Focus: God chooses us.
Function: that the hearers receive gratefully God’s good gifts.
We are beggars; this is true.
These are the last writing of Martin Luther. They were found in his pocket in 1546 as his heart burst. At age 62, he was on his way back from his family home where he had been mediating, of all things, a land dispute. Can believe that? The man who rocked the Catholic Church like a hurricane, who through the Spirit’s power singlehandedly challenged the pope, the emperor, the most powerful men of the known world, who had the ear of princes, this man spent his last months talking to little counts in his little home county of Mansfeld in his little hometown Eisleben.
At the end of the negotiations, he complained of chest pains, and at 2:45am on February 18 1546, he had a massive heart attack, and he died.
The full writing on the scrap of paper in his pocket read like this: “No one can understand Virgil's Poems unless he has been a shepherd for five years. No one can understand Cicero's Letters, unless he has busied himself in the affairs of some prominent state for twenty years. Know that no one can have indulged in the Holy Scriptures sufficiently, unless he has governed churches for a hundred years … We are beggars: this is true.”
Today we meditate upon three characters within our story – the lame beggar, Peter and John, and the Sanhedrin. This story is one of a beggar who clung to Peter and John. Peter and John were going to the temple when they saw him. He asked for some change and Peter looked at him with that peculiar sort of a look and said, “Gold and silver I have not, but what I have I give to you.” And he healed him.
First, the beggar was, in fact, a beggar. This is true. He wasn’t particularly kind or just. The text doesn’t say if he lived a good life or a bad life. It only says that he was lame and he was begging. I would suppose after they had seen the risen Christ, as Peter and John went up to the temple to pray, they saw many beggars. They probably went up past this man and hundreds others time after time. So, you have to ask, why this time? Why this man?
That’s the same question that many Christians ask, with a guilty conscience. Through no merit of my own, I’ve had a tradition of Christianity in my life. It was passed down by my father, by my father’s father, and by my father’s father’s father, all the way back to our roots in Germany. Why would I be born into a family like mine? Why am I chosen? Now, the first answer of a faithful theologian has to be, “I don’t know.” We don’t know the “Why’s” of God. He has reasons and we only have reality. But that only scratches the surface.
Suffice to say, there is a longer and more satisfying answer for any who want to hear it (and please talk to me later if this is your struggle), but our text moves on and so should we.
Do you see what the beggar does after that? After they restore his life, the beggar clings to Peter and John. He cannot get away. It’s like the first time you said “I Love You” to that girl in high school, in college. You can’t get away. You cling to each other. There’s nothing better than just simply being. What if we thought this way about all the gifts that God gives? What if we had that wonder about everything that God did for us? We would cling to him for the glory of the sunlight every morning. We would cling to him for the songs of birds, for the mystery of electricity, for the use of our bodies.
I think of this when I see a young child playing in the waters. It’s fantastic and new and mesmerizing as they slap the water and watch ripples go out. You set him down and he’s entertained for hours. The temptation we have as we pass through life is not to savor but to guzzle, not to taste but to shovel that down. It’s to slap the water so many times that we care not for the beauty it makes. In fact, as Christians, our life as we pass our 60th year, our 80th year, our 100th, should do the opposite. It should instead teach us to savor, more and more, each little aspect, each detail of this gift.
But seeing this extraordinary thing happen to an ordinary man, the people flock around Peter, and Peter has to address them. He says, “Your God did this. I was just a conduit. Your God did this, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of your fathers did this, yes, the same one that you crucified. He blotted out the ripple effects of sin – because that’s what that lameness was, that’s what all blindness and health concerns and cancer is – the brokenness of sin in the world.” Then, Peter did something even more amazing. He turns and proclaims that this stuff, this physical healing, is small potatoes. Or, I looked it up this morning, fingerling potatoes. He’s not looking to share small potatoes, he’s looking for the Real Deal, the Yukon Gold.
The real deal is in fact that the effects of sin aren’t just dealt with. Jesus deals with the root. He digs it out. He pulls it out. This beggar, he had a spectacular miracle happen to him, but the greater thing was the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins.
