When Peter delivered the first Christian sermon to the first Christian converts, he laid out the facts like this:
Jesus was a man
Whose actions showed he was more than just a man
You crucified him
But God raised him up
And when the crowd heard this Good News, they cheered!
…actually, no. They had kind of the opposite reaction, as though it was Bad News: “they were cut to the heart.”
It’s interesting how sometimes “good news” hits us like “bad news” at first. Remember back in the 90s when we were all into low-fat diets? Then with a new century came new wisdom that low-fat may not be the secret to a healthy lifestyle; low-fat can still mean high-calorie. As one who spent about 10 years living on frozen yogurt and bagels, this didn’t sound like good news at first. It sounded like very BAD news… although it did explain why, despite all my dieting efforts, I wasn’t getting any healthier.
In the same way Peter’s crowd isn’t ready to celebrate just yet. They’ve heard the Good News and realized that they’ve done things wrong. And so they ask the question we should all ask when we hear God speak:
“What do we do???”
It’s not possible to really hear God’s message without feeling the need to do something. And the crowd has recognized this need… but they aren’t sure what to do next. I’ve sometimes felt this way after a serious God-experience. I feel changed – different – because I’ve experienced something new about God. But WHAT am I supposed to do? Leave home and start preaching the gospel in the streets? Sell all my possessions and give it to the poor? Fast for forty days? What???
Peter has an answer for the crowd. Like his sermon – that lays out the basics of our faith – his prescription is a 4-step primer in how to respond to the gospel. It applied 50 days after Jesus was crucified and it applies for us today.
- Be baptized in Jesus’ name
- Receive forgiveness
- Get the Holy Spirit
Now let’s break that down.
Repent. In Hebrew the meaning of this word is “to return,” as in to turn back to God’s covenant. In Greek the meaning is more like “to completely change one’s mind.” It’s to trade in your old way of life for a new one. As radical as that sounds, if this step isn’t included then it’s as though we didn’t hear the Good News at all.
It’s kind of like this: We have a retired coach in our congregation. One day we went to play a round of golf together. Given his background, and given that my golf game could use a lot of improvement, he naturally started giving me some tips.
My putting is particularly terrible, like the-ball-went-screaming-past-the-hole-and-off-the-green terrible. So he says, “When you putt, look at the hole and not the ball.” This seemed impossible, but my short game literally couldn’t get any worse. I gave it a try. And lo-and-behold, I started making putts. It was a miracle!
What if I heard that good news about how to putt differently… and then I kept doing the same thing? Kept looking at the ball and crushing it past its tiny circular home? Well, that would be really foolish.
That’s why, when we hear the Good News, repenting is step one. The specifics of how you need to repent – well, that’s between you and God. But chances are some part of the Good News will shine a light on the area in question.
Be baptized in Jesus’ name. Even as a pastor there is kind of a mystery to baptism. It’s sort of like Jesus’ death and Resurrection: there are so many reasons for it, no one explanation can adequately sum it up. The same is true for baptism. It’s about forgiveness; it’s about new life; it’s about becoming a part of a community. Since we’ll get into forgiveness next, let’s look at the other two sides of it now.
In my Methodist tradition we tend to baptize using a little sprinkling of water. And I’m glad that we do, because we baptize a lot of babies; it’d be insanely cruel to dunk an unsuspecting 3-month-old under water. Sadly, though, we miss out on an important symbolism of the baptismal rite: dying and rising again with Christ. Paul says it well in Romans 6:4: “By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of the Father, so also we might live a new life.”
In baptism, we choose to die to our old way and be born again in the Way. It’s like repentance, except where repentance is our action, baptism is God’s action. God goes with us – in Christ, God has already gone with us – into death and new life. The Holy Spirit surrounds us and claims us as God’s child.
When we’re claimed as God’s child we’re made part of God’s church. At the end of Peter’s speech 3,000 were baptized – and this is reported that all at once they were “added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). We don’t hear the Good News and then go off as lone wolves. If we’re all following Christ, then the implication is that we’re together because we’re all moving in the same direction. We need each other. Baptism makes that belonging official.
Receive forgiveness. This is not unlike the forgiveness of a debt. Not only does it feel good – it changes the way we’re able to live into the future.
Imagine you’ve been spending way beyond your means and built up a scary amount of credit card debt. Desperate, you meet with a financial advisor. She gives you good news in the form of a new plan for the future. You make a budget. You cut up the credit cards. You determine to live on 80%, save 10%, and tithe 10%. Going forward, things will be different.
But you still have all that credit card debt. It makes you sick every time you think about it. Even with your new good habits it’s going to take years – years and years and years – to pay it off and get in good financial shape.
Then your financial advisor says (and I wish this could actually happen), “I called the credit card company and went to bat for you. I convinced them to forgive all your debt.”
How different will your future be now? Not only have you decided to live in a new, better way – but your past mistakes have been wiped clean.
That’s what forgiveness does for our walk with God.
Get the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit that came on the disciples at Pentecost. The same Holy Spirit that enabled Peter to preach this sermon. That very Holy Spirit is for all who follow Christ. Not just the elite, not just ministry professionals, not a select few but all.
That means that you never go on this way of Christ without Christ. Church isn’t the only place you feel God’s presence. Communion isn’t the only time you experience grace. A sermon isn’t the only time you get guidance. “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I said to you” (John 14:26). The Good News hits it isn’t a one-time blessing but a life-time blessing thanks to the Holy Spirit.
This is how we respond to the Good News:
- Be baptized in Jesus’ name
- Receive forgiveness
- Get the Holy Spirit
It’s not a one-and-done process. It’s something we do over and over, every day. We turn from our old way and toward the Way. We die and rise again with Christ. We live into Christian community. We are forgiven. We are surrounded by the Holy Spirit.
May it be so for you: today, tomorrow, and always.