Queer Acts 2.14-21: Beginning to Preach the Gospel (Peter’s Sermon 1/3)

In this first chunk of Peter’s sermon, Peter challenges us to begin our talking about Jesus not from a place of negativity and cynicism, but from a place of hope and trust in God.


 

An Introduction to Peter’s Sermon

Peter’s sermon is a massive passage. And I am no going to try to write a single full commentary on the whole thing. What I want to focus on in the next few posts is the challenges Peter poses for us in our proclamation of the Gospel.

First of all, stop and think. How would you sum up the Gospel if you had two minutes to do it? What would you say to a friend who asked you over a pint, ‘What do you believe?’

Then think about the sermons you’ve heard, or the books you’ve read. How did people represent the Gospel to you? Were you convinced? What did you think was missing, or superfluous?

The task of telling others about Jesus is more difficult than we very often realise. It’s often only when you have a go that you run up against the buffers.

Peter’s sermon is a literary device. By that I mean that it is highly unlikely that he actually delivered these precise words as a single sermon. Rather, it is probable that Luke is cobbling together sources telling him about the sort of sermons Peter did preach, and also the sorts of things which the early Apostles emphasised in their preaching. Or perhaps, entirely legitimately for a classical writer, Luke has created his own sermon and put it in the mouth of Peter as an oration, a useful way of giving voice to a large amount of theology in an accessible way.

What matters to us is that it has come down to us through the Church in scripture as the first of the great sermons preached. But how does it go?

In the next three posts we shall see that Peter begins with an assurance that God is working in people’s lives. He then offers us a model for how to preach the Gospel simply and effectively. And he then shows us how to welcome people into the Church. All pretty important stuff. And all of which has particular implications for queer people too. This isn’t a guide for evangelism, or for preaching, but it is an excellent chunk of scripture for making us think about how we communicate as members of Christ’s Church, with each other as well as outsiders.


Acts 2.14-21: How to start the Gospel

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams.

18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

and they shall prophesy.

19 And I will show portents in the heaven above

and signs on the earth below,

blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

20 The sun shall be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood,

before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

How does your talking about the Gospel usually begin? Not when you are asked, ‘How would you sum up the Gospel?’ But when you actually talk about Jesus. How our conversations about what really matters begin should give us pause for thought, for the beginning of a conversation frames what follows, shapes it and changes it: for good or ill. Many of the conversations I have pertaining to the Gospel begin with something like: ‘That sermon was terrible, wasn’t it?’ Or ‘The Church is a really terrible institution to be in as an LGBT person,’ or ‘God, I am so not awake enough for Morning Prayer today.’

It is amazing when I start to think about it how many of my Christian interactions often begin with a grump, sarcasm or a criticism of something or someone else. And I don’t think I am alone in being prone to that particular vice.

But Peter’s talk of Jesus does not begin like this. He begins by telling of something wonderful, something that matters: “let this be known to you, and listen to what I say” (v14). These are the words of someone who has guarded speech, who is learning to speak carefully, and so who has confidence when he really does have something good to say.

Rather than beginning with something negative, a challenge, a problem, something the Church could really improve on or should repent of, Peter begins by telling them about something amazing that God is doing among His people NOW: “…these are not drunk, as you suppose” (v.15). The life of the Church can look pretty odd, or just boring, on its own; but Peter puts what is going on in the context of God’s plans and God’s timeless action and will: “No, this was what was spoken though the prophet Joel” (v.16). Peter manages quickly to place the strange and confusing events of the beginning of the Church into the context of “the last days” (v.17); the babbling of the disciples is what “God declares” (v.17); the antics of a small group bears witness to a promise for “all flesh” (v.17), for “sons and daughters” (v.17), for “slaves”, for “both men and women” (v.18). This strange sight of people talking in the languages of the world is just one of the many more familiar portents Peter’s audience expects and looks for from the Jewish scriptures: “blood, and fire, and smoky mist” (v.19) touching all creation, even the sun and moon (v.20).

And all this context setting is to concretise one message: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v.21).
Peter begins his talking of Jesus not with the negatives, not with the failings of the early community, not with talk of the fear they have had of the Jewish leaders or Judas’ betrayal. He begins by assuring the people of Jerusalem that the things they see around them are part of God’s work in the life of the Church, and in their lives too.

This is how our talk of Jesus must begin. God is working in His creation through His Church. And he does this so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v.21).

This is Peter’s first challenge to us: speak to others about Jesus, not beginning from a place of darkness, of cycnicism or despair, but from a place of hope, and trust in God’s good works in our lives and the life of all his people.

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Prayer Request

Please pray for those of us on the Cranmer Hall leavers retreat at Shepherd’s Dene, the Newcastle Diocesan retreat house.

