Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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It starts off as a banner day for the church. They’re rookies at being church, officially. The earliest days of this new Christian church thing is what the book of Acts is all about. And like I said, it’s a day that starts off so well. Peter and John are at the temple, and they encounter a lame man, who asks Peter and John for some help. He is looking for scraps of a meal or a few coins, but Peter says, “I have no money to give you, but I will give you what I do have—in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And the man stands up and walks. Actually, he jumps and leaps. I love that Acts includes that. The Good News of Jesus Christ is so good, walking is nowhere near exuberant enough. This all happens right outside the temple, of course, so it doesn’t go unnoticed. Peter and John and the jumping, leaping man attract a lot of attention. And Peter reiterates: “It wasn’t by his power that the lame can now walk—it was the power of Jesus Christ.” This is what’s going on right as Beverly’s reading from Acts picks up. And one of the first things that reading tells us is that Peter and John’s testimony—their story of what happened—helps about five thousand people believe.

 

A healing and five thousand new members, all in the first few days. I have some catching up to do.

 

But all that good soon turns bad. Peter and John are speaking to the people when the leaders of the temple find them, and they are not exactly happy. Much annoyed is what Acts tells us, much annoyed that Peter and John are teaching people about Jesus. So, they toss them in jail.

 

The next day, the local authorities and religious leaders put them on trial. The prisoners continue talking about Jesus, and what they know to be true about him, and their accusers cannot take it anymore. Talking amongst themselves, they say, “It is obvious that they are speaking truth—we cannot deny that. So, to keep it from spreading even further, let us order them to be silent.”

 

Essentially, the authorities see what sharing the Gospel is capable of doing, and they feel threatened, so they try to shut it down.

 

It wasn’t all that long ago, in fact, in my lifetime, in the 1980s, that leaders in both Guatemala and Argentina outlawed the public recitation of the Magnificat, the words May sings early in the Gospel of Luke, upon hearing that she is pregnant with the son of God, words that state the downtrodden will be lifted up, the hungry will be filled, and the satisfied will go away empty. Those words, recited publicly and printed on posters, were causing people to question the government’s actions, something that could not be allowed to continue. The words of the Gospel reminded people what was true and what was possible, and gave them courage and strength to question the status quo.

 

Words.

Words have so much power.

 

My friend Bob recently retired after being a pastor for decades. He tells the story of one time having an awkward interaction with his music director. Their chancel was set up similarly to ours, in that the choir sat at the front where the congregation could see them throughout the whole service. And the congregation couldn’t help but notice that while the director, who we’ll call James, participated in most elements of worship, when it came time to recite the creed, he folded his arms and closed his mouth. Bob approached him about it. “I don’t want to pressure you into saying words you don’t mean,” he said, “But people are noticing…” James promised to think about it. The next week, James recited the creed with a smile on his face. Bob could hardly believe it; he barely pronounced the benediction before racing to James’ office.

“What changed?” he asked.

 

“It was easy,” James said.

 

“The creed says, ‘We believe in God the Father Almighty…’ ‘We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…’

I said, “They believe in God, the Father Almighty…They believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…”’

 

Bob laughed.

 

Several months later, James appeared in Bob’s office doorway. “I wanted you to know,” he said, “That I say the creed differently now. I say, “We believe.” Somehow, saying those words, with all of you, all this time…y’all have made it possible for me to believe it with you.”

 

Or, in the words of homiletics professor Tom Long, “It really is possible to talk ourselves into being Christian.”[1]

 

Back in seminary, my classmate Audrey shared with me once that whenever she found someone to be particularly challenging to deal with, she would look at them and repeat to herself, “Child of the covenant. Child of the covenant.” She swore that it helped. I learned that firsthand when I was visiting my friend Sarah shortly after the birth of her twins. We were out running errands, each of us with a baby strapped to us, and I had Zoe, who was demonstrating the power of her lungs at every opportunity. In the aisle of the grocery store, and then walking back home, she screamed and cried as if I were torturing her. I promise I wasn’t. She was just having a day. I remember Sarah asking me how I was so calm with a howling infant attached to me, and I told her, first, that it helps some when you are just visiting the howling infant, but that I was also repeating to myself, over and over, Zoe Winsett, child of the covenant. Zoe Winsett, child of the covenant.” Not because Zoe needed to be reminded of that, but because especially in her loudest moments, I needed to be reminded of that.

 

The things we say…more often than not, they are things we come to believe. The things we hear others say…they can be the things we come to believe, too.

 

In her memoir The Whisper Test, Mary Ann Bird tells of the power of words in her own life. Mary Ann was born deaf in one ear, a cleft palate, a differently-figured face, and uneven feet. But as a child, teasing from her classmates caused her more pain than any of her physical conditions. One of the worst days of every year was the day of the annual hearing test. The teacher would call each child to her desk. The teacher would whisper something like “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” If the teacher’s whisper was heard and repeated, the child passed the test. Mary Ann always cheated on the test, cupping her hand around her one good ear so she could still hear what was said.

 

One year, Mary Ann’s teacher was the beloved Miss Leonard. When the day of the hearing test came, Mary Ann cupped her hand over her good ear as Miss Leonard whispered.

 

“I waited for those words,” Mary Ann wrote, “which God must have put into her mouth, because those seven words changed my life forever.”

 

Miss Leonard did not say “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” She whispered, “I wish you were my little girl.”[2]

 

The right words can heal the most broken parts of us. Just ask Mary Ann Bird, or Peter and John, or the leaping, jumping, formerly-lame man outside the gate of the temple.

