Evensong 23rd July 2017
By faith in his name
Psalm 67 / OT Reading: 1Kings 2.10-12; 3.16-end / NT Reading: Acts 4.1-22
Text: By faith in his name (Acts 3.16)
Our readings this evening describe two sensational beginnings. Following the death of his father David, Solomon has ascended the throne. Asked in a dream what God should give him, Solomon has prayed for wisdom to govern the people justly, discerning between good and evil. Now his wisdom is demonstrated in his judicious handling of the famous case of the disputed baby.
In our New Testament reading, the disciples, gathered together for prayer in the days after they have witnessed Jesus ascension to his Father in heaven, have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peter and John have already begun to proclaim boldly in the temple their conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. By his life and death and resurrection he has fulfilled the Messianic promises in the scriptures. To this we are witnesses, Peter has declared. And now, faced with the need of a man lame from birth, begging for alms, he and John have acted with the power and compassion that Jesus himself would have shown, giving him not money but the wholeness of life and limb that meets his deeper need. In the words of the old Bible, ‘silver and gold have I none, but such as I have, give I thee: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk’ (Acts 3.6).
Like Solomon, Peter and John have made a great star, taking their first independent steps following the death of the leader whom they had revered. But there is of course a difference. Whereas the book of Kings goes on to tell the sad story of Solomon’s later corruption by wealth and power, followed by the progressive decay of the monarchy itself, as he and most of his successors drift ever further from the service of God, the book of Acts shows how the young church, faithful to the name and spirit of Jesus, grows in strength and numbers, spreading right across the known world to become established at the very heart of the Roman empire.
The lesson for us is clear enough. Examples and role models, of which there are many more in the pages of scripture, and perhaps in our own experience, will take us only so far. The memory fades, the generous instincts of youthful commitment are overlaid by growing cares and responsibilities as little by little we are captured by the prevailing culture of our society, for the most part decent, respectable, but cautious and ultimately self-serving. Is that really the best we can do?
Laws and codes of practice, even the Ten Commandments and our Lord’s succinct summary of their intent – Love God, and Love your neighbour – these are helpful guides to good practice, but as Paul discovered, if we take them seriously, we fall into despair when we find that we cannot live by them. Far from encouraging us to live well, they tend to condemn us, marking and measuring our failure to live up to the standards of behaviour to which we know we should aspire. In St Paul’s words: Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7.23).
Peter and John seem never to have lost the flame of faith and love that lit them up when the gift of the Holy Spirit came and danced in their hearts. And the same can be true of us, as indeed it was true of Saint Paul, whose sense of his own worth is transformed, not by struggling even harder to do good, but by allowing the love of God in Christ Jesus to flood into his life, dwelling within him as a child of God, allowing him to sense that his experience of joy and sorrow, triumph and persecution, even death and resurrection, is taken up into the wide embrace of his Master’s love. As he reflects on his experience of living as one inspired, indeed inhabited by the Spirit of Christ, he arrives at that wonderfully reassuring statement: I am persuaded that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.35-39).
The Holy Spirit that rested on Peter and John was the authentic Spirit of Christ himself. Knowing his presence within their hearts, they found the courage to stand up among the people who had condemned Jesus to death, and tell them what they had done, not to blame them, but to urge them to understand how the life and death of Jesus was the fulfilment of all that was promised and hoped for. They could do that with absolute conviction, for they had been with him as he travelled around Galilee and Judea. At last the narrative of which they had been part made sense in the context of the scriptures, and they could tell the story with a conviction which astonished all who heard them. To this we are witnesses.
But that wasn’t all. As they walked through the streets, buoyed up by their good news, suddenly there was this lame man in their path, holding out his bowl, begging for alms. And the Spirit of Christ within them reacted exactly as He would have done. With deep compassion. Not only that; they sense that the Spirit of Christ dwelling within them is compelling them to act as He would have done, releasing the power of the Spirit to heal the lame man. They didn’t ask themselves: Is this going to work? They just said: Silver and gold have I none, but that which I have, I give Thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk. And of course he did.
We are sometimes tempted to look back on the early chapters of the book of Acts as a primitive golden age when everything was possible in a way that is no longer the case. But I’m not sure that’s right. In our more critical modern society we may not see God working in quite the same way, but where the church bears faithful witness to what Christ has done and is still doing in his world, I am persuaded that miracles of healing and restoration do still take place. When our hearts are enlarged, as the Bishop said in his sermon at Diana’s induction, we just need to go with it, and let the Spirit of Christ act through us and through his church, by faith in his name, to the glory of God the Father.