This sermon was delivered by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., on November 1, 2009.
Acts 3: 1-10
As Peter and John were entering the Jerusalem temple for prayer, they encountered a begging man who had been lame his entire life. The world had passed him by almost from the time his parents realized he could not walk. He never played childhood games involving walking, running, and jumping. He probably was not invited to many childhood parties. He was more than forty years old, according to Acts 4:22, and had spent his lifetime waiting for someone to carry him someplace so he could survive. Perhaps his parents were no longer living. If so, friends carried him to the Jerusalem temple where he hoped devout worshippers would be moved with compassion and give him something—anything—to help him survive day by day.
Like that man, many people exist day by day at the very edge of survival. Some people are struggling to survive physically. Others are struggling to survive financially. Some are struggling to survive emotionally. Some people are fighting to survive morally. Whatever the reasons may be, the world is full of people who are struggling—day by day—to simply survive. They cannot think of thriving. They fight every day to find the means to last that day. It is a constant effort. What effect do you and I have on them?
Like Peter and John, you and I cannot expect to follow Jesus without encountering people who are struggling to survive. In fact, Peter and John encountered the lame man because they were following Jesus. They encountered the lame man on the way to pray. He had been placed there to beg. The Holy Spirit placed Peter and John so he could be delivered. You and I cannot expect to follow Jesus without being led by the Holy Spirit into encounters with people who need to be delivered. The issue is not whether we will encounter them, but what will be the effect of the encounter. Jesus encountered struggling people throughout his ministry. The same will be true for His followers. This passage shows how we can trust the Holy Spirit to operate through us as we encounter struggling people.
Notice struggling people! It is tempting to try to avoid routes that take us past people who live in painful conditions, but we cannot do so. Struggling people are at work, play, school, in our families, and everywhere else. You and I are here to glorify God as we engage people who struggle, not avoid or ignore them. Peter and John saw the lame man because he called them. He was posted along the route they were taking, and he called himself to their attention.
The urge to cry for help does not need to be taught. Infants instinctively cry to get attention so they can receive help. The issue is whether we will notice them. If an infant is crying but people who hear the cry and see the baby walk away, that says more about them than it does about the infant. If they walk away and call themselves godly, it speaks volumes about how little they truly know and/or understand about godliness.
God has placed us in a world full of struggling people. Like infants, struggling people will instinctively cry for help in various ways. Sometimes they politely ask for help. Sometimes they scream for help. Sometimes they are just in the way. Pride sometimes causes people to be ashamed to admit their need, or to mask their need in different ways. But people all around us are struggling. Sometimes they are being crushed before our eyes by situations and circumstances that literally scream at us, like the recent situation of the girl who was gang-raped in a California high school for two hours while men and boys stood around and did nothing to defend and assist her. And many people are so overwhelmed by their struggles that they are unable to celebrate God’s goodness. This was the case of the lame man, who was stuck outside the house of prayer and praise because of his lameness.
There are homeless people around us. Notice them. There are sick people around us. Notice them. There are lonely people around us. Notice them. There are confused and frightened people around us. Notice them. There are oppressed people around us. Notice them! Notice them, because you have eyes and ears. They are not invisible and we are not blind. Notice what is happening to them and why it is happening. Don’t run away. Don’t avert your gaze. Struggling people are God’s infants. Please, for love’s sake, notice them.
Like Peter and John, we must notice struggling people if God’s love is to work through us to deliver them. We must recognize their humanity and their importunity. If we are truly following Jesus, we cannot try to meet their spiritual and moral needs without addressing their survival needs. Shame on us if we want them to hush crying but do nothing to address the reasons they cry.
Meet struggling people. Peter and John did not simply notice the lame man. They met him. They could have pretended to not see or hear him, but they didn’t. They could have seen and heard him, and simply walked past him. Why didn’t they do so?
