Sunday, April 18, 2021

At the Beautiful Gate

April 18, 2021
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Acts 3:1-19; Luke 24:36b-48[1]

Astonishing. Surprising. Certainly unexpected. The lame man who always lay begging at the Beautiful Gate has been healed. There he was walking and leaping and praising God. How has this happened? Who did this? “While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.”[2] These two?

As the word spread, they gathered around Peter and John. What were they looking for? An explanation of what had happened? A powerful being with healing power? Healing for themselves, perhaps? Maybe just to see what all the fuss was about. For whatever reason, they came, lured by the spectacle, the surprising healing, the happening. And what did they find? Peter, giving a sermon.

Yes, here is a miracle, Peter seems to say. The health of this man has been restored. But you seem to think that we are the ones who did this. “Why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”[3]

People are hungry for miracle-workers. We have a hunger for powerful people, those who seem to have tapped into the healing power of the universe, who might heal us, or give us power. We gather to see the faith healer in the revival tent or the miracle worker on TV who zaps the feeble woman with the power of JEE-ZUS and up she leaps. We flock to the self-help guru, the doctor with the miracle diet, the speaker who tells of the secret power of positive thinking. We believe that they have the answers, the magic touch, the wisdom or technique that will fix what is broken in our lives.

You’ve got it all wrong, declares Peter. It wasn’t John or me, it wasn’t our power or piety. The healing came from “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors [who] has glorified his servant Jesus.”[4] God is the healer. The name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the pathway. We are but faithful servants. We are no more powerful than any of you. “The faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.”

We know a bit more about Peter that his audience did that day in the portico. We know that this was one of the closest friends of Jesus, the rock on which the church would be built. We also know that Peter denied Jesus three times the night before the crucifixion. Peter knew all about rejection. Peter also knew the power of rulers to oppress, how the Romans handled threats to their power. Peter knew that the Empire of Rome allowed for no king but Caesar, and demanded worship of Caesar as divine.

As modern readers of this text, we could easily misunderstand the challenge that Peter offers to his fellow Jews. Christians through the centuries have forgotten that the Jesus movement was originally a Jewish movement, and have used these words by Peter, and other writings in the New Testament, as justification for the persecution and murder of Jews. Far too many have read the words “you handed over,” “you rejected,” “you killed,” as invectives justifying anti-Semitism. Far too many have forgotten that Peter and all the other disciples, and Jesus himself, were Jews. Far too few put themselves in the place of those who listened to Peter that day.

Peter was not preaching God’s vengeance, or a decree of God’s punishment. The people of Israel worshiped, and worship still, the same God worshiped by Christians. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of Jesus, Mary, and Peter. The God of life, the power of Creation, is the God that Jesus embodied, the incarnation of the God of life among us. For Peter, and for us, the message is forgiveness, healing, salvation from sin and new life. For us, we must remember that the God who loves us never stopped loving the Jewish people, and that we are called along our path as they are called along theirs.

When we return to the Beautiful Gate, what we find is one who has been healed. Rather than look for who to blame for this healing, or ask how this could be done, might we instead celebrate that salvation has come, life has been restored, and the God of life lives among us? What Peter begins to teach them is that ours is a resurrection God, the living God who brings life, healing, and salvation to an Easter world. In an Easter world, the healing, forgiving, and loving power of God is everywhere, as pervasive as sunshine and rain.

When we see signs of God’s work in the world, when health is restored, relationships mended, the hungry are fed, and the poor hear good news, we may be astonished. We should celebrate and be glad that the living God is among us, that the Author of Life continues to breathe life into the world.

We should also recognize that we are called to do more than celebrate. “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”[5] Peter’s sermon calls us to see not only the shiny world of happy people, but the reality of a world where healing, forgiveness, and love are sorely needed. Peter’s call to repentance is a call to recognize that there is still healing to be done, that our connection to God wears out and needs mending from time to time. Peter’s reminder that Christ was crucified is a challenge to not repeat the terrible past, but turn and return to God. Let us renew our faith in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, receive strength, healing, and forgiveness, and be witnesses to a beautiful God in a beautiful world.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Acts 3:11.

[3] Acts 3:12.

[4] Acts 3:13.

[5] Acts 3:19.