Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the second Sunday of Easter.
“Fellow Israelites, listen to these words! Jesus the Nazarene was a man whose credentials God proved to you through miracles, wonders, and signs, which God performed through him among you. You yourselves know this. In accordance with God’s established plan and foreknowledge, he was betrayed. You, with the help of wicked men, had Jesus killed by nailing him to a cross. God raised him up! God freed him from death’s dreadful grip, since it was impossible for death to hang on to him. David says about him,
I foresaw that the Lord was always with me;
because he is at my right hand I won’t be shaken.
Therefore, my heart was glad
and my tongue rejoiced.
Moreover, my body will live in hope,
because you won’t abandon me to the grave,
nor permit your holy one to experience decay.
You have shown me the paths of life;
your presence will fill me with happiness.
“Brothers and sisters, I can speak confidently about the patriarch David. He died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this very day. Because he was a prophet, he knew that God promised him with a solemn pledge to seat one of his descendants on his throne. Having seen this beforehand, David spoke about the resurrection of Christ, that he wasn’t abandoned to the grave, nor did his body experience decay. This Jesus, God raised up. We are all witnesses to that fact. He was exalted to God’s right side and received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit. He poured out this Spirit, and you are seeing and hearing the results of his having done so.
There is an old urban legend about the kind of speech given at freshmen orientation in college. Some academic dean looks disapprovingly out at a room of fresh-faced, hopeful first-years and commands: “Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you won’t be there at graduation. Make sure it isn’t you.”
I don’t know if the line was ever actually a part of an orientation speech, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Some colleges are notoriously competitive, and fear of failure is certainly motivating.
I remember my own freshmen orientation, although it’s starting to be further back in memory than I’d like. My class filed into our chapel to be given “the speech”—a few words to formally begin our time as the Sweet Briar Class of 2012. The President took her lectern and cleared her throat. It was for the most part, not the most memorable speech. But I do remember the surge of adrenaline when all of a sudden she hit on a familiar line: “Look to your left. Look to your right.”
We did. There was a long pause, and some nervous smiles. It seemed impossible, but the old urban legend was coming true—and we were about to get our marching orders. Someone’s going to fail. Make sure it isn’t you.
Except that’s not what the President said. “See those two women?” she asked (I went to a women’s college, if you didn’t know.) They are your responsibility. It’s your job now to make sure all three of you reach graduation together.
My college had a mission statement, a good one, but I couldn’t tell you what it said. But that day I learned what our mission really was—to support each other. To carry each other so that we all reached the finish line together.
The best moments of my college career are the moments when that mission was realized. The times when my friends stayed up late to help me refine my final thesis, or when my dorm hall got together to throw a just-because party for a homesick neighbor, or when a professor went out of his way to prove our voices were important to the class conversation. The times we carried each other through final exams and financial stress and relationship strain. The times we linked arms and marched together.
Of course, not every moment was like that. The fact that such an ideal was ever achieved is what makes me so passionate about my college, and there were plenty of moments of competition and pettiness and apathy. There were certainly students who fell through the cracks, and some who decided to leave of their own accord. I don’t actually remember who was sitting on my right and left that day, but it seems plausible one was my freshmen year roommate, and she left after that first year. So it’s very possible that in the literal sense, I failed my charge from that orientation speech. But when I did reach graduation day, I did so with the real sense that I was there because of my classmates, and that even possibly, some of them were there because of me.
I hope that even without that orientation speech I would have found my college to be a supportive and collaborative place. But those words crystallized for me that being good to each other wasn’t just a nice additive to our educational life—it was central. Supporting each other was our mission.
It may be helpful to think of Peter’s sermon in the second chapter of the book of Acts as his own freshmen orientation speech. It’s his chance to take a bunch of disconnected people and turn them into a community. It’s also his chance to set this new community off on the right track—his chance to set out what the mission of a Christian community is going to be.
Because of the way the lectionary works, we’re actually joining him mid-speech. You probably know the first part, though—it’s the text we read each year on Pentecost, the text we’ll get to in about a month and a half, when the Spirit descends as wind and fire and the people speak in tongues but still understand each other. Peter seizes the moment in a big way, to grab the attention of the crowds gathered for Jerusalem, and he starts by quoting Joel about the work of the spirit, and then moves into what we heard today, about the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
I have to admit, I’ve got issues with this speech. As inspirational sermons go, Peter’s is clumsy at best, cruel at worst. He accuses the Jewish crowd in front of him of responsibility for Jesus’ death—a crowd mostly of tourists, who weren’t even in Jerusalem at the time. Yet he paints all the Jews gathered there with the same brush—which is strange, given that Peter was Jewish himself. It’s a nasty bit of rhetoric, one that’s had real and devastating consequences for how Christians have treated Jews throughout the centuries. The accusation that “the Jews” killed Christ—and here I want you to see my air quotes—has been used as an excuse for deplorable, vicious, and violent behavior by Christians towards Jews. And not only in the past: anti-Semitism is alive and well and dangerous. As the descendants of that tradition, we Christians cannot afford to gloss over Peter’s accusation. It’s really only one line in his speech, but it’s done so much damage that it’s tough to recover the rest.
It looks like Peter is setting up an “us” against “them” dynamic. It looks like he’s trying to create a new community by slamming the old one, by dividing people. And if those are really the opening arguments for what it means to be a community of Jesus, you can count me out. It’s a little bit like that famous line from those mythic orientation speeches: look to your right, look to your left, one of you won’t be there. Except it’s even more menacing: one of you shouldn’t be there. It’s not just competition. It’s nearly a threat.
That’s the way this speech has been taken anyway. But I don’t think it’s how it was meant. And while impact is just—or more—important than intent, I still think Peter’s first sermon is salvageable. I just think he needs to listen to his own words a bit more seriously.
Peter is preaching Jesus—the Jesus who performed miracles, wonders, and signs—the Jesus who ate with outcasts and healed the sick and forgave sinners and reached across ethnic and religious boundaries. Peter is preaching Jesus—the one whom death could not hold. The one who showed how God intends for Life to get the last word. Jesus who drew people together from all walks of life to be his disciples. This is the Jesus Peter is preaching, even as his own bitterness pops out from its dark corner. This is the Jesus Peter wants to be like, even as his own human sinfulness gets in the way.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Peter is notoriously slow on the uptake in the gospels, and even though he steps up to the plate in a major way in Acts he still doesn’t seem to entirely get what Jesus’ resurrection means. He’s still caught up in the fact that it happened at all.
He’ll learn, though. The Book of Acts is called acts because, well, it’s about acts—actions. It’s not about what the apostles believed or said. It’s about what they did. And once Peter gets off his soapbox, he’s going to find himself doing the kinds of things Jesus did—welcoming strangers and expelling demons and healing the sick. He’s going to find himself at the head of a movement that crosses ethnic and religious and gender boundaries. He’s going to find himself acting out the resurrection life—doing things that bring life, healing, and hope to those around him.
Ultimately, Peter will learn by doing, not by making speeches. The same is true for the community he inspires. They will learn what it means to be Christ’s body on earth by sharing what they have, caring for widows, sitting the poor and the rich at the same table, welcoming in those who look and sound different from them. This disparate community of believers will become Christ’s church as they go, with each act of living faith.
It’s a process we’re still a part of today. We’re still trying to live out Peter’s mission statement for the church: to be the place where the Holy Spirit helps the world to see Christ in us.
I don’t believe Peter ever intended to divide his community. And I really don’t think he meant to incite the kind of bigoted violence that has resulted from his words. But it happened, and now part of our work as God’s church is learning to ask for forgiveness, and keeping guard from prejudice. Our job has always been to care for our neighbors—to love them as ourselves, regardless of who they are or how they vote or what they earn or how they worship.
Our job has always been—according to Jesus—to look to our left, and look to our right, and make sure that those people get to the finish line together with us. Our job is to be the community that works together to support each other, to make sure that nobody slips through the cracks. Our job is not to divide and conquer. Our job is to carry each other all the way home.
And, with the Spirit’s help, we might just find, that when we look right, and look left—and when we look with love—we might just find that Christ is at our right hand, and at our left.
And that he has promised to carry us.
This is what Peter wants the world to witness: that there is a community of people out there who know what it means to love each other.
Two thousand years later, the mission is still incomplete.
Church, we’ve got our marching orders.