Second Chances

Scripture:  Acts 3:12-19

The feats of athleticism that the human body is capable of truly are amazing.  Athletes are constantly able to push themselves to set new records in how fast they can run, how fast they can swim, how far they can jump, or how much they can lift.  The accuracy with which a quarterback can throw a ball to a receiver, a tennis player can return a serve, or a golfer can get a ball next to a small hole dozens of yards away is incredible.   Top level athletes hone these skills through practice and a lot of hard work until their ability to produce results becomes the best in the world.   There are a lot of remarkable athletic feats that people are capable of, but there is agreement that one of the single hardest ones to do is hit a fastball in baseball.  The physics of hitting a fastball are hard to comprehend.  The average MLB fastball has a velocity of more than 90 MPH.   At that speed, the batter only has about 150 milliseconds to decide if they want to swing, which is literally in the blink of an eye.  Even after the batter makes that quick decision fast enough, then their timing has to be perfect because the ball will only be in a hittable zone for about 10 milliseconds.  A final complication is that in baseball batters use a rounded bat to hit a rounded ball.  To line up these curves just right is extremely difficult.  The ideal target area for a batter to make contact with the ball can be imagined as a small bullseye about 1/5 an inch in diameter.   Hitting a baseball is no small task, and it is something that even the best in the world struggle with.   In the MLB a batting average of .280-.300 is considered good.   If you are not familiar with baseball statistics that is actually a percentage, so a batting average of .280 means the batter hits the ball and gets on base 28% of the time.  Ty Cobb holds the record for the best career batting average at .366.   Baseball is the only profession in the world where you can essentially fail almost 2/3rds of the time and hold the record for being one of the best ever.  I think there is a lesson in grace there for all of us, because baseball is a game of second chances.   When any given batter steps up to the plate, statistically the odds are not in their favor.  However, it does not matter if the result is a swing and a miss or a grand slam the same batter is going to get another attempt multiple times in the same game.  In this way, baseball is a lot like our faith.  It does not matter if he failed the last time, we always get another at bat.

This morning’s scripture is a story about second chances, but our scripture reading picks up in the middle of the story.  This morning’s scripture depicts a scene from the very early days of the church.   We often think of the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to be the official “birthday” of the church, and this morning’s scripture comes just weeks after that event.  Jesus’ original disciples, now referred to as apostles, are leading a relatively small but rapidly growing community of Jesus followers.   Our scripture reading started at verse 12, which begins with “when Peter saw this. . . “, so we need to back up to what Peter saw.  A crowd of people were quickly gathering and it is in response to something that Peter did.  Initially the early church started based in Jerusalem, and on this particular day around three in the afternoon Peter and John were going to the temple at the time of prayer.   On the way into the temple there was a disabled man, who being unable to walk was reduced to begging.  Peter told this man “In the name of Jesu Christ of Nazareth, walk.”  And he did.

This man must have been a fixture at the temple.  People had been used to walking by him for years, so when he was all of the suddenly up walking around people took notice.  They probably also took notice because the man was kind of making a scene.  Acts 3:8 records he was “walking, jumping, and praising God” all while hanging around Peter and John.   This is what drew a crowd and when Peter saw this, he used the opportunity to preach the good news.

This is a common occurrence in the book of Acts.  The apostles use any pretense they can to launch into telling people about Jesus.  All told there are twenty different sermons recorded in Acts.  However, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that Peter never had a preaching class.   In this morning’s scripture it does not take Peter long to get to “You killed the author of life.”  I am fairly sure most seminary professors would be quick to point out that calling the audience a bunch of murderers is not the best way to win friends and influence people.  To share the good news of Jesus with the Jews of Jerusalem, Peter took his shot and he absolutely did not sugarcoat it.

The incident recorded in this morning’s scripture took place in a matter of months after the crucifixion.  Given that this crowd was a group of people who tended to congregate at the temple and given that they clearly were prone to rushing to see what the excitement is all about, there is a fairly good chance that this crowd was aware of Jesus.  They knew who he was, they knew what had happened.   It is a distinct possibility that some of them were even in the crowd on that Friday, being urged on by the chief persist to shout “crucify him.”  Even if all of these people did not go to that extreme, they all likely had an opinion on Jesus.  Today a lot of people have their own hot takes on current events, and it likely would not have been different in the first century.  Some may have thought that Jesus got what he deserved, others may have thought that he was a good teacher who just did not know when to stop talking.   Perhaps others were sympathetic to Jesus’ messages but not enough to really say or do anything when the hammer dropped.  They were all aware of Jesus, they all had the opportunity to claim him instead of disown him, but they missed it.  They got caught looking as the ball flew by them.  So Peter rightly, even if a little harshly, calls them out on it.

