Sermon ~ Sunday, April 22, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
The Incident at the Beautiful Gate
It was in October of 1958, some segregationists slipped into the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in Atlanta, Georgia carrying with them a considerable amount of dynamite. Shortly after 3:30 in the morning an explosion ripped through the oldest Jewish synagogue in the city doing extensive damage. In her book The Temple Bombing, Melissa Fay Greene describes the events surrounding this hate-crime. It was on the next Friday evening, at the first Sabbath service after the bombing, the congregation gathered in their temple, its windows shattered and boarded up, doors hanging off their hinges. The temple that evening was packed almost as if it were the high holy days. The rabbi, a powerful preacher and civic leader, Jacob Rothschild, stood up to speak. He looked out over the overflowing congregation, and after standing silently for a moment surveying the crowd with a penetrating gaze, he quipped, “So this is what it takes to get you to temple.”
A somewhat similar scene is taking place in our reading from Acts. In this case, the “explosion,” the event that attracts the attention and draws the big crowd, is not a tragic hate-crime, but a piece of shocking news nonetheless: that crippled beggar, you the one, always hanging around over at the Beautiful Gate, well, word has it that he has been somehow unexpectedly healed, and in the name of this fellow, Jesus of Nazareth.
As one can imagine, an astonished and puzzled crowd gathers in the area of the temple known as Solomon’s Portico, and they are pressing around these two Galileans, Peter and John, who seem to be the source of the miracle.
It has been my experience and I think yours, that after momentous events, both good and tragic, people are drawn to sacred places and to people who seem to have a connection to divine power. At the end of World War II, when humans first walked on the moon, when the soaking rains fell after the drought of the 1930s, when President Kennedy was assassinated, when rumors spread that the Virgin Mary had appeared in a small southern town, and as I experienced personally, the full sanctuary for a week or two after the tragic events of 9/11/2001 – these and other events over the years have seen people flocking to places of worship out of fear and anxiety, as well as wonder, curiosity, and amazement.
Similarly, when the word got around about this beggar’s healing at the Beautiful Gate, a throng gathered around Peter and John.
What were they looking for? Healing for themselves? To be in the proximity of spiritual power?
More miracles? Perhaps an explanation of the one they had already seen or heard about?
Perhaps they did not even know themselves. All they knew was that something startling and unexpected disrupted their normalcy and so they gathered at this holy place.
“So this is what it takes to get you to temple!”
Whatever drew the crowd to Solomon’s Portico and Peter and John, the chances are good that what they received when they got there was not exactly what they expected. They came to the Solomon’s Portico wide-eyed and astonished, lured by the mystery of a healing, and what do they get in return? A sermon!!
They came like moths drawn to the flickering light of the miracle and what they got was the clear, steady, penetrating light of a homily. In fact, the way the author of Acts tells the story, the main event here is not the healing, but the preaching! (As pastors we love to hear this!)
Why is this? Amazing as it was, the healing by itself was mute, ambiguous, and ultimately misleading. It took the proclaimed word to tell the whole truth. The healing was powerful to be sure, but its true meaning was hidden or misinterpreted until the Peter’s message was added. Notice what went wrong in the people’s minds and hearts, before Peter’s message gave full meaning to the event.
First, they misunderstood the source of the healing and assumed that it came from Peter and John. We have this relentless human hunger to believe that there are people who have tapped into the healing powers of the universe and who can make these powers available for us, whether they are the faith healers of the backwoods revival tents or the slick self-help counselors on television talk shows. We want to believe that these people have the right touch, can say the right prayer formula, have the right technique, have discovered the right wisdom to bring wholeness to our lives. So we order their DVDs, go to their rallies and retreats, watch their programs, read their books, touch the hem of their garments, seeking for ourselves some of their power, knowledge, and success they purport to offer.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” Peter declares. “Do you really think that it was our power, our spirituality, our piety, our clever wisdom that healed this man? It is not about us. This is about God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the one true healer.”
Second, they misunderstood the nature of life with God, thinking that brokenness is the rule and healing and wholeness is the exception. Currently there seems to be a kind of functional atheism for many. Life is seen as barren of God, and if God ever should speak or act, it would be the incredible exception to the norm. Indeed the crowd in our reading ran to Peter and John because their ministry of healing seemed to be an amazing interruption to life as usual.
“Why do you wonder at his?” Peter asks them, and in his sermon he speaks of another world, an Easter world, where the healing and forgiving power of God is as pervasive and present as sunshine and rain. One of the things I appreciate about Celtic spirituality is that it begins with the belief in the goodness of God’s creation and that each person is made in the image of God and that in the beginning God breathed God’s spirit into life and so it is good. The bad, the evil, trials and trouble are the exceptions to God’s intent for creation. To be sure all this bad stuff can sometimes be so overwhelming as to seem to blot out the light of God within, but it can never completely extinguish it! We live in an Easter world!
Third, they thought that the healing called only for astonishment; but it calls for more, it calls for (interestingly enough) repentance. Whenever we see signs of God at work in our world – someone is healed of cancer, a broken relationship is restored, a hungry child is fed, communities come together and make real progress in race relations, nations put down their weapons and work toward peace, personal despair turns to hope, – as people of goodwill we are filled with wonder and joy.
But Peter’s sermon lets us know that such events also call for an ever-deeper response of self-reflection. God’s healing and restorative work discloses another world, another reality, another realm shimmering amidst the wreckage of a decaying culture. In the face of God’s deeds of mercy all around us, we are summoned not merely to say, “How wonderful, how amazing! Isn’t God good!” but to turn around, to repent, to change our citizenship, and become a faithful part of God’s work in the this world.
Healing should do more than touch the body, spirit, emotions of the one healed but should also cause those of us standing by to assess our relationship with the one true Source of the healing. Not that we may be selfishly looking for something for ourselves, healing, wholeness etc. but that we recognize that the Healer also seeks us to be healers in our families, our communities and in this Easter world we now all live in.
May it be so beginning with us, beginning today!
Enjoy the audio version of this Sermon by Pastor Neil by selecting “Download File” below!