If you’ve been following my posts, you know that during sabbatical I’ve been visiting various worshiping communities on Sundays. Last week I went to a church near my home, but today I went to the church closest to where we live. Wellspring Church, also known as the First Samoan Congregational Christian Church, happens to be a church in my denomination, the United Church of Christ. I see it most days when I’m out walking “The Loop” along Piner Creek in Santa Rosa. I’ve visited Wellspring before – for their Car Wash fundraiser to support their youth group camping trip, for a meeting of the wider church, and to have a one-on-one conversation with Pastor Eddie Sunia.
This morning I walked over to attend the 10:15 a.m. service. I entered the worship space as people were being invited to greet each other. There were warm handshakes and smiles and hugs all around. O’omai Sunia, Pastor Eddie’s wife, recognized me and said how glad she was to see me.
Worship begain with praise music led by six song leaders with the words projected on a screen behind them. The whole service, including hymns, prayers, and sermon, was bilingual, Samoan and English. At one point, I was overcome with emotion. “I’m praising God in Samoan,” I thought to myself. I was also impressed – it takes a lot of effort and intention to create a truly bilingual worship service.
Pastor Eddie preached on Acts 3: 1-10. In Samoan, “Acts” is Galuega. Before the sermon, the congregation read the scripture responsively, alternating passages between pastor and people, first in Samoan and then in English. It’s the story of Peter and John entering the temple (malumalu) at 3:00 in the afternoon. There they encountered a man who could not walk and was begging at the gate called “Beautiful” (Matagofie). Pastor Eddie focused on verse 6: “Then Peter said, ‘Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”
The sermon caused me to reflect on this passage from Acts. We learn that the man at the gate had been unable to walk since his birth. We also learn that he was carried to the gate everyday, where it says “he was put to beg from those going into the temple courts.” I tried to imagine what it would be like to live one’s entire life as a beggar. I wondered whether it was an act of compassion that some people carried him there, or was it an act of exploitation. Perhaps he was forced to beg and gave the proceeds to those who carried him. The important thing is that this man knew only one way of being in the world. He was disabled. He begged for money at the same gate every day of his life.
When Peter and John came to the temple that day, the man asked them for money. The text says, “Peter looked straight at him, as did John.” How often do we look away from those who make us uncomfortable, but they looked at him, straight at him. They saw him. Then, the text says, Peter said, “Look at us!” A human connection was being made where there had previously been a fixed transaction. The man looked at them, expecting to get something. Peter had no money, so he gave the man something unexpected, a name, the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and a command to walk.
Our modern sensibility tends to be offended by stories like this. Disabilities aren’t cured with a word. And yet what was the purpose of this story in the life of the early church? It was to show, in Pastor Eddie’s words, that “the name of Jesus has more power than silver and gold” (O le Mana o le suafa o Iesu Keriso). Silver and gold are the currency of the empire, of the status quo, and they have the power to keep lame beggars in their place. But the power of Jesus’ name (le suafa o Iesu Keriso) has the power to transform lives.
If the man was indeed being exploited, placed at the gate to the temple to beg, those who carried him there would not have been pleased to hear that “he jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.” The name of Jesus disrupts expectations and settled circumstances, making new relationships possible. The point of this story is not “if you have enough faith God will heal you.” The point of this story is Jesus’ name has power to disrupt and transform.
Awash in the sound of Samoan singing, I left worship feeling blessed, blessed by Pastor Eddie and O’omai, blessed by a word of transformation, and blessed by a community of faith within a short walk from my front door.