Testimony to the Resurrection | IN THE NAME OF JESUS WORSHIP SERIES
Today we begin the first of two mini-series that will take us through the great fifty days of Easter. In the first series, “In the Name of Jesus,” we will be focusing on what it means to claim the power of the name of Jesus as his followers. We will journey with the first disciples through the early chapters in the book of Acts, following them as they plant the very first Christian church and identifying how claiming the name of Jesus was the source of their strength, healing power and salvation.
Then, in our second series, “And the Power of the Holy Spirit,” we will explore what it means to be a church powered by the very Spirit of Christ. All of this will culminate on the final day of the season as we celebrate the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit that gave birth to the church on the day of Pentecost.
It is important to note that in these two series, although we are continuously in the book of Acts, we are not reading continuous texts. Rather, the lectionary has us moving back and forth between earlier chapters and later chapters. This creates a bit of a challenge, because the stories we will hear read in church each week are not necessarily told in the same sequence that they occur in the Bible.
For example, we start out today, the first Sunday in our series, at the end of chapter four. Next week we will back up into chapter three, and then in the following weeks read selections from chapters four, eight, and ten. When we get to week seven we go all the way back to chapter one before closing out the season in chapter two on Pentecost.
Because of all this skipping around, I think it is important to place the reading for today in the larger framework of the story told in Acts, and to orient ourselves to the book as a whole as we begin this series.
Acts tells the story of the period after the resurrection of Jesus, when his followers established the church of Jesus Christ in his name. If I were going to give Acts a subtitle, it would be “The Book of Acts: Signs and Wonders.” The picture of the developing church painted by the author is of a growing community of believers powered by the Holy Spirit, and witnessed in the visible signs and wonders offered through the teachings and healings of the apostles.
Chapter three tells the story of the healing of an individual that was well-known to the people of Jerusalem. He was a lame beggar who had been working his corner by the Beautiful Gate for as long as anyone could remember. Every day sympathetic people would assist him, helping him to lay by the gate so that he could ask for alms from the people going into the temple to pray. On this particular day, Peter and John passed by this man on their way into the temple. He asked them for alms. Instead of giving him some spare change, they stopped what they were doing to talk with him. Peter told him he had no silver or gold to give him, but he had something better: the healing power of Jesus Christ. He proclaimed that in the name of Jesus, the man should stand up and walk. Peter reached out his hand to help the man up. Miraculously, the man was able to not only get to his feet, but to leap and dance and praise God! All the people who knew this man, who had seen him asking for alms every day, who had known him to have been lame from birth, and who now saw him leaping and dancing and praising God, came running to Peter and John to ask them how the man had been healed.
So Peter took the opportunity to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people who had witnessed this healing. He told the crowd of people about how the God of their ancestors, the God Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had come to them as a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He told of how some had recognized him, but others had rejected him and handed him over to Pilate, who had tried and convicted him and ordered him to be hung on a cross to die. But then God had raised this same man, Jesus, from the dead, and they, the disciples, were witnesses to this miracle. They proclaimed that it was by faith in his name, in the name of Jesus, that the man who had been lame from birth was now healed and enabled to leap and dance and praise God.
Peter then invited the people to repent of their sins, repent of their unbelief, and open their ears to the proclamation of the prophets to understand that Jesus was the promised messiah from God for whom they had all been waiting.
The priests in the temple became annoyed that Peter and John were teaching about the resurrection of Jesus and proclaiming the healing power of his Spirit, so they had them both arrested. But the people who heard the sermon, about five thousand, believed in the name of Jesus.
Peter and John continued to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the high priests of the nation of Israel with boldness, and the priests recognized that the healing of the lame man was an undeniable miracle. They also recognized this power as a threat. But all they could really do was let Peter and John go, and order them to stop teaching about Jesus.
It was the healing of the lame beggar at the Beautiful Gate that began to draw more and more people to recognize the power of the name of Jesus. This first group of believers are the ones the author of Acts writes about in today’s scripture lesson from the end of chapter four, where the whole group has become, in essence, one body in Christ. And it is this same healing power that has enabled them to be of one heart and soul, and for no one to have more possessions than others, but rather, to hold all their assets in common, sharing what they had so that no one in the community would be without. Especially folks like the lame beggar. They pooled their resources to care for each other, and gave whatever they had leftover to those around them who were in need.
Signs and wonders.
A few months ago the Washington Post published a feature story about retirees about retirees who were working into their seventies and even eighties because their social security checks do not provide enough income to meet even basic needs. The article was really about pensions, and the changing state of what companies have historically done to provide for their employees in retirement. Specifically, it was about the replacement of traditional pension programs with voluntary retirement savings accounts over the past three decades. One man in the story, who had worked for McDonnell Douglas, lost all of his pension when the company closed the plant at which he had worked for most of his career. Many of the the other workers had lost not only their pensions, but their homes and everything they had accumulated over a lifetime of working, and been forced to declare bankruptcy. None of them had invested in retirement savings accounts because they believed that between their pensions and social security they would have enough to live on in retirement. According to the article, the situation of former McDonnell Douglas employees is not unique:
Even as late as the early 1990s, about 60 percent of full-time workers at medium and large companies had pension coverage, according to the government figures. But today, only about 24 percent of workers at midsize and large companies have pension coverage, according to the data, and that number is expected to continue to fall as older workers exit the workforce.
