WHAT HAPPENED AT THE BEAUTIFUL GATE?
Perhaps you heard about the passengers on the cruise ship the Star Princess who spotted a small fishing boat waving to their ship for help. The cruise passengers were using binoculars and spotted them and they did the right thing: they quickly reported their find to a crew member, expecting the ship to respond. But the ship sailed on out of sight of the boat. One of the woman who spotted the boat even sent an email to the Coast Guard, or at least she thought she did, but apparently they did not get contacted either. Later the three survivors in the small boat, trying to cling to life, became just two, and finally just one who was finally rescued by the Ecuadorian Navy two weeks later. Two people died because a chain of command or communications failed to get the news to either the captain or the officer of the watch. At sea for centuries, the law, written or unwritten, has always been to help others in distress. On land it can be a different story. Circumstances often dictate which actions are appropriate. For example: some people who are alone may stop to help an apparently wounded man and get carjacked or kidnapped. Some willing swimmer might try to help a drowning man or woman and find himself dragged under the water by the desperate swimmer. There are even neighborhoods in America when neighbors might even witness a shooting and not come forward for fear of being the next victim. In fact good counseling has taught me how to appropriately care, with something called “self-differentiation,” that is caring, but knowing how to care appropriately instead of exhaustively. Let me describe it: when my children were young and we lived in Arkansas, I was the President of our local Ministerial Association. In that capacity I met strangers at truck stops to give them aid, or drove them to get food, or had them in my office with a stream of sad stories. I was a new young pastor trying to do what I thought Jesus would do: help everybody. Well two things happened: first, Mary Ann put her foot down about me going and meeting strangers late at night saying she did not want to end up being a widow; and second, I learned that word gets around like a burning wildfire once you try to help everybody. Soon every person who feels needy shows up. Still the opposite of caring too much, that is, not helping at all, has made our society much colder. Some may chat on Facebook or on cellphones, but our car windows are often rolled up at stoplights so we can’t speak to others. On buses or on sidewalks, and in airports or on airplanes, people of all ages have earphones in so that communication is difficult. Many people just try to keep to themselves, sometimes out of fear. Today we are going to look at the customs and responses of two Christian followers in the first century to learn how they helped others.
First some background: in John chapter 5 there is a record of a man who wanted to get into the pool of Bethesda but couldn’t; he would have needed help to get into the naturally bubbling pool that was not unlike a spa. Going into such a pool might have aided the invalid’s pain or mobility. But no one lifted him into the pool. Some believed in that day that healing would only happen for the first person in the pool, so once the first man entered the pool, other crestfallen invalids just gave up. It would have created some tension, it seems to me, and some quarreling each day among those who lay beside the pool day and night. Who might be the first to go in? Was their maneuvering to be first or some fake false moves? Like a crowd of three hundred persons trying to get one of twenty specially priced High Definition TVs at Christmas, there is often pushing, attempts at line breaking, and shouting. In the first century by the pool, however, it is unlikely that anyone would have been afraid of being liable if they had dropped a man trying to lift him as people would fear today; it is more likely that they would have realized what an imposition as it might have brought on: People might have thought: “If I put the man in the pool, I’ll probably have to stay around to lift him out of the pool later in the day. I don’t have time for that.” So invalids lay near the pools. One wonders how they even got that close. Jesus tells the man to simply take up his mat and walk, and a healing takes place. But today we are looking more at the caring hospitality of these stories more than the miraculous healing. Let’s fast-forward to a time after Jesus’ resurrection, when we encountered Peter and John in Acts 3 today. Even in Acts both Peter and John were still Jews who also believed in Jesus as Lord. In Acts 3:1 they were entering the Temple to pray at the 9th hour. What hour is that? It is 3:00. Like with Muslims today, prayer was specified to happen at particular hours of the day. The Bible says that the man they encountered was “lame from birth.” It matters to know that. In that day it was believed that lame, blind, deaf, or diseased people were that way because of their own sins or the sins of their parents or grandparents. We are even aware of the disciples in John 9:2 asking Jesus