Those of us in the church business often hear about recovering ‘the Acts church’ or even more specifically the ‘Acts 2 church’. ‘Acts 2’ of course refers to the second chapter and the inspiring scene at Pentecost as well as the believers gathered daily in worship, sharing their lives and material resources together. In these short verses we find an image of unity and wholeness; a certain sense that things are as they should be.
Rarely, however, do we find much reflection on the very next chapter. I don’t recall hearing about the ‘Acts 3 church’.
Here we encounter not Peter’s upward gaze to welcome the outpouring of the Spirit but rather his outstretched finger. You Israelites . . . you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, you killed the Author of life. We don’t have to look far to see how this language has in fact been taken up by the church. It should still make our blood run a little cold to know that the Church could employ this language against the Jewish people culminating eventually in the Holocaust. So is Peter already leading the church in the sort of destructive antagonism or conflict that gave rise to such horrific violence? Was there already here, in the very next chapter, a deviation from the vision of the true church?
I ask this question seriously because it seems like the church is only able to recognize its faults in retrospect. We now see that slavery is not part of God’s vision for the church. We now see the devastating effects of prejudice against the Jews. We now see the violence that came with the church supporting European colonization. Why would we assume that our blinders are now off? I want to suggest and explore the possibility that there is indeed a sort of antagonism or conflict in this morning’s text; a conflict in the Bible, and in our faith.
If change is to happen then at some point a difference must be introduced. I want to suggest that it may actually be our inability to enter into and live out of that conflict or difference that can lead to the sort of horrors that the church must own up to and confess in repentance.
There are two ways we can interpret Peter’s sermon. One way of reading the text, which has become the church’s dominant manner of reading the text, is to view the good news, to view our faith as being in conflict with expressions external to the church. This is understandable and in many instances it is necessary. We cannot deny that Jesus set himself in opposition to the powers and practices of the Roman government and to the abuses of religious power. It seems that whenever power became oppressive and binding Jesus stood in conflict with them having his life create a different space in which people could see past the forms of slavery that they experienced. So conflict and antagonism are not bad. The good news is powerful because it makes a difference. The good news of Jesus is powerful because it enters a situation as a difference and provides opportunities for freedom in opposition to destructive powers. So our faith does call us to external conflict. Our faith calls us to figure out how to break off from certain structures and expressions in the world. There are times when our faith should produce a difference.
But there is a temptation in viewing our faith as creating only external conflicts; of creating only a difference of those inside and outside. This is a temptation I already alluded to. It did not take the church long to shift from viewing itself as an expression coming from within Judaism to an expression in opposition to Judaism. Jews came to represent a group that not only rejected Jesus but was the group that killed Jesus. Jews came to be viewed as a threat and a challenge to the church in their ongoing refusal of the Christian Messiah presented to them. And so in the first centuries the church quickly took up the task of naming, identifying, and excluding not only Judaism but other religions as well as rooting out heresies within the church. There were centuries of conflict caught up in figuring out what the implications of this new expression; of naming the differences that should be external to the church.
So Jesus lived within Judaism as a Jew and lived in external conflict with the powers of the Roman government. The church, however, moved in the opposite direction and eventually moved within and inhabited the powers of the Roman government and lived in conflict with Judaism as something external. The church accepted the powers of the state and used them, at times viciously, against what it perceived as inferior or hostile religions. It seems that the church became obsessed only with understanding how it was different than everything else around it.
As I mentioned earlier this is one way of reading Peter; that Peter was externalizing the conflict that our faith calls us to; that Peter was creating an external difference between himself and the Jews. This would be a wrong reading of our text. Jesus indeed calls individuals and community to establish external differences. To follow Jesus is enter into a sort of antagonism or conflict with the world at times. However, the conflict is not only external; it does not only create a difference outside of us. In this speech Peter is calling his fellow Israelites to another sort of conflict; another sort of difference.
It cannot be emphasized enough in saying that Peter’s speech comes from within Judaism. He speaks of the God of their shared faith. He names the audience as the people of God’s covenant blessing. The chapter begins with Peter and John going to the Temple to pray. So what is Peter doing then by placing this guilt, or perhaps more specifically this conflict of Jesus the Messiah squarely on their shoulders? What Peter is doing is asking the crowd to consider facing the conflict and difference of Jesus as Peter himself had to. Peter is asking them to internalize this difference.
