Building a Church: Faith in the Author of Life

Acts 3:11-26              4.18.21

We continue a survey of what is needed to build a church in the book of Acts.

  First, a little background. In Jerusalem, the amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit had enabled people from many places to hear their own language speaking the might works of God. The believers had begun to phase one of church building as they created a strong sense of community with one another, sharing meals, praying together and sharing their resources so that all had enough. Peter and John continued the practice of going to the temple to pray. As they entered one day, they met a man disabled from birth, who was asking for money at the temple entrance. When he asked them for some coins, Peter and John looked at him intently, instructing him: “Look at us…” Peter told him: “I have no silver or gold, but I give you this—in the name of Jesus of Nazareth—stand up and walk.” Suddenly, the man stood up, walking, leaping, and praising God. His life completely hanged, a resurrection of sorts, he went into the temple with them.

            So there they are, standing in the portico named for Solomon, with this recently healed man clinging to them. People started to gather around them, astonished. Everyone knew this disabled man—he was brought to the temple gate every day to beg.

            Peter begins to preach. He wants the crowd to understand that his healing was not anything he or John did on their own. Although they were both witnesses to the risen Jesus, it was not because they were witnesses that this man was healed This healing was the power of God at work. And now the man becomes a living sign of God’s resurrection bower that we know in Jesu Christ. He is a tangible proclamation of faith in Jesus, who Peter calls the Author of Life.

            We know a lot of names of titles for Jesus, but this is not one of those that just rolls off our tongues. We are familiar with names like Christ, or Messiah, Lord, Son of God, Rabbi, Lily of Valley, Bright Morning Star, shepherd, Gate, Vine, and so on. Peter first connects this Jesus with the God of our ancestors, clearly identifying himself with the crowd of Jews gathered around. HE and John share faith in the same God, with the crowd—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Somehow, all of a sudden, without any seminary training, Peter the fisherman is a good preacher. He clearly connects with his audience and makes their shared faith in God the starting point for his sermon. That would make them continue to listen.

            You see, with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Jewish community is thrown into a serious debate: who makes up the true Israel of God? Is it those who follow Jesus or those who don’t follow Jesu? Peter points out their role in sending Jesus to the cross. He and John surely can’t get out of their minds the cries of that angry crowd who, a couple of months before, insisted that Jesus be crucified and that a traitor to the empire be released without bail. We don’t know if some of these individuals in the temple had been there that day, but even if they were not, everyone in Jerusalem would have known about what happened to the teacher and healer from Nazareth. Peter indicates that the crowd gathered in the temple that day were complicit in the killing of the Author of Life. The very One who began it all at creation. The very One who made life possible for each person present that day, including the once-disable d man. The very One who delivered da new lease on life for that man who had never walked before. The very one who is referred to in Hebrews as both the author of salvation and the author (or pioneer) of faith (both phrases use the same word that Peter uses here.) Jesus is the author, the initiator, the principal, the guide, the source of life itself.  What an appropriate title to carry—the one who God raise from the dead is the Author of Life. And this healed man standing in front of them is living proof, a sing of Jesus.

            Peter then switches to your instead of our. His listeners are descendants of the prophets and all the prophets, from Samuel on, have pointed to the coming of this Author of Life to earth. His listeners are inheritors of the covenant God made with Abraham, promising that his progeny would bless all families of the earth. They would be nodding their heads at this point. Yes, that is what we believe.  Abraham is our ancestor. God made promises to Abraham and therefore, to us.

            And here is the kicker. They must have been wondering to themselves, “So what do we do with this information?” Peter answers their unspoken question: “Repent! Turn from your wicked ways. Turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.” He even draws on the words of Moses, reminding them that those who do not listen to this prophet raised p by God will be utterly rooted out of the people.“  Wow. I have a picture in my mind of what happens to those pesky weeds who have already found their way through the new black mulch we spread in our flower gardens. When we give the gardens attention and care, we uproot those weds so they don’t cause damage to, or stunt the growth of the plants we want to grow. Standing in the Jewish temple, on the portico named for King Solomon, Peter is calling his listeners to come to his side of this debate—he believes that the true Israel, the true descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are those who repent, who will begin a whole new life, who will enter into an entirely different community of believers in Jesus.  Just like the man who had been healed. Just like the growing community of believers who were already beginning to build a church, just a short time after the resurrection of Jesus.

            Last week we looked at, what I am calling, phase one of church building—creating a community of believers who trust one another, who care for one another and who share things in common. Now, through Peter’s sermon, we see that church building does not happen without faith in the Author of Life. With their own eyes they had seen the risen Lord. With their hearts they had made their commitment to tell others about him. Now these witnesses in the temple had seen with their own eyes a man disabled from birth get up and walk, beginning a whole new life. Will they make a commitment to Christ as Lord in their hearts as well? That is what it takes to build a church, a gathering of believers who will follow Jesus. Visitors can watch. Onlookers can observe. Reporters can even share the news with their neighbors. But those who believe will be building a church. Not the physical structure, but the structure of a community of faith.

            This entire pandemic experience has been for us and unforgettable reminder that the physical structure does not a church family make. Christians, along with Muslims, Jews, and believers of all kinds, have learned the true meaning of a community of faith. For us, it is our shared belief in the Author of Life. That is what unites all Christians, arching over top of any differences we might have in the interpretation of Scripture or in our understanding of church doctrine, over the variety of spiritual practices found within the broader Christian church. We believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the Author of Life. He is not the founder of the church. He is the Author of Life. The source of all that is, the author of all that we see in God’s creation, all of the human brothers and sisters we see around us, all of it. Jesus is the Author of Life. If we believe that, then surely our response must be to care for life in all of its forms, to respect the natural resources so that abundantly provided for us, to move away from a culture of extraction, the practice of take, take, take, which continues to deplete this rich resource of God’s earth due to human greed and careless waste. Indeed, our faith in the Author of Life puts us in a crucial role—dare we say it? We are trusted partners with God in tending to this earth we live on. Let us life in a way that is worthy of that trust from the Author of Life. Amen.

Ride On! Ride On in Majesty!

March 28, 2021 Matthew 21:1-11  

                OK, let’s get this straight right away.  When the gospel writer refers back to the ancient words of the prophet Zechariah to show their fulfillment in Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, somehow he makes the mode of transportation quite awkward and almost impossible. As Santos read this morning, Matthew tells us that Jesus sat on a donkey and a colt at the same time! Or perhaps it was a later scribe of the gospel who goofed up the quote from the prophet.  In any case, Zechariah is clear that the animal which will be ridden by the coming king will be one young donkey.  A donkey is a humble creature, normally a beast of burden, one who works in the fields.  A donkey is far from the glory and power of a magnificent steed that would be assumed to be used by a king.  Not only is he riding a donkey, but a young donkey at that!  Even more humble.

Listen to the words of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  Calling the people of Judah “daughter Zion” and “daughter Jerusalem” was a term of endearment, used by several other Old Testament prophets as well, usually indicating a message of deliverance to this special city, seen as a child of God.  In many languages, cities are referred to in the feminine.  Interesting, since women throughout history have usually been judged as less important than their male counterparts.

            So, Jesus is riding into the city on one animal, a young donkey, an expression of his humble and meek demeanor, a sign of the kind of king he really is.  I am imagining this is a short parade with one person on a young donkey and a group of disciples walking alongside him.  As the crowds welcomed him with the red carpet treatment by laying down their coats and branches or palms before him, perhaps they began to join the parade themselves, falling in behind Jesus and his disciples, adding to the festive nature of this entrance into Jerusalem.

            The message shouted by the crowd is key to understanding the import of this entrance.  They are crying out, “Hosanna!”, which means “Save Now!”  They were ready for a change, they were ready for the words of the prophets to truly be fulfilled, and for their king to be victorious over the Roman leaders of their day.  Maybe it was kind of like the political rallies we have become accustomed to, where a candidate for office gathers a noisy crowd of his or her supporters together in one place to express their hopes that their candidate will be victorious over all opponents, taking control of the government a few months down the road.

