The Gospel according to Acts 3

For the next three Sundays I’ll be preaching from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. I have a write-up here about how and why our lectionary uses Acts during the Easter season, which you might find to be a handy reference for additional background information. This year, our readings from Acts are as follows:

Easter II – 3:12a, 13-15, 17-26 – Peter preaching repentance unto faith in Christ
Easter III – 4:5-14 – Peter and John examined by the Jews for healing in the name of Jesus
Easter IV – 4:23-37 – the church rejoices and grows in generosity
Easter V – 8:26-40 – Philip preaches to and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch
Easter VI – 11:19-30 – the church grows among Gentiles and is generous abroad
after Ascension – 1:15-26 – the replacement of Judas with Matthias

The first three Sundays in this list generally follow a pattern of preachingresistancetriumph & growth.  Easter V and VI then deal with the spread of the Gospel among the Gentiles, typically to the chagrin and anger of the Jewish synagogue members. And finally the Sunday after the Ascension deals with something that occurred between the ascension and Pentecost.

On this past Sunday, we heard from Acts 3, and if you look at those verse references you’ll see that it is oddly clipped: half of verse 12 is omitted, and verse 16 is also dropped. It’s not as though such a trim makes a difference to the length of the reading, and it’s not even a long reading to begin with! The reason for the trim is because the lectionary’s emphasis from this text is the preaching of Peter and the proclamation of the Gospel that he delivers. The “issue” with chapter 3 is that the context in which this particular sermon is delivered is a story of Peter and John having healed a man who could not walk. People in the Temple were amazed at this, and their interest in Peter and John was intense at this moment. The two bits omitted from the reading are simply references to the beggar who was lame from birth. The lectionary-designers could have lengthened the reading to run from verse 1 through 26; it’s a long-ish reading but not inappropriately so. But they chose not to because, again, the emphasis in this Eastertide progression is meant to be upon the proclamation of the Gospel, not the miracles of the Apostles. (Remember, the Daily Office is where you go for continuous readings from the Bible to get the full, whole, picture.)

So what is the Gospel proclamation that we heard in Acts 3? Let’s group his little sermon into sections.

 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.

Acts 3:13-15

The identity of Jesus is the first and foremost concern here. Jesus is the Son of God, whom all Israel had been striving to worship since the beginning. He was the Holy and Righteous One, which is not merely a description but a reference to countless Old Testament prophecies of one who could come to save and redeem God’s people. And, just in case there was any sense of separation between Jesus and the God Father (such as Jesus being adopted or exalted to a god-like status), Jesus is called “the Author of life”, thus securing the doctrine that Jesus and the Father are “of one being” or “of the same substance” or “consubstantial”, as different translations of the Creed express. This Jesus, they had killed, but God raised him from the dead, and all the apostles witnessed this.

And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.

Acts 3:17-21

In the middle is the call to repentance. In light of the truth of Jesus’ identity and the sin of killing him, the people are called to “turn back” for the forgiveness of their sins and for the blessings of “the presence of the Lord”. Fellowship with God is dependent upon such repentance; they could not rely upon the Old Covenant or the Law or the Temple building anymore. A new and better way to be with the Lord is now before them!

Obviously, neither we nor anyone else in the world around us were there calling for Christ’s death. But we all “acted in ignorance” and we all have sins that need blotting out. So, although Peter was speaking to a fairly specific and unique audience in this chapter, his message is an enduring one that carries the same meaning and urgency to this day.

He concludes:

Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days. You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.

Acts 3:22-26

As he asserted in the beginning he now backs up with scriptural proof, that Jesus was promised in the ancient Scriptures (Deut. 18:15 and Genesis 12:3 / 22:18 are the specific references here). So his emphasis in this sermon is that Jesus is divine, God-the-Son, who truly died and rose again for our sins, and this was God’s promise and plan from the start. God desires the salvation of mankind and has gone to the greatest lengths to to procure it. This is a message of comfort! Sometimes “repent of your sins” sounds threatening, angry, and condemnatory. But in this case it is an appeal, heart-felt, and inviting. The past is full of evil, but a new life of blessing is offered in its place.

Back in the season of Lent, perhaps the call to repentance was on a harsher tone: “we have sinned, O Lord, and our iniquities are ever before us.” “Proclaim a fast, call a solemn assembly.” “Rend your hearts and not your garments,” and so forth. Easter continues the proclamation of the same Gospel, but the refiner’s fire now casts a softer glow: “come, enter into [or share] your master’s happiness.”

