The crowd that gathered on that day in Jerusalem were fairly diverse. They had come from every direction in order to celebrate the harvest festival (Weeks) in Jerusalem, the religious center. In that crowd, there were probably folks with Messianic hopes – people who came still hoping that God would act in some powerful on Pentecost as they had hpoied for many, many years – following the same traditions that their families had observed for generations. Some in that crowd were natives of Jerusalem – accustomed to the festival and the additional people (and revenue) that it brought. Some had come from other countries – travelling a good distance to observe a faith festival in the religious center. “ Now, Listen!”
In the midst of the Holy Spirit’s activity of Pentecost, Peter stands up to preach – and he says twice, “NOW, Listen!” (Actually, the Greek here means literally: Let me place it (the Word of God) into your ears!) Listen up people, this is important! Listen up, church, God is doing something amazing here and you don’t want to miss it! You already missed some important stuff and we can’t do anything about that now – so Listen up! This is important! (PAUSE) And he tells them about Jesus of Nazareth, who was sent by God.
Nobody likes sermons this challenging! It’s not a comfortable sermon. That NOSY Peter tells them like it is. He has ceased to preachin’ and gone to meddlin’ as some folks would say.
The crowd that day likely thought that Peter was being a bit rough on them. And it was a huge crowd. Peter stood up with the other original ten apostles plus the newly elected Matthias and what he said HAD to be hard to hear. “God sent Jesus to you and what did you do? You joined with wicked men to put him to death!” There must have been a lot of thoughts running around through their heads in that crowd.
--Some thought, “Not me! I was busy minding my own business. I had nothing to do with that – nothing to do with an execution by the government!”
-- Some probably thought, “It was a legal execution – a lawful punishment by the government of a man they found to be dangerous to the rule of law and security of the nation.”
-- Some thought, “It was I! I was in the crowd – I took what the leaders said as truth and didn’t check things out for myself. They said Jesus was a threat and I believed them! I have his blood on my hands.”
-- Some thought, “What difference could I make? I’m only one person. If I had stood up for Jesus I might have been killed as well.”
Nobody likes that kind of confrontational sermon! WE don’t like that kind of sermon either! We already know that we are far from perfect. When we search our hearts, we know that we have fallen short. We know we have turned a blind eye to some scary stuff going on because we didn’t want to get involved. We fear for our families, and so we do not speak, do not act. Am I right?
And it makes us feel even worse when some nosy preacher like Peter shines a spotlight on the hidden moral failures that we don’t want anyone else to see. We would like Peter to stay in the 1st Century in Jerusalem and not go mucking about in our business.
We don’t really want to think about what kind of troubles are happening here and now!
Even in Oak Park, a community that made the decision 50 years ago to be intentionally diverse, we still need to work on racial equality. The upcoming documentary series on Starz is highly anticipated – and also a bit feared. It will shine a spotlight on the good and the not so good of how racial difference effects our educational system. We may live in an ethnically diverse village, but we may not have the relationships with our neighbors that really creates healthy community. Building higher fences is not the answer. Oh yes, we have troubles, even in Oak Park. And where were we?
There were 40 people shot in a 7 hour period in the neighborhoods of Chicago a few weeks ago and 10 died. That’s a lot closer to us than Jerusalem. We don’t even want to think about that – and yet that reality hangs over us just waiting to break in to our thoughts. News reports begin with a wife and two girls killed by the husband and father, shootings in public places, people killed in drive-by shootings, and children left in cars in the heat. There seems to be an overwhelming lot of bad news – and where are we?
Nobody likes a sermon like this one. It challenges us to look at ourselves a bit more closely than we would like. It names our moral failure.
Why would anyone preach this kind of sermon when no one wants to hear it? Why would Peter stand up that day in Jerusalem and tell folks that they had participated in the killing of God’s messenger? Who was Peter to bring these kinds of accusations, anyway? After all, Peter hadn’t been all that bold recently. Peter didn’t stand with Jesus either when he was arrested. Peter didn’t speak up for Jesus against the religious leaders or the Romans. Peter wouldn’t even claim to know Jesus when challenged. So why would he challenge the folks gathered in Jerusalem on that day of Pentecost?
