Opening The Old Testament
A Famous and Dangerous Sermon: Reflections on Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
April 27, 2014
As has been common for centuries, the lectionary collectors turn to the book of the Acts after Easter to trace the movement of the early Christian communities from the Jerusalem temple to the "ends of the earth," which in those times meant the city of Rome. It is hardly an accident that Acts ends with Paul preaching openly in the capital city of the empire.
It is always important to remember that in Luke's gospel, the first volume of his two-volume work, one of his chief goals was to insist that the expected parousia, the supposedly imminent return of Jesus in glory and power (cf. Mark 9:1 for a classic portrait of that hope), was delayed with little real certainty that it was going to occur soon. Hence, Luke goes about describing a church that must find its way in a Roman world, as well as a world where the traditional Jewish believers have refused to recognize Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of Judaism. As a result of this basic conviction, Luke goes out of his way, at least in part, to exonerate the Romans of the death of Jesus, and deeply to implicate the Jewish authorities in that death. For example, in Luke 23 where Jesus stands before the Roman governor, Pilate, three times Luke has Pilate say that he finds Jesus innocent of any crimes worthy of death. In contrast, we learn from Josephus that Pilate was so monstrous as governor that the Romans themselves deposed him from that office! It is less than likely that the Pilate of history would have found the rabble-rouser Jesus guiltless; he rather would have had him tortured and killed forthwith as a threat to Roman power. But, for Luke, it is the Jewish leaders who are finally responsible.
It is tragic, and ultimately horrifying, that this scenario has wormed its way right into the heart of the Christian message as it was preached in the earliest church. And that particular understanding of the relationship between Jews and Christians has continued right up until our own time. We must never forget that it was not until the 1960s, only about fifty years ago, that the Roman Catholic Church finally removed from its doctrinal understanding of the Christian/Jewish relationship that the Jews were "Christ killers." It cannot be denied that at least part of that demonic notion arose from this Petrine sermon on the day of Pentecost.
Before we look with a bit more care at the contents of this sermon, it is well to state one fact clearly: the conflict here is not Jew against Christian. The conflict is one between Jew and Jew. Nearly all those who heard Peter that day, at least in Luke's retelling of it, were Jewish. Why else would Peter say at Acts 2:29 when addressing his listeners, "brothers," implying that he is an Israelite just as they are. The struggle here is an inner Jewish one, revolving around the proper understanding of just who Jesus is: prophet or Messiah. It will not be long, of course, perhaps less than a decade after Luke writes his works, that a complete break between traditional Judaism and emergent Christianity will at last occur (this break may be signaled for us in John 9 and the story of the man born blind).
Peter's sermon sets the tone and shape of the earliest Christian preaching. In fact, some scholars suggest that Luke was the pioneer of such preaching, while others say that he was ringing changes on a preaching that was already several decades old as he wrote. Whichever is the historical answer to this chicken/egg debate, the influence of this sermon on the future of Christian theology and practice, especially with regard to the Jews, both for good and for bad, is incalculable.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.
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