Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Acts 3: 1-10
April 22, 2012
Political and cultural columnist Russ Douthat of the New York Times has written a book called “Bad Religion,” about the decline of Christianity as an influence on American culture. Douthat is a devout Roman Catholic and his thesis is that the fact that Christians no longer share some core beliefs that transcend “conservative” or “liberal” labels has contributed to the splintering of the nation as a whole.
One of his points is that today American religion emphasizes doing good works but at the cost of relating it to worship. It’s as if we are good at “doing justice and loving mercy” but have lost track of “walking humbly with our God.”
The story of the healing of the lame man in Acts 3 ties directly to this problem. The Bible says John and Peter meet him at the Beautiful Gate. Problem is, nowhere else in the Bible or in history is there a Beautiful Gate mentioned in Jerusalem or the Temple grounds. So there are all kinds of theories. One popular one is that the Beautiful Gate was really the Nicanor Gate, which was located past the Court of the Women and near the altar where sacrifices were made. That would put it right at the holy center of the Temple Mount.
But that’s really unlikely. For one thing, the whole purpose of “unclean” laws was to separate the sick, the disabled, and the imperfect away from God and the community of God. The Nicanor Gate is almost right at the Holy of Holies—it would mean the lame man was actually closer to God than even the most reverent woman was allowed.
For another thing, the scripture itself says the man followed Peter and John into the temple courtyards. If he was at the Nicanor Gate, he’d already be in the temple courtyards.
The more likely candidate is what’s known as the Shushan Gate, located on the east side of the Temple grounds. There’s plenty of evidence that the lame, the sick, the “unclean” would gather on steps near gates directly outside of the Temple Grounds to beg. There they could take advantage of the generosity of religious people, without actually polluting the Temple grounds with their imperfections.
The normal routine, of course, would have been for the lame man to beg, and for people to give him money. Then those generous church-goers would enter the Temple grounds, feeling really good about their relationship to God, and the lame man would be carried home with his money.
But Peter and John change that. First of all, they heal the man—that’s a bit more than a handout. But then, they and the newly healed man enter the Temple grounds together. Justice and good works lead naturally and joyfully to entering into the worshiping community and into God’s presence.
This biblical story makes Douthat’s point: we shouldn’t separate worship and good works. It isn’t enough to do good or to be good. If that’s all there was to being Christian, what we’d be is a sanctified social agency. But as most of us know, there’s this church-going thing we do, too, where we gather and worship God.
In fact, that particular thing is what makes religious institutions most different, and most unlike, anything else that goes on in the world. Religious people not only emphasize the horizontal relationship between human and human, but the vertical relationship between human beings and God.
We don’t only talk about what’s earthly that needs to be fixed and made right, we talk about what’s otherworldly. We talk about and seek mystery. We deal with humanity’s deep-seated longing to be bound up in something larger than ourselves. We pursue union with God.
Douthat sees a larger problem for Americans today: we emphasize “the God within” and forget that God is also outside of us. God is larger than you and me and all of us together. God is larger than our normal experience. If we just believe in the God within, then we can pretty much justify anything we do or believe and say that it is of God. We have to believe in a God that is larger than ourselves—and not just of us as individuals, but larger than all humanity, larger than all that is, with the potential to unify us to all that is.
The lame man’s problem was that he was cut off from God, from mystery, from the holiest of holies. And he was cut off for any number of reasons.
For one thing, society, even religious people, said he was inadequate. He was unworthy, not because of anything he had done, but simply because of who he was. In that sense, he was like any number of us who feel that somehow we have some innate disability that keeps us from being acceptable. Most of us struggle with that feeling deep inside anyway, but when you add to that that everybody else is looking down on you, then it seems the weight of the world is dragging you down. Somebody like that often benefits from claiming “the God within”—that in God’s eyes they are just as beautiful, just as loved, as anybody.
If “the God within” was all any of us need, then Peter and John could have healed him and he could have thanked them and been on his merry way. He was good enough, he was whole enough, and he could probably figure out ways to worship God on his own, far away from all the religious people who’d told him his whole life that he wasn’t good enough. He could go off to an ashram, or go to exotic restaurants and find joy in food, or find love in a faraway country. He could be as happy as anybody, and then write a self-help book about it.
Likewise, Peter and John could have congratulated him and moved on, happy that they’d done their good deed for the day. Like a lot of us have said over the years: Jesus wants us to do good for others, but let’s not try to force religion down anybody’s throat. That’s their personal choice.
But Peter and John knew that wasn’t enough. They weren’t about to force the formerly lame man to go into the Temple. They wouldn’t have handcuffed and dragged him in. But they knew that no one’s wholeness is complete unless they’ve also entered into the presence of God.
Fortunately, John and Peter don’t have to convince the lame man. He goes into the Temple courtyard willingly, jumping for joy. I suspect that technically, he still wasn’t supposed to go into the courtyard. He probably needed to be officially pronounced clean by a priest and to take a ceremonial bath. But those were details that neither he nor the Apostles saw much need for. As far as God was concerned, the man was ready. The question was, would all those religious people be ready to receive him?
The formerly lame man had now experienced something that all those religious people in the Temple desperately were searching for: he’d experienced mystery. He’d experienced wonder. He’d experienced the healing love of God. It was completely outside himself. He was surprised by joy, as CS Lewis described it—he’d experienced the unexpected and unearned grace and love of God through Jesus Christ. That’s so often true of people who’ve been through the hard knocks of life—of addicts, or of those who’ve struggled with life-threatening illnesses or loss, or abuse or deep personal pain, and have found their way to the other side. They know that they didn’t do that by their own strength, or by the God within. There was a God outside, a God larger than their own personal resources, who pulled them up when they were cast down. This God larger than human understanding has called them into the deep mystery and wonder of God’s presence.
But sometimes the church has a hard time seeing that.
The formerly lame man dancing and skipping into the crowds in the Temple grounds is a messenger sent by the God who is larger than the God of the church. He represents God who is larger than our limited perception—the God of mystery, the God who bedevils us because God never fits into our neatly diagramed theological or cultural definitions of God. The American church over the past few decades has been deeply troubled by this God who is outside of us. She danced out of the segregated court of the women and demanded that God’s people treat Her as an equal. He marched up the sidewalk and banged on the door of our segregated white churches and demanded we stop treating Him as a second-class citizen. He showed up with his partner and asked to be able to worship God as a couple the same way a married couple can come worship God. She showed up in her wheelchair and challenged us to make it easy for her to come to church and worship God like people who can walk on two normal legs.
And our sense of who God is and where God is and just exactly how large God is has expanded every time this has happened. The mystery of God has been deepened for us because we’ve found that mystery in our own community, in our differences, in our distinctiveness, in the ways we’ve helped broaden one another. We, you and I, are God to one another, the God outside, challenging each other to grow and to change.
By expanding our worshipping community, we’ve made our worship more meaningful. We’ve delved more deeply into the mystery of God.
Ultimately I think Douthat is right that we have made a mistake in segregating social justice and worship. We need both. But I’m not convinced yet that our splintering and differences is completely bad. I think God is challenging us from the outside, through massive societal change, through people we have always been able to ignore, through threats and opportunities undreamt of in our former philosophy.
The church today is in a process of discovering in new and exciting ways, through challenging ideas and people, the height and depth and breadth of the love and mercy and grace and mystery of the God we know through Jesus Christ. And if we trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we know that ultimately, that can only be a good thing.