In this Pentecost sermon, Peter explains to the crowd about his experience of the risen Jesus. He tells how Jesus’ resurrection changes everything, inviting all humanity into something unexpected and new. In talking about this experience, Peter pulls out old familiar texts of Scripture, quoted week in and week out in synagogue. He wants to show that the new life and new direction for humanity that Jesus’ resurrection makes possible is a fulfillment of the hopes of Scripture.
I’m drawn to his use of Scripture. Read literally, one can easily say “But Peter, that’s not what the author of that text of Scripture meant. They were talking about something very different, in their day”. If we said that, in a sense it would be true.
The point of Scripture though is to point us beyond itself to the living God, who is still speaking and acting in this world. That God is constantly doing new things. When you can encounter the living God in a personal way, like Peter did in his experience of the risen Christ, it transforms how you look at all of life. In Peter’s case, death is not to be feared if you die faithfully as Christ did, even though he definitely feared death when previous to Easter he denied Jesus three times by that fireside. Now he has experienced Christ having passed from death to life and knows that through Christ a death in the faith can be the entrance point into new life, resurrection life, Easter life. Not only has this experience transformed his way of looking at death, it is going to transform his way of looking at people. Later in Acts we see the experience of the resurrection break forth in ever new ways which cause Peter to have to lay aside long-held prejudices against non-Jewish people and long-held commitments to certain religious rituals as the only way to come to God. These prejudices and religious traditions he later lays aside were justified in his mind by a literal reading of certain Scriptures. That change of perspective for him helps make possible the expansion of the Gospel message into all lands. Its why my non-Jewish ancestors in England, Scotland, and Germany could hear of and embrace the faith. Its how my great-grand daddy in Johnston County, NC, was able to brought into the waters of baptism and become a Free Will Baptist preacher. It is how I stand in a knowledge of Christ today.
What makes these later transformations possible is a change we see here, now, just a few days after witnessing Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The experience of Christ risen breaking forth into Peter’s life has forever changed how Peter reads Scripture. No longer is it a rulebook to be blindly followed, or a dry history text book. Now it points beyond itself to a living, breathing, moving God who is still active and speaking in the world. He expects that his living experience here and now of God will change how he reads it and how he lives its life.
You see, Jesus presented himself as the One who does not abolish the law but fulfills it by revealing a new way of reading it and living it out that has not been known before. That is how in the Sermon on the Mount he can quote the literal word of Scripture, saying “you have been told” to literally do this or that, but “now I tell you” some deeper or far different way to fulfill this text’s spirit. Sometimes, on the face of it those commands sound like a tightening of the principle that came before, but often they also sound like disregarding its literal meaning for a more spiritual interpretation that opens up life, allows more compassion, and extends grace.
Peter has experienced through 40 days of the risen Christ breaking forth repeatedly in visible, tangible ways in his life that this Jesus is still speaking. This Jesus is still calling to new and different ways of reading and living out the message of God. And so Peter knows he no longer is bound to the crass literalism of some, but instead must listen for the voice of Jesus in his life experience and in Scripture. Christ is still saying to him “You have been told … but I tell you…”
The same is true for us. So often as Christians when we face difficult issues, we may quote church tradition or the literal meaning of our favorite Scriptures. The example we see in Acts is different. The question is not “how have we always understood this?” or “what are the literal meanings of that text?” From Pentecost on, the question is “where is the risen Jesus working? And what is he saying and doing?”
And so the church can say “you have heard it said no foreigners in the assembly but I hear Jesus saying I tell you all people are welcome” as it will when Peter experiences Christ in a new way in meeting Cornelius. In their experience of the risen Christ they come to read Scripture in a new way, moving from the literal application of rules on circumcision and who can join in worship to the spirit.
Christ is still, if we will have eyes to see and ears to hear, breaking forth risen in our world doing new thing. He is still calling out the shortcomings of our religious traditions saying “You have heard … but now I tell you”.
So perhaps when we encounter something new – a different kind of family then we are used, gay couples, adopted children, people hurting we’d never supported in the church before, neighbors of other faiths, science that troubles our well-worn dogmas – perhaps instead of leaning on what we’ve always done and believed, we ought to practice Luther and Calvin’s dictum of “being reformed and always being reformed”, being willing to be taught something new by God. My own denomination, the United Church of Christ, puts it this way: “Don’t put a period where God has placed a comma. Remember God is still speaking”.
God is still speaking. Let’s learn to listen together.
Let it be so. Amen.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie.
Your progressive redneck preacher,