Reverend David Melville
Francis Asbury United Methodist Church, Baton Rouge, LA
Sunday, June 11, 2017
I – and I bet most pastors – have always had a little sermon envy when we read in Acts that after Peter presented his first sermon, on the Day of Pentecost, about three thousand souls were converted and energized from whatever belief system they had to being a follower of Jesus Christ. A pretty powerful sermon I would say. Perhaps this sermon is worthy of repeating, and I’d like to so today on the first Sunday after Pentecost, and on a Sunday when we have the privilege once again of receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Here is Peter’s sermon: [Acts 2: 14-41]
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who are in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him:
‘I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’”
“Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’”
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brother, what shall we do?”
Peter replied, “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. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
With many other words, he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
Recognition and gratitude for the Holy Spirit
The first reason Peter’s sermon was so impactful was that it included proper recognition of and gratitude for the Holy Spirit. As I mentioned last Sunday, the Holy Spirit is not always a given in United Methodist sermons and is not always a given in our individual lives. Sermons are more alive, and we are more alive when we have the fruits of the Spirit within us. Perhaps the Holy Spirt has too often been a missing piece — one which we as disciples of Jesus Christ desperately need to find in order to make other disciples, which is exactly what Jesus asked us to do in the Great Commission … Matthew 28: 19-20. How in the world are we going to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” if we don’t have the Holy Spirit?
According to Peter (who was quoting from the prophet Joel), visions and dreams and prophesy will come from the Holy Spirit. Those are mighty exciting things to offer someone, and preachers do so when we offer the Holy Spirit. Every aspect of our lives needs visions, dreams, and prophecy, or our lives remain stagnant. I bet the best days of Francis Asbury United Methodist Church were and will be those in which the Holy Spirit is present, and I bet the best days of your lives have been and will be those in which you are in sync with the Holy Spirit. But we must be open to it.
Maybe that’s why thousands were moved to action on the Day of Pentecost following Peter’s sermon: Peter was merely a vessel containing the Holy Spirit, and that vessel tipped over and spilled almost literally all over the crowd.
The second reason Peter’s sermon about Jesus was so exciting and impactful was that now Peter could boldly proclaim to all who had ears to hear that Jesus had defeated death. By reminding his listeners that it was “impossible for death to keep its hold” on Jesus, Peter reminded his listeners that it was now impossible for death to keep its hold on them. This was good news for those assembled, and good news that we take for granted after millennia of funeral services which comfort us and assure us that we are risen to eternal life, just like Jesus.
Before Jesus’s death and resurrection God’s people were kind of uncertain about what happened to their souls and bodies when their time on Earth was over. Even the final destination of patriarch and king, David, was indeterminate. But King David’s psalms foretold his descendent, Jesus,’ ultimate victory over all enemies, including death, and David’s psalms foretold Jesus sitting in heaven at the right hand of God the Father. Peter told the people this, and they were excited. Have I told you this lately?
Peter’s comforting words and promise of eternal life through Christ led at least three thousand individuals to ask, “Where do I sign up?” That kind of excitement always makes for a more exciting sermon and service. Are you going to let death keep a hold on you? Don’t! Why not sign up today!?
Lights, Camera, Action!
Thirdly, a great speech or “Ted Talk” or sermon is one which leads the listener to action. As the familiar saying goes, “I’d rather be a sermon than hear a sermon any day.” So the final part of a great sermon and a great day in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost was not solely on the part of the preacher, Peter, but also on the part of the people. After Peter had patiently told the crowds the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection … a very compelling story, and many hearing it for the first time … they were inquisitive enough and humble enough to ask, “What shall we do?” Lights, camera, action!
In his answer to the question, “What shall we do?” Peter echoed the words of John the Baptist by telling the crowd to do two things: repent and be baptized. Nothing had changed from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry to the end.
Which comes first – the chicken or the egg? Do you act upon my message because my message is so exciting, or does my message become more meaningful and exciting because you act upon it?
