June 19, 2016 “Beggars All” – Acts 3:1-10

Acts 3:1-10
“Beggars All”
June 19, 2016 – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Chinese men are begging women to marry them. New to this game, the Chinese have quickly gone over the top with extravagant marriage proposals. USA Today reports that recent proposals included “luxury cars arranged in the shape of a heart, a bouquet of 999 ‘red roses’ made out of Chinese currency, and 99 new iPhones also arranged in the shape of a heart.”[1] The article tells the story of another young man who descended from the skies on a “parachute emblazoned with the words, ‘Gou Hon Yan Marry Me!’”

Unfortunately for the parachuting proposer, he got caught in trees and had to be rescued by firefighters. And then when he finally was able to get down on one knee before his beloved, she said “No.” Begging might not be such a good idea.

That’s how we usually see it. No one wants to beg. It’s what dogs and small children do, but not mature, self-sufficient adults. Being on our knees before another person feels awkward. English words which have to do with begging come seldom and unnaturally to our lips: “supplicate,” “entreat,” “beseech,” “implore,” “importune.” The only two such words we regularly use, to “beg” or to “plead,” have negative connotations. No one wants want to beg or plead for something.

In the context of our Scripture this morning, none of us want to be that poor man, crippled from birth, begging coins from people on their way to worship. They come here too, you know, usually after worship to ask for money or food or a tank of gas. Several of you have helped those folks. But how do you feel about people like that? Do you want to be like that?

Just as in biblical times, we look down on beggars. To be honest, we don’t trust them. If we can give a gift of food or gasoline, fine, but unlike those ancient Jews at the temple, we’re seldom willing to put money into the hands of a beggar, for fear it will get spent on drugs or alcohol. And we wonder what is wrong with a person who cannot work for a living.

Like they are today, the poor in the first century were looked down on. In Psalm 109:10, a curse on a wicked enemy calls for his children to be made beggars. Being poor was regarded as God’s judgment on wickedness. Beggars were tolerated but despised. Just as now, most upright, solid citizens regarded poverty as a poor person’s own fault, a product of sin and laziness or, as in the case of this man lame from birth, the sins of his parents.

That’s why in verse 4 Peter has to tell the man, “Look at us!” As a detested lower class, beggars averted their eyes from respectable people. Picture him sitting with his head down on the steps of that beautiful gate, maybe with a cracked pottery cup in his hand, muttering a kind of chant, “Alms. Alms for the poor. Alms for the lame. Alms. Alms.” He only glances up now and then to see if someone is coming so he can raise his voice a little and push the cup out a farther. “Alms! Alms!”

You and I spend a good deal of our time and effort avoiding being like that man, being like those people. We work hard, save money for retirement, and try to steer clear of any situation where it looks like we’re seeking a handout. Like the Jewish psalm writer, we think, “God forbid that we or our children should be known as beggars.”

Yet if that’s how we see this man, how we see this Bible story, what can it mean to us? Here’s a wonderful thought about biblical interpretation. Francesca Murphy says, “The meaning of the biblical stories is best drawn out by those who act them out.”[2] Let me add to it the question, “Whose part in this story will we act out?”

Because we look down on beggars as much as people did back then, you and I are probably going to see ourselves in the role of Peter and John. We are the ones who have something to offer poor people. We might not be able to perform a miracle, but we could buy him a brace for his leg, find him a job suited for a person with a disability, maybe get him into some counseling for money management and self-esteem. You and I would put ourselves into this story as helpers, as people with resources, as kind-hearted citizens ready to give aid. But maybe that’s not where we belong.

We cannot be Peter and John until we’ve been the beggar. In fact, the beautiful paradox of this text is that the crippled man is not the only beggar in the story. In verse 6, Peter says, “Silver and gold have I none.” In material ways, Peter was almost as poor as the beggar. Maybe even poorer. That man probably had a few coins in his cup.

A few weeks ago we heard how the early Jerusalem church managed financially. Acts 2, verses 44 and 45, say they held everything in common. They sold their possessions so they could give to those in need among them. You can be sure Peter and John had done that. What Peter told the beggar was not the polite fiction you or I might offer to a panhandler, begging off because we have no change. “Silver and gold have I none” was literal truth. Read on in Acts and in Paul’s letters and you will see that it won’t be long until the apostle Paul would be begging for financial help from the churches of Asia Minor and Greece to aid an impoverished church in Jerusalem.

Financial poverty, though, is not the primary way in which Peter and John are beggars. My dictionary tells me the word “beggar” derives from an Old French word, begart. It meant a lay brother in a religious order, someone who prays. Why were the apostles going into the temple in the first place? Verse 1 says it was “the time of prayer.” They were headed for God’s house to pray for what they needed. They had come to beg from God. To beg is to pray, and to pray to God is to beg, to beg from the One who has all we truly need.

We will not be much use to those in need around us until we grasp that in relation to God we are as needy as they are. Oh, we may help them in many ways, like with the wonderful gifts of food you’ve brought for the Mission today. Yet we may give them food and shelter and medical care, even tell them the great good news of Jesus Christ, but as long as we come in a position of superiority, as those who have what they don’t have, then we will not be able to address their deepest and most difficult needs.

Most of you know how we open our sanctuary on cold nights for those without shelter and for families for a week every March. Years ago I heard the former director of First Place Family Shelter, Tim Rockwell, suggest what the people we serve need most. He surprised me then when he said, “They need to hear about your own struggles. Share a little of yourself. Tell them about some of the hard times you’ve had so they get the message that there is hope, that it’s possible to get through their difficulties.”

That lame man averted his eyes, but Peter and John didn’t turn their eyes away in disgust and pity. Verse 4 says they both looked straight at the lame man. Peter asked him to look at them. He established eye contact to communicate with both face and words that in relation to ordinary standards of wealth, in terms of silver and gold, they were beggars too. That did not mean they had nothing to give him. Peter was ready to share better riches. “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you.” Peter had hope, hope better than any bank account in relation to what that man really lacked.

“In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk,” Peter said. Then verse 7 says they took him by the hand, pulled him up. His feet and ankles were strengthened instantly. He was healed. He was healed by the name of Jesus. He was healed because Peter introduced him to the name of Jesus Christ and he found faith and wholeness.

The Lord meets us when we are in need and admit it. Our psalm today, the end of Psalm 22, is the one Jesus quoted on the Cross in poverty and pain. It starts out in utter distress, talks about even clothes being ripped away, but then calls to God starting where we started in verse 19. And verse 26 says, “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord.”

That’s also how it was with demon-possessed man in our Gospel from Luke 8. He was insane, homeless, running naked in the wild. But when he met Jesus he was given back his mind as the demons were driven away. Then Jesus sent him back to his family and friends to bear witness, to praise God for what had happened to him.

And in verse 8 that lame man got up “walking and leaping and praising God.” As you can see from all these Scriptures, that last bit is the real point. Our ultimate goal is not to feed the hungry or provide medical attention or find them shelter or help get their finances in order. It’s to come alongside them to praise God. Everything else we do to help people get on their feet is so that can leap up and sing the praises of Jesus with us. All of our service and help and giving needs to keep that in mind.

In fact, I will risk saying that though it’s a constant stress and worry, it’s also probably a good thing that our own local church is always a bit behind, never quite flush with all the financial resources we need. The Bible does not teach that poverty is good, but it does teach that God comes with power and His own resources when we are poor.

As weird as it sounds, I hope and pray our church continues to have times when there isn’t enough to pay all the bills, when we can’t drift along comfortably. I’m certainly not asking anyone to give less! Just the opposite. But both at church and at home we need those moments when we aren’t sure where the month’s expenses are coming from. We need opportunities to be beggars before the Lord. Those times are exactly when He meets us, when we truly discover the power of His name, when we have the chance to be so surprised by His power that we will jump up and praise God.

There is a fine story, but probably not historical fact, about how Thomas Aquinas once visited Pope Innocent IV and found him counting a large stack of money. “You see, Thomas,” said the pope, “the Church can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” “True, holy father,” said Thomas, “and neither can she now say, ‘Arise and walk.’”[3]

Let us be beggars. Let us always be poor enough to know what is our real power. We pray that generous giving will keep our doors open to welcome those in need and to be a place of praise. This time of year we pray that more often and more fervently. Yet we do not trust in money, we trust, as the words written on our coins and bills say, in God. Which means we must constantly let go of money in order to grasp our strength.

Jesus draws near us when we realize how poor we are. Begging before the Lord is the route to good spiritual life. It’s when we become too confident that we have enough, too sure of having what we need, that we drift away from the real source of all our possessions. It’s when we start to feel too rich in ourselves that our spiritual power fades away.

Years ago our youth went on a mission trip and stopped in Seattle. Their assignment that day was to find someone in need and provide that person with a meal. Carina and Greg struggled with it. They couldn’t find anyone to help. They were full of doubts. But after particularly earnest prayer, what I would call “begging” God, they came upon Emar. He let them buy him a meal, but then the man who had nothing to eat talked to them about trusting God. Afterward, they said they were blessed as much or more than they blessed Emar.  Their own impoverished faith was renewed. In Emar they met the Lord and learned that He really does answer prayer. The Lord meets us when we beg.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” And blessed are you when you realize that blessing is for everyone. We are all poor in spirit before God. We are all spiritual beggars. As much as any panhandler in the street, you and I need to accept and receive the precious gift of the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth and let Him heal us and make us whole.

  1. T. Niles, a theologian from Sri Lanka, said, “Christianity is one beggar telling another where to find bread.” If, as I said earlier, we have to act out a Scripture story in our own lives before we can understand it, then we will have to learn to play the role of the beggar. Being a Christian means being a beggar.

I cannot say exactly how you personally are to beg in order to meet Jesus. Some of us will do so in literal poverty, struggling to make a living for ourselves or for our families. Others will beg before God in the poorness of spirit which comes from constant illness or a physical handicap carried through life. A few will kneel before God in the torment of mental illness and implore Him to set them free.

Like Peter, I must to tell you what I don’t have to offer you—and I certainly have even less than the great Apostle did. For all your personal spiritual begging, I have no guarantee that God will grant exactly what you beg for. As painful as it is to acknowledge, St. Thomas was right, the church seldom has the power today to simply say, “Get up and walk.”

Yet I can tell you this. The crippled man did not get what he asked for. He got something better. That’s obvious in this story. It may not be so obvious in our own begging before the Lord, but it’s still true. You may not get what you ask for, but you will always get something better. You may not get your bills paid or your back healed or your mind made whole, but you will always, always meet Jesus. That’s what begging before the Lord brings to us—the living presence and strength of Christ Jesus. And the name of Jesus will carry us through whatever trials He does not remove from us.

Many of us, though, don’t at the moment have any actual reason to think of ourselves as poor, any serious lack in our lives to bring us to our knees. We are reasonably healthy, moderately comfortable, and mentally stable. For many of us, then, the challenge will be to realize just how poor we truly are, just how little we have in God’s eyes. We may have to go begging even when we don’t feel like beggars if we want to meet Jesus and find ourselves leaping up to praise Him.

Let us beg. That unnatural posture of begging is the natural posture of love. God says yes to you and me whenever we kneel before Him without anything in our hands. Go begging and Jesus Christ will come to you. Then get up and walk. Jump up and praise God. Praise God because without Him you have nothing. Praise Him even though you have nothing, because in Him you have everything. Go begging.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] USA Today May 31, 2016 by Hannah Gardner.

[2] Francesca Aran Murphy, Christ the Form of Beauty (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), p. 207f.

[3] From Cornelius à Lapide (1597-1637), Commentaria Acta Apostolorum, p. 92. The earliest appearance of this story seems to be in Giambattista Gelli (1498-1563), Opere, p. 219. Thanks to Andrew Dunning for the accurate references. Several versions get the wrong Pope Innocent (G. K. Chesterton says Innocent III, who lived before Thomas Aquinas; F. F. Bruce is even further off in making it Innocent II).