Commentary on Acts 3:1-10
This passage in which Peter and John heal a lame man is the first scene in the Book of Acts after the story of Pentecost in chapter 2.
Luke told us how the church was formed by the gift of the Holy Spirit and baptism and gathered around the apostles’ teaching and now moves on to narrate examples of the apostles’ ministry in Jerusalem. This scene is part of a larger story: the healing is really the set up for the sermon Peter gives to the crowd of witnesses in Acts 3:11-26. The healing and sermon together, in turn, set up the first instance of persecution of the church in Acts when Peter and John are imprisoned and tried for their actions (Acts 4). For the sake of this essay, we will keep our focus on the healing story proper, but the preacher will want to explore the wider context as a way of recognizing the importance Luke places on the story for the advancement of his theological and narrative agenda.
The healing story follows the typical form of healing stories in the gospels: the ill person and the healer meet (Acts 3:1-3), including a description of the ill person’s condition that makes healing seem difficult (Acts 3:2); a healing action and words are narrated Acts 3:4-7a); the actual healing occurs (Acts 3:7b); proof of the healing is described (Acts 3:8); and witnesses are described as being amazed at the healing (Acts 3:9-10). Luke’s use of this stereotypical form for healings demonstrates a continuity between the work of the apostles and that of Jesus. One need not interpret healings literally to see that this story encourages us today to see the work in which the church engages as continuing that of Jesus and the apostles.
At the literal level, ancient healing stories intend to demonstrate the power of the healer. This story certainly does that — the man, after all, has been lame since birth and in the end can not only walk but is able to leap up. Only significant power could bring about such results. And as Peter makes clear, the power at play is not Peter’s own but the power of the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 3:12, 16).
Healing stories, however, rarely operate only at the literal level. They usually also hide other theological themes in the middle of other details of the story. This story certainly does that. The lame man is a wise business man, if you will. He is situated each day at the Beautiful Gate outside the temple to have the best chance to receive alms from those entering the temple (Acts 3:2). Much scholarly ink has been spilled trying to determine where in the temple structure this Beautiful Gate actually stood. Its location, though, is of little homiletical significance.
The lame man’s location, on the other hand, has great potential for the preacher. He begs outside the temple from those going inside. He is not there as part of the worshiping community but as someone seeking charity from that community. After he is healed, not only does the man’s ability change, so does his location. He “entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:8, emphasis added). The healing moves the man from outside the temple to inside it, from someone not able to participate in the worshiping community to being part of it.
In other words, hidden in the details of the healing story is an ecclesiological message: to be included in the worshiping community is to experience a form of healing. This recognition opens two homiletical possibilities. The two approach ecclesiology from different angles.
The first approach is based on the preacher asking the hearers to identify with the apostles. In this homiletical scenario, the preacher will be inviting the congregation to see themselves as being in a place of offering healing to others by including them in the community of faith. The inclusion of outsiders stands in continuity with the ministries of Jesus and of the apostles. For such a calling to have true impact today, the preacher will need to identify for the congregation those who sit near our gates, on the edges of the church or of society, who will find healing in being attributed with full worth and personhood by the church. Note that Peter did not require of the lame man belief in Christ to offer him healing. It was Peter’s belief in Christ that effected the healing. Similarly, the church need not accept only those who believe and act like us. This passage calls congregations as well as individual Christians to reach out to the stranger, the other. In the name of Christ, we can offer healing to refugees, those of different socio-economic status, immigrants, the disabled, people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, persons of different sexual orientations, and so forth. Those at the gates and the kind of healing needed by them may look different in different congregational contexts, but as we see in this text, the gift of inclusion is as old as the church itself.
The second approach is based on the preacher asking the hearers to identify with the man who is healed. In this scenario, the preacher will be inviting those in the pews to see themselves as individuals who have experienced and are experiencing healing by their inclusion in the church. We so often think of ourselves as “joining” the church in the fashion of a consumer choosing a restaurant at which to dine or a store at which to shop. Reminding hearers that the Rock of the church took them by the right hand, lifted them up, and escorted them into the worshiping community is to help them celebrate that they are included in the body of Christ by grace instead by their own will alone.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Holy Lord, your followers gave to your children something more powerful and more valuable than riches. They gave healing and hope. Bring healing and hope into our world and show us evidence of your presence in our lives. Amen.
The Lord’s my shepherd, Bobby McFerrin