But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say…”
It’s the Day of Pentecost, and you’ve heard just the beginning of that story from Acts, chapter two. I want you to hear the rest of the story, but I want you to hear it from the Apostle Peter, who was actually there. This is not a continuation of my Easter Season sermon series, “the Well-Remembered Word,” because it is not a first-person narrative about Jesus, but it is a first-person narrative about the Holy Spirit. So, if you will give me just a second to slip into character, I’ll come back to the pulpit as Peter himself. Yes?
Well, good morning! It’s a pleasure to be with you, and I’m grateful for the chance to share some of my story. As you know I am not “the Beloved Disciple” (that would be John), but I think I may be everybody’s favorite disciple, mostly because they can relate to me: I’m not perfect; I’ve made some mistakes. But if I have it’s because I’m a whole-hearted person.[i] I followed Jesus with my whole heart. I wanted to make him proud, and for that reason I sometimes leaped before I looked, and sometimes spoke before I thought. Like that time on the road near Caesarea Philippi, when he was asking us who we thought he was and I just blurted it out: “You’re the Messiah!” It’s what everybody else was thinking, but nobody else said it. I did, and Jesus blessed me for it. But then he began to talk about going to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die and, honestly, I could not imagine that happening to the Messiah. So I said that, too. And this time he cursed me. He said, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are not thinking the things of God but the things of men.” And that stung, because the truth is I wasn’t thinking at all; I was feeling; I was speaking from the heart.
And I’m sure you’ve heard about that other time—the time I denied Jesus. It grieves me to think of it even now, but that, too, came from the heart. When Jesus said that he would be arrested and all of us would abandon him I said, “Not me!” Those words leaped out of my mouth. I said, “Even if I have to die with you I will not abandon you!” And Jesus turned to me with a sad look on his face, as if he knew just how much I wanted to follow him and just how miserably I would fail. But this time he didn’t say it like a curse, he said it like the truth: “Before the cock crows tomorrow morning you will have denied me three times.” And that made me even more determined not to do it. But again it was my heart, my fearful heart, that did me in. After his arrest I got as close to Jesus as I could without actually being in the courtroom with him. They were in there, accusing him of every crime they could invent, and I was out there in the courtyard, warming my hands over the fire, when some servant girl recognized me and said, “You’re one of his disciples!”
Judas betrayed Jesus, but my heart betrayed me. In that moment when I should have stood up to her, when I should have said, “Yes, I’m his disciple, and I’m not ashamed to say so!” my fearful heart leapt into my throat. It did the talking for me. And what it said was, “I don’t even know the man.” I’m ashamed to say it. I’m ashamed to say my fearful heart did it two more times, and when the cock crowed it realized what it had done and broke into a million tiny pieces. I ran out of that courtyard sobbing, the tears running down my face “like rain down a rock,”[ii] because I was Peter: I was “the Rock.” But in that moment I couldn’t imagine how Jesus could ever build a church on a pile of rubble like me.
It was later, much later—after he had died and risen, and shown himself to us—that he showed himself again, while we were fishing. John was the first to recognize him. We thought he was just some stranger on the beach, but when he told us to cast our nets on the other side, and we did, and we caught that boatload full of fish, John said, “It is the Lord!” And I was embarrassed. I was stripped down for work. I didn’t want him to see me that way but I wanted to see him so I put my clothes back on and then jumped in the water (do you see what I mean about sometimes leaping before I looked?) But when I got to shore I didn’t know what to do. I was still so mortified by the memory of my denial I couldn’t even look him in the eye. But Jesus knew what to do. He always seemed to know what to do. He said, “Let’s take a walk.” And walking down the beach that way, beside the sea, I didn’t have to look at him and he didn’t have to look at me. He said, “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” And that hurt so much—that he would have to ask. But I told him the truth, I said, “Lord, you know that I love you.” And then he asked me again, and then again, and each time I said the same thing, “Lord, you know me. You know everything about me. You know how much I love you!” But somehow saying it out loud like that three times seemed to undo the damage of those three denials. It filled up the hole I had dug for myself with three, big shovels full of love. And at the end of all that he proved that he is the God of the Second Chance, because he said to me what he had said in the very beginning: “Follow me.” And this time I was determined not to let him down.
