The First Christian Sermon – September 20, 2020
September 20, 2020
Last week we talked about Pentecost… finally! We were about three months behind in the actual liturgical calendar. But again, I would say that the purpose of the liturgical calendar is not to commemorate exact dates of the various events, but to be sure we’re in the “habit” of remembering all those important things that happened so long ago.
And that we are doing. And today we think a little further about what happened that first day of Pentecost, the day we look to as the “Birthday of the Church.”
I want you to think again about that day. The disciples were all there together in Jerusalem, as opposed to going back to their home towns, which they might have felt compelled to do, now that this whole thing with Jesus was “over.” And the first thing that happened was this sound from heaven. We talked about that last week. That sound, whatever it was, brought the people of the city together. Then, they saw the tongues of fire on the heads of the Apostles. They heard them speak in all the many languages of the people who were there. And, as we’re told, they were amazed, they were perplexed, (which means mystified, confused, and puzzled!) and they were cynical. “Aaah, these guys are drunk!”
If you’ve heard me enough, you know that I often try to get us to think about what these stories were like without the knowledge we have about them. We the readers always know more about these stories than the people in them. We know this is an important event. We know its power and drama. And we know what it means. They, the people who were there, were amazed, and perplexed, and cynical!
I think there was also a sense anticipation leading up to this event. The disciples were told something would happen, something that would involve the Holy Spirit. But they didn’t know what. And to say there was a sense of “anticipation” doesn’t mean they were awaiting something that they knew about, like the “anticipation” we feel in Advent. That’s the time we have a growing excitement, as we await the Christmas celebration, which is something we know all about. Here, I think the anticipation was more a sense of expectancy, or maybe even suspense, knowing something was about to happen, but not knowing what.
So, it happened – the sound, the flames, and the tongues – and the people were amazed, and perplexed, and cynical! And what happened next is what’s often referred to as the “First Christian Sermon.” This wasn’t to be just an amazing, powerful event. Somebody had to say something. Somebody had to explain what was happening. Somebody had to put it all in context. Somebody had to take the events of the day and make them the history-changing event this turned out to be. And that somebody was Peter.
Who else, right? Peter was often the one to speak. Though sometimes he spoke awkwardly, sometimes impetuously, which means impulsively, unthinkingly, or maybe spontaneously. (My Thesaurus was getting a workout this week!) Peter was all those things, but he was also not afraid to speak boldly. I like to think that Jesus saw that in him, and that’s one of the reasons he chose him as a disciple. I think Jesus had reasons for choosing each one of them!
So, Peter stood and spoke. And the first thing he did was to “break the ice.” And he did so by first addressing their cynicism. “These men aren’t drunk,” he said, “since it’s only 9:00 in the morning.” I’ve always wondered if that was a cultural thing, that he was simply explaining that people wouldn’t be drunk that early, or if this was the first joke in the first sermon, implying, “No, it’s too early for them to be drunk. They’ll be drunk later.” Either way, I think that was a good way to begin. He put people at their ease.
Then he told them it was the power of the Holy Spirit they were seeing that day. And he quoted the prophet Joel, which we read last week. “In the last days it shall be that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh!” Peter knew his scripture! And I think that too had to have gotten their attention!
And then, the next thing he did, was he tied this to Jesus! (Hence, the first “Christian” sermon!) What happened that day was definitely an act of God. One might even call this a “theophany” – an appearance of God. It had that kind of power! But it wasn’t necessarily tied to Jesus. Not yet. The people said, “What is this? We’re hearing these men talk in all of our languages, and we’re from…” And then there’s this long list of nations and regions and languages – the bane of many a lay reader! “We hear them telling, in our own languages, the mighty works of God.” They were hearing the praises of God, but it doesn’t say they were hearing anything about Jesus.
Well, Peter gets right to it! And he makes no bones about it. This event is about the mighty works of God in Jesus. And he tells the story. And I wonder what these people thought about that. This wasn’t all that long after that tumultuous Passover, where that rabbi from Nazareth was arrested and put on trial, which nearly caused a riot, and then he was crucified. Then they started hearing stories. People were saying he had come back from the dead. Certainly, the residents of Jerusalem heard the rumors and the buzz. They were there all along. But what about these other visitors who were there for the celebration of Pentecost. What were they hearing about all of that?
