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The Family Surprise

Acts 2: 29-37

            This morning’s reading picks up where we left off last week: the Apostle Peter is preaching to a diverse crowd gathered for the Festival of Weeks in Jerusalem.  The Holy Spirit has been poured out on the disciples of Jesus, empowering them to proclaim the wonders of God in new languages. Last week we saw how Peter recognized the fulfillment of the proclamation of the prophet Joel.  As his sermon goes on, he makes a declaration that startles and amazes the crowd. Our reading comes from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, verses 29-37.

29 “Brothers and sisters, I can speak confidently about the patriarch David. He died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this very day.30 Because he was a prophet, he knew that God promised him with a solemn pledge to seat one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Having seen this beforehand, David spoke about the resurrection of Christ, that he wasn’t abandoned to the grave, nor did his body experience decay.[c]32 This Jesus God raised up. We are all witnesses to that fact. 33 He was exalted to God’s right side and received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit. He poured out this Spirit, and you are seeing and hearing the results of his having done so. 34 David didn’t ascend into heaven. Yet he says,

The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right side,
35     until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’[d]

36 “Therefore, let all Israel know beyond question that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

37 When the crowd heard this, they were deeply troubled. They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”


            Now, as is always the case, there is a lot going on here in this brief passage.  Peter turns from the prophet Joel to the 16th Psalm, and then compares Jesus to Israel’s Golden King: King David.  But the part that I hope really grabs your attention is the climax of the sermon.  “Therefore,” says Peter –which is always a clue in the Bible that here is the point of the whole thing—“therefore, let all Israel know beyond question that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

            This announcement shocks the crowd.  The English translation we read says that they were “deeply troubled;” but the imagery the Greek gives us is that their hearts were run through –the core of their being was pierced by Peter’s declaration.

            I couldn’t help but notice, as I read through this story –that no one even blinked as I read the culminating line of Peter’s sermon.  In fact, as I looked up at that moment, it kind of seemed like everyone’s eyes were like glazed over. 

            Yeah, yeah, Jesus is Lord and Christ and God.  He is the Wonderful Counselor, Lord of Life, Lord of all, Prince of Peace, mighty God, holy one, Emmanuel, Emmanuel! (For all of you Amy Grant fans out there. By the way, that is the whole song! Repeated five times.)

             Today, we could not imagine anything less shocking than to say that Jesus is Lord and Christ. Might as well stand up and declare that water is wet, right?

            But back then, though, this was a revolutionary revelation –in the most literal sense of the word. It was so revolutionary, such a big moment in history, that a millennia-spanning movement, comprised of billions of people still uses one of those terms as its primary identifier today.  We don’t call ourselves ‘Jesusians’, do we?  No, we call ourselves “Christians” —Christ-ians.  And most of us have never even bothered to wonder about this before, because Christ-ship and Lordship and Jesus are so closely bound together in our understanding and experience that we’ve never seen a need to draw a distinction.  In our heads, they all point in the same direction.

            But it was a different story for Peter’s audience back then.  Where we only have a singular identification with the word ‘Christ,’ which is Jesus- they would have had several.  Remember, “Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah” –both terms mean the same thing.  They mean: “anointed one.”  And there were primarily two groups of people who were anointed in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible: Priests and kings (and also the prophet Elisha). At the time of their inauguration, oil would be poured or rubbed on the heads of the appointed men to confer God’s favor. 

            More specifically though, when they talk about the Messianic hope, the Jewish people living under Roman rule weren’t looking for another priest or another mere political personality, they were looking for a God-anointed kingThis is a big part of the story of Israel: after Moses –in the time of the Judges, Israel lost its way, because it lost its relationship with God.  So the people begged God to appoint a king over them to stand as a mediator between them and God. And in this way, the king would have a special relationship with God –in a way similar to Moses- and lead the people on the behalf of God.  But if you remember this story, that was what the people wanted, and not what God wanted. You can find all of this in 1 Kings.  But God relents, and appoints the first King: Saul.  This did not go well.  So God sends the Prophet Samuel to anoint a new King: a shepherd boy from the tribe of Benjamin, named David.  And through David, for the first and almost only time in its history, Israel was a unified nation. King David –a man after God’s own heart- led Israel to its golden age, and they have been waiting for another king like that, ever since. 

