Turn Back to God – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 3B

comesundayfbActs 3:12-19 Common English Bible (CEB)

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.

Note: During the season of Easter the First Reading from the Revised Common Lectionary is drawn not from the Hebrew Bible, but from the Book of Acts.

John the Baptist and Jesus had a common message: Repent. Turn back to God. Stop your rebellion. In the post-resurrection age, Peter picked right up with their message. He proclaimed to any who would listen: turn from your sins and embrace the realm of God. For Peter this messaging included reminding his audience that the religious and political leaders conspired to kill Jesus, the author of life. So, “turn back to God so that your sins may be wiped away.” Preaching a message of repentance so soon after Easter Sunday is probably a bit radio-active. After all, shouldn’t we be celebrating the coming of spring. For those of us who live in colder winter climates, spring is something is to be celebrated. So, why talk about sin and repentance? Perhaps, in Peter’s mind (and Luke’s), repentance and resurrection are related. After all, it was the conspiracy to have Jesus executed, because of his message of repentance, that led to his death and then resurrection.

The lectionary reading begins with Peter’s message to the people, but who are these people Peter is addressing, and why is he speaking? Acts 3 begins with a beggar sitting at the gate to the Temple. Luke tells us that he is crippled, and that he depends on alms shared by those who go to the Temple to worship. It’s a good plan. Surely worshipers will be generous. Among those worshipers are Peter and John, who apparently go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship three times a day. If they have been through this gate with any frequency, and I’m assuming they had, they would have run into this man. They know his message. Maybe they have thrown a few coins his way. In any case, as they walk by on their way to worship, the man calls out to them, asking for alms. The two apostles stop and face the man. He wants money, but they decide to give something else. There is a song, that I sang years ago in Bible study and at camps. It tells the story of this encounter:

Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee,
In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.
He went walking and leaping and praising God,
Walking and leaping and praising God,
In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.
In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.

When the people see the man walking and leaping, they want to know what happened. How can this man, who sat begging alms, perhaps for years, now be jumping around and praising God?

This eruption of praise and the attending questions, gave Peter his opening. It is now sermon time. A crowd gathers, eager to hear from these workers of miracles, who once walked with Jesus. Now, remember, Luke only gives summaries of sermons, not the full text. But the text as given starts with a rebuke. He’s asking them why they needed to ask the question. Didn’t they realize that the power of healing was with Jesus, whom, according to the apostles, they conspired to kill by delivering Jesus to Pilate. Peter gives a witness to Jesus. You conspired with Pilate, but God raised him instead.

Once again, we must be careful how we read a passage like this. It can and has been used as fuel for anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic exclusion and violence. Even today, there are those who accuse Jews of being Christ-killers. Let us remember that Peter and John and Jesus and John the Baptist, were all Jews. The religious leadership, who derived power from Rome, as was so of the case, turned Jesus over (at least that’s how Luke tells the story). Most likely they did this, because Rome didn’t like people challenging its authority. You could believe whatever you wished, but just don’t challenge Rome’s authority. So, let us be careful how we read this passage. In this particular case, we have before us an in-house conversation. Peter is addressing his own community and reminding them of what has happened in the past. Jesus, like earlier prophets of God was struck down by the powers that be, but God turned the tables and his raised him from the dead. So, turn back. Choose a different path.

When we read a passage like this from the lectionary, we’re not only asking what it meant back then. We’re asking, what does it mean for us today? So, the message is this: “Turn back to God.” Repent of your sins, and God will forgive, wiping away your sins. Perhaps the way to read this today is ask the question of our own complicity in deeds of destruction. How have we rejected God’s messengers?

The healing of the man that brought Peter and John to the attention of the people is a sign that life reigns victorious. Willie James Jennings writes:

The man healed is now a sign of the man resurrected from the dead, the author of life itself. Now the actions of the One confront the wayward propensities of the many. If peoples are often seduced by the power of violence and take up the weapons of death, here is Jesus the Messiah who has overcome the effects of violence and the pull of death. If peoples are prone to choose against their own well-being and life, here is the Messiah who heals, restores, and gives life. [Jennings, Acts, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, (WJK Press, 2017), p. 43].

Peter and John stand before their neighbors, who like them have come to worship the God of Israel. The apostles proclaim the message that the Messiah of God, the one who was rejected, has been accepted by God, and brings life, even in the midst of death. So, will you join with God, and turn away from the path of destruction? Will you join the movement for the common good of all?

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.


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