Scripture: Acts 3:12-19
Connor was about three and I took him to the park on a beautiful spring day. He played on the playground, enjoyed the fresh air, the sunshine, and had a great time. At one point he wanted to race down a hill, so we did. In the process. He lost control of his little body, fell and tumbled a bit. Now I watched him fall, it was not that bad, and he was not truly hurt. However, he was a little whiny and wanted to be picked up. Instead, I got down on his level, looked him in the eyes and asked, “Do you know why we fall Connor?” Wiping the tears from his eyes he shook his head no. “So we can learn how to pick ourselves up.” Which is exactly what he did. It was one of my greatest moments in parenting. It also was not really mine, because I was quoting a scene from Batman Begins. So even though I might get my parenting tips from super hero movies, the wisdom in that scene was worth passing on. Falling down, failing, is important because it is only through that experience we learn how to get back up again.
Our culture does not have a kind opinion of failure and honestly stigmatizes it. We are taught this in subtle ways from an early age. It is probably not intentional, but a lot of kids are taught they are not allowed to fail in school. Working in youth ministry, I have had conversations with many students for who grades were a constant source of anxiety in life. They felt a constant pressure to be perfect, because grades are often based off of a cumulative percentage. This meant that one bad test, might mathematically make it impossible to get the grade the feel they need to even have a chance for the college or scholarships they had set as goals. These highly motivated students felt like failure was not an option, and this caused a lot of stress in their life. I have also interacted with students on the flip side who did not even try. They routinely put forth zero effort in classes. This is also a learned behavior. These students were often a lot more laid back than their high strung peers, after all you cannot fear failure if you never even try.
Clearly a middle ground approach might be the best option, and part of reaching that middle ground is creating space where students are allowed to fail, and have it not be impossible to recover from. After all, failure is one of the best teachers, and this has always been the case. Famed CEO of IBM Thomas Watson Sr. in the mid-20th century once famously said, “The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” For much of the 20th century though, the business world had a “success at any cost” mentality. It is only recently that major companies like Google and Apple have re-found the wisdom in the idea of “failing upwards.” The “failure tolerant leader” is a growing trend in the business world and there is a lot of wisdom in that, because as much as we do not like it failure is part of life. Failure is part of faith too. No matter who we are, no matter how pious and righteous we seek to be, at some point we are going to fall. And why do we fall? So we can learn how to get back up, which in faith terms means being up to the grace of Christ all over again.
In this morning’s scripture, Peter forced a whole lot of people to face their spiritual failure. This story from Acts comes from the very beginning of the church. It takes place mere weeks after Pentecost, and only a few months after the death and resurrection of Jesus. During this time Peter and the other apostles were gathering daily in the temple courts, and as Acts 2:47 states, “And the Lord added to their number daily.” It was in this exciting time of early church growth that this morning’s scripture took place. This morning’s scripture picks up in the middle a little bit. Right before our morning reading, Peter and John entered the temple and saw a man who was born crippled begging for charity. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth they healed this man. The healed man, was probably something of a fixture at the temple. He probably positioned himself at the same spot daily. He would have been known and familiar sight to many of the people gathered there. The fact that he was no walking is why all of the people were astonished, it is why a crowd gathered. Peter, being a good preacher, could not pass up the opportunity to address the group.
Yet, I am fairly confident Peter never read “How to win friends and influence people”, because he is really blunt in the sermon he gives in this morning’s scripture. He lays the facts bare and does not allow the audience to hide behind excuses. Remember, this was just months after Jesus was crucified. It may not have been the talk of town anymore, but it was still fresh in the collective memory. There was probably more than one person in this crowd who gawked at Jesus being paraded through the town, bloody and struggling to carry the cross. There was probably more than one person who rubbernecked at Golgotha to read the sign of Jesus head that read “King of the Jews”, there was probably more than one person in the crowd who waived a palm branch on palm Sunday, but was suspiciously quiet on Good Friday. Peter addresses them directly: You handed him over to be killed, You disowned the holy and righteous one, you killed the author of life.”
Peter could have stopped right there. The people had done messed up, and he could have just let them have it. The good news of this scripture though is he did not. Instead of naming their failure and heaping condemnation upon them, he shows empathy and acknowledges they did not understand what they were doing. He goes on to urge them to repent and turn back to God. The message Peter delivers in this scripture is not one of condemnation for failing, it is about acknowledging failure and being given a second chance. If we skip ahead in the book of Acts to chapter 4, in verse 4:4 we joyfully read that somewhere over 1,000 people responded to this good news.
