II Kings 4:18-25, 32-37, Acts 3:1-16
June 26, 2011
I love this story from Acts. This is the first big “act of the Apostles” in the book called “The Acts of the Apostles.” But it’s not just a story. This incident at the Temple gate sparked a huge controversy that went on through this whole chapter and almost all of the next!
The controversy had to with these religious leaders and their reaction to the birth of the Church. And it would actually go on throughout the whole book of Acts. Remember, these are the same guys, who only weeks before, had succeeded in doing away with the young Rabbi, Jesus – or so they thought! Now they were beginning to hear his name again. And I’m sure some of them were around to witness the events of Pentecost. They may even have heard Peter’s sermon. And that had to have been uncomfortable for them because he had spoken quite plainly about their part in Jesus’ death.
Well, now the stakes were being raised. Now they were starting to see miracles performed in Jesus’ name! And the first big miracle took place right there at the Temple Gate. That made this a pretty bold act! This was no small miracle in some private, out of the way place. This took place at the Temple gate, right in the middle of their city, right in the center of their cultural and religious life. And for those priests and religious leaders, that threw up a huge challenge to their faith and to their whole belief system.
One of the biggest problems they had with Jesus – besides the huge popularity he had – was that he did appear to perform legitimate miracles. That was a huge dilemma for them! They didn’t think he was legitimate, but his miracles seemed to be. And now that same problem was resurfacing in his followers. “What shall we do with these men,” they later debated in the council. “For a notable sign (miracle) has been performed by them in front of the people. And we cannot deny it!” I hope you see how difficult that was for them!
I have to say again, that this is one of those places where it’s hard for us to put ourselves in their shoes. We might be able to do that physically. We might be able to imagine this happening, and think about what they were feeling. But it’s hard for us to put ourselves into their understanding of things. For them, Jesus was a huge challenge to their belief system. For us, he is already “established.” Jesus doesn’t challenge our basic beliefs, because he is our basic belief! We already know who he is. But they didn’t know what we know. And so Jesus was a huge challenge to their faith. They were fiercely proud of their monotheism. Now here was a guy who said he was God’s son. It was difficult enough when he challenged their teachings and practices. But saying he was God was too much! And they weren’t willing to take such a serious look at what they believed.
That’s always one of the challenges for us as God’s people. One of the big questions of the faith has always been, “what do we do if things aren’t what they used to be?” Think about that. What if things change? “Are we willing to take a serious look, sometimes scary look, at what we believe and how we think about things?”
I want you to think about that today. These religious leaders were called on to do that kind of self searching. And it was too much for some of them. But that kind of thing happens from time to time. Over the years since, the church has had to face many such challenges. For instance, when the bubonic plague marched across Europe, it not only killed something like a third of all the people, but it shook the faith of many! Where was God when all that was happening? People were asking serious questions like that.
Then there were other challenges in that wild and wooly period of time called “the age of enlightenment.” Guys like Copernicus came around and started saying things that challenged people’s view of the universe. He’s the one who said that the earth was not the center of the Solar System, And that was hard for people to take! The scriptures seemed to say it was. (Though not really! But again we can only say that from our perspective!)
In our day, evolution might pose that kind of challenge. And you know what a firestorm that has caused in the past half a century or so! Actually, I find that whole thing to be a challenging debate. But some people don’t want that kind of challenge. They only want things to be cut and dried. They don’t want any lingering questions.
So this man was healed at the Temple gate, and the people “ran together,” it says. And Peter began to speak to them – right there in the Temple! That’s the scene the priests and the temple leaders came upon at the beginning of chapter 4. They didn’t like it, of course, and they had the disciples arrested – again, right there in the Temple! The next day they put them on trial. Remember these priests were also the civil authorities. There was no separation of religion and state. So this whole thing was played out in a very official manner. And as it ended, Peter and John were officially charged not to speak and teach in the name of Jesus. And that’s when they gave this wonderful answer. “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge. For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
I think that raised the stakes even higher! In fact it may have been the biggest challenge, yet. Because this was now about God. These men were claiming to have God on their side of things! Later in chapter 5, after things had heated up even more, the disciples were arrested a second time. And during that second trial, one of the leaders of the council, a man named Gamaliel, would stand up and speak. And we have come to see his words as very wise. He said, “If these men are acting on their own, their efforts will fail. But if they are doing what God is telling them, you will not be able to overthrow them. And you might even find yourself fighting against God!”
I think those are still very wise words! And they are wise for all ages. When something challenges our faith, what do we do? Do we immediately oppose it – based on the pride of our own understanding? That can easily happen, can’t it? It bothers us because it goes contrary to what we think? Do we do that? Or do we go to God and ask him about it? That’s always been the hardest thing to do! As I’ve said before, the challenge to us of WWJD is a good one. Before we do anything, we ask “What would Jesus do?” But the harder challenge is WWJT – “What would Jesus think?” When something challenges us, do we ask God what we should think about it? But that’s not easy!
So, what if something challenges our faith? Are we willing to look at our beliefs? Are we willing to set aside our pride and search for that elusive think called truth? Sometimes that search is so hard that people avoid it. But I think we shouldn’t. We should seek truth, and we should seek to learn and grow all the time, no matter how difficult that is. And no, I don’t have all the answers as to how to do that, but let me say two things.
First, the examination of our faith should be a search for truth. It should not be a quest to throw out something because we don’t like it. Sometimes examining our faith actually helps us to know something and follow it even more strongly.
But second, in our search for truth, we need to recognize the impact our understanding might have on others. Because life is about the relationships we have, in our lives, and in community – especially the community of faith. That’s our foundation. I believe God created us that way! But as people in the church have discovered over the years, we don’t always believe everything the same way. So the question then becomes, “How do we keep that relationship with someone who differs with us?” And it even becomes “How do we encourage someone in their faith, even though it’s different than ours?” Those are tough questions. They are very challenging to us!
As I said a couple of months ago, that’s the lure of fundamentalism. For in fundamentalism, there is no struggle. Things are a certain way and that’s it. When something challenges some people they simply say, “that’s wrong, and that’s all there is to it.” I think we’re called to ask the tough questions. What do we do when someone thinks differently about something? By the way, that’s also a very Presbyterian question! Among the historic principles of our denomination has been the belief that 1) “God alone is lord of the conscience,” and 2) “People of good character can differ in what they believe.”
We Presbyterians have always believed that people can differ with each other in their understanding of things. That makes things hard sometimes. We humans tend to look at the world through only our own eyes. And because of that we do take offense at things that are different because we see them as challenging our understanding. And sometimes we Christians listen to someone else’s take on things and see it as a challenge to our own beliefs. Paul would call us to “Be of one mind.” But that doesn’t mean we all agree. It does mean that we strive to love and support one another, instead of being divisive.
I’m laying down a tough challenge today, I know. It’s those things that are different in other people, and particularly in the faith of other believers, that puts us in the position of the religious leaders at the Temple gate. We would say they didn’t react very well. But would we have been any different? There are Peter and John performing miracles, and talking about God in a way that is different than what we grew up believing. What are we going to do? How are we going to react?
Eternal God, help us to see each other the way you see us. Help us to love and support and encourage one another as we seek to build up the body of Christ here in this place. Help us to see the beauty in the beliefs of others, and to be more dedicated to you ourselves each day. For these things we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, and for the sake of his kingdom, Amen.