12 Seeing this, Peter addressed the people: “You Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk by our own power or piety? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– the God of our ancestors– has glorified his servant Jesus. This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence, even though he had already decided to release him. 14 You rejected the holy and righteous one, and asked that a murderer be released to you instead. 15 You killed the author of life, the very one whom God raised from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16 His name itself has made this man strong. That is, because of faith in Jesus’ name, God has strengthened this man whom you see and know. The faith that comes through Jesus gave him complete health right before your eyes.
17 “Brothers and sisters, I know you acted in ignorance. So did your rulers. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he foretold through all the prophets: that his Christ would suffer. 19 Change your hearts and lives! Turn back to God so that your sins may be wiped away. (CEB)
Throughout the Season of Easter, the lectionary provides a text from the Acts of the Apostles where we would normally find a lesson from the Old Testament. While I’m somewhat critical of this—because it can suggest, incorrectly, that the New Testament is more important than the Old—I think one of the reasons for the shift is to focus on the implications of the resurrection of Jesus for the community of believers. Several of the texts from Acts are sermons of Peter, and this one is the second of Peter’s sermons in the book. So, in essence, I get to preach a sermon on a sermon.
Musicians get to do this all the time. You have Variations on A Theme by Hyden composed by Brahms, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis composed by Williams, and so on. And, any Star Wars fan who’s ever heard Mars, The Bringer of War by Gustav Holst knows where John Williams got his ideas for the Star Wars score. So, maybe I should have titled my sermon, Variations on a Theme by Peter.
First, it’s important that we understand the social context of Peter’s sermon. Just as I am a Christian speaking to an audience of Christians in a Christian worship setting, Peter was a Jew who is speaking to an audience of Jews within a Jewish worship setting. The reason why this is important is because Peter gets a little harsh with his audience. He accuses them of rejecting Jesus, of killing Jesus.
One of the more disgusting pieces of Christian history is that some of our European ancestors used Peters words as an excuse to murder Jews in retaliation for killing Jesus. Peter’s Christian context was Jewish. He wasn’t anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. He was a Jewish, Semitic Christian, and he would be horrified at how some Christians after the third and fourth centuries used his words to persecute his own people. Jesus, himself, was a Jewish man. There is nothing anti-Jewish or anti-Semiotic about Peter’s words.
Second, it’s important for us to understand the context of this text within the book of Acts because, obviously, verse twelve is not the beginning of the story. “Seeing this, Peter addressed the people…” (Acts 3:12a CEB).
And our first question is… Seeing what? What precipitated Peter’s sermon? Let’s back up and take a look. Acts chapter two tells us about the Day of Pentecost, which includes Peter’s first sermon. Then, at the end of chapter two, Luke gives us a little summary of how the Pentecost Christians ordered their life together as Easter People. By the time we get to chapter three, we have no idea how many days have passed since Pentecost.
Chapter three begins with Peter and John going into the Temple to pray during the established prayer time of 3:00 in the afternoon. Meanwhile, a man crippled from birth was being carried in so he could beg at the Beautiful Gate. When Peter and John walked by, he asked them for help. Peter simply told the man, “Look at us!” (Acts 3:4 CEB). The man looked at Peter and John expectantly, but Peter said, “I don’t have any money, but I will give you what I do have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6 CEB). Peter took the man’s hand, pulled him up, and the man’s feet and ankles became strong.
All of a sudden, this guy starts jumping. He doesn’t try out his newly-healed legs with baby steps. He walks around, leaping and praising God. Can you imagine the joy this man felt and how it spilled out of him?
All the people saw this man jumping and leaping, full of exuberance and shouting praises to God, and they recognized him as the same man who used to sit at the Beautiful Gate asking for money. They were filled with amazement and surprise. While the man clung to Peter and John, all the people rushed toward them at Solomon’s Porch, completely amazed at what they were seeing.
That’s what Peter saw. He saw the utter amazement and surprise written on the faces of the other Temple worshippers who had rushed together at Solomon’s Porch to see a crippled man jump and leap for joy and thanksgiving at being healed. And Peter asks, “You Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk by our own power or piety?” (Acts 3:12 CEB).
