God our Father – as part of your worldwide family we worship you. We may be a family unable to meet together at this moment in time, yet we are a family united in our love for you and our love for each other. Like your saints across the centuries of time, we acknowledge you as Lord of our lives, the source of our salvation, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
We thank you for your faithfulness to us, especially in these difficult days, and for the fact that we can be just as conscious of your presence and the touch of your hand on our lives through the darkness of the valley as when we are enjoying the panoramic view of life from the mountain top.
Lord Jesus, when you lived on earth there was no maternity unit for your birth; your parents became refugees; you were rejected in your home town; you shared the life of the poor; you were tried and executed out of political expediency; you learned full well the life of the marginalised, and knew the depths of human need.
Lord Jesus, present with us now, meet us in our own physical, mental and spiritual need. Meet us in a world of desperate need; where mothers give birth without proper medical care; refugees are herded from land to land; politics make families rootless, denying their nationality; poverty destroys the hopes and lives of many; and torture and false imprisonment prevail.
Lord we pray that you may make us sensitive to our own needs and the needs of others.
Taken from ‘The Word in the World – Prayers for Christian Worship’, compiled by Donald Hilton.
Hymn 187 – There’s a wideness in God’s mercy. Listen here.
Acts 3: 1–10 (NRSV)
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.
Sermon by Rev. Robert Gemmell: A Gospel for Nowhere Men
It must have been a tragic spectacle to witness – the daily dumping of this pathetic figure with the paralysed limbs at the great and beautiful gate of the Temple at Jerusalem. His slow and monotonous chant for alms; his outstretched arms pointing upwards, half begging, half accusing, pointing towards those well-fed, well-heeled worshippers on their way to the Temple to pray.
Perhaps his presence there was simply accepted, almost as a kind of landmark. For some, his presence may have presented an embarrassment to their conscience. However, the real problem was perhaps the fact that, as far as the majority of worshippers were concerned, probably little or no attention was paid to him at all.
There were, no doubt, a few who, to ease their conscience, or as an act of kindness, would throw the odd coin in the beggar’s direction.
He was there on a daily basis. His condition was simply and passively accepted. No one – including the beggar – expected the situation to change.
Enter centre stage Peter and John making their way along with others to the Temple. Like their fellow worshippers they heard the plaintive cry of the beggar. Peter responded and the expectation of the beggar for a monetary gift increased, only for it, initially at least, to be shattered: “I have no money at all… but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth I order you to get up and walk.” Peter gave the beggar a helping hand to his feet, the man felt a new strength in those feet and in his ankles and he started walking around. He then went into the Temple, accompanied by Peter and John.
Pre Pentecost our Lord’s disciples had been commissioned to continue the work of the Kingdom. They had been instructed to wait… for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Post Pentecost, filled with the power that had been given, we now find Peter exercising a healing ministry, a ministry that turned a beggar’s life upside down.
It was little wonder that there was a noisy commotion in the Temple when the unnamed man burst into their midst, his wasted, dead limbs somehow renewed. What a transformation. Here he was, “walking and jumping and praising the Lord”. The reaction of the worshippers must have been a study to watch. I have a feeling that Luke may just have been a little bit conservative in his recalling of the event. According to him, they were surprised and amazed. I am sure that he could have added that, while many joined the wild celebration, others no doubt were shocked, even embarrassed by the man’s spontaneous and emotional response.
I sometimes wonder what our response would be to someone running and jumping down the church aisle, shouting exuberant, spontaneous praise to God for the Lord’s miraculous intervention in his or her life. Perhaps it would be embarrassment at such a raw display of emotion – or a judgement that this is not the conventional way to behave in church, or annoyance at the interruption of our worship.
I described the initial situation as a tragedy. Wherein lay the tragedy?
I think there are a couple of factors to be considered. There was the man’s personal tragedy. From any point of view he presented as a pitiful figure. He had been an invalid all of his life. He had known nothing but misery. He had been totally dependent on others taking him and his begging bowl daily and dropping him off at his favoured place beside the Temple. He perhaps felt that life had robbed him of any reason for being, for living, that his was a hopeless situation over which he had no control. Perhaps if he had been living his life in a different age he would have identified with John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s song back in the sixties of the last century.
He’s a real nowhere man
sitting in his nowhere land
making all his nowhere plans – for nobody.
Doesn’t have a point of view
knows not where he’s going to.
Isn’t he a bit like me and you?
Or our beggar may also have identified with a quote from Colin Wilson’s book, The Outsider, when he described life in these words: “It is meaningless that we live and it is meaningless that we die.”
The plaintive cry of our beggar is, I suggest, one that can still be heard on occasions today. The circumstances may be different, as may be the victim’s diagnosis. But the cry is one that can still be heard and is just as real. Different today? Perhaps not all that different. There are still many people begging on the streets of our towns and cities and it must be even harder for them at the moment with far less footfall on our streets.
