Primary Scripture Acts 3:1-10, also Acts 1:8 (quoted below from NRSV, as read by liturgist during the sermon)
As we opened our time in the book of Acts last week, we saw Jesus give his followers the last of his instructions on this earth: He told them to go back to Jerusalem and wait. He said to them:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
They would bear witness to the truth of Jesus’ teaching, to the truth of his resurrection, and to the reality that the Kingdom of God had indeed drawn near. That God was and is at work in tangible ways, even after Jesus was gone.
In chapter two, the spirit arrives, Peter preaches, and a fellowship of believers – a new community of faith – is born. They are led by Peter, James, John and the other disciples, but their work wasn’t about building an organization or starting a new religion.
They were focused on being witnesses, right there in Jerusalem. As Luke describes these early days, the growing numbers of Jesus followers were worshiping, teaching, preaching, and looking after the needs of others. They met together regularly, in the temple and in people’s homes. And many signs and wonders were being done.
By the apostles.
I will confess – and I suspect I am not alone in this – I had a harder time with the idea of these followers being responsible for signs and wonders than with the idea that Peter could stand in front of a crowd and preach.
Truly, I struggled for quite a while with this.
Seriously, these men and women are a lot like me. By that I mean, they are the goobers written about in the gospels as needing Jesus to teach and reteach and reteach pretty much everything. They were rebuked and told they lacked faith. They are uncomfortably similar to me.
And the truth is, I don’t see me (or people that much like me) performing miracles today. Or being part of signs and wonders on a regular basis. How is it that Peter and John, Thomas and Mark, Matthew and Luke, the Marys and others were about the business of healing and such?
One commentary I read pointed to the timing. At that particular moment, this nascent movement of faith was given a particular communal vocation. Together, they answered Jesus’ call to bear witness to the resurrection. Their actions were critical pieces of God’s plan to continue to reveal the kind of Kingdom that will one day come to fruition. Their steps of faith were part of revealing God’s power – in relationship with humanity – to bring healing, wholeness and shalom.
And so, as we read about the Acts of the Apostles, as Luke called them, we get a glimpse of what resurrection power looks like. We see a much less filtered, much less tempered version of the power that we, even here, today, have access to. Because we, too, have been baptized in water and have been empowered by the Holy Spirit.
God longs to work in, among and through us in this community, in our country, and in the world. We too, will be his witnesses. And we all have stories to tell, stories that bear witness to God’s power to change our own lives, just like the man Peter and John meet in our reading today.
Listen for the Word of the Lord in scripture and in the story of this un-named man as both bear witness to God’s glory.
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple.
That day started out pretty normal. I woke up, did my morning thing while I waited for my friends. They would come by every day, about the same time, and take me to the temple.
I didn’t have a lot of friends. And the ones I did have? Well, they weren’t exactly the kinds of people my parents dreamed their son would call friends. Let’s just say they knew how to work a crowd.
My parents did what they could for me, back in the day. Even when I was very young, my legs were not strong enough to hold me. I could drag myself about, but never very far. Certainly not beyond the confines of the house.
Over the years, a few people took pity on me. There were a handful of “healers” who came through Jerusalem. I never met any of them. I had my share of people pray for me; maybe more than my share.
But I guess my faith was too weak, or my sins were too great. I don’t know.
When you can’t stand, can’t walk, and can’t explain your weakness away with an injury, people assume that you must have done something to bring forth God’s punishment in such a tangible way. Some of them can’t help staring at you, but others can’t look away quickly enough. I guess they don’t want to imagine themselves in my condition. Or worse, to imagine their children crippled and begging.
Honestly, that’s part of what made the temple a good place to beg. People go there to seek their own healing or forgiveness from sins. And of course the priests teach that it is good in the eyes of God to give alms to the poor.
So, my friends helped me get to the temple every day, where I could sit and wait for people to drop their alms on my blanket. My spot was at the gate called Beautiful. Not that the other temple gates weren’t quite impressive, but this one was especially beautiful. It was adorned with such artistry and such fine materials – the master craftsmen had clearly put in their very best work.
You can imagine the juxtaposition between those stunning doors and my twisted, useless legs. It made for a profitable location, relatively speaking. People were reminded how generous God was, how God would provide for them if they were to help provide for this poor, pitiful man on the blanket…
All I had to do was ask, to call out, reach out. And if people made eye contact, they would usually give.
When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.
I was not quite to my spot that day, still being carried, when I spotted the men. Something about them made me call out, even before I was settled.
Talk about eye contact. The one I came to know was Peter looked at me. I mean LOOKED at me. Not searching me with suspicion, but looking at me with something I’d rarely seen.
I looked over at the other man and saw the same thing. It was true compassion.
Not pity or sorrow.
By the time he said “Look at us” I was already looking, hard. Trying to figure out if I ought to know them. Trying to imagine why they would have any real concern for me when no one else ever had. Or at least not in a long time.
I don’t remember the guys putting me down or backing away. I just remember looking into those eyes. And I know there was a crowd there, like always, but I don’t remember hearing another sound. Just this crazy command.
But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”
Stand up and walk. Really? Stand up on legs that hadn’t ever been able to hold me?
And in whose name? My mind went searching.
Jesus… Jesus of Nazareth… Jesus of Nazareth??
The one that had been making so much trouble in the temple around passover?
The one they killed?
But before I could protest, Peter was right there in front of me. Closer than any of the people that tossed coins at me would ever dare to come. As close as my friends who would come and lift me up to go home.
And Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.
I had heard some of the stories about this Jesus being raised from the dead.
I don’t know how, but this Peter raised me up – in the name of that Jesus – and my legs came to life.
I held his hand for a few steps, just in case, but before long it was clear that I had been healed. Well and truly healed.
Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.
Honestly, I had given up on being part of worship long ago. I had never imagined being part of a family or the community again. I had mostly given up on the idea that my life mattered to God at all.
Going through the gate, on my own two feet, entering the temple with these people, all of it was more than my heart could hold. I couldn’t help but cry out with joy, leaping and singing praises to God.
I remembered the story my father told me long ago- the story about King David when he brought back the ark. He went singing and dancing in the streets ahead of the ark, so filled with joy that he didn’t care who saw him in his undergarments.
That is the kind of elation I felt that day. And I really didn’t care who saw.
The more I thought about it, the more I wanted people to know what happened to me.
And WHO had made it happen.
Maybe God was going to take all those years of sitting at the gate and put the waiting to use.
When people who had always known me as that guy who was sitting and begging at the Beautiful Gate recognized me, I got to tell my story again.
Yes, my story.
I HAVE a story!
I have a story that bears witness to the power of God at work in the ones who believe in the Risen Christ.
All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
This man’s story would have been beautiful if one of the thousands of alms-givers before had uttered a prayer that God honored by healing him.
Or if God had answered one of the many prayers his mother must have prayed over her child.
His story would have been beautiful if he had met and been healed by Jesus on one of the many trips He and the disciples made to the temple.
This man’s story is beautiful – not because of the gate near which he was healed – but because of the grace by which he was healed.
Peter and John saw him, spoke to him, touched him, healed him, and entered the temple alongside him, just as Jesus had done with so many others, so many times before. It was a beautiful thing.
Then the beauty of this man’s heart was revealed in his worship, in his joyful praises.
There are beautiful things, beautiful people, beautiful lives, all around us. And even inside each of us. The world would tell us not to look too closely for them, at least not out there at the edges, in those places where we toss broken relationships, where we lump together the hurting and the misunderstood, the situations and people that frighten us or threaten our comfort
The world would tell us that nothing can be done. Well… toss them a few scraps, perhaps, give them a few glances, a mumbled prayer.
Peter and John’s actions were so much more. They offered a tangible manifestation of God’s power
to make broken things whole,
to turn isolation into community,
to make visible those who are overlooked,
to make beautiful those things humanity would ignore or toss aside.
If we are to be witnesses in our Jerusalem, we must be willing to do likewise.
We must be open to the power of the Holy Spirit to send us,
We must be open to the power of the Holy Spirit to speak healing words through us,
We must be open to the power of the Holy Spirit to heal the ways we are lame and to resurrect our passions, hopes and dreams.
We must be open to the power of the Holy Spirit to bring unexpected people through our doors.
We must be open to the power of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes, our arms, and our hearts to truly welcome them.
You will receive power, Jesus said.
And you will be my witnesses.
Because beautiful things, beautiful people, a beautiful city and world await.