Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, ‘You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.
‘And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,
Why Do You Wonder? Acts 3:12-19
Sometimes you need to hear that story that comes before the story. Today is one of those days. So much happened on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit empowered disciples to speak in a variety of languages that they didn’t know in order to reach the multilingual audience of Jewish people gathered for the holiday in Jerusalem. Peter preached the Gospel and people were so moved that, the book of Acts tells us, 3,000 people were baptized and became followers of Christ. In chapter 2, in the section between last week’s reading and this week’s, we learn that the new followers fully committed themselves to learning from the disciples, to breaking bread together, and to praying together. We also learn that they shared all of their money and their food. Chapter 2:44-45 says that they would “sell all of their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to any all, as any had need.” That is a deep commitment to share literally all they had without questioning whether someone “deserved” the help. This generosity, fellowship, and communal learning drew many more people to the ministry that Jesus began, and that the disciples are continuing in the books Acts.
But, that’s not all that has happened. That’s just the beginning. There’s another story before our story. It’s a healing story. Peter and John, two of the first 12 disciples, were going up to the temple to pray. There they encountered a man with a physical disability. He does not appear to be able to work easily and must not come from a family with money, because his friends help him by bringing him to the gate of the temple so he could ask strangers for alms. Alms probably means money and maybe food. We’ve talked before about what it means to rely on strangers to survive. It is not easy. It requires a lot of tenacity and bravery. Think of how you’ve seen people who ask for money from strangers be treated today. It is often not kind. I imagine this man was often treated as a nuisance, as well, though maybe his choice to ask for help outside of a religious temple meant that he found people in more generous spirits.
He asked Peter and John for money. They proceeded to do a thing I don’t actually recommend doing if someone asks you for money on the street, I mean, unless you are really sure you can pull it off. If you can’t do this, better to share some money or one of those extra granola bars you keep stashed in your purse. Peter and John said they didn’t have any money, but Peter says they can offer something else. Peter looks at the man and says, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have to give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And they take his right hand and raise him up. Scripture tells us that, immediately, his legs and ankles grew strong enough to hold his weight.
You heard some of what happened next in Pastor Becky’s story. He was so excited to be healed that he jumped and danced and walked and praised God. He walked into the temple, where people had gathered to offer prayers and sacrifices, and people saw him healed. Many recognized him as the man who often asked strangers for help outside of the gate. They had hopefully even shared money with him sometimes. Scripture tells us that the people “were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.” He clung to John and Peter, the ones who had offered him healing, and all the people who realized what amazing thing had happened gathered around them in an area of the temple known as Solomon’s Portico. And, Peter and John saw the wonder and confusion in the people’s faces and began to explain what happened.
So, we have two stories about the earliest iteration of the church: the first one showing us people who shared money communally, learned together, and broke bread together, and the second a story of disciples offering healing to someone who needed it. Generosity, communal care, and healing... this is what it means to carry on Jesus’ ministry in this world. If the Holy Spirit can empower you, you can offer healing through Jesus’ name. It is a ministry without the physical presence of Jesus but completely filled with the Holy Spirit, guiding them through their days. In her commentary on today’s scripture, the part of the story that comes next, María Teresa Dávila says, “A religious community’s faithfulness is to be measured by its concrete inclusion or exclusion of those persons whom society deems disposable or outside of history.” The earliest church understood that no one was disposable and all people deserved to be included. The healing this kind of community offered, symbolized in the physical healing of this unnamed man, is what made the people wonder. Peter had to make sure the people gathered around him and John and the unnamed man knew how the miraculous healing could happen.
Sometimes people think they know what’s going on, but they don’t really know what’s going on. And, sometimes, people want to give credit to the wrong people for things they see. Both of those things are happening here. In her commentary on the text, Mitzi Smith notes that the disciples will spend a lot of time in Acts explaining what is happening and who is making it happen. Dr. Smith says that the disciples have to continually deflect praise from themselves and reorient people’s attention to God. Remember, in this era, many kinds of people were known as healers and miracle-workers. The miracle itself wasn’t enough to point people to God. When Peter and John are standing right in front of you and the man they offered healing to is clinging to them, you might want to give them credit for the healing. Peter and John want to make sure you know who should get credit, and it’s not them.
Calling upon their shared religious tradition, Peter preaches and reminds them of how God worked through Abraham and God worked through Isaac and God worked through Jacob and said that God also worked through Jesus. Jesus was who empowered them to offer healing. This healing is about Jesus at work in world, not about them being particularly faithful in the world. In her commentary, Dr. Smith notes that God had many servants before Jesus. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were three of them. But, Jesus was different. He was the Messiah, the Incarnation of God in flesh, in the world. He brought Life and continues to bring life, even after death and resurrection. Peter needed to make sure that when they saw this healed man, they knew it was because of Jesus, not because of them.
We must remember, that while followers of Jesus are a separate religion now, at the time of this story, Peter and John were just considered to be Jewish, and they followed Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and as an interpreter of Jewish law. They are speaking to other Jewish people, frustrated that they did not follow Jesus during his life, but clear that following him now was still an option. They understood Jesus to be offering the best interpretation of their shared religious tradition at the time. And, they wanted the crowds who had gathered to see the God they knew from their scriptures at work in a new way. Peter said that he and John were witnesses... they had seen and felt the Risen Christ. They had known the Messiah intimately. They knew that healing and communal good were possible. They wanted to make sure the people gathered knew that they could still be a part of this movement.
Dr. Smith also notes that the story just before our reading is clear that Peter and John actually did the physical work of raising the unnamed man to his feet, while the Holy Spirit did the work of renewing his strength. This is part of what it means to be a witness. To raise up another, to offer the healing that we know is possible. As Dr. Smith says, we should probably share our silver and gold, too. After all, they can also be tools of healing, as the first story of the people living communally shows us. That being said, what makes us followers of Christ is our persistent search for those in need of healing and our willingness to share how we have been healed. Not because we are particularly special. But, because we know the source of healing and we want to share it. When people see what we can do together with God and wonder how it happens, may we be willing to see them fully and share how Jesus has brought us together and invited us to help take care of the world.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mitzi Smith: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-acts-312-19-2
María Teresa (MT) Dávila, "Second Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.