A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
Year B – 22 April 2012
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
When Peter saw the astonishment of those who had seen the lame man healed, 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.”
In 1958, the oldest Temple in Atlanta was badly burned as a result of a bombing. The next Friday evening, people streamed into a shell of a structure for the first Sabbath service after the bombing. Despite the boarded up windows and doors hanging off their hinges, the space was filled to capacity almost as if it were a High Holy day.
The rabbi there was known for his powerful preaching and the crowds were hushed as they waited expectantly for the words that would surely begin the healing process. He stood silently for a few minutes, and with a penetrating look, surveyed the crowd. Finally he spoke. “So, this is what it takes to get you to temple?!” (Feasting on the Word, “Pastoral Perspective”, pg. 406, Tom Long).
When you think about it, what brings us back to church in droves? Well, as we saw two weeks ago, there’s little doubt that Easter does, and so does Christmas as well as that “high holy” day known as Mother’s Day. Tragedy brings us back to church, too – personal and corporate. Think of where you were on the Sunday following 9/11 or maybe even after the shootings at Virginia Tech?
Our story today from Acts tells us about an event that brought Jews clamoring back to the Temple not long after Jesus had died. They had heard of a miraculous healing and it involved that crippled man who had become almost a permanent fixture at the entrance Gate where he begged for money. It was hard to miss him and apparently he begged Peter and John for money as they entered the Temple Gate. They had no money to give him, but gave him something else, instead. They gave him a completely healed body in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth who was and is both Lord and Messiah.
Peter, who had taken a position of leadership among the Jews and had finally found his voice as preacher, was surrounded by a crowd of people in the portico area of the Temple. Because of the healing, they were suddenly in awe of him and so willing to convey on him a kind of superstar quality. How ironic that the real superstar with a servant’s heart and innate humility had just been put to death on a cross. How ironic that the crowd didn’t see Jesus for who he was but was willing to make Peter into something he wasn’t as a result of the healing.
It seems as if we have a fascination with healers. Think back to the middle of the last century and see if you can recall a televangelist with a popular healing ministry. For those who are too young to go back that far, you will know him by the university that bears his name. It’s Oral Roberts. In February of 1947, he performed his first healing. He healed a woman whose hand had been crippled for 38 years. Word of the healing spread so fast that that by June of that year – just 4 months later – he announced to his congregation that he had received invitations to conduct healing services in eight different states and that he needed to resign his pastorate.
I remember so well being glued to the T.V. and watching Oral Roberts heal a steady stream of people with all sorts of afflictions. People who had been confined to wheel chairs would suddenly be able to stand up and walk, and the blind would be able to see when he placed his hands on their head and proclaimed “Heal, Heal!” I was too young to be skeptical of what I was witnessing and just assumed that there was magical power in those hands of his.
The crowd that had gathered at the Temple must have felt much the same way about Peter’s miraculous healing and were waiting for him to say something powerful. But instead, Peter, with John by his side, turned to them and asked: “… why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power and piety we…made him walk?” (Acts 3:12). Peter was trying to take the emphasis off of himself and off of the healing itself and on to the true source of it which, he reminded the crowd, was and is “…the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors (who) has glorified his servant, Jesus… (It’s) by faith in his name,” Peter said, “his name itself (that) 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” (Acts3:14-16).
Peter was most likely addressing many of the same people who had witnessed Jesus’ healings. The difference was that Peter didn’t anger the crowd by making blasphemous claims to be God’s son like Jesus did. Peter was one of them even though he had also been one of Jesus’ disciples. As we know, faith didn’t come easily to Peter, but he had finally “gotten it” after the encounters he and the other disciples had with the risen Christ.
And that faith enabled him to witness and preach and heal in Jesus’ name. It caused him to become somewhat of an authority; yet he kept his humility despite the star quality that the people who surrounded him tried to bestow on him. Peter wanted people clamoring to Temple for the right reason and in his mind, the right reason wasn’t to exalt him for his act of healing but rather it was to have their faith lead them there, instead – to come out of Thanksgiving and gratitude – and yes, even humility.
The Tuesday evening after Bubba Watson won the Master’s golf tournament, he was interviewed on Piers Morgan Tonight. Piers asked him how he was enjoying his moment in the sun and it was refreshing to see Bubba’s humility. All who watched the tournament had already seen it in the tears he shed after his victory putt. Hopefully, he will be able to maintain that humility in the face of his growing popularity, but because he is human, it will most likely be a struggle.
Believing in yourself is one thing, but believing that you have some special gift or talent that sets you apart and should make you the object of adoration, is something else because that’s what feeds our egos at the expense of our humility. I believe that’s what Peter was cautioning against in his sermon to the crowd that surrounded him at the Temple portico. Stop looking at the healer or the healing in isolation, he warned. Put it all in the broader context of faith in the ability of our God to do more for us than we could ever imagine doing for ourselves.
“Humility” writes Frederich Buechner in his book called Listening to your Life, (San Francisco, Harper Collins Publishers, 1992) “is often confused with self-deprecation of saying (for example) that you’re not much of a bridge player when, in fact, you know perfectly well that you are. Or, saying that you’re not much of a bridge player because you really aren’t, but you’re proud (of yourself ) for admitting it so humbly.” It’s a Catch-22! “True humility” he writes “…is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased with yourself when you play well than you are when your opponents play well” (pgs 196-197). Or maybe to put it another way, true humility is having it all – whether that’s fame or fortune or power and influence – but being only as pleased with yourself as if you had nothing.
Peter was an ordinary person who finally came to realize what Jesus was trying to teach him all along. And that realization led him to become a leader and a preacher and a healer yet at the same time kept him humble. So, maybe it’s humility that gets us back to church in droves, and not just on Easter or Christmas, but on an ordinary, even rainy, Sunday – humility that brings us to our knees in recognition of our unworthiness and in thanksgiving for and unwavering faith in the power of God’s healing love.