< April 26, 2020 >

Commentary on Acts 2:14a, 36-41

 

The sermons in Acts are not autonomous, “sage-on-the-stage,” rhetorical performances.

They record lived encounters between preachers and communities grappling with the presence of a risen Lord. As such, sermons in Acts are regularly interrupted by the unexpected. Acts 10, for example, describes Peter’s sermon as being interrupted by the Spirit, leading to an outbreak of communal praise (Acts 10:44). In Acts 2, Peter’s sermon is interrupted again, this time by a community “cut to the heart” with contrition (verse 37). In both cases, resurrection preaching leads to responsive action and congregational speech.

In congregations where I worship, interruptions of the sermon are rare. When it happens, it is often a holy thing. I remember a sermon where a pastor was preaching on the importance of prayer, and a woman in the back row stood up and said, “Pastor, I don’t understand what you mean by ‘prayer.’ What is it that I’m supposed to do?” The conviction in her heart was so urgent that she needed specifics and clarification, and she was willing to interrupt worship to get them. Verse 37 is evidence of God’s power at work. Peter’s listeners interrupt his words and step onto the sermonic stage.

The timing of the interruption is significant. The lectionary passage begins with Peter’s own disruption of his listeners’ expectations. Up to this point in the sermon, he has been building his claim that Jesus is Lord and Messiah, drawing on Psalm 16 (Acts 2:25-28, 31) and Psalm 110 (verses 34-35) to make his point. Luke’s larger project in Acts 2 has been describing the significance of Jesus’ Lordship for the gathered community. What difference does it make that Jesus has been raised from death and now sits at God’s right hand? The Spirit is poured out. The “last days” (verse 17) break into the present. “All of us” are invited to be “witnesses” of resurrection life (verse 32).

But now there is a change in tone. Like an hourglass turned on its head, Peter inverts his point. The question is not only, “What does it mean to have a Savior and Lord who has been raised?” The question is also, “What does it mean to have a Savior and Lord who was brutally killed?” Peter does not mince words contrasting the action of God with the action of humanity. “God made him both Lord and Messiah,” Peter says, “this Jesus whom you crucified” (verse 36).

It is important to note that Peter’s “you” is addressed to those gathered from many countries and social locations. Weeks have passed since Jesus’ crucifixion. This Pentecost crowd is not the same crowd that chanted, “Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21) during Holy Week. And yet, they do not justify themselves. They do not bluster about who is really to blame or wash their hands of responsibility. Their hearts are convicted of complicity. Given our contemporary proclivity to avoid accountability of any sort, the crowd’s response seems as much a sign that the Spirit of the Crucified One is in their midst as speaking in tongues!

Christian tradition’s use of this passage to blame the “house of Israel” (verse 36) for Jesus’s death completely and tragically misses the point of Peter’s words. Like so many of Peter’s pronouns in this sermon, there is an eschatological bending of time in his accusation. There is an invitation to find ourselves in his “you”—in the same way that we are invited to find ourselves recipients of God’s promise (verse 39). In fact, finding ourselves in the one seems a precursor to finding ourselves in the other. We have all participated in Christ’s crucifixion throughout the centuries, in what we have done and what we have left undone.

In his reflection on why Jesus’ risen body bears the marks of mutilation in Luke, Ched Meyers remembers the courageous witness of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till. After her 14-year-old son was horrifically beaten and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman, she refused a quick burial, returning her son’s body to Chicago to be viewed by thousands at a public funeral. She left the casket open, “insisting that America gaze on the reality of Jim Crow brutality.”1 African-Americans were not responsible for the killing of Emmett Till, but Till’s body demanded a response. What would they do? What would they risk? How would they live differently in light of this injustice? Many credit Till’s funeral as a catalytic spark in igniting the Civil Rights movement.

In Acts, Jesus’ crucifixion is not a mystic source of apocalyptic power.2 For all Acts may nod in the direction of God’s foreknowledge (verses 23), the crucifixion is laid at the feet of humanity. It is the result of sin, cowardice and passivity in acquiescence to an unjust empire. The “power in the blood” of Christ comes through its ability to interrupt our self-justification with repentance and awaken the possibility of resistance and change. “What should we do?” the crowds ask Peter. We have killed the Lord.

Today is a day for Easter repentance and congregational speech. It may be a day for lay testimonies or a liturgy that remembers the commitments of baptism. However a congregation goes about it, this is a day for interrupting the passivity of the ordinary. It is a day to name sin, relying on the hope of God’s forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit—a promise “for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (verses 39).


Notes:

  1. Ched Meyers, “Jesus’ risen mutilated body,” Christian Century, September 3, 2019, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/jesus-risen-mutilated-body.

  2. Acts 20:28 is a rare exception.