After the Resurrection, for a short time Jesus would come and go unannounced, suddenly appearing among his disciples, meeting them in unexpected places, sharing a meal with them. He would show them that he was real and present, that they could see and touch him. Our Gospel for this Third Sunday of Easter evokes yet again that most unusual period:
"While they were still talking about what the disciples had seen, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. (Luke 24.36-43)
How wonderful to be there in those special first days of the new age! But Luke does not want to us to spend our lives yearning to go back to that short and unique period. Luke 24 ends with a version of the Ascension, while the first chapters of his next book, the Acts of the Apostles, quickly move things forward: again, a telling of the Ascension (Acts 1) and of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2). Things change; we now live in the age of the Spirit, breathing, speaking, healing in our lives, our words, our deeds.
In light of these grand developments, today’s first reading from Acts 3 seems a bit tame. It seems to be mainly a scolding, a sermon on repentance:
"Peter said to the people: The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this... Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord. (Acts 3.13-15, 17-19)
A moral lesson, and we all can benefit from a reminder to repent and return. But if we think about it, there is more. Why is Peter saying these words — and to whom, on what occasion?
The obvious clue lies in Acts 3.16, the single verse omitted from the middle of Sunday’s reading:
"By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see. (3.16)
Who is “this man”? What happened to him? There is a back-story, on an ordinary day not long after Pentecost:
"One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer — at three in the afternoon. Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. (3.1-13)
Instead of just passing by and looking the other way — are not beggars everywhere? Have we not seen that lame man a thousand times? — Peter and John intuit a new possibility now alive in them, and they stop:
"Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. (3.4-5)
Because they have nothing to give the lame man, they give what is not theirs:
"Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk. (3.6)
Peter does more, actions following words, grasping the man’s hand and helping him to his feet for the first time in his life:
"Taking him by the right hand, Peter helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. (3.7)
The man is for the first time in his life upright, and remarkably he begins to jump, to dance, even as he joins Peter and John for prayer:
"He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. (3.8)
The crowds notice this extraordinary event on an ordinary day, drop what they are doing, and hurry to where Peter and John are:
"When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. While the man held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade. (3.9-11)
The next verse is the real introduction to today’s reading:
"When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, 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?” (3.12)
Peter, surely filled with the Spirit and surely still marked by his years in the company of Jesus, preaches not morality in the abstract, or a timeless lesson of repentance for sin as a general truth, but right here and in this moment, he speaks to the miracle of this man, born lame, who now stands, jumps, dances. See what can be done, not just by Jesus during his ministry, but right now, if we trust and call upon his name. See what God can do for you, if you let the power of God touch you again. It is never too late to return, and to allow the Lord to help us to stand upright again. It is never too late to be healed, never too late to let go of the things that have crippled you and held you back: like “this man,” you, my sisters and brothers, call up on the name of Jesus, who is in our midst, and then stand up, walk, jump and dance. Be alive in the Spirit of that Christ, join the Dance!
Peter has more to say, but the true end of this story comes only at the start of Acts 4, where Peter and John, all the more a threat to the authorities who thought they had put an end to the Jesus story, are thrown into prison, while “many who heard the message believed; so the number of those who believed grew to about five thousand.” (4.1-4) The community begins to grow, not simply by the Pentecost gift, but in a thousand small acts of taking notice, stopping to see and be seen by a person in trouble, calling on the name of Jesus not in nostalgia for a better past, but to face up to the needs of this very day.
The application for us is perhaps very obvious. 2021 may in many ways be a better year than 2020, but Covid 19 is not yet tamed, and the vaccines are abundant for some of us, impossible to get for so many in so many countries; more people are killed every day in mass shootings across our country, as happened just a day ago in Indianapolis; still more young men and boys of color, such as Daunte Wright (Brooklyn Center, Minnesota), aged 20, and Adam Toledo (Chicago, Illinois), aged 13, lie dead, shot and killed, victims of a system that too often by mistake or carelessness or intent kills rather than protects and heals. Here, not somewhere else, do the Peters and Johns and Marys and Elizabeths of today stop, pay attention, speak words that heal, extending hands that help us to get up again.
What can you and I do? We can remember with gratitude how Jesus died for us and rose again; how the risen Christ stayed among his disciples only long enough to give them a mission, to continue his ministry; how the Spirit came upon believers, that we might do what is really not ours to do — and then we can go about our daily business, at home and the office, in church and at school but also, like Peter and John, realize that it is up to us to stop, no longer taking the suffering of others for granted. The Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost all took place in a short period of time. But for 2000 years and right now, it is up to us to realize that we have nothing to give of our own, no silver and gold, but in Christ, we hold as our treasure a hope that is all about getting up and starting over again. You and I can look into the eyes of a person in need, and be vulnerable to that person looking right back into our eyes — that we might help our needy sister or brother up off the ground, to jump, to dance, to praise the name of the Lord. The risen Christ is even now becoming more present, one person at a time, here, now.
(An earlier version of this homily was delivered live at the Mass recorded for this weekend.)