Acts 2:14a, 22-32 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, . . .\
22 “You 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— 23 this 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. 24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25 For David says concerning him,‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope.27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.28 You 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. 30 Since 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. 31 Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,
‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.
It is the second Sunday of Easter, but the reading from Acts 2 describes an event taking place on the Day of Pentecost. While the lection omits the Pentecost context, it is helpful to understand that it is the events of Pentecost that enables Peter to deliver the sermon we’re about to take in. The phenomena of Pentecost draws the crowd that gives Peter the opportunity to preach, and the Spirit that falls on the community at Pentecost emboldens Peter so he can stand before the people and share the good news of Jesus with those who had gathered due to the declaration of the gospel in languages understood by members of the crowd, but evidently not by the ones sharing the message
Peter stood before the people to explain what the crowd had witnessed (Acts 2:14b-21). Then, having their attention, he moves to the message of the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, the reason why we hear this portion of the sermon on the second Sunday of Easter. We’re in the Book of Acts, because the creators the Common Lectionary have us turning to Acts in place of the normal readings from the Old Testament. I am reflecting on this passage, because I have committed myself to work through the first readings from the lectionary. Therefore, I will be engaging with the Book of Acts for the next several weeks. It is unfortunate, at one level, that we must depart from the Hebrew Bible, but it is good to explore the Book of Acts, which only appears in the lectionary during Easter (and on Pentecost Sunday).
\ Peter stands before the crowd, together with the eleven, and begins to preach. We pick up Peter’s message, after he has explained the Pentecost phenomena. Having set aside those questions, he gets to the heart of the matter, and that is the person of Jesus. This section of the sermon begins with Peter addressing has audience as “you that are Israelites” (vs. 22). No matter where in the diaspora the audience comes from, these are Jews, and Peter lays blame on them for the death of Jesus. This is a polemical message, but one that is intended to lead to belief in Jesus. Peter tells the crowd that this Jesus, whom God had attested “with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you,” had been handed over by them to be “crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.” In other words, Peter (or Luke) places the blame for Jesus’ death on the “Israelites,” who had collaborated with the those “outside the law,” that is the Romans, to have Jesus killed. Thus, the Romans are simply doing the bidding of the Jewish leaders. This accusation presents us with significant problems, for down through the centuries texts like this have been used to justify persecution of Jews on the charge of being “Christ killers.” While it is likely that Jewish leaders and the Roman state collaborated on Jesus’ execution, this collaboration was likely more political than theological. Because of history, we need to be careful not to cast aspersions on the Jewish people for this act of violence against Jesus, which too often leads to further violence against those who are Jewish. If we can avoid the blame game, perhaps we can hear Peter’s witness to the resurrection (remember that this is an Easter lection).
Whatever the reason for the execution, it is clear from Peter’s sermon that what happened to Jesus was all part of a divine plan. The point of this plan was the resurrection. As Peter declares, “But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” On that day, Peter wanted to make clear that death could not hold Jesus down. He believed that he had solid biblical support for this belief. Peter pointed to the words of one he identified as David who declares: “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption” (see Psalm 16:10). The reference to David stems from the common belief that David was the author of many the Psalms, including Psalm 16. Pointing to Psalm 16, and its traditional author (David), Peter takes an interpretive leap and applies it to Jesus. In Peter’s mind, Jesus, not David, speaks the words of the Psalm. After all, David long ago had “died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day” (vs. 29). Therefore, in Peter’s mind (and Luke’s), David spoke prophetically of the one who would claim David’s throne, and from that vantage point, David’s successor spoke of his conquest of death (resurrection). Peter makes the claim that the Holy One of God could not experience corruption, nor could Hades put its mark on him, therefore he had been raised from the dead by God. Not only that, but Peter claimed to be a witness to this truth.
While modern biblical scholars will “quibble” with the attribution of the Psalm to David or that the Psalm has Messianic implications, in Luke’s mind, the Psalm was written by David, and Jesus was the anticipated heir to David’s throne. With that affirmed, if one believed in Jesus. That is, if one received Jesus as the Messiah, then that person or community would experience salvation. What Peter does here is make use of the theological resources at hand to “proclaim the power of the resurrection in the face of great skepticism.” Even as Peter did this, John C. Holbert suggests that the modern preacher can do the same: “We need to use the tools of our day to announce the power and wonder of Jesus’ resurrected life that has changed everything about us.” In the face of all manner of violence and death in our own context, we can declare that death “holds no sway over us anymore.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 381]. Of course, it’s not only words, it’s deeds as well.
\ The lectionary reading stops short of the climax, in which Peter declares that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, and that God has made him Lord and Christ (while this is an Ascension message, can we have the resurrection without the ascension, or ascension without the resurrection?). The good news for us, it would seem, is that to be in Christ is to share in God’s act of resurrection, so that death will lose its hold over us. The question is, how will this engender in us a witness to Christ?
Picture Attribution: West, Benjamin, 1738-1820. Peter Preaching at Pentecost, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55159 [retrieved April 17, 2017]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St._Peter_Preaching_at_Pentecost.jpg.