Consider this joy-filled Gospel both in your own prayers this season, and also in your words and language toward others.

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Holy Saturday: Out of the Depths

Me wife and I recorded the Holy Saturday liturgy together this morning.

Order of Service:

  1. Collect of the Day
  2. OT Lesson: Job 14:1-17
  3. Psalm 130
  4. Epistle: 1 Peter 4:1-8
  5. Hymn: “From deepest woe” (a paraphrase of Psalm 130)
  6. Gospel: John 19:38-42
  7. Brief Homily
  8. Hymn: “O sorrow deep”
  9. The Anthem
  10. The Lord’s Prayer
  11. Closing Sentence
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The love of Power versus the love of the Powerful

The Maundy Thursday service has these default readings: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 78:15-26; 1 Corinthians 11:23-34; and Luke 22:14-30. Also with this morning’s reading from John 13 in mind, we are given a powerful example and teaching from our Lord about the right relationship between teh Christian and power.

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27 For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

Luke 22:24-27

What does the love of Power do to/within us?

  • Dispute, contention, competition, disunity
  • Benefactor-Debtor relationship
  • Rich & poor divide (see also 1 Corinthians)
  • Power struggles, class struggles, race struggles, all stem from the love of power
  • It’s very similar to that “love of money” issue in 1 Timothy 6.

What does the love of the Powerful demonstrate?

  • Posture of humility (as the youngest, as one who serves)
  • The powerful still participating in their menial beginnings
  • Never “too good” or “too important” for others
  • Not out to dispute or win but simply to do
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What does Daniel 9 have to do with Holy Week?

At Morning Prayer on Maundy Thursday, in the original Prayer Book and the 2019 Prayer Book (and probably most in between), the Old Testament lesson is Daniel 9. What’s that doing here?

With this it’s best to read Psalm 41, Daniel 9, and John 13:1-20. Outline notes to help you follow along this devotional:

Verses 1-2     Daniel studies the prophet Jeremiah and finds that the 70 years should be up now!  It’s time for the people to make good their repentance and return home.

Verses 3-19   A fantastic prayer of confession follows.

Verses 20-27 The Archangel Gabriel answers with comfort and a mysterious “70 weeks” countdown.

A week is meant a “week of years” that is, seven years, so 70×7 = 490 years in total.
(An unfortunate challenge is that not all calendars reckoned identical years.)

  • 458 BC (Ezra sent to rebuild the Temple) to 30 AD (Jesus crucified)
  • 519 BC (Zechariah’s vision to rebuild the Temple) to 29 BC (King Herod)

This has been the MP lesson for Maundy Thursday since the first Prayer Book, thus asserting the historic christological interpretation of Daniel 9.

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God’s Sovereignty even in Betrayal

The betrayal of Jesus committed by Judas is the subject of today’s devotion.

To follow along, here’s the summary of the audio file’s contents:

  1. Acclamation, Collect for Purity
  2. Summary of the Law, Kyrie, Collect of the Day
  3. OT Lesson: Isaiah 40:4-9
  4. Psalm 69:6-14, 21-22
  5. Epistle Lesson: Hebrews 9:11-28
  6. Gospel Lesson: Matthew 26:1-5, 14-25
  7. Homily:
    1. Matt. 26:21+24 introduce the necessity of Christ’s death
    2. Isa. 50 is another Suffering Servant Song, v8-9 acknowledge the betrayer and his downfall
    3. Heb. 9:11-12 give us the High Priest using his own blood
    4. It is like the Babylonians being used to punish Judah, and later themselves being punished.

Additional prayer (from Psalm 69) that was omitted from the worship service:

Let not those who trust in you, O Lord God of hosts, be ashamed because of me;
let not those who seek you be confounded through me, O God of Israel.
Those who sit in judgment speak against me, and the drunkards make songs about me.
But, Lord, I make my prayer to you in an acceptable time.
Hear me, O God, in the multitude of your mercy, even in the truth of your salvation.
I will praise the Name of God with a song, and magnify it with thanksgiving.
Amen.

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Let the Heathen Come to Me

Tuesday in Holy Week brings us back to one of the Palm Sunday historical events: the cleansing of the Temple. Exactly where the gentiles (non-Jews) are supposed to be able to be worshiping, merchants have set up for the benefit of the Jewish worshipers. It’s a nasty act of exclusion and a desecration of the Temple courtyard, and Jesus is famously unhappy about it.

The first half of our worship service this morning gives us the scriptures and homily concerning these events.

