St Barnabas, Sunday, April 17th
I always knew I was different. My earliest memory is of sitting on the doorstep watching all my brothers and sisters running around. How I wished I could join in with their fun and games! But of course I couldn’t. As my mother called them in for dinner, they would rush past, shouting, “Out of way, cripple” or “Move over, freak” and then they would laugh as they watched me crawl away.
And as I was growing up, no-one bothered to teach me a trade. While my sisters were learning to sew and cook and bake, and my brothers were helping out in the family business, I was just abandoned in a dark corner of the house. No-one seemed to notice I was just as clever as the rest of them, or realise I could make any kind of meaningful contribution. I was ignored and left to my own devices.
So when in the end I was told to leave home and make my own way in the world, there really was one thing I could do, which was to go out and beg. I guess it was out on the streets of Jerusalem that I received my education. They weren’t exactly a safe place even for an able-bodied young man, and I soon learnt some harsh lessons about how to survive. I just about managed to make enough to feed myself, and maybe find a roof over my head, but that was about it.
Until one day I met Ben and his gang. Now the moment I met Ben, I knew he wasn’t a guy to be messed with. When he spoke, you did what you were told, unless you wanted to end up crippled like me. And Ben controlled the begging trade at the Beautiful Gate. Each day his cronies would quite literally pick me and a bunch of other beggars up from the street and dump us by one of the main entrances to the temple.
And trade was good. As the high and mighty made their way in, they would throw a few coins in our direction. As far as they were concerned, they were giving alms to the poor and doing a good work before God. So the money kept rolling in. Sometimes I could make more in a day than I used to in a month. Not that I got to keep much of it. At the end of the day Ben would take away all our money pouches, and you didn’t try to keep anything from him. Yes, he made quite a living from alms to the poor. I needn’t tell you how miserable things remained for me.
Now you’re probably wondering if I’d ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth. Well, of course I had. I had even glimpsed Him in the distance on His way to drive out the tax collectors and money changers. I have to say, it was one of the few bright moments in my life when I saw them scurrying out with their tails between their legs! And I had heard tell of His many miracles in and around the city. But I didn’t pay much attention to them. They seemed to be for other people, people who weren’t under the thumb of thugs like Ben, or had grown up out on the streets.
Besides which, Jesus of Nazareth had put been put to death, hadn’t He? Yes, I know that soon after there were all kinds of rumours He’d come alive again, but then again, you hear all kinds of rumours down in the gutter. The Messiah is coming back next week. The archangel has struck down the Roman emperor. Jesus has risen from the dead.
Yet I did notice something different after these rumours of the resurrection. There were more and more people coming up each day to the temple, and they were somehow different from the religious bigwigs I’d been dealing with. They seemed very ordinary people – fishermen, tax collectors, and so on – and they seemed to be very sincere in whatever it was they believed.
But I was still there each day by the Beautiful Gate, and each evening Ben would come round and empty all our pouches. I didn’t really think life was ever going to change for me, at least until the day I could beg no longer, or someone put a knife in my back.
And then one afternoon, I saw two of these followers of Jesus heading almost straight for me. Everyone knew who they were – Peter and John, two of the so-called apostles, well-known for their preaching and teaching. Perhaps they were going to teach me a lesson! Well, I wanted to show them that even if I was a cripple, I was at least as streetwise as them. So I started my usual spiel about alms for the poor, and expected to have at least one coin thrown in my direction.
But then something very odd happened. All of a sudden, Peter and John stopped and Peter said, Look at us. Now that was unusual. People who went up to the temple always made a point of never looking at us. We were beneath contempt, the scum of the earth, an object lesson – or so they thought – of what happens to people who fail to heed God’s law. And you could see the fear in the faces as they passed by, fear that if they gave us so much as a glance they would themselves end up unclean, contaminated, unworthy to enter God’s Holy Place.
But Peter said Look at us. So I looked at him. Was he going to give me an extra special gift? I could already see Ben’s face light up that evening as I produced it from my pouch. Or maybe he was going to patronise me with a blessing, and pat me on the head with trite religious language? Yet in Peter and John’s eyes there was a look of – how can I put it? – compassion, maybe, or sympathy, or even dare I say it, love. And I have to say, it was a long, long time, if ever that anyone had looked on me with love. It was just of those things you didn’t find out on the streets. It was rarer than a smile from a temple priest.
But there they were looking at me with love, and even as I was wondering why they were paying attention to me, Peter said some words I will never forget: Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk. And even as he spoke these words, he reached out his hand to me. Not to strike me like my father used to do, or to push me around, as Ben’s cronies enjoyed doing. But to actually lift me up. It didn’t occur to Peter, or at least it didn’t matter to him, that I was filthy, crawling with lice, the lowest of the low.
He was reaching out to me, and without a second thought, I grasped his hand. I didn’t really understand what was happening to me, but as I got up, I suddenly felt my feet and my ankles become strong and powerful for the very first time. No longer were they curled up under me, useless and weak. They were straight and they were fully functional.