Think about when this was happening. Pentecost was a Jewish festival. It wasn’t the name Christians gave for this “Holy Spirit event.” This just took place on the day of Pentecost. Originally Pentecost was a harvest festival, having to do with the wheat harvest. It was also known as “The Feast of Weeks.” It came 7 weeks and one day, or 50 days, after the Passover. (The prefix “pente” meaning “50”) Later Pentecost became a commemoration of the giving of the Law – the 10 Commandments – on Mount Sinai.
So, people had come into Jerusalem for this event. I’ve been thinking this was great timing. Think about it! The crucifixion of Jesus took place during Passover. That was a very big celebration in Jerusalem. So, God had a large “audience” for that event. Well, this was the next big event, the next large crowd in Jerusalem. I think this was great timing!
So, people were there almost two months after Jesus had been crucified, and they weren’t necessarily the same as those who were there when all of that happened. But they had to think these were two pretty big things that were happening. And they were wondering, what could all of this mean?
That’s what Peter ‘splained! He laid out the whole story for them, in detail. And he pulled no punches! “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed, by the hands of lawless men!” As I was thinking about this, I was under the impression that Peter was focusing on the high priests and Pharisees, those who “engineered” Jesus’ death. But that’s not what he said here. He seems to be addressing everyone! “You crucified and killed him, by the hands of lawless men.” He brought all of them into all of this!
Then he made no bones about the Resurrection. He laid aside the rumors and whisperings. “But God raised him up!” And then he quoted David! One of the greatest people in their history! This was strong stuff. This was bold and audacious. And we can only imagine the impact it was having! We also can only imagine what the religious leaders were thinking! They were surely there! And remember, their whole intention over the past months was to silence this Jesus, which they believed they had accomplished. But now this!
So, imagine all these people listening. Surely, some were there since Passover. And they had witnessed Jesus’ teaching, his passion, his death. Others had maybe heard him preach in their town at some point. Still others perhaps were just hearing about him for the first time. They were in town for Pentecost, and people were saying to them, “You should have been here on Passover!” “You should have seen what happened!”
As I often try to get you to do, I want you to imagine being in their shoes. Imagine these people hearing about Jesus for the first time. And I don’t just mean those who were hearing his name or the stories about him for the first time. I also mean hearing and knowing for the first time what he did for us! Even those people who were there and who knew his story, were just learning that!
As you think about that, I want you to think about what it was like for you when you heard about Jesus for the first time. And again, I mean, when you heard for the first time what he did for you. Maybe you grew up hearing his name and learning his stories, but then there came a time when you realized what it all meant! There came a time when it became real for you!
That’s what happened to these people that day. And as the Gospel writer tells us, they were “cut to the heart.” They were deeply moved by what Peter said, and, I believe, by the Holy Spirit that was very present that day. That’s so important. And it set the stage for the future of the Church that was to come
We believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit in much the same way. We believe the Spirit is with us whenever we gather to worship, and especially in this time of preaching, of the proclamation of the word. When we do this, we’re following in the footsteps of Peter! And remember what Jesus said the Spirit would do for us. “He will teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance.” (John 14:26) And yes, the Spirit inspires us, and moves us, and “cuts us to the heart.” But the Spirit also teaches us. The spirit makes things clear to us. It reminds us of things that then make more sense. And that’s what we seek when we worship together.
I believe that’s where this event comes home to us. That’s how we are part of this event! That same Spirit is with us! That same Spirit speaks to us, too! The Spirit teaches us, and brings things to our remembrance. That same spirit touches our hearts.
So, I encourage you to be open to that Spirit. Know what Jesus has done for you. And know the love of God that caused all of this to happen, for us. For God so loved the world…
Eternal God, may we know the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives each day. May we be more “in tune” with the Spirit each day. May we be more aware of your presence in our lives, and so have the strength we need to live our lives for you, and the peace we need each day. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.