            The shouts of the crowd call to mind a cluster of psalms of praise, Psalms 113-118.  These psalms extol God’s greatness because of the mighty works God has done in the past, in contrast to the impotence of idols, with thanksgiving for personal healing, and a resounding song of victory over all enemies.  Listen to the words from Psalm 118:25-29.  I am reading from Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible, but the meaning of the words should sound familiar—these shouts are repeated by all four gospel writers—and the list of items which are included by all four of them is fairly short.  They should also sound familiar because we use a portion of this text them on a regular basis when we share in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  Listen:

Salvation now, God. Salvation now!
    Oh yes, God—a free and full life!

Blessed are you who enter in God’s name—
    from God’s house we bless you!
God is God,
    he has bathed us in light.
Adorn the shrine with garlands,
    hang colored banners above the altar!
You’re my God, and I thank you.
    O my God, I lift high your praise.
Thank God—he’s so good.
    His love never quits!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  Blessed are you who enter in God’s name.  In our day we might be holding up placards that say something like “Jesus is the best!  Vote Jesus!”

The amazing thing here is that this one who comes in God’s name, this one who is treated like a powerful king, demonstrates a power that looks like weakness.  He will not usher in a military machine to crush the Romans once and for all.  Actually, Zechariah’s words continue on to describe this king as one who will demilitarize Judah, cutting off the chariots, the war-horses and the instruments of battle bows.  He will command peace to the nations – it sounds like to more than only Judah.  This echoes words from the prophets Micah and Isaiah which effectively announce: “We ain’t goin’ to study war no more.”

Matthew tells us the city of Jerusalem is in turmoil.  As Jesus descends into the city from the village of Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, word is spreading quickly.  “Come look at this guy riding into town on a donkey!  Who could he be?”  The crowds, gathering steam as they get closer and closer, answer them: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  That must have gone over like a lead balloon.  Any city dweller would look down on a man from the little country village of Nazareth.  It reminds me of the common vernacular that I hear used by our relatives in Chicagoland.  When you live in the city of Chicago, you never bother to identify a particular suburb you might be planning to visit—even though they all do have their own names.  You just say to your fellow city dweller—”I’m going out to see my aunt and uncle in the suburbs.”  I read into that—the suburbs are a different kind of place, not like this city we live in with all of it’s amenities and activities.   And the reverse is also true.  When you live in a suburb of Chicago, and have to take the train into the city or fight snarls of traffic on the spider-web of highways, and you want to go visit your friend in Chicago, you would say to your husband or wife:  “Tomorrow I am going into the city.”  No mention of the name of the city.  There is no need.  Everyone knows exactly what city you mean.  I read into that—the city is a different kind of place, not like this quiet, peaceful suburb we enjoy.

            Jesus, this king, not only rides into Jerusalem on a young donkey, but he is identified as being from a small village in the hinterlands, even more of a country bumpkin than any suburb dweller today.  What a contrast are the words we often sing on this Palm Sunday, with the classic hymn lyrics written in England almost two centuries ago by Henry Hart Milman and the well known tune composed also in England 35 years later by the renowned hymn composer John Bacchus Dykes. Milman was a historian, a poetry professor, and only wrote words for one famous hymn.  Dykes was a talented organist who began his career as an assistant to his uncle at age 10!  He authored multiple articles about theology and church music, and composed over 300 hymn tunes, including such favorites as “Holy, Holy, Holy”, “The King of Love my Shepherd Is”, ”Nearer my God to Thee”, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” , “We Plow the Fields and Scatter”, and “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”.

            The words of Milman’s Palm Sunday hymn highlight the stark contrast between the majesty of King Jesus and the humble manner of being a Prince of Peace. They are written from the perspective of an observer, not a participant in the parade.  Listen:

Ride on!  Ride on in majesty!  Hark!  All the tribes Hosanna cry; the humble beast pursues its road with palms and scattered garments strowed. 

Ride on!  Ride on in majesty!  In lowly pomp ride on to die; O Christ, thy triumphs now begin o’er captive death and conquered sin. 

 Ride on!  Ride on in majesty!  The hosts of angels in the sky look down with sad and wondering eyes to see the approaching sacrifice.

Ride on!  Ride on in majesty!  In lowly pomp ride on to die; bow thy meek head to mortal pain; then take O God, thy power, and reign.

            And so we begin this Holy Week…anticipating this majestic king’s terrible death and then victorious resurrection.  A blessed Holy Week to you all. Amen.