I am preaching through Acts on Sunday nights and this week I was in Acts 3 where the story of the healing of the lame beggar is told. As I was working on my sermon Sunday afternoon (and keeping my procrastination license current), I had a thought that stunned me, saddened me and challenged me. I would like to share it with you.
The story is familiar. A man born without the ability to walk who spends every day begging for alms in front of the entrance to the Temple. Day after day he sits there and nothing changes. Then one day Peter and John walk by and he asks them for what he wants and things they can provide – money. But they have no money and Peter tells him so. But then, in perhaps one of Scriptures most telling understatements, he says, “what I have I will give to you.” What could Peter have that he might need other than money? “Take up your bed and walk.” Peter, in the name of and by the power of Jesus Christ, healed this man. The healed man generally created a ruckus in the Temple area and Peter explained both the source of the healing and real healing of the soul that Jesus would bring to each of them if they would repent and believe. This annoyed the control-freak religious leaders who brought Peter and John before the court to intimidate them, but ended up getting a confrontational gospel presentation instead.
You know the story. I’m not going to exegete the passage fully or try to reflect on all of its truths. I just want to make one observation. Of course, being a Baptist preacher, I will state that reflection in three points.
1) The man had a congenital problem.
He was born lame. His entire life was dominated by his condition and he had no expectation that anything would ever change. He was born lame, lived lame and expected to die lame.
What a powerful illustration of the human condition. We are born in sin and are, as Paul said, “by nature objects of wrath.” Our sin is a congenital defect of our souls; one we have no hope of curing by our own efforts. We are born in sin, live in sin, and unless something acts upon us from the outside, will die in sin and face eternal judgment.
2) The man spent his life near a center of religion and was not helped.
I know that the whole “Christianity isn’t a religion” thing has been overused to the point of becoming a cliche, but it is one that has a large measure of truth contained in it. Jesus’ problems were with the religious leaders of the day; men who cared more about forcing conformity to their rules and maintaining control of people’s lives than they did in making a difference in people’s lives.
The prophets of the Old Testament repeatedly warned against empty religion. Jesus fought against empty religion and it hated him. The perpetrators of persecution in the Jerusalem church were the religious leaders who hated that Christians would neither conform to their rules nor live under their religious and political control.
The Magi entered Jerusalem asking where the “one born king of the Jews” had been born. Herod brought out the scribes who searched the Scriptures and found that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. The Magi went on their way. But this is the part that stupefies me – the scribes who searched the Scriptures to discover where Messiah would be born never bothered to go and see if this long-awaited event had actually taken place. Empty religion never seeks Christ, but conformity and control.
Now, to our story in Acts 3. Here is a man who has spent his life in the shadow of the Temple and while some people may have given him a little food money, nothing from that religion ever changed his life.
Empty religion may help people be a little more comfortable in their sin but can never deal with sin or change lives.
3) An encounter with the Risen Lord healed and transformed him.
Peter and John made it very clear, repeatedly, that the healing came at the power of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom these very religious people had crucified but whom God had raised from the dead. When this man, born lame and left lame by the religion of the day, encountered Jesus, the course of his life (and his eternity) was altered.
We do not change lives with religious duties, but by leading people to an encounter with the Risen Lord. People are not saved by being good, or doing good deeds, or going to church or being baptized or taking communion or any other religious act. They are saved when they repent of their sins, trust Jesus; a real encounter with the Living Lord.
Now, for my point
Here was what struck me about this story. There was a man sitting outside the gates of the Temple day after day and religion went on day after day going through the motions of worship and fulfilling its duties, but never demonstrating any real concern about the lame beggar outside its doors. Religion was more concerned about keeping its machinery moving than it did about transforming the lives of those in need.
That led me to examine myself, my church, my role as pastor and I didn’t like what I saw. I am wrapped up in keeping our church going, restructuring it, keeping the bills paid and the ministries working. It is so easy to ignore the brokenness going on all around me as I devote my life to keep the wheels rolling at Southern Hills.
And here is my thought.
If I can focus on keeping the institution of the church functioning while ignoring the lostness, the brokenness, and the need all around me, then I have more in common with the empty religion of the Pharisees and Sadducees than I do with a living faith in a Risen Lord. If my work is more about making the church work or conveying my theology or maintaining order and control in the church than it is about leading those whose lives are broken by sin to find healing in Christ, I have a problem. If I have a religion that allows me to be a “good Christian” while bringing no hope to the broken, my faith is empty.
If I was walking to church, would I give the needy man a few alms and keep going on my merry way, or would I lead him to an encounter with the Living Lord that would transform his life?
I’m not going to bare my soul here, but when I examined myself in the light of those questions, I did not much like what I saw.