Grace Presbyterian Church
April 26, 2020, Easter 3A
Cut to the Heart
I don’t know how it is for you, but there are times in reading scripture – whether for sermon preparation or personal study or reflection – when I am basically brought to a halt by a particular use of word or phrase in the passage in question, and my study or reflection ends up getting drawn to that word or phrase.
In today’s reading from Acts, the particular arresting phrase is right there in the second verse we read, 2:37. We have just heard the culmination of Peter’s big speech or sermon on the day of Pentecost, and Luke (our author of Acts) is ready to describe the reaction of the crowd to the speech. In that speech Peter has, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, laid out a defense of the disciples – no, we’re not drunk, it’s only 9:00 a.m. – and pointed to the Spirit as the instigator of this day’s outbreak of speech among many nations and languages. From there, he moved towards a tour of scripture history and an evocation of those passages that he interprets as pointing towards Jesus of Nazareth, a man who had been executed a little less than two months before as we would reckon it, as the God-chosen “Lord and Messiah” as verse 36 puts it, despite his own audience’s religious leaders’ complicity in promoting and provoking that execution.
(Necessary clarification: Peter’s calling out his fellow Jewish folk here, his fellow Temple-worshipers and synagogue-gatherers, remember. There’s entirely too long a history of using this and other such passages as pretext for anti-Jewish hatred and violence. That is not tolerable, not excusable, and extremely not Christ-like or Christ-following in any way. So shut any thought like that down now.)
Let’s get real here; a speech such as this could have just as easily started a riot. You’re gonna blame me for some backwater preacher getting crucified by the Romans? Yeah, I’ll show you…. But that’s not what happens here. Instead, we get a reaction that is translated in our NRSV as saying the hearers were “cut to the heart.” That’s about as striking and (sorry) penetrating an image for a reaction that is emotional, yes, but not just; it also carries the weight of knowing one’s own complicity or guilt as well.
The easy explanation for that response is the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s not as if Peter has suddenly transformed from slightly bumbling and foot-in-mouth-prone disciple to silver-tongued orator in fifty days with no divine intervention. Both in Peter’s speaking and in the hearing of the crowd, the Spirit is moving and being received.
Part of this, it seems, is that this response that comes of being “cut to the heart” is about as direct as a response can be. There’s no bargaining, no “spin,” no trying to explain away or make excuses or plead ignorance or anything else: the response is simply “what should we do?” Seriously, how often do you see that anymore in the world?
Does that even happen anymore in the church? Are we modern Christians capable of being “cut to the heart?” I can’t get away from Thursday evening’s hymn devotion, on the Muscogee Indian hymn “Heleluyan, We Are Singing,” a song born of the experience of forced migration imposed upon the Muscogee and other nations that were removed from the American South to modern-day Oklahoma, with most churches in this country raising no opposition (only one denomination did, and it wasn’t Presbyerian). The frequent use of this scripture and others as pretext for anti-Jewish hatred and violence (referenced earlier) marks another example, as far too many Christian churches, writ large or small, either participated in that hatred with glee or remained silent. (A figure like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, for example, stands out precisely because so much of the German church openly supported the Nazi regime.) One could also look at how little reaction the church as a whole raises to the ongoing ruination of God’s creation, thinking back to last week’s message.
I wonder if part of the secret, if some part of being able to be “cut to the heart,” is found in another striking phrase later in this reading. When Peter and the disciples respond to their hearers with the call to repent and be baptized, the plea ends with this exhortation: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
There is a faint echo of this call in the reading from 1 Peter, when in verse 17 the author exhorts his readers to “live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.” This isn’t the Old Testament; this isn’t the people of Israel and Judah hauled off to Babylon as captives. The “time of your exile” is no less than their current condition of living subject to Christ in a world that clearly does not live in that subjection. It is not to seek to escape from the world, but to know that you live in the world as an alien, a foreigner; to live in such a way that the commonplaces and habits and comforts of the world are as alien and strange to you as the surface of Mars would be. It is to live in the world knowing that the world is not your home, and the world’s ways are not your ways as a follower of Christ.
Only then, it seems, can we truly be open to the Spirit and its propensity to “cut to the heart” in the face of injustice, cruelty, hatred, and numerous other “ways of the world.” Only living as exiles in a land that is not ours, it seems, can the church truly be the church.
It’s a challenge to come to these passages in a time when it seems our most anxious desire is for things to “get back to normal” after the pandemic is done. I don’t know. If “getting back to normal” means no longer respecting or caring about the work of health care workers, supermarket employees, food and farm workers of all kinds and these others whose work is suddenly being called “essential,” maybe getting back to normal is a bad thing. Maybe we shouldn’t be so eager to “get back to normal” if that means looking upon the poor, the homeless, the oppressed as dispensable, not important enough to save in a time of pandemic. Maybe the point is to be exiles in the world for whom that kind of “normal” can never be accepted as normal, and to finally be the Church of Jesus Christ in the face of that heartlessness.
Does the Church have the ability at last to lay aside its history of privilege and to take up the call to live as strangers in a strange land? Can we truly live as though these newly-discovered “essential” members of society really are essential? Can we save ourselves from this corrupt generation? Can we regain at last our capacity to be, truly and deeply, “cut to the heart”?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #415, Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy; #839, Blessed Assurance! Jesus Is Mine