I looked at Peter and then I looked down at my feet. Then I put one foot in front of another. I had just taken my first step! I walked a little way. Then I tried jumping. Gently at first, not really sure my feet could take my weight. Then a little higher, to see if I could really get airborne. And then I tried running. I had never been much of a religious man, but now I wanted to praise God with all my heart. I rushed into the temple courts, laughing, singing, praising.
And do you know what I noticed most as I reached the temple? It was all the faces of the people rushing up to me. I’d never had much opportunity to look at people’s faces. Other people had always been up there, and unless they bent down to me, I could never really tell what they were thinking. But now I was on a level with anyone else I could see a whole new beautiful world of young faces and old faces, weary faces and glad faces, smooth faces and wrinkled faces.
I paused for a moment to take in what I was seeing. Just as they paused to try and take in what they had just witnessed. Everyone, myself included, was just was astonished and amazed at what had happened.
And then there was a huge murmur in the crowd, as everyone turned to see Peter and John arrive on the scene. I think they were still out of breath, trying to catch up with me! Now I expected them to start offering some kind of healing ministry. I’d heard tales of healers before, how when one miracle happened, they would begin the sales patter and the clever tricks to persuade others to come forward and receive their “blessing”.
But Peter and John’s message was different, very different. Because right from their very first word, they made it clear the miracle was nothing to do with them. Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? began Peter, as he held up his hand to silence the crowd. Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus.
And step by step Peter began to piece together all the recent events of Jesus’ life and make sense of the rumours that had reached me down in the gutter. He told the crowd how they had handed over this Jesus to be killed, but how God raised Him to life. He explained how it was through the power of the risen Jesus that I’d been made strong and well. And instead of telling the crowd to come forward and receive a blessing, he commanded them to repent, then and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out (Acts 3:19).
As I stood listening to Peter’s words, I began to think about my own life. Up until then, I would have said I was the victim of circumstances. I was who I was because of what other people had done to me – my family, my so-called friends, my taskmaster Ben. If anyone had asked me why I behaved the way I did, I would have blamed them. Nothing I had said or done was my fault in any way whatsoever.
But as I stood in the temple there, I was very conscious I was in the Holy Place of God dressed in filthy, stinking rags. And, yes, other people had done terrible things to me, but this didn’t mean I could ignore this message of repentance. I also needed to turn back to God, to say sorry for the things I’d thought and said and done, and I also needed to ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. As I explained later, it wasn’t just my feet and my ankles that needed healing. It was also my heart, that was as filthy on the inside, as my skin on the outside.
If I’m honest, I don’t remember every single word that Peter said that day. There was a lot to take in! But one thing he said did stick with me and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It was when he turned to me and said to the whole crowd: By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.
Complete healing!? What did he mean by that? Well, the more I’ve been chewing over Peter’s message, the more I am convinced he knew what was going in my heart. And what he wanted to tell me was that I really could give Jesus my heart, and it was there He wanted to do His greatest miracle. That’s why shortly after the events in the temple, I was baptised. Because now I understood what Jesus could do for me, I wanted to give Him all that I had, to love and serve Him, all my days, even if at my age I might not have that much left to give.
Of course, you may say, this story is all very well for you, but what about all the other beggars still lying at the Beautiful Gate? Well, I still see them and I try to care for them as best as I can. But to be honest, a few don’t want to be healed. They’ve heard about Jesus and sadly, they are afraid of what they might become. I tell them that knowing and loving Jesus is the most wonderful thing imaginable. But they are scared of losing their identity. They’ve been trapped in the mindset of a beggar for too long. And I have to say, my heart weeps for them. I can only pray that one day the Lord will open their eyes, and see they have nothing to lose.
Then there are a few others who actually enjoy making a living down there in the gutter. Ben’s changed his practices slightly since my day and he’s made sure his beggars enjoy a rather higher standard of living. I guess that’s because he doesn’t want to lose any more to the competition. And so long as the money keeps rolling in, some of my former colleagues seem to believe the coins in their pouches are more valuable than faith in Jesus Christ. As if a few miserable winnings to be spent on booze or women could ever compare!
But there are those who genuinely wish to be healed, and some even who are angry at what happened to me. If God truly loved us, they say, why haven’t we been healed like you? Well, that’s a tough question to be sure. So I tell them about the piece of fish I ate the other week. It was supposed to be fresh from the Sea of Galilee. The only thing fresh about it was the poison in its flesh. For the next three days I felt as if I was at death’s door. It made me realise that although I was healed physically, my body is still going to wear out and rot like any other.
So what was the point and purpose of my healing? Well, when I listen to Paul and John teaching, I hear them talking a lot about signs. It’s the very word Jesus used to describe His healings, apparently. And the thing about a sign is that it points to something or someone else. You don’t stop at a sign and admire its beauty. You see where it’s heading. And for reasons I cannot understand Jesus decided that day in the temple I was going to be a sign. My feet were healed so that Peter and John could explain to others the power of Jesus to change lives for good.
Now how Jesus wants to work in power in your life, I do not know. But all I can say is, if you give Him your heart, you can trust that He will work for the best. Maybe to physically heal you. Maybe to lift you from the gutter. Maybe just to give you the strength to face whatever situation you are facing. And even though your life may not be dramatically altered, as mine was, I still believe you too will end up with reason to praise this Jesus whom God raised to life.