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What Do We Do Now?

Thomas J Parlette

“What do we do now?”

Acts 2: 14, 22-41

4/30/17

Most preachers remember their first real sermon. Oh we get lots of practice before we step into the pulpit for real. In seminary we take preaching classes where we read the classic texts on how to preach, what to do and what not to do. Then we practice on each other as we preach in small groups and record ourselves and get feedback from the group. Then we take another step toward a real sermon when we preach to our field education churches. Most seminarians, if they plan on serving a congregation, will spend at least one year working in a church that signs up to take on a student and help prepare them for ministry. I was fortunate to do my field education with a small United Methodist congregation that decided that they’re ministry to the larger church was training seminarians to be good pastors – so they took it very seriously. I got to preach to them a couple times a year and then a small group of parishioners would get together at the Pastors house for lunch and give me feedback. It was very helpful, but not quite the same as a real sermon – they knew it was a learning experience and treated it as such.

But then that day comes when you get out into the world all on your own and you serve your first church, where you are the ordained and installed Pastor, or in my case, Associate Pastor. Now you are supposed to know what you’re doing. Now you have authority. That first time you step into the pulpit for real can be quite intimidating. I remember the hardest thing for me to get used to was wearing the robe. I had never worn a robe during seminary, so it was a new experience for me. All of sudden I had the weight of this black robe on my shoulders, with these big sleeves that I had to be careful of so I didn’t knock over anything, like a candle or a communion cup. And of course, I learned the importance of taking your time on the steps of the chancel to avoid stepping on your own hem – boy you only make that mistake once, it stays with you, let me tell you.

Most preachers sit down to write that first sermon with the fear that “I won’t have enough to say.” “I won’t be able to fill the time.” At least I did. So most first time preachers go the opposite way and try to say everything they can possibly think of in that first sermon. You read all the commentaries, consult all the journals, check out all the websites and try to cram in everything that every scholar has ever written on the passage for the day. Most first sermons turn into lectures more than sermons. After the first few sermons, most preachers realize that the best way to approach a passage is with one focus, rather than a dozen possibilities. As a preacher you have to ask yourself, “What does this particular group of people need to hear from this particular text this morning.” After a few years of preaching on a regular basis, you realize that you don’t have to cover every possible interpretation and every possible question a text raises in one sermon – the passage will come around again, save some for next time.

I like the old piece of preaching advice that says a good preacher should do three things:

1. Stand up

2. Speak up

3. Sit down(1)

That’s good advice. Say what you have to say and wind it up. Don’t just try and fill the time.

There was once an old farmer who went to church one day and sat through the worst sermon of his life by the most boring preacher he had ever heard. Finally, the old man just got up and left, the sermon wasn’t even finished. Outside on the sidewalk he ran into a friend of his.

“Has that preacher finished then?”

“Oh he’s finished alright – but he won’t stop!”(2)

Say what you’ve got to say and wrap it up – sometimes that takes awhile to learn. William Willimon says that a first sermon is a lot like a first date – you want to do well, be impressive, put your best foot forward and not say anything dumb that might endanger the future relationship.(3) Yeah, that’s about right.

So here in Jerusalem, right after the events of Pentecost, Peter stand up to deliver his first sermon. So how did it go?

Well, to be honest, anytime you have to start a sermon by assuring your listeners that you are not drunk, well, it could easily go downhill from there. But that’s what Peter did. He started off assuring everyone that he and the others who were speaking in foreign languages, were not drunk, “as you suppose, for it is only 9:00 in the morning…” Not a great way to start.

Peter would seem an odd choice to deliver this sermon. He was not highly educated, like Paul would be when he comes on the scene. He was not exactly known for methodical, logical mind either. In fact, he was quite the opposite. Peter was a brash, impulsive fellow, known as a “shoot from the hip” kind of guy. Consider Peter’s resume:

–         after witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration, his first response was to form a building committee.

–         When Jesus invited him to walk on the water, he took a step out of the boat, lost his faith and promptly sank.

–         When Jesus needed prayerful support in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter fell asleep.

–         When the mob came to arrest Jesus, Jesus was going to go quietly, until Peter turned to violence and cut off somebody’s ear.

–         After boldly promising, “I will never leave you,” when it came right down to it, Peter denied Jesus three times.

–         And then, when he found out that Jesus was alive, he went back to his old job – fishing.

Not exactly a stellar resume. But then, we know that God likes to choose the most unexpected people to proclaim the divine word. So, despite his lack of credentials, Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit and carries on with his first sermon.

After making up for a bumpy start – Peter actually does pretty well. He follows all that first sermon advice and does a good job staying on topic. He keeps it short and sweet, provides some nice scholarly quotations from the prophet Joel and the Psalms to back up his claim that Jesus is the Messiah, and ends with a strong closing statement… “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses…Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah.”

At this point, Peter almost blows it by saying something dumb. He says, “…This Jesus whom you killed.”

We must be very careful here because this is one of the verses that has contributed to dangerous anti-semitism over the centuries. Keep in mind, Peter is addressing Jews there in Jerusalem, many of whom were from Judea – just like Peter. Peter is one of them, these are his people. Whenever we speak of “the Jews” in the New Testament, that term is referring to the small group of administrators and leaders who were in charge – not to the Jewish people as a whole. Peter is preaching to his own people here, himself included. Also keep in mind the end of the story – 3,000 people were convinced that day – 3,000 Jews. The first followers of Jesus were Jewish.

And right there, that’s actually the end of Peter’s first sermon. Because now the story becomes more of a question and answer time. When the crowd heard Peter’s proclamation about Jesus and recognized their own culpability in his death – they were, as the scripture says: cut to the heart, cut to the quick, pierced to the heart, pricked in their heart, or deeply troubled – depending on which translation you read.

And they asked, “What do we do now?”

So that brings us to Part Two of Peter’s first sermon, where he falls comfortably into a three point message, a classic in the sermonic world. Peter says, “Repent, be baptized so that you may be forgiven, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Repent… be baptized… receive the Spirit. Three essentials of a vital faith.

I know that repentance is not a word we like to hear. We sure hear it a lot in church, especially in Advent and Lent. Do wee need to hear it again – I think I’ve repented, thank you very much. But remember, repentance is not a one time thing. Repentance is a habit – it’s something we should do everyday. We could all use a little extra work.

I like the story about former San Francisco Giants manager Dave Bristol, who once had an interesting message for his slumping baseball team. They were in the middle of a terrible losing streak and Bristol told them, “There will be two buses leaving the hotel for the ball park tomorrow. The 2:00 bus will be for those of you who need a little extra work. The empty bus will be leaving at 5:00.” In other words, everybody needs a little extra work.(4)

That’s repentance. Our acknowledgement that we all need a little extra work. We‘ve all got things in our life that we could change for the better, because it’s usually not the big things that get you in the end. It’s the accumulation of little things.

I read recently about the death of an enormous ancient tree in Colorado. It was such a large, old tree that some experts believe it was probably a seedling when Columbus discovered America. It was only half-grown when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Close study reveals that the tree was struck by lightning some fourteen times.

But lightning did not destroy that tree. Cold Colorado winters did not destroy it. Age didn’t destroy it. Avalanches did not cause it to budge. Fire couldn’t bring that tree down either. No, what finally brought down that ancient tree was beetles. Little bugs so small that you could crush them between your fingers, and yet those little beetles brought down that mighty Colorado tree.(5)

It’s the accumulation of little things that can bring you down in the end. Repentance is our habit of working on little changes everyday before they become big problems.

What do we do now that Jesus has risen? Start by repenting, by changing your life, says Peter.

The second step in a vital Christian faith is baptism – or for us who have already been baptized, remembering your baptism – remembering who you are and whose you are.

I understand that there is a practice in Poland called “Wet Monday.” It is celebrated the day following Easter. On Wet Monday, Polish young people soak their friends and unsuspecting parents with water. It is not uncommon to see young people standing out in there yards on the day after Easter with water hoses or walking down the street with buckets of water ready to douse someone.(6)

Wet Monday has no religious significance that we know of. It’s mainly a day of pranks and good humor, but there are those that believe it is a holdover of an ancient religious practice. I find the symbolism sort of appealing. I’m not sure it would work well in Minnesota since it’s often still pretty cold on the Monday after Easter – but it is an interesting idea. A Wet Monday following Easter Sunday – a remembrance of baptism following the celebration of the resurrection – that’s sort of a good idea, and certainly fits with what Peter has to say here.

What do we do now that Jesus has risen? Repent, and remember your baptism.

Which brings us to Peter’s third point – receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Receive the power to live the kind of life and be the person God created you to be.

Tom Harris, the famous psychiatrist who wrote the best-seller “I’m OK. You’re OK”, says that there are three reasons why people change. First, people change when it is more painful to keep going as they are rather than change. Second, people change when they reach a point of despair. They run out of options, they hit rock bottom – so they make a change, because they have no other choice. But Harris points to a third motive for change. He calls it the “Eureka Stage.” Some people change because they discover that there is something better out there, something they’ve been missing. That of course, is the message of the Gospel. There is richer, fuller life out there for all who will receive it.(7)

In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson lectured at Harvard Divinity School on the art of preaching. He said that the goal of preaching was to convert life into truth. “The true preacher,” he said, “can always be known by this, they deal out to people their own life – their life passed through the fire of thought.”(8)

That’s what the people heard that day in Jerusalem. They heard Peter’s own life, as imperfect as it was, passed through the fire of thought. He was preaching as much to himself as to the crowd. And it was a “eureka moment.” There is a richer, fuller life out there for all who will receive it.

So what do we do now that Jesus has been raised? Repent – change your life. Remember your baptism – who you are and whose you are. And live with the power of the Holy Spirit.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 2, p 65.

2.    Ibid…p 65.

3.    Ibid…p 62

4.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, p 31.

5.    Ibid…p 32

6.    Ibid…p 33

7.    Ibid… p 34-35

8.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 2, p 67.