This is a long post, but a little taste of what I’ve been working on instead of blogging. It’s a hard word for us, but I think a necessary one–a saving, hope-filled one. I am following, in part, the work of Mark Heim in his important book, Saved from Sacrifice.
In the church of my boyhood, the story of Pentecost was very important. It was the birth of the church, after all, and we were all about restoring the New Testament church. But not every part of Acts 2 was equally important to us. Tongues and signs and wonders belonged, we supposed, to the apostolic age and had ceased. So, we didn’t emphasize the opening verses when we talked about Acts 2. All of us, however, had verse 38 memorized. “Repent and be baptized…,” and some other stuff. For us, Acts 2 was important because it gave us an important description of how people were saved. While Acts 2:38 is a dramatic part of Peter’s sermon, I have come to believe that placing our focus here has obscured for us the central drama of the text. For us, as for many Protestants, the animating question of the New Testament was “how does an individual sinner receive forgiveness of sins and secure a home in heaven?” If this is the animating question of the New Testament, then Acts 2:38 might very well be the central focus of the Pentecost narrative. But what if the animating question is different than the question of personal forgiveness and a heavenly home? For instance, what if the central question of the New Testament is closer to what Jesus focused on with his disciples in the days following his resurrection: the Kingdom of God. A question that places the Kingdom of God at the center of the New Testament story might sound something like this: “How is God at work in history to bring all of creation back under his gracious and righteous rule?” Or, we might put it in other terms that Luke uses, “How is God at work to establish his peace, or shalom, in all creation?” This is a very different question than the one about personal forgiveness and heaven.
These questions are connected, but the priority given to one over the other makes a significant difference. For instance, favoring the second question–the shalom question–draws our eye more to what God is doing than what humans are doing, and this is always an upgrade, theologically speaking. In turn, this shift emphasizes God’s agency in the world, how it is that God establishes peace in ways that differ from human efforts to establish peace. Or how would God establish his reign in ways that differ from Herod or Pilate or Caesar or even Caiphas? It is only within this larger question of the establishment of God’s reign, or shalom, that individuals find their lives in line with God’s life. We might think here of the critique of the prophets, like Amos, who criticize the solemn assemblies of Israel’s worship while the demands of justice are overlooked. Or we might think of Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees who are religiously observant, but neglect the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy.
I think of a multi-campus church not far from me that just announced an impressive capital campaign of several million dollars to make their campuses more appealing to prospective members. All of their campuses are in upscale communities, this in an area that features ravaged communities like Detroit, Pontiac, and Flint. Why not plant congregations of God’s people who are called to serve the world in communities like these? Their rationale is related to the first question. They are reaching more people with the gospel, which for them is related primarily to personal salvation. I wonder if their church planting strategy might change if the the question about God’s shalom had priority. So, the shift in questions is significant.
But what difference would this shift mean for our reading of Acts 2? I would suggest that it changes the way we read Peter’s sermon in significant ways. For instance, I think the question about God’s kingdom places verses 32-33 at the high point of Peter’s sermon, not verse 38: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.” In a very succinct way, Peter explains the experience of Pentecost in trinitarian language around the theme of the Kingdom of God. The Father has raised Jesus from the dead and exalted to him to a position of authority at his right hand. In doing so, the Father has made Jesus, Israel’s messiah, Lord–the one who reigns. And Jesus has received from the Father, the “promise of the Holy Spirit,” the effective agent and source of power for God’s reign to be embodied in human communities. Moreover, the dramatic events of verses 1-4 are the result of Jesus having poured out the Spirit whom he received from the Father. Father, Son, and Spirit are working toward the establishment of the Kingdom of God.
Peter’s sermon, then, is about what God has accomplished related to establishing his effective rule through Jesus, and now through the giving of the Holy Spirit. Everything in the sermon revolves around this theme. The odd experiences of the sound of a violent wind along with the appearance of tongues of fire and subsequent astonishment that comes from every person gathered hearing what is being said in their own native language are a fulfillment of what was spoken by the prophet Joel. “In the last days,” the Holy Spirit will to be poured out on all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy. The pouring out of the Spirit is a sign that the last days have come, that the glorious day of the Lord is near, the day when God’s ultimate reign will be established, and salvation will be available to all who call on the name of the Lord. The rest of Peter’s sermon demonstrate that what the crowd now sees and hears is the result of what God has accomplished through Jesus of Nazareth. This one was “attested to you by God through mighty deeds of power, signs and wonders that God accomplished through him in your presence.” He was handed over “by you” to be killed by those outside the law, but God raised him up, confirming him as both Lord and Messiah. This is the thrust of the sermon.
