Grace Presbyterian Church
April 30, 2017, Easter 3A
Acts 2:14a, 32-42
Every year in the lectionary cycle, be it Year A, B, or C, the Old Testament readings that are typically offered as the first of four possible readings to be used in the service of worship are replaced by readings from the book of Acts, the one straightforwardly historical book in the New Testament. Readings from Acts, nestled in between the observance of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday and the Pentecost event, serve to connect the two in a way, giving record of how the early not-quite-church first began to take root in the aftermath both of the Resurrection and the out-breaking of the Holy Spirit among the followers of Jesus. Different readings from Acts are included in each year, so over the three years of the lectionary cycle a pastor that chooses these texts for preaching covers a decent variety of that book’s stories, from the earliest followers in Jerusalem to the extensive travels and preaching of the Apostle Paul.
This year (Year A of the lectionary cycle, if you’re curious) the Acts readings focus most heavily on the earliest days after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and the subsequent Pentecost event. And in some ways these are the hardest texts of this Acts mini-series to preach, and the hardest to make sense of from the point of view of the church today. And today’s text, the second of a series of three from the second chapter of this book, is a pretty good example of why.
This second chapter of the book of Acts includes the Pentecost event of the Holy Spirit, which of course will come along on Pentecost Sunday, and also continues to include the seemingly spontaneous sermon Peter gave at that time, as well as a brief, lightly poetic description of the communal life of the earliest followers, found in next week’s text. It is, in short, full of events and descriptions that are hard to swallow, and easily misinterpreted by modern teachers or preachers or readers (willfully or not). Peter’s sermon, which concludes in today’s reading, is an example of such a text, one whose misreading has contributed to some of the most heinous crimes in human history.
First of all, where did this come from? To be charitable, Peter doesn’t always come off as the sharpest knife in the drawer. Even when he does get it spectacularly right – “You are the Messiah, the Son of God” says Peter in Matthew 16:16 – he almost immediately turns around and gets it spectacularly wrong – as in Matthew 16:22-23, when he reproaches Jesus for predicting his crucifixion only to be reproved by Jesus with “Get behind me, Satan!” And we haven’t even gotten into his thrice-denial of Jesus after his arrest.
So, when Acts 2 presents us with a Peter preaching this emphatic and forceful sermon out of the blue, people get ideas. “It must be the Holy Spirit!” they say. Well, yes, it is the Holy Spirit, but it is the Holy Spirit acting on a man who, no matter how often he didn’t get it, had nonetheless had been exposed to and receiving the life and teaching of Jesus for the better part of the previous three years. The Holy Spirit wasn’t working with nothing here. That business about being ready to give a defense of your faith on the spot only works when you’ve been immersing yourself in study and meditation Christ’s teachings and deeds intently and deliberately. To think (as some people do) that “I don’t have to worry, God will tell me what to say in that moment” is a pretty irresponsible distortion of this and other texts that can, at worst, leave their practitioners babbling foolishness and nonsense, or confusing, say, political views with spiritual guidance, at the worst possible time.
Peter’s sermon, as Luke records it, also has a strange and nasty blaming streak in it. Over and over, Peter casts blame for the crucifixion not on the Romans who actually carried out the deed, nor on the religious authorities who stirred up a mob against Jesus, but on “you.”
Peter is, of course, speaking to a crowd of Jews – fellow Jews, it should be pointed out, as at this point Peter and the other disciples are still observant, Temple-attending Jews themselves. Furthermore, the Jews who were swelling into town for the observance of Pentecost were, if you look earlier in the chapter, from a wide range of non-Jewish lands, and it’s quite unlikely that many, if any, of the crowd had even been in Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion. It’s entirely possible that the “you” to whom Peter is preaching are people who hadn’t even heard about this crucifixion, or even about this itinerant rabbi named Jesus, before stumbling upon these Galileans who were somehow speaking their own, native, non-Hebrew non-Greek non-Aramaic languages. How do you possibly blame them for what they don’t even know about?
Furthermore, this would be the kind of text that, in its seeming blanket accusation of all Jews as “Christ-killers,” becomes the basis for anti-Semitism, one of the more virulent sins in which the Christian church has indulged across the centuries of its existence. One only needs to take notice of Holocaust Remembrance Day, that was observed this past week, to recall and recoil from the horror that such beliefs have visited upon the world in the spirit of hatred, a hatred which has the ears of those in high places in our nation’s government today and is nauseatingly close to taking power in ongoing French elections as well. Why must Peter – again, an observant Jew himself at this point – speak this way, or why must Luke record his words this way?
But in a way, one of the hardest parts of this text to swallow is that part that almost sneaks in, so familiar that we almost don’t notice anymore, towards the end of the passage in verse 41: “So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added” (emphasis mine).
Really? First real sermon and three thousand people get saved?
In today’s balkanized, fragmented world, how often do you even find three thousand people all in one place at one time, ready to listen? I mean, sure, you could get up and start preaching at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium one autumn Saturday, but I’m pretty sure the crowd would throw you over the walls of the stadium if you started interfering with their watching the Gators.
But yeah, reading about three thousand being added in one day can create all sorts of inferiority complex for churches for which three hundred is the fondest of pipe dreams. But numbers are transitory; faith that endures is another thing altogether.
By the end of his letter to the Romans (chapter 15, to be precise), Paul is describing his travel plans, telling the believers in Rome that he will visit them after he makes a trip to Jerusalem. Apparently some of the churches in Paul’s travels had taken up a collection for the community in Jerusalem, which by that time apparently could no longer keep up with the needs of the widows and the poor in their midst. What happened to those three thousand, or the “many” recorded as joining in later chapters of Acts? An outburst of persecution scattered some, no doubt, but what happened to make that vibrant and, well, large a community unable to take care of itself?
And yet, amidst all of these head-scratching and facepalm-inducing moments in the chapter, it is undeniable that the Holy Spirit is moving among these earliest followers and even through the longtime dunderhead Peter. People are hearing and being moved; repentance is happening; people are coming together and making community. The Holy Spirit is moving in that moment, and the Holy Spirit does not move in vain. Even with Peter seemingly lashing out in ways that really ought to be directed at him as much as spoken by him, the Spirit still moved.
The Holy Spirit did not wait around for a perfect vessel through which to speak. The Spirit worked through Peter, the lunkhead, the one who stupidly got in Jesus’s face and got lumped in with Satan for it, the three-times denier.
It seems pretty unlikely that Peter had forgotten those things just because the Spirit showed up. Maybe, as Peter engaged in his finger-pointing at the crowd, he was remembering some first-century Palestine version of the old adage how when you point a finger at others, three fingers are pointing back at yourself. There’s a lot of brokenness in someone like Peter at this point, and still the Holy Spirit moves.
We see this later in Acts, as Paul moves from persecutor of Jesus’s followers to principal missionary. In his letters Paul makes it clear that he never forgot what he had been before his Damascus Road encounter with Christ. That memory, and the pain that went with it, didn’t go away just because the Holy Spirit gave him a new job and a new calling.
Our shortcomings, our sins, our failures are forgiven, to be sure, but are they really forgotten? I don’t think so. I don’t think at all that Peter was forgetting his own failures as he was castigating the crowd. And why would we think it would be any different for us? Can one who doesn’t remember, who doesn’t know first hand that horror or that shame really be an empathetic or effective witness to those who seek redemption?
Remember how, after the resurrection, Jesus was recognized by the disciples only when they saw his scars? Our scars don’t disappear either. Even as our sin is forgiven, we don’t get a memory wipe. We don’t get to ignore or wipe out the consequences of our sin. What we do is bear witness as the Spirit leads, in all our imperfection and brokenness.
God is not going to wait around for us to get perfect. The Spirit will just work through us anyway, and for that, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #246, Christ Is Alive!; #655, What Shall I Render to the Lord; #737, Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song; #733, We All Are One In Mission