As we consider this scripture of facing spiritual failure and second chances, I believe that there are two things we can take away from this. First, we all need second chances. Heck, if you are anything like me. You need third, fourth, a score of chances. As Christians it is our life goal to be like Jesus. To reach a place where we love God with all of our being, we love our neighbor as ourselves, and we do not willfully sin. And again, if you are like me-we fail spectacularly at doing that. We all mess up, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. We do not do the good we know we should do, we do harm that we know we should not do, and we wonder from the fold of God. The good news, is that we too are called to “repent, turn to God so that [our] sins might be wiped out, that times of refreshing might come from the Lord.” The beautiful, almost uncomprehend able truth of God’s love, is that God will forgive us. It does not matter what we have done, God will forgive us. It does not matter how many times we have done the same stupid thing that we just cannot seem to get away from, God will forgive us.
Now a word of caution, God’s love for us is unconditional but that does not mean we should take it for granted. That does not mean we have a blank check to act in whatever selfish prideful way we want, because we know that God will eventually forgive us. God’s love, grace, is free but grace is not cheap. On the cross, God paid a very high price to prove God’s love and make forgiveness available to us. We ca not just glibly ask God to forgive us, because for us to truly repent and seek forgiveness requires us to be reminded of that fact that Jesus suffered on a cross because of our sins. When we fail in life and have to pick ourselves up, it is ultimately a good experience in the end but the process is not always the most comfortable because it changes us for the better. In the same way, truly experiencing God’s grace for the first time or again is not always comfortable but it should change us for the better.
Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about what it is like to experience grace in her book Accidental Saints. In that book she relays a time that she really messed up. A couple of members of her church were going to get married to one another. They wanted her to do the service, and scheduled it over 18 months in advance. Due to a calendar issue of not getting various calendars synced she also ended up scheduling a speaking engagement in Australia. It was an honest mistake, but it was compounded by the fact that it took a couple of months to catch. By that point she was in a bind. The event in Australia was a big deal with a locked in venue and thousands of dollars in promotional materials printed. They wanted her, because it was a Lutheran women’s group event and it was very important to have a woman Lutheran minister. The wedding could also not be moved, because deposits had already been paid, and it was the only time family members could make it. Nadia Bolz-Weber was in a bind and no matter what angle she approached it from, she could not make it right. Finally the couple wrote her a letter releasing her from her commitment to do the wedding. Even though they were disappointed they ended the letter with “we love you. And we forgive you.” Love you and forgive you, is the message of the cross. It is the message, the very essence of grace. In her reflection on this memory, Bolz-Weber writes, “and the thing about grace, real grace, is that it stings. It stings because if it’s real it means we don’t ‘deserve’ it. . . and basically receiving grace is the best [terrible] feeling in the world.”
Grace is a reminder that if God were truly fair we would not be forgiven this time. Grace is a reminder that it was because of us making terrible decisions, like the ones we need to be for forgiven for, that Jesus had to die in the first place. To be justified and found forgiven by God should humble us. Because the thing about grace, about real grace, is not only doses it sting but it must change us. When we fail, we learn from how we pick ourselves up. In the same way, when we sin, and we truly seek forgiveness again, we must repent and be changed again.
The second take away is who is preaching this message of second chances in the first place. It is Peter, and he knows a things or two about second chances. When he states, “I know you acted in ignorance” in verse 17, he is talking to himself as much to the crowd. It is Peter you remember who failed hard on the night Jesus was arrested. It was Peter who denied knowing Jesus three times before dawn. And it was Peter who Jesus Christ forgave. It makes sense why Peter did not condemn the people for their failure to accept Christ, because he, before repenting, was one of their number. If you have faith, then you know because of God’s great love you have been given more than once second chance already. You have been allowed to fail and forgiven by God more than a few times. So let us follow the example of Peter. May we be willing to grant other people second chances. If someone fails hard in faith, if they mis-step, if the “backslide”, if they live in a way that you do think is not worthy of one who calls themselves a Christian, then may we not condemn, may we not judge, may we not ghost them and cut them off completely. Instead, may we treat them with grace and offer them a second chance. May we come alongside them, and may help pick them up, so that through the example of radical grace, forgiveness, and acceptance that we show they can see God’s love in us.
In this morning’s scripture Peter shared the gospel with Jews in Jerusalem who were present when Jesus was killed. Instead of condemning them, he offers them grace and forgiveness. May you remember that because of the mighty acts of Jesus Christ, you too are offered this forgiveness and grace. To search out grace is to acknowledge that we have failed and fallen short, may you not be too proud to do that, but may you return to the foot of the cross seeking a second chance. May you know that when you do, no matter what, God will forgive you again, and again. That brothers and sisters in Christ, is what makes grace so amazing.