Scripture: Acts 3:1-10
Last week on Church on Fire:
As the disciples prayed and waited in the Upper Room, the day of Pentecost arrived. The Holy Spirit rushed in like a mighty wind and tongues of fire rested on each of them, and they preached in multiple languages they didn’t speak, much to the surprise of the wide-eyed onlookers below, about the day of the Lord.
This week, the mission begins.
But first things first. The new fire burning in the disciples’ bones doesn’t immediately drive them out as witnesses to the far corners of the earth. The first thing that fire does is bind them together with all the other new believers and make them the church. And so, Luke tells us in Acts 2, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”
It is a beautiful picture of church that has made people for centuries ask what happened.
Today, though, Peter and John are venturing outside this heavenly community, on their way to afternoon prayer at the Temple, when they encounter a crippled man outside the entrance called the Beautiful Gate. His friends had dropped him off there knowing it was a strategic panhandling location – after all, they can reasonably assume that the people going in and out of the Temple to pray might be, if not actively inspired to give, at least guilted into it. So as Peter and John are entering the Temple gate there is this man, hands outstretched, asking, “Can you spare any change today?”
And all of a sudden our reverie of this nice, idyllic, joyful church is shattered, and instead we have the church as it bumps up against the raw pain and brokenness of our world. Which is, of course, the point. So what now?
I imagine many of us might be able to imagine ourselves in the apostles’ place, here, though some of us might identify more readily with the crippled man, and perhaps some of us a little of both. I know I find myself in the place of Peter and John sometimes when I go to Safeway. Or when I walk along Lynn Street deciding what I’m going to have for lunch. Or when I get off the Metro in downtown DC. Or sometimes, when people come to my church office: we even have a fund set up for times like that. Sometimes I respond generously, though often less generously than I might; sometimes I don’t respond generously, and then feel guilty about it; sometimes I say no and the person is persistent enough that I pay them to leave me alone; sometimes I stand there awkwardly trying to decide whether I am being taken advantage of. I think of all the different opinions there are about how Christians should respond when people ask for money, and I am already interested in which one Peter and John will choose. Will they in fact give him what they have? Will they tell him they have already donated to the Jerusalem Foundation for the Disabled, and direct him there instead, thinking that that’s ultimately better stewardship of their funds? Might they not give him money directly, but instead offer to buy him dinner at a nearby falafel cart, knowing that that way, he won’t spend the money on booze? Will they give him an apologetic look and say they are sorry, they can’t help today, knowing they have to save their change for the Temple offering? Or, in a hurry not to be late for prayers, will they simply avert their gaze and keep on walking?
This isn’t just a question isn’t about giving money to panhandlers. What is the answer of the early church when it faces need and suffering out in the real world? I would like to know.
So, we read on. First Peter says to the man, “Look at me.” We have our first answer: he will not avert his gaze and keep walking and pretend that this man, this child of God, does not exist.
“We don’t have any silver or gold,” says Peter, and that rules out option #1, just hand over some cash. Remember, though, that the reason they don’t have any silver or gold is because no one in this early Acts church had any property of their own; it was all held in common. So I suppose one way to get out of giving at a time like this, if that is ever your goal, is to have already given everything away. OK, no money, they can keep walking.
But they don’t keep walking. “I don’t have any silver or gold,” Peter says, “but what I do have I give to you: in the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk.”
It wasn’t exactly what the man asked for, but he does: he gets up and walks. In fact, he doesn’t just walk, but leaps in the air and praises God.
So I admit that as I’m sitting here reading the story looking for the early church’s answer for how to respond to the world’s need, this presents a bit of a conundrum. Because mostly as I go about my life encountering the pain of the world around me, this is not really an option I consider.
“In the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk?” I wish I could do that.
I know that we here have different beliefs and experiences regarding whether this kind of healing miracle is still possible today, or whether it was ever even quite like the story tells it. I don’t presume to say what is possible for God, but I have personally never physically healed someone in the name of Jesus (or otherwise) and I am challenged by this text. I’m not sure if it is telling me that as someone with faith in Jesus I should, actually, be able to do such things; and I’m not sure where it leaves us as the church if we cannot. If we can’t respond as the apostles did, are we back, then, to deciding whether to share or withhold the spare change in our wallets?
Once I was on a trip with my college campus ministry and as our group walked along to wherever we were going, someone did stop us and ask us for money. We were actually in Jerusalem, or somewhere nearby in the Holy Land. I don’t remember whether anyone gave him some, but what I do remember is that two students got in a debate about whether you should give money to people directly like that or not, and the student who thought “not” said, “I believe we are called to care for that man in a radical way.”
It sounded like a really good answer, and from my place a few steps ahead of this conversation, I felt convicted in my own heart, only as we walked on a little farther, I thought, “How?”
We were on a 10-day trip. We were never going to see that man again. It was probably a couple of shekels or nothing.
