“The Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”
The words of Peter, the fisherman, and an extraordinary thing for him to say about a Galilean carpenter, who only a few days before had been seen hanging on cross just outside the city gate.
“The Author of life”? How has he come to that conclusion? Peter was the first to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, but now, he’s going much further. Jesus, he has decided, is not just the king of the Jews, not just the Messiah, but the one who created everything in the beginning, before time even existed.
How has he come to that conclusion? Well he gives that answer himself: “God raised him from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” He has personally seen Jesus alive and alive in a most convincing way. In our Gospel reading today we had an account of the moment when Jesus first appeared to Peter and the other disciples. He was very clear that he was fully alive, not just an apparition or ghost: “Touch me and see”, Jesus says in verse 39, “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And just to prove the point, he goes on to eat a fish in front of them. And so Peter concludes that this man was not only his king, his Messiah, but also his God.
The fact that Jesus was alive and that they had personally seen it was the one message above all that the first apostles wanted to tell everyone. This was the single event that gave rise to the Church. It is the very nub of what we call the “Gospel”, the good news. Everything else flowed from that simple, yet astonishing message.
And that is what led directly to the episode we’re looking at today from the Acts of the Apostles. It was an event that took place very soon after the resurrection. Peter and John were walking to the Jerusalem Temple when they came across a well-known beggar, a man, we are told, who had been lame from birth, unable to walk. When the beggar asked Peter for alms, Peter replied “silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you: in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” Whereupon he yanked the man to his feet and the man not only walked, but leapt for joy. And the Temple was crowded with people, who knew the man well and who were astonished at what they had just seen.
And we join the action, just at the moment when the crowd see what has happened and start rushing towards Peter and John, who have to do some pretty quick explaining. Some of the crowd think they have divine power, others think that they are miraculously holy, but Peter is very clear about what’s just happened. It’s the risen Jesus:
…“by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong…”
Now this episode is kind of symbolic for the whole life of faith.
For one thing, there is something of the lame beggar in each of us. We might think we’re rich and powerful in 21st century Britain. But there are times in life when we simply reach the end of our resources, when we are as bereft as that beggar. And at such times, it suddenly becomes apparent that we are utterly dependent on God. The truth, of course, is that we are always dependent on God, it’s just that we don’t acknowledge it. But the life of faith encourages us to face that truth and to live happily with it, because God is good.
And we are also rather like that lame beggar in that each of us is, in some way disabled from birth – not physically perhaps, but there are many things in life that make us lame. You’ll know what it is in your life, and you are not alone. We all suffer from it one way or another. It’s the human condition. Sometimes it’s weakness, sometimes it’s what we can’t do or just won’t do (because we’re stubborn) and sometimes it’s the things we do just to fill the void, or to deal with the ache within. And sometimes it’s simply the way we deal with stuff that we can’t control, that’s not our fault, but which happens to us anyway.
But the resurrection of Jesus changes all of that. When he touches our lives, he does it with real power. If he has even overpowered death, he has also overpowered everything that can threaten or harm us. If he is the author of life, he can bring us fully to life too, however maimed or impoverished we might be. Peter had experienced it himself on a beach a few days earlier. Completely desolate following his betrayal of Jesus, he tried returning to fishing – and found he couldn’t even do that. He had hit rock bottom. And then the risen Jesus met him, forgave him, healed him deep within and transformed him. And now he passes on that healing to this man. And the crowds flock to know more…
This is the dynamic that gives birth to the life of faith. We undergo healing by encountering the living, resurrected Jesus, by experiencing his power over death and over every other power and suddenly, being that lame beggar is not a bad thing to be. Suddenly we find that all the years spent trying to live by our own power was little better than sitting lamely with our hands out begging. But to acknowledge our dependence on God, to seek his help, opens us up to the healing our souls most need. And then, not only are we able to stand, but also to leap for joy.
