This sermon was delivered by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., on November 8, 2009.
Acts 3: 11-26
One can learn a great deal about character by observing how people deal with triumph and trouble. Sooner or later, each person will experience trouble. Triumph and trouble occur in family living, business, religion, politics, education, and every other aspect of living. Today’s sermon is the first of several that will examine triumph and trouble in church life.
The passage from Acts we examine today describes the public reaction to the first healing action associated with the followers of Jesus after his ascension. The Holy Spirit, working through Peter and John, healed a man who had been lame from childhood. The healed man ran into the Jerusalem temple praising God. He did not have to be invited or commanded to praise God. He could not be stopped from praising God. People could not avoid noticing him praising God. No one should have been surprised about the healed man praising God. That he did so after having been healed in the name of Jesus Christ was a tremendous witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the power of God. Notice, however, that this triumph also marked the first brush that Peter, John, and the other followers of Jesus had with trouble in the name of the risen Christ.
The Holy Spirit will deliver people when we love them in obedience to Jesus Christ. The healed man was delivered because two followers of Jesus dared to grab him in obedience to the example of Jesus by faith. The healing not only liberated the man from the oppression of his condition, but also brought the power of the Holy Spirit in his life into view. That is always a triumph for the church. Whenever we love people, God’s love through us will produce powerful consequences.
The converse is also true. When people who profess to be followers of Jesus refuse to love suffering people and refuse to otherwise obey the example of Christ, our refusal will produce powerful consequences. Let no one forget that for centuries, followers of Jesus supported or tolerated slavery and oppressive treatment of women while claiming that God loves everyone. People who follow the Holy Spirit in loving suffering people and living to end their oppression in the name of Jesus Christ are instruments of liberation so that God is praised. People who claim the name of Christ while defending and profiting from oppression dishonor the love of God. People who love oppressed people in the name of God help produce triumphant praise. People who disregard or mistreat oppressed people in the name of God cause God to be blamed for the oppression.
I recall the shame and burden of racial segregation to this day, thank God for allowing me to witness its end in this nation and in South Africa. I also recall the prayers, sermons, and other faith acts of my elders before segregation ended. When segregation began crumbling before our eyes like a falling wall, the elders admonished us to remember that God had done this great act of liberation. We were not delivered because of the goodness of the white majority, but because the goodness of God trumped racial prejudice, bigotry, hateful pride, and moral weakness.
Recalling the pain and oppression of racial segregation helps me understand the pain and oppression suffered by people who are homosexual. I vividly remember how members of the white majority often defended racial segregation, yet assured me that they were not racists. That comes to mind whenever I hear Christian heterosexuals speak of not being bigoted concerning sexual orientation, yet defend social and political practices and policies that discriminate against homosexuals. Oppressive conditions require followers of Jesus to live out our faith in God’s love for every person, and God’s desire to redeem every person from oppression in all its forms. When we do so, we triumph for God. When we refuse to do so, we cause trouble for God.
It is tempting to claim or accept credit for what the Holy Spirit does. This is “internal” trouble for followers of Jesus. When Peter and John healed the lame man, they had a tremendous opportunity for Peter and John to issue a press release about the new religious movement they were leading. They could have spoken about what time the Jesus movement held its meetings, and where the meetings took place. But notice what Peter said. “[W]hy does this take you by such complete surprise, and why stare at us as if our power or piety made him walk? The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of our ancestors, has glorified his Son Jesus… Faith in Jesus, name put this man, whose condition you know so well, on his feet—yes, faith and nothing but faith put this man healed and whole right before your eyes.”
Peter and John were presented with the first recorded temptation to the healing ministry of the young Christian movement—the temptation to accept personal credit or praise for what was actually the work of the Holy Spirit. They were merely the agents through which the Holy Spirit worked. They were not the source of the healing. They were not chosen as God’s agents based on their superior piety or devotion to God. They were followers of Jesus Christ who were simply loving as Jesus loved, and trusting the power of the Holy Spirit to work a miracle in the life of a lame man.
It is always tempting to think and behave as if we possess some special or extraordinary piety. That temptation is especially strong when God uses us to cause something wonderful to happen. If we are not careful, we will accept the credit that truly belongs to God. We will accept the attention that belongs to God. We will accept the honor that belongs to God. But God alone deserves the attention. God deserves the praise. God deserves the honor. God deserves the credit. To claim any of that for ourselves is to steal from God.
If we are faithful to Jesus, the Holy Spirit will make us available to suffering people. If we are faithful to Jesus and love those suffering people by his authority, the Holy Spirit will act in miraculous ways to deliver them. When that happens, we must not think that we are responsible for the miracle. People who do not know that God’s power and love operates through faithful people will make that mistake innocently. However, you and I have no excuse for believing that we are responsible for God’s miraculous work to deliver oppressed people. No matter how remarkable the triumphs may be that God works through us, we must never forget or allow others to forget that we are agents of Jesus Christ, not His replacements.
It is tempting to not call people to repentance—turning to God’s grace. Peter and John could have simply said to the gathering crowd, “Hey, we are just followers of Jesus,” without inviting them to become part of the new creation in Jesus. Telling people that we belong to Jesus without inviting them to become part of what God is doing through Jesus has been a great temptation since Peter and John healed that lame man.
God sent Jesus into the world to redeem the world, not merely to attract attention. As followers of Jesus, we are called to join in that redemptive enterprise. In Jesus Christ, we have become partners in God’s redemptive work of calling and reclaiming humanity. Our task is not to merely tell people that we love God, but to call people to accept God’s love by faith in Jesus and experience that love in the ways we live. If we are following Jesus faithfully, we must follow Jesus in calling people to trust God’s love through repentance.
Repentance means turning from self-centered living, righteousness, and sense of worth. Repentance means embracing life on God’s terms rather than our own. Repentance means accepting the truth about ourselves that Jesus has demonstrated—we are not naturally good, trusting, or wise. We are self-centered, fearful, and foolish. Repentance means turning from life defined by worshipping ourselves to life defined by worshipping God.
It is tempting to avoid this part of following Jesus. That is also a path towards trouble. Jesus has called us to follow God in repentance. We have no authority to substitute our own notions of righteousness.
Trouble always comes when we put religious practices over loving people in obedience to Jesus Christ. The crippled man was healed because two followers of Jesus dared to love him in their private interaction with him. Peter and John did not call anyone else to notice their interaction with the lame man, either before or after he was healed. They lovingly grabbed the man in obedience to the life of Christ. They believed the power of Christ would work for that man because they were witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. They didn’t preach to him first. They didn’t pray with him first. They loved him first, and that redemptive love opened the door for his discipleship.
If you and I will love people by the authority of Jesus Christ and by faith in him, the Holy Spirit will work great things in their lives. However, we must never forget that loving faith is the seed of redemptive change. Seeds are often inconspicuous. Change is noticed. Seeds are planted in relative obscurity. Crops are noticed at harvest time. Loving people privately in obedience to Jesus Christ will always be necessary before their lives and situations will change. Loving must happen before discipleship can be effective. Loving must happen before people will believe what is printed on a bulletin or tract. Loving must happen before what we sing and preach about can take root and grow into a harvest for God.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.