a different story

The text for last Sunday at Bethany was a thorny one. Acts 3:1-20 tells the story of Peter and John healing a man and then Peter delivers something of a screed to the crowd when they are amazed at the healing. The part that caught my eye, though, was Peter’s title for Jesus. He names him “Author of Life.” Jesus is the Author of Life, the one who writes a new story. Thoughts on that in the audio below and the text after the jump.

There are a lot of weeds for us to get lost in with this passage. A lot.

Let’s make sure we’ve got the big picture: Peter and John see a man who is unable to walk. They heal him. He leaps up. Everyone flips out. Peter gives a sermon that basically says, what are you looking at? Why are you surprised? This is possible because of Jesus, the same Jesus you rejected.

We should probably start with the part about “You Israelites are the ones who handed over, rejected, and killed Jesus.”

We can’t read this today without hearing echoes of how this has been used by other Christians for two thousand years. Passages like this carry baggage. They bring to mind lingering, pernicious, and often violent anti-Semitism. Sometimes, as Christians who respect, and want to have good relationships with our Jewish sisters and brothers, we just shy away entirely from passages like this.

But just like in Harry Potter not saying Voldemort’s gives him even more power, not unpacking a text like this leaves it to be used only by the most destructive voices.

The most important thing for us to keep in mind as we read this is that Jesus was Jewish, Peter was Jewish, and everyone in the crowd was Jewish. So Peter is not giving this sermon to people who are fundamentally different from him. He’s talking to his brothers and sisters in the faith, saying, why don’t you get it?

If we, as faithful followers of Jesus, want to hear this text with fresh ears, we might substitute the word Israelites with Christians, and ask ourselves, why do we marvel at this story of the lame man walking? And could it be that we, too, still reject and abandon Jesus? Could it be that Peter’s asking us why we don’t recognize the power at work in Jesus?

Take a minute and look again at the text in the bulletin, and imagine it addressed to us as Christians by a fellow Christian. It has a different ring to it, doesn’t?

They’re still hard words, and somehow even harder when we imagine ourselves as the audience.

There’s some background, though that might make these hard words a bit easier to bear.

Remember who it is who’s preaching this. It’s Peter.

Peter, of all people, knows a thing or two about rejecting Jesus.

He was always the hot shot, straight-A, know-it-all disciple. He was the first one to proclaim Jesus Messiah, the first one to get it. Jesus even said he was the rock upon which the church would be founded.

And yet, when push really came to shove, Peter wouldn’t even admit he knew Jesus. After they’d arrested Jesus, when things were getting real, and it was all about to go down, someone noticed Peter, and said, hey, weren’t you with him? And Peter, not once, but three times, said, nope—I don’t know who you’re talking about. Jesus? Never heard of him.

Oh, what bitter heartbreak when we fall short like that, when we realize we’re not who we want to be, when we betray all that we love and hold dear and true.

This Peter, the one who has intimate knowledge of rejecting and denying and abandoning Jesus, is the one who healed that man and then gave this speech.

One of the folks at Bible study on Tuesday, after some reflection, said, what strikes me is that Peter is as much of a changed man as the healed man.

Peter is as much of a changed man as the healed man.

Our attention, like the crowd, is drawn to the physical healing first. The man who couldn’t walk and then suddenly is leaping, dancing, praising God—we can scarcely take our eyes off of him.

It strains credibility as much for us today as it did for the crowd there that day. Just like them we want to know: did it really happen? How? What power makes that kind of healing possible?

And Peter stops and looks around in surprise—even at us today.

He doesn’t say this, but I wonder if it ran through his mind: these folks wonder how this man can walk. It’s even more amazing to me that I can look myself in the mirror. This man’s physical healing doesn’t hold a candle to the forgiveness I’ve experienced, the fresh start, the spiritual healing. After all, he will still grow old and face other illnesses of the body. But the healing deep down inside that I have found in Jesus, changed me forever.

He turns to this crowd, as he turns to us today, and wants to know—really? This kind of thing catches your attention? Let me tell you the really good news.

John and I aren’t special. We’re not any holier or more powerful than anyone else. Can you hear him thinking to himself: I’m certainly not. I’m as flawed as they come.

But in Jesus things have changed completely. We’ve met a power that doesn’t just have the ability to make a lame man walk, but to make a broken person whole.

We thought, like you, before all this, that goodness and love could be defeated. When they nailed him to a cross, part of us died inside with him. But then we found to our utter amazement, that the power, the goodness, the love and life that we encountered in Jesus isn’t gone. In fact, it’s been set loose in the world. Turns out, there are things more powerful than death. There is healing that can make this man walk, but even more, there is love in this world that can claim even our own fickle, sinful hearts.

Peter, here, gives Jesus one of my favorite titles: Author of Life. Author of Life. Jesus is the Word who writes a new story.

We think the story goes this way: people born lame can’t walk, people born bad can’t be good, there are some sins that can’t be redeemed, people don’t change and there’s no such thing as a clean slate. Love is a fairytale told by the weak to comfort themselves at night. The only sure things are death and taxes. When someone dies they stay dead, and when you make a mistake, it can’t be undone. That’s the story as we know it.

And when we live our lives according to that story, we leave behind us a trail of regret, fear, and hurt. We step on each other. We hurry to get ours because it’s all going to run out soon. We lie because if we tell the truth people won’t love us. We seek refuge in addictions of every shape and size, because tomorrow is going to be just like today and how on earth could we face that. We content ourselves with plans, because hope is a fools’ game. There is nothing new under the sun, so really, why bother?

But Jesus, says Peter the one who denied and rejected and fell short, Jesus is the Author of Life. He is writing a new story.

The story he tells says this: In the beginning Love made the world, created you and me, and all that is seen and unseen. This power, this force of justice, this ground of being that we call God, loves us, and is still active, creating and re-creating and moving in the world. There is brokenness, disease, hurt, and death in this world, but the Love that brought this creation into being will not rest until all is resolved, until all is gathered up in wholeness. This One, this creator, loves us—you, me, everyone. And doesn’t stay apart from us, preserving some kind of sanctity through separation, but comes to us. This love has the power to save us, to wash us clean, to set us on the path of righteousness, and to live within us. Nothing, nothing, nothing is stronger than this love. It may look like it. Death and despair can seem pretty final. But in Jesus we see that even death does not have the power to wipe out this life-giving, life-sustaining, life-creating love.

This is the story that the Author of Life is writing. This is the story Peter has found in Jesus.

And, we get to choose. We get to choose the story by which we will live our lives. The door is not shut. The book’s not closed.

We can choose to live by those stories that deal death, or, if we’d like, we can live by the story written by the Author of Life.

If we join this story, if we claim this song, it will not all magically get easier. Peter ended up as martyr with no money. But we will have found something better than the quick fix, and the same old same old.

We, like Peter will know what it is to be forgiven, to be healed, to be claimed by love. And, by the power that lifted Jesus up from that grave, we will be able to join Peter and John, in being co-writers, in being storytellers telling this amazing story.

We can be forgiven, and we can go out into the world and forgive. We can be healed, and can go and do likewise. This is the power of Christ to re-write the script. We can do a new thing—a new thing. We do not have to live in bondage to what has come before. In Christ we are part of the new creation that is coming into our midst. We can love—really love, and forgive, and heal and be healed. In Christ, we are made new.

This, friends, is the insane, crazy good news of Jesus. This is the story written by the Author of Life. It is our story. It is our song. May it so be. Amen.

by Sarah W. Wiles
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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