April 11, 2021
Welcome to our new worship series, the New Normal. We keep hearing this word “new normal,” but it’s lost its meaning. Maybe a journey through Acts to see how the Apostles responded to their new normal of living in the post-resurrection time will help us on our walk of faith.
Today we get Peter giving testimony after healing a man in the temple. Peter is saying, “Here’s how the man was healed. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the God of our Ancestors has been glorified by Jesus whom you rejected in the presence of Pilate.” Peter calls on the audience to repent and convert.
This has me reflecting on the question, “How is it that we who claim to believe the story the most, lose the narrative most often?”
I recently encountered a man on social media giving his version of Peter’s call to repent. He wrote, “Our sin is disgusting to God and a rebellion to his holy name. I am reminded every day why I should be in hell, and I thank God for saving me and leaving his Word for my benefit. It’s the only infallible and completely true thing I have. We have to make people uneasy before they find joy.”
I don’t remember reading that anywhere in today’s scripture. I’m amazed how some Christians can make the Good News sound like bad news.
One person responded: “Ok, so let me get this straight here.
- Created the concept of sin.
- Created a place for all sinners to go.
- Made all people sinners
- Created an alternative place to go but only if you praise him.
That’s a textbook definition of abuse. Please explain exactly why I should worship that person?”
To which the man replied, “Jesus mentions hell more than heaven.”
So I had to chime in… “Let’s not mention that when Jesus did talk about hell, it was addressed not to the ‘outsider’ or ‘the lost’ but to the religious who were making the lives of the poor and outcast a living hell. But sure… let’s get that ticket to heaven and talk about ‘making people uneasy before they find joy’ in a country with a record number of opioid deaths, suicides, and mass shootings. Sounds like good news to me.”
Peter gives no hellfire or brimstone. He states, “You rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of Life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” And then Peter says, “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.”
You acted in ignorance. Do you hear the grace here? Then for the next 9 verses it’s all about universal restoration. Universal. All people.
Yet the prevailing culture within and outside of the church is that God’s grace is for members only. This isn’t good news. Or it’s only good news for you and me, and no one else, which isn’t really good news. Nor is it anywhere in the vicinity of universal restoration.
It’s really not that hard to tell when we’ve lost the narrative. I like how Beth Moore frames it, “When the Gospel has become bad news to the poor, oppressed, to the broken hearted, and imprisoned, and Good News to the proud, self-righteous, and privileged instead, it is no longer the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
God-in-Christ came to the poor, the outcast and the oppressed, and he preached love. They had been tossed out of their religious communities, which had become clubs. These well-intentioned folk lost the narrative, and religious life had become a game of who was wearing what, who spoke to whom, who led what committee. Jesus came and tossed over those tables. Jesus had no interest in playing that game.
Yet many of his followers insist on following it. I guess it’s easier that way. We have been taught to hate sin or confess it without recognizing sin’s true shape.
I remember going into confessions on Saturday evening when I was little and telling the priest my sins. Sometimes I would write my sins down. Really agonize over my list. A few times I went in and drew a blank. I felt I had to say something… I think I lied about some sins. How does that work..? Lying in the confessional?
I know confession is good for the soul, but if it’s based on the toxic view of “God hates you until you believe” then I’m not sure what good it’s doing. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s done immense harm. We need to tell a better story: one like Peter’s testimony and his act of restoring someone who was once an outcast to the community.
Theologian Richard Rohr puts it this way: “if you nurture hatred toward yourself, it won’t be long before it shows itself as hatred toward other. This is garden-variety Christianity, I am afraid, but it comes at a huge cost to history. Unless religion leads us on a path to both depth and honesty, much religion is actually quite dangerous to the soul and to society. In fact, ‘fast food religion’ and the so-called prosperity gospel are some of the very best ways to avoid God while talking about religion almost nonstop.”
Peter heals someone. Then he brings this man into the temple to restore him physically and restore him to the community of God. Only then to have the community ask for an explanation. And when Peter gives his testimony, they argue with him. Why? Because they had already rejected that guy. They would have to reflect on their rules. They would have to reflect on their sin which is more than the private acts of lying, or coveting, and other individual things I said in the confessional… and more of the corporate acts of systemic injustice, greed, and how we legally mistreat our neighbors.
Peter doesn’t give the religious the respect they think they are due. His actions and testimony are a threat to their power. Their power is based on the fact that they are following the law, and you aren’t. Their power is based on, “making people uneasy before they find joy” in their system. I studied how to do this in advertising in college. I invent the problem that only my product can solve.
