+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
One of the most remarkable ministry moments I’ve had the privilege of witnessing happened last July when seven of us traveled to Detroit for the ELCA Youth Gathering. Over the course of our journey, we were a part of a number of long-scheduled and meticulously planned events, but the moment that sticks out in my mind came out of the blue when our group was walking down East Jefferson Avenue, along the Detroit River and we were approached by a gentleman who looked like he was down on his luck. He was carrying a heavy load, likely because he didn’t have anywhere to store his worldly possessions. As he got closer, he asked for some money, something he was obviously lacking. I think one of two of us handed him a few dollars and got ready to keep going on our way. Before we could step away, the man had one more request: a hug. Most of us don’t make a habit of embracing strangers, but something told us that this was a good time to make an exception. After a few hugs from our group, he continued down the street with a smile on his face, jumping and shouting with joy. It was an image that I’ll never forget, and one that came back to the fore as I pondered the text before us this morning.
As Peter and John went to the temple that afternoon at “the hour of prayer”, I doubt they were expecting to have the kind of experience that would be recorded for posterity. They were going about their business, joining other devout Jews in observing the daily prayers, perhaps spending their trip up the temple mount in preparation, when they encountered someone in need: a man with a physical impairment that made walking impossible. There’s no telling how many times they had walked by this man, who our text tells us was placed there daily so that he could make enough money from begging to support himself. Whatever that answer might have been, on this day something was different, and by the time the prayers began, this man who for years had been consigned to the dusty doorway of the temple was now entering with joy on his own two feet, praising God for the healing that had taken place at Peter’s word.
What makes this story so remarkable? It’s the little things. First, notice what Peter and John do when they get close enough to engage the man lying at the gate: they ‘look intently at him’ (or, put in a slightly different way, they ‘fixed their eyes on him.’ This might seem obvious enough, but think again about how many times Peter and John and countless other people walked by him on a daily basis without noticing him, without seeing him as an individual in need of assistance, without acknowledging that he was a person worthy of all the dignity and respect that is due to someone who was created in the image of God. The ministry of healing that Peter and John carried out wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t somehow been inspired to see this man in his need.
After looking intently on the man, Peter and John do something else that is both astounding and profound: they name their limitations!* As they approach this opportunity to serve in Christ’s name, they acknowledge that they don’t have exactly what the man is looking for – namely, silver and gold – but they are also confident in sharing what they do have to offer – namely, healing in the name of Jesus Christ.
Last – at least in our look at this story – Peter and John accompany the man after his healing, bringing him into the community and helping people to recognize him the same way they did. Put another way, they brought things full circle by making it possible for others to see and affirm the dignity and worth of a man who had likely been part of the background for many of the people who crossed through the Beautiful Gate on a regular basis.
Does the story of a miraculous healing in the Holy City really have parallels with the story of random hugs shared on the streets of the Motor City? Well, yes, it does, and I think that those parallels can help us to see how ministry is possible in the smallest and seemingly most insignificant moments. Think about the man who approached our group that day. He was part of a group of people – the homeless population – who are frequently stereotyped and often ridiculed (when they aren’t outright ignored). Even for people who care to think about the problem of homelessness, that particular man was likely not much more than a statistic or a problem to be solved. Giving that man a hug was a holy thing, because it affirmed him as a brother, a fellow human being, a person with hopes and dreams and feelings and a need for connection with other people. I’m not trying to make our group seem extraordinary; after all, the guy had to ask us for the hugs before we gave them. At the same time, though, something – or someone – led us to push past our normal reactions to that kind of situation and bring a note of grace to a man in a dire situation.
Just like the apostles, we also brought what we had to bear on a situation of need. We certainly weren’t swimming in money at that point in our trip, but we were able to use some of what we had to make a difference in this man’s life, even if only for a few hours or days. More importantly, though, we brought ourselves, and in that simple offering of attention and physical touch, made it possible for that man to experience joy and connection.
These seem like small things, don’t they? Yet they are among the hardest things for us to do. We living in a society that loves making people fit into easily digestible categories so that we can simplify our relationships. These labels are part of how we make sense of a complex world. But when labels become the basis for our life together, you can be sure that the life we share will be shallow and starved for meaning. Where many saw a lame man, Peter and John saw a person; where many saw a homeless man, God led us to see a person in need of both physical and emotional sustenance. In the same way, all of us have opportunities every day to break through the labels and encounter people as individuals with dignity and worth.
Likewise, we live in a society that is driven by our need to hide or deny our weaknesses, our imperfections, our shortcomings. Vulnerability is too often a four-letter word, and the shame associated with admitting that we aren’t perfect can be more damaging than we care to admit. Instead of allowing their lack of money to keep them from bringing healing and wholeness, Peter and John owned their shortcomings and offered their gifts anyway, and by doing so they changed that man’s life forever.
Brothers and sisters, today’s text gives us a glimpse of what makes ministry possible in the ordinary moments of our lives. Sometimes, ministry happens simply by acknowledging other people and making the time and effort to show them that they are worthy of our attention. Sometimes, ministry happens when we stop worrying about what we don’t have and start focusing on what we do have. Sometimes, ministry is nothing more than a process of helping other people to see people and things that are often invisible. At all times, ministry is matter of being present to others and bringing the power and peace of Jesus into places that are starving for meaning, purpose, and connection with others and with God. That might look a little different for each of us, but it is essential to the work that God has called all of us to do in baptism. As we prepare to witness that holy sacrament once more, and to see Violet welcomed into this grace-filled and graceful life of service, let us pray that we might be inspired by the example of Peter and John to see moments for ministry all around us each day, and that we might be strengthened by the Holy Spirit to make the most of those moments, so that all people might know the powerful presence of Jesus in their lives. May it be so among us. Amen.
* Eugene Peterson, Commentary on Acts 3:1-10