Sunday, April 30, 2017
Scripture: Ephesians 4:1-6 & Acts 3:1-10
Rev. Jill VanderWal

Today we are in our second week of a new series on Practicing Faith. I love the book of Acts as it speaks to the story of the first followers of Christ. Jesus has ascended, the Holy Spirit has filled them, and through miracles and preaching, thousands are coming to believe in the truth of Jesus. It is an alive time. We are looking at Acts and asking what the practices or habits of the early believers were. What were they about?

First, they were about gathering, praying and telling their stories. They also maintained their rituals of worship at the temple. The headline stories that spread like wildfire were those of physical and spiritual healings. The early church was characterized by healing and restoration.

I flew to Seattle for a conference this week with a heavy heart, mindful of friends back home in their last days. As I sat on the plane, the woman next to me opened up about her 5 year struggle with epileptic seizures that led to hospitalization. “I used to be a nurse, and now people take care of me,” she said. “I feel like a child. I can’t do anything by myself. I guess everything happens for a reason, right?” “No,” I replied, “I think sometimes bad things just happen.” This deepened my humility and wonder as I ask the question, what does it mean for the church to be a place where we practice healing? Last week Troy spoke of sharing our story of faith. The practice I want to explore with you this week is learning to share our stories through the hardest days. This practice leads to a community of healing.

In this morning’s scripture we have a man born with deformed feet and he sits daily at the gate called “Beautiful.” Let’s give him a name…Zack. His place is one of immobility; he’s stuck and dependent on others to be moved, for food, for everything. He did not run with his brothers as a child, and every day he watches as others play, work, go to synagogue, and move through life. He sits at this gate and begs.

Luke includes the name of the place. Peter and John enter the Temple through the “Beautiful Gate.” In Greek this word for beautiful (horaios) means blooming, beautiful (of the human body): the bloom and vigor of life. This is the beautiful place – in an alive moment, ripe for a miracle. At the perfect moment – Peter says “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk.” After the healing, he immediately goes through the gate into a new life, a new community, and is no longer shut out.

On the most basic level this illuminates that the early church was a place for removing barriers. This man had been on the outside his whole life because of a deformity from birth. This birth defect kept him out, was a barrier of sorts preventing him from engaging in the heart of Jewish life and culture, kept out of a relationship with God. This healing is about removing any barriers between God and community.

This speaks to the message of inclusion to the Gentiles as well. The church was a source of healing emotionally, culturally and physically because they had seen Jesus engage and include all kinds of sick and rejected people. They understood in practice that to follow Jesus meant to feed all of his sheep and that the underlying truth is that all people, every single one, are made in the image of God.

Pastor Bill Hybels stopped on a trip in the Middle East to meet refugee families. One family had a young son who stayed home from school. Bill began to ask questions about this boy’s story and found out that because of a lazy eye, he was bullied and afraid of going to school. Bill ended up finding a way for this boy to have surgery, and he was able to go back to school without fear of being bullied. Bill said it was so powerful for him to get to be a part of one person’s story of healing. God’s heart as expressed in Jesus is for forgiveness, healing and inclusion. I have witnessed so many of you come alive when barriers are removed and others are helped to experience God’s love in a real way.

Throughout history Christians believed and showed the world that the whole person matters. When a devastating plague swept across the ancient world in the third century, Christians were the only ones who cared for the sick, which they did at the risk of contracting the plague themselves. Meanwhile, pagans were throwing infected members of their own families into the streets even before they died, in order to protect themselves from the disease. The love of the early Christians wasn’t limited simply to their fellow believers. Christians also lovingly helped non-believers: the poor, the orphans, the elderly, the sick, the shipwrecked—even their persecutors. This is the foundation for Christians committed to health care to this day, the care for the whole person. This is also the idea of dying with dignity and care of people in their last days.

In this story the healing leads to inclusion. In our days it is often the inclusion that is healing. In the book Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans, Evans talks about how for so many church is a great place until there is a miscarriage or a death, a tumor or other illness. Then church feels hard. Maybe we don’t know where to begin or what to say to whom, maybe we feel overwhelmed by our own darkness and pain and wonder how we could ever share that with someone else. Maybe we doubt if the church is a place we can bring our doubt and anger with God. I confess as a church it’s hard to be a place of healing and inclusion. Why?  Because sometimes there’s support but there is ultimately not the physical healing we want. We wait and pray and hope but the story ends with no miraculous healing like the one for our friend at the gate.

 “Jesus calls us his disciples, giving us authority to heal and sending us out. He doesn’t show us how to reliably cure a molar pregnancy. He doesn’t show us how to make a blind man see, dry every tear, or even drive out all kinds of demons. But he shows us how to enter into a new way of life in which the broken and sick pieces are held in love, and given meaning. In which strangers literally touch each other, and in doing so make a community spacious enough for everyone.”  Sara Miles, Jesus Freak p.105

This is where the invitation to healing begins. We share our pain, we ask for help, or maybe it’s listening and walking with another. This is where we as a church, who in practicing healing seek to be a safe place to be real with the hardest stuff in life. This is literally “in sickness and in health” lived out.

Are there specific gifts of healing…yes I believe some. I have watched church members care and walk with friends through their dark nights of the soul. It is easy for some, hard for others. We are all called to practice sharing, caring, and praying as a way of including, loving and healing. When being with those who are hurting feels like hard work, I often need the reminder that Jesus is the great physician, the source of the miracles but also the one who shows us the promise of resurrection.

Psalm 133 How very good and pleasant (beautiful and lovely) it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

Eph 4 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.