“Not by Our Own Power or Piety”

Easter 3

April 19, 2015


Text: Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7


          “See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are!” We are God’s children. How did we get that status?

          Let’s look at a human analogy. How does a person become someone’s child? Does the child have any say in the matter? No! We do not get to choose our parents. We came into the world because of choices our birth parents made. Even for those of us who were adopted, our adoptive parents chose to welcome us into their lives. We didn’t choose them.

          Nor do children earn the right to be chosen because of how good they are. Those of us who are parents know that children test boundaries. They sometimes make choices we may not like. Sometimes they get into trouble. But a good parent loves his/her child even when the child makes poor choices or gets into trouble, and forgives the child. Now loving and forgiving that child is not the same thing as condoning wrongdoing. Sometimes a parent has to practice “tough love,” a love that seeks to help the child understand that there are consequences that come with every choice that is made, and that when we make poor choices, the consequences probably are not going to be pleasant.

          Similarly, we also do not choose to be God’s children. God chose us to be his children because he loves us. God also loves us and forgives us even when we do things he does not approve of. This does not mean God condones our wrongdoing, and it does not mean we escape the earthly consequences of our actions even though God does forgive us. In fact, John in his first letter puts it rather bluntly: “Every person who practices sin commits an act of rebellion, and sin is rebellion. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and there is no sin in him. Every person who remains in relationship to him does not sin. Any person who sins has not seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. The person who practices righteousness is righteous, as Jesus is righteous.” Now this may sound rather harsh to some of us. But let’s be honest—you and I are far from the perfection God requires. We make mistakes. We rebel against God. We are not always righteous. Our knowledge of God and our practice of his ways are far from complete or faithful. We are not able to make ourselves right with God. God loves us, and forgives us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ because he loves us, in spite of our rebellion, in spite of our wrongdoing, in spite of our sin.

          Which leads me to our reading from Acts. The backstory to what we read is this: Peter and John had gone up to the Temple one afternoon for the three o’clock prayers. As they were going into the Temple through the gate known as the Beautiful Gate, they saw a crippled man who had been carried there so he could beg for money from arriving worshipers. He saw Peter and John and asked them for money. Peter said, “Look at us!” When the beggar looked at them in expectation, Peter said, “I don’t have any money, but I’ll give you what I do have. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk.” He then took hold of the beggar’s right hand and helped him up. Immediately the beggar’s feet and ankles became strong, and he jumped up and started walking around. He entered the Temple with them, walking, leaping, and praising God. The Temple regulars recognized who he was, and were amazed at what had happened. So an astonished crowd quickly gathered around Peter, John, and the formerly crippled beggar, staring in amazement. Seeing this, Peter began speaking to the gathered crowd: “You Israelites, why are you amazed by this? Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk by our own power or piety?” He then proceeded to tell them that this man had been healed, not by their own power or piety, but through faith in the name of Jesus, the one whom the religious leaders had handed over to crucifixion, whom God raised from the dead. Peter called on them to turn away from their sin, to turn toward God, and to receive forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ.

          Now there are many things that could be said about this story. But what catches my eye today is Peter’s question, “Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk by our own power or piety?” You see, I find that question speaks to some of my own temptations in ministry, and also to some of the church’s temptations. Too often I act as if I can do ministry by my own power or piety without depending on God’s power. And I find the church often succumbs to the same temptation. It is tempting to think we can grow or do great things only if we have the right pastor, or the right lay leadership, or the right program, or the right technique, or the right organizational structure, or enough money…

          The truth, however, is that none of these things guarantees “success” in ministry. For one thing, what actually is “success” in ministry anyway? Some people measure the success of a church by the number of people involved, the size of the budget, the opulence of the building, or other external factors. But these external factors don’t necessarily have anything to do with whether or not God’s work is being accomplished. Indeed, there are many places where people are coming into relationship with God through Jesus Christ and lives are being transformed without any of these things in place. Numbers are also overrated as a measure of “success” in ministry. Jesus reminded us that there is great joy in heaven when even one person turns away from sin and toward God.

          Ministry is not primarily a human enterprise. It is a function of the Holy Spirit. The beggar in our lesson from Acts was not healed by Peter and John’s power and piety. He was healed through faith in the crucified and risen Christ. Likewise, whatever we as church do in ministry does not happen because of our power or piety. It happens through trusting in the crucified and risen Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to empower, embolden, guide, and strengthen us in doing what God calls us to do, including trusting God to bring about the results he desires.

          Our own power and piety cannot make us God’s children, nor can they put us in right relationship with God. God claims us as his children and makes it possible for us to be in right relationship with him through his sacrificial love, demonstrated in the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ for our salvation. We are not enabled to do ministry through our own power or piety, either. We are enabled to do ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit through the same crucified and risen Christ, in whom we are called to place our trust. Let us place our full trust in him.


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