A couple of Sundays ago we looked at one of my favourite stories in the Bible. The healing of a disabled man after an encounter with Peter and John on their way to pray. The man sat on the road and begged for money, perhaps because that was all he could hope for. I imagine he had already seen various healers come and go and still he sat there on the roadside everyday.
There is a great verse at the end of the story in Acts 3 that describes how the man, once healed by God, entered to Temple 'walking and leaping and praising God,' (in the words of the Sunday School classic.) It would be easy to miss the whole meaning of this verse. The man is of course celebrating His healing but it is not by mistake that we are told that He is entering the Temple.
If we draw some background from another story of a healing, that of a blind man by Jesus, we see that there was a discussion amongst the religious elite as to whether it was the man or his parents whose sin had caused his blindness. In essence the discussion was around why this man was unclean and who else, if anyone should also be excluded from the holy places.
We can assume that a similar discussion happened around the disabled man in Acts 3. This man, would also have been subject to an inquest. What sin had his parents committed that caused his inability to walk? Had God foreseen the sin in his life and 'pre-punished' him with his disability? Either way, the man's physical impairment would have placed him on the outside of the Temple. He would have deemed unclean and unfit to enter into the worship that happened there. Not only would his impairment have caused him to be unclean but the results of his impairment i.e. begging, sitting in the dirt, an inability to reach ceremonial washing points etc. would also have excluded him.
It is no mistake then that the writer of the story describes him walking and leaping in to the temple. In the mind of a first century Jew, he was walking into the dwelling place of God. He was leaping as close the intimate presence of God as one could go. For the first time in his life, he could enter the courts of the Temple without fear of eviction. For the first time in his life, the obstacles that had been laid between him and his Father God were surmountable. He was free.
I've had conversations with four different people in the past week who for very different reasons have felt excluded from the church. In each of their stories there is a resonant theme. There have been people in various churches who have built obstacle courses between people and God that are impossible for many to complete. When they have 'failed' the test set for them, some have suffered rejection, judgement and even in one story ridicule for not fitting in or measuring up.
The reality is that in my own mind I have to remove the obstacles that I have put up between others and God. In my own mind there are lingering remnants of belief, fear and moralism that I have long rejected but that still cause some emotional or learned response in me. Everyday I have to remove ideas of graded sin, homophobia and sexism from my thoughts as I engage with people. In my own mind these remnant thoughts of things I now deem abhorrent still linger and everyday I remove them as I pursue Jesus' way of reconciliation, restoration and acceptance. Perhaps you can recognise similar ideas in your own mind and thoughts.
If we are to really become a community and a church that is welcoming to all we must face the obstacles we still place in the way of others. There is no greater hypocrisy than to worship in gratitude for Jesus' acceptance of oneself whilst deeming another unworthy of that same unconditional love and acceptance. May we create pathways on which everyone can walk and leap into God's presence, not pathways littered with obstacles that drive them away.