April 23rd 2017
1 Peter 1:3,8-9 Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Earlier this week I joined an old friend, and a few of his friends for lunch; during the conversation he mentioned he has always taught his kids “if you can’t say anything nice to someone, don’t say anything.” I said I also tried to teach my kids that lesson, but what I hoped they remember more, is me saying, “consider the consequences.” Everything has consequences; whether well intentioned or not, everything you do, everything you say, every decision you make has consequences. We don’t always think them through to their conclusion, but there are always consequences.
It seems ironic that a little more than a week ago I was telling you how poor my memory of events from long ago is… and today I’m telling a story from my childhood, but when I said I can’t remember, I didn’t mean I literally can’t remember anything. It just seems nearly every memory of my childhood is an unpleasant one, a time when I was “in” trouble… and I can remember several of those. When I was about ten or eleven years old, we would walk the five (relatively) short blocks home from my grade school, for lunch each day. I was like most typical ten year olds, focused solely on what I was doing, or wanted to do, at any given moment. One day, as I was walking back to school after lunch I was picking up and tossing small rocks; as I approached a cross street, I drew back and threw a rock with all my might – not at anything in particular, but just to see how far my powerful little arm could throw a rock. As it arched I watched, never considering where it might land, until suddenly I was aware, that in the same instant a car was approaching on the cross street. You know how things happened in slow motion; as I “willed” that rock to fly just a little bit farther, or the driver to come to a stop a few feet earlier… with a crack – literally – rock and windshield met.
I wish I could say providence was with me that day and the rock bounced off the windshield as I breathed an enormous exhale of relief (I wished it even harder back then); it (the rock) did not bounce. There were, however, a few fortunate things about the incident; this little glimpse from my childhood occurred in the mid-nineteen-fifties, so many cars still had ‘split windshields’; and I don’t recall the window shattering, which might have resulted in horrific injury – as I recall, it only cracked (so maybe providence was with me after all). But these ‘positives’ weren’t apparent (at least not in that moment) to the middle-aged woman who was driving. When she stepped from her car she was, as you would expect, visibly shaken, (I’m also quite certain she was livid). She sternly called me by name… which might seem odd, but I had already recognized her, not only as a teacher in my school, but as one of my neighbors. At this point, there is a big gap in my memory… I don’t remember how I eventually arrived at school that day, I don’t remember how my parents were informed… and I don’t remember if the police were involved, which wouldn’t be difficult to imagine. I do remember there were consequences.
Luke’s Acts of the Apostles can be viewed essentially as a book with two plots relating the story in the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection. He devotes the greater part of the book, primarily to the ministry of one apostle – Paul. Interspersed are the stories of the group as a whole – the (restored again to twelve) disciples, and the stories of individual evangelists, which included some of the disciples as well as more recent converts.
Without sounding like an alarmist, the consequences of the scripture we read from Acts this morning may have had more impact on the world’s history than any other, except the resurrection itself. It is difficult to determine where the burden for those consequences rightfully belongs… but what makes it difficult to grapple with, is, that if we are following Jesus’ teachings, assigning responsibility is not within our purview, and so it becomes easier to simply accept it blindly and naively, than to examine and question it honestly.
But if we take up that challenge to examine it honestly, as we read this emotionally packed text there are a number of contextual “who, what, where and when’s” we should be reminded of. First we should not forget that our author is Luke, who once again in his opening verses, reminds his reader Theophilus, that “what” we are reading is a lengthy account of things, that for the most part he had not witnessed first-hand; (the exception being the record of his later travels with Paul). We also need to remind ourselves that the “where and when” are specific to this morning’s text, and takes place in the City of Jerusalem, the religious center of the Jewish world, at the time of the feast of Shavuot, a significant holiday in the Jewish culture which marks the day God gave the Torah to the nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai – an important commemoration which at the time drew Jews from all nations back to the Temple in Jerusalem.
For the early followers of Jesus, the “when” was a mere seven weeks after Jesus was put to death and then raised from the tomb; and just ten days from when the Gospels say Jesus was taken up into the heavens to sit at God’s right side; even more significant, the narrative Luke describes takes place moments after the Holy Spirit had descended upon the group as they were gathered together. We tend to isolate when this occurring, since we read it the week following Easter, but won’t speak of the coming of the Holy Spirit for another six weeks at Pentecost; but the text is part of Peter’s speech to the crowds in the street, who question the disciples’ behavior, as they react to receiving the Holy Spirit.