In place of pensions, companies and investment advisers urge employees to open retirement accounts. The basic idea is workers will manage their own retirement funds, sometimes with a little help from their employers, sometimes not. Once they reach retirement age, those accounts are supposed to supplement whatever Social Security might pay. (Today, Social Security provides only enough for a bare-bones budget, about $14,000 a year on average.)
The trouble with expecting workers to save on their own is that almost half of U.S. families have no such retirement account, according the Federal Reserve’s 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances (See Peter Whorisky, Washington Post, “I Hope I can Quit Working in a Few Years: A Preview of the U.S Without Pensions,” December 23, 2017).
One of the things we wrestled with as we read this scripture lesson together was our own positions of privilege. Of the members of the worship team at Discipleship Ministries, three of us are ordained clergy, and our fourth member is in seminary preparing for ordination at some point in the near future. We recognized that as preachers employed by the church, some of us have guaranteed appointments. Three of us have access to employment that includes benefits: health insurance, life insurance, paid vacation and sick leave, a pension program, 401k’s to save for retirement, and good wages. One of us no longer does.
We live in a time in history when we probably won’t have to work until we die. We plan to work until retirement. And the truth is, we don’t give all we can because we have to plan for our retirement years.
But we all know people who have given all they could. We know people who have left everything for Jesus, who have chosen to live in communes, and who have taken enormous risks in the name of their faith in Jesus Christ.
Jackson spoke of his friend Chris who works for Jubilee Partners. Through this organization, Chris and his family have chosen to live in an intentional Christian service community in Georgia, where they have dedicated their lives to offering hospitality to refugees arriving in the United States.
I thought about my friend Scott, who joined a Mennonite mission group, Christian Peacemakers Team, after he graduated from college. His service through this organization affected him so deeply that he ended up going to seminary and now serves the homeless population in a large city in the western United States.
Throughout history, whenever the church historically has become aligned with worldly power there have arisen people who chose to leave behind the ways of the world in order to live in intentional missional communities. This is what gave birth to religious orders. It is what is now influencing Christians across the nation to join in Missional ministries and intentional Christian communal living.
Even if we do not choose to leave behind our materialism entirely and join a Christian Intentional Missional community, we can still make choices in our everyday lives to live on less so that we may give more to support those who are in need around us.
- How is your church encouraging and enabling its members to be more intentional about their giving?
- What are you doing to help young people who are interested in devoting their lives to Christian mission to find organizations through which to serve?
- What opportunities for Christian service are there in your community?
Most of us will not sell all our possessions and join a commune. But we all have opportunities every day to see the lame beggars in our midst. They may not be lying by the Beautiful Gate every day. They may not be standing on a street corner with a “Homeless, please help me” sign in their hands. You may not pass them at the same spot every morning when you go to get your coffee at Starbucks. But there are people who are struggling to make ends meet, people who are in need of God’s healing touch, all around us. All we have to do is look around and see them.
For the past two weeks I’ve been spending my days writing from a rehabilitation clinic in Fort Smith, Arkansas. My mother is here healing and getting stronger after a nine-day hospitalization with congestive heart failure. Since she also suffers from moderate stage Alzheimer’s disease, either my father or I stay by her side all the time. She has virtually no short term memory, so we stay with her to help remind her where she is, and what she is doing here.
Spending time here as afforded me the opportunity to meet some amazing men and women who work at this facility. These skilled nurses, nurse practitioners, therapists, administrators, cooks, janitorial staff, and other healthcare professionals have become like extended family to us. I have learned about their lives and their families and they have learned about mine. I’ve been deeply touched by their genuine care and sense of God’s calling to this work of bringing healing and hope to the mostly elderly population of people staying here.
I have learned that many of these people work very long hours, often well over eight hours a day, and six days a week, for not very much pay and far too few benefits. All of these amazing, loving, caring, dedicated people give their lives in service to the elderly, but work at a for-profit rehabilitation facility that fails to pay them a living wage. They are not alone.
There are so many people in the United States today that work for low pay at companies that seem to make their owners and shareholders wealthier and wealthier, while their hardworking, dedicated employees are overworked, underpaid, and receive few to no benefits. I know there are many people without a place to call home who work forty hours a week. These people stay in homeless shelters, with family members or roommates or parents, and they go to work every morning in restaurants, nursing care facilities, and other places of employment that pay less than a living wage.
This situation is getting worse in our nation and around the globe. Low wages in the United States disproportionately affect women and children, especially women of color.
How did we get here? What are we doing about it? How are we witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus Christ in places where people have little hope that anything is ever going to change for them? What are we doing as communities of faith to share the promises, signs and wonders that the early church knew and witnessed? What are we doing to change the situation for the working poor around the globe? How can we, as United Methodists, be of one heart and soul regarding the need to serve the poor, not only in our own communities, but around the world?