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How To Be Up On Down Days

Acts 3:1-10

One of our Florida highway patrolmen spotted a potentially dangerous situation on the interstate highway up in Volusia County. A small black car was driving down the highway at such a slow rate of speed that other cars were swerving or slamming on the brakes to avoid a collision. The patrolman pulled the slow-moving car over. When he walked up to the car he found the car full of nuns. He said to the nun who was driving: “Do you know why I stopped you?” The nun replied: “I have no idea. Was I doing something wrong?” The officer said: “You were driving so slowly that it was dangerous.” The nun at the wheel said: “Well, I kept seeing all these signs with the number 4 on them and I figured that that was the speed limit.” And the patrolman said: “No, no, Sister, that’s the highway sign, not the speed limit. This is Interstate 4 and the speed limit here is 65 miles and hour, not 4 miles an hour.” Just then the officer glanced into the back seat and noticed that the nuns back there were holding tightly to one another with a look of sheer terror on their faces. The officer said to the nun who was driving: “Pardon me for asking, but what’s wrong with the nuns in the back seat?” The driver said: “I don’t know. They’ve been like that ever since before I turned off of 1-95!”

Many people go through life like that—​just riding in the back seat frozen in fear, following the lead of someone who may be taking them on a dangerous journey because that leader is reading the signs all wrong. That’s precisely what happened to this disabled fellow in the third chapter of Acts. The leaders of his society had completely misread the signs and consequently, they told him that there was no hope for him. They said to him: “You are under the judgment of God. You are lame because you or your parents sinned a great sin and now God is paying you back. We would like to help you, but we can’t tamper with the justice of God. You can go down to the Beautiful Gate near the Temple and beg. Maybe someone will toss you a coin or two.” Now wasn’t that a terrible thing for the leaders of his world to say to him? To say: “There is no hope. This is your destiny. Just accept it!”

But then one afternoon the disciples, Peter and John came along and they said to him: “Look, it doesn’t have to be this way for you. By the power of Jesus Christ you can have a new life. We don’t have any money to give you, but we’ve got something that’s a whole lot better. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” Now, notice this please. The language here is fascinating. It says: “Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up.” Hear that: “raised him up.” That means he got resurrected. It was amazing. Suddenly, this man discovered that he could stand on his own two feet and he actually began to dance a jig right there on the church steps. The song of resurrection was playing in his life and he was dancing to the beat.

The Bible says that people began running from all directions. They knew who this beggar was. He had been a not-so-beautiful fixture there at the Beautiful Gate for a long time. He had been begging there for years. Someone always carried him to the Beautiful Gate every morning and then carried him home every evening. But now, amazingly, he was jumping up and down like a man possessed. Peter then said to the crowd that the miracle was done through the power of the Risen Christ. As the story ends, Peter and John and the beggar all link arms and go into the Temple together. My guess is that at that moment somewhere in heaven Jesus was smiling broadly, so glad to see His disciples taking up His ministry of transforming love.

I have loved that story always, not just because it describes a dramatic and wonderful miracle which took place long ago, but even more because it also powerfully declares what Christ’s love can do for you and me right here and right now. His love can lift us up no matter what challenges or circumstances we may have to face in life. We can experience His resurrection power even in the midst of the down times of life. Let me be a bit more specific.

Christ’s love can raise in us a self we can live with.

This beggar’s sense of self-esteem needed a serious shot in the arm. He had been told all of his life that he was worthless; and what’s worse, he had been told that God had it in for Him. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet that was the message his world sent to him everyday in words, deeds, and attitudes. But suddenly, Peter and John were telling him that he counted, he mattered, he was important, he was special, he was of great worth and value. Why? Because God loved him.

Some years ago there was a priest in New York City named Father Joe Kelly. Father Kelly entered the priesthood after pursuing several colorful careers. He was a soldier in Vietnam, he was a professional football player, and a singer who never quite hit it big. In his mid-30s he decided to go to seminary and train to be a priest. When he graduated, he was assigned to a parish in the South Bronx, the Church of the Holy Spirit. One day, he got into an argument with a cab driver parked in front of the church. One thing led to another and suddenly, Father Kelly’s anger pierced the thin veneer of his new profession. He grabbed the cabbie and roughly pinned him up against the fence. The cabbie reached for his knife but fortunately other people stepped in before other people got hurt. Father Kelly was mortified at what he had done. He later described his feelings like this: “It was terrible. A few minutes later I had to say the Mass with all of that ugliness, that hate, and that anger rising in me. It hurt to pray. I was confused and embarrassed. I looked up at the cross and I knew that I had failed. I had not loved my enemy. I had chosen to fight. I was not worthy to be a priest.”

As he walked away from the altar, Father Kelly’s soul was in torment. In the hallway he encountered a little girl named Jasmine. Jasmine came by the church every morning to get a glass of milk. Because the Church of the Holy Spirit is located in a very poor neighborhood and Jasmine frequently did not have enough to eat, she knew that she could always count on the church to keep her going. Well that day little Jasmine had heard of what had happened to earlier to Father Kelly, so she handed Father Kelly a little scrap of paper which lifted him out of his spiritual crisis. It was a note scribbled out in first-grade print. It read: “Dear Father Joe, I love you once, I love you twice, I love you more than beans and rice!” That’s all it said. But that was all that Father Kelly needed. He said: “I read her poem and I smiled. I understood the larger message too. Jasmine had reminded me of what’s really important. She was an angel that day—a messenger of God. She reminded me that with all of our failings and weaknesses God loves us and accepts us just as we are.”

That’s the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even though we sin, even though we fail, even though we aren’t perfect, God doesn’t desert us. He doesn’t forsake us. He doesn’t give up on us. He still loves us and accepts us and by so doing, He gives us what He gave the beggar at the Beautiful Gate—a self we can live with.

And Christ also raises in us a faith we can live by.

One of the things that is so beautiful about this story of what happened at the Beautiful Gate, is that Peter and John not only gave this beggar the gift of healing, they also gave him the gift of faith. The Bible tells us that quite clearly. Listen again to what it says: “He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the Temple courts walking and jumping and”… what?… “and praising God.” They lifted him not only to a new appreciation for himself, but also to a new appreciation for God.

In the fall semester of 1997, two young men, sophomores at Duke University, were taking Organic Chemistry. They did very well on all their quizzes and the lab assignments and had solid A’s going into the final exam. The two friends were so confident that instead of studying, they partied all weekend before the final exam which was scheduled for 8:00 on Monday morning. In fact, they partied so much that they overslept and missed the exam. They went to Professor Aldric and concocted a whale of a story as an excuse. They told him that they went up to the University of Virginia for the weekend and planned to come back in plenty of time to study. However, they said that they had a flat tire on the way back and didn’t have a spare and they were stranded out on the highway and only just now had arrived back on campus. They asked if they could take a make-up exam. Professor Aldric agreed to let them take the exam the next morning at 8:00. The two guys were elated and they crammed all night long for the test. The next morning, Professor Aldric placed them in separate rooms and handed each of them a test booklet and told them to begin. He reminded them that the final exam counted three-fourths of their final grade. On the front page of the booklet was the first problem. It read: “Question Number One (value 5 points)—Describe and give a specific illustration of free radical formation.” They thought to themselves: “Great! We know this. We studied this last night.” They filled out the answer and turned the page. They were unprepared, however, for what they saw on the next page. It read: “Question Number Two (value 95 points)—“Which tire?”

They had been caught, done in, brought down by their high-sounding but false words. Like a boomerang their lie came back around to knock them flat. Great story and it reminds me that Christianity is not just a creed we profess. It’s a lifestyle we live. It’s not enough to say the words. We have to live our faith every day regardless of the challenges and circumstances we face in life. Christ, you see, gives us what He gave the beggar at the Beautiful Gate—a faith we can live by.

So…

The great artist, Rembrandt, did a fascinating thing in one of his paintings. Instead of painting a halo over the head of Jesus, in this particular painting he painted a halo around his hands. Not over His head, but around His hands. Why? Over the years art critics have debated why he did that. But the answer seems obvious to me. He was reminding us of how Christ used His hands to do His work. With His holy and sacred hands He healed the sick and fed the hungry, blessed the children, raised the dead. With His hands, He lifts us to a new way of looking at ourselves and at the life He has given us. With His hands He lifts us to a faith which stays strong and true, even in the down times of life. That’s why my prayer today is that God, through the Risen Christ, will give us all a self we can live with and a faith we can live by.

Amen.

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