WONDER AND AMAZEMENT
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In his commentary on Acts, NT Wright tells a story of a young man who snuck into a church one morning hoping nobody would notice him. He was interested in a young woman who sang in the choir, and hoped that after the service he would have a chance to talk to her and ask her out on a date. Though he was unfamiliar with church, he saw people taking their places in the pews and took his own place next to an aisle. Shortly before the service was about to start, he was approached by someone who told him that the person scheduled to read the scripture that morning couldn’t make it. Could the young man fill in? Thinking that this would be a good chance to get him noticed by the young woman in the choir and feeling that he had a pretty good speaking voice, the young man agreed. He quickly reviewed the passage before the service started.
When the appropriate time came, the young man took his place at the front and began to read from John’s Gospel. Quoting from Wright now – “Anyone who doesn’t enter the sheepfold by the gate,” he heard his own voice say, “but climbs in by another way, is a thief and a bandit.” He was thunderstruck. This was what he’d done! He was standing here, pretending to be a regular Bible-reader, when in fact he’d only come in to meet a girl. He forced himself to go on, aware of his heart beating loudly. If he was a bandit, coming in under false pretences, what was the alternative? “I am the gate for the sheep,” said Jesus. “The bandit only comes to steal, kill and destroy. I came that they might have life, and have it full to overflowing.” Suddenly something happened inside the young man. He stopped thinking about himself. He stopped thinking about the girl, about the congregation, about the fact that he’d just done a ridiculous and hypocritical thing. He thought about Jesus. Unaware of the shock he was causing, he swung round to the clergyman leading the service. “Is it true?” he asked. “Did he really come so that we could have real, full life like that?” The clergyman smiled. “Of course” he replied, quite unfazed by this non-liturgical outburst. “That’s why we’re all here. Come and join in the next song and see what happens if you really mean it.” And the young man found himself swept off his feet by the presence and love of Jesus, filling him, changing him, calling him to follow like a grateful sheep, after the shepherd who can be trusted to lead the way to good pasture by day and safe rest at night. He got much more than he bargained for.”
In our story today we have a man who received much much more than what he bargained for. We have a man who received life. Healing brought about by the one Peter would call the Author of life. The one who initiates life.
We are looking at a story of what the good news does. Last week we looked at the activities of this community of faith. How they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. This community was not just existing for themselves or their own maintenance. A few weeks ago we sang the hymn “Sweet Hour of Prayer” which contains the line “Which draws me from the world of care.” We don’t stay withdrawn. Our pattern of worship is like that of a heart. Diastolic and systolic. We’re drawn together in a big way weekly (and in smaller ways through the week) and then sent from here. Just as blood goes to the heart then to the lungs to be oxygenated and then back to the heart and sent to different parts of the body. We come together to be oxygenated and are then sent.
They were out there. For the earliest followers of Christ it was a matter of continuing in the religious tradition they had known. They’re in Jerusalem. This included daily prayers at the temple. One day, Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. There were two significant hours of prayer – one in the morning and this one at 3pm where the evening sacrifice was made. Someone has said “The path toward significant prayer is a way that goes straight through, not around, human misery.”
Not only does it go through but it stops. We’ve been talking about stopping. Waiting on God. We’re called to stop as we go through our days too. We’re not called to look at people as interruptions. I’ve said this before about the phrase “Sorry to bother you.” I said that to someone once and they replied “You’re never a bother to me.” Some of Jesus’ most important work was done in the interruptions. Healing happened with Jesus in the interruptions. Henri Nouwen said “I used to complain about all the interruptions to my work until I realized that these interruptions were my work.”
A man lame from birth was being carried in. A man who was in a situation from which he could not extricate himself. A man who was in a situation which left him outside the worshipping community. He would be placed daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate. There’s some dispute and unknowing about which gate this was – but it’s the Beautiful Gate. The gates of the temple were highly ornate, overlaid with gold, silver, bronze.
This gate is called the Beautiful Gate. This man is lying there. This is his spot, and if panhandling in 1st century Jerusalem is anything like panhandling in 21st century Toronto I’m sure a lot of people were hurrying by avoiding eye contact. People were no doubt giving him money and avoiding eye contact. Perhaps some would stop, ask how he is, try to get the chance to know him, share some bread. I’ve often thought that one of the worst things about panhandling must be how one is ignored. How one can sit at the corner of a major intersection and not be recognized as a person by thousands who would walk by in the space of an hour or two.
He calls out to Peter and John. They stop. Peter looked intently at him, as did John. The same word for intense looking we heard when Jesus preached in the Nazareth synagogue. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Their eyes are fixed on the man. Surely this is the first step in recognizing our common humanity. Surely this is the first step in recognizing need, in communicating need. “Look at us,” says Peter.
Look at us. Stop. Look. The man is expecting to receive something from them. This man who is in need of help is about to get much more than he bargained for.
Can any of us identify?
Peter says he doesn’t have any silver or gold. They had pooled their stuff, remember. Are we to take this as normative? Are we to look at this passage and say “I should never give money to people or our church should never give money to people?” I would say not.
This thing that we speak of with God’s help. This thing that shapes our worship together and shapes our lives when we go from this place, with God’s help. This is not simply about short term relief (though that is included at times).
This salvation story that we are caught up in, this deliverance story, God’s grand redemption plan – whatever it is you like to call it or however you like to think about it or whatever imagery we use to try and get our heads around it – it’s about healing. It’s about wholeness. It’s about life. It’s much more than simply economic relief. But what I have, I give you, Peter tells the man. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.
Peter took him by the right hand. Might have been the same hand that was extended to receive funds. It makes a great picture. Peter reaching down for that hand and raising the man up who was in a situation from which he was unable to extricate himself and he was raised up and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong and jumping up he stood and began to walk with them (because we’re not meant to do this walk alone) walking and leaping and praising God.
The Author of life. This is what Jesus does. He brings life. He brings wholeness. He brings healing. Talk about continuing Christ’s work in the world. Peter will say in the speech right after this “Why do you stare at us, as by our own power or piety we made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus…” By faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong…
We’re called to enter into the suffering of others. To look at it. To bring the person of Jesus into it through his name. We haven’t done a lot about prayers for healing in our tradition or in our church and maybe we should do more. We often think of faith healers we see on TV as charlatans and we shouldn’t leave it to charlatans. Do we believe the age of miracles is over? Some do, I suppose. I don’t. Jesus’ brother wrote about praying for the sick, having elders of the church pray over them, anointing them with oil – that symbol of the Holy Spirit.
This is what the good news does. It bring life, wholeness, healing. We’re not always cured by any means. Writer Rachel Held Evans wrote about the difference between curing and healing – “… there is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.” We’ll have the chance to do that this morning as we’re celebrating the author of life and wholeness around this table. If you would like Pastor Abby or myself to pray for you, you’ll have a chance to come to the back or the side and have us do that. We walk together. We may even leap together occasionally. We praise God together. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.