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 preaching, resistance, triumph & 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.
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.