The scene is Pentecost Sunday and Simon Peter has just received the Holy Spirit along with 120 others. A crowd has gathered, intrigued by the manifestation of the Spirit in the upper room. The door opens and out steps Simon Peter. and he begins to boldly proclaim Christ. After an initial summary of Jesus’ life and actions, and a doxology, Peter strikes home and says to those gathered:

Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. (Acts 2:36)

A few days later Peter preached even more acutely:

You handed Jesus over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this….“Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out... (Acts 3:14-20)

Apparently Peter never got the memo that we preachers are not supposed to mention unpleasant things like sin and certainly not accuse our listeners of having sinned. He apparently didn’t understand that we who preach are supposed to issue the usual bromides of affirmation and speak only in abstractions and generalities. Imagine, he calls them killers, co-conspirators in handing over God to be crucified. Yes, he does: You killed the author of life!

Of course in referring to “the memo,” I speak of the unwritten rule among many priests and deacons today, especially of of the older generation 55 and up, which said, in effect: never offend anyone, ever, under any circumstances. Say nothing of controversy, or anything that might upset anyone, ever. And by all means do not mention, sin, hell, judgment or purgatory. Don’t mention specific moral topics either like abortion, fornication, contraception, divorce, gay anything, and don’t you dare mention that missing Mass is a mortal sin, or even let the phrase “mortal sin” escape your lips.

Well you get the point. And yet here is Peter saying, “You killed the author of life!” And he’s not talking to the person next to you, dear reader, he’s talking to you. That’s right you did that. And so did I. Yes we are sinners. And if we don’t repent and receive his mercy were going to be lost, we’re going to go to Hell. (Oops, did I say “Hell?”)

Now of course the usual logic is that if we talk plainly like this we’ll offend people and that they’ll stop coming. Now, never mind that our churches have largely emptied in the aftermath of the widespread application of the “say nothing of sin” memo. No indeed, it must be honey and no vinegar, ever.

It is interesting that Simon Peter, though clear and bold about sin, did not seem to cause this angry alienation feared by many modern priests. In his Acts 2 sermon we read not of alienation but of mass conversion:

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. 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. (Acts 2:37-41)

Wow, this is not the predicted results of some of the fearful and dovish “do-no-harm-ever” preachers and liturgists of today. Peter’s nets were nearly breaking with 3,000 converts even after telling them they had crucified Jesus, and further warning them and calling them to repentance and baptism in no uncertain terms.

And after Peter’s ever sterner words of Acts 3 telling us “You killed the Author of life” the numbers grew even more: But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand. (Acts 4:4)

Story - Back in the late 60s or early 70s,  a Protestant evangelist named David Wilkerson wrote a book called The Cross and the Switchblade, which described his ministry among the hardened gang members of the inner city. And his ministry was quite abundant in those years, not by a sort of cheesy, sentimental self esteem approach, but by a frank laying out of the issues at hand. In effect he’d appeal to the gang members by telling them that their problem wasn’t that they had enemies, or didn’t have enough weapons. No their problem was that they were sinning, and that their only hope was to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ, or they were going be forever lost. Jail, or an untimely death was the least of their problems.

Now you’d think he’d get killed talking like that to gang members. Be he didn’t. They knew, deep down, that he was right. And even those who weren’t ready to convert had a respect for him that he spoke the truth, and was bold enough to make it plain.

Somewhere along the line modern preachers, (many, but not all) lost their edge. The Gospel, the good news of salvation, really doesn’t make a lot of sense without reference to sin. To say that we are saved, points to the question, “Saved from what?” And without a vigorous understanding of the sin, and ultimate Hell we have been saved from, the Gospel starts to seem peripheral, optional, a nice story, but not really all that crucial or urgent. The good news is highlighted by and makes sense in the light of the bad news. Only if I know that “I got it bad and that aint good” does the news of a cure dawn as wonderful and even fabulous news.

It is true that we live in dainty times, where people are easily offended, and thin-skinned. But I must also say that I have found that speaking clearly about sin, the need for repentance, and the glory of mercy is experienced by most people as refreshing. Good preaching needs an edge to be compelling. Abstractions, generalities, and hallmark greeting sentiments don’t really win the day or seal the deal. Chatty sermons, dumb jokes, beige Catholicism, and soft tones offer little that is compelling. Our empty churches say that loud and clear.

