Wednesday, May 02, 2012

April 29, Easter 4, "By What Power Do You Do This?"

Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

The Easter season is eight Sundays long, from Easter Day to Pentecost. During this season my sermons are a series on the questions which are asked within the scripture lessons. Last week’s question was “Why do doubts arise within your hearts?” This week’s question is “By what power or by what name did you do this?” It was a hostile question from the interrogation of Peter and John. But it’s not an unfair question. It’s always fair to ask it of the church. Whatever it is we do as a church, by what power and by what name do we do it?

The easy part of the question is “by what name”. Not by the name of the Reformed Church in America, nor by the name of the universal God of all enlightened men, but by the name of this particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, who was raised from the dead by the God of Israel, elected by God to be the Messiah, and designated by God as the one in whom the world will find its salvation. Which means that whatever we do as a church to contribute to the salvation of the world, we do it under the name of this Lord Jesus.

But what is the meaning of salvation? Salvation means one thing for Buddhists and another thing for Hindus, and something else for Muslims and something else for Jews. What’s included in salvation under the name of Jesus? The salvation we Christians are supposed to look for, officially at least, according to the Nicene Creed, is “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Last week I said we can look for this not only at the end of the world but in the now of the world, and we can see it in a homeless man getting a job and a uniform and a car. Salvation can mean a broken person restored to dignity and productivity.

That’s what it looked like two Sundays ago, in the story of the disabled panhandler at the gate of the temple, who was healed by Peter and John. That’s what Peter is being questioned about today. What Peter says in the original Greek is that a man who was “disabled” was “saved,” so that the man could stand there “sound and whole”. So the gift of soundness and wholeness is the meaning of salvation here, of his rising up into his full humanity, so that instead of his begging outside the temple he many now stand inside the temple for the praise of God, and then walk back out of the temple to his neighborhood and love his neighbors now and be productive in the city. Such is the salvation which came to him under Jesus’ name.

The harder part of the question is by what power do they do this. What is the power of the church? We ask it today in full awareness of the church’s weaknesses, and its record of corruption and division. Despite the scandal of the church there is a power for good which still gets through, and what is that power? By what power do we do what we do every week? By what power do we speak to Park Slope and the surrounding neighborhoods in which we live? Can it be as simple as the power of love, or what the gospel calls “the power to lay down our lives?”

Last Monday night we had our monthly elders’ meeting. The first part of the meeting was a pleasure. We interviewed the people who want full membership in the church and to commit to this congregation. They want to identify with this flock of sheep. We received them and blessed them, and after they left, we had to move on to business not so pleasurable. We addressed a potential conflict in the church. We had to sort through certain actions by specific persons, and the What and the Why of statements which they may or may not have made, and what did that require of us.

Who do we think we are we do this work when Jesus calls himself the one shepherd of the flock? We do not want to be hirelings. We do not run away when difficulty comes. In the Reformed Church we appoint the elders to be under-shepherds of the flock, in order to express his shepherding in real time with real people. Not that we feel so courageous in ourselves. We recognize our weaknesses. It’s “in fear and trembling that we work out our salvation.” We try to work the power of the love of God. We apply the power of God’s love directly to the realities of our common human life within the troubles and confusion of the world, even the small world of Old First.

The power the elders have is the “power to lay down our lives” for the sake of the flock. We do this in many small ways. We sacrifice the hours of our evenings, although we’d rather be at home. On the matters at hand we offer in turns our own personal judgments, and then we lay them down to the judgments of the other elders. Last Monday night there were three of us who judged one way, and one the opposite way, and two were in-between. By the end of our discussion the five of us had laid down our judgments before the challenge of the one. What that one elder called the rest of us to was a very deep kind of justice. And if justice can be understood as the right distribution of love, then what he called us to was a very advanced kind of love.

It was not a case of just giving in. It was not an example of inaction or disability. It was a case of that one elder challenging the rest of us, including me, and challenging us to hope against hope, and doing it in such a humble and loving way that we were lifted up. It was a little bit of salvation. You understand that I cannot tell you what the particular matter was, but you need to know the good news that this kind of healing can happen in a church. And you need to know that we do this among the elders for your sake, we do it for the soundness and wholeness of this body of Christ of which you are a part. We do it as a small community of six people in order to model what the community of Jesus can be for our congregation as a whole. We take care that the life we live together in this church may express and experience “the life of the world to come.”

We express it for the world and for the life of the world today. The metaphor of the shepherd was an ancient metaphor for kings. Today the shepherds of our lives would be the politicians we elect to power and authority. The great tragedy of this magnificent democracy of America is that our politicians are afraid to challenge our nation like our one elder did. In order to get elected they indulge our insecurities and pander to our prejudice. They will not lay down their possible reelection or continuing in power for the sake of justice or hope. They are hirelings whose power lacks the true authority of love.

It’s not in the power of the church to correct this in our nation. We are not given that. What’s in our power is rather to witness to the nature of God’s salvation of the world and to give credit to our witness by how we express it in our lives as God’s community. We commit to this expression. By our membership we stand for it. When we say that salvation is by no other name under heaven, we do not mean it as a judgment about non-Christians, for we don’t know God’s boundaries, we only know God’s center, and the center is that God has committed to that specific kind of salvation and that specific kind of power for good and that authority of love which in God expressed in real time in the person whose name was Jesus of Nazareth.

We are tempted to look for resurrection power in supernatural healings which are indisputably miraculous. No miracle is ever undisputed, as Peter and John found out. No act of love is indisputable, unless it’s seen through love. But I can call on you to work your miracles. In the small things you do in daily life, by how you give yourself to love and to its challenges, especially against the power of the doubting and the fearing of the world. Your acts of love seem insignificant. But they are part of that one great thing God is doing in the world, that great long plan of salvation.

If it seems slow, it is the patience of God’s love. If it seems weak, it is the vulnerability of God’s love. If it seems uncertain, then be encouraged by the signs of it, which you can see through love. And here’s the answer to our question: The power is love, and God could do it in no other way, because God’s name is Love.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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