“The Living Body of Christ: What Do Our Neighbors Say?”

The Living Body of Christ: What Do Our Neighbors Say?

First Baptist Richmond, April 14, 2024

Acts 3:12-19

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”

When I came to First Baptist in 2008 the staff was wondering how we could reach “the Fan.” I didn’t even know what that was. They said, “It’s the church’s nearest neighborhood—the Fan District. It’s full of beautiful homes and well-to-do people who sit on their front porches on Sunday morning sipping lattes and reading the New York Times. Only they don’t seem to be interested in coming to church. How do you think we could reach them?” And I remember thinking that people don’t like to be “reached,” they don’t like to have targets painted on their backs, and that these people, in particular, might not appreciate being the object of our evangelistic efforts. I thought about how Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors and wondered what would happen if we did that. I said, “What if, instead of reaching the Fan, we tried loving the Fan?” And the staff, at that time, seemed to think that was a pretty good answer.

But last week I asked a member of our current staff, Matthew Hensley, our Minister of Christian Invitation, how we were doing. “What do our neighbors say about us?” I asked. And Matthew pulled out a collection of quotes he has been gathering since he got here two years ago. The first one was like an answer to that question the staff had asked me back in 2008. Rebecca Keller, the President of the Fan District Association, said, “Thank you for all the wonderful partnership with

the Fan over the years. Your church is truly a good neighbor.” I could have stopped right there, because that’s one of my regular catchphrases: whenever I have a chance to greet people from the Fan I like to tell them that “First Baptist Church is trying to be a good neighbor in a great neighborhood.”

But Matthew had more.

Someone who came to our Classics and Cocoa series in February said, “We really like the way you responded and opened your church to the students at Fox Elementary School [after their building burned].” Someone from the Museum District, which is the neighborhood just across Arthur Ashe Boulevard, said, “I came to your Divorce Recovery Workshop over twenty years ago. What your church provided was really needed and it saved my life.” Someone from Westover Hills, who brings his son to our Upward Basketball program, said, “Thank you for hosting Upward – your church is doing things the ‘right way.’” Karen, one of our neighbors from Tuscan Villas, the condominium complex right next door, said, “Your compassion ministry is a wonderful gift to those in need.” And then Matthew was talking to someone whose house is literally across the street from the church, who said, “You all are wonderful neighbors!” And that’s the one that got my attention, because I know that house, and one of its former residents wouldn’t have said that.

I feel sure I’ve told you this story before, but I can’t find it in my files, so maybe you can’t find it in yours either. But one of the former residents of that house came to me years ago to complain about the church. He said, “This place never shuts down. These people who come to your compassion ministry start lining up on Park Avenue at six o’clock on Monday morning, and that would be bad enough, but you’ve got your ladies’ Bible studies and your Boy Scouts and

your Upward Basketball and your Richmond Symphony Orchestra, not to mention what it’s like on Sunday morning, when there’s not a parking place to be found for five blocks in any direction!” He said, “We used to live on the Northside, next to a church that was only open for choir practice on Wednesday night and a couple of hours on Sunday morning. That was nice. Why can’t you be a little more like that?”

I listened to his complaints but eventually said, “You know, this is part of what we love about the city, it’s one of the reasons you and I moved here: it’s alive!” He snorted and said something about not needing so much life, about simply wanting a little peace and quiet, but as he got up to go I told him I would do what I could.

What I ended up doing was driving to J. Emerson, the fancy wine and cheese shop in Libbie Grove, and asking them to put together a gift basket—a nice one. When I took it to his house that afternoon he smirked and said, “Is this a peace offering?” “Yes!” I said. “That’s exactly what it is. I’m trying to be a good neighbor in a great neighborhood.” He and his partner moved out soon after that and Shaka Smart, the head basketball coach at VCU moved in. Now, he was a great neighbor, and his mother-in-law, Margaret Payne, came to church here every Sunday.

But what about that first church, the one in the Book of Acts? What did their neighbors say about them? Apparently it wasn’t all good. In chapter 3 we learn that Peter and John were on their way to the temple around 3:00 one afternoon, the usual time for prayer, when they saw some people carrying a crippled beggar to his usual spot beside the Beautiful Gate. When they set him down he looked up, saw Peter and John, and asked them for some money. Peter

looked at him intently and said, “I don’t have any money, but I’ll give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth stand up and walk!” And then he took him by the hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong, and he began to praise the Lord and the neighbors began to complain.

Not all of them, of course; Luke says most of them were filled with “wonder and astonishment.” They listened eagerly to Peter’s explanation of what had just happened, and how it was faith in the name of Jesus—the one their leaders had killed in cold blood, the one that God had raised from the dead—faith in his name that had made this man well. But the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees eventually elbowed their way through the crowd, “much annoyed” (as Luke puts it) because Peter and John were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. Since it was already late, they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day. “But many of those who heard the word believed, and they numbered about five thousand” (Acts 4:4).

