Acts 2: 14a, 22‑32
14Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the gathered Jews, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 22You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through Him among you, as you yourselves know— 23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law, 24but God raised him up, having freed Him from death, because it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. 25David says concerning Him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for He is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; 26therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope, 27for you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. 28You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29“Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that He would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh experience corruption.’ 32God raised up this Jesus, and of that all of us are witnesses.
Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.
This is a famous, but dangerous passage; famous because many of us are familiar with it from the story of Pentecost, and dangerous because it has been used over the centuries since then to support violence against Jews, and accuse them of being deliberate Jesus killers.
The lead up to this passage, which would set the context for us, tells us that it is Pentecost and the disciples are speaking in languages other than their own, being understood by foreigners staying in Jerusalem, and with general behaviour which makes some people think they are drunk. No, the second Sunday of Easter is not Pentecost, but it is only Luke’s gospel which suggests that there was a delay between the resurrection and Jesus baptising the disciples with the Holy Spirit, so in our parishes this Sunday becomes known for witnesses to the resurrection and the full story of Pentecost waits, as per Luke’s rendition, for a few more weeks.
Peter, on behalf of the others, has dispelled the concerns about the disciples being drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning, and is addressing the gathering of Jews who have witnessed this group of mainly uneducated men, under the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, speaking in the languages of visitors, even though they haven’t studied any of those languages.
Some people insist that if we don’t interpret the stories of the resurrection in a literal way we are rejecting those stories outright and denying one of the most essential aspects of the Christian faith. To me, the men and women who were present at the time experienced an event which was impossible to describe adequately because all languages are limiting: in reality they were trying to describe the indescribable. Just as Mary Magdalene was transformed by her encounter with the risen Christ in the garden, so the men and women who had been His staunchest followers were transformed, on the spot, once empowered by the Holy Spirit. Does it really matter if we can’t explain what happened with the same confirmed detail we would expect from a sporting event last week? Can we not live with the mystery? Unfortunately, we human beings tend to be “meaning making machines” and can’t resist the urge to pick the eyes out of the witness stories given by those for whom the experience was a real-life dramatic change, just as much as with Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. If we were in their shoes I don’t think we’d do any better because we just don’t have the words to describe what happened.
The start of Peter’s address to the gathered people is innocuous enough: he reminds them of what Jesus had done, and that He could only have done those things with the power of God, but I suspect that if Peter had known how the following words would be interpreted he would have expressed himself differently. That is, of course, if this speech of Peter’s was a real event and not a construction by Luke to serve the purpose. Should we read references to a definite plan and God’s foreknowledge as referring to the events of the crucifixion and resurrection, specifically? I think not. It is generally accepted that it was God’s plan to send Jesus to be among the people of the faith, and God would have known everything that was about to happen during His life here. Since we have freedom of choice the possibility was always there for the message to be readily accepted, with the people renewing their relationship with God. Even though He would have known the eventual outcome of the terrible treatment Jesus had to endure at the end of His earthly ministry I find it hard to believe that such events were predestined. That would require the God of Love to deliberately put His own son through pain and suffering which could have been avoided. I’m sure that God would have wanted a different ending, but, having given us that freedom to be violent, transformed a horrible event into one of great celebration and opportunity to spread the Good News.
In John’s gospel “the Jews”, when used in a derogatory way, always refers to the Jewish religious leaders who were opposed to any effort to allow Jesus to point out the errors of their ways because their very way of life would be threatened, and they would lose their artificial status. Here, Peter is telling an assembly of Jews, many of them having nothing to do with the religious hierarchy, that they were the ones who killed Jesus by crucifixion – or was he? There can be no doubt, from this passage, that the intent was to point a finger of blame at those Jews who had been in Jerusalem and had been complicit in the authorities’ push to have Jesus executed by the Romans, who had a reputation for being violent. It would be more than stretching a point to imply that Peter was referring to all Jews, and we should refrain from abusing those Jews who did not want the events leading up to Easter. Neither should we read Peter’s reference to “those outside the law” as being about people who deliberately disobey existing laws. “The Law”, here, refers to Jewish laws, which only applied to Jews, so any Roman soldier or non-Jew in Jerusalem would have been included in the group of “those outside the law.” Again, it would not be acceptable to take that as meaning all non-Jews, but only those directly involved in the action.
I love the next bit, because it begs the question “was Jesus raised from the dead or did Jesus rise from the dead?” In other words, did God raise Jesus or did Jesus raise Himself? I don’t think it’s important, but interesting. That question reminds me of part of the crucifixion scene, where Jesus says “Father, forgive them …” In Jesus’ humanity did He feel unable to forgive those responsible for His death, and had to refer that directly to God? Being God in human form, Jesus was subject to a human death, but that was no barrier to His continued existence in divine form.
Jesus often said that He had come to fulfil the law and the prophets, so it’s not surprising that Peter refers to the psalms and finds a reference which can be used as a foretelling of the experience of Christ. For Peter, everything points to Jesus being the Holy One for whom the Jews waited, and they didn’t recognise Him. Is there a lesson in that for us? You might have picked up on a thread through many of my reflections along the lines of “would we recognise Christ if He visited our parish for a celebration of the eucharist?” Would we “crucify” Him again, and again, because He comes to disturb our way of thinking? According to Peter, the one to whom the psalmist referred is the one whom God would put on the throne of David, and who would not suffer in hell (‘Hades’ in the Greek) or be corrupted in any way. There is no doubt, then, that Peter was convinced by what had happened on the day of resurrection, that Jesus is Lord and that He had risen from the dead. In Jewish culture of the day the witness statements of two men (and only men) were sufficient to prove something was true. In this case there were far more than two who had direct experience of the risen Lord, and many more who had seen the transformation of those disciples. However we want to describe what happened, and whether or not we insist on a literal interpretation, there can be no doubt that an event which cannot be described had happened and the result was empowerment of people to live a Christian life. If we consider the resurrection as part of our lives in the world today, just as the Jews consider the exodus from Egypt to be part of their life experiences each year, then we must surely be powered to show Christ to others just by our presence.