Twice Peter tells the crowd that they rejected Jesus. This is the same word used when Peter denied or rejected Jesus three times at the end of Gospels. There are surprisingly few stories that are preserved in all four Gospels but Peter’s denial of Jesus is one of them. And considering that the book of Acts was originally written as the second half of the Gospel of Luke it is hard to imagine that those listening to Peter’s accusation at the beginning of Acts would not recall Peter’s own rejection at the end of Luke. So what is happening here? Remember I said that there is a need at times to externalize conflict; to create a boundary of difference like in the way that Jesus opposed destructive expressions of power. There is, however, an equally important need to internalize the conflict, to integrate the difference of Jesus. There is a need to remind ourselves that we are not the fixed and pure community of the faithful facing the big bad world.
In some ways this sort of thinking seems unexceptional. After all the church has always had prophetic voices that stood against corrupt expressions. Some Christians fled to the desert and started monasteries when Christianity became the Roman religion. In the sixteenth century reformers broke with the Catholic church in response to perceived corruptions. There may still be something missing in these expressions. Particularly in the Reformation and in the Mennonite strand of the Reformation there was a belief in returning to ‘origins’; in re-establishing the form and vision of the so-called pure or early church. There is a sense of trying to restore some essence that was holy and untarnished. While this approach has provided many insights and correctives it seems to fall into the same cycle of believing that once we have ‘found’ or ‘re-covered’ this form of being the true church then we implicitly or explicitly externalize conflict and preserve this pure form. So long as we believe there is some true or spotless form of church, or for that matter some image of the ‘perfect family’ or the ideal life we will likely remain unable to accept other possible forms or we will continue to feel rejected as something inferior or ‘different’.
But what if there is, or perhaps better stated, what if there never was a ‘pure church’ to recover, no essence that we could somehow embody? I am not we can’t learn good things about the early church. But what if the church has only ever existed in its ability to discern how Jesus surfaces, becomes incarnate, in the conflicts within the world and within ourselves? How is Jesus continually making differences that we might become aware of? How do we allow these differences without and differences within shape the very way we understand the church and our faith?
There is no easy solution here. There remains the perpetual work of discernment and decisions; the work of honest observations and strong and humble actions. And in this process there will be two temptations. On temptation will be in vigorously keeping difference external to us thinking we are preserving something noble or sacred. The other temptation will be to deny conflict and difference thinking that is all the same, that everything is somehow equal or relative. Neither of these options allows for the difference that Jesus makes, the difference Jesus continues to make, the reality that Jesus comes as difference.
So what is this difference of Jesus? What does it mean to say that Jesus comes as difference? Jesus comes as the difference between life with death. Peter gives a unique name to Jesus when addressing his audience. He says that they rejected the author of life; the life-giving one. Peter asks them to internalize this difference so that they might see if in fact they are blocking the path or flow of life in fear of the power of death. After all that is why Peter rejected Jesus earlier, for fear of the power of death that Rome held. So the difference of Jesus is that there would be nothing that is not allowed access to the difference of his life, the difference of life itself.
I think in the church we like to reflect on passages like Acts 2 because it gives us the belief that there was once something pure that we could achieve or possess or at least hold on to for our identity. We do this in nearly every area of life. There remains the notion of a ‘perfect’ family, an ideal lifestyle, the right body. But these are false moves if we isolate and idealize them. In themselves these images only ever externalize the conflict. So churches institutionalize their traditions because they think that will preserve what once was. Families put on a façade of what they think they should be but end up nurturing destructive patterns. And those who are completely unable to conform to these fabricated images are then cast out as inferior and suffer the consequences. There was no pure church and there was never a perfect family. And do you what? That is good news. If we allow that good news to sink in it may just release us from the burden of living up to something that never existed. It may just open us to Jesus who comes as the difference that allows us to conceive and birth visions of life.
Peter asks us to internalize that difference. Peter reminds us that there can be no church in Acts chapter two without the call to keep open the difference in chapter 3. Peter asks us whether our lives and our church will remain open to the author of life who cares about our traditions, practices, and beliefs only, only to the extent that they introduce and nurture what is life-giving. This is good news. It is news because it will come as something we did not know or see. It comes as difference. It is good because it brings life. That is the church’s only calling, as it is ours. Amen.