In his comments on this passage New Testament scholar Carl Holladay writes, “Luke wants his readers to see that the church is the divinely appointed messianic community through which the God of Israel is now at work in new and decisive ways…. The locus of divine activity has now shifted, however. Formerly the [glory] of God, the Shekinah, dwelt in the temple. Now it is focused in the name of Jesus (v. 16).”i And he’s right about that. This episode takes up most of chapters three and four in the Book of Acts, and if you look for it, you will find that the name is mentioned nine times:

It begins when Peter says to the beggar, “In the name of Jesus Christ of

Nazareth, stand up and walk” (3:6). And then afterward, when Peter is explaining the man’s healing, he says, “And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong” (3:16). When Peter and John are being questioned their interrogators ask, “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7) And Peter replies, “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, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (4:10). Two verses later he says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” The authorities couldn’t deny that a miracle had happened, and that it had happened in the name of Jesus. And so they ordered Peter and John to no longer speak or teach in that name, and then released them. But as the apostles were praying later they said, “And now, Lord, grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

What were the neighbors of that first church in Jerusalem saying? They were saying, “These people won’t quit talking about Jesus!” They couldn’t understand why. But we understand why, don’t we? We know that there is power in that name. It’s why so many of us end our prayers by saying, “We ask it in the name of Jesus, Amen.” It’s not only something Jesus told us to do,ii it’s an attempt to apply the power of that name to our own, feeble prayers in the hope that they will be answered. But it’s not a magic word. It’s not like saying “Abracadabra” or “Hocus Pocus.” My friend Drexel Rayford insists that, “To do something in Jesus’ name is to do something that is consistent with the nature and character of Jesus.” It is to do what Jesus himself might do. By the same token to pray in Jesus’

name is to pray for something that Jesus himself might pray for. And to use the name of Jesus—the divine name—rightly and not wrongly, is to use it in a way that is consistent with the nature and character of Jesus.

But you might be wondering: what is his nature and character? How would you find out about that? The answer, I think, is to look at the things Jesus actually did, and to listen to the things he actually said. That’s how we discern the nature and character of anyone. And because the Gospel writers took the time and made the effort, many of the words and deeds of Jesus have been recorded. You can sit down in your own home, put your feet up on the coffee table, open your Bible, and read for yourself what Jesus said and did. And if you didn’t have time for all four of the Gospels, you could learn a lot simply by turning to the Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the four. You can read it in an hour. And if you do, you will come away with a much clearer picture of the nature and character of Jesus.

So, what did Jesus do, and what did Jesus say? When I was teaching the Gospel of Mark to college freshmen I used to tell them that Jesus went around Galilee doing “show and tell,” that is, he told people about the Kingdom of God and showed them what it would look like. For instance:

The first thing Jesus says in this Gospel is: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (1:15). The good news of the coming kingdom, that is. And then Jesus tells people about that kingdom through his preaching and teaching, and much of it is done in parables, where he compares the kingdom to something small and ordinary, like a mustard seed. Because the people he was talking to hadn’t had any experience of the kingdom. They didn’t know what he knew. And so in parable after parable he said, “It’s like this, or like this, or like this.” He was trying to communicate heavenly

truth in earthly expressions, and that’s not easy.

But he also demonstrated the kingdom. He showed people again and again what the world would look like when God finally had his way. He healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, and cast out demons. He opened the eyes of the blind. He unstopped the ears of the deaf. He fed people who were hungry. He comforted those who were sad. He let the little children come to him. And wherever he went, things got better.

Think about that for a minute.

Suppose Christians in this country had that reputation. Suppose that wherever they went, things got better. I don’t think that’s how it is these days, and I think it’s because not all of them are acting in ways that are consistent with the message and mission of Jesus. They’ve gotten the wrong idea about what it means to be a Christian. They think it’s about individual salvation, about personal piety or purity, or about getting God to answer all their prayers. Some of them seem to think that being a Christian is all about being an American (or maybe it’s the other way around). No, I think my friend Drexel Rayford was right; I think that when we do things in the name of Jesus we do them in a way that is consistent with his mission and message. That is, we do the kind of things that Jesus would do. We say the kind of things that Jesus would say.

So, I’m wondering:

What would our neighbors say if we couldn’t stop helping people and healing people and talking about what the world will look like when God finally has his way? Well, some of them might complain. Some of them have. “You have all these divorced people coming here to find hope for the future. You have all these homeless people coming here to get hot showers and clean clothes. You’ve

got all these lonely people coming here to make friends and find community. You’ve got all these other people coming here looking for meaning and purpose. Why don’t you stop all that? It’s causing traffic jams. It’s keeping me from finding a parking place! Why don’t you just have choir practice on Wednesday night and church on Sunday morning? Why do you have to be helping people and healing people all the time?”

Why? Well, because we believe it’s what Jesus would do. When the pastor of 1 John faced that kind of opposition from his neighbors he explained to his congregation, “The reason these people don’t understand us is because they didn’t understand him.” If they had they would know: this is just what it looks when people minister in the name of Jesus. This is just what it looks like when God’s kingdom begins to come. Not everybody is going to like that. But for the people who have been waiting for that kingdom, praying for that kingdom, working for that kingdom,

It will be heaven on earth.

—Jim Somerville © 2024