Sunday, June 29, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Beautiful Gate"

Acts 3:1 to 10 

Peter and John were going up to the temple at three o’clock in the afternoon, the established prayer time. 2 Meanwhile, a man crippled since birth was being carried in. Every day, people would place him at the temple gate known as the Beautiful Gate so he could ask for money from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he began to ask them for a gift. 4 Peter and John stared at him. Peter said, “Look at us!” 5 So the man gazed at them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 Peter said, “I don’t have any money, but I will give you what I do have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, rise up and walk!” 7 Then he grasped the man’s right hand and raised him up. At once his feet and ankles became strong. 8 Jumping up, he began to walk around. He entered the temple with them, walking, leaping, and praising God. 9 All the people saw him walking and praising God. 10 They recognized him as the same one who used to sit at the temple’s Beautiful Gate asking for money. They were filled with amazement and surprise at what had happened to him. (Common English Bible)

“The Beautiful Gate,” Acts 3:1 to 10

“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week Two

Across the University of California at Berkeley campus, on the opposite end from my little seminary in the Graduate Theological Union, stands one of Berkeley’s most well known landmarks in a town full of such quirky little things (like a tree that wasn’t taken down for a particular street to be laid, so the street splits in two around the tree.  Only in the Peoples’ Republic, y’all).  The Sather Gate originally was meant to demarcate the edge of the Cal Berkeley campus with the start of Telegraph Avenue, but by this point, the campus spills over past the gate into Sproul Plaza, and as a partial consequence, you can see just about anything and everything happening in the area around this gate where the university meets the city: meetings, prayer groups, drum circles, protests, you name it.

And one of the regular sights beneath the Sather Gate, at least during my three years in Berkeley, was an older man with an unkempt white beard and a little prop up chalkboard easel declaring his countdown for when the world was going to end.  He would hand out (presumably homemade) pamphlets to anyone who would take them, and he always (and I do mean always) wore a navy t shirt with the name “Yeshua” printed across it in white block letters.  Yeshua, of course, is the original Hebrew version (albeit in Roman letters) of the English name Joshua, but it is also the Hebrew version of the Greek name Jesus.  Because the entire New Testament, including all four of the Gospels, was written in Greek, Jesus is known to us by His Greek name rather than by “Yeshua.”  As an aside, that means that if you know anyone named Josh or Joshua…well, they’re named after Jesus.

But I digress.  This little, elderly man at the Sather Gate was someone who, considering the urban environs of Berkeley, you could get very used to having in the background of your day to day movements and dismiss entirely because you have become acclimatized to his presence.  Such is the case for many people, including, I would imagine, the beggar who has set up shop at the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem as Peter comes calling in this passage.

This is a new sermon series for us, and it is a sermon series that we begin today for two reasons.  One is that the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles) fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s now officially summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off, and we began last week with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people.  Today, we get another first: Peter’s first healing in the post Jesus world, done at the Beautiful Gate.

The Beautiful Gate still stands today in old Jerusalem.  Of Jerusalem’s eight gates, it is the only one that is closed: in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman sultan Suleiman ordered the gate sealed off, and nobody has crossed its doors since.  But it is the site of great things in our faith.  Tradition says that it was the gate that Jesus entered Jerusalem through on Palm Sunday, and it is, Luke says, where Peter performed his first healing miracle.  And so even though the Beautiful Gate has not seen travelers pass through it for nearly five centuries, imagine it as a bustling, busy public place.  This is not, then, say, the private home in which Jesus heals Jairus’s daughter, whose story I preached through earlier this year, or Elijah resuscitating the widow’s son in the privacy of their own home.  This is a very public place, and while Jesus had no qualms whatsoever performing miracles in public, you might imagine a mere man like Peter potentially could.  This is an immensely courageous gesture, then, on Peter’s part.

