< April 19, 2020 >

Commentary on Acts 2:14a, 22-32

 

The first assignment in the course I teach on the relationship between body and Spirit in proclamation is for students to memorize Peter’s Pentecost sermon and address it to the class.

The exercise is meant to bring up all sorts of thorny questions about Spirit-inspired preaching: can evidence of the Spirit’s presence be “read” off Peter’s words? Does our repetition of his words authenticate our words as “Spirit-filled” speech? Is there any correspondence between Peter’s experience of the Spirit in Pentecost and the diversity of our own experiences? You can imagine the complexity of the conversation that follows.

But the exercise is also illuminating as performative exegesis. Students make embodied decisions when interpreting Peter’s sermon, bringing new insights and asking new questions. Their performances can be radically different in function and tone, growing out of different theologies of proclamation, narrative and Spirit-anointing. Some students speak as “themselves:” seminary students carefully relating Peter’s sermon to their classmates. Others step into his shoes, imagining us as his long-ago audience. Everyone discovers that performing a text of scripture—particularly a sermon—requires a bit of both vantage points. Embodying Peter’s sermon is like entering a hall of mirrors, where contemporary preachers grapple with a biblical text about another preacher grappling with a biblical text in light of a world-altering resurrection.1

All of them struggle with what to do about Psalm 16. Peter’s exegesis is notoriously slippery, in part because the identity of the biblical speaker is slippery. Who is the “I” in verse 25? Does one read that sentence as if the “I” were voiced by David or by Christ—or does one read it in the voice of Peter, arguing for his preferred Christological interpretation? From whose persona does the preacher speak? The slippery nature of the pronouns mirror the high-stakes theological case Peter is making. Verse 34 (not included in the lectionary reading) makes plain his radical claim. Building on Psalm 110:1 (“The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand.’”), Peter argues that Jesus’s resurrection and exaltation are evidence of his Lordship—a point he reiterates in verse 36. Jesus not only sees the Lord at his right hand (verse 25), he is the Lord seated at Yawheh’s right hand (verse 34). Peter’s readings of these Psalms create a theological fluidity in his own interpretation of Jesus’s identity and the identity of the “Lord” described in the Hebrew scriptures.

This reading may give certain interpreters of the Hebrew Bible pause. Luke’s rendering of Peter’s sermon demonstrates a familiar Christocentric hegemony, where the particularities of Hebrew texts are co-opted for Christian purposes. But it is also a reading that draws on Jewish exegetical techniques,2 embedded in a sermon trying to make sense of its own hall of mirrors. Past, present and eschatological future are braided together in this text, and the result is a sermonic performance that will not sit still.

I think Peter does more than parse pronouns in these Psalms. He brings his own present-tense reality into their cadences. Students often note, for example, how Peter quotes more of Psalm 16 than required to make his exegetical argument. Verse 28 is a simple exclamation of joy. When students come to that part of the sermon, they are regularly pulled into gratitude, performing it, not as if Peter were quoting David, but as if Peter had stepped directly into the Psalm itself. “You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.” Peter is not belaboring an interpretative point here. He’s narrating his awe-filled wonder at the presence of the risen Jesus, manifested at that very moment through the work of the Spirit.

This brings us to one more slippery identity in Peter’s sermon: the identity of “all of us” who are witnesses (verse 32). When students perform Peter’s sermon, they have to decide what Peter means by that phrase. Not everyone present at Pentecost witnessed the risen Jesus in the flesh. Peter may gesture in a way that limits the category: that is, “all of us” might mean, “the disciples standing here beside me.” But verse 33 gives a different answer. Peter makes clear that those who “see and hear” Jesus’ pouring out of the Spirit are also witnesses to his resurrected presence. This Pentecost crowd has seen Jesus in post-Easter action. Similar to the pronouns of Peter’s exegesis, Peter’s naming of “all of us” as witnesses weaves together past, present and future. A “witness” becomes a category that stretches through time, embracing any believer who finds herself full of wonder at Jesus’ pouring out of a Spirit that cannot be summoned, exegeted or contained.

There is no excuse for the lectionary’s exclusion of verses 33-36 from this week’s reading. Matt Skinner lays out a robust exegetical case for the significance of these verses in understanding the meaning of Peter’s argument.3 I add one reason more. Without verse 33, being a “witness” to the resurrection is a time-bound category. Similar to last week’s expansion of the category of “witness” to include Gentiles, verse 33 expands the category of “witness” to include those untimely born. God willing, it expands the category to include us.


Notes:

  1. I love Lewis Hay’s description of this text as an three-way mirror where one sees an “image of an image of an image in almost endless regression, except that in this case even the faces keep changing,” “Acts 2:1-47,” Interpretation, January 1, 1979: 62-67.
  2. For those wanting a deep dive into this question, Donald Juel discusses the complex interplay between events, scripture and Jewish interpretive practices in the first century in Shaping the Biblical Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible, eds. Berg and Skinner (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011), 87-105. His article “Social Dimensions of Exegesis: The Use of Psalm 16 in Acts 2” notes the “rabbinic” posture of Peter’s exegesis, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, v. 43 (1981): 556.
  3. Matt Skinner, “Acts 2:14a, 22-32,” Working Preacher, March 30, 2008, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=50.