As my evangelical brethren have been downstairs adoring Christ in the sacrament of the altar, I have been upstairs doing some bible study.

So whilst the world does seem to have gone topsy-turvy, it does mean that there are now four posts of Queer Acts ready and waiting to go after the retreat.

If you’re up for writing a guest post, in a medium that works for you, and which can be anonymised, please let me know at t.m.sharp@durham.ac.uk

Peace and good,

Thomas

Queer Acts 2.1-13: Pentecostal Fire

Praying for the Spirit is a risk poured out on the whole Church. Luke’s account of Pentecost challenges the members of the Church to talk very differently, both to each other and to outsiders. What would the Church look like if we learned to speak and listen to each other in our very different Christian languages?


 

Acts 2.1-3: Catholicity and Risk

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.

Pentecost is a controversial topic in the modern Church. Different denominations understand the pentecostal life of the Church in very different ways, almost a spectrum: from the Spirit setting us free into improvised and experimental church life to the Spirit poured out into the Church’s institutional life into which we as believers are incorporated.

I don’t want to go there. Not because I don’t think it isn’t relevant: if this was a post on ecclesiology it really would be. But actually the ecclesiological argument can detract from seriously reading this passage.

The narrative begins with the gathering of the disciples. We saw in Acts 1 that Luke focusses the narrative on Jerusalem and on the group of disciples and early believers gathered together. So, when the day of Pentecost arrives, “they were all together in one place” (v.1). This is important because it is easy, when we mentally place ourselves in the narrative, to project our church or our community into the pentecost narrative, to say that it is people like us who are really living life in the Spirit. Luke makes it clear from the outset that it is the whole Church which is annointed by the Spirit at Pentecost, not a conservative bubble, or a liberal one. Pentecost is an excellent opportunity to be reminded of the catholicity of the Church: the fact that, despite our divisions and our differences, those of us who profess faith in Jesus Christ are in fact one united and worldwide Church. For the Spirit does not fill only one corner of the house of the early believers: “it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (v.2).

The gift of the Spirit is something we are prone to praying for in some parts of the Church. But sometimes it is worth asking ourselves whether we really want the gift of the Spirit to start with. Of course we do! But do we ask in ignorance of what this means. The Spirit comes “suddenly”, not from anywhere comfortable to us but “from heaven”, not with a gentle kiss but “like the rush of a violent wind” (v.2). When you pray for the Spirit, are you ready for what that might mean? Are you ready for what God might ask of you through the Spirit? I have joined with queer people many times praying for the Spirit to move in the Church. It is interesting that we often attempt to channel the Spirit by giving Him names: ‘Spirit of peace’, ‘Spirit of justice’, ‘Spirit of truth’. When we pray for the Spirit to move in power, are we, even queer people, ready for what might result? Are we ready to take the risk of God’s idea of peace, justice and truth might just possibly be different from ours.


Acts 2.4-13: The Challenge of Communication

 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

But how does this anointing with the Spirit manifest itself? “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (v.4). But why this gift for speaking in other languages? It seems rather odd.

Luke makes a point of noting that there were lots of people, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (v.5), all speaking different languages on the day of Pentecost. With different languages comes a diversity of cultures, world views and social norms: the people of Jerusalem are profoundly diverse. Luke expresses what happens next in rather colourful language. The crowd are not just amazed: they are “bewildered”, “amazed and astonished” (vv.6-7), but more importantly they are “gathered” (v.6). Although mass outbreaks of effective speaking in living languages is rare in the life of the modern Church, one wonders what challenge there is here for the modern Church that tries to hard to gather people to it.

The challenge to us is to communicate “God’s deeds of power” (v.11) not just in our own language (cf. v.11), but in the language of those whom God wants us to reach. The miracle is not that people hear uneducated Galileans talking in different languages (you might detect in this my suspicion that the modern instantiation of ‘speaking in tongues’ may be missing the point), that they are “speaking in our own languages” (v.11); but rather that they recognise that “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (v.11).

The task of learning a language is not simply to speak the correct words but is also to communicate effectively the substance which you want to get across. It seems that the disciples do manage to do this. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ proclamation of the Gospel is marked by a sharp krisis (judgment) (cf. John 3.17-18; 12.31) in which people respond in two ways, either wrestling with what Jesus says to them or rejecting him outright. Here the same thing happens: “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine’.” (vv.12-13). The disciples aren’t just speaking the right words: they are communicating and convincing. I think of St John, who preached in such a way that he gained the surname Chrysostom: Golden-Mouthed. This is speaking in such a way that the hearer stops… and truly hears.


