Did you hear about the sheep who got his head stuck in a traffic cone and had to be rescued? The RSPCA said he was fine afterwards, although he did look a little sheepish! And did you hear about the Swan that was stuck on the roof of a restaurant? Apparently the bill was too much! Thankfully some firefighters rescued it and returned it to a nearby river. And finally, did you hear about a man and his dog who stopped a cyclist from disaster with some bread? It was a Matter of Loaf and Death! Three ‘strange but true’ rescue stories, okay two of them: Wallace & Grommit used buns not bread to stop the bike.
There is another true but far more dramatic and important rescue, one that really is a ‘Matter of Life and Death’: Jesus’s resurrection. Within Chapter 2 of the Book of Acts Peter helps people to see God’s rescue plan for humanity that the resurrection unlocked.
Acts is a book full of eyewitness accounts and pioneering ministry, and where church as we know it began. It starts 40 days after Jesus’s resurrection with an account of Jesus ascending into Heaven having spent the time in between visiting and being seen by a whole host of people (Acts 1). 10 days later the Disciples spoke in languages they didn’t know but those who witnessed it did. They had received the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised. It was the first Pentecost.
Peter stood up to explain what had happened and help make the connections that gave birth to the church we know today (Acts 2).
Making the connections
Like Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances, the miracle of tongues and Peter’s speech was not hidden away but was in plain sight of a whole host of different people. This was not going to be something that could be easily dismissed as made up by some trouble makers. And to those who listened to Peter making the connections between what had been seen, said and done concerning Jesus the penny was beginning to drop.
Had Peter and the other disciples had to rely on simply their personal accounts of being, walking and eating with Jesus, without having spoken in different languages they didn’t know, people may well have dismissed them as liars or crack pots desperately clinging to a falsehood. Sure, there wasn’t a body in the tomb anymore but it could have been hidden away somewhere else; the disciples could be making it all up for personal gain or to keep the dream of the revolution alive. On its own their account probably would not have been enough for the crowd and the population at large to retain interest in Jesus before the world took over once again.
Similarly on it’s own the miracle of speaking in different languages could have been dismissed as nonsense, and indeed it was by some in the crowd. They jumped to the conclusion that the disciples were drunk. It was only when Peter stood up to link what people had just witnessed with what he and the disciples had witnessed after Easter Day that people began to put two and two together. Peter helped them to realise not only that Jesus was God’s son and humanity’s saviour but that a way for them to part of God’s family and Kingdom had been opened to them.
But Peter didn’t just back up and explain the what people had just seen with his own experiences, he went took them right back to the Psalms and prophecies David had written down. They would have known what Peter was talking about, the words of Joel and David that he referenced were part of their education and culture. They hadn’t made the connection before Jesus had been crucified but when those prophecies were brought together with eyewitness accounts, and the miracle they had just witnessed, the connections were beginning to be made in their minds.
When David wrote “The Lord said to my Lord” he wasn’t suggesting that God was speaking to David, he spoke of another Lord, another King. David knew that he wasn’t being asked by God to sit at His right hand, his Lord was.
David hadn’t been seen wondering around after being put into his tomb, the crowd would have known that his body had decayed just as everyone else’s had.
These three things were inextricably linked, they were part of the same story, the same true story. This was no tale of fiction, it was backed up with solid evidence and with things happening right in front of them that they could not deny.
It’s safe to say from their reaction to Peter’s speech was that they had begun to understand who Jesus was and what had just happened. Calling it a sense of unease might be a little of an understatement. The situation looked bad and they felt responsible.
Have you ever realised that you got something badly wrong? Have you ever had to eat humble pie? Well, for the crowd listening to Peter it was worse than that.
Peter effectively said to them, “Look, you know the Messiah you’ve been waiting for, the Saviour that David spoke about, well… I hate to break it to you but you’ve just had Him nailed to a cross. And you know those things Jesus said before you condemned Him as a criminal and urged Pontius Pilate to release Barabbas instead? Well He was telling the truth and what you have seen here today proves it”.
Do you remember the Bristol landlord accused by the press of killing Jo Yates, who with many others hounded him into hiding and still questioned his pleas of innocence after the killer had been found and confessed? The crowd realised that they had played a part in hounding the innocent Jesus.
Do you remember any of the prisoners executed by authorities who later found out that they had killed an innocent person? The crowd realised that had happened to Jesus too.
So when the crowd made the connection and comprehended the truth, it is no wonder did the crowd feel sick to the stomach.
God’s Rescue Operation
I’m sure you’ll be relieved to here there’s some good news coming! Peter was able to help them see God’s rescue operation within the Resurrection.
He was able to show them the way for them to put things right. But, and here where it gets really good, to put things right in a way where they would end up being the beneficiaries!
Horrible as it had been, there had been a purpose in Jesus’s crucifixion. Jesus may have been killed unjustly but He died willingly. And His willingness stemmed from the fact that He knew that humanity was in trouble and needed rescuing.
Just as now, many people then had embraced a way of life that ignored the plight of the poor and vulnerable. He had warned them that unless they turned away from this way of life and back to God’s they were heading for disaster, a hollow life cut off from God and a permanent death.
God knew we needed someone to step into the breach between life and death and Jesus took on that job. But the rescue wasn’t simply from death. Yes Jesus died in this world and descended into “the realm of the dead” before rising out of it but it wasn’t just to defeat death so we could join Him into the Heavenly Kingdom when we died. It was so that we could be part of that Kingdom right now as well!
The crowd were looking to put things right but, as Peter said, saying sorry wasn’t going to be enough. Sure they should choose to live according to Jesus’s teaching and seek to live God’s way but the Old Testament proves that wouldn’t have worked for long. Unless they brought into the whole package on offer, unless they repented and became part of the family of God they would still struggle and would still be heading for a permanent death.
Being baptised brought them forgiven into the family of God and gave them a ticket to eternity, that sounds like a good deal and one that is still available today. But the rescue plan on offer was way bigger and better than something to look forward to, it had something for the here and now!
The crowd had seen the disciples receive the Holy Spirit, and now they knew it was part of the package too, it still is. What had been limited to a number of individuals was and is now on offer to everyone. Every signed up member of the family of God then and now would be given the Holy Spirit to help them live God’s way.
And every signed up member of the family of God that day reinforced the truth of the resurrection. Had the resurrection been simply a clever trick pulled off by the disciples the birth and rapid rise of the church would not have happened. Instead, they made the connections between what they and others had seen, had understood and accepted the rescue plan, and gave birth to a new church of everyday people, Jews and Gentiles alike.
Share it, connect it, live it
So how did what happen 2000 years ago lead to what’s happening in this church and around the world today? How did the proof of Jesus’s resurrection presented to a group of people in Israel end up with billions of people taking up the offer of eternal rescue? Because Peter, the disciples and those present did not leave it there. Just as Peter guided them through to a realisation of what had happened and why Peter, the disciples and those who came to faith on that first Pentecost did not leave it there, they took it further.
They established the blueprint for church to help keep the dream alive:
- they kept together as a community of fellowship, doing their utmost to live in harmony with each other and their communities;
- they kept focused on God way of life by studying Jesus’s teaching;
- they kept the connection between Heaven and Earth through prayer; and
- they kept remembering Jesus’s rescue operation by breaking bread as He had done at the Last Supper.
That is what they did week in week out. They passed on the evidence of the rescue plan and the Christian message of repentance, baptism, forgiveness, and the gift of the Holy Spirit to their communities. Generation by generation they did the same, and it’s what we do and need to continue to do today.
It wasn’t easy for the early church and it isn’t any easier for us. Paul’s letters in the New Testament show that being in harmony with each other isn’t always easy, but the hard work has already been done. Death no longer has the final word. And until Jesus returns God is keeping the rescue operation going with the Holy Spirit and with us. So when you next leave home don’t leave the evidence behind, share it, connect it, live it.