A Vision of Forgiveness
Sermon by Wesley White, Interim Pastor
Milton United Methodist Church
July 3, 2005

Acts 2:14-41 

I spent this last week at ConneXions Camp for Leadership Development of Senior High Youth. It was my privilege to work with youth in preparing a preaching experience for 400+ United Methodists at Noah’s Ark last Friday.

John Wesley called gospel preaching an “awakening experience.” This past week was such an experience for the youth and for myself as we focused on GOD’s call in our lives.

The youth at ConneXions Camp were awakened and renewed when they remembered that GOD’s call is not just a private matter, but intended to build up the common good. They preached that, put that in the ears of their listeners. By sharing each other’s “GOD calls” with the congregation on Friday they rejoiced in one another’s gifts. To do that they needed to listen to one another carefully about their experience of GOD and check with one another to see they had heard correctly. These are community building skills every congregation can benefit from.

Today we listen in to Peter’s preaching a long time ago in the Acts of the Apostles and find the same reality the we find they youth of today find – folks awakening to a vision of forgiveness and responding by joining their lives together. A sign of commitment to this new community is baptism.

Peter is recorded as using an unusual word for “listening” that will be helpful to us as we do what we can to live up to passing on to others the gift of awakening we have received. The Greek word Peter used for listening means, “let me place it into your ears.”

While we have a responsibility to listen as well as we can to the movement of GOD’s Spirit and words and deeds of the Church (meaning also, one another other as sisters and brothers of Jesus), we can only listen for that which is present. I will do my best to place some Good News in your ear this morning. I trust you will do your best to receive it.

Peter’s preaching is a midrash or reflection on the scriptures that had come down to him. It is important to note that Peter makes two significant changes in the scripture from the prophet Joel. Of most importance today is the way in which Peter edits out of Joel a prophecy of GOD’s judgment of the nations in order to underscore Pentecost as a redemptive event. Peter focuses more on GOD’s mercy than on GOD’s judgment, more on forgiveness than on punishment.

When we consider the way in which we are to live forward from the scriptures we can hear in Peter’s preaching a promise that our own renewal as individuals and a congregation will come as we both catch and live out of the gift of forgiveness. As the hymn-writer puts it, “Freely, freely, you have received, freely, freely give.”

Much can be made of the inclusiveness of the prophetic and forgiven community that Peter preaches about. Later Peter will have an experience that will make concrete what he is saying here. And later Paul will confirm this inclusiveness by declaring that there are no more divisions among us.

Peter and Paul help us see what Jesus was talking about and demonstrating through his living — that all might be saved. Peter and Paul show us the issues they were wrestling with — dietary laws, circumcision, class distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. They help us be willing to wrestle with two key issues in our day— patriotism and homosexuality—and how we label and exclude people. It is so easy for us to claim that those who vote differently from us are unpatriotic and those who love differently from us are incompatible with Christian teaching. Peter’s larger picture can see dissent as patriotic and love as love, no matter who is loving and who is loved.

Peter’s sermon brings to us a fresh understanding of what happens when the Spirit of a Living and Loving GOD moves among us. We are granted a larger vision than we had before. This is in keeping with Jesus’ understanding that this Spirit will lead us into new areas that were too difficult for us before. We can join Jesus in compassionately breaking Sabbath rules, because the Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath. We can join Peter in breaking dietary laws, because GOD has created everything well. We can join Peter and Paul in breaking the circumcision rule, because the Spirit lives in people’s hearts, not their skin. We can join Paul in breaking class rules, because we are now all one in Christ, the old has passed away and the new has come, our minds have been transformed by the presence of a living Jesus Christ.

Peter is very clear that what Jesus began did not end with his crucifixion but continues in his resurrection and ascension absence under the direction of the Holy Spirit in the life and community of this congregation and congregations like us who take Jesus’ life seriously, but not literally.

It was no accident that the people listening to Peter in his day experienced awe and wonder. It was the result of a transformed vision of reality and commitment to new life. The experience of that early crowd is still available to you and to me and to us as a congregation. As the crowd hears Peter’s sermon, they are cut to the heart. They recognize they have missed the mark and have centered their lives on false values. In their despair, they ask, “what should we do?” And Peter’s response is simple, “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.”

Those of us who have been physically baptized need to continue, day-by-day and moment-by-moment, to turn around, choose abundant life, let go of bondage to the past, turn to our brothers and sisters, and be born again as a child of God. Christ is the way of transformation. Though the burden of the past is heavy, simply saying, “Yes,” to God, again today, changes everything. Freedom is always conditioned, but – like the “butterfly effect” of chaos theory – the smallest decisions can become a tipping point between life and death, between despair and hope.

Peter is still placing an openness to forgiveness in our ears today, an allowing God to transform us as we make our attempts to orient our lives toward God. We are good people but we do need a renewal of commitment to eliminate everything that blocks God’s creative energy that separates us from those we love and that alienates us from the stranger and the vulnerable. We are called to be revived by God’s loving grace so it will flow through us, completely and without reservation, so that we might be channels of grace to others. “Conversion” is the moment by moment conscious alignment with God’s aim at beauty, justice, and love. It is always a process, never a single event, and so Peter’s preaching is still reaching out to us today.

Peter’s preaching is simple:  You are the ones who have not lived up to Jesus’ call upon your life!  Repent and renew your baptism and save yourselves from a crooked generation.

If Peter’s preaching has been put in your ear this morning, you have heard that repentance is the internal, intellectual, and emotional act of exchanging old beliefs for new ones. We cannot live up to this by living private lives. Next week we will hear that we need to be part of an on-going process of repentance in the midst of a committed fellowship of people who attend to these teachings and to daily prayer.

I invite you to return to learn more about how GOD and Jesus continue to give everyone and every nation a next chance to be restored to GOD’s intention that all will be saved. 

A Prayer for Healing and Wholeness.

All loving and creative God, whose love bursts forth in the birth of galaxies and in the birth of every child, we thank you that in all things you aim at healing and abundant life.

We thank you for our Savior Jesus, who welcomed outcasts, who healed the sick, who broke down the barriers of race, gender, age, and class, and who gave new life to those whose spirits had died. We thank you that Jesus’ healing touch lives on as we touch one another in love and service. We thank you that whenever we reach out to others in love, healing energy is released and miracles burst forth for ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities.

God of resurrection and transformation, forgive us when we turn away from your healing power and succumb to the powers of alienation and fear. Forgive us when we neglect the vulnerable and dying. Challenge our hopelessness to change ourselves and our world by your vision of possibility and transformation. Help us to expect great things of ourselves and of your presence in our lives.

Loving God, give us the power and the faith to trust you in all things. Enable us, O resurrection God, to share New Life in each hopeless place. Let our lives shine with your healing light and loving life. In the name of Christ the Healer. Amen.

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The New Interpreter's Bible, "Acts" by Robert W. Wall

The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

“Hope and Healing”, Process & Faith Lectionary Commentary http://www.ctr4process.org/pandf/lectionary/April%2010,%202005.htm

Homily Grits  http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/homilygrits/msg00046.html