The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
April 15, 2018
When we are dealing with God, we often end up with more than we bargained for – though we soon realize that what God had in mind is better than what we had.
In his commentary on Acts, N.T. Wright tells a story about a young man who attended church, not because he had spiritual interests, but because he was keen on a girl who sang in the choir and whom he wanted to ask out.
He wasn’t exactly sure how to act in church, but he figured he could fake it by following the actions of those around him. As he sat there waiting for the service to begin, a flustered usher came up to him at the last minute, saying, “Excuse me. We’re supposed to have a young man do the scripture reading, but he’s not here. Could you take his place?” The visitor was horrified at first, but then he realized he’d just been handed a golden opportunity to impress the girl he had his eye on. “Sure,” he replied with faux confidence.
So, when the time came, he strode confidently up to the lectern, opened the Bible, and began to read John 10. When, however, he heard the words of Jesus, “Anyone who doesn’t enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in by another way, is a thief,” he was blindsided by a bright flash of self-awareness. Jesus was describing him! He was, with rank hypocrisy and a disguised ulterior motive, stealing into Jesus’ flock.
His mind reeled in startled confusion, but he soldiered on with the reading until he came upon a promise that stunned him but sparked in his heart hope and longing. Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep,” and then, “I came that you might have life, and have it full to overflowing.” Those words shook his soul and set off in him a daring to entertain the possibility that, though he’d been leading a false life, he might still be able to have a real life. When he stumbled back to his pew seat, he knew he had resolved to take a few tentative steps of faith toward the One who wanted to give him that real life – and eventually Jesus did!
Today’s story from Acts describes some others being surprised by divine grace like that.
The previous chapter of Acts tells us that Peter and John had been enjoying the warmth and encouragement of a close-knit Christian community marked by deep fellowship, teaching and prayer.
A good church always creates the temptation to keep within its comforting confines. But if a church’s teaching is true and its prayer is real, the Spirit always gives people legs to venture out into the world around it and to keep an eye peeled for opportunities to help others discover the secret of real life. The path of discipleship does no detour around human need; it brings believers, not away from, but straight to, those desperate for help. Thus, Peter and John were moved to attend services in the Jerusalem temple.
As soon as the two of them had reached the temple gate, their sight was arrested by the presence of a man whom most people would just as soon overlook: a beggar, lame from birth, who every day put worshippers on the spot by asking for alms.
This disabled man followed his standard routine when he saw Peter and John approach, and hit them up for some dough. An everyday interaction, however, turned into an extraordinary encounter as the three of them noticed each other and studied each other with steady, penetrating gazes. The scripture says that the two apostles “looked intently” at the disabled man, and that he in turn “fixed his attention on them”. In that face-to-face contact in mutual awareness, they took in more than each other’s reality. They took in the grace of God, and experienced the reality of His power in a multi-layered miracle.
The apostles had only been expecting to fulfill their obligation as pious Jews to attend daily temple prayer. The lame man had only been expecting to obtain some money. But God had something bigger and better in mind. God wanted to use the disciples – who had nothing to bring to the table but the name of Jesus Christ and their faith in its power – to give that disabled man his legs, to raise his sights, and more importantly to introduce him to a richer and higher life than he’d ever imagined possible. When he was looking for no more than a little spare change and perhaps a few kind words of empathy, God was wanting to heal him completely, not just by making his legs healthy and strong enough to lift his body, but also by making his life “full to overflowing” with another life, a life beyond his own that would lift his spirits high. Thus, the once-lame man did not simply walk. He “jumped” and “leapt” in grateful praise of God, in an exultation that had to express itself with an almost embarrassing exuberance. I guess then it’s okay to get carried away with the glory of God’s grace! I guess then that proper decorum is sometimes too humdrum to do justice to the supernatural mercy of the Lord!
This scripture story puts at least three questions to us.
First, does God want us to let loose and get carried away in praise and adoration, in deeper ways than we’ve ever before allowed?
Second, does God want to dare us to believe in unprecedented possibilities beyond anything we’ve previously known?
Third, does God, in having drawn us together in love and in having made us what one person recently described as “a diverse, inner-city fellowship that has the feel of a small-town family”, want to make us people who even more than before reach out beyond the comfortable confines of our fellowship and help God make new disciples of Christ who in their turn share Christ’s loving power into every corner of Long Beach?
May God give us our legs and raise our sights! Let us pray.