April 17, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Columbiana – Rev. Fritz Nelson
Texts: Acts 9:32-43; John 10:22-42
READ ACTS 9:32-43
These two stories – the healing of the paralyzed Aeneas and the raising of the dead Tabitha (or Dorcas – depending on whether you’re speaking Hebrew or Greek) read like they are from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John – but they are in Acts. Jesus has ascended into heaven. Initial persecutions have ended, the church has expanded beyond Jerusalem and Peter the fisherman has become Peter the pastor – traveling between the communities teaching, training leaders and offering care.
You may have seen the Allstate commercials staring Dean Winters as Mr. Mayhem, the crazy or distracted driver that leaves death and destruction in his wake. Traveling among these newly formed communities of Jesus followers, Peter has the same effect – except instead of mayhem he sows resurrection. Aeneas – bedridden for eight years – walks. Tabitha, so dead that her wake has started, so dead that friends, family and fellow Jesus followers are at her house, admiring her needlework, praising her acts of charity – we know the scene, we’ve all been there; most of us were there just a few days ago last week. Knowing that their pastor was nearby, they send for Peter. He probably knew her. He certainly would want to know of her death. He might be able to come and bring a message of hope in their heartbreak – to pray with the family, to remind them of the story of Christ’s resurrection. Instead Peter brings resurrection.
Wherever Peter goes, resurrection follows. Hold that thought for a moment as we turn to our second scripture reading from the gospel of John.
READ JOHN 10:22-42
Here we find Jesus walking in the temple courtyard, being challenged by his accusers to declare himself the messiah. Now you must understand that throughout the gospels, Jesus is as evasive on this question as Hillary Clinton is about what she said in closed door speeches to Wall Street power brokers. Further complicating things is that Jesus hasn’t been acting all that much like a Jewish messiah. No nationalist speeches. No army. No claims on political power. Just a string of healings, some mass feedings and lots of meals with the disenfranchised. You ask who I am, Jesus tells his accusers. All you need to do is observe what I am doing. Am I doing the works of my father? Am I bringing resurrection?
As Presbyterians we are heirs to a theological tradition skeptical of good works. “It is by grace we are saved through faith,” the Apostle Paul informs us in a verse that has been pounded home by generations of Presbyterian ministers including myself – “It is by grace we are saved through faith, and this is not of our own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works.” Christ saves us, Christ holds us, Christ resurrects us because we are.
Yet Jesus, who had no need of salvation, leaves a trail of resurrection wherever he goes. Peter, whose salvation was assured personally by Jesus Christ, also leaves a trail of resurrection wherever he goes. He becomes a life giver because he has been given life. He becomes a savior (small “s”) because he has been saved. Having witnessed the resurrected Christ, having been filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter cannot do differently.
On Thursday night, Kristin Stroble, pastor of the Heritage Presbyterian Church in Poland, joined us to report on her trip to Lebanon as part of a delegation from Eastminster Presbytery to the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon – our Presbyterian partners in this increasingly volatile religious and cultural crossroads. There are fewer Presbyterian churches in Lebanon and Syria than there are in Columbina County and the largest aren’t any bigger than we are. Yet everywhere the delegation went, non-Christians told them how important these churches were to their communities. A congregation of a few dozen might be sponsoring a school providing a Christian education to hundreds (mostly Muslim) kids. A congregation of a few tens might be housing free medical clinics, food pantries, refugee agencies or even actual refugees in their buildings. At the height of Lebanon’s civil war, it was the Presbyterian seminary that sponsored dialogue between the warring factions. At the height of the current refugee crisis, it is the Presbyterian churches preparing to educate thousands of refugee children in reading, writing, and peace. At the height of the war induced economic crisis, Muslims are told to find the Presbyterian church if they need help.
As their world collapses around them, our sisters and brothers in Lebanon are committed to leaving a trail of resurrection. Do you want to know who we worship? Look at what we do. Do you want to experience a different way for yourself or your children? Walk alongside us.
Kristin shared with us that she left Lebanon wondering if anyone would care if her church in Poland closed besides those inside its walls. She left wondering if her congregation was recognized as a place of resurrection by their neighbors in the low income housing across the street, by those who lived in the surrounding neighborhood, by students in the nearby elementary school. As her church went about its daily practice of worship and ministry, were they leaving a trail of resurrection? Did their works make God visible to their neighbors?
The same questions can be asked of us. Do we, as individual Christians and as the community of Christ, sow resurrection wherever we go? Is Christ visible in what we do, how we act, how we bring new life to others? Would it make a difference in Columbiana if First Presbyterian closed?
Our works may not save us, but they do bring salvation to those around us and resurrection to the communities in which we live. They demonstrate in real time, through real actions, in real lives the power of God. They are why we’re here.