Sam Kamaleson, a constant source of wisdom and encouragement at World Vision International during my years there, used to talk about the gift of Jesus’ story and our story becoming one story. That and Rowan Williams’ description of intercession as simply holding the subject of our intercession together with Jesus inspired a good bit of this sermon.
In today’s collect—the prayer that we use to collect, to center ourselves before the Scripture readings—we prayed “Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.” It turns out that that prayer captures something central to today’s readings.
In today’s Gospel Jesus lays out the disciples’ task. They are witnesses, and in God’s generosity that dovetails with the promised proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all nations.
That, so to speak, is the theory. Our reading from Acts gives us an example of the practice. The lectionary choses to begin the reading with Peter addressing the people, which is odd, because the people are only interested in listening to Peter because of what just happened: entering the temple, Peter had, in Jesus’ name, healed a beggar lame from birth, who is now “walking and leaping and praising God.” Had Peter not started speaking the crowd would have demanded that he give some explanation.
So what happened? Luke sets the scene: “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.”
Now, not only in 1st century Jerusalem, but in most times and places we expect to encounter numerous beggars at the entrances to holy places. The cathedrals of Bucharest, Manila, or Santo Domingo come to mind. The beggers easily become part of the landscape, and are typically not the object of the attendees’ attention. But, the text tells us, “Peter looked intently at him.”
We might wonder if something of Jesus had rubbed off on Peter. The Gospels tell a number of stories of the disciples screening folk who want Jesus’ attention. From earlier in Luke’s Gospel: “People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it.” Jesus will have none of it: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (18:15-16). “You are my witnesses” does not mean “You are my bouncers.” And if little children, then others at the bottom of the status pyramid, even this beggar lame from birth.
So “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.” This is Peter’s imagination at work. Despite the societal script in which beggars are simply part of the landscape, Peter’s imagination has put this beggar and Jesus into the same frame, and moments later the beggar is “walking and leaping and praising God.”
So, understandably, a crowd gathers, and that’s where our reading starts. But to start the reading there—with all due respect to the folk who put these reading schedules together—is to miss the point. The witness with which Jesus entrusts the disciples begins not with Peter addressing the crowd, but with Peter’s imagination, with Peter’s mental map. Two elements, Jesus and the beggar, which could easily have stayed far apart, come together, and something beautiful happens. “Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.”
When we think about witness or evangelism, we often think of words. And if the standard is the eloquence of Peter or Paul… Today’s reading gives us another approach. Most days we encounter some combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Where does our imagination place Jesus in these encounters? Truth be told, sometimes our imagination has no interest in placing Jesus anywhere near these encounters—so that’s where our work starts. “Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.”
There’s an interior dimension to the Acts story as well. That beggar lame from birth that so easily becomes simply part of the landscape: perhaps like parts of our lives, situations, relationships, wounds whose pain is simply part of the landscape. What happens if we put Jesus in the same frame? Unlike Peter, but like most Christians in most times and places, we may have no idea what Jesus might be able to do. But that’s where Paul gives us some encouragement. Halfway through his letter to the Ephesians: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine…” “Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.”