This sermon was preached at the 6:00pm service on January 13th 2019. The text was Acts 3, 1 – 21
To the consternation of some, 2018’s Christmas number one was won not by a famous pop star, but by a little known Youtuber named LadBaby, performing a cover of “We built this city on Rock and Roll,” called, “We built this city on Sausage Rolls.” What really made this song stand out, is that it was a charity single with one hundred percent of the profits going to the Trussell Trust Foodbanks.
Meanwhile data released in November showed that around 8,000 Church of England Churches run or are involved in the work of a local food bank. At the same time, over this past Christmas season, Churches across the Bristol area will have been and are involved in running the Winter Night Shelter project, helping homeless people find somewhere warm to sleep. My point is that under the glitz and glamour of Christmas, there were thousands of people, some on our own doorsteps who were in desperate need of immediate short- and long-term help.
The lame man in today’s reading, was also in need of help. Being unable to walk, he would have been unable to work, and in Ancient Israel, there was no welfare state equivalent. He would have been reliant upon the support of his family, and what money he could beg from those coming up to the temple to pray. But when he encountered Peter and John things didn’t go quite as he expected.
The two disciples could have easily walked by on the other side, ignored the man, or rushed home to fetch some coins from the collective “Twelve Apostles Welfare Fund.” Instead this happens,
Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk.
Peter decides that rather than satisfying the man’s short-term physical needs he will offer him something that will benefit him forever, by restoring to him his own agency, allowing him to live life to the full.
This is not me suggesting that the Church should close down it’s Winter Night Shelters and Foodbanks, and instead pray homelessness away, because in several places in the Bible we as Christians are commanded to support those in need. What I am saying is that we need to look beyond the immediate needs, to the source of the problem, and do our best to solve that too. That might involve lobbying governments to reduce austerity, or it might – and I suspect it does – involve sharing the gospel of Jesus and the promise of a world renewed.
Peter knew that neither he, nor John, nor any of the other disciples had the power to solve this man’s problems. The only person could do that was Jesus, acting through them. He was the one who had been sent to proclaim good news to the poor, bind up the broken-hearted, and release the prisoners from darkness as it says in Isaiah. Yet he also knew how the people of Israel had responded to the message of Jesus. When confronted by the crowds in Solomon’s Portico he says,
Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate
I think we are equally guilty of disowning Jesus. We acknowledge his existence when it is convenient to us, or at special times like Christmas and the odd baptism, but other than that we prefer not to think about him. And when I say we, I don’t just mean society, I mean you and me here tonight. We are just as guilty of this as anyone.
Instead society and we here have bought into the idea that we can be the masters of our own destiny, that the world is ours to do with as we will, and that happiness can be found through doing exactly what we want, regardless of how it affects others. The world says that we don’t need God, and we don’t need religion – at least not in any real capacity except at Christmas – and that what matters is the individual, not the collective good. Right here right now is all there is, so let’s just have fun.
And hasn’t that worked out just great for everyone?
So, the natural world is balancing on a precipice, nations are fracturing, and individuals are increasingly lonely, desperate. We can’t fix these problems by ourselves, even if we try really really hard.
When Peter met the lame man outside the Beautiful Gate, he recognised that the man’s situation could not be fixed by any earthly power or by the simple giving of charity, but only by the power of Jesus, the man with the power to heal the ills of the whole world. And I think that when we look around at a world gone increasingly mad, when we confront the dangers of Brexit, and the damaging impact we are having upon the environment around us, we too must recognise that we can’t change any of this through our own strength, because the forces at play are far beyond us. Even we in the Church of England with our privileged place in society, can only do so much.
We know that as Peter reminds us in today’s passage there will come a time when God will return to reign over all the earth and restore it to the world that it should be. But until that time, what can we, who are also the heirs of Abraham and the prophets do?
I believe that as we stand at the beginning of the New Year, and move out of the Christmas season, that we can do two main things. Firstly, we can make it clear to people that having stuff is no bad thing so long as it doesn’t become the be all and end all. I like receiving presents as much as the next person and can recognise that there is a lot of joy to be found in the giving and receiving of gifts, – after all Jesus was the greatest gift that we can ever get and he was given to us freely. But we need to remind people that there is more to life than possessing things. That there is joy and happiness to be found in just being, and in our relationships with other people and with God.
Secondly, we need to remove the Baby Jesus from the manger and the cute nativity scene and take him out in to the world. We need to work to remind people that Emmanuel means God with Us. Jesus is not some distant figure out there confined to our history books or to a Spiritual Self-Help guide with only limited relevance to the world around us. He is the Light of the World, and the Word Made Flesh, and the one who has the power to change all things. He is the one who can provide food for the hungry, a home for the homeless and a voice for those who have been silenced.
Peter’s command is to “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.” This will involve admitting that we all have sins that need wiping out. So, people might not like the message. But we need to keep speaking out, we need to keep articulating this message, because it seems like the world is getting more and more broken, is becoming darker and darker by the second and the only one who has the power to fix it is Jesus.
So, to recap. The lame man in today’s reading was healed by Peter, utilising the power of Jesus. This is the same Jesus that both the Ancient Israelites and ourselves have disowned and ignored. Therefore, our task as Christians is firstly to help the world look beyond material possessions to the glory and wonder of the wider world and secondly, we need to help people see that Jesus despite what the world may tell you is a relevant and necessary figure, with the power to change lives.
The Church should not seek to fix the world, or even proclaim the message of Jesus through our own strength. Peter knew that the lame man could only be healed through the strength and power of Jesus Christ, and we can only hope to reach the world in that same strength. We cannot do it on our own. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this is God’s church. We pray, he builds. God will use us if we ask him, but we should not fall into the trap of thinking we can do things on our own.
So, this is my suggestion for the coming week. If we do one thing differently, lets pray a little more. Ask God to reach into our lives and show us where we are going wrong, ask for forgiveness for the things, we know we have done wrong. Ask him to show us how we can best further his kingdom message, and above all ask him to grant his love and protection to those who can hope for little else.
Pray a little more. Speak out a little more. It might just change the world.