I think this is one of the reasons why Jesus picked Peter to lead the fledgling church. The dude could preach. Paul couldn’t preach worth a lick. His gift was in writing. (2 Corinthians 10:10). But Peter, when he stood up to preach, he held his audience captive. After he preached his first sermon at Pentecost, three-thousand people were baptized into the church. After this, his second recorded sermon in chapter three, it depends on how one translates the Greek, but the church either grew to five-thousand in number, or they grew by five-thousand in number. Did you know the early church was the first mega-church? It was a big, Jewish, Semitic, predominantly Aramaic-speaking mega-church.
The fact that Peter addresses his audience as “Israelites,” which is their God-given name as a people, shows that he meant to honor them as God’s people who have their identity in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. At the same time, he wonders at their surprise and amazement. First, he denies that the once-crippled man’s healing came by his or John’s own power or piety and immediately points to God’s glorification of Jesus—the same Jesus that the people handed over and denied before Pontius Pilate, the holy and righteous one they rejected and asked for a murder to be released in his place. They killed the author of life.
Now, so far, Peter’s speech sounds bleak, and more than a little accusatory. But, we should note that his words are full of shared grief, and he’s probably including himself. Peter says, “This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence” (Acts 3:13 CEB), and “You rejected the holy and righteous one” (Acts 3:14 CEB). Those words denied and rejected are the same word in Greek. The reason I say he’s speaking of a shared grief is because that word is the same word used about Peter when he denied knowing Jesus. “Then a servant woman saw him sitting in the firelight. She stared at him and said, ‘This man was with him too.’ But Peter denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I don’t know him!’” (Lk. 22:56-57 CEB). Peter was just as guilty as the people, and he knew it.
Peter grounded his sermon in the patriarchs of Israel by saying, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of our ancestors—has glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3:13 CEB). The word in Greek for servant can also be used to refer to one’s immediate offspring: one’s child. It’s the same word used by Mary when she sang, “He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy” (Luke 1:54 CEB).
Then, Peter tells them that God raised Jesus from the dead, and he and John are witnesses of the resurrection. If you were wondering what John’s role in the story is, it’s probably to serve as the second witness to corroborate the claim Peter makes. Several Old Testament texts (Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15) require two witnesses when bringing testimony against someone for a crime. But the same idea developed about any claim. If one person made a claim, it wasn’t enough to substantiate the claim. But if two witnesses agreed about a matter, it was enough (c.f. Matthew 18:16; John 5:31-32, 8:17; 2 Corinthians 13:1). John didn’t say anything, but his presence was required for Peter’s testimony about Jesus to be believed as true.
In a form of repetition similar to Hebrew poetry, Peter makes the same claim in three slightly different ways in verse 16. First, he says, “His [meaning Jesus’] name itself has made this man strong” (CEB). Second, he clarifies the first statement by saying, “That is, because of faith in Jesus’ name, God has strengthened this man whom you see and know” (CEB). Third, he summarizes the first two statements by saying, “The faith that comes through Jesus gave him complete health right before your eyes” (CEB). It wasn’t Peter of John who healed the crippled man, it was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
Now that Peter has made his accusation and shown that the crippled man was healed in the name of Jesus whom God has glorified, Peter let his hearers off the hook in two ways. First, he told them that he knows they acted in ignorance, as did their rulers (c.f. vs.17). Then, he reminded them that the Messiah’s suffering was a fulfillment of God’s word as spoken through the prophets. The death of Jesus was bound to happen.
Not only did Peter let his brothers and sisters off the hook for their participation in Christ’s death, he shows them a way forward. He called them to repent, to change their hearts and lives and turn back to God so their sins could be forgiven.
The healing of the crippled man highlights a misunderstanding that we share with those who stood listening to Peter’s sermon. It’s a misunderstanding about something that is absolutely fundamental about our shared life with God. Brothers and sisters, our faith is often stuck in a kind of functional atheism in which we believe that sin and brokenness is the rule and, should God ever bother to speak or act, that would be the exception. But in an Easter world, and among an Easter people, the presence and power of God is as prevalent as night and day, sunshine and rain, wind and calm.
Do we see it? Do we see the mercy of God in our midst? I’ve seen it big and small ways: from healings from disease to the smile of a child eating a fresh cucumber for the first time and filling their hungry belly.
Peter also reminds us that, when we do see the workings of God in our world, our response must be more than astonishment and surprise. We must change our hearts and lives so that we can live into the healing and restoring work of God and participate in it. We, like Jesus, are God’s servants and God’s children. What is our response as Easter People?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay