We let a lot of nourishing meat on the bone of Acts 3 when last I preached. So I’ll be asking us to consider some additional truths from that scripture.
Acts of the Apostles 3
“3One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2And a man lame from the womb was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” 5And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” 7And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. 11While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.
“ 12When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”
So many of us who are part of this worshipping community are regularly involved with helping children, women and men who are “lame,” or some other painful, sorrowful, disabling and separating condition, from birth. So this story about how Peter and John responded to this man can have great meaning. It would have been so easy for the two of them to pass by the man without even noticing and seeing him, as most of the people entering the Temple grounds surely did. Or it would have been easy for them to give the man the small amount of money he was requesting, also without seeing him, and then go into worship with a cleaner conscience. Instead, Peter and John responded to the man as a child of God in all his individuality and dignity, as Jesus responded to so many. Have you ever heard the expression: “She loves humankind, but can’t bear to be around any human.”? That clearly didn’t describe Peter, or John, or Jesus.
The disciples acted out of empathy. Our English word “empathy” comes from the Greek words for “into,” and “sorrow” or “suffering.” To experience empathy is to enter into the sorrow or pain of another. Or to have that pain and sorrow enter into you.
Empathy is a both gift and an invasion–for both the person experiencing the other’s pain, and for the person whose pain is experienced.
“Gift” for the one whose pain is shared, because that one learns from the sharing that she is not alone, that another is with them and in their struggle, that help and support are at hand, strengthening their capacity to endure and surpass. (For empathy is not just a feeling, but an act.) Imagine this man in this story, left at the entrance of the Temple every day, lying on a mat, begging for alms as hundreds streamed in and out of the Temple, rarely being actually seen and regarded, even by those who tossed a few coins his way. For someone such as Peter or John to stop and see and share and feel had to have been a kind of rescue from a kind of quarantine of the lame man’s soul.
But empathy can also be an “invasion” for the one whose pain is shared. He may not want someone to claim or presume to feel what he is feeling. How could they possibly share this? And the sharing may cause him to re-experience the sorrow even more intensely. He may have become numb to his pain, and thus better able to bear it, so long as people will just pass by without looking, just tossing a coin or two to the begging outcast they do not really see. For pity’s sake, do not ask him about it. Do not ask him for his story. Just toss a coin and walk on. Or don’t toss a coin if you have to ask me to explain my plight. Just walk on without the coin.
And “gift” for the one who feels someone else’s pain and sorrow and who takes those pains and sorrow into her heart…because truly living is about sharing in life’s tragedy and struggle…because to live without sharing other’s lives, including their pain, is not to live at all…because to partake of another’s sorrow and pain is to experience the risen Christ….is to bear the cross of Jesus…is to find a meaning and mission in life that surpasses the greatest pleasures that the flesh can bring.
But “invasion” to the person who partakes of another’s pain and sorrow…because that is exactly how empathy can feel…like something or someOne has entered into you…has conquered you like an invading force….has taken you over…something, or someOne, not in your control…causing you to cry with the other, to lose sleep with the other…causing you to have no happiness until they are happy too…and, paradoxically, finding the greatest and most satisfying happiness just in the experience of the sharing.
Just as the Spirit is a gift and an invasion.
Just as our faith is a gift and an invasion.
This is the secret that the world does not want to be told. This is the pearl of great price the world does not want to be given. This is the treasure hidden in the field the world does not want to buy.