Here is Peter’s slightly imperious gesture inviting, in the name of Jesus, a man who has been lame since birth to get up and walk. He is in the east window of what has become the Brontë Memorial Chapel in St Michael’s, Haworth.
And here is the lame man’s imploring gesture, a begging hand outstretched. The position of the two figures in the window gives the direct eye contact which is mentioned in the story in Acts 3.
Having recently got one surprised congregation to sing the doggerel of a redundant eighteenth century hymn which expressed the central readings for that day, I got another to sing a 1970s hymn (which I well remember from being in a church Youth Group then but which hasn’t made it through subsequent winnowing into the best used hymn books of today) saying he ‘asked for alms and held out his palms’ and ended up ‘walking and leaping and praising God’.
My surprise was the discovery that it isn’t a story read at a main service in our three year cycle of Sunday readings. What we have read on the last two Sundays are the consequential passages beginning ‘Why do you stare at this?’ and going on to find Peter arrested for it.
It seems important that this is the very first story after Luke’s account of the pouring out of God’s Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost.
And it seems important that this first product of the pentecostal church directly reflects Isaiah’s language of what it will be like when God comes to save (‘the lame man will leap like a deer’) – which is the passage which Luke gives Jesus as quoting when asked ‘Are you the one who is to come?’ (‘Go and tell John what you have seen... the lame walk’) (Isaiah 35.6, Luke 7.22).
So, ‘what you see’ is not just a healing miracle but more fundamentally the church (which has witnessed the resurrection, which has recently received the Spirit, and which acts in the name of Jesus) freeing people from what hobbles them so there is a skip in their step, and this is precisely what tells us that God’s new saving thing is actually happening.
And from the start the church’s leaders have been arrested for it. I’m only half reminded of the threadbare trope ‘If they arrested me for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict me?’ I’m more drawn to (and worried by) the question ‘Why haven’t I ever done anything liberating in the name of Jesus which has made respectable people want me arrested?’.
From the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King to the necessity of protest at deliberately hostile ways of implementing policies which drive immigrants and benefits claimants into joblessness, debt and despair, there ought to be enough opportunity to do some things which should both make the vulnerable leap with joy and make me arrestable.
What do I see? The congregations at St James’, Cross Roads on Wednesday and Sunday, with whom I shared some of these thoughts, and who would not otherwise be mistaken for members of a pentecostal church, included those who run its weekly ‘place of welcome’, who help sort at the Keighley Food Bank, who help staff Keighley Shared Church’s Saturday Night Shift, who help run an English conversation group for refugees and asylum seekers, who draw injustice to the attention of our MP, and who support fragile neighbours.