As the story goes, Peter and John, being good Jews, went up to the temple one day for afternoon prayers (you must remember that, at this point, Christianity did not exist, so the Jesus followers still considered themselves observant Jews). Along the way they encountered a lame beggar who was himself being carried into the temple grounds in order that he could beg some alms from the temple faithful. The author of the story makes sure to note that this man had been lame from birth, an editorial comment meant to emphasis the legitimacy of the impending miracle.
For anyone who is even remotely familiar with the stories surrounding Jesus and his disciples, the entrance of one who is lame also signals that a miracle is fast approaching. And sure enough, the three men meet under the gate called Beautiful, pondered by Josephus and current scholarship as the gate that separates the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of the Women, known for its brass hangings. The beggar, clearly not recognizing Peter and John and who they are associated with, asks for some money as they prepare to pass by him. John, pausing in his passing, sees the man for what he is, and stops. After commanding the attention of the beggar, Peter tells him that they do not have any money to give him, but instead they have the gift of healing. And commanding the beggar in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth to stand up, a miracle is performed on a seemingly ordinary day in the outer courts of the temple. For the beggar believes, so Peter claims in his lengthy explanation speech, in the name of Jesus and it is because of this fact that his health is perfectly restored.
There are many things that stand out to me in this story as curiosities worth pondering, two of which I want to reflect on today. The first is that Peter and John, both faithful disciples of Jesus, founding members of the Jesus movement soon to be known as Christianity, Saints of God, knowingly gifted with the power of miraculous healing, seem to walk right past a fellow human with an obvious physical disability. At the very least the editor’s phrasing seems to suggest that the three men really did not see each other at all. Peter and John are either talking or absorbed in their own thoughts or preparing themselves to enter the temple grounds. And the beggar asks them for money, but in a very generic, he-asks-everyone sort of way. It is not, however, until Peter is asked for money that Peter, “looked straight at [the beggar].” These men of healing almost walked right passed someone desperately in need of healing! Peter’s response to the man’s begging is, “Look at us!” as if the beggar himself had already moved on to the next person, looking at the crowds without seeing the people.
It is a split-second interaction, but it restores the humanity of all three persons. Until that exchange, the beggar was just a beggar, laying on the ground, an obstacle to be avoided on the way to religious piety. And Peter and John were just faceless men on the way to prayers, as ordinary as anyone in a rolling crowd. But suddenly Peter is pulled from wherever his mind had been and sees the beggar as a person, a man, and suddenly sees the disability. And Peter, having been pulled into the present, pulls the beggar into the present as well, demanding that their eyes meet and that they see each other for the first time. But I wonder, what shroud had fallen over Peter and John’s eyes so that they did not see the opportunity for healing laying, literally, in front of them? Having healed before and knowing the power existed, how were they able to just walk past it without further thought?
The first time I began pondering this I was appalled at the callousness of these holy men. It would seem that in their passing they were not very good representations of the Kingdom of God, withholding the very gifts and proclamations of the kingdom from the least of these. And all this within the temple itself, a noted holy space! This seemed unreasonable to me, and I passed judgment.
And then, later that day as I was driving out of Mathare on my way home, I had the realization of where I was and what was going on around me. It happens from time to time, a hazard of working in a massive slum I suppose. It was one of those moments when the scales fall off the eyes and I see Mathare anew, in much the same way I glimpsed it for the first time. I was weaving my car over potholes and around trash, trying not to crush the legs of boys passed out along the narrow alley from sniffing glue, all the while children in dirty and ragged clothes running perilously close to the car shouting at me and laughing. It was a moment of remembering where I was and why I was here. It was also a moment where I realized that I had somehow forgot some of these things. In the rush and work of everyday life I had forgotten to see people and circumstances while looking over the balcony or driving my car.
And so, with the story of the lame beggar rolling around in my mind, and the fresh realization of where I am and the work being done, I began to understand and sympathize with Peter and John. Perhaps it was not that they were withholding their power and gifts. Perhaps they were just caught up in life, in events and circumstances, and their eyes slid out of focus. Perhaps they were doing really good, holy work and in the zeal of piety they forgot to look down, at the least of these, and almost missed the beggar. Don’t we all do this sometimes? Don’t we all forget to look at the desperate people around us in light of our schedules? As we sit at traffic lights and pretend to ignore the people begging for money, or perhaps more honestly, we walk over and past those people cast out by society, whether in the name of religious piety or simply because we are overworked and preoccupied, I wonder how many people we dehumanize. How many times do our eyes slid past a person in distress or in disgrace, and everyone involved loses their humanity?
