Peter, for whom words were always a stumbling block, preaches his first sermon in Acts 2 to a crowd of pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for Shavu’ot. Having remembered their deliverance fifty days prior at Passover, on Shavu’ot Jews like Peter gathered again in Jerusalem to remember their receiving of the Torah from God on Mt. Sinai.
That the lectionary assigns this text for the third Sunday of Eastertide and pairs it with the Emmaus road revelation is a telling reminder that more is to be seen here than, as is customarily preached, the arrival of the Holy Spirit (as though the Spirit previously has been a deadbeat member of the Godhead).
Luke has already told us the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, alighted upon Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Simeon, compelled Christ’s first sermon, and baptized Jesus in his vicarious repentance.
Never mind the activity of the Holy Spirit throughout the Old Testament.
What Luke would have us see in Acts 2 is not the arrival of a heretofore absent Holy Spirit. The Spirit was never absent neither from Israel nor the disciples. The Holy Spirit was as present and active among the People of Israel before this Shavu’ot as the Holy Spirit is present and active among the People called Church after it.
Too often by relegating Peter’s rookie sermon to Pentecost preachers make the point of this passage Peter’s ability to preach as a product of the Holy Spirit’s arrival and, in doing so, we ignore the actual content of Peter’s preaching: the Risen Christ who is always not only the content of our proclamation but the active agent of our proclamation.
Christians joke that the Holy Spirit is the forgotten member of the Trinity but I actually think it’s Jesus. We teach Jesus’ teachings and we pray to Jesus and we preach his cross and resurrection but we neglect the ongoing agency of the Risen Christ both in the post-Easter scriptures and in our own world.
The story Luke tells in Acts 2 is no different than the story Luke tells of the encounter on the Emmaus road.
They’re both narratives about the Risen Christ making himself known to his disciples.
In the latter, the Risen Christ makes himself known in the breaking of the bread. In the former, the Risen Christ makes himself known in the proclamation of Peter. The two disciples on the way to Emmaus do not perceive Jesus on their own nor do they deduce his presence among them; likewise, Peter does not persuade his listeners to repent and be baptized nor do his listeners draw on their own any conclusions from their hearing.
The Risen Christ makes himself known in Peter’s proclamation and calls them himself to repent and be baptized, adding 3,000 to their number.
Numbers, as Brian Zahnd told me, are always important in the Bible.
The number 3,000 here in Acts 2 is another reminder that not only are we to read this passage in light of the resurrection we’re also to read it in terms of Shavu’ot.
The first Shavu’ot, as told in Exodus 32, ended with Moses and the sons of Levi taking up the sword and killing- brother, friend, and neighbor- 3,000 of the Israelites.
Because while Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah from God- the Torah which begins “Thou shalt have no other gods before me- the Israelites were busy down below making God into, if not their own, a cow’s image. Seeing them worshipping the golden calf, Moses orders the Levites to kill the idolaters.
3,000 were substracted from God’s People that first Shavu’ot.
So when Luke reports that 3,000 were added to the disciples on Shavu’ot, as a result of the proclamation of the Gospel, we’re to see more than the Holy Spirit’s arrival, more even than a crowd compelled by Peter’s preaching to repent.
We’re to see the Risen Christ overcoming- for us, in our place- our natural proclivity to idolatry.
We typically think of conversion as something we do. Hearing a sermon such as the one Peter delivers in Acts 2, we “make a decision” for Christ, we think.
It’s true the Gospel tells us to repent and believe, to take up our cross and follow, and it’s true that this ‘decision’ is something no one else can do for us. No one else, that is, except Jesus.
If we do not allow Jesus to be a substitute for us even in our repenting and believing then, as Thomas Torrance argues, we make his atoning substitution for us something that is partial and not total, which finally empties the cross of its saving significance.
“Jesus,” says Torrance, “constitutes in himself the very substance of our conversion, so that we must think of him as taking our place even in our acts of repentance and personal decision, for without him all so-called repentance and conversion are empty.”
What holds Good Friday and Easter together, what makes cross and resurrection inseparable, is that Jesus never stops being a substitute for us, in our place, on our behalf.
The Risen Christ remains, even here and now, every bit a substitute for us as the Crucified Christ.
Jesus acts in our place in the whole range of our life lived before God. Says Torrance:
“He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already implicated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father.”
Those 3,000 added on Shavu’ot are no different than the 3,000 on the first Shavu’ot. By themselves and their own faithfulness, Peter’s audience is every bit as prone to fashion and worship a golden calf.
The only difference is that the 3,000 in Acts are now in Christ. The Risen Christ is their substitute, his repentance and believing and faithfulness standing in for and empowering their own.
In him and through him, they are able to repent and believe and be baptized.
“When we say ‘I believe’ or ‘I have faith’ or ‘I repent’ we must correct ourselves and add ‘not I but Christ in me.’ That is the message of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ on which the Gospel tells me I may rely: that Jesus Christ in me believes in my place and at the same time takes up my poor faltering and stumbling faith into his own invariant faithfulness.”
What see in the Shavu’ot in Acts 2 is God overcoming our idolatry in the first Shavu’ot through the ongoing substitution of the Risen Christ in our place.