The second temple was a sight to behold, no one could deny that. Herod the Great spent forty-two years and who knows how much money to have it built, it was the grandest achievement of his reign. He needed it, or at least something like it, something that would inspire his subjects, make them appreciative of him. You see Herod wasn’t really one of them. His family had lived in the area, they had risen to prominence in the tribes jockeying for power and position, they had converted to Judaism as their power grew in hopes of increasing their influence even more but he wasn’t really one of them. His power came from Rome, not Jerusalem, he had been smart enough to side with the Romans at exactly the right time and so they declared him king but when he looked at his people he knew what they thought, he knew what they saw. It was from Caesar, not Yahweh, that his power came and they were always looking for someone to take his place, someone to raise up, a “real” king to reign over them.
So, to show his reverence for the Lord, to prove his connection to the people, he built a temple. And what a temple it was. Josephus, the 2nd century Jewish historian, would write that the stones that made up the temple were so white that from a distance it looked like a mountain of snow. The columns and roofs were gilded in gold, so much that on a bright day you couldn’t look directly at it because of the reflection.
The man went there every day. Went probably isn’t the right word, that sounds as if he had a choice in the matter. The man was carried there every day. And as folks carried him he would have seen the building, seen the white stones, seen the gold and silver, seen the impressive craftsmanship that went into the building. As he got closer he would have seen less and less, because something would have come into his view, blocking him from seeing the building itself. The wall. Just as beautiful, just as well decorated, showing just as much care had gone into as had the building itself, and directly ahead of him, at the center of the wall, the gate. The gate that they called beautiful. Just as much care had gone into the gate as had gone into the temple and the wall, it was equally as impressive, equally as skillfully crafted, equally as beautiful.
As he got closer and closer the gate got bigger. As he got closer and closer he would see less and less of the temple and more and more of the gate. And it would serve as a good reminder to him, there was no reason for him to look at the temple, there was no reason for him to focus on a destination that was out of his reach. It was better for him to see the gate. It was better for him to focus on the gate, because the gate was his reality. The gate was his reminder, just like the folks carrying him, just like the mat that he was being carried on, that the other side of the gate, the impressive building that waited beyond the wall, that wasn’t for him. He had never been on the other side of the gate. He would never be on the other side of the gate. The gate wasn’t an entrance for people like him, the gate wasn’t welcoming for people like him. And as he got closer and the gate and the wall became all he could see he began once again to resent that gate, to wonder how people could call it beautiful, to wonder why they couldn’t see what he saw, a big ugly door reminding him that he was broken. Reminding him, that he was crippled. Reminding him that he was not…good enough, not whole enough, not the kind of person that got to go into the gate.
But no reason to get too bogged down in that kind of thing, right? No reason to focus too much on what wasn’t to be and so he was set down like he was every day, right outside the gate right around three o’clock, the time for afternoon prayers and, more importantly for his purposes, the time for daily worship. That was one benefit of being lame from birth, he had had a lot of practice at this whole begging thing, he had figured out the best places and best times, he knew that as folks were coming in and out of worship it would be harder for them to ignore him. He knew that you had to get the temple folks in the right moment, in the time when they were filled with all those good holy feelings and might be more inclined to help. In the times, the cynic in him said, when they were most concerned about who might be watching.
