Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Cut To the Heart -- Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
April 30, 2017

            My dad was the Executive Director of the American Lung Association in Tennessee. His job entailed many responsibilities, but fundamental to his work was educating the public about the dangers of smoking; not only to the health and well-being of an individual, but also to the health and well-being of other people. He was an advocate, essentially a lobbyist, for anti-smoking policies in every aspect of life. While my kids grew up playing with stickers, I grew up with playing with Christmas Seals. At three I was in a local Public Service Announcement. As country music star Bill Anderson spoke about the dangers of smoking to children’s health, the camera would pan over to me playing on the floor with toys. I remember this because I got to keep the toys! At four I took my first big plane trip with my mom to Minnesota. Smoking was allowed and there were no smoking and no-smoking sections in airport terminals back then, so I made sure to educate the smokers about the terrible things they were doing to their lungs. It’s a good thing I was a cute kid, otherwise I was just annoying.
            I knew that smoking was dangerous and bad for your health. My sister and brother knew it. When they were teenagers they started to smoke. The summer I was 15, I decided to try it too. I spent several warm nights, walking up and down my street, learning how to inhale – which meant that I coughed and gagged, turned green with nausea, and got lightheaded. But I was determined. One summer morning, I left the house to walk over to a friend’s house. As I was crossing our neighbor’s front yard, I lit up a cigarette. My dad opened the front door and called out to me about leaving without telling anyone – I’d gotten in trouble a few weeks earlier for not leaving them a note; my 15th summer was not my best summer on record. I turned around to talk to him, putting the cigarette behind me back, which was such a clever, clever way to hide it. Not. We had a brief exchange. He went back inside, and I went on my merry way.
            That afternoon, I was crossing the same neighbor’s front yard, cigarette in hand, only that time I was walking toward my house. My father got home earlier than expected. When he pulled up in the driveway he saw me, and I whipped the cigarette behind my back again. This time, he stopped the car, rolled down his window and called me over. I walked toward him with dread in every footstep. The smoke from my cigarette was haloing around my head. I was prepared for the grounding to end all groundings. Instead, he just looked at me and shook his head. Then he said,
            “I thought you were the smart one. Of all my kids, I thought you were the smart one. You know what a terrible time your sister and brother have had quitting smoking. You know that! But now you’re smoking?! I thought you were the smart one.”
            Then he rolled up his window and drove his car around to the back of the house, leaving me standing there wishing that he would have grounded me, yelled at me, given me any and all relevant punishments. He did none of that. Instead my dad made it very clear that he was not just angry with me, he was disappointed in me. He thought I was the smart one, but not anymore. If I had ever been cut to the heart by someone’s words before, I have no memory of it. But I remember that moment. I remember it as vividly as if it had happened an hour ago. My dad’s words cut me to the heart.
            Peter was not a parent expressing disappointment at his children for doing something they knew was dumb and dangerous, but he was making it clear to the people listening to him that they had failed. They had failed to recognize the very presence of God in their midst.
            In today’s passage from Acts, we start at the end. Peter has wrapped up his sermon in response to the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. He has told the crowds gathered around him about this Jesus, whom they crucified but whom God raised up. He has made it clear to them that the death and resurrection of Jesus is not, as one commentator put it, a completely new story, but a new chapter on a very old story. It is the old story of God and the Israelites. God has been with the Israelites from the very beginning. He promised their forefather Abraham that through him and his descendents the whole world would be blessed. The coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the Word made flesh, is the fulfillment of that blessing. Through Him the whole world will be blessed.
            But again, the people did not recognize Jesus as God in their midst. This Jesus whom they crucified, God raised up.
            “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
            Was Peter placing the blame for Jesus’ death solely on the Jews standing before him? As I said last week, the accusation in this sermon has been used to justify persecution in the name of God. Matthew Skinner, professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, wrote that it’s unlikely that Peter believed that the crowds standing before him were the same crowds who stood before Pontius Pilate and chanted “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The people in these crowds were likely not to blame for what happened to Jesus. But there is a more general tone to Peter’s accusation. Humanity failed Jesus. Humanity failed to recognize God in its midst. Humanity itself was seemingly blind to God in the world, and certainly blind to God in the man Jesus.
            Luke who wrote the book of Acts as well as his gospel makes that blindness clear in his story about the followers on the road to Emmaus. Jesus walked with them, opening the scriptures to them. And just as the people listening to Peter were cut to the heart by his words, these followers’ hearts were blazing within them in the presence of the risen Savior.
            The people who listened to Peter preach the gospel were cut to the heart. They were humbled and distressed and wanted to respond. They asked Peter and the other disciples what they should do in response to what they have heard, witnessed and experienced. Peter told them,
            “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
            This is not the first time we hear people being called on to repent. In our context we tend to assume that repentance is directly connected to sins as moral failings. I messed up. I’m sorry I messed up. I repent.
I know that I have preached this before, but repentance is not just about being sorry. Repentance is a reorientation. It is a turning around. It is a 180 degree about face. It is a change in direction and a change in living. The people gathered around that sermon that day were not just repenting of Jesus’ death; they were turning their lives in a new direction. Before they had lived without the understanding of God in Christ, of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, but now they would live in that knowledge and understanding. Now they would live as those who saw God in their midst, as those who realized that God was fulfilling the promises of old, and writing a new chapter to an old, old story.
            They were cut to the heart by the gospel. They were cut to the heart that God had been in their midst. They were cut to the heart by their inability to see God in the world. They were cut to the heart when they realized that God was doing a new thing – in their lives, in the world.
            Their response was to repent and be baptized, not just as a washing away of sins, but as a new rising with Christ. In response to the gospel, in response to the good news, in response to the cutting of their hearts, they were turning around, changing direction, reorienting every aspect of their lives. They were cut to the heart, and from that point on their lives were changed.
            I wish I could say that when my dad confronted me on that day so long ago that I put down the cigarettes and never smoked again. I wish I could say that, but I cannot because it would be a lie. I kept smoking for a few more years. I never smoked a lot, but I did smoke. However, I never forgot my dad’s words. I never forgot how I felt at that moment. I was cut to the heart, and that cut never fully healed. When I did finally wise up enough to stop smoking, I did not go back. I was cut to the heart by what my dad said to me, and my life was changed because of it. It may not have looked like it, but it was. I slowly but surely reoriented myself. I turned around and I changed direction.
            I wonder if the people who heard Peter speak, who were cut to the heart by his words, by the gospel he preached, took a while to completely reorient their lives? I wonder if it was also a process for them. I think it might have been. I would like to believe that with repentance comes an immediate and lasting change. But I think for many of us, well at least for me, repentance as turning around and reorienting is a lifelong process. I have been cut to the heart by the power of the gospel. My heart has burned within me when I have gotten a glimpse of the risen Jesus walking with me and I did not recognize him. I have been cut to the heart time after time. I imagine that I am not done yet. But the good news is that neither is God.
            The power of the gospel, the overwhelming grace of the good news, cuts us to the heart. When we are tempted to walk in the wrong direction, it reorients us. When we are lost, it finds us. When we are blind, it opens our eyes by its light. We are cut to the heart by God’s good and wonderful and amazing and glorious news in Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. May our eyes and mind and hearts and hands be continually opened to God’s working in the world, God’s presence on the road beside us. We are cut to the heart by the gospel, and may that wound never heal.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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