In the 2pm SLT service on Thursday we heard the story in Acts of Peter’s speech to the Jews on the day of Pentecost. He really pulled no punches, accusing them of knowing that Jesus was special through seeing God working in him, and yet still colluding to have him crucified. That was a risky thing for Peter to say, to challenge in that way when he so easily could have been arrested and possibly crucified himself. In the reflection that follows, I suggest that of all people Peter was the one who actually had the right to challenge in this way due to his own experiences. The fact that the people took on board what he said suggests that they recognised that right also.
The readings were Psalm 62 and Acts 2:22-36. The reflection follows.
As some of you will know, I hope to be allowed to train as a priest in the Church of England. In order to do this I have had to go through a very long process of discernment. The Church tries to be very careful about who it trains. During this process there have been reams and reams of forms filled in by me and by others writing about me. I dread to think how bulky my file at Church House is but I’m sure I’ve done my bit to contribute to the use of a few forests!
I’m sure you’ve all had the experience of reading things that others have written about you. It’s natural to find things that don’t quite seem right. Sometimes if you give them some thought you begin to see the truth in them, though you would not have been able to make the statement yourself. We simply don’t see ourselves as others see us.
Some statements, though quickly recognised as true, can be surprising. One of these turned up in the registration form for me which has to be sent to the panel of advisers who interview candidates for training as priests. This form is a kind of summary of what I had written about myself. The summary is written by the Diocesan Director of Ordinands. In the section on Faith he had written:
“She has, fortunately, had times of doubt and questioning, most notably during her undergraduate days and then during brief periods of depression in the early years of her marriage and later during the early stages of pregnancy with her fourth child. “
It was that one word – fortunately – that grabbed my attention when I read it. What the DDO had written about times of doubt and questioning was true, but why was it fortunate? After considering for a while I came to the conclusion that having times of doubt and questioning has prepared me to help others who find themselves in the same position. Had I never experienced that, how would I possibly empathise with someone who did? How could I say something to them which would help and comfort them? The risk would be that I would sound superior and out of touch with their struggle. So my difficult times were indeed fortunate, as the DDO had said.
Another experience which has had unlikely positive consequences is that of an online relationship. I had a friendship online with a man which moved eventually from friendship to the beginnings of something more. As a married woman, I had to deal with that and try to resolve the situation. I found that difficult and upsetting and it was not easy. I am still dealing with some of the consequences now. However, I’ve learnt to respect the depth of online friendships and to be very careful how I monitor myself. What I have gained from this is that I can never take the moral high ground when others share with me about relationships that get out of hand and cross boundaries that they shouldn’t cross. That allows me to be better able to help those in a similar situation. I can speak about the ethical issues involved, not by preaching as one who is holier than thou, but by sharing the dilemmas as one who has been in the same place.
In today’s passage in Acts, Peter says a very forthright thing. He tells the Jews that they knew full well Jesus was special, that he was ‘attested to by God’ through all the wonderful deeds he did. They knew, and yet they colluded in Jesus’ crucifixion. That is a pretty hard hitting accusation. Peter is pointing the finger of blame at his listeners. He took a risk in saying it. Granted he was empowered by the Holy Spirit but there was still the risk that those who heard this statement would be so incensed that they would arrange to have Peter arrested and crucified too.
It’s interesting to observe that Peter seems to have been given plenty of space to build his argument, with no one recorded as complaining or attempting to stop or arrest him. What can have been happening? Why would people be content to be accused as they were and say nothing?
I wonder if Peter was precisely the right person to get this message across to those gathered. Perhaps his Director of Ordinands (had they had such in those days) might have written: ‘He has, fortunately, had experience of letting his Lord down though he had seen God work through him in mighty works, and knew he was the Messiah.’
Peter had the chance to own up to being a friend of Jesus, perhaps to have stood beside him being tried with him, but instead he denied that he even knew Jesus. Later, Peter had to be restored by Jesus so that he could take his place as leader of the Church.
Of all the people who could possibly stand and accuse the Jews of conspiring to have their Messiah crucified, Peter was the only one who could do so without taking the moral high ground. He actually had no right to criticise them and, perversely, that gave him the right to say what he did. I think that the way he put his message across conveyed this to his listeners. We don’t know exactly what Peter said or how he said it as this is a report of the essence rather than being verbatim, but I believe it was said in such a way that those who heard knew they were being addressed by someone who understood their position.
The verse after today’s reading shows the effect of what the Jews heard. Their response was not to bay for Peter’s blood, asking how he dare address them in that way. Instead they were ‘cut to the heart’ and wanted to know what they could do. Wasn’t Peter also cut to the heart when he realised what he had done? He went out into the darkness and wept bitterly. But what Peter also knew was what it was like to be restored. He knew what Jesus’ response was to one who had let him down totally. Hence, Peter knew that those who wished to, could repent and be baptised, finding forgiveness for what they had done wrong.
I wouldn’t have chosen to have questions and doubts about my faith. I wouldn’t have chosen to struggle with a relationship. No doubt Peter would not have chosen to feel the pain of denial of Jesus. However, coming out of those painful experiences is humility and also a power to help others that can come no other way.
If you have done things you regret confess your sin to God as soon as you are able to, but don’t spend too much time beating yourself up about what you have done. The likelihood is that you too will gain humility by recognising your own weakness. That will allow you to treat others with compassion and may give you the right to speak into a situation that others are less able to do.
As Paul said in his letter to the Romans: ‘We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.’
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor