April 15, 2018

April 15, 2018: Faith til You Have It

 

Scripture Used: Acts 3:1-19

 

There are times we look at a Scripture and assume we get the meaning on the first reading. There are times when we realize after the first reading, we should probably read it again, and we do and are rewarded with additional truth. Then there are times we read and reread and reread again and again and still feel as though we are only seeing part of a truth. Today’s passage feels like the latter.

 

In Acts, chapter 3, Peter and John are walking to the temple at the 3 o’clock hour when people come to pray and give their daily offerings to God. This is the period between the temple cracking in half at the time of Jesus’ death but before it is completely demolished by Roman forces.

 

As they walk by what is called the Beautiful Gate, they encounter a man who had been born with physical maladies that rendered him unable to walk. He begs at the temple for money to live on, assisted by those who carry him to his beggar’s spot. Peter tells the man to look at him and John. The man, hoping for money, catches the strangers’ eyes. Peter tells him, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk. He does, and is very excited about it, clinging to Peter and John.

 

As the crowds realized this miracle had happened, they gather around these men at what is called Solomon’s Portico – or Solomon’s porch. Peter sees their amazement and uses the moment to preach, or in our terms, he lets them have it.  He tells them they are essentially faithless: they can’t understand the miracle, because they don’t understand Jesus, whom Peter claims they are responsible for killing.

 

On the first reading, Peter and John heal a man. Peter then tells the crowd they killed Jesus. That warrants a second reading, in my opinion.  Peter and John heal a man by invoking the name of Jesus. Peter then tells the crowd that they have been ignorant and faithless, but that faithlessness was God’s plan for Jesus to die to fulfill a prophesy. A little better, but still doesn’t make sense.

 

So, after reading and rereading and rereading it again, we come to realize that Peter is making a point about Jesus – not about the people or the beggar. It was by invoking the name Jesus of Nazareth that the man was healed. Faith in Jesus’ name alone gave them the authority to perform a heavenly miracle. They had the faith to be willing vessels of God’s action in that man’s life and something great came out of it.

 

Faith is a powerful word. We use it quite often, because it is one of those words that is squarely protected in the realm of religious belief that even its secular counterpart cannot quite touch. Faith is the understanding that there are forces that are unseen and unproveable in the traditional sense that work to the will of God. Faith is how we believe in grace; faith is how we understand God’s love to be more powerful than the fickleness of human love; faith gives us reason to have hope when everything else seems lost.

 

In today’s reading, faith in the person of Jesus is enough to cause a man who previously could not walk, to walk.

 

Now, I have a question for you: do you believe that kind of faith is possible?

 

Good church people will say ‘yes,’ because ‘no’ feels like a lack of belief in God and saying ‘yes’ doesn’t necessarily mean I or you have to have that kind of faith. Just that it’s possible someone, somewhere, at some time has it. But to say something is simply possible really cheapens the meaning of our claim.

 

We want to claim the Matthew 17:20 faith: if it is the size of a mustard seed, that’s enough to move mountains. When I was young, a lady in church gave all the children little necklaces with mustard seeds in a tiny shadow box. We all wore them thinking that one day we would have mustard seed faith. It was cute as we came to the conclusion that faith isn’t some force on a scale. I think we all expected one day a little bright light would appear, and we would wait for it to become mustard seed size. “Y’all better say goodbye to the Rocky Mountains. We’re going to rearrange them.”

 

As we chuckle at the musings of children, that’s not far from what adults do in talking about faith. We claim its power in stories that serve what we want out of it. We talk about faith in how it pertains to helping us: healing, getting us out of bad situations, moving the mountains that block us, but not in terms of how Jesus intends it. The beggar wasn’t healed for his benefit alone; he was healed so that his witness could be used to proclaim God’s goodness. But, because the people there wanted miracles that were for them, they didn’t think about God’s goodness. They wanted their goodness.

 

When Peter then tells the crowd to repent, he is making clear to them that they should pay attention. Their faith was limited. They had tunnel vision that told them the messiah would only be the one thing – a conquering leader – which meant anything that wasn’t that wasn’t worth their time.

 

That’s what happens for a lot of people – they, we, want to commit fully to faith when it serves us. There is a concept in psychology known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which states people are motivated to satisfy certain benchmarks before they move on to bettering who they are as a person. The most basic needs were met for the beggar when he was healed – he could work, get food, find shelter. While it seems huge in terms of how he got it, all it took for him to praise God was to be able to walk. He didn’t wait to praise God when all the other stuff had happened – he just knew they would.

 

That is why Peter is telling the others to repent. Many of them already had everything they needed and more: food, shelter, safety, family, work that gave them a purpose, and that still wasn’t enough to put their full faith in God. The sin was that they were more concerned with finding what wasn’t right than glorifying God for what was. Spiritual growth was not enough – they wanted to prosper.

 

That is the sin we face today: we tell God we will make disciples and care for the needy after our needs are met.  We think our problems give us an excuse to not fully engage. But all it took for the beggar was the ability to walk once to proclaim God’s good name.

 

This dynamic between sin and faith came to a head in the life of Methodism’s founder John Wesley. Before his famed Aldersgate experience, Wesley was debating on leaving the ministry. He was burned out, because professional ministry is difficult. He confided in his friend Peter Bohler, a Moravian minister, who told him, “Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”[1] That sounds like some crack-pot wisdom, but it worked!

 

Wesley was unsure of this lesson until he preached to a man on death row who then immediately converted after hearing it. Just like Peter and the man at the Beautiful Gate, a person was healed simply by being told about Jesus. Wesley was not even as fully convinced as Peter, but he was willing to try, and that was faith enough to convert a man to a profession of faith.

 

This image of faith speaks to me very deeply in this point of my life. It is good to know that, even on the days when I am bogged down in personal and professional heartache and stress, Christ still works. The grace of God is powerful enough to work through the willing, even at our lowest times. God uses those who live out what little faith they have until they have it.

 

I want to offer you the same offer of hope that faith, even smaller than that of a mustard seed, can do wonderous things if you are open to it. Even if you don’t fully believe anything will come of your action, God can still use it, and over time, simply trying becomes a planted seed that can grow and grow to fullness.

 

This is a good lesson for not only individuals but for the whole church. We put more faith in traditions, things that we think define “who we are” as God’s people more than we put faith in God to continue to make us who God wants us to be. When we start thinking about new ideas or how to make ministries better, we go down dark paths that no one will come or we don’t have enough money or things are just fine as they are. When we do try, we make ideas as easy as possible, so if they don’t work out, we haven’t used too much time and effort.

 

I get it – trying new things or rethinking old traditions is hard. Our dedication is subject to how we feel, whether or not our needs are met. But that’s not faith. Faith is knowing God will take care of us as we love God and neighbor, as we are make disciples for the transformation of the world. No matter your life state, your ability or disability; no matter your age, race, gender; no matter who anyone else thinks you are: God wants every one of you. I know times can be tough, things can get over your head, but those are the moments when your faith matters most, when against all odds and common sense you still seek to serve God, and more than ever, the church needs people who want to serve rather than be served. That’s what faith is today – knowing what you are and do glorifies God.

 

And if you think that is just too difficult: try. Live faith until you have it.

 

Let us be silent as we listen for the words and will of God….

[1] http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/1420/dont-do-ministry-without-it

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