Texts: Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; John 10:22-30
Our Scripture readings for today suggest that there are no fully rational ways of proving the Gospel—which is not to say that there are not rational ways of talking about Christianity, or even about religion. Scripture always points us toward action rather than doctrine; and to the witness of real lives…not cognitive assertions, or doctrinal recitations.
Luke, in his history of the new ecclesia, the new group of people of The Way, wants us to know that the explosive growth of the young church following the earthly ministry of Jesus was accompanied by the continuing power of God at work visibly through the way the people of the way cared for those in need around them.
If a church ever wonders why it isn’t growing, it might look to its “works.” Charity and compassion are the first, and most crucial, mark of the identity of the church, because such works mean that the church is living out the life of Jesus in its own existence.
Luke, the author of both the Gospel and this book of the Acts of the Apostles, wants us to see Peter, and later the redeemed persecutor of the church, Paul, and all the other disciples, as those who carried on the work that Jesus had begun. These stories parallel the deeds of Jesus in his earthly ministry.
Here in Acts, Luke is reminding us of his reports in the Gospel of how Jesus raised a widow’s son at Nain, and raised the daughter of Jairus. Jesus’ prophetic ministry, his healing and compassionate power to pull people from death and something less than life to the life that God intended for them, is shown as continuing. For Luke, the power of the Easter faith is seen not only through Peter, but also through the small deeds of compassion and good works of a tradeswoman, Tabitha, whose Greek name was Dorcas. Interestingly, the only time in the whole New Testament that the feminine form of the word “disciple” is used, it is applied to Dorcas, or Tabitha, as she was known by her Aramaic name.
Outsiders can discern the Lord’s presence, the risen Lord, more through acts of mercy than through all our catechisms or programs for children and youth, our rituals, or the elegance of our buildings and talent of our choirs and preachers. An Amish man was once asked by an enthusiastic young evangelist whether he had been saved, and whether he had accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior? The Amish man repied, “Why do you ask me such a thing? I could tell you anything. Here are the names of my banker, my grocer, and my farm hands. Ask them if I’ve been saved.” What do you think your acquaintances and business colleagues might say about you?
Although it would appear that the reading from Acts and the Gospel have little to connect them, in fact, it is this matter of the works that Christ does, or that are done in his name, which must finally suffice. We can never prove who Jesus is beyond all doubt.
People came to him to press the question: Are you the Messiah? the Christ? Although John gives these questioners the name, “the Jews”, it cannot be stressed too often nor too strongly that the author of the Fourth Gospel was writing at a time when the early church was in the process of a very contentious and unfortunate divorce from Judaism. The 10th chapter of John, the chapter containing the “I am the Good Shepherd” declaration, has been, for too long, used as an argument that Christianity has superceded Judaism.
In fact, one of the interesting sidelights to this text in John is the way in which John places the ministry of Jesus against a backdrop of Jewish festivals. In the reading for today, it is winter and the time of the Feast of Dedication, which we know as Chanukkah. John wants to affirm that Jesus is a Jew. It is also wise to remember, as John’s original audience would have known, that Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the new temple, purified after its desecration by the armies of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes following the Macabbean revolt. By the time his gospel is written, the temple has once again been destroyed, this time by Rome. It is part of the author’s project to reassign the locus of God’s dwelling place from the temple in Jerusalem to Jesus’ body. Just as Hanukkah is a festival of lights; so John, in the prologue (Chapter 1) describes Jesus as the light that has come into the world, and the darkness has not overcome it. This is a direct reference to the Hanukkah lights that did not run out of oil in the time of the Macabbean revolt.
Jesus says in this strange passage in John that who he is, his identity, is NOT something to be rationally understood, to be asserted. Even the sentence, “The Father and I are one”, correctly understood from a study of the Greek grammar, does not make a dogmatic assertion that Jesus and God are ONE PERSON, but rather that Jesus is unified with God in his words and deeds. Thus, faith is a matter of seeing and hearing in Jesus the one to whom we finally all belong, and to “follow him,” to live as he lived. It is to trust him so totally that we try to live like him.
You just can’t sit in a pew on Sunday morning, and assume that it will rub off in what you do in the following week. The writer Alice Walker is reputed to have said: “Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy takes the rest of the week.”
If then we are, as Paul argues especially in his Corinthian letters, the body of Christ…it will not be a clear articulation of our religious beliefs that will demonstrate who we are, but what we do. Just as Peter went into the chamber of the moribund Tabitha, echoing Jesus’ healing of the Synagogue leader’s daughter who was thought to be dead as reported in Mark 5, so the church today—moribund and passive—is being asked to rise up, and to engage once more in those acts, those works, which will signify that we are people of the Way of Jesus.
Here are some suggestions: you know that lovely idea that we ought regularly to practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty? Why not put it to the test? Suppose that this week, every day, you will look for some kindness that you can do for someone else—either anonymously, or more directly. Mark Twain once marvelously noted that “kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
One of the interesting things that Luke does in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles is to note that after their experiences with the risen Lord, the Apostles would “see” the lame, the blind, those in need…whereas others would walk on by without noticing.
The spiritual discipline of looking for ways in which you can do a kindness, or add beauty to this world, changes us, as well. It makes us more open to other people, and to our own needs for kindness and beauty, and will draw us closer to union with God. At the end of the week, you should be able to list at least 7 acts of kindness that you undertook the previous week. I encourage you to make a list, and bring it to church next Sunday, and without your name on the paper, put it in the offering tray. I’ll use your lists either that day, or on future Sundays to share how we have each found ways to do the work of the church.
There is no final empirical proof about who Jesus is, or whether God exists. Neither can we prove love exists between two people, or even a person and their dog. There is no proof that the church, with so many flaws, is the continuing presence of Christ in the world. Too much evidence might paint a different picture. But here and there, Tabitha, Dorcas, Peter, Paul…people on the way, clumsy old institutions, show by their actions of care and compassion, that God is our good Shepherd, who will care for us and bring us at last to that great banquet where all our cups will overflow with goodness and mercy.