  1. Acclamation, Collect for Purity, Summary of the Law, Kyrie, Collect for Holy Tuesday
  2. OT Lesson: Isaiah 49:1-6
  3. Psalm 71:1-11
  4. Epistle Lesson: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
  5. Gospel Lesson: Mark 11:15-19
  6. Homily

Not that there was a brief recording glitch about 10 minutes in, early in the homily. Nothing of the sermon was lost, however.

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Preparing for Death

Monday in Holy Week (in the modern liturgical calendar tradition) brings us to the moment when Jesus is anointed for his burial with expensive perfume. Here is the first half of the Communion service for this day.

Outline, so you can follow along:

  1. The Acclamation & Collect for Purity
  2. The Summary of the Law & the Kyrie
  3. Collect for Monday in Holy Week
  4. OT Lesson: Isaiah 42:1-9
  5. Psalm 36:5-10
  6. Epistle Lesson: Hebrews 11:32-12:3 (with a couple extra verses)
  7. Gospel: Mark 14:3-9
  8. Homily
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The Tearing of the Veil

Last week we heard about the “wall of separation” and you can visit that worship service here. Today we’re looking at “the Tearing of the Veil”, part 2 in our sermon trilogy.

from the worship service at Grace Anglican Church, Palm Sunday 28 March 2021

To follow along, here’s the order of service in the recording:

  1. Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 52:13-53:12
  2. Psalm 22:1-11
  3. New Testament Lesson: Philippians 2:5-11
  4. Hymn: Were you there (three-verses version)
  5. Passion Gospel: Mark 15:1-39
  6. Sermon
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Abandonment and Return

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah was sometimes referred to as the Fifth Gospel among the Early Church Fathers, and with good reason: there are many passages from its text that illumine the promise of Christ so brightly that it’s hard to go back and read them in any other light. Indeed, there is much that can be gleaned from its historical context, and lessons to be drawn from how Isaiah interacted with the state of Israel and Judah around him, and what the Lord preached to them through him, but the real power of the Bible is not in its history lessons so much as its christophany – how it shows us Jesus.

Chapter 22, for example, is an oracle that Isaiah preached to Jerusalem. He was speaking of the inhabitants’ flight for their lives, most likely in the wake of future Babylonian invasion, but when the Christian reads it an even greater flight of abandonment comes to mind.

What do you mean that you have gone up,
    all of you, to the housetops,
you who are full of shoutings,
    tumultuous city, exultant town?
Your slain are not slain with the sword
    or dead in battle.
All your leaders have fled together;
    without the bow they were captured.
All of you who were found were captured,
    though they had fled far away.
Therefore I said:
“Look away from me;
    let me weep bitter tears;
do not labor to comfort me
    concerning the destruction of the daughter of my people.

Isaiah 22:1-4 (ESV Bible)

The capture of Jesus and his subsequent trials, torture, and crucifixion are very much a recapitulation of the suffering of historic Israel and Jerusalem. Our Lord makes this connection himself when he speaks of his body “destroy this Temple and I will raise it up in three days.” He invites us to see himself as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament: the Law, Prophets, and Writings. Thus, where we see the destruction of Jerusalem pointing to the death of Jesus, we can also see the faithless inhabitants of the city trying to flee the chaos fulfilled in the disciples. And not only did they flee from the garden, Gethsemane, where he was a arrested, but they committed acts of betrayal and faithlessness too:

As Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Mark 14:66-72 (ESV Bible)

The emotion of this, from Jesus’ perspective, must have been exhausting. Even though he was and is the God of all creation, even though he knew he would raise himself in three days, the feeling of abandonment must have been intense. The sweating of blood in the garden is testimony to his stress (it’s a real phenomenon! albeit rare) and among his last words on the Cross he even quotes a Psalm expressing his feeling of abandonment by the Father himself.

Another Psalm that speaks to this moment is Psalm 88. I’ve used it in a worship setting before, and actually had someone leave the room – not because it was offensive but because it was too real, too intense, to sing or pray for that person at that time.

Unto you have I cried, O Lord,
    and early shall my prayer come before you.
Lord, why do you cast off my soul
    and hide your face from me?
I am in misery, like one who is at the point of death;
    even from my youth, your terrors have I suffered with a troubled mind.
Your wrathful displeasure goes over me;
  and the fear of you has undone me.
Daily they come round about me like water,
    and encompass me on every side.
My companions and neighbors you have put away from me,
    and hidden my friends out of my sight.