The sermon is about our second question (God’s shalom), and not our first (the salvation of an individual). The audience is cut to the heart because they have found themselves on the wrong side of history. They are culpable in the death of the one to whom God attested through “deeds of power, signs and wonders,” having even handed Israel’s messiah to be killed by those outside the law. Not only that, but the one they killed is alive and ruling, seated at the right hand of the Father.
To fully appreciate this moment, I want to focus on Jesus’ own understanding of his death in the gospel of Luke. Jesus consistently aligns his pending death with the previous deaths of God’s prophets. At a strategic moment in Luke’s gospel, after having already predicted his death on two occasions, Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51). A few chapters later he offers a lament over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (13:34).This lament over Jerusalem matches woes delivered to the Pharisees in 11:37-52. At the conclusion of a string of woes, Jesus implicates them in the killing of God’s prophets from “Abel to Zechariah.”
Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. 11:47-52.
In setting his face to Jerusalem, Jesus is clearly aligning his death with the “blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world,” for which “this generation”” will be held responsible. The judgement against “this generation” finds an echo in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. After calling the crowd to repentance and baptism, “he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying,’Save yourselves from this corrupt generation'” (Acts 2:40). Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection in Luke clearly has something to do with this identification with the righteous who have suffered unjustly throughout history. The salvation offered by Jesus in Luke might very well cover road rage or impure thoughts or cheating on an exam, but it is specifically offered in Acts 2 to those who find themselves on the complicity side of killing God’s prophets, reaching a culmination in the unjust killing of Jesus. But how does Jesus’ death in this circumstance offer salvation?
As a kid, if we had a really good song leader that Sunday (I worship in an acapella tradition), we might go for it and sing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And in the literal sense, we were not there. But when we sang, “sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble,” I knew there must be some way that I was there and was complicit. I think something similar is going on here. The people in Acts 2 did not participate in the killing of Jesus the way that Pilate or Herod or the High Priest did, or even in the way Judas did when he betrayed Jesus or Peter when he denied him. It’s not personal guilt that Jesus is concerned about in Luke 11 or that Peter is in Acts 2. The problem is much bigger than personal guilt. The problem is the way the world works. The problem is that God keeps sending prophets and the world as it is arranged keeps killing them.
At the climax of the scenes related to Jesus’ trial, Luke makes it clear that his killing is a group effort. “Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people,” he reports. This is bigger than the decision of an evil person or group of people. The momentum that leads to Jesus’ death sentence feels more like a social contagion. This is underlined by Pilate’s repeated findings of Jesus’ innocence. Four times, including three in this climactic scene, Pilate finds “no grounds for sentencing him to death” (23:). But the crowd is unmoved by Pilate’s finding and shouts over him, “Crucify him!” They prefer that Pilate release Barabbas, a convicted insurrectionist and murderer. Trading Jesus for Barabbas makes no sense from a public safety standpoint. The crucifixion of Jesus is not about justice, but unmasks a deeper motivation to maintain social control and cohesion. Though Pilate finds nothing in Jesus to sentence him to death, he gives in to the crowd’s desire to crucify him, conceivably to avoid the social unrest that might come if he refused. More, Luke reports that one result of the series of interrogations that Jesus faces is “(t)hat same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies” (23:12). Herod, Pilate, the chief priests, and the people all find a place of unity in the violent death of Jesus. The killing of Jesus has kept, and even made, the peace.
The thing about belonging to a way of being in the world that keeps the peace through violence is that the victims need to stay dead. Jesus knew this. His woes against the Pharisees and lawyers seem to indicate this. He compares the Pharisees “to unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it” (11:44). While the image requires interpretation, Jesus seems to be saying that their surface observance of the law obscures the neglect of deeper matters related to justice. Their piety, in this case, covers death. The image is more explicitly tied to the killing of prophets in Jesus’ condemnation of the lawyers. The lawyers build tombs for the prophets who their ancestors killed. This might be interpreted in two ways. One reading is to say that by building the tombs, they approve of the activity of their ancestors. I think the implication of Jesus’ words, however, runs deeper. They are honoring these who were unjustly killed, blunting the offense of the violence, burying it, literally. They are using the deaths of the prophets as propaganda for the very system that killed them.
