The Sunday Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Easter – April 29, 2018
Scripture: Acts 9:32-42
An Answer to Prayer
This is the fourth week in Eastertide, the fourth Sunday after Easter, the fifth Sunday of Easter. We’ve been traveling these past few weeks, together with the first century apostles, following the movement of the early church, a community called “the Way” whose God experience in one Jesus of Nazareth was so powerful that even after his brutal and agonizing death they were able to proclaim that he lives, “He is Alive” in them, among them, and moving beyond them. The Christ experience that was theirs on that first Easter morning is still ours over two thousand years later. The message of love, hope, promise, and final victory over death, over all that kills in this world, is one they were commissioned to take “to the ends of the earth,” and one that we, too, as twenty first century disciples, are charged to share with the world.
Can we do it? How should we do it? And how will we know that what we’re doing is “of God?” These are the questions we’ve taken on our journey to Pentecost this year. On May 20th the Holy Spirit arrives as it does every year and we celebrate, we remember, the first Pentecost in Jerusalem. On that day this year, having travelled out in these weeks before that day this year, we will be drawn back to the beginning to re-discover and accept our own call in our own time.
Let us pray …
We began two weeks ago in Jerusalem, listening to the first apostles preach and teach in the Temple and in the streets. We watched as they angered the religious authorities in the city, were arrested, and put on trial with death the almost certain sentence. We heard an unlikely ally, the Pharisee Gamaliel, speak up to halt the proceedings. “If what these followers of the Way do is of human origin,” he noted, “it will surely fail. But if it is … of God … then no one will be able to stop it.” The apostles were freed, the Gospel continued to spread, and we received our “litmus test.” Is what we’re doing “of God?” Is who we are as Christians today “of God?” We have marked each week since by the justice, righteousness, mercy and humility that are a part of our lives as people of the Way today. If our actions, if our thoughts, if our lives don’t include these things, then we are failing as disciples of Christ.
Two weeks ago we empowered each and every one of you who come to this sanctuary to worship or that Family Life Center for fellowship. None of us are passive participants in this undertaking. Every one of us shapes the present church, working faithfully to be “of God” in order to ensure our future.
And just last week, through Ashia’s sermon message we were challenged, as Paul was so profoundly on his journey to Damascus so long ago, to convert our assumptions; to sit in the places of privilege that we occupy, question the assumptions about others that our places of privilege have engendered in us, and discover new commitments to justice, love, mercy, and humility.
All that and we’re only half way there this Eastertide. Dang … this Christian thing is maybe harder than we thought, yea? But we have help. We have tools, practices, disciplines that support us in our Christian enterprise.
This morning, our fourth stop in our journey through the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we meet the only woman in Acts explicitly called “a disciple.” (The good news is truly reaching beyond traditional boundaries and breaking down ancient walls of separation and division. First a Pharisee and now a woman?!) We meet this woman and we explore one of the most powerful instruments of our faith: Prayer.
Listen for the word of God … (read Acts 36-43)
“Peter knelt down and prayed … Tabitha opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.” Peter’s prayer, and the prayers of all the widows in our scripture reading this morning, is answered. As profoundly and completely comforting as these verses are when we first read them, if (and when) we give it a second and third thought, we begin to feel some discomfort. In spite of the fact that we know this story is just the latest in Luke’s ongoing insistence that “in Christ” Death does not, will not, have the final say; that there is, now, a power loose in the world which is able to break the hold that our mortality has on us; that in this new community forming in the name of the new Christ “the others” in society, here seen in the “widows,” will not be left to perish; in spite of the fact that we know all these things are the “more-than-literal-truth” being communicated in these verses, we can’t help but ask: “What about us and our prayers?”
The cancer diagnosis that doesn’t change after months of radiation and chemotherapy. What about us?
The dementia that progresses, finally claiming the bodily organs responsible for sustaining life as we know it. What about us?
A family learns about “dissociative amnesia,” not by goggle-ing it, but by experiencing it firsthand. What about us and our prayers?
As “answered” as Peter’s prayer is in this story, the account of Tabitha’s rebirth just may provide a biblical setting that helps us reflect on what we so quickly and easily feel are our unanswered prayers.
As we read healing stories such as this in our scripture, and there are many – even a few more about restoring life itself – we must work out the wider, more public results of being sick and being healed, of the effects and the power of prayer, of our understanding of how our prayers are “answered.” There is always more at stake in any illness or sickness described in our scriptures than the “miraculous” healing cure of “the one” because we know from real-life experience that “the one” isn’t always cured, no matter how hard we pray. There must be deeper effects of our prayers and broader implications for our lives when we do pray than any tangible result.
In our story this morning, the prayer over Tabitha’s sickness provides an occasion for getting Peter into relationship with the widows of the community, who themselves got into deeper relationship with one another. Times such as death afford a grieving community the chance to express their gratitude for someone else, to worship and weep together, and to find a measure of God’s comforting presence among them. Times such as death, the actual death of beloved members of our families or our community or the death that dementia, cancers, or random events bring to our lives, can bring us closer to one another and closer to understanding what is most important right here and right now: our shared life, with friends, family, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. We share a love that is not of this world and so not constrained to this world’s limits. The answer to prayer is not found in any end result, but in the prayer itself and the hope, connection and love it provides.
It is so hard for us to be satisfied with this. The God that we pray to, that we have prayed to so faithfully for so long, should be able to *snap … fix it, fix us, fix “the problem” *snap … like that. We’ve been told that’s how it’s done through explanations and interpretations of scripture verses just like Peter and Tabitha’s. But we’ve been wrong in those explanations and interpretations. The God that we have created to make sense of passages like these is a whole other sermon, I know. It’s one I’ve preached on before and will again, because we must rediscover the God of our faith in ways that deepen our trust and fidelity to this reality, rather than call it into question. But this morning is about prayer.
There is no question that the presence of dementias, amnesias, cancers – not to mention war, global poverty and world hunger – is haunting, is confounding to us, we who want the laws of nature to bend at our will or the results of centuries of poor human decisions to change overnight. But we must be able to see evidence of God’s active love reflected even when we don’t get what we so badly desire and so earnestly “pray” for. We must be able to see evidence of God’s active mercy through the love we all share together, in this life and far beyond it. This is one of the promises of the new community called “The Way.” This is the power of one of its practices. This is the proclamation and the prayer of Easter morning: May Death, in any of its forms, not have the final say. Amen. We choose life, over and over again, we will choose life, now and forevermore.
In our fourth stop on this year’s Eastertide journey, Luke does not intend to tell us about some first century miracle worker, apostle or not. He communicates an essential truth about the new faith forming around Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings of God, the essential truth of our faith in Jesus’ message, in the empowering love of the Christ known and experienced in Jesus. We’ll argue with our fundamental brothers and sisters and even with ourselves about whether this event in the book of Acts ever happened or not. But we must no doubt its truth:
Christian faith boldly proclaims that in “the Way of Christ” history is turned inside out. In the lives of the followers of this Way there will no longer be closed, meaningless actions lived out on the way to oblivion. Wherever there is helplessness, “caughtness,” and bondage, the Word, the Way, the Will of God, creates fresh possibilities.
We don’t need that truth to be anchored in literal explanations of supernatural events or in intricate theological and intellectual gymnastics. We “simply” need to open our eyes, to open our hearts, to the resurrection power of Love.
The answer to our prayers lies not in any results we can measure, even when results can be measured. The answers lie in the relationships that are established and the trust that is created with our God and with each other in the new life that we share as we pray. That’s the good news of the apostles in the first centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection as they grew a new community, the church, and it’s ours as we do the same in the 21st century: We are not alone. We are not forgotten. We are deeply, deeply, loved.
The answer to prayer is prayer. Let us pray … Take our minds, O God, and give us the mind of Christ so that we too may know the meaning of life itself.
Amen. (Let us sing together …)
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 29, 2018