Even better, we know about that time he swore he would follow Jesus into battle and then pretended he didn’t even know him when things got rough.
I’m glad people don’t know my story that well. I’m glad, but then again: it shows us where Peter’s compassion comes from. Peter can point out our sin, while at the same time understanding our ignorance, because he was once ignorant too. I was out to dinner with my family not long ago and there was a child a couple of tables over, just screaming; not constantly, but noticeably. There was a time that would have bothered me. That time of course, was before I had children of my own. I’ve been to a restaurant with a colicky infant. I’ve felt the glare of people who are just trying to have a nice evening out. I know it’s annoying, but I now also understand what the parents are going through too. There is a level of compassion that we find when we remember that we’ve been there; a compassion that can, perhaps, help others move past it too.In the light of Easter morning—under the profound witness of the Empty Tomb—we are called to remember where we’ve come from. We are called to remember that we too were ignorant once, lost in our own sin. We are called to proclaim our salvation—in deed and word—to those who need to hear it, not with judgment, but with compassion and understanding; because we’ve been there too. When those around us see this marvelous thing at work in us, may they also hear God’s call to turn back to that same grace and mercy. By the power of God, may we who were once ignorant, bring the truth and life of our Risen Savior to this darkened world.