Some will inevitably take offense, but that has always been the case. A good preacher, it seems, who is worth his salt needs to be willing to get killed, or at least to get it with both barrels. Timid preachers are only a little better than useless. They are, as Gregory the Great said, “Dumb dogs that cannot bark.”

So Peter never got the memo, and thank God. As his fruitful example shows, vigorous biblical preaching includes an edgy quality,  dealing with sin, setting it forth plainly, but also in a way that highlights the glory of grace and mercy.

Bottom line, “You killed the author of life!” (I’m talking to you, not the person next to you). And we’ve done it in a thousand ways. But even now, know that Jesus Christ loves you and has mercy on you in abundance, and you can lay hold of this if you will repent and run to him for healing and mercy.

Sinner, don’t let this harvest pass! And die and lose your soul at last.

28 Responses

  1. Tracey Kelly says:

    The key element in Peter’s initial chastisement is that he addressed their behavior.. not them personally. (The sin and not the sinner more or less) He didn’t call names or belittle them, he stated the simple truth about their actions. At the same time he gave them hope, he told them what to do to “get out of this mess” they were in.

    I think that priests who fear speaking out are not lacking courage but love. They need our prayers so that they are renewed in their calling to the priesthood and consoled in their loneliness and are better equipped to imitate Peter.

    • Fran R says:

      Aahh! the great canard: hate the sin but love the sinner!

      There can be no ‘behavior’ apart from the ‘person’ — the person who sins is rightfully a sinner (all of us, btw). The idea that we might call out the sin, but not address the sinner is a nonsensical paradigm. Though it is accurate… we must love the sinner … as Msgr. points out – we do that by calling the sinner to repent, to leave his sin and flee to grace, which is the greatest act of love we can have.

  2. Donna says:

    Excellent!

    In the past, my husband and I were very outspoken about our faith, morality and sin. My family, especially, was extremely offended and perceived that we were judging everyone. They really resented our “preaching” because they knew that when we were younger, we were gulity of committing some of those sins we now condemned. They also thought we were taking things a little to seriously. Finally, my family just cut us off… for 6 years!!

    We got back in everyone’s good graces after my siblings became very ill. Since then, my husband and I are reluctant to speak out too strongly against their views and choices. It was very painful being ostracized by my entire family – parents included.

    Yet, I know I was at my best when I was fearlessly defending God’s Word. This post is very convicting, and I need to pray for Holy-Spirit power to speak the truth in love!

    • Christine Niles says:

      Donna,
      Remember that their souls are at stake. A little suffering endured now on their behalf (even if it means ostracism) may save their souls for eternity. Pray for courage, to continue speaking the truth without compromise.
      God bless.

      • Donna says:

        So true! Thanks!

        • Anne says:

          This is the risk we take when we say what we believe and know to be true. The laypeople are in the trenches with their families and at their place of employment. They will absolutely be ostracized. Not many have the courage that you do. We need to have support and direction about how to be in the “”front lines” in a culture where almost everyone finds our beliefs offensive.

    • James says:

      Well Donna, I know exactly how you feel. However I found the reason most non-believers or non-practicing believers tend to alienate God. Wait did I say God and not you? (Oh and get used to it Jesus let us know this was going to happen btw)Yes that is right you are stating God’s word, he is using you as his instrument of his affection towards your family. I ran into this problem many times, even with my own father who brought me up Catholic. He always had the idea I felt I was a better Catholic than anyone else. Then I ask God how do I state your word without giving the wrong intent or image of putting myself on a pedestal. I listened for days and kept my mouth shut and just listened. Then I remembered the story of when Jesus was being chastised because he was amongst the tax collectors and sinners. His reply, the sick are in need of healing. That’s when it donned on me. I am sick, I acknowledge that but I do not let anyone know up front that I am ill with sin. That is why they tend to get that perception. So now I make it real clear a good Catholic does not believe they belong to a club that is better than anyone else, a good Catholic realize how sick they are and acknowledges that by going to the doctor (Church, Confession, Bible). It is God’s word, not mine, and I can guarantee anyone that I will fail to not follow his word. If I fail I will not make excuses or make up my own doctrine to make my ill action OK. Just because you do not do any of the things you did when you were younger does not mean you are not sinning. Let them know this up front; it is the humble thing to do as Catholics in my opinion.

  3. yan says:

    Yeah, good point Msgr. I think that the appeal of evangelicalism for some Catholics is that some evangelical pastors at least are not afraid to speak plainly about the 4 last things.

    The Church probably loses more people because of the practice of being too circumspect about sin rather than by being too direct about sin. Except for a few sensitive souls, the ones that the Church loses because its pastors are too direct about sin are usually those which are not ready to examine themselves and turn away from the sin which they know to be there.

    • Candida Eittreim says:

      Yan, i agree. The Church lost me for this reason. When you plead to be told about the “something more” required of us as Catholics, i was told i was being disobedient. The Sacraments were enough to ensure my salvation. To find the truth of authentic repentance and sin, i was led to an evangelical church, where my eyes were finally opened to sin, hell and alienation from God. Now, after tasting the fruits of love of my Abba, through Christ Jesus, i cannot refrain from trying to help all i encounter into finding Jesus.

      • yan says:

        That’s great Candida. Have you come back to the Catholic church yet though? Because belonging to the Church is about much more than making a choice to satisfy our pastoral care preferences. Everything you encountered in evangelicaldom in regard to the true measure of our sorry and sinful state, and the truth about final judgment and hell, is taught with the utmost fullness in the Roman Catholic Church. If you don’t always hear that from some or even most pastors, that doesn’t mean that our teaching is any different in that respect. Furthermore the teachings of the protestants in this regard are often riddled with many different kinds of errors and with strange enthusiasms which can be dangerous to your soul. And of course, they are objectively schismatic, no matter how good their intentions may be. Christ wants you to be in His church, under the apostolic authority of His bishops and the Holy Father. If you are not back with the Catholic church, I hope you return soon. God bless.

  4. RichardGTC says:

    Yes, the Peter of Acts is a different Peter than the one of the Gospels. Seems like the Pharisees and the Sadducees–and the other Jews in following them–were trying to love God with all of the mind and spirit, but neglecting to love their brother as themselves. It turns out that the problem is that when we do that we end up killing God when He appears to us as our neighbor. Moses taught an eye for an eye and a life for a life. Maybe Peter said two things that were shocking to them. The first, “you have killed the Author of life” and the second being the way that Moses’ law of a life for a life be obeyed: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

  5. garym says:

    St. John Vianney and. Padre Pio were very decisive on sin. No “politically correctness” allowed when a soul was in jeopardy. Saving souls was their mission.

  6. Lenny says:

    Thank you for this post Msgr. I think every Bishop, Priest and Deacon, the only people permitted to preach during the Eucharist, should read this. And yes to the “Cross and the Switchblade,” a great book that every Catholic should read.

  7. Deacon Chris says:

    I’m preaching this coming Sunday ( Ascension & Mother’s Day- talk about a target rich environment). And yes, divorce, contraception, and marriage are all going to come up. We do not show love, when we refuse to speak truth.

  8. joe says:

    I’ve been teaching on Samuel and found this very similar to what he goes through the first time that God speaks to him. Samuel has to give Eli, his mentor, some really bad news: Eli’s sons are wicked and he’s partly to blame. Samuel could have shied away from sharing this bad news with Eli but instead courageously, honestly, obediently, prudently, and lovingly shares the judgement. Courageously because he does what is right (sharing the news) not with a lack of fear, but in spite of it. Honestly because he tells the whole truth and doesn’t try to “sugar-coat” the message. Obediently because he listens to what God says and then immediately acts. Prudently because he goes directly to the one person who needs to hear the news and doesn’t gossip or hesitate in speaking the truth. And finally, lovingly because he is not eager to bear the bad news. Yet, we also learn a great deal from Eli’s response. He, too, is an honest person and he does not get angry at Samuel, God, or anyone else. He is not blaming others, but accepting his own responsibility. While we may expect others to get angry, especially in the world today, perhaps what they need most is the opportunity to accept their own responsibility. If we stop speaking the truth we also deprive people of this chance to be responsible, as if they couldn’t handle it.

    Just some thoughts. Sorry for rambling. Great article. Thanks Msgr!

  9. Mark says:

    Msgr. Pope,
    It was God coming to me in jail that I was confronted with my sins and my renewal began, the road long and burdensome yet I am at Peace. A Peace only attained by facing my sins, submitting to the Will of God and being cleansed of those sins through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

    My Confessor is under thirty and he speaks of the truth of sin and the consequences of an eternal damnation, not fire and brimstone, but in plain language, if you FORNICATE without true repentance you will suffer, if you are attracted to the same sex we will walk with you, but if you have same sex FORNICATION without true repentance you will suffer.

    Maybe because we are a Mission Dioceses, is the reason that our priests have no difficulty telling you that you are a sinner and need repentance or you shall suffer damnation. I have HOPE that this new generation of men becoming Priest’s will have no problem telling a sinner to repent, and it is rather refreshing when they do, and especially when the sinner is over 55, smug and full of SELF RIGHTEOUSNESS and they are put in their place.

    Amen to you my brother, as long as you spread the TRUTH I will be at your side.

  10. Hegelian Dialectic says:

    Catholics are born for combat–Pope Leo XIII

    • Peter Wolczuk says:

      This reminds me of a recent song; “We Were Made To Be Courageous” by “Casting Crowns”
      I find it quite inspirational, in this regard – including a line that may seem (at first) in direct conflict with the rest.
      About the only way that we will stand is not our knees with lifted hands. Can’t recall the exact wording but, I see it as an invitation to look beyond our worldly viewpoint toward embracing the spiritual one.

  11. Shin says:

    I once read it said that..

    ‘With unrepentant sinners, Fr Vianney was quiet blunt. He would simply say, “Unless you repent you are damned. How frightful!” And then he usually burst into tears. His tears often had a greater impact than his words and regularly gave the grace of repentance. There is a saying, “God pardons nothing to those who pardon themselves everything, but to the repentant sinner his mercy is infinite.”’

    Nowadays.. people react very badly to any suggestion they are sinners, they flip out, attack the messenger, and you can see the devil at work. People need others to make sacrifices for them to escape this diabolical net of pride.. And to learn that humility is how you approach God and everyone. People need to be taught humility and they are sinners once again by parents.. priests.. and everyone.. By deed and words?

    ‘Just as water and fire cannot be combined, so self-justification and humility exclude one another.’

    St. Mark the Ascetic

  12. Peter Wolczuk says:

    In Peter’s accusation I see an emphasis on stating facts, rather than accusing. If the facts, as stated, accuse by their nature then; the accusation has more power. The recent (then) events helped to affirm the facts as, indeed, facts.
    The upset of natural order at the moment of Christ’s death; the apostles fluent speaking of foreign languages immediately after receiving the Spirit – confirmed by foreigners who were already fluent. Yet, denial; in it’s quest for a superficial harmony which sowed the seeds of inner turmoil; led some observers to say that they had indulged in too much wine. Acts 2:13.
    I recently read that evangelization has the lowest success in culture(s) which cherish harmony over everything, including truth. Such culture(s) seem, to me, to want immediate results in harmony – rather than the superior quality of taking the time to do it right. In the last 15 years, or so, the Canadian province in which I live has gone through a massive scandal as hastily built structures have been repaired because of water damage caused by throwing them up too quickly and employing partially trained workers, instead of using the construction for practical training. Appears, to me, to be an appropriate comparison.
    The warm and fluffy message of the last fifty years or so appeases those who seek superficial harmony but; ends up repelling those who are willing to endure the discomfort of finding an inner harmony by addressing pre-conceived notions as they (willingly) expand their awarenss. It seems that the quality is being sacrificed (a very UNHOLY sacrifice) for sheer quantity. And now … the quantity is being lost as the lack of nutrition in tasty fancy food often lacks nutrition. The first chapter of the Book of Daniel warns of this danger.

