This is my message for the 3rd Sunday in Easter, 7 May 2000, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures are Acts 3: 12 – 19, 1 John 3: 1 – 7, Luke 24: 36 – 48.
When I first looked at the scriptures for this Sunday and wondered what I would call the sermon, I thought about magic. After all, for a magician to be successful, he or she must create an illusion. We, the observers, are led to see one thing when something else is going on. But, after further thought, I might follow the thought of the holodeck on the starship Enterprise and the good doctor on the Voyager, both of which are based on illusions.
But, it really doesn’t matter which idea I follow because it was what the disciples saw that day shortly after the resurrection that prompted the thought of illusions. We live in a world that demands proof of things. And in the disciples’ time, when life was far less sophisticated, this would have been even more so.
To the disciples, the appearance of Jesus in that locked room surely was an illusion. Yes, they would have liked Jesus to be here with them, to offer hope and solace for the days to come. But, they all knew that dead men do appear in locked rooms before their friends.
Similarly, Peter challenged those who had witnessed the miracles that John and he had just performed to explain them.
Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a certain man lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms from those who entered the temple’ who, seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, asked for alms. And fixing his eyes on him, with John Peter said, “Look at us.” So he gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them — walking, leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God. Then they knew that it was he who sat begging alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. (Acts 3: 1 – 10)
It must have been an illusion because men who have been lame all their life simply cannot just get up and walk and jump.
But, by eating the fish and the bread, Jesus offered the disciples the proof they wanted that he was alive. And the people knew that man that Peter and John had healed and so they knew that his healing could not have been a staged event. When Jesus ate the fish, it showed that he was really there (something the doctor on the Starship Voyager would have trouble doing). And when the beggar stood and walked into the temple, the only reasonable explanation was that God had healed him.
But what about us, this day in the year 2000? How do we know, how can we explain what happened? The challenge is much like what we read in last week’s Gospel reading. Thomas told his compatriots that he would only believe that Jesus was alive when he had the opportunity to put his hands in the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet and to touch the side of Jesus where the spear had pierced His side. When Jesus appeared before Thomas and allowed him to touch the wounds, he pointed out that there would be many who would never see the wounds but would believe anyway.
Faith is an interesting concept. It is an abstract one because you cannot measure it. And if you cannot measure it, then you have no way of knowing how much you have. And if you don’t know how much faith you have, how will you know if you are worthy of Christ?
Life in this world can be and often is grim. It can be a life of limited vision and blindness, in which we see what our culture conditions us to see and where we pay attention to what our culture says is worth paying attention to. It is a world of judgement: I judge others and myself by how well I and they measure up. It is a life of anxious striving and feeling okay or not okay to the extent that we do or do not measure up. It is not a time in which it is good to be uncertain.
When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door, he was challenging the belief that one could buy one’s way into heaven, that is one’s works were good enough to get one into heaven. But if we cannot measure our faith, how will we know if we are worthy of Christ?
When John Wesley came home from America it was, as I have previously mentioned, with a feeling of failure. And to compound his feelings of failure, the trip back across the Atlantic was not an easy one. And during one very violent storm, he saw a group of Moravians simply praying. Now, the praying may or may not have calmed the storm but it was clear to Wesley that each member of that group received a strength that they may not have otherwise had. But instead of giving comfort and solace to Wesley, this merely added to his grief. For, though he was convinced that his faith was strong, it did not offer him the strength he needed at the time he needed. Wesley’s faith, at that time, was a faith built on a structure of tasks and works.
It is grace through faith, not salvation by works that saves us. And even though we know this basic tenet of faith, we find ourselves still measuring how much faith we have. In a society where worth must be tangible, we have fallen into the game of measuring faith as well. And when we measure faith, it becomes something that God requires of us. And if we lack in our faith, then we risk the peril of eternal punishment.
But if we see our faith only in terms of measurable quantities, then we do not understand the message that Jesus brought. Jesus’ message challenges many commonly held beliefs of family, wealth, honor, purity, and religiosity; His message challenges us to see life in a new way, not bound by society’s rules.
In a world when the Kingdom of God was seen in terms of a large and glorious mansion, Jesus offered the thought that the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed. Not only was a mustard seed one of the smallest seeds that the people knew, the mustard plant was also considered to be a weed. How could Jesus compare the glorious Kingdom of God to a small seed that was only a weed.
In Jesus’ time, children were nobodies, yet Jesus told everyone that the Kingdom of God was for them. What kind of Kingdom is the Kingdom of God welcomes even the lowliest of society? And in a time when the family was the primary social structure and the center of identity and material security, Jesus spoke of leaving the family and even ignoring one’s parents. It is little wonder that those secure in a traditional world would find nothing meaningful in Jesus’ message.
Jesus’ message can only be understood if you see it from a new, alternative viewpoint. Jesus gave us an invitation to see God, not as the source and enforcer of requirements, boundaries and divisions but as gracious and loving. Jesus also offered the invitation to follow a path more and more centered in God. What Jesus offered was a view to see life as a deepening relationship with the Spirit of God, not as a life of requirements and reward.
This is certainly a challenging message for us this day. Our culture’s secular wisdom doe not affirm the reality of the Spirit; the only reality of which it is certain is the visible world of ordinary experience.
John, in his first letter, speaks of how to live a righteous life. Forty-six times he used the word love. He pointed out, in the passage for today, that God’s love prompted Him to make us His children through the death of His son. John wrote that genuine love always results in action — not merely sentimental words. If the Spirit of Christ is in us, then others will see it. Our physical bodies may not change, but our lives will.
And God’s presence in our lives is revealed through our conduct. Righteous conduct will not produce righteous character but will reveal God’s presence in us. If we lead a life in Christ, then our lives change.
The secret you see is we know that Christ is alive. He is alive in our hearts. And when others see how our lives have changed, from a life of anxiety and stress to one of peace and trust, they will come to know Christ as well.