Not only that, but we have something to give to others too. Like Peter, we may not have silver and gold. We may not have power to stop wars, to wave away sickness, to prevent suffering. But we have the gift of Jesus to give to others, the gift of a Jesus who is fully alive, triumphant over death, turning the defeat of the Cross into victory, just as he transforms the wreckage of our lives into glorious beauty, to make the lame leap and dance.
[It is that Victory we will be claiming for Emma when we sign her with the Cross; it is that victory we will pour upon her in the water of baptism; and it is that Victory we will promise to make a way of life for her, when we make her baptism vows.] It is the victory of life over death; it is the victory of suffering over oppression; it is the victory of healing over everything that affects our well-being.
And we are doing it to her as a baby to emphasise that it is God who does all this. It is not that she has any special power of her own or is particularly holy. It is God at work in her life who will transform her destiny. It is the resurrection of Jesus that lies at the heart of everything we are doing today and all the consequences of it that we are claiming for little Emma’s life.
But it’s not just for Emma. It’s for each of us too. God calls each and every one of us to hold out our hands to him, to be transformed by the living reality of the resurrected Jesus, to experience his power, to be healed and to pass from death to life. And that requires us to live by faith.
Unless we’re prepared to stick our necks out and put our faith on the line, we’ll never see the living Jesus at work. If we just keep our faith in a box or on the back burner, we’ll just be left with our own merge resources, disabled as they are. And unless we personally experience the resurrection of Jesus transforming our own needs, we will have nothing at all to give to those in need in our own generation. If Peter is right, every human being on this planet is like that lame beggar: struggling to walk straight, buckling under the weight of this world, poor deep down in ways they can’t even acknowledge themselves. And all we have to give them is Jesus. But how can we give them that if we haven’t experienced him for ourselves?
When we look at the Church, no Mission Action Plan can transform us, no music, however transcendently beautiful, no eloquence from the pulpit, no building renovation, no revamped worship pattern, no outreach programme can make the slightest difference to the world around us. All of these things can have value, but only if at the heart of it all, we too have met the risen Jesus and know him to be alive; and if we too have been given health and have offered that transformation to the people around us in his name. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything.
So, [as we bring little Emma into this life of faith], let’s put our faith on the line.
And to do that, first we have to acknowledge our need. You may not know Jesus. You may not even believe in God, but neither (so far as we know) did that lame beggar. He just held out his hand and asked. God gives us freewill and he will never override that. He will never use his power to go against our wishes. But if we ask him, he will move heaven and earth for us. He will part the Red Sea for us, he will go to hell and back for us – in fact he already has. We need God all the time, but that’s okay because God is good – all the time.
Secondly, bring to him whatever is disabling in your life. You may not be physically disabled – and if you are, I suspect that may not be your biggest problem. People with physical disabilities are often far more courageous and determined in overcoming them than people with other disabilities. So what is your biggest problem? Bring it to Jesus and invite him in to transform it. Listen to what he says, do whatever he tells you. I know from my own experience that when we take the time to allow him in, to take his teachings to heart and to ask his strength to do it, the author of life rewrites our inner programming and it sets us free – free from the things that disable us, free from the things that imprison us deep within our own problems and dark thoughts, free to stand again and live.
Thirdly, live beyond your means. Spiritually, I mean. Christians are at their most alive when they take steps of faith that take them beyond their own resources and make them totally dependent on God. When Peter yanked that lame man to his feet, he must have been terrified. He was way out of his depth. The most likely outcome was that he was about to make a monumental fool of himself. But God turned up. He does, again and again. Live beyond your means. Live by faith, take steps that take you beyond your own resources and make you totally dependent on the living God. And teach young Emma to do the same.
And then you will know that Jesus is alive; because he will turn up, again and again; and transform you again and again; and then we will have something to share with the rest of the world. That is what the Church is really about. That is what the Christian faith really is – people experiencing the transforming power of the living, resurrected Jesus. It changes everything. And above all, it changes us. What better gift to give young Emma today. What better way for us to live? Alleluia. Amen.
Preached: Morland, Crosby Ravensworth, 15 April 2018