My sister sent out Easter cards this year with a photograph on the front. It was of four of us sisters posing for a picture. We were dressed in our Easter finery, which included spring coats with matching hats, white gloves and patent leather shoes. The ensemble was laid out on the eve of Easter with great anticipation. We might wear the coat on a cool Sunday after Easter. We would occasionally pull the pretty dress out of the closet for a special occasion. But never again did we put all those special elements together for one particular outing. When Easter is over the dress is dry-cleaned and the bonnets are put away. The baskets are emptied of their eggs and stored in the attic for another year because Easter is over.
Or is it?
Melissa Fay Green, in her book The Temple Bombing, wrote about the events surrounding the hate-crime against the oldest synagogue in Atlanta. The temple was damaged by dynamite in 1958. The very next Friday, the shell of a building was filled to overflowing as congregants met to worship in the carnage. Their rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, looked out over the packed crowd and said, after a lengthy pause, “So, this is what it takes to get you to temple?”
What does resurrection look like? Does new life come out of dead places only one Sunday a year? Or are we Easter people who continually watching for signs of God’s renewal among us?
In the Book of Acts we encounter a description of a miracle that happened in the Temple a short while after Jesus’ resurrection. A man born with a crippling condition is deposited by his friends at his usual begging spot: at the entrance to the Temple called the Beautiful Gate. His disability stood in stark contrast to all that was considered beautiful in first century Israel. He asks Peter and John for a few coins, a request he has made to countless pilgrims for a lifetime. But instead of tossing him a few coins, the men stop to look intently at him. Instead of money that could by a crust of bread, they offer the social outcast something better: “the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” No sooner do they invoke the powerful name of Jesus and the man’s ankles and legs are strengthened. They help him to his feet and he jumps about like a victorious athlete after winning the entire tournament!
Instead of a hand out they give him a hand up. This healing gives the man the possibility of earning a living. Now he can move about freely and enter his world, no longer sidelined by sanctified discrimination. We can imagine the energy that surrounds that scene and the crowd it drew. Folks excitedly recount the miracle they just witnessed. With mouths agape, all stare at the man they recognized from their daily trips into the Temple. The man who was never before seen at eye level now dances among them, singing God’s praises.
People are drawn to sacred spaces after momentous events. When supernatural moments challenge our world view, we are drawn to a divine power. We want an interpretation of what we’ve witnessed. Remember how folks drove around on the evening of 9-11 looking for a worship service to attend? When our human framework for interpreting life has been blown to smithereens, we want the consolation of Someone more powerful than our best friends or enemies. The people who gathered at the Beautiful Gate were shaken because something stunning just disrupted their expectations for a normal day. The crowd expanded as folks hungered for another dramatic show of power. Instead, they got a sermon. In fact, the main event appears to have been the message and not the healing.
The lectionary text for this past Sunday builds on this miraculous healing with an interpretation. Today I’m asked to deliver a sermon…on a sermon! This was Peter’s second sermon in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. His text had to address the divinity of Christ. Those who believed that a crucified man was the Son of God had a monumental task to convince others of this unlikely truth. Undoubtedly there were those in the crowd who cried out not so long before, “Crucify Him!” Peter tries to convince these oglers that they made a grave mistake in crucifying Jesus. This would have been an unlikely message to teach to a throng of voyeurs who simply wanted another act to the magic show!
In his sermon, Peter unpacks the errors in their evaluation of this remarkable event at the Beautiful Gate. Thomas Long lists three crucial mistakes. First, the onlookers misunderstood the source of the healing. They assumed John and Peter possessed the power to straighten out this man’s legs. We easily fall into idolatry of the healers in our society. Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil have an impressive fan base on their respective television shows. We spend money on supplements that promise youthfulness. We listen to podcasts that give us hope for a new way of life. We buy tickets to hear speakers who divulge secrets about magical cures. Like the hemorrhaging woman who reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ coat, we grab at the panacea offered by our community healers, sometimes traveling long distances for the cure. John and Peter quickly set the crowd straight by saying that it’s not about them. Rather, this healing has everything to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God they worshiped regularly in the temple was the one true healer.