Peter realized this. He realized that he was not seeing the man with a disability, but had only seen a lame beggar. Not a person, but an obstacle, a label, something to be stepped around. And he quickly readjusted his stance. He stopped to see the label and instead saw a man. And the man pulled Peter into a holy space. Because when Peter saw the man, Peter remembered the kingdom. Something within him bubbled up, and kingdom work began acting on the situation. And when kingdom work begins acting, lives are changed and seemingly innocuous places are transformed into holy spaces. Through the connected eyes of Peter, John, and the lame beggar, the power of the kingdom of God and all its promises touched earth, and everything changed.
The second point that is worth pondering, is the healing act itself. This, I think, touches on a very sticky subject for us sometimes. There is a very clever trap laid by that ancient serpent, specifically for Christians. The meat of the argument is that, when we see an issue, a problem, an injustice, when we see one of the least of these that Jesus so famously dwelled upon, our only job is to pray for the person or need, as well as to pray for the swiftly approaching Kingdom of God, where all these issues will be sorted out, over there, by someone else, namely, the God and Father of us all.
When we see the helpless, the poor, the down-and-out, we send a quick prayer out, avert our eyes, and shuffle along, into the temple, to give our praise to the God who made his dwelling among the needy. If we are not careful, we can give all our talents, resources, and prayers to the inside of the temple, where everything is beautiful and serene and very Jesus-y, all the while forgetting that we stepped over Jesus on our way in the doors. Jesus says as much in Matthew 25, where he claimed to be fully present in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned, and fully realized in the helping of these.
Sometimes, I’m afraid, I can step over these helpless ones, or sidestep a need in the body of Christ, on my way to prayers, where I offer up pleas for God to make right this weary world, all the while pompously unaware that I may, in fact, be the answer to some of those prayers. How would the story of the nameless beggar have looked, if Peter and John, upon seeing him, offered him their most sincere prayer, and reassured him that when they went inside the temple, they would continue to offer up prayers of healing for the man, leaving him beside the Gate Beautiful?
And immediately the response is, “well surely you can’t expect me to just go around healing everyone like Peter and John! What kind of theology is that?” I would like to sidestep that theology for now, as well as the very difficult Kenyan answer to that question, which is, “yeah, why not?” by stating that we all have gifts, we all have talents, and we all have resources at our disposal. If we are Christians who take seriously the call of Jesus, and contemplate with sobriety the claim by Paul that spiritual gifts exist in abundance from our Father who loves to lavish good things upon us, and we feel with conviction that we are truly to be the hands and feet of Jesus in Kingdom building, we cannot simply pass by the problems and troubles of our community, both local and global. We cannot sit idly by in our places of worship, praying prayers and hoping God provides answers out of thin air when in fact he may have already answered those prayers through our combined gifts. We may be the answers to the prayers around us, we may hold the key to Kingdom work within us, and yet if we only use those talents to build up the temple, if we are only inwardly focused, we will step over the lame beggars at our gates.
And I firmly believe that, while everyone may not be blessed with the miraculous gift of healing, and while everyone may not be able to call the dead from their dark sleep, we all have talents and gifts, no less miraculous. It is a miracle to comfort the sick, to provide aid to the distraught, and to see to the needs of the overly-burdened. It is no less than the work of God Almighty to demand justice and to seek out mercy in our communities. If you have any doubts about this, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the prophets of the Old Testament, who speak contemptuously to a people too concerned with their own piety to be bothered with their fellow humans. The church is not a country club for beautiful people, but a hospital for brokenness assisted by brokenness. Jesus claims this when he says he came for the sick.
The Kingdom work of Jesus did not end with his ascension, but was gifted to us, in its entirety. This is what we claim when we accept the term “Christian” over our lives. We claim to be a little Christ. We claim to exhibit, and to exude the qualities and quirks of our Lord and Savior, who was not content to let his communities wallow in need and vice and disarray. What Peter and John did was, on the one hand miraculous, but on the other hand not. They were simply realizing their potential, their ability to be Christ, even to the least of these. Are we doing the same thing? Are we answering the prayers of our community with the gifts we are given, or are we stepping over the lame, nameless beggar in the street on the way to worship?
Once an old monk from a country monastery, shuffled into the nearby city to buy needed goods for his brothers. Seizing the opportunity afforded him, he stepped into the city’s large cathedral for some prayers. He found himself amazed at the size and beauty of the space, the lavish alter and stained glass, the ornate gold frames around stoically serene saints, the overall opulence of the place overwhelming him with grandeur. The priest of that parish approached the monk quietly, and seeing the monk’s eyes fixed on the gold hangings, quietly whispered to the aging man, “I guess we can no longer say as Peter said, ‘Gold and silver I have not.’” The monk was silent for a moment and then replied, “And neither can we say any longer, ‘Stand, take up your mat, and walk.’”