Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 23, 2017
Acts 2:14a, 22-32 Commentary
Sometimes we need help understanding even the events that we ourselves witness. After all, no two-eyewitness accounts, to say nothing of the interpretations of the same incident are exactly the same.
For our text’s Peter, there can be no doubt about what has happened in just the past few months. While we don’t know if he actually witnessed it, he knows that the authorities “put [Jesus] to death by nailing him to the cross” (23b). Peter also knows that “God raised [Jesus] from the dead]” (24a) because he was among the many people to whom the risen Jesus appeared. What’s more, Peter knows that the Father “exalted [Jesus] to the right hand of God” (33). After all, he watched it happen with his own two eyes.
While we can’t be sure, it wouldn’t surprise us if some of the people in Peter’s audience on the first Pentecost Sunday had also watched the authorities crucify Jesus. And even if they themselves didn’t actually watch it, we can imagine that at least some of them have heard about it.
As a result, Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, believes he must explain to his hearers just what actually happened to Jesus. He begins his presentation with an account of what he assumes many of them already know: “Jesus of Nazareth … [did] miracles, signs and wonders” (22). The apostle, however, adds a detail about Jesus’ work that at least some members of his audience didn’t recognize. He claims that Jesus’ wonders were part of God’s accreditation of him that God actually performed through him.
On top of that, Peter speaks of Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion. Jesus was, he says, “handed over to you” (23). And “you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” The apostles’ words are almost shockingly blunt. Their both apparent insensitivity to both power dynamics in occupied Israel and the way people have sometimes used his words to justify anti-Semitism jolt modern ears. However, Peter’s message is clear: the Roman authorities and Jesus Jewish contemporaries share culpability for Jesus’ crucifixion.
Acts 2 preachers and teachers must show great sensitivity in the way they handle verse 23’s assertions. It’s not just that people have historically misappropriated them to justify cruelty toward Jewish people. It’s also that the New Testament writers insist that each of us also shares in the culpability for Jesus’ death on the cross.
Jewish religious leaders may have convinced the Romans to execute Jesus. The Roman authorities may actually have crucified Jesus. But people like Paul imply that we have figuratively pounded the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet by refusing to completely love God and each other.
At this point, however, Peter’s sermon makes a striking turn. The apostle has just used the second person plural “you” (su) four times in just two verses (22-23). He points his finger directly at Jerusalem’s Jews who stand before him as sharing culpability for Jesus’ crucifixion. They, Peter insists in verse 23, put Jesus to death by nailing him to a cross. Under any ordinary circumstance, that would give the members of his audience the last word on Jesus. And that word would be death.
Yet Peter’s sermon isn’t primarily about human actions and cruelty. It’s about God from first to last and everywhere in between. Peter, in fact, spends far less time talking about what people did to Jesus than on what God did to, for and with Jesus. He doesn’t just speak of God’s role in working miracles, wonders and signs through Jesus. In fact, the apostle insists that Jesus was handed over to be tried and crucified “by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (23). Whatever that mysterious assertion means, it almost certainly includes the fact that God chose to allow the Jews to hand Jesus over to the Romans.
Yet Peter adds a detail about Jesus’ life with which members of his audience may or may not be aware. It, in fact, may come as news to some of them that “God raised [Jesus] from the dead, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (24), just as, Peter adds, David had predicted (31). So Peter insists that while people, including members of audiences in all times and places (including our own) killed Jesus, God raised him. No matter what their religious leaders have tried to convince them, Peter tells members of his audience that Jesus is alive.
Yet while the Lectionary mysteriously chooses to omit his account of it from the text it appoints for this Sunday, Peter insists God didn’t just raise Jesus from the dead. He claims God also “exalted [him] to the right hand of God” (33). In doing so, the apostle adds in verse 36, “God … made this Jesus … both Lord and Christ.” The risen and ascended Jesus now reigns from the heavenly realm on behalf of all those whom God loves and calls to himself.