Most queer people in Churches know what it feels like to be preached past, when the Gospel is presented in such a way that it doesn’t really seem to be relevant to you, or in such a way that (though you try) it just doesn’t seem to be in a language you can really understand, internalise, and make your own. I put in that category in my own experience pretty much every sermon I have heard referencing sex, marriage, love, Fatherhood, family and a good deal of other subjects. The collect for Bible Sunday in the Church of England includes a prayer that we might ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ the scriptures. But in order to do that, the Gospel must be preached to us in our language, in a tongue which will enable us to say, “in our own lanaguages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (v.11).

But there are several challenges to queer people as well within this. Since beginning training for ministry, I have had so many requests to talk to this or that LGBT person known by a colleague or friend ‘because you will be able to speak their language.‘ It is like a colleague of mine who was encouraged to work with Chinese students ‘because you are from the same continent’ – my friend is Indian (fail). People often assume that we can talk in a particular way to all other queer people, because we speak the same language and have shared experiences. Perhaps we do, but that very rarely reaches the point at which I don’t have to work to understand the other and consciously speak in a way more useful to them. One of the queer people I was asked to have a chat with was heavily into the BDSM scene… and I am ashamed to admit that I learned a vast amount more from him than he did from me. And boy did he use language around power, consent, love, care and support in a deeper and more profound way than I. His language was far richer in that sense, and I had to learn how to understand it.

Similarly, when we dialogue with straight Christians, we cannot assume that we are speaking the same language. It is not only they who must guard their speech and be self-aware. If we wish to communicate effectively, if we want to see understanding blossom and a better future for queer people in the Church, we must learn to speak the language of those whose speech we find difficult. When my conservative brothers and sisters talk to me about marriage, family, love, sex (and a load of other things), I need to do a lot of work understanding the ways in which they use common words, and particularly how that reveals their concerns and assumptions. Then I need to work out what I am meant to say to them in response. And that takes prayer as well as patience.

Learning to speak the language of others in terms of purely getting the words right is hard work and tiring. Learning to speak the language of others in terms of what the Spirit is leading you to say to them is hard work but life-giving.

Pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit. And do not worry what you are to say (cf. Matthew 10.19). Learn in love and prayer how to talk to others. The Church will be a holier and happier family when half our conversations aren’t lost in translation, when we learn to listen, and truly learn to speak.

Queer Acts 1.15-end: Discernment and Leadership in the Church

Acts 1 begins to explore the recurring theme of how leadership in the Church is meant to look. It challenges us to reassess our own relationship to authority and power and also to discern our own vocation to minister in Christ’s Church ever more carefully and prayerfully.


Acts 1.15-20: The Reality of Leadership

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, 16‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’ 18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20‘For it is written in the book of Psalms,“Let his homestead become desolate,

   and let there be no one to live in it”;

and

“Let another take his position of overseer.”

Who is in charge in the Church? It is a difficult question for all Christians: all of us feel strongly about who should or should not be in charge. All of us have a strong sense of when the wrong person is in charge. And we may feel profound discomfort about at the notion that any is in fact in charge at all. For many queer people, in particular, the overtones of dominance and potential for abuse that the notion of leadership can bring makes us more suspicious than most of the idea that anyone should be in leadership at all.

But in even the smallest communities, whether or not it is intended, leaders begin to emerge. Even the most democratic of Churches ends up being dominated by particular people and groups when certain issues are at stake. And that means that Christians have to take the reality of human leadership and power dynamics seriously, however uncomfortable we might feel about it, or however much we might believe that human leadership and dominance would not exist in an ideal society.

The first thing to note about this passage is that Acts 1 does not offer us a leadership model for the modern Church. Peter stands up “among the believers”… but “together the crowd numbers about one hundred and twenty” (v.15). The Church was tiny. When people point out that the earliest Church did not have leadership structures like the modern Church, all the priests, deacons, bishops and administrators and missioners in between, I have to agree. For the Church of the disciples was indeed not like ours. It was far more top heavy! Of one hundred and twenty believers, about 10% were the apostolic disciples. That’s not to mention the many women who were administrators and resource managers for this early group of believers! In the apostolic Church, as it prepared for its most succesful period of mission, 1 in 10 were clergy. That is a salutary reminder for those of us in the Church of England as it prepares to reduce clergy numbers in many of its dioceses.

But, in any case, it is clear that the Church of the apostles was profoundly different to the Church we inhabit today. What is most interesting about this excerpt, however, is Peter’s mindset when it comes to leadership. For Peter, the maintaining of a full apostolic mission to the world is nothing less than a scriptural imperative: “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus” (v.16). The integrity and importance of the office which Judas served does not seem to have been destroyed by his betrayal of Jesus: “for he was allotted his share in this ministry” (v.17).