Thankfully, Peter does not end there.   After performing a miraculous healing that testifies to the power of Jesus’ name, he does not just tell the assembled crowd that you missed your chance, that you done messed up and now you have to live with the consequences.   He does not do that, instead he offers grace.  He says in verse 19, “Repent then, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.”  They are all offered a second chance.

If we peak ahead to chapter four we can see in verse four that a lot of the people on that day responded to the second chance.  This morning scripture is just one of a mountain of evidence in the bible that God is a God of second chances.   God’s grace is not one and done.   When we fall short, when we take a bad pitch, and when we strike out God is not through with us.   One of the most fundamental aspects of God’s character revealed in this morning’s scripture and throughout the bible is that God is a God of mercy and we can always come back to God.   It is unfortunate that our actions do not always communicate that we believe this.

There are two primary ways that our actions communicate that we do not believe God to be the God of second chances.   First this happens on an individual level.   I have been doing this long enough that I have unfortunately encountered people, who believe that God is not a God of second chances.   More accurately, they believe that they are not worthy of a second chance.  It is absolutely tragic and heart breaking, when people find themselves in a space believing that they are unforgiveable.    The guilt and shame of too many poor decisions, of too many people hurt, of too many regrets adds up.   People can get to a place where they feel their spiritual debt is too much to pay off, that there ledger is too much in the negative to recover from.   Instead of facing it, they try to keep their distance from God.   You probably have had interactions with people who feel this way.  When they eventually do enter a church for a wedding or some other function, they will try to make jokes about not standing too close to them when the lightening comes, or it is surprising the wall have not fallen in yet.  Those are often attempts to laugh off a deep hurt.   It is a deep hurt that can be avoided, because the words of this morning’s scripture still extend to everyone: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.”

There is nothing we can do, that makes God stop loving us.  Absolutely nothing. Period.  Full Stop.   It does not matter what we have done, or how much time has passed, as long as we draw breath it is not too late to repent and God will wipe our sins, reset our ledger, and give us another at bat.  God is a God of second chances.  So if you know that your life is not as in line with Godly living as you want it to be, if you know that you have strayed to far, or if the shame and regret is becoming too much then come back to God.  You can experience God’s justifying, forgiving, cleansing grace again for a second time, or third, or fourth, or fifth. . .   It does not matter how many times God’s grace never runs out.

The second way that our actions communicate that we do not always treat God like a God of second chances, that as communities of faith we do not always do a great job at giving second chances the way that God does.  There are several proofs of this that we can find in American Christian culture.  While this phrase is not always as prevalent in Methodist circles as it is as elsewhere, the idea of “backsliding” speaks to this.   In some church cultures when someone’s church involvement lessens or when there is some question to their behavior, whispers begin that they are a “backslider,” that they moved back away from being like Jesus to more like the world.   Often in these situation, this person has this label whispered about them until their actions suitably prove to their judges that they are no longer backsliding.  This is not how God works, we do not have to prove ourselves to God before God extends mercy and grace.

This happens in more subtle ways too.  I know of times when after an absence from church life for whatever a reason, when someone returns, all they hear is “well look who finally came back” or “Glad you were not too busy to actually join us this morning.”   Often in these cases that becomes the last time they do come back, because instead of having the community of faith extend the same mercy of second chance that God gives they instead get passive-aggressive judgement.

May those not be the experiences that people have from our Christian community here at North Judson UMC.   No matter how long someone has been away, no matter what they have done, no matter what may we treat people like we worship a God of second chances.  May our actions communicate that God’s love is constant, and that we always can repent, that God will wipe away our sins, and that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.  Because, my friends, is good news that I think the world really needs to hear right now.  So may we follow Peter’s example from this morning’s scripture and may we be the ones to share it with them all.

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