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You Bible scholars know that fully one-third of the book of Acts is comprised of some twenty-eight speeches or sermons, mostly by Peter and Paul. They do not all follow the same pattern but, for the most part, there is a certain rhythm that they share in common: they talk about the life and ministry of Jesus, his cruel murder, then miraculous resurrection, his exaltation at the right hand of God as Messiah and Lord, and finally, the wonderful opportunity of the forgiveness of sins through faith in him. Peter's Pentecost sermon follows that outline.
And it had a powerful impact. As Peter concluded, the crowd, which had been "cut to the heart" by his words, cried out, asking, "What should we do?" Peter told them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus so that their sins could be forgiven and they could receive the Holy Spirit.
"What should we do?" Sounds like an obvious question following a sermon, but one wonders. As one writer has it, "We've heard the scripture. We've heard the word preached. But nothing happens until those of us who polish the pews with our posteriors ask that question. Until we do, what we have is not a message, but a massage." Hmm.
"Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ..." Peter offers no helpful hints on living a more fulfilling life, no useful projects to work on, no feel-good platitudes; rather, he calls people to change.
A Sunday School teacher once asked a class what was meant by the word "repentance." A little boy put up his hand and said, "It is being sorry for your sins." A little girl also raised her hand and said, "It is being sorry enough to quit."
There was a cartoon wandering around several years ago in which little George Washington is standing with an axe in his hand. Before him lying on the ground is the famous cherry tree. He has already made his smug admission that he did it - after all, he "cannot tell a lie." But his father is standing there exasperated saying, "All right, so you admit it! You always admit it! The question is, when are you going to stop doing it."
It was intriguing to see the NY Times poll this weekend that says over 80% of Americans - more than four out of five of us -think our nation is on the wrong track, the highest number ever recorded since the sampling was begun. It is up from 69% a year ago and 35% in early 2002. According to the paper, "Although the public mood has been darkening since the early days of the war in Iraq, it has taken a new turn for the worse in the last few months, as the economy has seemed to slip into recession. There is now nearly a national consensus that the country faces significant problems." (1) It is in that atmosphere that we are watching what many are calling the most important political campaign in years, and under the circumstances, it is no wonder that people have gravitated toward candidates who reflect "change" rather than "experience."
As to personal behavior, the news regularly leers at the Paris Hiltons and Brittany Spears who are remarkable for nothing more than their lurid conduct. If it is any consolation, previous generations were not exempt - I remember Tallullah Bankhead once famously proclaiming that her life was "as pure as the driven slush." But that was in the days before Tabloid TV and 24/7 cable news channels. No wonder we want change.
Truth be told, systemic change starts with individual change, that good churchy word "repentance." As the old adage has it, when I point a finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing back toward me.
Psychiatrist Tom Harris, who wrote that enormously successful book, I'm OK, You're OK, (2) says that there are three reasons why people change. First, people change when it is more painful to remain as they are than to change. Perhaps you are in a job that makes you miserable. You cannot imagine being in that job for the rest of your life. So, you make a change. Why? Because it is more painful to stay where you are than to change.
A second reason for change, according to Dr. Harris, is finding ourself at the point of despair. Perhaps we suddenly come to the realization that we are about to lose our marriage, our family, our health. At that point we may change. You have heard people say, "I had to reach rock bottom, before I could take hold of my life."
Harris adds a third motive for change. He calls it the "Eureka Stage." That is, some people change because they discover - much to their surprise - that there is something better that they have been missing. Of course, this is precisely the message of the Gospel. There is a richer, fuller life in Jesus Christ that is available to all who will receive it.
Those who heard Peter preach that day knew that they had found something that would make their lives more joyous, more purposeful, more liveable. "Eureka!" This was it.
Repentance, of course, is only a first step, according to Peter. "Be baptized, everyone of you." Think not of simply a ceremony that involves some water. Think instead of what baptism does - it introduces someone officially into the life of the church. Peter's instruction about baptism says we cannot handle this repentance stuff on our own - we need the help of the family of faith. Then we can experience forgiveness, then we can experience the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Powerful words from Peter on Pentecost. "Brothers, what can we do?"
Repent, be baptized, receive power. And, as the text has it, "and about three thousand were added to their number that day." The most successful sermon ever.
And we are invited to join them. Is there something in your life that needs changed? Let the change begin today, here and now, as your Lord welcomes you to his table.
1. David Leonhart and Marjorie Connelly, "81% in Poll Say Nation Is Headed on Wrong Track," NY Times, 4/4/08
2. London: Cape, 1970