Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 26, 2020

Acts 2:14a, 36-41 Commentary

As I said last week, the RCL doesn’t want us to celebrate Easter for one glorious day and then move on to something else.  It invites us to spend 7 Sundays reflecting on this world changing event with a leisurely journey through the book of Acts.  We began on Easter Sunday with Acts 10, where we saw just how world changing Easter was.  Last Sunday, we listened to the first Christian sermon and noted how it focused on the resurrected Christ.  Now today our attention is directed to the end of that sermon and the response it elicited from its hearers.

What response do you hope for when you preach?  Let’s be honest and admit that the very human side of us is hoping for personal affirmation, maybe even adoration, or at least no trouble (see my Illustration Idea at the end of this piece).  “Good sermon, Reverend!  You are a great preacher!” Or, the insipid and inscrutable, “Good morning, Rev.”  The more spiritual side of us, the Holy Spirit led side, is hoping that God will be glorified, that Christ will be lifted up, that people will be changed as a result of our sermon.  But what change do you want?  What specific response are you hoping for, aiming at, and praying about?

I want to suggest that even as Peter’s Pentecost sermon shows how to preach the Risen Christ, it also shows us what response we ought to expect, plan for, and pray about.  Indeed, one commentator on this text suggests that if we don’t aim for this very response, we are not preaching in the power of the Spirit.  “Any preaching that is not aimed at the replication of Pentecost for the blessing of all shortchanges the good news of Acts 2.”  (Robert Brawley)

Our text begins with the end of Peter’s sermon.  It is a slam bang conclusion in which he pulls together all his exegesis of Old Testament prophesy and all his experience of the Risen Christ.  Here’s what all of that comes down to, brothers and sisters.  “Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: ‘God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.’”  As Jews, you believe in the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.  And as the Lord’s people, you have been looking for his promised Christ for hundreds of years.  Well, this Jesus whom you just crucified is both the Lord and the Christ.  The crucified Jesus is the Lord you love and the Christ you long for.

He might as well have dropped a bomb into that assembly of the faithful.  Like soldiers in the Middle East staggering around after an IED has demolished their vehicle, they are stunned, dazed, deaf and blind for the moment, not knowing what to do next.  “When they heard this,” this combination of what they had done to Jesus and what God had done to Jesus, “they were cut to the heart….”  What does that mean?  Was this an “Aha” moment for them, or an “Oh no” moment.  Are they feeling awe– “what wonders God has done!?” Or are they feeling horror—“what have we done with God?”  Probably both.

They don’t know what to do in response, so they simply ask, “Brothers, what shall we do?”  Note the word brothers.  Some in this crowd had accused the Apostles of being early morning drunks before the sermon began; now they call them “brothers.”  Apparently the combination of Gospel preaching and Holy Spirit power has changed their attitude toward the preacher.  That was just the beginning of the changes, because Peters reply to their desperate question was “repent and be baptized….”

The word for repent here is the Greek metanoia (or the verb metanoeo), which means to change your mind.  The other main word for repent, the Hebrew shuv, has the sense of turn around, stop going one direction and go in the opposite direction.  Turn from your sinful ways and turn to God.  Picture a U turn.  The word metanoia, on the other hand, refers to a change of mind (which must eventually lead to a change of direction).  It is not first of all about reformed behavior, expression of remorse or the rectification of wrongs, but about a change of mind or understanding of who Jesus is and an embrace of his authority within God’s new creation.  Repent of the idea that he was a mere man, a prophet who spoke for God, and, worse yet, a condemned criminal, damned by God.  Accept that he was, indeed, God himself, the Lord of all and the Christ who brings God’s salvation to the world.

