This morning we will continue our sermon series on the book of Acts, “Acts: Stories, Scenes, and Spirit.” We are still in the opening scenes of this story. The stage was set with a church that was waiting, a church that was told to go witness, a church that wanted to speak, but needed to wait for the right Word.
Last week, the main character of our story, the Spirit, stormed on stage in dramatic fashion. With wind and fire, the Spirit came upon the waiting church, filled them, touched their tongues and gave them a Word. In fact the Spirit gave them several words, several words spoken in several different languages. The Spirit came with a word and translated the Script so that no one needed to watch this story in subtitles, everyone was able to hear the word in their own language.
With the wind, the fire, and the languages, the director has done a brilliant job in capturing the audience. The crowd is all eyes and ears, they want to see what will happen next; they are waiting to hear the next line.
And as they watch and listen, the Spirit moves a supporting actor, Peter, into the Spotlight to deliver the opening speech. Standing with the other apostles, Peter steps into this role and speaks up:
“My Fellow Jews and All who live in Jerusalem, let me tell you the back-story here, listen carefully to what I am about to say.”
Peter jumps into Israel’s prophetic tradition and starts his speech by quoting the book of Joel. He quotes Joel’s prophecies of the Last Day and new visions, of signs and smoke and blood, of Spirit poured out and salvation come. Peter’s quotes Joel because he wants the people, his fellow Jews, to know that this story is a part of their story. It is part of Israel’s story. It is the same story, but a new act is unfolding, a new chapter is being written.
This new chapter begins with Jesus, the man who was crucified, the human being whom God raised from the Dead. Peter wants the people to know that God has cast this poor and rejected Jesus in the Royal Line of David. But God has set the suffering servant Jesus apart from all the other prophets and kings of the past, God has raised up this crucified Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and the Lord of the Nations.
Peter wants his fellow Jews to know that God is being faithful to their story, but this is a new chapter, a new direction, a new witness of faithfulness.
And so he ends his speech with this line:
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
The new chapter the Spirit is writing is part of Israel’s story and history, but it is also a part of another, larger story: the story of Empire. This story has always been in the backdrop of human history, it is a story where violence is real and death has the final word. Peter’s speech reminds the people that the new act of the Spirit is unfolding in the context of imperial occupation, and the new chapter begins with a crucifixion.
And Peter wants to remind the people that just as they are a part of Israel’s story of God’s salvation, they are also just as much a part of this story of empire and violence and death.
Harsh and unequivocal, Peter looks at the crowd and says:
“This Jesus, is the one whom you crucified.”
You played a part in this story and there is blood on your hands.
Now as a Christian audience and Christian interpreters we must tread in these waters of accusation very carefully. Bad interpretation of Bible verses such as these have given rise to the trope of Jews as Christ killers, they have infected our theology with anti-Semitism and produced the ugly fruit of ethnic discrimination and Holocaust. Such an anti-Jewish interpretation of Peter’s accusation must be flatly rejected.
We must remember that Peter is also a part of each of these stories, as a Jew he is part of and grateful for Israel’s story. Peter is also the character who, in the story of Empire, spoke up in order to deny knowing Jesus, a character who silently watched him die. There is blood on Peter’s hands as he delivers this speech.
It is a speech that reminds the people that there is collective guilt and collective responsibility when you are caught in the story of Empire. While only a few characters actually drive the engine of empire, all the other actors have collaborated with empire, have consigned themselves to empire, have tolerated empire, or have actively resisted empire…but their resistance has failed. There is blood on everyone’s hands.
And Peter wants the people to know that this new act, this new chapter, it will not be written with bloody hands.
This is a heavyweight speech and Peter has come on stage swinging. His words have caught the people in each story and they are cut to the heart. Luke tells us:
“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers & Sisters, what shall we do?”
What shall we do?
How can we get this blood of our hands? How can we be a part of the new act, the new chapter, the new direction, the new way?
What shall we do?
The people ask the question and as it hangs in the air, the rest of the story seems to hang in the balance.
We wonder what will happen next? Will the storyteller’s next chapter follow the plot line of mass-incarceration or radical liberation? Will the people who share in the collective responsibility of crucifixion now all share in the death penalty?
The director’s next instruction will now determine if the next act will be a tragedy, a comedy, or a horror story. And as the Spirit moves, Peter gives the people the next stage direction:
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
Repent. Peter is speaking in the active, plural, imperative. It is a command: All of you people must repent.