This is because, Acts argues, Judas is not in himself the apostolic disciple. Judas has a “share” in an apostolic ministry which is far more fundamental than the individuals carrying it out. For it is not the apostolic ministry which is abolished by Judas’ failure, but Judas himself who, as Luke adds with a dark sense of irony in his editor’s comment, uses the “reward of his wickedness” (v.18) to purchase a field in which he immdiately trips, dying a gruesome death by disembowelment (vv.18-19). Judas’ downfall is not portrayed so much as the failure of an apostolic disciple as of a disinheritance, a demotion and a dismissal from apostolic discipleship. For his death is portrayed as a fulfilment of a psalm about disinheritance: “Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it” (v.20). On its own, this might be read to suggest the end of his apostolic ministry. But another verse makes it clear that the office continues, even when the incumbent has fallen: “Let another take his position of overseer” (v.20: “καί Τὴν ἐπισκοπὴν αὐτοῦ λαβέτω ἕτερος”, if you are a Greek geek!). This, as v.25 will tell us, is the “ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”

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And this is Peter’s theological reasoning, as reported by Luke. Peter seems to take the reality of leadership within the Church as a given, and perhaps even as scripturally mandated. There is no sense in which, once the initial disciples have died off, the whole people of God will become a shapeless identical and democratically self-regulating mass. Protestant traditions emphasise the importance of order whilst Catholic traditions emphasise apostolic inheritance (there is not time here to go into all the ins and outs of that particular ecumenical debate). But what is clear is that leadership is something we have to take seriously. We can’t simply turn our noses up at it and ignore it, however egalitarian we may think our churches are. We have to think carefully about what leaders in the Church are meant to look like, what they are meant to do, and so what qualities they must possess and have nurtured in them by the rest of the Church. If leadership is something that exists in the Church, and has always existed in the Church, let it be good leadership, done well and for the right reasons.


Acts 1.21-26: Prayerful Discernment

[Peter continued], 21’So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

So how were they to choose a new apostle?

I am tempted to say that they didn’t have a clue. But I don’t think that would be fair to the text. Acts gives pretty clear criteria for choosing the new apostle, and they are wise.

Firstly, they must not actually be new. They must be “one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (vv.21-22). The apostle must be experienced, must know the story of Jesus, the Gospel, if they are to be able to witness to it. For the apostle is called nothing less that to be “a witness with us to his resurrection” (v.22). Although I have said that this passage is not a model for leadership in the modern Church, I wonder how much dissatisfaction with some leaders in the modern Church has, at its root, the fact that many leaders are inexperienced and lacking in the knowledge they need to be able to do their task really well. I am always encouraged by preachers and pastors who have well thumbed bibles and well stocked bookshelves. I begin to get nervous when people in the Church say, ‘I don’t need to study.’ The basic subject matter of the Gospel is relatively small, but being able to administer and nourish the Church which it has birthed requires training and study if we are to be effective and faithful.

On the basis of this criterion Joseph and Matthias are chosen. But a second criterion is revealed in the disciples’ prayer. They do not simply pray, Lord, “show us which one of these two you have chosen” (v.24). They pray also, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart” (v.24). The deepest integrity and fittingness of a person for a particular office is a difficult thing to discern. The Church of England has an extended process of discernment for those wanting to enter ordained ministry, and discernment pathways also for those wishing to take up many of the many lay (non-ordained) ministries in the Church. But whilst the church of the disciples seems a little simplistic in discerning this by casting lots (v.26), the point Luke makes here strongly is that the discernment of the heart is hard work. It must be done in the Spirit, or it will not be done at all. And so such discernment must be done in prayer.

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I have encountered many people who are exploring ministry within the Church, but whom I can’t quite describe as discerning. They are honest and genuine in their self-examination and submission to Church processes. But they aren’t praying it. Leadership at any level is not something which we are called to campaign for. It is not something we make happen by our own endeavours, either to put ourselves in positions of authority or those we support or particularly like. Leadership and apostolic authority within the Church is to important for that. It must be prayed about. And prayed about earnestly.

Matthias “was added to the eleven apostles” (v.26). Maybe you might be as well, one day, a particular apostolic office within the Church. But you are and will always be fundamentally a believer, whose task is prayerful discernment. And, remember, even if 10% of the Church in Acts 1 were official apostles, 90% of them weren’t. And the 90% are just as much saints of Christ’s Church.

As Acts progresses, the question of the shape of apostolic leadership will be a recurring them (this book, after all, recounts the Acts of the Apostles!). But as it explores that theme, Acts will have salutary reminders for us to evaluate our own interaction with Church authority and power, and to discern ever more carefully our own vocation to our role in the Church (for all of us have one!). But Acts, like the Holy Spirit, teaches us discernment slowly, and in many instances. Stick at it. Discernment, wisdom and a fulfilling ministry within the Church will come.