Peter's Sermon He Needed to Hear
When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “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? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.
“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,
I want to dig deeper into today’s reading from Acts, which is essentially a sermon from Peter. So, yes, you are about to experience a sermon about a sermon.
There’s a saying about preachers – that we tend to preach the sermons we most need to hear. I’m not sure if this idea is meant to be affirming or dismissive; but regardless, it is true.
I would like you understand that the ideas I address in my messages are ideas that I wrestle with. They are ideas that I strive to understand. They are ideas that I feel are important. They are ideas with implications that are played out in the world that we share.
My preaching is an exploration my questions, struggles, experiences, joys, as well as my grasp of what is true and beautiful in this world. It is all I can ever hope to do since no matter how many perspectives I try to explore, I cannot ever fully see the world through anyone else’s eyes.
Occasionally you offer me feedback about my sermons that goes beyond comments like “I liked the message” or “You went a little long today.” Sometimes you say, “That really made me think” or “I feel like you were talking about me.”
When you hear a sermon and think I wrote it about you, please acknowledge that experience as a point of connection between us. If something makes you stop and think, it’s because I’m thinking about it too. If something makes you upset, it’s because I’m upset about it too. I’m not preaching what you need to hear, I’m preaching what I need to hear. That’s the best I can do.
It is helpful to keep this idea in mind as we explore Peter’s sermon from the 3rd chapter of Acts. I’m not sure if it left an impression on you when you heard it earlier in worship, but it’s a pretty damning message. In fact, these verses have a shameful history of being used to support anti-semitic causes and atrocities. However, like everything in scripture, there are layers to explore and often the good news is hidden under the surface.
Here’s the wider context, beginning with Acts 3:1:
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
This is another example of God working through Peter to achieve miraculous ends, and Peter is still coming to terms with this new power and reality.
Recall Peter’s role in the events that led up Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Peter was one of the disciples who fell asleep in the garden while Jesus prayed. Also recall that Jesus had announced that Peter would deny him three times. Sure enough, three times people accused Peter of being in cahoots with Jesus. Each time Peter says, “I don’t even know the guy.” When Peter realizes that Jesus’ prediction was true, he breaks down in tears and does not reappear in the story until after Christ’s resurrection.
But almost immediately in the book of Acts Peter goes from a failed disciple to an outwardly successful one. His first sermon results in 3,000 people being baptized. He has started healing people. Amazing things are starting to happen through Peter – the disciple who fell asleep when Jesus told him to stay awake, denied Jesus, and played a role in Jesus’ death.
Peter has to reconcile the truth that he is as unworthy as they come, and yet God is working through him to accomplish divine healing and restorative purpose in the world.
And suddenly it makes sense why he is yelling at the Israelites – his tribe – gathered around him and blaming them for Jesus’ death. He’s conflicted. He’s working out some issues. And preachers preach the messages they need to hear.
He looks out at the Israelites and sees himself. His sermon is little more than an inner monologue dripping with frustration, shame, and confusion.
See what I mean when we re-read the sermon but replace the pronouns “you” with “I”
Peter thought to himself, "Why do I wonder at this, or why do I think that it is by my own power or piety I made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom I allowed to be handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But I rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to me, and I killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. I witnessed this. But faith that is through Jesus has given this man perfect health. And now, I know that I acted in ignorance. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. I must repent therefore, and turn to God so that my sins may be wiped out.
The idea that this message should stand on its own accord, independent of its larger context, as proof of Jewish culpability or condemnation is dangerous and misleading. This is a message by Peter to Peter; it is a message of condemnation and grace that resonates in our own hearts because we, too, are God-killers. We, too, would turn our backs on Jesus if the stakes were high enough. And we, too, are used by God to bring grace, beauty, and healing into this world despite our fears and failings.
As for practical takeaways from this sermon:
– take this as permission to tread lightly with scripture and refrain from using it as a weapon to assault others. The truth as revealed in scripture is always nuanced and should lead us towards grace, hope, and love.
– also, be encouraged to do your own mental and emotional work. Human beings tend to redirect internal anxieties as arrows aimed at others. Pay attention to your hangups – the things that bother you and you wish you could change about other people. These are typically indicators of issues you need to address in your own life. Admit this and seek assistance before others are made to suffer.
– take heart that God is able to accomplish incredible things through imperfect people like Peter. Your final chapter has not yet been written. There is still time to expect and demand God’s miraculous and restorative presence to work through you.