May 11, 2014
Fourth Sunday of Easter
First Reading: Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Sometimes when you hear a great speaker, you wish you could grab his message, put it in a package and bring it home with you. We even talk of a “take home message,” being the three or four points that the speaker hopes you’ll remember. We can’t remember everything, and even if we record a speech on a digital voice recorder, we still can’t keep it in our heads all the time. So…if a message powerfully impacts us, what can we do? How can we respond? In this Sunday’s reading from Acts, St. Peter gives us the answer.
This Sunday’s reading might sound like the beginning of St. Peter’s Pentecost speech, but it is actually the end. The Lectionary borrows the opening narrator’s comment to set the stage. Here Peter is cashing in the results of his scriptural argument from Joel 3 and Psalm 16 to his fellow devout Jews. He has argued that the Holy Spirit has arrived to fulfill God’s promises, that Jesus was raised from the dead in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and the concluding thesis of his speech is that God has made Jesus “both Lord and Christ.” These two terms each deserve an in-depth explanation.
Kurios can simply mean “lord” or “sir,” but here I think it brims with deeper connotations. First and foremost, it is a word for God. In fact, this word, kurios is used to translate the unpronounceable name of God in the Greek Old Testament. YHWH is translated as kurios. By saying that God made Jesus kurios, Peter is not saying that God merely granted him an extra-special title of nobility like “sir” or “duke,” but that Jesus is YHWH himself, the Lord. Secondly, kurios was a title of the Roman Emperor, the highest civil authority. While Peter is not claiming Jesus is a secular ruler, his authority does challenge (and trump) that of the pagan Roman Empire. Jesus’ kingdom will eventually triumph over all human authorities.
Christos (Christ) is the Greek word for Messiah, which means Anointed One. For us, this title sounds like religious language. One of my non-Christian friends even told me he thought “Christ” was Jesus’ last name! Christ is a title, but not just a religious one. It is a political title, for the anointed son of David. If you remember the readings from Lent, we witnessed the prophet Samuel anointing David with oil as king over Israel. The anointing is the moment at which he receives his kingly authority—kind of like a crowning or a swearing of the oath of office.
The Jews were awaiting a Messiah, a Christ, an anointed one, who would restore the Davidic throne. God had promised David that his son’s throne would be everlasting (2 Sam 7), but the Davidic kings all but disappeared after Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 BC. Attempts to restore David’s line had all failed and God’s people were looking for one that would succeed. When St. Peter tells the crowd that God appointed Jesus as christos, that means he has come to re-establish the throne of David and reign forever. However, he is not a typical king who taxes people, sends out armies and feasts sumptuously in his palace. Instead, he came as a servant king to suffer and die, then to rise again and reign from heavenly glory. His reign surpasses that of any Davidic king and even that of the Roman emperor, but it is a divine reign, a hidden reign, which secretly holds sway in the hearts of believers, but eventually will be disclosed to the whole universe.
Cut to the Heart
When Peter reminds the Pentecost crowds of his accusation—that they participated in Jesus’ crucifixion by their shouting at the last holy day gathering, Passover—they are “cut to the heart.” Luke uses this powerful phrase to explain the dynamics of repentance. He might be borrowing it from the Greek version of the Old Testament (Psalm 109:16), but it aptly describes the simultaneous impulse of searing regret and irresistible attraction entailed by repentance. The verb translated as “cut” (katanussomai) can also mean “stab” or “pierce.” The crowds who had bellowed in favor of Barabbas on that fateful Friday, now feel their hearts stung. In English, we might say that they were “cut to the quick,” literally to be cut down to the deep flesh or bone. Peter’s speech prompts a profound change in the hearts of his hearers and out of their pangs of regret they plead with him and the apostles, “What are we to do?”
“Repent and Be Baptized”
If only all preaching and evangelistic efforts were so powerful and so speedy! Fortunately, the apostles do not demur, but offer baptism as the way to repentance and new life. The disciples baptized people during Jesus’ earthly ministry (John 4:1-2), but now baptism is even more necessary to help those who stand in their sins to gain freedom in Christ. Peter tells the inquirers, “Repent and be baptized.” The conversion he calls for includes both an inner act, repentance, and an outer ceremony, baptism. Through this combination of faithful repentance and public sacrament, three thousand new believers are added to the Christian community, the disciples of Jesus.
The Gift of the Holy Spirit
Notably, for Peter, baptism is not just about forgiving sins, but also about the gift of the Holy Spirit. The apostles and Mary had received powerful gifts from the Holy Spirit on that day and Peter makes it clear that these are for everyone who becomes a disciple of Christ: “For the promise is made to you and to your children, and to all those far off, whomever the Lord God will call” (2:39). The promise of the Holy Spirit is for everyone who wants to follow Jesus. The text doesn’t tell us, but it is possible that for all the baptisms, the apostles used the mikvot, the ritual baths, which surrounded the Temple. These baths, some of which can still be seen today, would be the logical sources of so much water and were already used for religious purposes.
While we might not be able to put the power of Pentecost in a bottle and bring it with us everywhere, St. Peter shows us how to respond to the powerful preaching of the gospel: believe, repent and be baptized. By doing these things we can enter into the mystery of God’s plan of salvation. The Holy Spirit will come to dwell in us and our lives finally become part of the grand story, which He is writing.