Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Today you are not getting the whole picture. Today you are only getting the bookends; the beginning and the end. You will need to go home and read the parts in between to understand the power that Peter had. Please raise your right hand and repeat after me, “I swear I will go home, and I will read Acts 2:14-35.” Keep your hand raised if you are lying in church?
The whole story is important so I do hope you will keep your promise and read Peter’s sermon in its entirety. It is important because we truly are only getting the introduction and the conclusion. There is a book that starts off, “Call me Ishmael,” and ends “It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.” If that is all of you read of this book you would never know it was about a peg legged captain in search of a white whale named Moby Dick. It is important to read the stuff in the middle so please go home and do so.
The lectionary text leaves out the middle today because they want us to focus on the reaction of the message and last week we were to hear the message itself but since it was homecoming we didn’t. So this week I’m going to make up some time by filling in the gaps a little. The Bishop has requested that all the churches should do a sermon series on Acts for the Great 50 days. The Great Fifty Days is the season of Easter. Just like Christmas is a season of 12 days that starts on December 25th, Easter is a season of 50 days that starts on Easter Sunday and ends on the day of Pentecost. For those Sundays in this season we are to concentrate our message on the texts that come from Acts.
Acts is volume two of Luke’s story. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of what happened while Jesus was here on earth and Acts tells the story about what happened after he ascended. It tells the story of the birth and spread of the church. In the book of Acts we get the story of the Holy Spirit coming to earth, the first martyr, Paul’s missionary journeys, the first Church Committee meeting, and a ton of others stories about prison, earthquakes, death, and conversions, it’s an awesome book. It is a great read and I encourage you to read Acts in its entirety at some point in your life.
But today we get the end of the first Church sermon. In the second chapter of Acts we are told it is the day of Pentecost. This was a feast day for the Jewish people. On Pentecost they would gather in Jerusalem to celebrate God’s gracious provisions of harvested food, land, and for the gift of the Torah. Since it was a big celebration, many different people from all over the area would come to celebrate in Jerusalem. The beginning of chapter 2 states that when all the disciples had gathered together “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” filled the entire house they were in. Then divided tongues of fire appeared over their heads and the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. In that moment they began to speak in other languages. We call this the birth of the church.
It continues that at this sound many gathered and were amazed because they heard their native language being spoken. People start to wonder what is going on and what is happening to these Galileans. The rumor starts that they are simply drunk and that is Peter’s cue to preach. This is when we get the start of verse 14, “But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them…” Then in verse 36 it says, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” That is the beginning and the end of the first sermon.
Peter never would have passed any seminary’s preaching course because it was really short. Peter didn’t have to worry about anyone tapping on their wrist watches, they hadn’t been invented yet. He didn’t have to worry about the line at lunch because he tells us it must have been the early service because it was only 9:00 in the morning. The first sermon comes to us outside a worship service, outside a church, it actually does happen outside. It is a spontaneous reaction to the Holy Spirit coming in their midst.
I know you all are going to go home and read it but what Peter says is nothing special to us Christians in 2011. There is no magic formula or special dynamic matter in which Peter preaches. He quotes scriptures, from the prophet Joel. Then he goes on to tell them the Easter Story. He tells them about who Jesus is, where he came from, what he did and why it was important. It is a simple sermon that ends with the confession and profession that Jesus is both Lord and Messiah.
Then Acts tell us that those that heard this message were cut to the heart. I like the way the King Jimmy Version said it here. It states that they were ‘pricked in their heart.’ The message that Peter delivered spoke to each one of them. He spoke and told them to repent and be baptized. 3000 people listened. On the first day of church, they turned into what we would call a mega church today. 3000 people came forward and were transformed by that message. 3000 were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for the first time in the new creation called the Church. The Church started with 12 apostles for about minute and then exploded.
Many people speculated why the 3000 came forward. There are places where it seems Peter is laying guilt on the Jewish people for killing Jesus but they read too much into that. What if you look at it closely you can see that people are reacting to this sermon not out of guilt or sorrow. They come forward because they are included in the salvation story. As Peter speaks they hear themselves in the story. They hear the kind of work Christ has done in this world and they realize he did it for them. That is a powerful message and it is not what many people would recommend preaching during a seeker service these days.
