Looking Intently

Ever noticed how some people you talk to look at you very intently when you talk? You can tell that they are totally attending to you. They see you, which means you matter.

And have you ever noticed how perceptive your spouse or significant other is when you’re not fully present? I think guys get busted on this one a little bit more. For instance, it’s amazing how quickly Heidi can tell I’m not fully present for her when we’re having dinner in a restaurant where they have basketball games on the screens. Go figure, she can deduce I’m not listening simply because I’m not looking at her.

Today is about a love that intently sees a beggar who has been lame from birth because that beggar matters. Then resurrects his life.

Let’s set the stage: the temple at Jerusalem took 300 years to build, so it was a special place. It was thought by Jews to be the dwelling place of God, the point of contact between heaven and earth, a thin space between God and man. But only the worthy were allowed to enter – in this world, religious leaders and Jewish men in good standing. Although Peter and John were allowed in the temple, their presence was tenuous, for soon they would be scorned by the religious leaders, much the same way Jesus was. At this point, the early Christians considered themselves faithful Jews, not practicing a separate religion.

Now, the beggar, though he was probably Jewish, was not welcome inside the temple and into the presence of God. Why? Because he was crippled – a sure sign to the people of that day that the man was a sinner, or at least one of those unclean “losers.” So that is why he waited at the temple gate to beg for alms – he was forbidden entry into the temple. Perhaps he wondered from time to time, “Is the God of our ancestors there for me, too? Probably not. He’s in the temple, he doesn’t even see me.”

Those who went in to pray in the afternoon were usually devout men of faith and conscience, so they were often generous to those who were destitute. This beggar had a daily ritual whereby others would bring him to the Beautiful Gate of the Temple to beg.

Every Wednesday night, Mt Carmel members who join me for Virtual Fellowship Hour spend part of that time dwelling in the text for the upcoming Sunday with me. They have questions and observations, some of which I will share with you along the way. One member of our group wanted to know more about the “Beautiful Gate” where the man was begging. What is that? Not much is known, frankly, about that gate in particular, but one respected biblical scholar believes that it may have been a gate for VIPs – probably people with money. Money is clearly something Peter and John did not have, though, as the early Christians held everything in common. No private ownership. Think about that one for a minute, given the current American views of collectivism.

So, this lame man asked Peter and John for money, and it says that Peter and John looked intently at the lame man. Then they said to him, “look at us.”

Members of our Wednesday group were fascinated by this detail. What does it mean that Peter and John looked at him intently and invited him to look at them?

I would imagine normally folks who gave alms would hardly stop to look at these beggars, but just quickly pitch the money to them and move on.

In response, the beggar fixed his attention on the two apostles, no doubt expecting them to give him alms. Maybe he also wondered about why he was not being seen. Then 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.” 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.

This time, the man born lame did not get what he expected, but he did get what he hungered for. No, not silver or gold, but the very reason he had to beg for money had now been removed.

And suddenly this man’s legs could support his weight, and then some. So, he begins walking for the first time. And where does he walk to first? Into the temple with Peter and James, into full participation with a worshipping community of believers, into the presence of God. And yes, it says he was leaping as he praised God! No wonder the people observing this were gobsmacked with amazement. The same guy who’s a daily fixture outside of the gate is now inside the gate, leaping for joy. Those boundaries just weren’t crossed. Ever.

Think of it from the beggar’s perspective: he lived in a world where there are insiders and outsiders; the outsiders couldn’t participate in their local church or find an audience with God. Or so they believed. And there’s nothing any of them could do about it. Couldn’t change their ethnic origins, heal themselves, or rewrite their own history. And so, the poor, the stigmatized, the afflicted and the immigrants were – and often, sadly, still are – on the outside looking in, the scum of the world.

What we see in this miracle story is the dawning of a new era when the conditions of “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” are reversed so that they too can participate in the blessings of the kingdom of God. This is what a restored Israel looks like: not a power surge for the nation/state of Israel; but boundaries being redrawn between insiders and outsiders. Inclusion and life extended to the least of these. This is what God’s power seeks and does. But it works through willing agents, like Peter, you and me.

Do you see why this healing is a lot more than the healing of a body – it’s the healing of a spirit and a soul.

So, God looks differently upon broken people than what people thought. He sees them. He looks intently, directly into the eyes of a lost soul, and he invites them to look at him, to trust him. Now, one can say but it wasn’t God who looked intently at the lame man; it was Peter. But it wasn’t just Peter, of course. It was God looking at the man through Peter. This story takes place after the day of Pentecost, which means God’s Holy Spirit has already been given. God’s power was loose in the world, God’s attentive presence with even the least of these, in and through his believers.

Janell, in our group on Wednesday, pointed out what a turnaround this was for Peter, he who denied Jesus three times during Jesus’ passion. Indeed, it was a turnaround for Peter, but you see, Peter knew that same attentive gaze quite well. Just days earlier, Jesus had pulled Peter aside and asked him three times in a row if he loved Jesus, and Peter was thrown off by the intensity and persistence of Jesus. But Jesus attentiveness to him was not to badger him; it was an act of mercy. Jesus was forgiving Peter and reinstating him to the cause.

Peter should have found himself on the outside looking in, but in Christ there is forgiveness and love, a new beginning for everyone.

Do you know that Christ sees you, too; your true self made in the image of God. And your true self, broken and twisted by life. Both of these. And God surrounds you in grace and picks you up.

Peter was not only forgiven, he was given a new mission, and suddenly that new mission was lying before him on a mat by the Beautiful Gate. And so, God – and Peter – looked intently upon the man. They saw him. Grace and mercy were passed on, and with it, the invitation to participate in the life of God.

The healing and restoration of this man is another Easter story, the resurrection of a spirit left for dead by his world. Through Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit, we see a tangible enactment of God’s character and will that life gets the final word.

One of our Wednesday participants asked this: are we really supposed to take all the stories in the Bible literally about miraculous healings? I’m not sure you have to. The main point of this text is that God saw the man intently, had mercy on him, and welcomed him into the company of believers, into the company of God. This was the biggest healing of all. What was the exact nature of his physical healing? We don’t know, but it seems clear that healing, in some way, in some fashion, is a major part of what we’re about as Christians. Just look at the work of Jesus in the gospels. We also understand that healing involves the whole person – body, mind, spirit and emotions. And that healing is most profoundly about restoring broken relationships.

We also know, as we’ve had some discussions in our congregation recently about prayer, that we live in the “now/and not yet.” Christ has claimed us for wholeness and healing, and while some of this healing is now, some of it is not yet, as we wait, sometimes painfully, for Christ to return.

In the meantime, could it be that this story in Acts is a call for a church like ours to be attentive to the needs of the sick, and also a call to see all people as fellow beloved children of God’s kingdom? Remember that you are the church, each of you individually. When you are attentive and see someone around you, God’s Holy Spirit is at work, too. You, too, can be an agent of healing, an agent of life. If Peter can, you can.

We live now in a time where we have united all over the world to do battle with sickness and death. This is God’s work, my friends. God is already at work, working for life through doctors, nurses, caregivers. Through those who donate. Through those who provide food and protection.

And most certainly, God is at work in those who follow and worship Jesus of Nazareth. In us, like Peter, God is at work seeing, healing, restoring and extending the boundaries. Amen.

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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