  13. Anne says:

    I have never heard a sermon in the past 40 years that named specifically what are mortal sins. I think people know naturally that murder and adultery are mortal but that is about it. Seriously, we don’t know any more because we never hear a listing from our priests or bishops.
    It is easy to find lists of deadly poisons, food recalls when someone is sickened or dies from contaminated produce, or notifications from car manufacturers about faulty brakes that could cause fatalities.
    Every Costco has a bulletin board at the entrance listing all their products that have been found to have negative implications for safety or health.
    These are specific listings, not a general suggestion to avoid “things that might harm you.”
    If our priest said that contraception is a mortal sin I believe the congregation would be shocked, and either dismiss him kindly as “over the top” and out of touch with reality in this case, or be quite angry.
    At Easter or Christmas when we have standing room only for the twice a year attendees what if the priest spoke as Peter did and said “if you do not come back until Christmas you are in a state of mortal sin. I love you too much not to tell you the truth. I want to see you next Sunday.”
    Thank you for your post and I will continue to pray for our priests and bishops and also parents such as myself who need the courage of Peter.

  14. Mike says:

    Thank you, Monsignor. I don’t know that this generation is any more apt to be offended than the last few. In my grandfather’s day, I suspect that the reaction to a challenge to one’s behavior or character was more apt to be a klop in the chops than a sulk. Neither threat deterred the contemporaries of Fulton Sheen, nor do they seem to deter you, which is heartening. Please keep reminding us that our actions have consequences and that God sent His Son to redeem and heal us and to intercede for us if only we submit ourselves to His Mercy and His Will.

  15. Steve from Long Island says:

    Thank you, Father! The Truth resounds. I hope that you give courage to other priests to reject the memo too and tell it like it is. Particularly for men, the wishy-washy watered down drivel is just a complete turn off and just says “this is not important.”

  16. GP says:

    Peter spoke boldy…only after the Holy Spirit came upon him and the other apostles. It was not Peter who spoke but the Holy Spirit, who is always the Truth. And the Spirit was filled with great love, mercy and compassion. That is what the people “saw” and heard in Peter and so they responded accordingly and with great hope and love.

    Pope Francis doesn’t speak on his own, but the Holy Spirit who is his voice. Our bishops, priests and deacons don’t speak on their own when they preach the homily. It is the Holy Spirit who calls and invites us to respond with great hope and love. The Spirit lives on when we respond. The opposite when we do nothing.

    As Scripture says, “Harden not your hearts.” We only get offended and defensive when our hearts are hard and closed to the voice of the Spirit.

  17. Mitis Vis says:

    A most excellent article Msgr. and the comments as well. Could I encourage you to continue this topic with ideas and suggestions on what we can do to promote this with our clergy and faithful. It is one thing to try and act this way ourselves to the best of our ability and encourage others with prayer and support. But it is past time we discuss what we know is needed and right and start doing our best to encourage our fellow laity and clergy as well. I’m sure you have some thoughts on this. The hardest heart is not impossible to reach

  18. Marie Fontana says:

    Regarding teaching from the pulpit. I believe that our stewardship of the earth is a spiritual matter. Therefore I deplore the complete absence of sermons on our contribution to global warming, climate change and extinction of life. Instead, we get pap, while the storms, fires, droughts, and pestilences rage around us, pointing to more loss of homes and habitat. Human and animal lives are threatened, while the seas devour lowlands (Kiribati), and while we merrily continue shopping at Walmart. Where is the sermon about social justice for the African whose water supply has dried up? Where is the collection for the victims of the storms caused by our “business as usual”? ( See “Global Warming and the Catholic Church”, Catholic Worker Jan-Feb 2013.

    The only reason why I continue to attend Sunday Mass is to receive the Holy Eucharist. I still believe in the presence of Christ there, but I no longer believe in His presence in the Church hierarchy, with a few exceptions, namely, those who risk jail for their beliefs.

    • Unfortunately the tone of your remark is all too typical of the holier than thou environmentalist liberal. Since you are using a computer which uses electricity you are part of the problem, according to your view. You probably drive cars or ride buses and maybe even take planes. Maybe when you go to live in a mud hut and simply forage off the land, (no agriculture for you) I will take you seriously. I wonder if you have any idea of how your tone repels many from listening to you? Your tone is so cartoonish as to make me wonder if you are not trolling.

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