Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Good news

Palestine had no social safety net. Apparently, the man born lame about whom we heard in the first lesson (Acts 3:12-19) came from a family that had to work to live. So daily, this man’s friends placed him at the entrance to the temple to beg for alms. When the lame man saw Peter and John approaching, he looked intently at them, hoping for a gift.

Unfortunately, this scene has become all too common. A man or woman with a cardboard sign and perhaps a plastic container in which to receive money sits outside a busy doorway or stands at a busy intersection, eyeing passersby with a hungry, hopeful look. Occasionally, I’ve seen a cheerful beggar. More typically, the person looks unkempt, dirty, and projects an image of need, suffering, and vulnerability. Regardless of whether I give the person money, the encounter leaves me wondering whether I did the right thing, that is, could I have done something more loving, something that would have given life.

Peter surprised the beggar. He took the man by the right hand; said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And the unbelieving man discovered he was no longer lame.

In the sermon that is this morning’s first reading, Peter interprets what happened to the crowd that had gathered. He tries to direct attention away from himself and to God.

In our interpretations of the text, we must tread very carefully. Our best biblical scholars recognize that Pilate offering a Jerusalem crowd a choice between Jesus and Barabbas is almost assuredly fictional. Imperious imperial rulers don’t pander to crowds. For example, try to imagine dictators in Syria, Iraq, Libya, or Egypt doing this. Furthermore, no historical evidence suggests that Pilate or the Roman ruler of any province ever gave people such a choice. The author included the incident trying to make Christianity more acceptable to the dominant culture by minimizing or deflecting Roman responsibility for Jesus’ death. One unintended consequence was to inflame centuries of virulent anti-Semitism against the people who had allegedly killed Jesus.

Another complication is that the Greek word faith is a verb, not a noun. Faith is an action, not a belief. Incidentally, Diana Butler Bass comments on this in her excellent book, Christianity after Religion; Episcopalians across the diocese, including at Nativity, are studying that book this Easter season, innovatively combining books, videoconferencing, computers, and local small groups.[1] We understand faith in his name and faith that is through Jesus better as trust in Jesus or trust in walking the Jesus path. Faith is not a matter of belief but the trajectory of one’s life.

This insight is vitally important for two reasons. First, the Bible is not a sourcebook of propositional truths but a window through which God's light illuminates the path of life abundant.

Early voting has begun on a proposed amendment to the North Carolina state constitution that would (a) define marriage as exclusively being between a man and a woman and (b) prohibit extending the benefits of marriage to anyone else. If you read the Bible as a sourcebook of propositional truths, then the verses that prohibit sex between two people of the same gender constitute a prima facie argument in support of the amendment. However, if the Bible is a window through which God's light illuminates the Jesus path, then you understand that the three purposes of marriage articulated in the Book of Common Prayer – mutual comfort and joy, procreation and nurture of children when it is God's will, and being a sign of Christ's love for the Church – are not gender specific. The love about which we heard in the second lesson and the mysterious power of God to transform death into life (the mystery of the resurrection) is what we see in all healthy marriages, regardless of composition. This week, the three North Carolina Episcopal diocesan bishops – the Rt. Revs. Michael Curry, Clifton Daniels, and Porter Taylor – sent their clergy a letter opposing the amendment because of the harm to children and families that passage would cause.

The second reason why understanding that faith is a verb and not a noun is important is that people hunger for a relationship with God. The beggars – not only people who need money but also all who have lost hope for a better, more meaningful life, more satisfying relationships, or mental health – surround us. What they really want is not a handout but a relationship with Jesus.

The gospel portrays the disciples as terrified when Jesus appears (Luke 24:36-48). They think he’s ghost, that is, surreal. He invites them to touch his body to prove he is real; for the same reason he eats some fish. In other words, the gospel depicts Jesus paradoxically: he’s ephemeral, like a ghost but he’s also a physical being, whom they can touch and who can eat. I find this completely baffling and am leery of anyone who claims to understand it. God is infinite and irreducible to the finite or human. This baffling paradox, when we let it, calls our attention to the mysterious, transformative, life-giving power of God at work in the world.

Thanks be to God, we do not have to comprehend, analyze, or describe God's presence in the world. Faith is not a matter of belief. Faith is the direction of our lives. When we live in the direction of justice and of love, we encounter God. In the loving, faithful, committed relationship of two adults, I see this presence. In the gift of concern for a lame person – or a beggar of any kind – I see this presence. In this community gathered around the altar to share in the paschal feast I see this presence. For it is in the doing and not the believing that we experience God as we follow the Jesus path. Amen.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity after Religion (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), p. 118.

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