A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter (18/04/21): Peter Preaches

 

Peter Preaches

Acts 3:12-19


The book of Acts contains a collection of early sermons preached by the apostles in the weeks and years following Jesus’ resurrection. Luke recalls, for later Christians, what the first Church proclaimed. He records for us what those first Christians announced to the world. We are given the first public testimony to Christ so that it can serve as a model for our witness to the world. The lectionary picks this up. In the season between Easter and Pentecost we read a series of passages which contains a number of these sermons. Today we have heard Peter preach again. 
Throughout his time with Jesus it was almost always Peter who was first to speak. He is somewhere between quick-witted and carelessly impulsive. Sometimes he found just the right words, to articulate the truth they were witnessing before anyone else could. Like the occasion when he was first to identify Jesus as “The Messiah of God.” (Luke 9:18) But just as often he finds the wrong thought and speaks that out loud. Like the occasion, shortly after his confession of Christ, that he attempts to deny that Jesus must suffer, or the time during Jesus’ trial before the chief priests that he denied ever knowing Jesus.

What up to this point has been a fault as much as a virtue, has now become Peter’s gift to the Church. Since the resurrection and especially since Pentecost seven weeks later, this quickness to speech makes Peter the most prominent public witness to Jesus’ resurrection. On this occasion Peter and John have been on their way into the temple to pray, when they have met a crippled beggar sitting near one of the gates into the temple. The man has cried out to them for help. Peter has replied that he has no money to give the man, but he says:

what I have I give you in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth stand up and walk.

The man is healed and begins to praise God. This of course draws a crowd, which gives Peter the opportunity to preach:

You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?

Peter explains that the lame man has been healed only in the name of Jesus. His sermon takes the shape which is shared by all of the sermons in the book of Acts. His message is that of the first Church, and it remains the essence of Christian preaching ever since. What has been called the “primitive kerygma”, the first proclamation, of the early Church, declared by Peter and recorded by Luke in his book, remains the model for all subsequent preaching by Christians. Luke remembers these early sermons, so that they can serve as both a pattern and as an inspiration for what Christians might always say. The pattern of these sermons is consistent:

Those who rejected and killed Jesus were wrong.”
Jesus is vindicated by God who has raised him from the dead.”
Therefore you should repent, turn to God.”

It is not quite a three point sermon. But it is a pretty succinct outline of the thrust of Christian rhetoric. This is what the Church says. Despite the world’s rejection of God, God in his resurrection of Jesus provides the opportunity to be restored to God. If we were looking for a simple faith, here it is, in the first preaching of the first Christians.

That said, every context provides opportunity to nuance what is said. On this occasion, because Peter’s words are prompted by the healing of the lame man, his sermon can also point to the healing as a further vindication of Jesus. Peter is able to point to further evidence in the world as his hearers are experiencing it of the truth of what he saying. 
Not only has God raised Jesus from the dead, but now this man has been healed in Jesus’ name.”

Therefore you should repent, turn to God.”

Peter’s preaching, and Luke’s recollection of it provides a model for what Christians should say, whether they are preachers or not. But in preaching context, the particular moment of speech, is everything. Peter is the model preacher, but what he does and how he speaks is tied to the occasion of his speaking, so that not everything is easily reapplied on every occasion of Christian speaking. Peter is the model preacher, who gives the model Christian testimony, but not everything he says is repeatable, or even beyond reproach.

The context is decisive. Peter speaks the way he does, to the people who are actually in front of him. This crowd is not the same crowd that has been in front of any other Christian who speaks ever since. So that not everything that Peter says can be accepted and uncritically adopted by all Christians in every place at all time and in every situation. Indeed something of the old Peter, whose speech was risky even reckless, is still present in the model Christian speaker. Some of how Peter speaks shows us that from the beginning there have been some aspects of the way Christians have spoken that we are best warned against.


Latent Anti-Semitism

The crowd which Peter speaks to is the crowd of Jerusalem’s residents as they are heading into the temple to pray. Potentially many of those who are listening to Peter now were in the crowd that gathered some months earlier in Jerusalem, who rejected Jesus when Pilate offered him back to them. Peter is probably not unjustified at laying the rejection of Jesus at their feet. They are the same crowd.

And they are probably almost all Jewish. So he can quite reasonably say: 
You Israelites. . .

