Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Not by our Power or Piety

While he clung to Peter and John, all the people, utterly astounded, ran together to them in the portico called Solomon's. And when Peter saw it he addressed the people: “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all. (Act 3:11-16)
“You killed the author of life.”  In the wake of the miracle Peter stands up to preach. The people are full of amazement that Peter and John have been able to heal this man. They are under the impression that somehow Peter and John were able to do this by their own power or piety. Peter denies that it has anything to do with him. They don’t point to their piety, but to Christ the author of life. This is such a great contrast to the faith healing movements of today. I suppose it is a trap we all fall into at one time or another. So many desperate things happen in our lives that we find ourselves asking God to remove the thorns from our sides. We try to improve our piety in order to impress God. That perhaps he will show us mercy and remove that thorn. We begin to pray more, we start going to church on a more regular basis. All things we should be doing rain or shine, and nothing more. Here’s the catch, there is nothing we do that goes above and beyond what God requires of us. After all we have done, all we can say is that we are unworthy servants. And God will reward us as unworthy servants from his divine mercy and fatherly goodness, or he will let the thorn fester. But whatever blessings, spiritual or earthly, whether of health or wealth, or even a day when the sun just shines that God may bestow his grace to the world through us as he did through Peter and John, well we have not earned this gift, it is a gift. That’s it. Our piety doesn’t make it happen. God makes it happen. It is even God that makes our piety happen.
Piety, the word is that which covers religious practices. People develop different pieties depending on their religion. And what is pious to one person or their religion could quite possibly be anathema to another. The Jews had different pieties they developed and these would mark you before others as an Essene, a Pharisee, or a Sadducee. And all these different pieties were bent on showing that one or another of the sects was right, and if we just all did this… the world would be a perfect place to live and God will bless us. The Pharisees were especially particular about trying to get everyone to do things just so. According to them the well-being of the nation was at stake, and if the people didn’t do as they said it would fall into financial ruin etc. This is the kind of mentality that runs rampant in Islam, but also I find in Baptist communities. It’s what Lutherans call a theology of glory. These come in different forms and invade Lutheran circles too.

But then what is the point of our piety if it isn’t glory? After all God gives all people their daily bread, even all evil people. He makes the sun to shine on the pagan as he does the Christian. He makes the rain to fall on the pastures and fields of all, even the opium farmers of Afghanistan. Sometimes it seems as if the evil people are given even more than the “pious.” Well this is part of the reason that Jesus tells us to pray in our closets. Our piety is between us and God. It isn’t there to be displayed. It gives us our strength, it helps us preserve our faith. I mean there are blessings to it. But they aren’t always such things as the world will count as blessings, they won’t always be visible, God who sees in secret rewards in secret. Our piety comes out of thanksgiving, it is a fruit of our faith which in turn strengthens our faith even in the midst of our struggles. The thorns may never be removed. It isn’t that God is mad at us, or that we aren’t praying hard enough. I’m not even sure how one prays hard. But God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. He works through us despite our piety, despite our failures, despite our glory, just as he worked through Jesus, not so much as Jesus was casting out demons, and making the lame to run, but when we sinners killed the author of life. It was on the cross, when Jesus was the weakest, when Jesus was the least glorious according to worldly standards that God’s glory was accomplished, when God’s blessing was bestowed in blood. It was when God died, the author of life, that the world was redeemed, life restored. So now it isn’t by the power of piety of Peter or John, but by the name of Jesus, the author of life, that the man was healed, faith in his name, faith that is through Jesus. Faith in a man whose greatest work was to die.  

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