Those who wish to preach and/or teach Acts 2:14a, 22-32 might let the Spirit help them approach it from several different angles. As my colleague Scott Hoezee earlier noted in an excellent Commentary on this passage, Peter might just as well have been talking about his fellow disciples and himself in verses 22-23. In fact, he might just as well have admitted, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to us by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among us through him, as we ourselves know.”
Peter and his fellow disciples had always realized that Jesus was special and different. Yet there was a lot they didn’t know about him. But on the first Pentecost God miraculously showed them that God had raised Jesus as both Lord and Christ. Just ten short days after Jesus ascended to the heavenly realm, the Holy Spirit showed Peter and Jesus’ other disciples that Jesus was, in Hoezee’s words, “not just a man but the divine Son of God whose death had caused the whole cosmos to turn the corner from darkness into light.”
This same God who graciously transformed and inspired Peter is still busy changing God’s modern adopted sons and daughters. After all, we’re naturally no more aware of who Jesus really is than any of his contemporaries, including both his persecutors and disciples, were. It’s only through God’s gift to us of the Holy Spirit that we realize that the risen and ascended Jesus is our own Lord and Christ.
A second potential “angle” for a sermon on the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday is what one might call an “interpretive angle.” Peter claims his first Pentecost audience knew some basic things about Jesus. They apparently realized that Jesus had performed miracles, wonders and signs. Members of Peter’s first Pentecost audience also at least seemed familiar with Jesus’ crucifixion.
Yet they didn’t yet understand what it all meant. Peter’s first hearers didn’t seem to understand that God was at work accrediting Jesus by working miracles, wonders and signs through him. They also had no way of knowing that Jesus was handed over to his executioners “by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (23). They, in other words, couldn’t know what was really going on in Jesus life and death, as well as resurrection and ascension, unless someone told them. Peter’s hearers needed the Spirit-filled Peter to explain it to them.
In similar ways, those whom we teach and to whom we preach observe all sorts of things about daily life. Most of them are materialists who assume that everything has a material cause. We conceive children because we’re intimate. We put food on our table and a roof over our head because we make enough money to do so. We live a long time because we eat and exercise right.
It’s the job of Peter’s heirs in whom the same Spirit lives and works to help interpret what’s going on, or more precisely, what God’s doing in the world. So, for example, conception isn’t just or even primarily a biological act; it’s part of God’s creative work. Our food and shelter aren’t just the products of our good work; they’re among God’s many gifts of “daily bread” to us. Long life is not just or even mainly our rewards for careful living; they’re part of God’s generosity towards us.
Some speeches don’t just interest, move or even bore us. They also change the very way we understand things. In his fine book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills claims that Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address did precisely that. In it the President— in just 272 words that took him only three minutes to deliver — transformed our understanding of the Declaration of Independence.
Lincoln wasn’t the featured speaker that day. That honor was given to a then-famous orator named Edward Everett, who spoke just prior to the President. Yet few people now recall anything Everett said in his lengthy and elegant speech. Lincoln’s speech was so short that some in the crowd were confused and left to wonder if that was all there was to it. It was. And it changed history.
But it did so subtly. Lincoln assumed no one would pay attention to or remember his speech. But he was wrong. The world has forgotten what the Honorable Mr. Everett had to say, but Lincoln’s handful of words remains legendary.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” But Mr. Lincoln, unlike those founding Fathers, was now including people who were African-American in the definition of “all men.”
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Subtly but skillfully Lincoln turned the tables on his audience and his country: he shifted from dedicating a cemetery to making the American people dedicate themselves to a new birth of freedom – a new birth that was nothing less than the end of slavery. After all, sometimes you don’t need many words to create a huge effect. Sometimes you don’t need “in your face” rhetoric to get someone’s attention and so alter his or her viewpoint from the inside out. Acts 2 shows that the Apostle Peter understood that.
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