"In the middle of things"
The following sermon was preached by James Nieman, President, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, April 26, 2012.
Listen to the lecture by clicking on the "play arrow" above.
James Nieman, Ph.D., was Academic Dean, Hartford Seminary, and candidate for LSTC president when this sermon was preached. On May 14, 2012 the LSTC Board of Directors selected him to be President. Rev. Nieman assumed the position of President August 1, 2012.
In medias res. It's Latin for "in the middle of things." That's when important stuff happens: in the middle of things. Oh, we'd like events to unfold through careful plans or in ways we can clearly anticipate. But that's more the exception than the rule. Most often, we find ourselves interrupted in medias res. Maybe your life was perking along just fine when, with little warning, right in the middle of things, going to seminary seemed like a good idea. How'd that happen? Or perhaps you were cruising through a perfectly good Thursday when, out of nowhere, you're in chapel listening to some guy you've never met, who is equally puzzled about you, and you're both wondering how your lives intersected like this, in the middle of things.
In medias res also fits the quality of our reading today from Acts. In the maddening beauty of the lectionary, we enter this story not where it truly begins but more at its middle, with Peter bursting forth in full-throated preaching. "Why do you wonder at this?" he demands, which naturally leaves us scratching our heads about the "this" to which he refers. Something must have happened just before Peter's sermon, something really big. And of course, many of you remember what that was, at least with a little prompting. It's the first healing in Acts when, at Solomon's portico, Peter and John met a man who was lame.
Even that encounter, though, happened in the middle of things. After all, these two apostles had other plans for the day. They were headed to the temple for prayer, daily chapel, if you will. Following all of the Easter hullabaloo, perhaps their dogged duty comes as a surprise to you. But by now, Jesus had long since risen and ascended, the crowds have scattered, and so they languish in the weary, wilted lily days of the season. Life drifts back to the null point of routine, so as observant Jews, Peter and John resume what they used to do.
But then came the interruption. In medias res, like God's gauntlet thrown down, a lame man was plopped in their path. This wasn't some sad schmo with a bad limp that just hindered his walking a little. No, he was carried in, utterly unable to move himself, let alone earn a living. And this had always been his nature and his lot. Well that, and one more thing: for his ailment, this fellow was counted unclean. He daily begged for kindness on the threshold of a temple he could not enter. Not much of a spiritual life, if you ask me, because it's no life at all. Immobile, impoverished, and impure, this man was nothing we would want to be and everyone we would wish to avoid. Better to suppress such a hopeless, hapless condition.
As it turned out, though, Peter and John were interrupted by this guy's plight and plea, and in turn interrupted him with the name of Jesus and healing beyond all treasure. And so, as we used to sing at Bible camp, "He went walking and leaping and praising God, walking and leaping and praising God…" (Just try to forget that earworm later today.) Ah, how nice it would have been to preach on that story, a heroic account of firm faith and irrefutable results. But no, today's reading begins only as that healing ends and the crowds rush in. And we need to hear what comes next because, as sociologists say, empirical phenomena are not self-interpreting. Something big has just happened. Someone must now make sense of it.
Ever the opportunist, Peter seizes the moment and begins to preach. In so doing, though, he commits a gaggle of homiletical gaffes. Right off the bat, he interrupts a driving narrative with dreary exposition, bringing the action to a screeching halt. It's a pattern that recurs with annoying frequency in Acts: amazing signs followed by tedious yammering. But that's not the worst of it. Peter goes on to pose questions he never answers, all the while changing the topic again and again. Disjointed, the message soon becomes diatribe, pairing judgmental sting with condescending swagger ("You killed the Author of life…I know you acted in ignorance." "You rejected the Holy One…Repent therefore, and turn to God.") And how about an amusing story or benign advice for better living? All told, the sermon's not a real crowd pleaser.
It was never meant to be. What Peter's sermon lacks in smooth style it more than repays in startling substance. Just as the lame man's plea interrupted the dutiful apostles, just as their miracle in turn interrupted his inert life, so this odd little sermon interrupts the amazed crowds, and we who overhear it through them. Peter breaks into the middle of things to make sense of not just one man's cure but a still deeper healing. "Why do you wonder at this?" he says of the man, "or why do you stare at us?" If you think what just happened is only about his limbs or our prayer, then your focus is too short, your frame too small. This isn't about him or us or anything any of us do. This is all about what God has done—for him, for us, for all.
Peter's sermon is like a diptych painting, two facing panels in stark contrast. On the one side is the dim, unflattering portrait of what we humans do, left to our own devices. There's our ancient ancestors, Abraham and the rest, better remembered for resistance and grumbling than unwavering faith. Over there's the people of Jerusalem in recent weeks, whose eagerness to betray was only outstripped by their thirst for murder. And there, in the foreground, is the crowd Peter addresses, so lost in ignorance, so mired in sin that hope has slipped beneath the horizon. But on that other panel, there is the brilliant, mysterious portrayal of what God still does, not in spite of that other portrait but precisely because of it. Because of our wandering and wavering, God's promises remain constant and firm. Because we desire the deadening and deadly, God breaks their seductive power over us. Because like the lame man we are stuck and stained, God strengthens anew, restores us to wholeness.
And what binds the two panels of this diptych is the one name Peter declares over and over: the name of Jesus. It's not some incantation or magic spell for wonderworking apostles. That name is the holy pledge on which our lives can finally, gladly depend, whatever befalls. It interrupts our routine and brings new direction to our days. It meets us where we already are, in the middle of things, to share our plight, cleanse from sin, set us back on our feet to walk and leap and praise and, who knows, maybe even preach. "The joy of the resurrection renews the whole world," says the ancient preface appointed for these weeks. The joy of the resurrection renews the whole world. Something big has happened. Someone must now make sense of it. There's a weary world waiting, stalled in the middle of things, waiting for whatever word you've got. In Jesus name, they'd welcome a little interruption right about now. And after you've said something, who knows? They might even want to hear more.