Peter’s first Pentecost sermon’s aftermath at least suggests that preaching and teaching the Scriptures is a bit like brandishing a lethally sharp sword. Since it can cut very deeply, its handlers want to be both very careful and prepared to help stop any bleeding our proclamation may cause.
Reading the lesson the Lectionary appoints this Sunday may feel a bit like beginning to watch a television show or movie in its middle. So Acts 2: 14a, 36-41’s preachers and teachers will want to spend at least some time reviewing its context. How much time we spend doing so may depend on whether we preached or taught verses 22-36 on the previous Sunday.
The Holy Spirit can certainly use any of several approaches to the lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Its teachers and preachers may choose to focus on Acts 2’s portrayal of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Luke presents evidence of that transformation, in a sense, with the way Peter’s audience addresses the apostle.
After all, before Peter even stands up to preach on the first Pentecost, at least some of those whom he addresses have accused the Eleven of drunkenness (2:13). The next time they speak, however, they call Peter and the other apostles “brothers” (37). That change seems to signal a shift in the crowd’s posture from hostility to familial tenderness towards Peter and the others.
A second sign of the Spirit’s transforming power is the affect Peter’s Pentecost “sermon” or “lesson” has on those who first hear it. It doesn’t have a lot of good news in it. Peter’s message bluntly draws sharp contrast between what his audience did with Jesus and what God did with Jesus.
Yet no one tries to dispute his claims. No one even tries to evade guilt for what he or she did to Jesus. Instead, because Peter’s message affects them so deeply, because it’s almost as if that message has caused them physical pain, that they ask what they need to do in order to make things right between God and them.
Will Willimon (Acts, John Knox, 1988, p. 36) writes about this response, “The power being offered here is not that of Peter’s homiletical ability to work the crowd up into an emotional frenzy or in the crowd’s sincere inner determination to get themselves right with God. The story of Peter’s Pentecost speech is told so that there is no doubt the power is of the Holy Spirit.”
The results of Peter’s preaching is a humbling reminder to those who teach and preach not just Acts 2, but also all of the Scriptures. We prayerfully and carefully prepare to preach and teach God’s Word. We also work to communicate as thoughtfully and winsomely as we can what the Spirit and our studies have shown us about that Word. But changed hearts and lives come only through the transforming work of God’s Holy Spirit. Preachers and teachers can only long to be messengers who don’t get in the way of that Spirit’s work.
So how does Peter, by the power of that Holy Spirit, respond to the convicted members of the crowd’s plea for help? He invites them to “repent and be baptized … in the name of Jesus Christ” (38). The Greek word for “repent” is metaneo, which refers to not only a changed mind about something, but also changed behavior. In other words, Peter seems to invite his audience to adopt a new perspective on Jesus’ death and resurrection that, in turn, produces the new behavior that is faithful obedience.
Part of that faithful obedience is submission to baptism in the name of Jesus Christ “for the forgiveness of sins.” It is allowing God to draw near believers, their children and even all “who are far off” (39). To be baptized is to allow God to unite us to Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. It is to allow God to do what God created us for in the first place: to transform our rebellious relationship with God into an intimate relationship with the Lord.
Within that transformed relationship, Peter promises, members of his audience will receive forgiveness of their sins, that is to say, a transformed status in the eyes of the Lord. The apostle also promises they’ll receive “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” the very presence of God in the hearts and lives of those whom that Spirit has transformed.
However, as Willimon goes on to note (p. 37), Acts 2’s preachers and teachers shouldn’t assume this sequence of “cut to the heart,” repentance, baptism, forgiveness and Holy Spirit is a kind of step-by-step template for salvation. This is, instead, an account of the conclusion of Peter’s speech. The crowd’s reaction shows that the Spirit who stormed into Jesus’ disciples on the morning of the first Pentecost has now also swept into those who listen to those disciples.
So we shouldn’t be surprised by our text’s dramatic conclusion: “Those who accepted [Peter’s] message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (41). We might even say that’s about 3,120 more than were part of “their number” when the day of Pentecost began.
After all, it’s not just members of Peter’s audience whom the Spirit transforms on that day. The Spirit also transformed Peter from an impetuous and uneven disciple of Jesus into his first preacher. On top of that, the Spirit transformed the 120 believers (2:15) from waiters into those in whom God lives by the Holy Spirit. And, perhaps 2,000 years later, the Spirit is still transforming people, including preachers and teachers, and adding them to the disciples’ original number.
As we read about them in this Easter season, all of the first Pentecost’s remarkable transformations (and more) point to the amazing difference Jesus’ resurrection from the dead makes. It shows how Jesus shares his righteousness through the forgiveness of their sins that Peter’s first audience experiences. We also see how the Spirit is busy raising to a new life of faithful obedience in not just his audience, but also in Peter.
It’s fair to wonder if Peter’s preaching would have the same kind of impact on 21st century audiences as it did on the first Pentecost’s. In fact, it’s worth asking if modern audiences would even give him the chance to talk the way he did 2,000 years ago.
In her book, Speaking of Sin: the Lost Language of Salvation, Barbara Brown Taylor notes that the words “sin, “ “damnation,” “repentance,” and “salvation” sound as if they come “from an earlier time when human relationship with God was laced with blame and threat.” The words seem to judge us, which is why a lot of Christians don’t say them anymore.
We go for grace instead. No confession of sin these days. Preachers like to say that like the waiting father in Luke 15 Jesus died with his arms wide open. But we need the old language, because God’s calling is for us to bless others. Yet we can’t do that till we are saved, experiencing not only forgiveness of sin, but also new life, “new vision, new values, and new behavior.”
But this, says Taylor, is tough for us. It’s easier “for us to rely on God’s forgiveness of our sins than it is to believe that God might support us to quit them.” But we can’t quit them if we aren’t allowed even to talk about them. It’s no help to stop talking about sin. We just keep doing them. The waiting father’s kiss forgave all, “but not because the son was innocent. The son was guilty and he knew it, which is what gave the kiss its power.”
When Taylor was a baby a priest baptized her in a side chapel at a Catholic church. The priest took her in his arms and “began saying all kinds of terrible things about me. He said that I was sinful through and through, that I had the devil in me, but not to worry because the waters of baptism would soon wash me clean as snow.” At this Taylor’s mother said to her father, ‘we’re getting out of here and never coming back.’ She chose a Methodist church after seven years of staying away, and nobody there ever said a word about sin.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 30, 2017
Acts 2:14a, 36-41 Commentary