Walking And Leaping, Or Walking Past?
(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Acts 3:1-10
The reading today is usually an excuse for me to lead the church in an excruciatingly embarrassing rendition of the old Sunday School favourite “Peter and John went to pray”, with added emphasis and gymnastic cavorting on the chorus (all together now: “He went walking and leaping and praising God”). If you know the song, I bet that those words will be going round your head right now, and indeed will continue to haunt you well into your day.
However, without a congregation to lead in these torturous callisthenics, we’re left with our imaginations. Maybe we could align them away from Sunday School classes and instead try to paint a picture in our minds of the encounter that we’ve just read. Picture the outer courts of the Temple in Jerusalem full of people of all shapes, sizes and smells milling around the colonnades and causeways. A cacophonous riot of colours, crowds, and conversations.
Into this heady mix we add Peter and John, going about their business; our song suggests that their intent was to pray, but Luke also places them at the time of prayer to give us a time of day. Their intention could have been to pray, it could also have been to meet with those who were praying to preach. Certainly, the following events gave reason for Peter to exercise his preacher’s gift, but you’ll have to read beyond our passage to find out how that turned out.
I think the main point Luke is making is that the Temple forecourts were busy. Pilgrims attending prayer, tradespeople selling sacrificial doves and other animals, and then those who were there to beg. There’s no suggestion that our crippled beggar was alone, the sole hand open to receive handouts from the faithful. It should have been a prime spot for begging; what better place to be than right on the doorstep to remind people of the laws of Moses that forbade the outcast and unclean from entering the main temple areas (Leviticus 21:16-23). It would also have been a reminder of how far that same society had fallen; from the days of Ruth and Naomi where everyone was given the chance to survive, even if it meant from the scraps and castoffs of harvest (Ruth 2). The same law that denied him access to the temple should have insulated him from his poverty, but something had gone wrong.
So, the beggar was an offence; a stark reminder of the glories of the past compared to the inward-looking present. Of course, the populace could excuse themselves; living under Roman rule wasn’t easy and times were hard for the most hard-working, let alone for those who had no other income other than the few coins that dropped into their begging bowl each day. At least they ought to do it in less obvious, less public places.
“Got any change, mate?” A question that still haunts us as we go around towns and cities. We may well have our own excuses at the ready; places to go, people to see, don’t want to see it wasted on drink or drugs. Or we just don’t hear, we don’t see. Fortunately for the man in our story, John and Peter heard and they saw. And they responded.
Peter’s first response, that the man looks at them, is crucial. As the man looks at Peter and John, the dynamic in the exchange changes. Peter and John have seen the man, they want him to see them. In doing so, the man is forced to see that Peter is more than a walking wallet. For so long, he will have been charmed by the occasional clink of coins falling into his bowl, without the need to talk to, let alone acknowledge, the person who has dropped them. It was probably easier that way anyway. Far better to avoid the awkwardness of embarrassment, even resentment.
There is a degree of equality established by this action, a mutual recognition of a basic common humanity in them both. Of course, there is inequality in so much else; their dress, the very fact that Peter and John are heading into territory that the man dare not tread. The fact that the man assumes that Peter has more money than him; this is itself an inequality, though an assumed and, as it transpires, false one. There may be more in common than he realises. But there still lies at the heart of this exchange an inequality: Peter and John may not be rich, but they are free. The man is shackled by the culture’s attitude to his disability, chained to his begging bowl as a sole means of support. But not for long.
Peter then delivers the bad news, or at least that’s what the man must have thought. He and John have come out without any spare change. Of course, there no guarantee that this is true; like most of us, they might have a few coins in a bag but that’s hardly germane to the situation. A few coins would perpetuate the man’s situation, assuage a bit of guilt and life would continue as before. It would solve nothing beyond the immediate future; the man might be able to eat an extra meal, but he still would have to prevail upon his friends on the following day to deliver him to his spot in the shadow of the Gate.
The next statement transforms the man’s entire world. “In Jesus’ name, get up and walk.” Invoking the name of the one who Peter had seen raise the dead, the man is encouraged to raise himself to a new life. With a hand to help him to his feet, the muscles and tendons are suddenly called into first time use, bones burdened by a weight they never expected to bear.
The miracle doesn’t stop there. We read that the man, in defiance of all that physiotherapists would advise, bounces around like a child on a space hopper. Not only do his legs support him, he knows how to walk, to leap and to dance. And he carries on walking, leaping and dancing while his rescuers go on to tell the amazed crowds of Jesus, the one whose very name can transform lives…
But what about us today? How does this story relate and resonate in today’s world, with a pandemic still lingering while people are trying to resurrect businesses, lives and homes? How do we segue from the childish delights of Sunday School to our own, oftentimes grim, reality?
It would be lovely to say that God answered every prayer for healing with a similar miracle, that by calling on the name of Jesus and reaching out a helping hand, all ills could be healed. The reality is that God heals, but not everyone and not every time. We are challenged to take it on trust that he knows best. There is great comfort derived by the faith of the person who can say “The prayer that God doesn’t answer brings us one prayer closer to the one that he will.” The same person who said that also said, “If God doesn’t answer the prayer before death, I still believe that when I meet him in heaven and ask, ‘why didn’t you answer my prayers?’ his answer will be just right.” Now that’s faith.
I will not make empty promises or bring false hope; God won’t always heal, but he will always hear.
But what about us? What do we take away from the story to apply in our own lives?
The answer is, yet again, Jesus. Peter and John were obeying Jesus’ instructions: in responding to the love that Jesus showed them, they acted out their love for their neighbour. They were able to see how the Holy Spirit physically changed one man’s life. By speaking of Jesus, the incarnation of the God they loved with all their mind, body and strength, the offer of salvation was made to all who were prepared to listen.
How many of us are like the crowd? The crowd who for so long had been aware of the man’s presence among them but had done little to solve his problems beyond perpetuate his poverty with occasional handouts. The crowd who, we are told, knew exactly who the man was, but hadn’t been compassionate enough to step in. I know that I can be found in that crowd, to my shame.
How we act out our love for our neighbours will be down to us, but I suggest that we at least do as much as Peter did before he commanded the man to get to his feet. Whether we are brave enough to get our hands dirty in Jesus’ name and potentially see the truly miraculous is our choice. The least that we can do though is recognise those around us who are asking for our help. Rather than ignore, we can look; see and be seen.
The words of Peter “look at us” is a command that speaks volumes; see who I am as I seek to see who you are. Though we are different, and those differences cannot always be easily fixed, I want to see you. And I want to be seen. It is the gift of God that created us all, unequal yet equal. That may be all the miracle that person needs. Certainly, it’s a miracle that we need.