about which of the blind man’s parents had sinned to cause him to be blind. Even in the first century the blame game was alive and well. “Whose fault is it?” they were asking! The religious men of the day were busy pointing fingers and assessing blame. Blaming, however, delays the start of fixing a problem, doesn’t it? Does it really matter how some became blind? In our day people would want to know that to know who to sue. It happens today in the insurance world as blame, or “cause” is assigned; and it happens in high profile murder cases when media grandstanders choose to assign blame for pain and suffering in front of cameras and mics. To their credit, medical doctors are almost never wrapped up in assigning blame, or making judgments against others, just in administering treatment. But in the first century their belief that the man’s own sins caused his blindness shades the reason why people did not help that man: in a matter of speaking they thought this: “he made his bed; now he’ll lie in it.” Or to put it another way, they’d think he caused his own problem and if he had put thing right with God and God had forgiven him, he would have been healed. Therefore, since God had not forgiven him, so they also had no need to help an unrepentant sinner. But fortunately Christians Peter and John were following the teachings of Jesus; they showed the man compassion and did not cast stones. There he was at the Beautiful Gate and they stopped to listen to and acknowledge him! That was the beginning of his healing. What was the other name of the Beautiful Gate; do you know? Why, it’s the Golden Gate, the one that faces the Mount of Olives, the one that opened almost into the Temple courtyard; and the one through which Jesus entered on a donkey surrounded by palms on that fateful Sunday. It was at the Beautiful Gate that Jesus once entered the city, and it was at the Beautiful Gate that the ministry of the risen Christ began to grow. Perfect! The man asked for alms, which were just monetary handouts as beggars often ask for even today. But Peter and John did not pass him by; they did not give him money, but they did stop and address him: Peter said clearly: “Look at u
s.” The lame man must have had his heart begin to sink as he heard the familiar words: “I don’t have any silver or gold.” But then the sentence continued and the man perhaps had his heart lifted up, and then his whole body! Peter said: “I give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Peter then took the man by his right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong!
The usual focus in this passage is that at the Beautiful Gate a healing took place. And then we either praise Jesus because we too know people who have been miraculously healed, or we are crestfallen because we know people who have not. But today I want you to see what this passage teaches us that you and I can do to carry out ministry to others; Peter and John did it at the Beautiful Gate, and Jesus did it all over Galilee, Judea, and in other territories: they noticed those who others failed to acknowledge. In my life one place I can clearly do this is nursing homes. Sometimes the residents are lined up in wheel chairs up or down hallways; it becomes a gauntlet I have to traverse in order to see my intended parishioner. My temptation, and perhaps that of others, is to walk quickly past them. But their gaze is penetrating, like they are so desperately hoping that I will notice and acknowledge them. So I greet them, and smile at them. If they ask for help, I’ll see if there is something I can do. If they say “Get me out of here!” I’ll remember my self-differentiation guidance from counselors and just walk on! But even in this Facebook world, we have people, sometimes children, sometimes older people, and sometimes those with disabilities, who desperately want to be noticed. As I showed the children today, sometimes grown ups can look right past them! Jesus noticed and acknowledged others as persons. I know there are times when people talk with me and I look right past them to someone waving hello over their shoulder. Everyone wants to be greeted, yet giving full attention to one person is what they deserve, and I am always working to do better to pay attention to everyone. Peter and John acknowledged a man who other clearly had passed by countless times. On our Holy Land trips I’ll confess that I found myself giving to no beggars that I encountered, but I noticed another man in our group who gave to almost every one of them. We all have room to grow, don’t we?
What is your growing edge? Where are the areas in your hospitality life that need attention? People look right past strangers in churches, schools, or in neighborhoods, as we overlook the new person among us to connect with those we already know. This week, think about Peter; and John; and Jesus. This week, think about noticing, and acknowledging those you might have looked past yesterday, or last week. This week, think about any time when you felt left out, and try to minister to someone else so they will feel connected. It is a Christ-like thing to do.
Jeffrey A. Sumner April 22, 2012