If Peter had stopped there, 20 centuries of confusion would not have transpired.  But he didn’t stop, because he couldn’t.  John the Baptist had insisted on baptism, and so had Jesus in his Great Commission.  So Peter had to go on to say, “and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus, for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Those words about baptism have raised many questions and led to controversy that has divided the body of Christ.  What is the relationship between baptism and forgiveness?  Does baptism “bestow” forgiveness, as one scholar claims, basically summarizing the Catholic position?  Or is baptism a sign and seal of God’s covenant faithfulness that will grant forgiveness when the baptized person repents and believes?  Does baptism “bestow” the Holy Spirit, as another scholars says, basically summarizing the Lutheran position?  Or is baptism only for those who have repented and believed, as Baptist claim, in opposition to those who think that all covenant children must be baptized because the “promise is for you and your children….”

Given 2000 years of theological controversy, it would be presumptuous of me to attempt a resolution of these issues in this short piece.  In your sermon, you should emphasize the simple commands and the gospel promises.  “What shall we do?”  “Repent and be baptized.”  In Jesus Christ, you will receive the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The word for forgiveness means much more than pardon; it has the sense of release, not only from the guilt of sin, but also from its power and ultimately from its presence.  In Christ, we shall finally be sinless.  That is possible, because Jesus will give his Spirit to you.  You will have your own personal Pentecost.

Peter assures his listeners that the “promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God shall call to him.”  Once again, an apparently simple word is filled with complexity.  To which promise is Peter referring?  It could be the promise of the Spirit’s coming made by Jesus in Acts 1:5 and 8, and just reiterated in verse 38.

Or it could be the promise of a restored Israel to which the disciples pointed in Acts 1:6, and alluded to in all of Peter’s references to the Jewish identity of his listeners.

Or it could be the promise to Abraham that God would bless his seed throughout their generations, and that God would bless the Gentiles through that Seed (now identified as Jesus).  They are the ones who “are far off,” but whom the Lord “will call.”  Whatever the exact meaning, the sense is that the Gospel is for everyone, as verse 21 says.  “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Peter had more to say in response to the question of the crowd.  “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’”  But all his other words were surely just an elaboration on the basic Gospel message about Jesus and their basic response to that message—repent, call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,  be baptized, receive forgiveness and the Spirit, and join the fellowship (next week’s message on Acts 2:42-47).

The conclusion of our text tells us the final response to the preaching of the Risen Christ. It’s the response we all crave—acceptance of the message, conversion, baptism, and the spectacular growth of the fellowship of the saved.  There are many things worthy of note here.  For example, there was no long process of catechesis here.  Just acceptance of the Gospel and then baptism.  The catechesis came later as we read in verses 42-47.  Further, the number 3000 has missiological import. I mean, it is fairly easy to ignore 120 people in a large city like Jerusalem, even if they were noisy.  But 3000 new converts made an impact on the populace; thus, the early church “enjoy[ed] the favor of all the people.”

Pentecost was a one-time event (though the Gentiles had their mini-Pentecost in Acts 10).  But this pattern of Pentecost preaching must remain the same—proclaim the crucified, risen and ruling Jesus and then invite people to call on his name, repenting of their wrong ideas about him, and be baptized, accompanied by the promises of forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit.  Many things have changed since Pentecost, but that is the kind of preaching we need in “this crooked generation.”  And maybe, just maybe, the church will grow miraculously again.

Illustration Idea

Speaking of how people respond to sermons, I just finished reading another of Kent Haruf’s simple, moving novels set in the high plains of eastern Colorado.  In Benediction, the Rev. Lyle has taken a real chance in his sermon on the Sermon on the Mount.  He dared to tie Jesus words about forgiving our enemies to the contemporary situation, including terrorism.  Half his congregation stomps out in a rage, accusing him of being a traitor and a terrorist himself.  After much pain and suffering, he agrees to leave that church and, he decides, the ministry altogether.

Two old women try to talk him out of leaving, but he is thoroughly disillusioned.  When they say, “People will get over this,” this is his reply.  “Probably they will.  But I won’t.  People don’t want to be disturbed.  They want assurance.  They don’t come to church on Sunday mornings to think about new ideas or even old important ones.  They want to hear what they’ve been told before, with only some small variations on what they’ve been hearing all their lives, and then they want to go home and eat pot roast and say it was a good service and feel satisfied.”

His bitter words might be a good way to get your church to think about what they expect from and how they respond to Gospel preaching.


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