Second, the crowd misunderstood the nature of life with God. They assumed that brokenness was the norm and healing the stunning exception. They believed that disappointment was the expectation and joy the surprise! Long writes, “Life is perceived to be barren of God, and if God ever should speak or act, it would be an incredible exception to the norm.”
Finally, the mob thought the healing required only a response of amazement. In his sermon, Peter urged them to repent. I suspect repentance was the furthest thing from their hearts as they watched the lame man jumping for joy! Events that fill us with wonder are invitations to reflect at a deeper level about who we are and what we’ve come to expect of our world. Maybe we need to confess that we limit God by our lowly expectations. We are surprised when our prayers are answered powerfully. Would our spouse be saddened if we found it highly unusual when they did something wonderful for us? Of course they would! What do we expect from those we love? Do we have room for joy or are we predisposed to pouting?
In the frenzy of a miraculous healing, Peter teaches this crowd about Jesus. A couple of times he talks about how they rejected Him. This is insider language because Peter’s denial of Jesus used that same word. Out of the pain of his own betrayal, Peter argues with this crowd what it means to be faithful. He assures them that there is still time to repent. Could you preach to a mob who was responsible for the murder of your dear friend? Could you offer them the gift of forgiveness? Peter affirms that the power to heal came not from them but was found in the name of Jesus. God has been at work all along and the power of the crucified Christ continues to effect miraculous changes in their world. Peter asks these awestruck believers to repent—to change their minds about who Jesus of Nazareth was and is! Peter preaches that those who accepted that Jesus as the Messiah would experience times of unimaginable refreshing. This miracle was a clear indicator of the kind of world God created for us and continually restores through Christ Jesus. For those who define their worth through shades of shame and guilt, Jesus’ resurrection confronts them with the reality of forgiveness. God is willing to wipe away the entire record of our misdeeds but we have to be willing to receive that gift.
I wonder what we have learned about how we are to live as Easter people? How did Peter’s sermon work on our forebears and how does it speak us into action today? Do we expect to see double rainbows out our windows in the calm of a Spring evening like we did last week? Do we anticipate the greening of the earth each Spring and for bulbs to courageously raise their blooms above ground even as snow threatens? Do we trust that rifts between family members can be repaired or do we construct higher emotional walls to keep them eternally at bay? When we walk through the doors of our sanctuary, do we expect to meet God or do we simply want to hum a few bars of our favorite hymn?
Annie Dillard challenges our expectations of worship in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk: “On the whole, I don’t find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
In what ways are we still resisting resurrection? Are we packing away our faith in God’s resurrecting power even as our Easter finery gets dry-cleaned for the next grand event? Do we cling to favorite sins that are viewed as normative in our communities? Can we embrace the opportunity at new life or do we prefer the usual combination of guilt and relapse? Are we so worried about doing everything perfectly that we sit safely on the sidelines doing nothing? Maybe we like the predictability to how things happen now that we reject new visions, new people, and new challenges for a rewarding life?
The people at the Beautiful Gate of the beloved Jewish Temple assembled to ogle a miracle but got a sermon instead. Peter delivered a mandate to expect new life to come out of dead places. In our own congregation we celebrated tremendously good news this past week. A woman who was taken into surgery to have a malignant vertebrae replaced was given a clean bill of health. The doctor went into the procedure expecting her spine to be porous, like swiss cheese, because of the cancer. When he opened her up he found that everything was…fine….healthy….normal. He closed her up and told the anxiously awaiting family that he has never seen anything like it. So what’s the miracle here?!
Do we expect resurrection on the Sundays after Easter? Do we believe there’s power in Jesus’ name? Do we expect disappointment or joy? Times of trial or moments of refreshing? Ongoing worry or dancing with paraplegics? Can we let go of our pessimism to embrace an abundant vision of reality?
Christ has risen and is moving powerfully among us…now and always.