Peter presents universal restoration. He gives an invitation to participate in what Christ started, which stems directly from the sacred stories of Israel. The covenant between God and Abraham, “And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
But we’re first, right? Let’s make sure this testimony is officially sanctioned. Let’s red tape it to death. Let’s make them jump through hoops. Cite their sources. Prove their claim. Make them explain their doctrine.
The proof is in the healed man who had to beg for his daily bread. The poor restored to community. The proof is in the testimony of faith, not the test of faith.
It’s why I tell stories in my preaching so often. That’s where the power is. I converted from the shell-game of the fast-food variety of faith. I used to want to convert everyone to MY way of thinking and MY brand of religion. I tested people to see if they were in or out; sinner or saved. I have no interest in playing that game because it’s exhausting. I hated myself. I had low-self esteem. I know my faults, I don’t need a system that reinforces the poor view of myself. What I need is good news. What I need is the belief that all the suffering and awfulness I’m seeing isn’t all there is.
When all your life is crucifixion and tombs, you need news of the resurrection. But tombs were all I was seeing in my life. Not a lot of hope for my future. Raised in a forgotten, rust belt town whose best days were behind them. The factories moved out. We blamed the Mexicans for taking jobs we didn’t want. And then Mexico for taking the factories, but never the owners who signed the deeds to follow cheaper labor. We didn’t want to look at that sin.
We saw the rise in addiction and blamed the addicts and not the conditions that contributed to the hopelessness. We didn’t want to look at that sin.
We complained about how ill-prepared our students were for real life, I mean they ain’t teaching what I learned in school… and we blamed the teachers and the superintendent and never looked at the workload, the curriculum, or the failure to pass a levy. We didn’t want to look at that sin.
That beggar Peter healed was in a tomb. Peter heals and restores him; gives him new life. Peter knows what it’s like. He was in a dead-end job. A fisherman on an overfished sea. Looking at a 90% tax rate. He was watching all the mom-and-pop shops get gobbled up by huge fishing conglomerates. Then Jesus calls him. Teaches him. Peter denies him three times, and Jesus restores him three times saying, “Feed my sheep.” Peter finally gets it. He gives his testimony. He does what the religious of his day and of our day refused to do.
As the Rev. Dr. Lori Walke stated in her Easter sermon, “We are steeped in a culture of death that would focus elsewhere to avoid the tombs of the crucified. Who is walking toward the tombs? Shouldn’t that be the job of the church?”
Church, we must walk toward the tombs. The tombs of isolation. The tombs of poverty. The tombs of hopelessness, addiction, the oppression, racism, bigotry, and prejudice in all forms. We are an Easter people in a Good Friday world.
We dare speak of hope and new life in a world resigned to death. We dare speak of peace and forgiveness in a world obsessed with war and revenge. We add our stories.. our testimonies of faith hoping that in telling our stories, someone else relates to it. There is power when someone says, “Yeah. Me, too! I had something similar happen.”
On Easter, I made fun of the receiving line at the end of worship. One of you wrote, “Funny I didn’t realize the humor and ironies of the receiving line.” I realized I didn’t mention the greatest thing someone once said to me in the receiving line. One guy walked up and said, “I already knew everything you said. But you reminded me of my better nature.”
I don’t think there’s any greater compliment. We already know this stuff. Our whole faith is about walking toward tombs. Bringing life where there is death. We celebrate those people of faith who came before, we tell their stories. We celebrate those in recovery. We preach inclusion, justice, and service. We point to Christ and our sacred stories. We already know this stuff!
You know it because you send folks and funds down to build homes in Costa Rica. You make life better on a global scale. You drop off Easter Bags to the children of those in prison. We were the first to hear the chain-breaking choir in our county jail. You feed the hungry in our community in so many ways and partner with those doing the work.
In what new ways will we walk toward the tombs? In what way will we add our own testimonies of faith? How shall we welcome, love, and serve in this new normal we find ourselves in? Not just the new normal of the pandemic, I’m talking about the bigger question. The new normal where church membership is not the norm, where those with no religion are the majority.
We can play the shaming shell-game of garden-variety faith… but that’s not the faith Mary found in the garden. That isn’t the empty tomb faith Peter found and testifies to this day. How will you add your story to the story of universal restoration work that God is doing? Give your testimony, not your test, for a dying world is yearning for this Good News.
 @bethmoorelpm on 12/9/18 on Twitter
 Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, page 89