Today’s message and service will be more powerful if you repent for one or more sins going on in your life today. I’m going to pause right now and ask you to silently name and confess one sin that has a foothold in your life. If you are hard pressed to do this, I doubt anything I say today will be exciting, meaningful and remembered. [Pause and silently confess to at least one sin going on in your life right now.]
It has been said that confession is good for the soul. Confession is the first step toward release and forgiveness of the sins weighing you down. If United Methodist preachers can constantly convince you of the peace and freedom of forgiveness, as Peter did, perhaps more people will attend our services, find them compelling and exciting, and act upon them by being baptized. One half of United Methodist churches in Louisiana did not have a single baptism since last Annual Conference. I guess the 52 sermons prepared and presented in those churches – despite hard work and the best of intentions — were not sufficiently “Peteresque.” Maybe we should keep striving to model the simple sermon delivered by Peter on the Day of Pentecost, 33 A.D.
Peter pleaded with those gathered to “save yourself from this corrupt generation.” Now I’m not going to use those words with you this morning; not gonna do it … wouldn’t be prudent. The words “save yourself from this corrupt generation” would just fly over your head and out to Old Hammond Highway. But I am going to plead for you to be in this world, but not of the world. If as an Easter person you are not different in at least one way from the average American, then I doubt anything I have to say each Sunday will be exciting, meaningful or remembered.
Peter concluded by asking –as John the Baptist had – for each and every one who repented of their sin, and who accepted and appreciated what he had just said about Jesus of Nazareth … Peter asked these new brand new believers to be baptized.
Now it’s your turn to say “A ha, preacher! I’m way ahead of you. Baptized? Been there, done that. Why I’ve been baptized for more years than I can remember.” But that’s part of the reason for the declining relevance of Christianity in the modern world: we fail to remember our baptism. And there may be some in the room who can’t remember your baptism because there hasn’t been one.
If you have not been baptized I urged you to accept John the Baptist and Jesus’ and Peter’s and my invitation. Do so not in order to earn anything or just to check another item off of your scriptural bucket list. Be baptized because Jesus asks you to be baptized when we ask Him, “What shall we do?” If you have been baptized, I urge you to remember your baptism. I urge you to feel the excitement and feel the Holy Spirit again for the first time. If you don’t remember and live out your baptism, it is as if you were never baptized.
If you’ll do these things, not only will today be especially exciting – after all, Sundays, when we have a baptism, are always exciting and special. But additionally, you will find this sermon as exciting and as impactful as Peter’s sermon on Pentecost evidently was.
Maybe I’m wrong – maybe I’m trying to deflect pressure off of preachers, maybe I’m just trying to pass the buck — but I believe Peter’s sermon that day was one of the best, partially because of him, but also because of Jesus’ wonderful story, partially because of the Holy Spirit, and partially because of those who stood and paid attention, those who really listened, and those who asked the right question for all Christians … not only, “In whom shall we believe”? but equally as important, “What shall we do?” “Now that we believe, what shall we do?”
The Sacrament of Holy Communion
And now we once again come to the Table to receive a sacrament which can be just as exciting and just as impactful as Peter’s sermon. After all, the sacrament of Holy Communion is basically a “mini” sermon. For our Catholic brothers and sisters, it is the entire service! The sacrament has all the same elements as the sermon which woke people up on Pentecost and propelled them to a life-changing response.
The sacrament is saturated with the Holy Spirit; indeed it is not complete without it; the sacrament is not possible without it. We pray for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us. The sacrament is also foretaste of a heavenly banquet … i.e. eternal life. How? Because “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” Death has been defeated! That’s good news! Finally, the sacrament is about repenting and about being forgiven. We take all of this for granted, we treat it as “ho-hum.” But to anyone lacking spiritual fire and passion in their life, to anyone scared of dying, and to anyone weighed down by sin and guilt, the sacrament and a sermon about it are exciting and impactful and worthy of a response. May we as United Methodist preachers keep telling the story in the most exciting and impactful and Spirit-filled way that we can!
Featured Image Source: Lorenzo Veneziano [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons