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. He begins to proclaim Christ. After an initial summary of Jesus’ life and actions as well as a doxology, Peter 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 preaches even more pointedly:
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 we certainly should not accuse our listeners of having sinned; we 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: “You killed the author of life”!
The unwritten rule among many priests and deacons today, especially those of the older generation, is that we should never—under any circumstances—offend anyone. We should not say anything controversial or that risks upsetting anyone. We should not mention, sin, Hell, judgment, or Purgatory. We shouldn’t preach on moral topics like abortion, fornication, contraception, divorce, or homosexuality. And we shouldn’t even think of saying that knowingly missing Mass is a mortal sin. For that matter, we should never even let the words “mortal sin” escape out lips!
Yet here is Peter saying, “You killed the author of life.” 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 we’re going to be lost—we’re going to go to Hell. (Oops, did I let that word slip out?)
The logic is that if we talk in this way, we’ll offend people, and they’ll stop coming. Never mind that our churches have largely emptied in the aftermath of the widespread application of this policy. No indeed, it must be all honey and no vinegar, ever.
It is interesting that Simon Peter, though clear and bold in his preaching about sin, did not seem to cause the alienation feared by many modern priests. In his sermon of Acts 2, 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).
This response isn’t what some of the fearful, dovish, “do-no-harm-ever” preachers and liturgists of today would predict! Peter’s nets were nearly breaking with thousands of converts even after telling them they had crucified Jesus, warning them, and calling them to repentance and baptism in no uncertain terms.
After Peter’s even sterner words of Acts 3 telling them, “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).
In the early 1960s, Protestant evangelist David Wilkerson wrote The Cross and the Switchblade, a book about his ministry among hardened, inner-city gang members. His approach didn’t feature sentimentality or boosting self-esteem, but rather laying out frankly the issues at hand. In effect, he’d tell the gang members their problem wasn’t too many enemies or not enough weapons, but that they were sinning. He told them that their only hope was to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ, or else they would be forever lost—jail and/or an untimely death were the least of their worries.
You’d think that he’d get killed after talking like that to gang members—but he didn’t. Deep down they knew he was right. Even those who weren’t ready to convert respected him for being bold enough to speak the truth to them.
Somewhere along the line, many modern preachers lost their edge. The gospel, the good news of salvation, doesn’t make a lot of sense without reference to sin. To say that we are saved implies that there is something from which we need to be saved. Without a vigorous understanding of sin and the ultimate destination of Hell from which we have been saved, the gospel starts to seem peripheral, optional, just a nice story—not really all that crucial or urgent. The good news is highlighted by and makes sense only in the light of the bad news. Only if I know that “I’ve got it bad and that ain’t good” does the news of a cure seem to be wonderful, even fabulous.
We live in dainty times; many people are thin-skinned and easily offended. However, I have found that speaking clearly about sin, the need for repentance, and the glory of mercy is experienced by most people as refreshing. To be compelling, good preaching needs to have an edge. Abstractions, generalities, and greeting-card sentiments don’t really work. Chatty sermons, silly jokes, beige Catholicism, and soft tones don’t excite interest. Our empty churches say that loud and clear.
Some will inevitably take offense to such preaching, but that is ever the case. A good preacher, one who is worth his salt, must be willing to give up his life, or at the very least to enduring harsh criticism. Timid preachers are only a little better than useless. They are, as Gregory the Great said, “dumb dogs that cannot bark.”
Thank God that Peter never got the memo! As his fruitful example shows, vigorous biblical preaching includes an edgy quality; it addresses sin, setting it forth plainly but in a way that highlights the glory of grace and mercy.
The bottom line is that “You killed the author of life.” Collectively we’ve done it in a thousand ways. However, know that Jesus Christ loves you and has mercy on you in abundance; you can lay hold of this if you repent and run to Him for healing and mercy.
This song says, “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass and die and lose your soul at last.”
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Striking and Bold Content of the Apostles’ Preaching