I love the book of Acts. The story of how the despairing disciples become empowered apostles is wonderful, an inspiring story about God’s goodness and grace expressed in the lives of ordinary people. At the same time, I am sometimes afraid of the book of Acts. I wonder if I am supposed to do what they did, and if we are supposed to see miracles such as this one in Acts 3. This morning I will set the stage for looking at this passage, go through the text, and suggest what I think it says to us today.
The Book of Acts (skimming chapters 1 to 5)
Acts is Luke’s account, volume two. Volume one is “an orderly account” of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Volume two is the story of what happened to the disciples he left behind when “he was taken up into heaven”.
Acts 1: Jesus spends 40 days with the disciples after his resurrection. This is an important point. Sometimes we think that Jesus rose, met the disciples, and ascended—all in the space of few days, but Luke (who is the most careful of the Gospel writers with historical details) tells of an extended period of time. It lasted long enough to make it clear that the resurrection appearances were no mass hallucination. They took place in Jerusalem and in Galilee. They included dramatic meetings and ordinary times of eating together. They made it clear that Jesus is alive.
Then Jesus tells the disciples to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. In Matthew’s gospel they had gone up to Galilee to meet Jesus. Similarly in John’s gospel the events of chapter 20 take place in Jerusalem, and the events of chapter 21 take place by the Sea of Galilee. Now they return to Jerusalem to wait for the promised Spirit, after which, Jesus says, they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the whole earth. This verse (1:8) provides the outline for Luke’s description of the Acts of the Apostles. I have heard preachers use it as an outline for our call to witness to Jesus. Jerusalem is your home, and you move out from there. I suppose for us Jerusalem is Winnipeg, Judea is southern Manitoba, Samaria would have to be Saskatchewan, and Toronto may as well be the ends of the earth! But I think that this equation misses an important point. Jerusalem is the city of God, and in this outline it represents not the disciples’ home—Galilee was their home—but rather it represents the place where they met God. Jesus might say to us, “Wait in the emotional and mental and spiritual space where you met me; wait there for my Holy Spirit; and then be my witnesses from there to the ends of the earth.”
In chapter 2 this filling comes, and their witness begins. Chapters 3 to 5 gives the miracle (and its aftermath) in which Peter and John heal the lame man in the gate of the temple, followed by a sermon from Peter, who emerges as the primary spokesman of the first believers. He states the message clearly in a series of sermons: God sent Jesus to give you life. You killed him, but God raised him from the dead. Believe in him and receive forgiveness and life. The Sanhedrin arrests the apostles, and Peter repeats his message. They tell the apostles to keep quiet, but they continue preaching and healing. The High Priest and Sadducees put them in prison, but an angel frees them. The Sanhedrin tells them to stop preaching, but Peter and the apostles reply, “You imprisoned us, but God set us free. We will obey God rather than you!”
In chapter three we see what happens when God’s Spirit fills the apostles and disciples. In verses 1 to 10, we learn that the apostles continued to pray regularly in the Temple, and on one such occasion Peter and John encountered a man lame from birth. He asked for money. They gave him complete healing of his physical infirmity. He responded by running around, leaping in the air. His actions are the more surprising because he had never learned to walk in the first place. More than one miracle is evident here.
This exciting stuff! Look at the lame man. He expected maybe some money from Peter and John, but he certainly did not expect what happened. Have you ever seen someone receive a physical gift? Mrs. Shumba was a woman we met in Bulawayo in 2003. She had severe cataracts, so that she was functionally blind. We took her to an eye clinic and paid for cataract surgery, since she could not. They removed the cataracts and put patches over her eyes and told her to come back in several days. When she returned, they removed the patches. I will never forget her amazement and delight: “I can see! I can see!” As we drove her back to where we were staying, we heard her talking in the back seat of the car. She was reading the signs in store windows, delighted that she could see again to read them. Her delight gives me a bit of an idea of what this lame man may have felt.
In verses 11 to 26 Peter responds to the astonishment of those who saw this event with a sermon, completely typical of all his first sermons in the book of Acts:
· God glorified his servant Jesus.
· You handed Jesus over to be killed, but God raised him from the dead.
· This man has been healed by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.
· Repent and turn to God “that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.”
· All of this fulfills the prophets and the covenant God made with Abraham.
Peter probably understood these “times of refreshing” to mean that Jesus will return and that the end of all things is near. He probably expected the second coming almost immediately. Although Jesus had told the disciples that they could not know when the kingdom would be restored, they probably thought he would return quickly. We are still waiting, but Peter’s call to repentance remains, and he was certainly right that times of refreshing—new life in Christ—comes only as we repent of our rebellion against God and choose to follow Jesus.
Hearing the Text Today
So what does chapter three say to us this morning? Peter and John healed a lame man. Should we expect miracles of healing in our church here? In chapter two there were other miracles. Should we replicate those also in our church today? Peter preached a simple message of repentance. Should we tell people around us that they also killed Jesus and need to repent? The apostles got into all kinds of trouble with the religious authorities in chapters four and five. Should we also have our leaders put in prison and set free by angels so they can come and preach to us again? I’m not trying to make fun of the text or of us with these questions. These are real questions, and we look for real answers.