Peter and John understood that following Jesus meant meeting struggling people like that lame man because they knew Jesus. They had experienced the way Jesus met people who struggled with all kinds of issues. Peter and John met the lame man because they knew Jesus. People who know Jesus as the incarnation of God’s love for humanity, and through it, the world, also know that following Jesus means meeting people in their struggles.
This may explain why some people who call themselves Christians go out of their way to avoid struggling people. Perhaps they do not know Jesus well enough.
Meeting struggling people requires that we relate to them and their struggles based on our shared humanity—as equals. They are equal to us before God, not inferior to us, no matter what their situations may be. Their struggles make them different from us only because of their hardship. When we are moved by God’s love to notice struggling people, God’s love will also lead us to meet them in their struggles.
Admit limitations, but don’t worship them. Peter and John met the lame man and quickly realized that he expected them to give him money. They didn’t have it to give, yet did not allow that limitation to determine the outcome of their encounter with the man. They had been around Jesus enough to recall how Jesus had dealt with limitations. They had seen Jesus feed thousands with little. They had seen Jesus speak life into lifeless bodies, touch sight into blind eyes, and touch hearing into deaf ears. Peter and John knew firsthand what Jesus did with struggling people, despite limitations. So they did not allow an inadequate budget to govern the encounter with the lame man. They had been with Jesus.
It is good to recognize and admit limitations. Each of us is inadequate in various ways. However, we must not idolize our inadequacies. Doing so is an affront to the power of God, the redemptive will of God, and the redemptive purposes of God. God sent Jesus into the world to demonstrate that power, will, and those redemptive purposes. Jesus sent his followers into the world for the same reasons. When we allow our limitations to determine our redemptive efforts, we put our limitations above God.
So Peter looked beyond his own poverty. In doing so, Peter invited the lame man to also look beyond it to meet Jesus Christ and God’s love. By the authority of Jesus Christ, Peter called the lame man beyond his lameness even as Peter called him beyond his own poverty. This is our challenge also. We must not define our present or potential worth for God by our limitations, but by God’s redemptive purpose and power.
In the resurrection of Jesus, God demonstrated his power over every limiting factor that oppresses humanity. Our challenge as followers of Jesus is to meet struggling people in the power of the resurrected Christ, not in the poverty of our limitations.
Trust the Jesus Effect! Peter did not simply offer a prayer, and move on. He grabbed the lame man and moved him upward. That is the Jesus Effect—upward living in the power of God’s love. God’s power touched the lame man after Peter grabbed him. The Jesus Effect operates after we notice, meet, and grab struggling people. The issue is whether we will trust it.
Peter did not ask the lame man whether he wanted to become a Christian. Peter did not ask the lame man if he wanted to join a congregation. Peter did not ask the lame man about his prayer life. Peter simply grabbed the lame man. He made the lame man’s weakness his issue. Peter joined his faith to the lame man’s plight, trusted the Holy Spirit to know what was needed, and spoke walking directions to a man who had never stood, let alone walked. One aspect of the Jesus Effect is to lift people from survival to stability.
But the Jesus Effect lifts us in order to bring us into new community with God and others. Notice that the joyful man entered the Temple with Peter and John. He praised God with Peter and John. He became part of the community! Peter and John were his fellow worshippers, not merely his enablers. Together, they were evidence to others about God’s redemptive power, purposes, and love.
The Holy Spirit is still moving in miraculous ways. Haven’t you been in situations where you were struggling, and somehow someone showed up, noticed your struggle, met you in it, and grabbed you by the power of God’s love? Haven’t you been down, and somehow God sent someone into your life who spoke hope to you? Look where you are now. You and I, like Peter and John, know what God can do. We have seen God’s love in countless ways. Let us trust the Jesus Effect of God’s love by entering into fellowship with struggling people. Let us put our strength into their struggles. Let us put our faith into their struggles. Let’s hold onto them while the Jesus Effect lifts them, liberates them, and renews them so God can be glorified. Let us be instruments through which the Jesus Effect happens with struggling people. Then, let us join them being a community living to for the glory of 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.