Did you ever feel as though you came in halfway through the story? I mean, that’s not always a bad thing: in film school, they teach this technique called in media res for opening sequences, meaning start in the middle of the action; grab the audience’s attention, let them become curious about how we got here, what’s this guy’s deal?*
That’s kind of what happens in this morning’s reading from Acts, which opens with Peter telling the temple crowd, “What’s so surprising about what I just did?” without actually explaining what Peter, in fact, just did. So let’s back up a little bit and fill in the prequel.
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. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But 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. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished. When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, ‘You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?
Which is where we came in: “Why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”
Then we flashback to that moment in the gospel where the disciples are in their joy still disbelieving and wondering, and Jesus has to choke down some broiled fish to convince them that he is not a ghost.
The disciples are in the same state, when Jesus comes to them after Easter, as these temple-goers are today, as Peter addresses their astonishment and wonder at the raising up of the man unable to stand up for himself. They know the power of God – each of them knows the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob and all of their ancestors. They know the stories of God’s power, but they are astonished and wonder if they are imagining things when they see it manifested before them.
But that is exactly what happened in the person of Jesus, Peter tells them. God’s glory was made manifest in him, in his life, his death, his resurrection; and yes, he might add, we were just as surprised as you are, and just as doubtful and disbelieving, even as we rejoiced. But he was, he is, the real deal. He proved it to us, as he is proving it now to you.
Because, Peter goes on to say, it is not by our own power or piety that we lifted this man up, who was previously unable to stand up for himself, but by the power in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.
Peter knows that left to his own devices, despite his best intentions, he was overwhelmed by fear, circumstance, and status into denying Jesus when he was at death’s door. He knows that had Jesus not returned to him, speaking words of peace, and reassurance, that he would have remained hidden behind locked doors for as long as it took for time to run out on him, for life to run out.
Peter knows that it is only by the power of the new life that Jesus brought along with his resurrected body – the breath of the Holy Spirit, the renewal of the power of prophesy and the knowledge of the love of God – only by this power, and not by his own piety, does Peter have the wherewithal to lift up the man unable to stand by himself.
And he offers his fellow Israelites, the chosen people of God, the same power; even those who out of jealousy, shame, and sin went even further than he did in denying the life of God in Jesus, when Jesus was at death’s door. Peter, who has heard the word of peace offered by the risen Christ, known his forgiveness and healing reconciliation, offers the same to the rest of the people of God, inviting them to join in the deeds of power made possible by the Holy Spirit.
Likewise we are not to be restricted by our own sense of shame, inadequacy, failure or betrayal, even when we doubt the difference we can make; because it is not by our own power and piety that we are invited to reach out our right hands to lift up those hindered from standing up for themselves, but by the power of the anointing of the Holy Spirit, given to us at baptism; by the power of the resurrection, lifting up life over death; by the power of God, whose glory has been revealed to us in the Risen Christ, and once seen, can never be forgotten; is seen even in the scriptures that preceded him; which has been known to us since the beginning of time, if only we had eyes to see and ears to hear.
Peter does three things, when he meets this man at the Beautiful Gate. He looks him in the eye, intently, seeing in him the divine image, the spark of the Holy Spirit deep within his body and soul. He takes him by the right hand, holding him like a brother. He offers him the name in which our healing is given: healing from sin, from sorrow, from shame and exile.
Do not be astonished at what can be accomplished by the Spirit of God, working in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, through the everyday encounters of those we meet along the way. Only wonder when that power will manifest itself in one whose eyes you meet, and greet the divine image in another; one whose hand you reach for, to lift up those hindered from standing up for themselves; and when you see it, give thanks to the living God, leaping and praising God for all to see and wonder.
In the name of Jesus, the Risen Christ. Amen.
* I’ve never been to film school, but someone told me this was true.