But what if we could have given that man something more? What if we could have looked him in the eye and said, “No, I’m not going to give you money today, but in the name of Jesus Christ, you are made better. Whatever your real, underlying problem is; whatever your pain is, whether what you need is housing, or a job, or mental health, or a re-established connection with your family and community: whatever that real, deep need is, that is what I give you in the name of Jesus Christ.” And it would be so?
I wish I could do that.
Of course, Peter is careful to let everyone know that it isn’t him doing that at all. Later in Acts, a guy takes credit for some miraculous act that God does, and then he falls down dead and gets eaten by worms. So when Peter gets a chance to preach his second sermon, after the crowds have attracted the attention of the local officials and the apostles have been taken into custody, he makes sure to tell everyone that it is not by his own power but by the power of Jesus Christ that this man has been healed.
And even so I admit I wonder what I have to give.
This is, again, about more than just people begging. As the church, what do we have to give to the world around us? When war rages across the world from us, what do we have to give? When people the next county over are dying of their addiction to opioids, what do we have to give? When our neighbors are alone and hopeless, what do we have to give? How do we speak the name of Jesus Christ into these situations in a way that is neither dismisses nor tries to slap a Band-aid on the world’s problems, in a way that brings the Gospel to life for people where they are?
I don’t think the answer is always cut-and-dry, but here are a few things I think we can learn from Peter and John, miracles or not.
First of all, Peter and John don’t ignore this man, and they don’t ignore the real, immediate cause of his pain. They don’t say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, repent of your sins and receive Jesus into your heart and have eternal life.” Now, I’m certainly not trying to knock eternal life, and I think it’s clear that this man’s healing points him to something bigger– the story doesn’t just end with healing, but with him praising God and clinging to Peter and John, becoming part of their community. But this man’s first problem is that he is crippled, and that is the problem Peter and John address when they heal him. As Desmond Tutu once put it, “The good news to a hungry person is bread.”
And at the same time, they are clear that what they are doing is in the name and by the power of Jesus.
I have a friend from seminary who was talking about her church the other day, and all the good things they do: their food bank, their community garden, the shelter they help run, the apartment they are getting ready to house a family with no place to go. “Now,” she said, “they do have some serious work to do to be able to say ‘Jesus’ out loud without apologizing.” I am sure there are more than a few of us here who resemble that remark. How easy is it, sometimes, to separate the nice things we do – sandwich making, collecting supplies for health kits, even repairing houses in Appalachia – from our faith in Jesus completely (or if not completely, we’re at least really, really quiet about that side of things?) When we do these acts of service, do we allow them to point beyond us and our own general goodwill to the power and call of the one who sent us?
I do have to wonder – what if Peter and John had just had some money? Would this whole thing have gone down differently?
Of course, when we think we have something of our own to give, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for God to do even greater things through us. Maybe the point is, that when we are driven by the fire of the Holy Spirit, we have more to give than we might think.
In the Gospel of John (ch. 14), Jesus at one point tells his disciples that they will do even greater acts than he did. That’s an eyebrow-raising promise coming from a guy who not only healed people but also raised people from the dead. And that promise might give us one more reason to look around at this thing we call church and wonder if we’re doing it wrong.
But maybe our response doesn’t have to be overtly miraculous to be miraculous nonetheless. When as the church, as Christians encounter the pain of the world around us, what do we have to give, that’s beyond just some spare change? Is it relationship? Community? Ongoing commitment to a person or a cause? Is it prayer – not just an “I’ll pray for you” but fervent, consistent prayer that might bring about healing in ways we never would have guessed?
When we encounter the pain and suffering of this world, does our response say, “We are nice people” or “What I have, I give – and what I have, I have because God has given me?” Does our response say, “We want to do good things,” or “In the name of Jesus, we believe that God is at work here and God has more for you than whatever this is?”
The point, of course, is not to not be generous. It’s to be more than generous, to be ready to give even more than we ourselves have.
Now I’ll warn you that the disciples do end up in jail for the night, for the first but certainly not last time, which doesn’t tend to happen when you just give someone the dollar crumpled up in your pocket or hand them a granola bar. So it might be that we need to be ready for that, too.
But here’s the thing: Jesus might not be bodily, tangibly here anymore to do things like heal people and make them walk or to tell the demons that plague them to take a hike or to multiply loaves and fish until everyone eats and is full. That’s the whole point of the book of Acts: someone else has to do these things instead. This is our call as the church, the Body of Christ on earth, the hands and feet of Jesus, the heart of God. This is our job, now.
And so we gather, and we pray, and we sing hymns, and we break bread, and we share this portion of our lives together.
And then we march out those doors and into the pain and the brokenness of the world around us and we say, “We may not have a lot but what we have we give: in the name of Jesus Christ, world, be well.”
 Cf. Will Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, p. 43-44