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April 25, 2021

Empowered By the Spirit

Click here to watch a recording of the 9am service on April 25, 2021.

Click here to watch a recording of the 11am service on April 25, 2021.

“Empowered By the Spirit”

A Sermon Preached by Frank Mansell III

John Knox Presbyterian Church – Indianapolis, Indiana

April 25, 2021

Acts 4: 5-12

         So, I’m going to begin my sermon today by talking about our cat, Bella.  It’s been a rough year for Bella.  In January, our dog, Ethel, died, and even though they had to keep up appearances as cat and dog, you can tell that Bella misses her buddy.  Then, the girls went back to college, so there were only two human beings in the house to shower attention on Bella.  Then, there’s been all kinds of moving of furniture and painting and moving her litter box and food dish, and Bella’s been notably frustrated with all the chaos going on.  Finally, Debbie left for Raleigh ten days ago, leaving me as the only human being for her to interact with.  Some days I’m around the house a lot, and other days I’m hardly there at all.

         Bella used to be a typical cat – she’d pick and choose who received her attention and love, and she would make those who were rejected feel jealous.  Now, amid all this transition and upheaval we’re living through, our cat has basically turned into a dog.  Right now, that means that whenever I come home, she’s there waiting on me, or she’s running down from wherever she’s been sleeping to greet me.  The moment I sit down in my recliner, she’s on my lap or chest, rubbing my chin and purring constantly.  An hour before my alarm goes off, Bella jumps on our bed and lays down on top of me.  I will look forward to Heather being home next weekend and at least there will be two human beings in the house she can take comfort from.

         Of course, she’s still a cat.  When I want to get up from my chair or out of bed in the morning, she gives me this disdainful look like, “How dare you disturb me!”  Cats have this innate way of making us humans feel like we are at their beck-and-call.  As you’re praying for our family through this upcoming move, be sure you include Bella in your prayers – she has no idea what else is in store for her!

         I share this about Bella because her expressions of disdain or incredulousness remind me of how we as human beings can act sometimes.  “Who gave you the right to do that?”  “Who do you think you are deciding that all on your own?”  “By whose power are you changing that?”

         It happens whenever someone suggests doing something different than what’s been the pattern or tradition.  It might be a supervisor demanding to know why you did something different which you thought would be inspiring or helpful.  It might be a family member wondering why you thought it would be a good idea to rearrange a room’s furniture and decor.  It might be at church when someone does something creative or new in worship which is out of the normal pattern or routine.  Whatever the case, when we either innocently or intentionally makes changes, we can be on the receiving end of someone’s perturbed cat face.  Or, more often than not, we are giving that disdainful look to others when they have the gall to change something out of our normal routine.

         If we are willing to look at the core of the issue, the truth of the matter is we are not upset with folks for proposing or acting out changes.  In the end, we might actually be very pleased with the proposed change.  Instead, at the core of our resistance is the perceived trespassing onto our property of expertise.  Our defenses go up when someone suggests a change or improvement to something into which we have invested much of our time and energy.  “By whose power?” implies something else: our power and authority is being challenged and threatened.  Our sense of control is under attack when someone asks questions, points out weaknesses, or does something which everyone else sees as an improvement.  “By whose authority?” is a phrase which digs deep into our sense of identity and self-worth, perhaps more than we’re willing to at first admit.

         When Peter and John were brought before the council in Jerusalem, their actions had caused a similar threat to the Jewish leaders of the temple.  This story actually begins in chapter 3 of Acts, where we read that Peter and John were on their way to worship at the temple.  While on their way, they met a lame man who was brought to the gate of the temple every day by friends, so he might receive alms.  The man asked Peter and John for alms, but their response to him was out of the ordinary.  First, they said to him, “Look at us,” a curious thing to say, but the lame man did as they requested.  Second, Peter said something which would change the man’s life: “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (3:6).

         Needless to say, that caused quite a stir in the temple and among the Jewish leaders.  Tom Long describes it in this way: Those who witnessed the healing misunderstood what had happened.  Peter had summoned the healing, but the people assumed that Peter had caused the healing, that he and John were powerful, shaman-like healers.  Peter kept on preaching, proclaiming the resurrection from the dead, and that provoked even more trouble, stirring up a hornet’s nest among the temple officials.  By nightfall, Peter and John were under house arrest and, if that were not enough, the next day Peter and John were called on the carpet and interrogated by essentially the entire family of the high priest (4:5-7).  One would think that the healing of a desperately needy man would evoke hallelujahs all over town, but instead we see theological confusion, widespread suspicion, and a nasty crackdown by the authorities.

         The reason for all of this backlash becomes clear when we hear the first question from the priestly interrogators, “By what power . . . did you do this?”  Notice how the issue has shifted.  Originally the issue was healing, resurrection, and the mercy of God; now the issue was power.  The inquisitors did not ask, “What is the meaning of these things?” or “How did they happen?”  They asked, “Where do you get the power to do this?  Who authorized you to do and say these things?” (Tom Long, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, © 2008: 430-434)

         The temple leaders felt their religious authority and power was being threatened by these two “magic healers.”  They were worried as to how this would look to the average Jew, and how it might open up a new world of faith which threatened their controlled franchise on religion.  The leaders of the temple only saw Peter and John’s actions in human terms, and how it threatened their perceived human power.

         The misunderstanding, of course, is in who was acting in the healing of the lame man.  As Peter himself says, “If we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth . . .” (4:9-10).  These two had no special powers or magic which made the lame man walk.  Peter and John had only one thing: faith in the risen Lord Jesus Christ.  It was in his name that God worked, that the Spirit worked, and that a new kind of authority and power was witnessed by all present at the temple.

         Tom Long continues: The final verse of today’s text, “There is salvation in no one else [but Jesus],” is often used to divide people into two camps: those who are for Jesus and those who are not for Jesus.  While the author of Acts certainly believes that God has acted decisively and uniquely in Jesus Christ, the function of this text is the opposite of division.  The purpose of this passage, instead, is to announce that no human being or human authority can erect a religious tent – a temple or a church or a movement – and say, “Unless you come into my tent, you cannot have God.”  God has acted on behalf of the whole of humanity in Jesus Christ, and there is “no other name,” no human channel, that can make exclusive claim to religious power – no denomination, no one theology, no sect, no franchise on the power of the Spirit (ibid).

         For me, that sentiment hit home in the aftermath of the mass shooting at FedEx.  It did not matter that half the victims were of the Sikh religion – what mattered was that they were our neighbors and residents of our city.  It did not matter that some of the victims were of a different racial, economic, or other background than us – what mattered was that they were coworkers of ours, friends of ours, fellow children of God.  I learned this week that Jay Recker, the funeral director next door at Flanner and Buchanan, has been serving the families of three of the victims this week.  This tragedy has impacted all of us in various and immeasurable ways.

         And it is another reminder of how the Spirit empowers us as a community to love, to care, to support, and to help heal one another.  It is by the Spirit’s power that we offer words of encouragement and strength when someone is struggling in the aftermath of a tragedy and loss.  It is by the Spirit’s power that we have difficult but necessary conversations with friends and family who may differ from us on issues of race, gun control, and other social issues.  It is by the Spirit’s power that we take action on policy issues that are important to us, doing what we can to implore our elected officials to enact laws that we believe secure the collective well-being of our community.

         I have heard stories this week that remind me that the Spirit is empowering us to serve “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”  I heard of one of our young adults who acted swiftly to help a stranger to safety, and in so doing this young man is now exploring a form of vocation that is grounded in service to the disadvantaged.  I heard of people sending cards to one of our homebound members, and she remarked that she doesn’t know so many of you but feels so loved because you have remembered her.  I heard of countless people praying for and asking God to heal those who are broken, both physically and emotionally, and how those prayers have truly made a difference in the lives of so many.  The Spirit is present and moving and empowering you to serve in Christ’s name in ways that you may not even know, but trust me, are impactful and touching people’s lives in transformative ways.

         As you face these months ahead of transition and change, my prayer is that you will trust in that fact and believe that the Spirit will give you the strength to face whatever lies ahead.  As questions are asked and new ideas are shared, welcome them as the Spirit’s prodding to the new life as a church you are called to embrace.  When time seems to be moving slowly and you begin to be impatient with how long this transition is taking, trust that the Spirit is using all the time that you are living through for God’s purpose to form you into the community of faith you are to be.  When you aren’t sure how something will get done or accomplished without me around, know that the Spirit has given you everything you need to serve in Christ’s name at this time and place.

         “By what power or by what name did you do this?”  You have done all these things by the power of the Holy Spirit, a power that leads you forward in hope, faith, and joy, as you serve our living, loving God.

         Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sundays at 9am and 11am

John Knox Presbyterian Church
3000 North High School Road | Indianapolis, Indiana 46224
(317) 291-0308