So, just before he ascended into heaven, when he told us to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the power from on high, I made up my mind that I was going to do it. Not my heart, mind you—my mind. It was my heart that was always getting me in trouble. I thought I would have better luck with my mind. But don’t you know that as soon as we got back to that upper room my mind told me that what we needed was a disciple to replace Judas. I wish I had waited on that. I wish I had waited until it became clear to all of us that the Lord had picked his own replacement disciple, and that the one he had picked was Paul. But no, I was trusting my mind, and my mind told me something had to be done right away. So we drew lots and picked Matthias and he was a good choice, but looking back, I don’t think he was God’s choice. You never hear from him again in the Bible, do you? No. But you hear a lot about Paul. I think your pastor is going to be talking about Paul this summer; I’ll leave that up to him. What I want to tell you about this morning is what happened next.
As Luke so accurately reported in the second chapter of Acts, we were all together in one place, in that same, large upper room where we had shared our last meal with Jesus. We were waiting and praying for the promised power from on high. We had been waiting and praying for ten days, and some of us were on the verge of giving up. Some had given up and gone home. But 120 of us were still packed into that upper room praying in shifts so that there wouldn’t be a moment when we weren’t praying. And then, on the Day of Pentecost, just before nine o’clock in the morning, it happened. We began to hear a sound like I used to hear when I was out fishing on the Sea of Galilee, when the wind came roaring through the Valley of the Doves and onto the water with such force it could capsize a fishing boat. But this wind came roaring through the room where we were praying, through closed windows and locked doors. This wind swirled around us and among us and when we sucked in our breath we sucked it into our lungs, and that’s when we found out that it wasn’t wind at all, it was breath:
It was the breath of God.
I looked around and saw something that looked like flames dancing over people’s heads, like they were literally on fire for the Lord, but that was nothing compared to the light that was shining from their faces. They were lit up from the inside—I was lit up—by the glory of God, the shekinah, and if you’ve never had that experience I don’t know that I can explain it. But I’ll tell you this: we couldn’t contain it. That room couldn’t contain it. We spilled out into the streets whooping and laughing and babbling like idiots, but in other languages. We didn’t know where that came from. We were looking around at each other like, “I didn’t know you spoke Egyptian!” “Well, I didn’t know you spoke Arabic!” But mostly we were just looking toward heaven, and praising God for his mighty acts in whatever language leapt from our lips.
The commotion brought a crowd together, faithful Jews from every nation under heaven, and all of them could hear and understand what we were saying in their own languages. They were amazed. But some bystander who didn’t understand anything said, “Look at this bunch of drunks!” And that’s when I finally understood. In that moment I knew it wasn’t that we were full of intoxicating spirits, but that we were full of the Holy Spirit. The same spirit that had been in Jesus, the one that had filled him with such incredible wisdom and power, was now in us—in all of us! And in that moment I knew why Jesus had to leave us: because as long as he was with us the Spirit could only be in him, but once he returned to the Father that same Spirit could be poured out on all of us. And you’re right: none of us got as much of it as he did. Jesus was full of the Spirit like the ocean is full of water. Each of us got only a little, maybe no more than a spoonful, but in my case, at least, that was enough. It was powerful stuff! Suddenly, all those old, earthly fears were gone, and my muddled human thoughts were replaced by God’s own truth. I scrambled to the top step of the building where we were gathered so I could address the crowd.
“Men of Judea,” I said, “and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (Acts 2:14-18, 21).
The sermon went on longer than that. It turns out I had a lot to say, or, rather, the Spirit did. I told them about Jesus, the Messiah, the one they nailed to the cross, the one God raised from the dead. I quoted the Scriptures as if I had memorized them. I made sense of things that until that moment had been a mystery even to me. But when I was finished that crowd was cut to the heart. They stood there in shocked silence until someone said, “Brothers, what should we do?” I said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away.” And do you know how your pastor gives an altar call at the end of the service, and on a good day two or three people come down the aisle? Well, I’m not bragging—after all, it wasn’t me, it was the Holy Spirit—but that day three thousand people came down the aisle asking to be baptized. And that’s what we did: we went to the Pool of Bethesda and baptized them. At first it was only me since I was the one who suggested it, but have you ever tried to baptize three thousand people? Do you know how tired your arms get? Soon all the rest of the apostles were in the water, baptizing right along with me. We got the job done, and a lot of people went home wet and happy that day. We went home wet, happy, and worn out from all those baptisms, but what a reason to rejoice!
Friends, that happened nearly two thousand years ago, but I’m here today to tell you there is still reason to rejoice. The Spirit of God is still moving among his people. And when you open yourself to that Spirit, when you stop resisting it because you like to be in charge, when you close your eyes and fill your lungs with the divine Breath—with the wisdom and power of God—things will never be the same.
If it were not so, would I have told you?
—Jim Somerville © 2023
[i] In The Gifts of Imperfection Brené Brown writes: “Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” I think Peter could have said that very thing.
[ii] Frederick Buechner, “Peter,” in Peculiar Treasures