            If we follow the records through the Hebrew Bible, we’ll find there were some okay kings, and a whole lot of terrible kings, and that eventually the Assyrians and Babylonians come along and destroy Israel and send the Judeans into exile. So, by the time we get to Peter’s sermon in Acts, all that is left of God’s chosen nation of Israel is the remnant of Judah, the Southern kingdom.  And they have suffered under foreign empires for over 500 years.  They are a people without a land.  They are a nation that has been reduced to a mere ethnic group. And they have anxiously waiting to be delivered like their God had promised.

            ‘If only God would anoint another king like David!  Then we could cast off the yoke of our Roman oppressors!’ 

            And here Peter announces that the anointed one has come –in fact this is the one whom their favorite king has called ‘master!’  His name is Jesus, and they crucified him.  They murdered their own hope, because God had made Jesus both their Christ and their Lord.

            Before we move on, we have to point out a few things about the title, “Lord.”  This is a particularly confusing term for us, because we call God, “Lord,” and our culture has made its more immediate and practical application obsolete. Democracy has no room for lords.  So when we hear Peter calling Jesus ‘Lord’ probably most of us imagine he’s saying Jesus is divine, if we think of it at all.  But that’s not what the term means.  In the Greek, the word is “kurios” (koo-ree-os), and it is a familial term.  It signifies an individual who is the head of their family household.  The kurios is the top authority of a local estate.  He owns the land.  He represents the family in public and in politics.  He is responsible for taking care of, and protecting, those under his charge: children, relatives, servants, and so on.  If you remember the parable we shared last month of the Prodigal Father: the dad in the story was a kurios in the most literal sense of the word. 

            This is important to understand, because the family –or the tribe- was the most basic social unit of that day and age.  Social order was not built by a system of individuals, it was built by a system of families.  Individuals and empires came and went, but families endured.  So your household was your tie to the land, and to the local government, and the economy –it was the thing that held everything together. So it goes without saying, if you didn’t have a ‘lord’ you didn’t have a political voice or identity.  Then, of course, there is a more complicated ordering of families: a hierarchy of families run the village or city; and then the cities form alliances to make a nation; and then when nations cooperate, it’s called an empire –and throughout the whole thing is an intricate system of Lords, who represent respective families. Do we see how this worked?

            So when Peter announces to this diverse crowd of Jews that God has made Jesus both the “Christ” and the “Lord” of the “house” of Israel, he is saying something they had never imagined before.  He is connecting two distinct things that they thought were unbridgeable worlds apart. It’d be like if he told me personally that Jesus was both Superman and my grandma.  The Christ is a global deliverer: it’s the vehicle through which God enters human history to cast off insurmountable foreign powers –be it in the form of sin or the sword.  And a Lord, on the other hand –man, everybody has a Lord!  Maybe for you it’s a parent; maybe it’s your boss –but everyone his beholden to someone.  In my family it’s my grandma.  She’s the one who holds the extended family together, and she does all she can to take care of, and love, all of us!  And we do not dare disappoint Grandma!

            Now, putting those two titles side-by-side might have been unsettling enough: to say that the cosmic and the imminent have converged; but what makes Peter’s proclamation truly heart-rending is the interjection: yeah, you know the one you crucified!  Here Peter is naming a conspiracy.  No one person killed Jesus; his execution was a communal effort.  The ‘anointed’ of Israel –the priests, along with the tribal lords put Jesus on trial, and then partnered with ROME to have Jesus killed. And the crowd –right there in the streets of Jerusalem, cheered for his death.  ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!  Crucify him!’  No one –not even the disciples themselves- lifted a hand or opened their mouths to stand up for Jesus.  With the silence of their fear or their apathy, they gave their consent. 

            “Therefore, let all Israel know beyond question that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” 

            Because of its jealousy, fear, and apathy Peter reveals that the city of Jerusalem simultaneously conspired against God and undermined their own household by having Jesus crucified.  Through their actions and inactions, which paved the way to the cross, they both burnt their bridge with the Creator and chopped the head off of their own tribe.  In short, they pulled their own chord out of the wall. 

            So of course they were deeply troubled –their hearts were pierced.  A cosmic event happened right before their eyes, and they missed it!  They saw, but they did not recognize. They witnessed, but they did not understand. The Jesus they killed is the one God has made both Lord and Christ. 

            “When the crowd heard this, they were deeply troubled.  They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

            I hear that line and I think of us. Here we are as church people in the 21st century and we’re witnessing again Christ’s crucifixion. Some of us are even actively participating in it.  We can see the Church –Christ’s earthly body- dying before our eyes. People are abandoning the family communities, and our wise elders and lords are peacefully passing away without successors.  Fear and tension and apathy undermine from within, while scorn and resentment assault from without. And many of us can feel the strength leaving its limbs. 

            But you don’t even need to be a Christian, or care about the church to notice what’s happening.  Here in America our own families are crumbling –or at the very least, simply getting smaller. Gone are the days where grandparents and aunts and uncles all live together –either in the same house, or on the same street. Gone are the days when couples had as many kids as they could.  Fading too are the days where the standard paradigm for an American family is a man and a woman and two children. It’s a subject of much anxiety and grief, as we wonder what will come next. At the same time, something seems to be happening to our national and global sensibilities. No matter how we look at it, the world and the tribe that we once were are dying.

            And we find ourselves yearning and crying out anew for both a christ and a lord. Though the words themselves have grown outdated and archaic, the need for global salvation and tangible human intimacy have by no means dimmed. How often have we heard on the news or in our personal conversation, or in the silent screamings of our own hearts the expressed desire for leaders we can trust, and people right next to us that we can count on? 

            This is an expression of a now-ancient truth: our christ and our lord are dead.  And we have been a part of the crucifying conspiracy.

            The titles don’t remain, but the question does.  What should we do?   

            Peter, of course, provides an answer, but today I want you to sit a while with the question.  What should we do? 

            And notice here, the question is not ‘what should they do,’ or ‘what should the leaders or pastor do?’ or ‘what should God do?’  The question is about us.  It is about our action.  Our lives.  Our energy. Our hearts and minds. Our resources.  What should we do?  We have all been a part of the crucifixion conspiracy; what can we now do to return and become a part of the rise and renewal of God’s work of deliverance on the earth?

            Today I hope this question will become our communal prayer.  Don’t take it home and pray about it in a lonely corner with your eyes closed before you pass out.  Instead, have a little faith and prayer it aloud, with open eyes, over the dinner table, and in your small group, or with your friends over coffee.  “What should we do about the christlessness and the lordlessness of our world today?”  What should we do for the families right next door that have no support or guidance?  What can we –personally and communally- do to participate in the incarnational resurrection of Christ in our family and community?

            And if you don’t have people you trust yet that you can share that question with, then there’s your first problem!  You have to connect with people!  You have to have the courage to cross the threshold to be with and a part of something, with others.  Every faithful person who wants to call themselves a Christian has to have people they routinely spend time with to help them grow in their faith. Either a bible study, or Sunday school class, or small group, or men’s or women’s group. You absolutely cannot be a Christian in isolation –that’s the greatest heresy of our church today. Don’t wait for the pastor to organize one –you need it, you do it!

            Then once, after you have that first step, ask the question with others and be inspired: the Christ, whom God raised up, has poured out the Holy Spirit out upon the people. The disciples were anointed with it!  They became the Christs –the anointed ones. They became the help they needed and had depended on!  And they went out with that eternal spirit in their flesh, and they shared it with new and fiery tongues!  They were empowered to speak new languages –to be translators for God and for the whole household of Israel, to all the earth!

May it be so with us.