In the third section of Peter’s sermon he challenges us to welcome people into the Church hopefully, practically and with the eternal promise of God. Luke then offers a picture of the Church as it should be. Is this depressing? Or is it a hopeful challenge that lends perspective to the institutional reality we inhabit?
Offering a Welcome into the Church (vv.37-41)
37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ 38Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ 40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ 41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
People very rarely turn to Christ becausethey like the idea of Christ. They turn to Christ becuase they want to receive something or they feel they need to do something. So it was with the people who heard Peter’s sermon: “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?'” (v.37). I wonder whether I would have come to faith if I had not always been involved in Churches which gave me things to do!
Peter’s response is difficult, and the number of occasions when this is the appropriate response is pretty slim. But it offers four things which we should offer to those who are being touched by the Gospel:
1) A challenge / hope of change. Peter tells them immediately, “Repent” (v.38). Repentance is a difficult subject, but often when people come with pain, with burdens and weariness, the offer of a different sort of life is one that brings hope. “Repent,” might not be your exact words, but conversations helping someone to think about how life can be more joyful, more hopeful, more peaceful are often the most wonderful conversations to have.
2) A practical entry into Church. Peter tells them, “be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven” (v.38). It is easy to leave a conversation hanging, and sometimes it is the right thing to do. But sometimes people benefit from a nudge, a practical path forward. Especially if church seems an alien thing to them (even more alien than Christ might seem!) an invitation, a question can make the impossible, inconceivable next steps seem possible, attractive, even obvious. ‘Were you baptised as a baby?’ ‘Shall we find out?’ ‘Have you been confirmed?’ ‘I’ve got a friend from Church I really think you’d get on with. We’re meeting up for a pint on Thursday. Do you want to come?’ Baptism may be the result of our conversations, but very often offering an easy way for someone to put their foot through the door and have a peak is the drop that begins the deluge.
3) Offer the Promise. The promise Peter offers the Jerusalemites in God’s name is great: “so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v.38). So many of us have such fear of our sins, even if we don’t call them sins. Offer freedom from guilt, and offer joy. Testify to how you have wrestled, and how you have learned to live and love. The promise of God’s forgiveness and loving presence is only real to others when we tell them how it has been real to us.
4) The Promise is Always There. Sometimes people aren’t ready to commit now. Or they seize up when they feel that we have made them a target, that we want to see them convert before our eyes for our own satisfaction and self-worth. But this is not how God works. God offers an eternal promise, that we may turn to at any point and receive God’s good gifts.
This last point highlights the particular message this passage has for queer people. Hear again Peter’s description of the promise: “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (v.39). I wonder how many times we as queer people have sat in church and experienced that promise as a non-reality in the day-to-day life of the Church. We like adding ‘if’s to God’s promises: that temptation is almost in the DNA of the Christian Church. But all Peter says is, “Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (v.38).
Does Peter think that all those repenting and being baptised are rendered utterly Holy, perfect and blameless in their works? Not for a moment. That’s not how Christian baptism works. The 3000 who “were added” (v.41) that day were not made into good conservative sexually non-ambiguous Christians. They were still gamblers, addicts, cheats, evil-doers of every kind. But now that they had heard of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they had turned towards him and wanted some of that resurrection life. “Repent, and be baptised” (v.38) is only the beginning of the journey. And we must never place stumbling-blocks in the path of any who seem to desire that journey. So, churches which have put stumbling-blocks in front of us need to repent, yes. But what ‘if’s to we add to Peter’s invitation to baptism? What ‘if’s do we add to Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I shall give you rest” (Matthew 11.28)?
I was once struck when attending an inclusive service how alienating it might be. It was serving a specific function, to be inclusive to a particular group of people who are usually marginalised, and that was a very good thing. But the whole Church can’t be like that. Even the worst sinner, the worst homophobe, the worst gambler, porn-addict, self-hater, abuser, cynic, transphobe… the list goes on… even to these we are called to say, “Repent, and be baptised”, to offer hope of a new life, to offer God’s promise, and a helping hand into Church.
A New Fellowship of All Believers (vv.42-47)
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Many of us will remember a time when going to church has felt amazing, where we have known enough people for it not to be awkward; where we have had jobs we can do which make us feel a part of things but which weren’t so hard we felt put upon; where our relationships with people have been good and the holy fireworks have been firing in our prayer lives as well.
This is something of the picture which Luke paints for us as a result of Peter’s sermon. I don’t know whether this picture of a fledgling church makes me hopeful or envious, or just a little cynical. But it is a wonderful picture.
The new converts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (v.42). The spiritual fireworks are going off: “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” The believers are liberated to live the sort of life a lady at my first church would have described as ‘too pious by half’ as they “had all things in common” (v.44) and “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (v.45). They seem to be in a 24 hour spiritual frenzy as “day by day” they “spent much time together in the temple” and “broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (v.46). They spend their time “praising God” and the fear of persecution before has completely evaporated as they had “the goodwill of all the people” (v.47).
And, bad enough for those of us who are members of churches which utterly fail to live up this ideal, they are even growing: “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (v.47).
It makes you want to be sick.
And it’s kind of meant to.
The picture Luke paints is one of a church working perfectly, utterly as it should, where everything is going right. Of course, we can’t live up to this ideal, and by Acts 5 we will see that members of the church are getting into very hot water for failing to live up to it! But just for this brief moment we are offered a snapshot of what the Church could be like.
Throughout these Queer Acts posts I have steered very clear of any reading of scripture which casts queer people as righteous victims (Christ is the only righteous victim) and conservatives as some sort of satanic opposition to Christ’s liberating will for queer people. Some queer commentators do read scripture this way. And perhaps at times these readings are really useful, especially as an antidote for those who have been burdened by years of explicitly homophobic interpretation, preaching and church life.
But passages like this challenge us to rise above the temptation to see anyone as totally in the right and anyone totally in the wrong. Passages like this remind us that all who believe, imperfect though we are, are called into the fellowship of Christ’s Church. This ideal picture of what the Church could be is meant to shake us out of any complacency in accepting how the Church is.
God’s call for the Church is that we may be one as the Father is one with the Son: that is the core of Jesus’ High-Priestly prayer (John 17.21).
Queer Christians are slightly different to secular LGBT campaigners. We don’t just work for LGB justice or liberation. That might be a part of what we do. But our primary vocation is to be faithful members of Christ’s Church, which is His body, often despite the failings and fractures in the institutional body. That’s hard, and I don’t want to guilt anyone into feeling they have to work with or enter regular fellowship with anyone in a way that is not yet safe for them. But we must have this ideal of a unified and truly faithful church in the back of our minds. When we meet for the Eucharist. When we meet to sing. When we serve those in need. But most of all when we pray, ‘your kingdom come’.