May 4, 2014
Third Sunday of Easter
First Reading: Acts 2:14, 22-33
What now? That would be the question on the minds of the apostles as they watched our Lord ascend into heaven. Has the story ended? Should we just go home? But Jesus commanded them to wait for the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem. When the Spirit comes in power on Pentecost, they get their answer: proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to everyone. They find their mission and the next chapter in the story. In fact, Luke tells us that his gospel is about what “Jesus began to do and teach,” implying that the Book of Acts is what he continued to do and teach, but this time it is through the apostles empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The Lectionary provides a segment of St. Peter’s speech on Pentecost for this Sunday’s first reading. More of the speech will be read next Sunday. On Pentecost morning, the apostles are filled with the Holy Spirit and now they stand before the crowds in Jerusalem to preach the resurrection for the first time. In this passage, we get to listen in on Peter’s first evangelistic homily. Peter’s preaching here can be distilled to four essential ideas: fulfillment, mercy, prophecy, and resurrection.
Fulfillment, Not Fad
Peter is speaking to Jewish men who know the story of Israel, the law of Moses and the writings of the prophets. He therefore must convince them of Jesus’ messianic identity in accord with the Old Testament. The Jewish authorities had condemned Jesus as a blasphemer, an innovator, an imposter who “made himself equal to God.” Peter’s task is to show that Jesus is the logical next step, the fulfillment of Israel’s story, not just a passing religious fad. He highlights Jesus’ works of power, which demonstrate that he comes from God and verify his message. God “commended” Jesus by granting him the power to do these works.
Invitation to Mercy
Peter retells the story of Good Friday, with a new twist. He accuses the crowds of killing Jesus through the Gentile Roman rulers (“lawless men”). Why? The people had gathered at the Temple a couple months previous for the pilgrim feast of Passover when Jesus was crucified. Jewish men from all over Israel and even from other places would come to Jerusalem for the four pilgrim feasts. They have now re-gathered for the Jewish feast of Pentecost or Shavuoth (“weeks”; see Lev 23:15-22). The people in the crowd listening to Peter are the same who stood before Pilate on Good Friday. I imagine Peter standing with the other apostles on the steps of Solomon’s portico in the temple, perhaps in the same place Jesus stood when preaching in the Temple.
But now, in spite of the fact that these particular people had consented to Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter makes them the first to hear the message of the gospel and invites them to receive mercy. Indeed, we too who have participated in the crucifixion by our sins need this invitation. How awesome is it that three thousand people who railed against Jesus on Good Friday, now come to faith in him and are baptized (Acts 2:41)? Jesus is first proclaimed to those who are directly responsible for his death and they are the first to be redeemed.
To convince his hearers that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecies, Peter cites David’s Psalm 16:8-11. The crucial verse is Ps 16:10, “because you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, nor will you let your faithful servant see the pit” (NAB). Notably, the ancient Greek version quoted in Peter’s speech translates the Hebrew word shachat (pit) as diaphthora (corruption). For Peter’s argument, then, Jesus’ body did not decay, but was raised in fulfillment of Psalm 16:10. Peter even refers to David as a prophet, though his main role was as king.
David was regarded as the icon of the heroic age to which the Jews wanted to return. To have a true Davidic king reign over Israel, independent of foreign interference was the center of their messianic hopes. It would be the fulfillment of God’s promise to David of an everlasting throne (2 Sam 7:13). Peter takes up these hopes by citing David as a prophet, but then shows how much greater Jesus is than his royal forbearer. Peter insists that “David died and was buried”—a fact well known to everyone since the site of David’s tomb was known and venerated. In fact, the traditional site of the Upper Room (Cenacle) is right above the traditional site of the tomb of David (a 12th century tradition). To this day, Jews visit a shrine for David’s tomb on the first floor and Christians visit the reconstructed Upper Room on the second floor. Peter shows how the Messiah Jesus trumps the importance of even King David himself. We know where David is buried; we also know where Jesus’ tomb is, but his is empty!
Now, Psalm 16 also points to the destination: “You will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever” (Ps 16:11 NAB). Peter, as a witness of the resurrection, shows that Jesus’ resurrection changes the equation. We no longer need to fear death or be under the power of sin. Everyone is invited to receive God’s mercy, even those who participated in Jesus’ crucifixion. The Holy Spirit’s presence is the evidence of resurrection power, of God’s deliverance. While we might not encounter Jesus walking through a wall, we too can become witnesses of his resurrection by the power of the Spirit. The story of salvation can continue in us. Jesus’ resurrection gives us hope in the face of death, hope that we will share in his victory.