 

But what are the right words?

 

Searching for his own “right” words, Peter says to the authorities the truth as he knows it. He says, “We are being questioned because of a good deed. So, let all people hear this: this man stands here in good health because of the power of Jesus Christ. Jesus was crucified, but God raised him from the dead. There is salvation in no one else, there is no name under heaven given by mortals that can save us.”

 

That is Peter’s truth, as surely as he knows it.

 

Now, that testimony has actually been used, many times over, to point toward the exclusivity of the Christian faith. Jesus as the only way to salvation is one possible interpretation of Peter’s words.

 

Except…if we really look at what’s going on, I think Peter speaks these words to make the opposite point.

 

Peter and John are in trouble because they are telling people what they believe, and those beliefs are different from the approved, accepted belief of the temple.

 

And so, if I understand it, when Peter says, “There is salvation in no one else,” what he’s saying is, “No one, no human, can draw a line and say, “Unless you’re with me, you cannot have God.””

 

None of us control access to God. In fact, as soon as we draw a line, and say, this is where you must stand, this is what you must believe…you can be sure that Jesus is on the other side.[3] That is who Jesus is—one who crosses lines and breaks down boundaries so that everyone, everyone, can find their way to him. Wherever the outcast is, wherever people are shunned for being on the opposite side of whatever line we care to draw, that is where God is going to set up shop.

 

This is the truth as surely as I know it, Peter says, and that is all that is asked of us. To tell the truth as we know it.

 

The word “testimony” can make us feel a little squirmy sometimes, I think, because of how it has been used and misused. But at its root, testimony is legal terminology. Remember what we are asked to do when we testify in court? We are asked to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

 

Emily Dickinson, a famous poet who was also a person of faith, once penned, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.”

 

Or in other words, tell the truth not as if you have the one objectively right answer. Not to draw lines or choose sides or define what is ultimately undefinable. Tell the truth as you know it. Tell the truth as you have seen it and heard it and experienced it. That is what Peter does. And that is all that we are asked to do, too.

 

I think sometimes when we are asked to engage in the business of God-talk, we get worried, thinking we have to have everything figured out before we open our mouths. Let me assure you, truly, as one whose mouth is often open in front of you, that is not the case.

 

Lutheran pastor and theologian Joseph Sittler once put it this way: “Is the opulence of the grace of God to be measured by my inventory? Is the great faith of [all these] centuries to be reduced to my dimensions? Are the arching lines of the gracious possible to be pulled down to the little spurts of my personal compass? Is the great heart of the reality of God to speak only in the broken accent I myself offer? No. Therefore, one is proper and right when he talks of things he doesn’t know everything about. In obedience to the bigness of the story, which transcends our every apprehension, one may, and one must, do this.”[4]

 

All we need to do is tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, in our own particular slant. Or, in other words: be honest.

 

Awhile back the New York Times ran a story about a linguistics quiz that claimed within 12 questions to identify accurately where you grew up. I was curious, because I have lived in a number of different places, and my speech patterns reflect this.

 

After all, I come from Michigan, where the fizzy drink that comes in a can is called pop, but I haven’t used that word in years. I thought it was possible I would fool the quiz. But one of the questions got me. It said, “What did you grow up calling the night before Halloween?” I don’t remember the other choices—I only remember what I grew up calling that night: Devil’s Night. And according to the algorithms of that quiz, the rest of my answers didn’t matter. Because I answered that one question honestly, the quiz knew where I was from.

 

Being a Christian, I think, is something like that. When we answer questions or tell our story, or otherwise use our words truthfully, people know where we are coming from.

 

It doesn’t always have to be a giant example. Think of the last time you were in a restaurant, and the waiter or waitress refilled your glass of water. Did you simply continue carrying on your conversation, as if nothing had happened? Or, did you stop and acknowledge him or her, and say thank you? That’s a small use of our words, really, but it points to something big. In addressing that server, you are saying, “I see you. I see that you are a person, a child of God, and I will respect you as such.” I have thought of this ever since I was in college, when a mentor of mine, a pastor, was giving me interview tips, and he said, “If I am interviewing someone over a meal, I will never hire anyone who doesn’t stop to say thank you to the server.”

 

After all, talking like a Christian doesn’t mean always talking religiously…but it does mean always talking faithfully.

 

We’ve been talking these past few weeks about what it means to live as resurrected people, and it strikes me that the only reason we know about the resurrection at all is because someone tells someone else about it. The women at the tomb give testimony to what they saw. They don’t have all the answers, but they tell the truth— what they saw and what they didn’t see. “He isn’t there.” That’s not a perfect or complete or even, really, all that satisfactory of a response. It creates more questions than it answers. But it was their truth.

 

“We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” When it comes to the resurrection, it is enough. When it comes to Peter and James, it is enough.

 

And when it comes to us? When it comes to matters of faith, when someone asks why you go to church, or where you are on Wednesday nights, or how you can actually read that crazy book called the Bible, tell your truth, your whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and I promise you, it will be enough.       

 

[1] Tom Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian

[2] This story is included in Testimony: Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian

[3] Kathryn Zucker Johnson, in a sermon delivered at the 2018 NEXT Church conference, Baltimore, MD.

[4] This quote is included in Thomas Hoyt, Jr., chapter (“Testimony”) in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (Dorothy C. Bass, editor).