The ledger of that beggar’s sins was long, just like ours is. You look at your ledger and you can see debt after debt and interest piling on. But Jesus doesn’t nit-pick with a few details up at the top. He doesn’t look at one budget line here or one bank note there. No, he goes to the bottom line. He goes down to the amount that we owe, and he blots it out.
Stephanie, our treasurer, will tell us, that’s not good accounting practice. Debts don’t just go away because you scratch it out from your checkbook. We sometimes wish we could do that, but we can’t.
And, she would be right. It wasn’t free. It wasn’t arbitrary. Jesus paid for our debt out of his own account. He spent his life, the life of the Son of God, to pay for the sins of the world, so that he could blot out our sin, blot it out so dark that it can never come back.
If we first look at the healed beggar, then second, we look at Peter and John to realize that all of us in the church are beggars. We are beggars. This is true. Before we were saved, we were beggars. After we are saved, we are still beggars. Long life isn’t assured. Love isn’t assured to us. White picket fences aren’t assured. 2.5 kids aren’t assured. Health isn’t assured. You could die slipping out of your bathtub this evening. Your whole life is a gift. In our Lord’s Prayer, as we ask in just a little bit, we beg for our daily bread. We beg for God’s kingdom to come. We beg for the crops to grow and the rain to fall, and even the best of farmers cannot make the seed to grow into a row of corn, and only the best of us can only wonder when something as magical as life slips into our hands before it slips away.
This is in fact the beauty of our theology, that when it comes to salvation, you bring nothing to the table. My salvation isn’t contingent on how interesting the sermon is on any given night (thank goodness), nor does it hang on your response to the Jehovah’s Witness that comes to the door. It does not even hang on your deathbed confession of faith. No, the same thing that saves the tall, the handsome, the well-spoken and the strong is that which saves the voiceless, the weak, the doubting, and the tortured.
It’s God’s grace. This is a reason to be a Lutheran. Luther says it like this: I by my own reason or strength cannot come to him,” and so he comes to me. In the waters of holy Baptism, the water combined with God’s Word and included in God’s command, God picks you up into your arms, treasuring you before you know what you are. And his grace carries you through all your abilities, expanding and growing as you become an adult person, until you hit your peak, when you slide down that bell curve settle down, and you lose all that you have. God’s baptismal grace holds you even after you’ve lost all that you are, when you cannot hold that hand that holds yours as you draw your final breaths. God’s grace carries you from before you knew how to speak until after you’ve forgotten. Just look at Martin Luther’s life.
And that’s all because God decided he would.
Thirdly, we turn to the Sanhedrin and we find that it is an offense to preach the Gospel. You’ll make enemies. Notice that Peter’s speech here doesn’t do the same thing that it did on Pentecost. In chapter 2, he gains 3,000 from preaching the Gospel. In chapter 4 the disciples are hauled in front of the Sanhedrin and chewed out for the first time. The second time, they’ll be beaten with rods, and the third time Stephen will be killed. If you look at the start of chapter 4, you find that there are some people who oppose the Gospel and some who listen. It wasn’t the Apostles’ job to make anyone believe the Gospel. It was their first job to preach it clearly.
And they also had a further responsibility. The Gospel makes enemies, and do you know what Christians are to do with their enemies? Jesus says this, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you.” What do you do with enemies of the Gospel? You make a special effort to heap upon them love and grace and charity. You make a special effort to mourn with them in times of mourning. To give cups of cool water. You don’t tone down the severity of the Law, but you go to them and say, “The same law that cuts your heart is the same one cutting mine as well. Let me take you to the place where I let that burden down.” You go to them, like one beggar to another beggar, showing them from where you received bread.
How would this change the way we keep our grudges? How would it change our daily interactions with difficult people if we prayed that God would give them every good thing? How would we look upon those who wish us hurt and destroy us if we prayed every night that their souls would be bought by the blood of Christ and that we would have a seat right next to them at the banqueting table?
We are beggars. This is true. We do not even deserve the bread given to us. And for that, thanks be to God. Amen and amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters