3 One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2 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. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4 Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,[a] stand up and walk.” 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8 Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 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. ~Acts 3:1-10
This Easter Season, I’ve chosen a lens for us to view our passages through: “Scenes from a Brand New Church.” Each week, as we read through Acts, we will (hopefully!) see the ways in which an ancient story is simultaneously brand new, as we connect it with our own experience as a community of faith.
So many people, and communities—here, and everywhere—could really, really use a miracle. Every week people come to worship—here, and at all kinds of houses of faith—feeling their brokenness. The fragility of their human bodies. The fear of their diagnosis. The persistence of their grief. The reality of their addiction. The weight of their history. Every week, we show up. Many of us could use a miracle. And we are afraid, really. We are afraid to believe in miracles. We are afraid to ask for one… it seems so unlikely, like something we could only read about in a book.
The opening track of Paul Simon’s album, “Graceland,” is a song called “Boy in a Bubble.” In it, he talks about terrible things—things that need miraculous healing, if ever there were such things. He talks about starvation. He talks about terrorism. And yet, in the refrain, he sings, “These are the days of miracles and wonder.” And the same can be said about the days of the brand-new church. Days of miracles and wonder, and the power of God unleashed in God’s people. This is God’s story.
Out on their own, now, Jesus’ disciples Peter and John are about to step into the Temple in the afternoon, about 3 PM. But before they go in, they find a man, a man who has been unable to walk since the day he left his mother’s womb. The short version of the story is: Peter speaks to him, and tells him, in Jesus’ name, to get up. Get up and go! Walk! And he does.
It is a miracle. It is straight from God, through the power and authority of Jesus. That is the story scripture tells us.
But there is more to the story than that. We don’t get the short version, we get the fully fleshed version, and that’s where fullness of the miracle can be found.
We learn that the man, unable to walk his entire life, is nevertheless carried to the Beautiful Gate of the Holy Place each day, so that he can ask for money from those who are going in and out.
If you are in need of money, why not go to a church, a temple, or a mosque? Go to a place where people place their trust in God, and believe that trust requires them to be helpers of those in need.
So, when Peter and John come along, the man looks to them as he looks to any of those who come and go from the Holy Place: They are potential sources of money.
And, lets be sure we understand: This is his only option. This is not an era of a decent social safety net. There is no disability insurance to help him to get along. Or, there is, but it’s called “family”—and if the man is here, asking for alms, asking from his family is not an option. Maybe they’re dead. Maybe they let it be known from the get-go that they couldn’t care for him, and left him to his own devices from an early age. Apparently, he has no family. And the fact that the passage tells us “people” used to place him here, tells us that he is worse off, say, a man whose friends would carry him around. Apparently, he has no friends. He is alone, at the Beautiful Gate, him and his coffee cup rattling with the pennies strangers can spare for him.
The man sees Peter and John, and he man asks them for money. And Peter responds while looking intently at the man (the Greek calls it a “stretching” look). He says, “Look at us.” What a strange request. But I think I understand. I recall my own experiences of being asked for money as I walk down the street. And quite often, the people who ask are a little uncomfortable, maybe even ashamed. They glance away, even while they are asking. And it is certainly a well-known strategy for those of us who are the askees to look away, too, to pretend we don’t see the person, or hear the request. We want to say “No.” And we don’t want to say “No.” Everyone is embarrassed. Everyone is ashamed.
But Peter engages this man fully, not as a pesky panhandler, but as a child of God. They give one another a look that stretches them both. They see one another. And then Peter gives the man more—far more—than he asked for.
Peter touches him. He takes his hand. Except for the random procession of strangers picking him up and placing him at the gate every day, how many people have touched this man, I wonder, in his lifetime? Have taken his hand, a gesture shared by equals, a gesture that confers dignity, mutual acknowledgement, even beyond looking at one another.
And then, by Jesus’ authority, Peter tells the man that he is healed. And the man not only rises up, he not only walks. He leaps! He gives praise to God!
You understand, giving the man the ability to walk is just one part of this miracle, one aspect of this healing. The miracle is broader, deeper than the simple physical ailment, the disability. The man goes with Peter and John into the Temple, and with this, the healing is complete. The man has been seen, and acknowledged, a beloved child of God. The man has been taken by the hand, touched, brought into physical contact with others. And now, the man has been brought into the place of worship, perhaps, for the very first time in his life. He is no longer alone. He is no longer apart from community. He has been brought and welcomed back into the fold.
Rolf Jacobson is a professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. His specialty is the Psalms and the Prophets, but he has a very personal take on this New Testament passage. When he was a teenager Rolf lost both his legs to cancer. He endured surgeries, and a lot of time in the hospital, and, I’m going to assume, the fear that always accompanies that diagnosis. He had good medical care, and his family was there at his side. But he still feels the pain of the memory that his friends never came to see him in the hospital. “We don’t like to see you that way,” they said. He says, they were great friends. But they couldn’t bear the psychic pain he was going through, and so they left him alone.
Illness, pain, grief, addiction… even the very natural processes associated with things like aging… all these can be incredibly isolating experiences. In the midst of it, it can be hard for us to believe anyone ever felt like we feel. If we look at this passage, and all we see is a miracle that takes someone from not being able to walk, to being able to walk, we have missed what might be the deepest healing of this miracle: taking someone from isolation and disconnection back to community, back to a sense of family and belonging.
It’s true: the early days of the church are days of miracles and wonder, the power and presence of God in physical healing the likes of which we rarely see in our day, but I won’t say “never.” And it also saw other kinds of healing that it’s easy to miss unless we’re looking for them. Welcoming those who are outcast. Connecting with those who have been isolated. Taking the hands of those who have been without touch. Looking into the eyes of those who have felt ashamed and assuring them that they are, indeed, beloved children of God.
This is one of the things, I believe, Kathleen Norris is pointing to when she says that scripture itself has the power to heal. Scripture reminds us that God wants healing for us. God wants our wholeness. Wholeness in body, mind and spirit. Wholeness in being connected to one another. Whole-heartedness in the ways we reach out to one another. It is not only the man who was sitting by the Beautiful Gate who was healed; Peter and John were healed, too. Their community was restored, made fuller. It is not only the person with the frightening diagnosis, or the tenacious addiction, or the painful grief who needs to be healed. It is the entire body of Christ. It is all of us. When we reach out to one another, it is for our own healing every bit as much as it is theirs.
Every week, as we worship together, we are given this gift, the gift of an opportunity to see our own lives and situations through the witness of our ancestors in faith. That gift comes to us through scripture, the story of God and God’s people. And though it’s the story of ancient people in far off lands, it’s our story, too. This week our gift is an invitation to discover miracles and wonder in this story, and in our lives. The story of people in need of healing. The story of people who want to share the Good News of God’s love. The story of realizing, we are one and the same. The healed and the healers. The broken and the whole. The realization that our healing is bound up with the healing of one another, and that we can be part of making it happen: that’s a miracle. Thanks be to God. Amen.