But the context here is absolutely decisive. Subsequent Christians perhaps should not have adopted this manner of speech. It opens the door to Anti-Semitism. The tragedy of Christian history is the history of conflict between Christians and Jews. It is a conflict which became ever more lethal to Jews as the church became more powerful. One of the greatest crimes of the Church in history has been to use the Jewish Messiah against Jews. Peter’s messaging is important. He must draw a distinction between the Church, Christians and everyone else. But his approach cannot be uncritically adopted. He achieves his aim by “othering” a particular group, in this case Jews. We still attempt to draw boundaries around ourselves, to mark the church out as different. But we do so at the risk of separating ourselves from, and even wounding, people that God in Jesus Christ wants us to be united with.


Political Expedience

Something which Peter also does, and which much Christian speech has done since, is to shift the blame for the death of Jesus away from the Roman Empire. And indeed to do it in such a way that further emphasises the possibility of Jewish culpability, by blaming the temple leadership. Peter does his best to exonerate the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate.

. . . Jesus whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate though he decided to release him.

Christians have adopted Peter’s model in their attitude to Pilate’s actions. Yet is this really speaking truth to power, in the manner which Jesus himself practised? Pilate may have claimed he found no fault in Jesus. He may have claimed he wanted to release him. But he had Jesus executed anyway. He committed an act which he knew himself to be unjust. Surely that is worse than just being unjust, being knowingly unjust because it is more convenient?

Peter of course has good reasons not to want to provoke the Romans. In the end the Church must live in the world, and create some space for itself to do its work and make its message heard. It is no good bring down the power of Empire on the Church when it is not strong enough to survive. But Peter has opened the door to making the Church comfortable with the power of this world, even when that power is clearly unjust. The Church did adopt Peter’s approach, and as it turns out it was a rather successful strategy. This manner of speaking opened the door to allow Roman elites to adopt Christianity. Pilate remained an important figure in Christian debates with pagans. Both sides wanted to exonerate Pilate. The pagans claimed Pilate was justified in his sentencing of Jesus, because he was the leader of a violent revolutionary gang. The Christian apologists adopted Peter’s line, that Pilate had wanted to release Jesus and was manipulated into having him killed. They argued that Christianity was no threat to those political elites. Their argument succeeded! The Empire became officially Christian, not because it converted the majority of it’s people, but because it gained influence with the ruling elite in Rome. That strategy has been a triumph and a tragedy. It has greatly increased the influence of Christianity in the world. But it has done so by often allying the Church with the powerful and setting it against the poor and the powerless, with who God sides. This shows that even our most successful strategies bring with them profound risks to the message we are actually trying to speak to the world.


Hypocrisy by Omission

Peter is very prompt in the accusation that others had rejected Jesus. He says:

. . . you rejected the holy and Righteous One. . .

What Peter fails to mention is that at the point that rejection was made, he had already denied that he ever knew Jesus. Peter is clearly open to an accusation of hypocrisy.

Of course the pulpit is almost never the best place to exercise self-doubt or self-criticism. To be convincing the message must be delivered with a high degree of self confidence. And every preacher knows, as every Christian who shares the gospel knows, that we always must speak beyond where we find ourselves. Speaking on behalf of God in Christ is an unavoidably risky business, we cannot but make ourselves vulnerable. But this can’t go with real forgetfulness. We cannot adopt Peter’s manner of speaking without remembering, as surely he did, that we fall far short of the glory of the one we are pointing. One of the most off-putting characteristics which Christians can sometimes present is self-righteous hypocrisy.

How then can we speak at all? What saves Peter’s and our speech? The answer lies in the grace of God. There is an almost unspoken gap in that proclamation which the Church has made:

Those who rejected and killed Jesus were wrong.”
Jesus is vindicated by God who has raised him from the dead.”

Therefore you should repent, turn to God.”

There is a space of time between, Jesus being raised from the dead and repentance. It is that time in which all Christian speaking exists. It is the time in which we live, the time of God’s patience and forbearance. The time in which the opportunity to turn to God arises. Peter articulates God’s patience:

I know that you acted in ignorance.

If Peter knows then certainly God knows. But Peter also knows that God achieves what God sets out to do.

God fulfilled what he had foretold. . .

Whilst we must be careful how we speak in this time in between, we can be reassured that despite all the flaws in how Peter spoke and in how we continue to represent the Gospel, God in his patient forbearance continues to work his purpose out, as much despite us as because of us.

Amen.

Peter Preaches by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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