All of you must change your life and your lifestyle, change your attitudes and actions; turn away from empire and turn towards the way of Jesus!
Repent. It is a command but it is also an invitation. For repentance serves as the people’s entry point into this new act. Repentance allows them to begin writing a new chapter. Repentance gives them the opportunity to step into the new direction.
In fact such a radical change of heart and mind may just leave one or two of them dunked into the new direction, sprinkled into the new scene, or immersed into the new act.
Peter is now speaking of baptism. And he is ecstatic to let the people know that as they are baptized into the life and the death of Jesus Christ, as they receive the waters of God’s grace, the blood on their hands will be washed away! The charges against them will be dropped, the guilty verdict reversed, the record expunged!
Neither story, the story of Israel, nor the story of Empire is able to make much sense of the new direction the director is taking the story. They want justice not grace. They want guilt to be punished and not forgiven. They want mandatory minimums not prison abolition!
The author is writing a new chapter with a word of scandalous grace, but the story of Israel and the story of Empire will remain very much a part of the larger narrative. And so Peter finishes his speech with a warning:
“With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Be Saved from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”
Peter warns that even when the people have been invited into a new chapter, abuse, violence, and death will not go away. Even when they have been baptized into a new community, they will still live in a corrupt society. And while people may repent, recidivism is all too real; it is easy to revert back to old habits and familiar plot lines.
The story of Israel and the story of empire continue to be written today, they are two stories out of the many stories that are being written in the backdrop of a culturally diverse world and an ever-expanding cosmos.
These are stories that have extended into the present moment, stories that we are caught in, stories we cannot escape.
As Christians we have grafted into the story of Israel, we have been adopted by their patriarchs, matriarchs, and prophets. We have inherited their Scripture and added our new chapter onto it. We cannot write Israel out of their own story with the bad theology of supersessionism.
For us, the story of Israel is the story of our ethnic and cultural heritage, it is the story of our ancestors and family history, it is the story of where we came from, how we have tried to be faithful, and what we are comfortable with.
We each have our own versions of this back-story, and as Peter preaches to the crowds, we need to hear Peter preaching to us. We need to hear Peter tell us that a new act is about to unfold and a new chapter is about to be written in our old and familiar stories.
We have also inherited the story of Empire, and violence, and death. So when Peter speaks of the collective guilt and responsibility that accompanies the story of Empire, we find ourselves guilty and responsible.
When Peter speaks of Jesus, he speaks of “Jesus, whom we have crucified;” Jesus whom we have forgotten when the homeless are forgotten; Jesus whom we have rejected, when the refugee, asylum seeker, and undocumented immigrant are rejected; Jesus whom we kill softly, when we ignore our neighbor, our classmates, or anyone else who we see in need.
There is blood on our land, there is blood on our money, there is blood on our hands.
Caught in the stories of heritage and empire, with blood on our hands, we step on stage and say our line: “What shall we do?”
It is a line that we need to keep on saying, a line that is repeated in our lives over and over again: “What shall we do? What shall we do? What shall we do?”
We want to be part of the story, we want to have a role in the new chapter, we want to step in the new direction, we want to move in step with the Spirit.
And as we wonder what shall we do, we gather as a community each week. We gather as Loop Church and we pray ‘come Holy Spirit come’ and cry out ‘Lord have mercy on us.’ We gather each week because we know that repentance is not a one-person play or a one-act production. We know that living with changed hearts and changed lives requires a village and takes place over a lifetime.
We gather each week and we remember our baptism, we remember that the blood has been washed from our hands and we have been called into new life. We gather and we remember that we have been called into new community, called into misisonal communities, called into different neighborhoods where we practice daily dying and rising with Christ.
As we struggle to make sense of the stories of heritage and empire, we gather each week to be reminded that within each of these stories a new act is still unfolding, a new chapter is still being written, and the spirit is still at work directing, helping us find our place on stage.
Caught in the story of heritage and empire, we come to church each week cut to the heart, so we must keep our eyes on Jesus. And with our eyes fixed on Jesus we step out of our sanctuary each week and we step into the city, stepping into the new chapter, stepping in a new direction, stepping into a new witness of faithfulness. Amen.
A sermon delivered on Sunday, June 16, 2019 by Derek Elmi-Buursma