The inconvenient matter in the killing of Jesus is that he didn’t stay dead. The amazing scene of Acts 2:1-4 is explained by Peter as the result of God having raised this Jesus from the dead. Not only that, but this one who was raised from the dead wasn’t just any prophet, but Israel’s messiah. And not only have they killed the one they long expected and hoped for, but this Jesus is the very Lord who now reigns over the Kingdom of God and who will judge the living and dead. Peter ends the sermon with the worst words possible, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Oops.
They were cut to the heart, is the way Luke describes their reaction. I might have said they felt nauseous, got weak in the knees, lost bowel control. They have found themselves serving the wrong kingdom. It’s not what they thought they were doing. They are, after all, Luke tells us, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:). Jesus knew this as well, praying from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34). But having found themselves on the wrong side of the appearing of God’s kingdom, they might likely have expected divine condemnation or retribution. “Brothers, what shall we do?” might better be understood, “Brothers, is there anything we can do?”
Perhaps Luke has prepared us to interpret their question this way given Jesus’ parable of the “wicked tenants” in Luke 20:9-16. In this parable, the owner of a vineyard leaves it in the care of tenants. When the owner sends slaves to collect the proceeds from the vineyard, the tenants beat the slaves, refusing to pay. Desperate, the owner sends his son. Surely, they will respect the son. But they kill the son, hoping the vineyard will be theirs. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” Jesus asks. “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” God, in this case the owner of the vineyard, has repeatedly sent prophets, and now even his son, and the tenants keep violently oppressing them, even killing the son, deluded into thinking this act might even secure for them an inheritance. It would not be hard for those in the crowd to see themselves as the wicked tenants and expect that God might destroy them and give their inheritance to someone else. In fact, in a world ordered by retributive violence, this is exactly what should be done.
Truth be told, some in Luke’s story might have expected God’s vengeance on the Gentiles who have ruled over them and oppressed them. At John the Baptist’s birth, Zechariah sings of God’s deliverance “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:71, also 1:74). That this deliverance might take the form of vengeance could very well be the expectation of the hometown crowd who hears Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4. There, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, a text which proclaims Jubilee for Israel, namely “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus does not read the entire text of Isaiah 61, however, leaving out “and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Is 61:2). Israel’s comfort here depends in part on being avenged by God for their treatment at the hands of their oppressors. The audience in Luke 4 is favorably inclined toward Jesus, until he reminds them of God’s good treatment of Gentiles in the days of both Elijah and Elisha, perhaps indicating that his omission of the last few lines of Is 61:1-2 was no oversight. God’s salvation for Israel will not come with retributive violence for Israel’s oppressors. God will not oppress others for the sake of their comfort. God’s peace will come another way.
Neither will God’s vengeance come for the crowd in Acts 2. “Repent and be baptized, for the forgiveness of your sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” is Peter’s word of grace. Of all the remarkable things that happens at Pentecost, Peter’s offer of the Holy Spirit for those who handed Jesus over to death might very well be the most remarkable. They have not forfeited their right to be a part of a different way of making peace. “For the promise is for you,” Peter continues, “and for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39).
This is a remarkable story. We often think of the violent death of Jesus as something required by God in order to forgive. Seen this way, violence can be redemptive, a way to make peace. But Luke gives us a different picture. The innocent death of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection pulls back the curtain on the myth of redemptive violence. Jesus stands with all the prophets unjustly killed, their deaths hidden or forgotten, or worse, commemorated in a way that serves the interests of the very system that put them to death. Jesus would deliver us from this way of making peace, in part by showing it for what it is, injustice. More, as Lord of the alternative way of the Kingdom of God, he offers us the power to live in a different kind of peace through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. The crowd at Pentecost, and we ourselves, are called to be liberated from “this corrupt generation,” to repent and receive God’s offer of peace–forgiveness for our complicity in this way of making the world and the reception of God’s Holy Spirit. Salvation is not just the forgiveness of personal sins, but the offer to belong to a different kind of kingdom.
Thanks for a great perspective on an overly-familiar passage.
I have always understood Jesus’ execution as an indictment and in no way redemptive. Our redemption comes in how we respond to this violence, in Jesus time and to violence in our own time. And even more so, our redemption flows as a gift of grace from the very God whom we killed – all of which is evidence that violence is not the way of the Kingdom, but the way of which is freely given grace and a just shalom.
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