Notice that none of these events are given as commands. Luke does not say to us, “Speak in tongues”, or “Heal people”, or “Get arrested”, or anything else. There are various commands throughout the gospels and in the book of Acts, but these are not among them. Jesus commands us to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves (Mark 12: 30-31). Jesus commands us also to love each other with his love (John 13:34). So clear is this command of love that Paul calls it “the law of Christ” (Galatians 5:14 and 6:2).
There are other commands also. Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34). Jesus also commands us to make disciples of people everywhere (Matthew 28:19), which includes bringing people to faith (baptizing) and nurturing them in the faith (teaching obedience). Jesus also commanded the disciples to wait for the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5), which leads to empowerment for witness (Acts 1:8). Paul echoes this command in Ephesians 5:18, “Don’t get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.”
I see these commands clearly, but I don’t know of any commands to do miracles or other “signs and wonders.” Promises of such works, yes (John 14:12); commands, no. I have not looked carefully through the whole New Testament, so I welcome conversation with those who may point me towards such commands, but I see these as descriptions of life in the Spirit, not as commands we must do. Jesus commanded the disciples to wait for the Spirit. That is the command we should heed today also. Wait for the fullness of God’s presence to fill you, and then live the life that God calls you to live. The miracles of Jesus in the gospel accounts, and of the apostles in the book of Acts, are descriptions of the kind of life that follows when you and I are filled with the Spirit of God.
I remember an example a speaker at my graduation from AMBS used. Life in the Spirit is like riding a bicycle with a tailwind; life without the Spirit is like riding a bicycle into a headwind. I have done both. Forty years ago I was part of a group of people who rode from Fort Dodge, Kansas to Azusa, California on our bicycles. We aimed at 70 miles a day, but our second day out we hit a steady 40 mile an hour southwest wind, the kind you get in Kansas in the summer. WE rode 35 miles and it wore us out. The next day the wind switched around, and a stiff tailwind blew us all the way into Springer, New Mexico—about 105 miles. We made up all our lost time! Life in the Spirit is like that: We can do amazing things when God is working in us.
“Far Too Easily Pleased”
Most of us here this morning have heard God’s call on our lives and responded. Like the disciples beside the Sea of Galilee, we have heard Jesus say, “Follow me.” We have followed. We have recognized that we are not good enough to be called followers of Jesus, and we have confessed our weakness and our sin. God has forgiven us through Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross. That’s a basic part of what makes the Easter season we are in so wonderful. We are forgiven people, who have the new life of Jesus within us. But once the glow of our initial encounter with Christ wears off, we go back to work. Soon the everyday pressures of life combine with old habits to reduce the impact of our Christian walk. We are saved, but that is about all that we are. Jesus told the first disciples to wait for the promised Holy Spirit, to spend time in the place where they met the risen Christ until the Spirit of Christ filled them. I think that God is telling you and me the same thing: Wait for God’s Spirit to fill you—expect more of God than a one-time encounter.
Now, you have to be careful with this idea. Some people are professional “wait”-ers. They seek God so much that they never live for God, so that waiting for God takes the place of living for God. With this caution in place I repeat: Wait for God’s Spirit to fill you; expect more of God in your life. God rewards such expectant waiting and then we enter the kind of life described in Acts 3. Then we can act in situations in ways that meet people’s real and deepest needs. Then we can speak directly into the lives of our friends and acquaintances in ways that genuinely help them. Then we become witnesses of Jesus to everyone we meet.
I don’t think that the point of this story is the miracle. Confronting the authorities—as happens later in the chapter—is not the point. Experiencing the fullness of God’s presence in our lives is the point. That is what God wants. That is what God promises.
We may experience miracles even today, but we don’t need to look for them. We look rather for the fullness of God’s presence in our lives. God gives us himself to encourage and strengthen us. I remember the presence of God’s Spirit in 1990. In September we were in Zimbabwe, trying to decide when to come home. We got a call from Lois’ parents, who told us that Dad had cancer, and was given perhaps six months to live. We came home in December, and he died seven months after that phone call on March 30, 1977. The encouragement came when we told my younger sister that Lois’ Dad was dying. She said, “You know, I woke up one night,”—we realized it was just when we got the news about Lois’ Dad—“and I knew you were trouble. So I have been praying for you. Now I know why.”
This kind of experience is encouraging, but in fact all such things are part of the fuller life that God promises to those who wait expectantly for the fullness of his presence. How do we “wait expectantly”? Since relationship with God is relationship with a person, I can’t give you a formula. Prayer and Bible reading (alone and with others) are important. I find silence before God especially helpful. We live with an attitude towards God that says, “Show me yourself” in everything we do.
The trouble is that we are sometimes satisfied with a sort of spiritual fire insurance—we think, “I’m going to heaven and not going to Hell. Good!” Yes, it is good; but God has much more for you and me than just a spiritual fire insurance. C.S. Lewis put it this way.
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Indeed, we are far too easily pleased. We settle for a bit of life, and God wants us to receive the fullness of life in Christ. Like the man lame from birth, we settle for asking for a bit of money to get by, and God offers us something much more, which leads to the extravagant spectacle of this man walking and jumping and shouting, “Hallelujah!” I invite you to wait expectantly for God’s fullness, and when God gives it to you, please, seize it and experience God’s life to the full!
Steinbach Mennonite Church, 10 April 2016
Text: Acts 3