Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 16, 2023
Acts 2:14a, 22-32 Commentary
Garry Wills once wrote a fine book titled, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. Wills claims that in the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln—in the span of a scant 272 words that took him all of three minutes to deliver—forever altered our understanding of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln was not even the main speaker that day. That honor was given to a then-famous orator named Edward Everett, who spoke just prior to the President. Everett’s soaring rhetoric about the Civil War lasted a whopping two hours. But few now recall his many words, elegant though they were. Lincoln had been asked to make just “a few brief dedicatory remarks” for the new cemetery at Gettysburg, and that’s what he did. So short was the President’s speech that some in the crowd were disconcerted, wondering, “Is that it?!” Indeed, it was.
But it changed history.
The Gettysburg Address changed history but it did so subtly. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here . . .” Mr. Lincoln intoned. But he was wrong. The world has little noted what the Honorable Mr. Everett had to say, but Lincoln’s handful of words are the stuff of oratorical legend. Again, however, it was the subtlety of what he said that altered the nation’s collective thought.
“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 the Negro people in the definition of “all men.” That had not generally been the meaning before then.
“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.”
Through a linguistic sleight-of-hand Lincoln turned the tables on his audience and on the nation: 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. Sometimes you do not need many words to create a huge effect. Sometimes you do not need “in your face” rhetoric to get someone’s attention and so alter his or her viewpoint from the inside out.
I was reminded of this speech by a passing comment William Willimon made in his commentary on Acts 2. Given a choice, Willimon noted, most people would much rather read a great narrative than a sermon or a speech. Yet Acts contains lots of sermons and speeches—in fact, Acts contains as many sermons/speeches as it has chapters (28 in all) and Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is the first one.
It’s a remarkable sermon coming from Peter. Actually, it would have been equally remarkable had it come from any of the disciples. After all, a scant ten days earlier the disciples were still just itching for Jesus to “restore the kingdom to Israel.” Nearly six weeks after the resurrection and the disciples were still waiting for Jesus to make his move. Being raised from the dead was a nice trick, sure, but now let’s get down to business and figure out how to get rid of those loathsome Romans.
Jesus had other plans, the first hint of which for the disciples was his floating clean off this earthly plane to return to his Father, telling the disciples as he drifted away to be patient and to wait for some power from on high to descend on them. They did so but across the next week-and-a-half it looks like they accomplished no more than filling Judas’ empty chair with someone named Matthias. I suppose you could find their doing that to be a hopeful sign—after all, you don’t replace someone unless you have some kind of hope and belief that your little enterprise is going to continue. (You don’t hire a new cashier the day before you plan to shutter your hardware store for good, for instance). Still, getting Matthias on board was about all we know about the time that passed between Ascension and Pentecost.
But then the promised Holy Spirit did come and if the Spirit made once-weak and awkward and shy disciples into bold preachers, it is hugely clear from Acts 2 that the Spirit’s first order of business was also to clear up the fog of confusion that had for so long characterized the disciples’ minds when it came to figuring out who Jesus was and what he had come here to accomplish. In a flash, the disciples caught up on all the theology they had never before quite figured out. It was as though God downloaded an entire three-year M.Div. education into their hearts and minds with a broadband speed never before known!
Suddenly it all made sense: Jesus’ life, his witness, his humility, and even that seemingly disastrous event that had taken place on a Friday some seven or so weeks earlier. Suddenly it was not just a coherent story but a divine plan and the successful execution of that plan spelled nothing short of cosmic salvation for all who would believe.
I sometimes think Peter could just as well have been talking about himself and his fellow disciples in this sermon when he says things like “Now once upon a time you all thought Jesus was just kind of special on account of all his miracles . . .” Well, that was true of the disciples, too. The fact that he had been raised as both Lord and Christ seemed to be as much a new piece of information for Peter that day as for anyone who heard his remarkable sermon. They had known Jesus was special, different. But what they did not know was a lot!
Yet on Pentecost it all came clear in a miracle of understanding that is, for my money, far more miraculous and awe-inspiring than any gifts of language or any roaring wind or any tongues of flame. The outward events of that day were really something. But the inward event was no less startling. And it all shows in the sermon that changed the world. For the first time ever in a clear and compelling way, Jesus of Nazareth was publicly proclaimed to have been all along 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.
Peter and company were the witnesses, as he said in the final verse of this Year A lection. And it’s quite amazing that God chose to do it this way. The most compelling witness to Jesus came only ten days after the man in question had disappeared from the planet. And although the Holy Spirit is a gift without parallel, the fact is that Peter and company were left with exactly what Peter said: just the ability to bear witness, to testify, to tell people what they knew to be the truth.
That’s what the Church has had from the beginning: words, water, a little bread, a little wine. It doesn’t look like much on the face of it.
But it has changed the world. Thanks be to God!
Peter quotes Psalm 16, which is the Revised Common Lectionary Psalm reading for the Year A Sunday after Easter. In the CEP sermon commentary on that Psalm it is pointed out that we need to be careful about not reading too much into Psalm 16 as though its talk about someone’s body resting secure was some full-blown doctrine of the resurrection of the body.
Peter has a slightly different take on the meaning of the psalm when he claims that in writing this David (or whoever) was predicting no less than the resurrection from the dead via these words. It may seem an odd use of the psalm. After all, Psalm 16 is a fairly sunny poem and appears to have been written by one of those (vaguely annoying) people for whom everything in life has turned up roses. No wonder such a winner found it easy to believe that his body would rest in hope and that God would not abandon him to the grave—why would God stop blessing him after death seeing as it’s been nothing but a non-stop Blessing-Palooza all along! It’s a little hard to see how this psalm can apply to Jesus, whose life was no bed of roses and ended in a bitter death in which he was abandoned by even God. But since Peter says this points to Christ and to his not being abandoned in death, who are we to argue? (The apostolic credential means Peter always wins!)
But maybe there is another way to think of this. Psalm 16 may seem to be only the celebration of one of life’s lucky winners but it may also be a revelation of the kind of flourishing in this creation that God desires for all people. God never wanted the kinds of suffering and death that has come to characterize altogether too much of life on this planet. God’s ultimate desire was for everyone to thrive, to feel like “a winner,” and to have a life that not even death could eliminate, squash, or snuff out once and for all. God wanted everyone’s body to rest in hope and to know that God would not be undone or unmade by even the one thing that in this world seems more final than final can be.
And God found a way to ensure that for his people. It’s called Easter.
Maybe Psalm 16 points more to Jesus than we thought!
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