John Wesley used to ask his young men whom he had sent out to preach on probation two questions: "Has anyone been converted?" and "Did anyone get mad?" If the answer was "No," he told them he did not think the Lord had called them to preach the Gospel, and sent them about their business. When the Holy Spirit convicts people they are either converted or they don’t like. They are either transformed or they are angry. John Wesley would not have any problem with the reaction to Peter’s sermon.
What is interesting is that on this Pentecost day there were a couple of things at play in the audience that heard this first sermon. First there was a great diversity of people. If you remember Pentecost was a special day in Jerusalem. There were people from all over. Acts names at 13 different areas that were represented in the crowd that day. Jews, Arabs, Romans and Cretans all heard the disciples speaking their own language ‘about God’s deeds of power.’ The first church was multi-racial, multi-cultural, and was open to anyone and everyone who would listen.
The second thing was people were spiritually hungry. They were seeking for meaning in their lives and they wanted something that made a sense. They were in Jerusalem to celebrate the work God had done in their lives. God had provided food, land, and the Torah. God was good and then they learned that God continued to be good and provided them the Messiah.
Thomasville has become increasingly diverse. Alycia and I went to the 11 acre flea market just down the street one day. We heard at least four different languages but I am sure there were at least 13 different dialects being spoken. Thomasville is no longer black and white. We are brown, white, black, yellow and every shad in between. We, like Jerusalem that day, are racially and culturally diverse now.
What is also interesting is that 50 years ago church and our culture were one. It was the only game to play on Sundays. Nothing else was open and there was nothing else to do. Our culture told us that we went to church on Sunday. You were expected and you showed up. Now culture and church seem far apart. Only 15% of people in our own city think that going to church weekly is important. Change has happened and we as a church have a choice to make. We can complain about it and we are very good at that. We look at the generation coming up and we use Peter’s words here, we call them a “corrupt generation.” We could continue to do this and simply wag our finger at them or we can recognize that this generation is also seeking meaning and purpose. They are looking for something to make sense of their lives. What their parents say is true, doesn’t automatically equal the truth anymore. They want to experience it, test it, see it, and feel it for themselves. They are on a spiritual guest.
The good news today is that there is no difference between Jerusalem in 33 AD and Thomasville in 2011. Both cultures are diverse and seeking meaning. There is one difference. It is the number of those willing to be moved by the Holy Spirit to tell the Easter Story. What is missing are people who are willing to follow the apostle’s example and look past racial, ethnic, and language barriers and see people as God sees them, as his image-bearers. What is missing are people willing speak out and share the story of God’s work in the world and what he did out of love for everyone.
I want everyone to take out your hymnal and please turn to page 36. There in the middle of the page you see the question we ask when people join our congregation. We ask them if they will “faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts and your service?” Then in the congregational response, the bold part below, we welcome this person and renew our covenant to do the same. At the 2008 General Conference of the UMC something was added to this vow. When the confirmands joined on Easter I asked them if they would “faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?” General Conference added witness to the membership vows because it is an important part of what it means to be a Christian and to be a member of a congregation. So what I want you to do is take a pen or pencil and write in witness both at the membership question and the congregational response. Make sure it reads, prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
We are called to tell the story. We aren’t all called to be preachers and to stand up here failing to bring in thousands of people to God. But we are all called to tell the story of what Jesus has done in this world. There is nothing special you have to say. There is no special way to say it. We simply have to be opened up to the Holy Spirit to work through us and tell the simple story. God loves us. God sent his Son. His Son died our death and rose again. God loves us. We are Easter people and as such our primary task is to ‘witness’ or share the story of what was done on Easter. As we continue with the book of Acts we will see how that plays out in the early church. As we take this journey together may you realize that it is still possible here in Thomasville too. God is simply looking for people whose hearts have already been pricked to go out and tell the story.
And all God’s people said…Amen.