It’s also, though, potentially a gesture that passersby could miss out on in real time if they aren’t paying attention.  Imagine how congested a busy walkway is in a metropolitan area: people rushing to and fro en masse, the sounds of the city drowning out any ability you might have had to hear this Galilean fisherman say to the crippled beggar, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk!”  You could be too immersed in your newspaper or your iPhone (or whatever the first century Israelite equivalents were for those…the iChisel?) to even notice that God’s work is being done in your very midst.

Luke is quick to reassure us that this isn’t entirely the case: as he puts it, “all the people” then see this formerly crippled beggar walking and running and praising God.  And I do not mean to diminish that: seeing it would be a miracle in itself, but Luke curiously does not say that all the people saw the actual healing.  And perhaps that is unnecessary for the purposes of forming their faith in Jesus, but still, what a sight that would have been, to actually see, in real time, in the moment, a person’s life being tangibly and forever changed simply out of faith in Jesus.  It gives a whole new meaning to the name of the gate: not only is the gate itself called beautiful, but so too are the deeds done before it.

But if we are as blinded and deafened to the happenings around us, we miss out on what makes the gate…and, really, what makes the world, beautiful.  We miss out on bearing witness to miracles that can and do happen…everyday miracles and extraordinary miracles alike.  It isn’t just that the visual of the crowds of people might have blocked you off from directly witnessing Peter’s healing of this anonymous man, it’s that the sounds that so many people make probably would have also prevented you from actually hearing what Peter was saying: the source of the miracle, the most important part.

The name of Jesus of Nazareth.  Or Yeshua of Nazareth, if you’re that odd fellow at the Sather Gate in Berkeley.

And that’s why I said both blinded and deafened just now: we talk…and I know that I talk…about being able to see God in our lives, but that’s an incomplete objective.  Jesus Himself says, “Let those with ears hear,” but if we are too subsumed in our own lives, how on earth are we going to hear the name of Jesus invoked when a true miracle occurs?  How can we possibly appreciate its import?

Bible professor Paul Walaskay puts it well, writing: “To know the divine name is to be entrusted with the power of that name.  Only after Moses learned the name of God, “Yahweh,” was he able to use the awesome power of that name to perform mighty “signs and wonders.”  Power did not reside in the name itself.  Rather, the name represented the power behind it…On a more mundane level, the passage reminds the reader that words do have power.  A word uttered cannot be retrieved.”

Which also means that the name of Jesus, once uttered, cannot be rescinded.  It cannot be taken back.  Like the Christ Himself, His name is eternal once invoked.

And as Peter demonstrates (and as Luke is keen to emphasize to us), that eternal name has real power.  Maybe I cannot use it to cure your maladies as Peter did, but I…or any one of us…can use it to provide real psychological power to someone.  Christ’s name remains very much a source of strength for literally millions of people, and that strength is not entirely unlike the strength imparted upon a crippled man to cause Him to not merely walk, but to LEAP.  God can offer the strength for you to leap when you think that walking might do, or even when you cannot summon the strength even to walk.

Which in turn, of course, is why this now mobile man praises God, and because he is such a regular at the Beautiful Gate, it dawns on everybody else that something truly amazing has happened, and they were “filled with amazement and surprise,” Luke tells us.  Not necessarily faith…that will come later, after Peter’s second sermon (stay tuned for that next week!), but at least the proverbial ground has been softened.  They’re ready to hear what the Galilean fisherman has to say.

In other words, they are no longer deafened by the mundane in their own lives.  They are ready to listen.  They are ready to hear.  Peter has their attention.

And sometimes, that is all you can ask of a mere miracle, that it gets somebody’s attention.

The trick, then, is what to do with that newfound (and evermore fleeting) attention.  As we will see next week, Peter is masterful in connecting with his newfound audience.  But for now, we can simply end today with the leaping, praising, once lame beggar.

Because, in the end, he is us.  Life cripples us, each in our own way, until a voice on God’s own behalf gives us the strength to walk again.

And wherever, however, and whenever that voice whispers or shouts or rings out in your ears, you would be well within your rights to praise God and call it a miracle.  For you would not be wrong in doing so.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 29, 2014

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