With the understanding of the “where” and the “when” as it applied to the Jewish community and to the followers (especially Peter), it is not difficult to imagine the intense emotional fervor of that moment. The Jewish population is feeling a combination of celebratory and pious – and also defiant that this religious celebration is taking place under the ever-present oppression of their Roman occupiers. The band of Jesus’ followers, who are just as faithful as the Jewish people in the street, are feeling these same emotions; but for the past two months have been through an emotional food-processor, suffering ghastly grief, anger, guilt, abandonment, bewilderment, joy, the disappointment of loss a second time… and are, in this moment, overwhelmed with amazement and awe.
In the wake of the spiritual awakening they’ve just experienced, Peter, as spokesperson and defender, quotes the Hebrew Scriptures which describe an apocalyptic time when God will pour God’s spirit onto the people, and he declares he and his friends had just experienced this divine moment. It’s pretty heavy stuff to be sure; it is also quite exclusionary. Even though the scripture he quoted say God’s spirit would be poured out on everyone, sons and daughters, men and women and even slaves; in essence Peter is saying, God has chosen the day we remember Moses receiving the Law, to give God’s Spirit to ‘us’ with the people in the streets to draw the conclusion they were not blessed in the same way. To be sure, Peter is overcome with emotion as he speaks, and it is easy to understand his exuberance… but perhaps he hasn’t given too much thought to how those words might sound to those listening.
Preaching (at least in my eyes) is really not much different than teaching, and there are many ways to preach and teach. People vary in their responses to those different ways, but one way to teach, which has proven to have little long-term success, is to repeatedly criticize someone by telling them they are wrong, or bad. Success in peaching (or teaching) in any subject, comes about by bringing someone to understand what once they had been unable to understand, or have clarity about something which had been unclear. Success does not come by forcing them concede, that what you tell them to believe, is true.
According to Luke’s narrative, Peter, who has demonstrated he often speaks before considering the consequences… and who has just told the crowd he and his friends received God’s spirit, (and that the crowd had apparently not), returns to the Hebrew texts to tell the crowd that they should have recognized Jesus, “a man attested to you by God” was the Messiah, because they had witnessed first-hand the wonders and signs that God did through him. And then Luke says Peter dropped the bombshell which has reverberated for two-millennium. “You Jews killed Jesus by crucifixion!”
Instinctively you know Peter’s finger is sweeping the crowd… no one could utter an accusation like this with an absence of emotion; his tone may have been grief-stricken or self-righteous, but more likely he was angrily bitter. To drive home their culpability and demonstrate that the evidence of Jesus’ divinity was right in front of their eyes all along, he continues quoting King David and concludes by emphasizing, “Know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”[i]
Luke would have us understand that after hearing Peter’s accusations against them, the crowd was “cut to the heart” and he continued to preach to them, and they repented and became believers.
The consequences of Peter’s accusation have lived on throughout the centuries. The early church clung to his charge, “You murdering Jews killed Jesus” ignoring that Peter, and most of the earliest followers, were themselves Jews. His accusation drove a divide between the Jewish and Christian faiths and fueled the growth of the Church, which adopted Peter’s assertion as official doctrine. As the Church became the official institution for the kingdoms of the western world that doctrine would become widespread, and divide people in the secular world as well. The understanding of the Christian/Jewish relationship, and Jews as “Christ killers” remained the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church all the way into the 20th century, and was not abandoned until the 1960’s.
As the Church’s dominance continued to expand Jews were driven either into exile or into ghettos, living in the shadows of the Christian world. In many countries, they still live as an openly persecuted people; in many more, including our own, as a minority who knows they live with an invisible brand that identifies them as the “other.” While the blame for specific horrors Jews have endured throughout the ages cannot legitimately be attributed to Peter’s words, we cannot ignore the toxic seeds they planted, and still to this day, are used by some to nourish; the horrific damage they have done is indisputable.
Is it Peter who bears the responsibility? Is it Luke, who portrays it for us… remembering that none of the other Gospel authors record Peter’s sermon? Is it the institutional Church which undeniably fostered and used it to secure its power and authority (ironically mimicking the Temple leadership Jesus confronted)? Or is it we who choose to read into it, interpret it, and apply it to perpetuate a feeling of faith superiority? And do we then take that same faith superiority and apply it in our interactions with other faiths?
There are consequences of every decision we make. Peter would later write that through Jesus we receive “the salvation of our souls.”[ii] That salvation does not come by vilifying and demonizing those who have found a different path to the Creator; it comes by understanding that the consequences of believing in Jesus as the Son of God, demands that we live according to his teachings… to accept the Jew, the Gentile, the Muslim, the Buddhist, the Hinduist, the Taoist, the Sikh… and even the non-believer, as our brothers and sisters of the One who created all.
— Amen ―
[i] Acts 2:36
[ii] 1 Peter 1:9