There’s a painting by sixteenth/seventeenth century Italian artist Annabale Carracci called “Domine, Quo Vadis.” In the painting, Peter is fleeing Rome on the Appian Way because of Nero’s persecution of the Christians. On the road he meets Jesus, who is carrying his cross and heading for Rome. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?” And Jesus responds, “I’m going to Rome to be crucified again.” (Bold posture, striding forward) In the Apocryphal Acts of Peter, the story is reminiscent of Peter’s denial at Jesus’ arrest. In the story, the Peter realizes that he is about to repeat his denial of Jesus, if he flees from Rome and abandons Jesus and the church in a time of danger. Peter turns around, and returns to Rome to be a witness, and eventually martyr, for his faith.[i]
The easy answer is that Peter stood up on that day of Pentecost because the Holy Spirit filled him with power. But anyone who has ever been filled with the Holy Spirit knows that, while it does give us resources beyond our own, we still have to make the decision to act.
Perhaps Peter stood up on that day of Pentecost because he had made his own mistakes. He didn’t want anyone else to go through the heart-breaking denial of the Lord. So, even though it wasn’t easy to stand -- Peter stood – and spoke.
In Saigon in 1968, during the days of the Tet Offensive, one of the largest offensives of the Vietnam War -- there was fighting in the streets. Sister Chȃn Khȏng, a Buddhist nun and peace activist, was listening on the radio to the news when she heard the instruction for “the seventy-one university professors who had signed a petition for peace on January 16, 1968” to report to the ministry “for an urgent national matter.” The names of the seventy-one professors were read every half hour, including hers. Despite her family’s urging, she felt that she had to go since the petition was her idea. She went to the ministry with only 21 of her colleagues. The minister told them that the National Police suspected that they had plotted with the communists to create the Tet Offensive, and he wanted to protect them by retracting the peace appeal and signing a new petition that would condemn the communists. 18 signed. But three, including Sister Chȃn Khȏng ,refused because they knew that their students had heard their names read on the radio and they knew that their students would understand that they had signed under pressure. They did later offer to draft another petition condemning the violation of the Tet cease-fire. When the minister asked her to sign, she replied,
“Sir, I am like a bamboo shoot among university teachers. I am young, but my spirit may grow strong and beautiful. I spoke out frankly about the situation of the country, not for my own sake, but for the sake of the nation, even though prison may await me as a result. I appeal to your conscience, as an elder brother to help me grow in this attitude, not to bow before coercion. Don’t force me to go against my conscience…. If I sign under the threat of guns against my conscience and belief, who will be at fault?”[ii] She stood and spoke.
Why would Peter preach this kind of sermon when everyone was gathered in Jerusalem? Because someone needed to stand up and speak, and the Holy Spirit gave him the power to do it.
III. But there is something else happening in this story. Listen up, church. PLEASE let me pour the word of God into your ears. Did you notice who receives the Holy Spirit in this story?
(It isn’t just Peter. It isn’t just the apostles. ) It is the whole community – the whole membership who received God’s spirit and will speak like prophets (2:18) On Pentecost, in Peter’s iteration of Joel’s prophesy, even household slaves are transferred into “My servants,” and given important prophetic tasks to do! Peter’s speech is an example of the witness of the community, possible by the power of the Spirit, to be a means by which God’s purposes are fulfilled – God is reaching out to share the story of love and grace in Jesus – and it is through the church! Through the followers of Jesus – now empowered by the Holy Spirit!
And this is still happening! God is still calling prophets and witnesses, empowering them to share the good news! God places churches in particular communities, even particular neighborhoods to be a witness to the community. Consider this – we who are gathered here on Sunday morning are called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak to the community -- what is our message? What is God whispering to our hearts that needs to be said out loud? God is still calling and empowering leaders of the faith to speak to the hurting world. Agreed -- These messages are not always comfortable, either to speak or to hear. But someone has to be bold enough to name the places where unjust practices, unjust punishments are being carried out.
But also – to share the good news: everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord, everyone who will align their lives with the love and mercy and justice of Jesus, can be rescued from the lives they are living and saved to new life in Christ. THAT TOO!
To share: Jesus is the Lord – and THEREFORE no one and nothing else can be.
“What must we do?” To the crowd’s wonder if THEY can be saved after the death of Jesus – Peter replies, “Repent (metanoia) and be Baptized.” Change your direction – and CHANGE your allegiance (from “This crooked generation” to God)-- become a part of the community. The result of this is to be forgiven of your sins, to receive the “gift of the Holy Spirit” so you too can be a witness.
So -- Who will stand and speak? Who will be God’s witnesses in our time? Let me place the word of God into your ears…..
[i] "Annibale Carracci - Christ appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way". (1601-2) The National Gallery, London. Archived from the original on 25 March 2015. Retrieved 25 March 2015.
[ii] Sister Chȃn Khȏng, Learning to Love, from Chicekn Soup for the Soul – Stories for a Better World, 222-226.