Psalm 88:13-18 (New Coverdale Psalter)

There are times when we feel this way ourselves. There are also times when this seems a bit melodramatic for self-application. But we can always pray this with Jesus, who knew this abandonment at, and leading up to, the Cross. It can be most illuminating to realize and meditate upon the fact that God himself, in our flesh, has experienced the bitter pain of betrayal and loss. He looked down upon human misery and didn’t simply snap his finger to make it go away, but first sat down with us in the midst of it. He shows us that he’s not a Vending Machine God, but a deity who is truly personal (in fact thrice-personal, as we know Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). His acts are out of compassion, having shared our sorrows and walked through death itself for our sake.

Yes, we forsake and abandon Jesus in many ways – every little sin, every covering up of the Cross when a difficult personal confrontation arises, is a removal of ourselves from his sight. Not just Judas, but all the disciples and all God’s people are traitors. The question is not whether we sin but whether we repent. Do you trust God’s love such that you actually go back to him? Even after the sin, the betrayal, the denial, do you come back to him – not just physically in church but in your own heart as well? That is the Christian way: repentance, returning to Jesus, trusting in his love and mercy to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

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Turning our backs on the glory of God

On this week before Holy Week, it seemed like a good idea to me to look at some of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ, which will occupy our devotional attentions for those several days.

In Mark 14:43-52 we read about when Jesus was arrested:

And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. 44 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man. Seize him and lead him away under guard.” 45 And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” And he kissed him. 46 And they laid hands on him and seized him. 47 But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 48 And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” 50 And they all left him and fled.

51 And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, 52 but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.

In story-telling terms, this is an event in which the antagonist scores a major victory in the final push towards the climax of the story. The climax itself is the death and resurrection of Jesus, and this episode during which he is betrayed and captured kicks off that final sequence of events that brings him to his death. The apparent triumph of darkness and evil, in good story-telling, always immediately precedes that final victory of the protagonist, and all four Gospel writers make use of this tension-building as they focus on the events that spiral towards the Cross.

So this is a moment where, if only temporarily, evil has triumphed. That should be familiar to us: this entire world is in a constant state of darkness as the forces of Satan run amok within, without, and around the Church. Maybe the religious authorities will step in and rescue Jesus? No. Maybe the state will step in and rescue Jesus? No. So today, every earthly authority – secular and sacred, governmental and ecclesiastical – falls short of the call to divine justice. And not just authorities, but every individual, too, is prone to the sin of betrayal and faithlessness. It is the power of darkness pushing us away from God, trying to out-shout the voice of God’s Word and Holy Spirit, and it is a power that knows its tricks well.

But, just as Jesus would soon triumph even over the death that would be dealt him, we have a triumph in Christ over those demonic powers. St. Paul prayed for the Colossians:

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

That “domain of darkness” which we see at work in our Lord’s betrayal and in every facet of our world to this day is a powerful force, but we have been transferred out. God has “qualified” us to share in the Saints’ inheritance, to hang out with his holy ones, to become his holy ones. The domain of darkness is no longer our home base, the place in which we dwell and where we spend our downtime and rest. Rather, our home, our citizenship, our place to recharge, is the kingdom of God, ruled over by none other than Jesus himself. The domain of darkness makes war on us, intrudes upon our lives, lures us into its wiles and whims, and sends us innumerable side-quests of pettiness and evil, but it does not have the final say in our destiny.

We can, with the Psalmist, say:

Some [We!] sat in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    prisoners in affliction and in irons,
11 for they [we] had rebelled against the words of God,
    and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
12 So he bowed their [our] hearts down with hard labor;
    they [we] fell down, with none to help.
13 Then they [we] cried to the Lord in their [our] trouble,
    and he delivered them [us] from their [our] distress.
14 He brought them [us] out of darkness and the shadow of death,
    and burst their [our] bonds apart.
15 Let them [us] thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wondrous works to the children of man!
16 For he shatters the doors of bronze
    and cuts in two the bars of iron.

from Psalm 107

Although the passion, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus are historical truths, their telling in story or narrative form is very helpful. It captures the drama of what happened, it draws in our attention and understanding more readily, and it gives us a very easy-to-understand basis for what can be some very complex and dizzying doctrine and theology. Even if the two natures of Christ, the definition of atonement, and the ramifications of God the Son dying cause more confusion than clarity in your mind, the story of his Gospel gives us the truth that we need to know – the merciful Savior who stepped in to save the world from their sins, deliver us from darkness and the shadow of death, and transfer us into his own, new, light-filled kingdom.

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