If ever we find ourselves in a position of hearing and having to respond to such a cry from the heart, may our response be equally as positive. We may not have the power to bring physical healing in the way that Peter and John were able to do, but we have the capacity to share what we have: a helping hand, a word of hope and encouragement, the going of the extra mile, the giving of ourselves. To quote once again the words of John Bell:
So some have come who need your help
and some have come to make amends
as hands which shaped and saved the world
are present in the touch of friends.
Who knows, it could be our “touch” that becomes the trigger the Lord uses to lift someone out of their world of meaninglessness. Never underestimate the power of human touch or that of friendship.
There was the tragedy of the beggar’s personal circumstances. But there was also the tragedy of where he was sitting begging. The irony is almost excruciating. He was sitting outside what could be described as the headquarters of the National Church.
The Temple, with all its pomp and splendour, its central and unique place in the hearts and minds and lives of the people. Yet offering nothing, it would seem, to ease the mental anguish or bring healing to wasted limbs. No message of hope to lift him out of his despair. Just the odd coin thrown in his direction to temporarily alleviate the symptoms.
It could be said that the beggar’s paralysis was but a reflection of theirs, a spiritual impotence. The frightening thing was that they too had probably accepted the situation as normal, settling for a God who was there in the background, but inactive and remote.
Could such a negative picture be painted of the Church of today?
I remember hearing a sermon in which the preacher quoted a sentence from Helmut Thielicke’s book The Trouble with the Church, in which he says that a church “which has its true centre of gravity, its driving force, somewhere else than in the Gospel, is dead”.
Could the Church of today be described as dead? Would it be a valid criticism of our own Church? Or does the Church offer a radical and relevant ministry as it attempts (or we do) to meet the needs of modern society in general or the immediate needs of the difficult days in which we live?
Over the years the Church, and the Christian voice within the Church, has spoken out robustly on issues, for example on the abolition of slavery, on the evils of apartheid and racism in general. The Church of Scotland has in the past responded to social needs identified within our nation. We have witnessed this in, for example, the establishing of care homes for the elderly and children, residential schools for children and young people with behavioural problems. A vital, caring ministry that continues to play an important role within our nation to this day. Many of us would maintain that the Church’s voice should continue to be heard loud and clear in the condemnation of the police brutality and racism that has manifest itself in recent days.
And today, at a wider level, the “touch of love” can still be experienced through organisations such as Christian Aid and Tear Fund, and at a local level through Fresh Start and the Bethany Christian Trust, to name but a few caring organisations that offer the hand of friendship and care in the name of Christ. And at a local Church level, here at Wardie, you know far better than I do of the ministry of love and care that is offered, even in these difficult days, through groups and organisations and through individuals who have responded to the call of Christ to “go and make disciples”, offering when appropriate the hand of friendship, the cup of cold water, a visit or a phone call in response to practical, emotional and spiritual needs. Putting into practice the teaching contained within our Lord’s parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew Chapter 25.
George MacLeod was known to have reminded folks of the old legend about the return of Jesus to heaven after the Ascension.
The angel Gabriel met him at the gates.
“Lord, this is a great salvation thou hast wrought,” said the angel.
But the Lord Jesus said only, “Yes.”
“What plans have you made for carrying on the work?”
“I left Peter and James and John and Martha and Mary to tell their friends and their friends to tell their friends, so all the world will know.”
“But Lord Jesus, suppose Peter is too busy with his nets, or Martha with her housework, or the friends are too occupied and forget to tell their friends – what then?”
Jesus did not answer at once and then said in his quiet, wonderful voice: “I have not made any other plans. I am counting on them.”
In the same way he is counting on us.
Hymn 718 – We cannot measure how you heal. Listen here.
Prayer of thanksgiving and intercession
God of love, today, we pray for the World that You have gifted to us and called us to steward.
As we look upon this world let us do so through Christ-like eyes:
eyes that help us to see a clearer vision of the world;
eyes that help us to see people as they really are;
eyes to recognise the hardships experienced by many.
We pray this day for those who are struggling financially.
We pray this day for those who are poor in spirit.
We pray for those who are silenced or overlooked.
We pray for those who work for peace and reconciliation.
Lord, we have seen disturbing scenes across our world simply because the colour of a person’s skin is different to that of another. We pray for those peacefully moving for change. We pray for a positive colour-blindness to come upon all people and for individuals to be taken for who they are, not what they are perceived to be.
Lord, help us to judge those in the past from the laws and standards of their time and not from a morally superior position. It is easy to rush to judgement in hindsight and condemn without context. Give us the clarity to move forward learning from the past but not dwelling in it. Give us the wisdom to make decisions now that future generations will see that we had good intentions.
We are more than just Your people, we are blessed to be called Your children. Help us as Your family to reach out to all.
In Jesus’ name we pray