As we continue looking at the book of Acts this morning, we’re beginning to move beyond the day of Pentecost, with its shouting and grand speeches, and back into the daily grind of the life and witness of these newly-minted apostles.

Side note: you’ll notice that in the gospels, this group of Jesus’ followers are called ‘disciples.’ A disciple is someone who follows – who is guided and taught by a particular teacher – and seeing as these people literally followed Jesus around for several years, this makes sense.

In Acts, however, Jesus’ original followers are often called ‘apostles.’ This isn’t a formal name change, but it does signal a shift in the way they live, act, and think about themselves. The word apostle, in Greek means ‘the one who is sent.’ While they still hold on to and follow the example and instructions their teacher gave them, now they’re sent to the far corners of the earth to proclaim the good news of the risen Jesus.

Our Scripture for today gives us a small taste of one of the ways they go about doing that.

Scripture: Acts 3:1-10

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.

There are a lot of details we don’t know about this story: what was this man’s name? What exactly was his disability? Who carried him – was it friends, family, strangers? Where was the ‘Beautiful Gate’ to the Temple, which is only called that in this particular story?

What we do get is a picture painted with broad strokes: whatever this man’s particular disability was, it prevented him from walking. It also would have prevented him from working and worshipping in the temple. He made his living by begging from those who came by on their way to worship, relying on their generosity to survive.

On this particular day, however, Peter and John happen to be walking by on their way to prayer when he asks them for a donation.

Fortunately, the Holy Spirit did not give Peter the power to come up with unlimited cash to solve all the world’s problems.

Because at the end of the day, this man’s core problem was not the money. His disability wasn’t the problem, either. The actual issue was the ways he was excluded from work and worship not because he was incapable, but because of the idea that illness and disability were caused by sin, not germs, genomes, or accidents.

On the simplest, most literal level, this story is meant to demonstrate just how powerful the Holy Spirit is, and how that power came to life in Peter and John. Everyone was amazed, the story tells us.

But beyond even that, we can find a deeper meaning in watching where everyone is standing. At the beginning of the story, the man sits outside the gate – he’s a smart guy, and he knows that this is probably the best place to ask for charity from those going inside. He’s there often enough to be recognized by most folks, at least.

If we were watching this play out on a screen, the climax would begin right about here – when Peter and John stop, look him in the eye and say: “I have no silver or gold, but what I do have, I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”

After this, not only does his ability change – but so does his location. In healing him, Peter removes the barrier between this man and his community – literally. The first thing he does after he leaps to his feet is go inside the temple (probably for the very first time in his life) and begin praising God.

His physical healing led to a new sort of healing and inclusion—a welcome that he was barred from before.

Although very few Christian congregations would outright ask someone to leave a worship service today (though it does happen), there are levels to welcome that we can feel, but don’t often name. There is a significant difference between being tolerated, being welcomed, and being included.

Tolerance is the ‘we don’t particularly like it that you’re here, but we’re not going to throw you out’ sort of greeting. It’s like when you show up to a new church for the first time and someone says “you’re in my pew,” or someone turns around to glare at you any time your child makes a noise.

Being welcomed is a step up from that, at least, where folks might smile and say hello and then leave you alone to do your own thing. You can watch, but no one is going to invite you to take an active role in anything. You’re left to figure it out on your own.

Full inclusion, however, is a healing place to be.  To be included means your abilities and contributions are celebrated and received with gratitude, your ideas are respected and considered, and you have access to every part of this community’s life, witness, and leadership.

Throughout the centuries, and in many churches even today, people have been barred from full inclusion due to their gender, their race, their sexuality, and even their clothing. (You would not believe how many articles I’ve read that debated pants – in the early 20th century, the question was whether men should be allowed to wear pants with pockets to preach. In the middle of the 20th century, it was whether women should wear pants at all. In the early 21st century, it was what style of pants are okay for pastors to wear. I kid you not.)

If you look closely at this story, you’ll notice that Peter didn’t ask anything of the man being healed. He asked no questions, he preached no sermons (at least in that moment), and he demanded nothing in return. It was Peter’s faith and the power of the Holy Spirit that did the work.[1]

In the same way, we cannot and do not wait until anyone believes all the right things and jumps through all the hoops before we welcome them to be an integral part of this faith community. That’s the beauty in baptizing the littlest among us: we recognize that God’s claim on our lives is fundamentally something we don’t earn, choose, or work our way towards. This community to which we belong is a gift, which the work of the Holy Spirit makes possible. In this place, we love not because the people in the pew behind us are wearing the right pants, but because we know that God first loved us. We welcome others because we remember that God first welcomed us. We can offer healing and hope to others because God is still at work healing us – both as individuals and as a community.

Today, the Spirit’s power might only occasionally result in miracles like this story (though I’m not saying it never happens) – but more often, she can be found in the world working towards reconciliation and inclusion in other ways. The Holy Spirit is at work in advocates who boldly ask us to consider who is excluded by our words, our structures, our policies and our building layouts. She can be found in mental health professionals and addiction counselors, who offer a safe space in which folks can bravely offer up the most vulnerable parts of themselves for healing and growth. She is hard at work in labs and libraries all over the world, keeping researchers and students absorbed in the task of advancing our understanding of things like illness, addiction, and disability. The Holy Spirit gives us programs like Special Olympics, educational services, service animals, specialized communications equipment, and sensory spaces – all of which make it possible for people of all abilities to participate to their fullest potential in the world.

But here’s a hard truth for us: many times, churches are the last to acknowledge the ways God is changing the world. We don’t like to talk about the places we still need healing. We want to stay in our safe spaces, where we know the rules and we can hold others to them. We sometimes just flat-out ignore the latest scientific knowledge because it doesn’t seem to match some of the beliefs we hold most dear. We’re reluctant to make our buildings match our words of welcome. We’re afraid to make a scene when someone is left at the gates.

I wish I could ask us to identify completely with either the healed man or the apostles – to distinguish whether we’re giving or receiving this power of God. But I think we all know that we often find ourselves on both sides of that exchange. We are the lonely and wounded in need of welcome and inclusion, and we are the ones the Holy Spirit empowers to be healers for one another. This is the beauty and the difficulty of true, beloved community.

That leaves us with a few questions: what healing is there for the Holy Spirit to do in this place, and in your own life? On the flip side, what gifts has she given you to offer for the good of the world?

Where are the places where the world’s deepest hunger meets your deepest joy? Because that, my friends, is precisely where the Spirit invites you to set up shop with the gifts you’ve been given, and begin your own work of healing and reconciliation. 

[1] O. Wesley Allen, Jr.