So he sat outside the gate and he watched and waited as folks walked by and he asked for help and sometimes they tossed some coins his way and sometimes they didn’t but he noticed that there was something that happened nearly every time: when he looked up they looked down. When they got close to him the ground suddenly got awfully interesting and their conversations seemed to quiet down and then sure enough when they passed by their voices and their heads picked back up and they went on their way. And so he started looking at the ground too. He knew no one wanted to make eye contact, he knew that when they saw him they started thinking about what had gone wrong that made him this way or worse, what might go wrong to put them in the same boat. He knew half of them pitied him and half of them resented him and either way really looking at him was off-putting so he looked down because he knew he had a better shot of getting money if he didn’t make them look too closely. And folks walked by and he asked for help and sometimes they tossed some coins his way and sometimes they didn’t, but then he noticed all of a sudden that it had gotten darker around him. He noticed two shadows around him and then he heard a voice and he was taken aback, both because it was the first person to talk to him while he sat there and because of what the man said: “look at us.” And so he looked up and there the two men were looking right at him. Not away from him, not through him, right at him. He started to get nervous, he wasn’t used to a whole lot of eye contact so he went to what he knew, he asked them for help and the one who spoke before spoke again and said “Silver or gold I do not have but what I have I’ll give you, in the name of Jesus Christ get up and walk.” And then he felt a hand grab his and start to pull him up and he panicked because he knew how this would end and then the hand let go and he braced himself for the fall and then…the fall never came. And he looked and he realized, for the first time in his life, he was standing. And he put one foot in front of the other and then he did it again and again and he realized for the first time in his life he was walking. By this point the two men had walked on forward, passing under the gate and they looked back at him and motioned for him to join them and he looked at the gate, and he thought of all the times he had looked at it before, and he put one foot in front of the other. And then he did it again. And again. And he walked through that gate, and he saw the other side of the wall and he saw the temple there in all its glory and he lept and he jumped and he thanked the men and he praised God like he had heard people do all those days on the other side. And folks saw him and this time they didn’t look away, they couldn’t look away, they were amazed at this thing that had happened.
Couple of things that Peter and John’s story remind us of this morning as we look at this idea of what the early church looked like and how, in turn, that challenges all of us today. The first is that the church recognized that a new era was dawning, and that this new era would be defined by who was let in, not who was kept out. Judaism had a lot of rules about who could come into the temple complex, how far into it they could go, how near God some folks could be. Don’t forget that, they believed that God resided in the temple. When they said “this is how far you can go,” they were literally saying “this is as close to God as you’re allowed to get.” Those who were there had already seen at Pentecost when all languages were spoken and they saw again here that this new kingdom would not be about a select few but about everyone. That the point of the kingdom was that it could reach and speak to anyone, not that it could make a select group feel better about themselves.
Peter and John look directly at this man when they see him. How many people went by him without really looking at him? How many people went out of their way to make sure they didn’t make eye contact, to make sure they didn’t have to see him? How good are we at not seeing the things we don’t want to? And I don’t just mean folks asking us for money (although I certainly feel the awkwardness of those moments and hope I’m not alone in that), we are really good at putting things out of sight and out of mind. No problem goes away when we ignore it. My uncle passed away December of 2014, he had a place on his back that my aunt thought he should get looked at but he didn’t until the cancer was already in his brain. Make this as personal or communal as you want, make it as spiritual or as physical as you want, we will never solve problems we’re not willing to look at. Ignoring the issues in our lives or our world or our church will never make them go away. We have to be willing to look the people and situations that make us uncomfortable in the eye if we want to do something about them.
I was really struck this week, looking over this text, by this idea of the “Beautiful Gate.” For the folks who got to go in it really was a beautiful thing, it was the entrance into the place where they had fellowship with other Jews, the place where they worshipped and offered sacrifices and felt closest to the presence of God. For the folks it kept out it was barrier, it reminded them that they were less than, that the sacred space was not for them. We put up more “keep off the grass” signs in our lives and in our institutions than we realize. One of the biggest ways the early church differed from their Jewish counterparts, and remember that this scene happens when Peter and John are still going to the temple for worship, they’re still active in the Jewish community, the big difference is that the early Christians took a hard look at how “beautiful things” kept other people out. We should always be wrestling with that as a church, do the things we do reach to folks on the outside or are we just building up beautiful barriers that make us feel good at the expense of the people who aren’t getting in?
That last thing jumps out to me in this passage is the command that Peter gives to the man, “get up.” Now Peter and John say that they don’t have any money to give him, but even if they did, this call would have been important. When they tell him to get up they bring him in to a new reality. The embrace the power of resurrection to change this man’s life. All of us have places where we need to hear that message. All of us have places in our lives where we need to get up. Where we need to recognize that the truth of Jesus Christ means the things we’ve accepted as the best option we’ll have don’t have to stay that way. That things can change. That our realities can shift. In the face of all the ways that we’re held down, all the things that hold us back, the sins that consume us, the fear that blinds us, the ways we’re all told we’re not good enough or whole enough to be in the presence of God, the risen Christ looks to all of us and says “get up,” come with me into a new way of being.