Acts 2:14a, 22-36
Because I grew up in a different denomination, I did not fully understand the seasons of the church year until I became an adult and a Presbyterian. Before that, all I really celebrated was Christmas, Easter, and we threw a glancing nod at Palm Sunday. The shepherds and the wise men from the East all showed up at the manger on the same night, and while we talked about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins – a lot – I had no idea about Maundy Thursday, Good Friday or Holy Week. When I became a Presbyterian, I went from celebrating only Christmas and Easter to observing Advent, Christmas, Christmastide, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Eastertide, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time.
When I went to seminary and discovered the wonder that is the Presbyterian Planning Calendar, I was given another gift. Inside this calendar is another calendar with all the church seasons blocked off – not just according to date, but by color!
There’s a lot of green – that’s Ordinary Time; purple – that’s Advent and Lent – although Alice and I have gone rogue and introduced royal blue for Advent into the mix. Then there’s one lovely splash of red for Pentecost Sunday, and there’s white, for the time we are in right now – Easter.
This organized, color-coded, symmetrical dream is how I want my life to look. That really is a dream and one not likely to come true. Real life gets messy and refuses to stay neatly boxed on a calendar square. Lines are blurred all over the place! So, if I want my life to be as organized as this church calendar, then why, why am I choosing to preach on this passage from Acts rather than the story that follows Jesus’ resurrection in the gospel of John?!
That would make more sense. It would follow a more logical pattern. But the designers of the lectionary – the selection of passages assigned to each Sunday – have blurred the lines of Easter by designating passages from the book of Acts to be used between now and Pentecost. And I’m jumping into the confusion and chaos by preaching on them.
I use the word confusion because the text we have from Acts today and for the next two Sundays is from Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. This is the sermon he preaches after the coming of the Holy Spirit, after tongues of flame rested on his and the other apostles’ heads, after people from all over the Diaspora heard the gospel in their own language, after some people in the crowd accused Peter and the others of being drunk. This is the sermon that Peter preaches after the coming of the Holy Spirit, so why are we reading about it now, today, when we are still in the Easter season?
Perhaps one downside of following the seasons of the church is that it is easy to think of the events of that season happening only in that season. Our calendar was created to order the church year by following the life of Christ and “the events of salvation history.” But while Jesus of history was born and died and resurrected on particular dates, in the life of faith these events roll into one another. Lines are blurred and crossed all over the place. Through the eyes of faith, Jesus’ birth is never disconnected from his death. Through the eyes of faith, Jesus’ resurrection walks hand-in-hand with the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Officially, we may be in the Easter, white-coded, block of the church year. The red of Pentecost is still several weeks away, but just as resurrection, new life, is not a one time event, neither is the coming of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit whooshed across the chaos and breathed creation into existence. God’s Spirit rushed through that tomb, and soared out into the open with the rolling away of the stone. Jesus’ resurrection from death into new life loosed God’s love and power into the world in a new way. The resurrection of Jesus the Christ and the rush of the Holy Spirit work together. There are no lines between them, keeping one apart from the other. With the resurrection of Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit was set free in the world in a new way. Peter, also filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, understood this. He did not see Resurrection and Pentecost through the lines of a calendar. He understood these two events as making up the whole of the new thing God was – and is – doing. They were the foundation of God’s working in the world.
“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.”
This Jesus God raised up. Peter’s sermon has multitudes of layers. It is not only a testimony on Peter’s part to the power of God, or to the Jesus that Peter imperfectly followed as a disciple. It is accusatory of the Israelites who handed Jesus over to the authorities. For centuries, that accusation has been used by the Church to justify persecution and atrocities against the Jewish people. In the same breath, Peter also makes it clear that what happened to Jesus was done because of God, because of God’s ultimate plan for Jesus and for the world God created. So there is a difficult tension between the blame placed on the Israelites and between the preordaining by God that Peter seems to be clearly referencing.
But it is also one Israelite speaking to other Israelites. One commentator wrote that Acts was written for insiders. It was written for the folks who were supposed to already know God, and for those who knew the Scriptures and the prophecies of the Messiah; even if they rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Certainly, Peter seems to be speaking from the assumption that the people listening were ones familiar with the Psalms. They would have been familiar with David’s words about the coming of the Messiah. Peter preached from an assumption that the people in that crowd knew the God of power and might, even if they could not see how God’s power was at work in the raising up of this Jesus.
There are many layers to this sermon, and my hope is that we will be able to unpack some of those layers over the next few weeks. But for now, for this moment, let us – the insiders, the churchgoers, the ones who have proclaimed faith in God through this Jesus – let us also claim our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Resurrection and Pentecost are only two separate events on the pages of a calendar. In the mysterious workings of God, they are together. This Jesus God raised up was and is the Word in the beginning, the Word made flesh, the Word who continues to blow new life into what is seemingly dead. This Jesus God raised up in power is in relationship with the Holy Spirit who whooshes through the world and through us with that same power. The power of Pentecost is ours today. The resurrection from death to new life happens now.
It was impossible for this Jesus God raised up to be held by death’s power. Isn’t that the truth we rejoice in on Easter Sunday, and on Christmas morning, and on Pentecost and throughout Epiphany? This Jesus God raised up could not be held by death’s power.
In verse 26, Peter quotes from Psalm 15. The translation before us is satisfactory.
“Therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope.”
Yet in the Greek of the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures – that second phrase reads more like this:
“My flesh has pitched its tent on hope.”
My flesh has pitched its tent on hope. Jesus raised up, God working in the world, the Holy Spirit creating new out of old, life out of death; that is the hope on which we pitch our tents. That is the joy of Easter, the power of Pentecost, the anticipation of Advent, the somber reflection of Lent, the sorrow of Holy Week; that is the theme of the church year, the reason for the liturgical colors, the point of every church season. Our flesh, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our very beings have pitched our tents on hope.
Thanks be to God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We have pitched our tents on hope.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.