"You Killed the Author of Life!" and other unusal sermon content. A reflection on the striking and bold content of the early Kerygma
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.