Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
If sometime during the past week you happened to take a look at the readings appointed for this third Sunday in Easter (which you can always do on our website…) you probably noticed that tonight I had us read a considerably longer passage from the Book of Acts. For some reason, the passage set out in the lectionary cycle of readings picks up after the healing of the crippled man, making it a bit difficult to figure out what it is that Peter is on about in his sermon to the astonished bystanders. Well, we heard read aloud the account of the healing of the crippled man—of how “jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God”—so we have at least a decent sense of why the people who witnessed it were “utterly astonished.”
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But you know, we probably need a bit more context than that to get the full sense of what is going on here. Right before this story begins, there is a description of the life of that early Christian community, which describes how “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” (Acts 2:42) and how, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) Over the centuries this picture of communal living has inspired any number of movements to attempt to do the same; to hold all things in common, and to build a life around the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. It is certainly part of what inspired Benedictine monasticism for instance, but also movements as varied as the Hutterites, the Bruderhof, the Catholic Worker, and most recently the “new monasticism.” Not all such experiments in community have had much staying power (human personalities can so easily get in the way…), but the greater risk is that they easily get inward focused; hived off from the nitty gritty of the wider society, they become more concerned about maintaining their own life and existence than they are about anything else.
So it is significant to note William Willimon’s observation that in this section of Act, “Luke goes to great pains to show that the church’s gathering to break bread, teach, and pray joyfully was in no way a detour around the misery of the world. For no sooner had Peter and John gone up to the temple to pray… than they are confronted by a man who has been lame since birth. The path toward significant prayer” says Willimon, “is a way that goes straight through, not around, human misery.” Watch.
“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. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms.” (Acts 3:1-3)
It is not hard to picture that scene, is it? You can see this man, on the ground by the gate to the Temple, hoping that the people who were coming and going would be moved to give him a bit of survival money. He had friends who would lay him there in that same place, day after day… but no other means of survival in a world without anything resembling a social safety net. And of course it was also a world that more or less assumed that a physical affliction was a sign of some deep spiritual or moral failing. You can imagine how living under that weight would have pretty much ground all hope out of this man’s soul.
“Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’” Peter and John looked intently right at the man; they chose to actually see him, rather than to just step around him and hurry in to make their prayers. Peter says to the man, “Look at us,” which now seals this as a real meeting of people. Eye contact will do that, won’t it? And what we so often do when a stranger looks like he or she is about to ask us for help? For a hand-out?
The story continues, as the man “fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.” Maybe enough to buy tonight’s supper? A piece of bread? He dare not hope for more… he cannot hope for more after all of those years of just lying there on the pavement.
“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.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.”
The people saw him, recognized him as the guy who’d spent all of those years at the gate begging for alms, and were, predictably, “filled with wonder and amazement.”
The man “clung to Peter and John,” Luke tells us, and “all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.” This is the segueway to Peter’s address to the people gathered there at the temple.
He begins by diverting all credit away from himself and from John—“why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”—instead directing them to the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors” and to “his servant Jesus.” Jesus, whose execution many of those people in the crowd had witnessed, perhaps even called for and supported, just a few months earlier. “[Y]ou rejected the Holy and Righteous One,” Peter tells them, “you killed the Author of life.” Strong words. You can imagine that some in that crowd felt their astonishment begin to give way to hostility, and when Peter makes his claim that “God raised [him] from the dead,” there were surely some who rolled their eyes and thought, “oh, that nonsensical rumour again.”
But Peter is unrelenting. “To this we are witnesses,” he continues, “And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong.”
“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”
Peter, you see, is singularly disinterested in locking the gospel away in some safe and inward gazing idealized community. No, his deepest hope is that what has happened to him will happen to everyone, and so he will speak his proclamation right in the heart of the city. Remember, by denying that he even knew Jesus, Peter was the disciple who had most clearly failed his Lord on the night of his arrest. He is that man no more.
As the story unfolds into the next chapter of Acts, we discover that Peter’s boldness comes at a cost, as he and John are arrested for what is considered the blasphemous claim that Jesus is Messiah. (Acts 4:1-3) And yet, Luke notes, “many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.” (Acts 4:4) The Spirit is indeed on the move, and the gospel is anything but locked up in a closed community.
But do remember, this whole scene begins with Peter and John actually stopping to speak with that crippled man at the gate. As the New Testament scholar Mitzi J. Smith suggests, if we really hear the claim this story makes on us, we need to learn to “seize opportunities to stop and gaze into human eyes, sharing the human touch by which God might restore a human life…” By their simply looking into that man’s eyes, he is already raised from being a mere beggar living under the weight of prejudice that says he must have done something to deserve his lot in life, to being a human person, created in the image of God. And then he is quite literally raised to his feet, to dance in delight and wonder.
And you know, oftentimes the person into whose eyes we most need to really look, and with whom we should be sharing some authentic human connection, won’t even be the proverbial stranger at the gates. It might be the person living next door to you; the person working or studying alongside of you; even the one sitting right next to you in the pew. But we won’t know that until we raise our heads, and start really seeing who is there beside us. That, too, is a resurrection act.