Scripture Readings: Acts 3:1-20; Matthew 15:29-39
I was in my early twenties and traveling on the Greyhound Bus. I had a long layover in a big city. So I decided to kill time by walking around the city for a while. Out on the street, on the sidewalk outside the main doors of the bus terminal, there was a small crowd of about thirty or forty beggars; panhandlers. I had never seen anything like that before in my life.
I was a Christian, and I knew that Jesus helped beggars. I also knew some warnings about panhandlers. I wasn’t stupid that way; but I decided to be like Jesus anyway. I pulled some change from my pocket and gave it to one of them. All at once, I had the whole crowd around me. I got scared and started to back off. Then they began to follow me. Then I ran, and yelled back at them; “Get away from me. Leave me alone!”
It really shook me up. Fortunately the terminal was a big one, and there was another way for me to get back in, around the corner.
I learned several lessons from that. One is that trying to be like Jesus can be scary, and it can get you into serious trouble. Of course being like Jesus is what got Jesus into trouble. It got Peter and John into a lot of trouble when they tried to be like Jesus, when they met the lame beggar at The Beautiful Gate of the Temple.
Whether it was the disciples long ago, or whether it is us today, there is a special kind of trouble that comes from following Jesus, and that is the trouble that comes from compassion.
Sometimes Christians are tempted to make their faith simply a matter of a lot of religious talk and words: preaching, teaching, praying, even singing. And all of that is good. I know I like doing it sometimes.
And we all know that you don’t have to stand up in front of a church in order to preach. Some people go around preaching to everybody, all the time, for better or for worse. But I think Jesus could have spared himself a lot of trouble if he had done nothing but that.
Jesus came to talk, but he also came to save. Jesus came to give himself for the sins and evils of this world. Jesus came to recreate the world, beginning with those who meet him, and trust him, and follow him. That is the work of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus could have talked about the kingdom all he wanted, and not have gotten into trouble. What got Jesus into trouble was that the Kingdom of God, and the recreation of the world, and the recreation of lives is a compassionate thing.
Jesus seemed to think that the best way to help the people around him to understand what he wanted to do for them; the best way he could think of to show them what the cross itself was going to be about; was by the power of compassion. When we read in the verses from Matthew about Jesus sitting down to heal, he was not really doing what a healer did. Sitting down was not the posture of a healer, as I understand it. Sitting down was the posture of a teacher at work, in those ancient times. By sitting down, Jesus was doing what a teacher would do when he spoke with authority and wanted people to listen. (We stand up when we want to speak with authority, but in those days people sat down.) So Jesus was teaching when he was healing and feeding others. His healing was the lesson. Compassion was the message.
Jesus healed people. He fed people. Even worse than that, Jesus provoked the spiritual people by healing on the Sabbath. He provoked them by turning over the tables of the merchants in the Temple, who sold the sacrifices for worship, and who exchanged people’s worldly money that had a picture of the emperor on it for holy money that had an image of the Temple on it.
The problem with these businesses was not so much that they were there in the Temple, but the fact that they gouged the people. It was oppressive to those who could least afford it. There was no compassion behind them.
The compassion of Jesus stood up against the injustice of that system. And this was the last straw. This was what made the cross inevitable. (Of course, Jesus made sure that the cross was inevitable. He came as a sacrifice.) The compassion of Jesus was what made him a threat to be feared by those who loved being spiritual just as long as it didn’t cost them anything real.
Peter explained where the miracle of the healing of the lame man came from: God was glorifying Jesus. The healing was a picture of the kingdom of the Messiah, Jesus. The compassion of the kingdom of Jesus was at work among them.
“Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? 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.” (Acts 3:12-13)
In a way it was not true what Peter said, about having no money to give. The church in Jerusalem collected money for the needy. Peter could have come back later and given the beggar some money to support him and his family, for a time. But Peter knew that, for this particular human being, in his present need, Jesus wanted to give more than money. Money was too simple a solution to the problem of the beggar. Compassion now required more.
The beggar had no idea that Peter represented more than just himself. The beggar didn’t know that Peter stood there for Jesus.
And, at first, Peter didn’t know any better either. He didn’t realize that he was going to have to stand there for Jesus. At first, Peter was prepared to just walk on by and pass through a sea of beggars, and an ocean of need, and get safely to the other side; but then one little ripple in that ocean became a face, a soul, a human being who had never walked.
The story of the compassion of Jesus was going to become that beggar’s story. The man, who had never walked before in his life, was going to walk, and run, and leap, praising God; and that would tell everyone who saw it and heard it the story of what Jesus and his cross were about. Compassion would tell the gospel.
There are two things that Jesus wants us to see, and these are very hard for us. We need to learn them.
One thing that Jesus wants us to see is the wealth that surrounds us. He wants us to see his image in others. He wants us to see his gifts present in others. He wants us to see the gifts he has given us. We don’t really know anyone, not even ourselves, unless we can look at them and see the image of God, and see their potential as fruitful beings and as gift bearers through the power and grace of God, if only they would open their lives to it.
The other thing Jesus wants us to see is that we are walking through a sea of beggars, and ocean of need, every day. We don’t really know anyone unless we realize that they could tell us a story of challenges, and struggles, and dangerous choices, and hard fought victories, and desperate defeats, and fears, and painful scars.
Compassion is the power of Jesus to see both the beauty and the need that surrounds us. Compassion is the power of Jesus to give us a special calling; to wake us up and to see the need in the face of a fellow human that calls out to us. Compassion is the power of Jesus to change a human request into a calling from God himself; a calling for us to give, even if that giving may get us in trouble.
The human being who had never walked had undoubtedly known about Jesus, and may have actually heard him and seen him. But he had never gotten close enough to have Jesus lay hands on him.
The beggar didn’t know who Peter was, but with the words, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk,” (Acts 3:6) Jesus suddenly stood before him. Peter suddenly became Jesus to the beggar.
Jesus was there; but not with money to make lameness of the beggar bearable. Jesus was there in the redeeming power that changed his life.
That is what the church is called to do. We are called to be involved where compassion is needed to change things, and to make life more than bearable; to make life beautiful.
Peter did more than talk words. He reached out his hand. He held on tight. He pulled the beggar up. He involved himself. That was part of the miracle as the lame beggar would always remember it. There was power in that grasp of Peter’s hand. There was the presence of Jesus in it.
We are called to talk, and to touch, and to grasp, and to hold on to people who need compassion. We are called to be involved like that. It is a call that Jesus wants you to carry out.
He wants you to do more than to know this calling in the abstract. The Lord wants the calling to happen inside you, and present itself to you face to face, in the face of another person’s need.
Compassion is the experience of trouble, one way or another. But compassion is also the wonder of the experience of Jesus himself, and the power of his kingdom at work among us.