Sermon Archives

Cut to the Heart

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Apr 30

Texts: Acts 2:14a, 36-41

"2:14a: But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them,…2:36 "Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." 2:37 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?" 2:38 Peter 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. 2:39 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." 2:40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." 2:41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added."

Back in my divinity school days, I spent a year working part time as a chaplaincy intern at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. During one of my overnight, on-call shifts, there was a Code Blue on the 8th floor Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. It was about 2 am. I mustered up a short centering prayer for myself in the elevator. I can even remember pushing the large button outside the automatic ICU door before entering into an atmosphere of controlled chaos. There were beeping machines, bustling medical staff and worried faces. I soon learned that a patient was suffering severe complications following open-heart surgery earlier that day. A nurse told me she had phoned the patient’s husband and told him come right away. She asked if I could keep him company and keep him off the floor while they cared for his wife. She warned me that they might need to “go in again,” right on the floor, and that if they did, I should be a liaison between the team and husband until she was stabilized. It was a long night. The husband arrived and we got to know each other a bit, pacing the halls, sipping coffee in the cafeteria, waiting. I would check-in every 20 minutes or so. At one point, I found myself standing inside the woman’s room, talking with the team and looking over the doctor’s shoulder. By this point, they had reopened her chest and I could literally see inside. What I saw was more awesome than awful, more beautiful than terrifying, more real than surreal -- a still beating human heart, fully exposed. It was an unforgettable privilege to say the least, as was tending to the heart of the husband. Suffice it to say, the woman pulled through, and her husband did too.

All of this came back to me as I was reading our text appointed for this third Sunday of Eastertide. Did you hear what Lindsay just read: After hearing Peter’s words, the disciples were cut to the heart? There was a sense that what he was saying mattered and mattered gravely! It was a moment with life-changing, maybe even life-saving potential!

To be fair, it probably wasn’t just Peter’s preaching. The fact is our story skips ahead of our liturgical season. It comes right after story of Pentecost when the Spirit was given to that still nascent movement of Jesus followers. Peter addresses them with a sermon doing his best to explain the significance of the events that many of them had witnessed, from the crucifixion to the appearances of the Risen Christ to the moment they had all just shared of being filled with the Spirit of God. These were turbulent and troubling and grief stricken times for that very first church community, as in the first church community ever. They were still reeling from that strange mixture of Good Friday trauma and Easter Sunday joy. Forget about a 100 day marker, they were just crossing the 50th day, hence Pentecost! Add that whirlwind gift of the Holy Spirit on top of that and no wonder people were saying they all seemed drunk. Into that heady mix, Peter clears his throat and tries his best to live up to his name – to be “Petra,” to be that “rock” on which this new community would be built! He preaches a sermon that ends on the line we just heard from Lindsay: "Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." And… “when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "what should we do?" They were cut to the heart! Something about all of those events and Peter’s preaching opened them up, left them exposed, vulnerable and very eager to know what came next.

Before we go further, let’s be clear Peter was a Jew, speaking to other Jews, about Jesus who he says they crucified! Even with that all-in-the-family recognition, this passage is still ripe for anti-Semitic interpretation and lends itself far too handily to that dangerous old canard that “the Jews” killed Jesus. There may well have been some guilt or shame that Peter himself was feeling and projecting in that moment. After all, this is the guy denied Jesus three times, all before that cockerel atop the steeple crowed! Given all that’s come before and all that follows this passage, I read Peter’s word more as invitation than condemnation. The invitation is to recognize the lost and violent ways of the empire, and also recognize our undeniable and unavoidable human complicity and complacency when faced with social evil. Even more, there’s an invitation here to find and follow a new way, the way of Jesus. Even before that first church was called a church, the Jesus movement was referred to by Josephus and other historians as “the followers of the Way.” Cleary the group listening to Peter was un-phased by his characterization of them. They recognized something beyond that, something more profound and true in what they hearing about Jesus! They were cut to the heart by the story of God’s love unconditional and they wondered “what then should we do?”

So Peter tells them. Repent and be baptized. Here, I prefer Eugene Peterson’s colloquial yet still scholarly translation of Acts: “Peter said, “Change your life. Turn to God and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, … Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children, but also to all who are far away—whomever, in fact, our ..God invites.” Again, there’s no tone here of shaming condemnation. Instead it’s urgent invitation! Peterson’s translation continues. “40 He went on in this vein for a long time, urging them over and over.” And rather than save yourselves from this corrupt generation, it’s: “Get out while you can; get out of this sick and stupid culture! [And] That day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the Apostles, to the life together, to the common meal, and to the prayers.”

And we thought we had our hands full with three baptisms today. Imagine 3000! For the little ones just baptized here, their lives are already changing every day, they already know the deep spiritual practice of curiosity and awe and wonder. Their parents could have chosen to wait to let them decide for themselves as some families and traditions do. This is fine with us. But for the rest of us, especially as we remember our baptisms today, the message of repent and be baptized may have a different resonance. Repent and be baptized! As in, change your life, turn to God and claim your part in this new community that is done with deception, greed and violence of the dominant culture. Repent and be baptized, not as judgment or condemnation but as invitation - to look at our lives and our decisions with unflinching honesty, and invitation to be honest with ourselves and God about what we have done and what we have left undone, and then an invitation to be part of a community of love and challenge and forgiveness and, to borrow a phrase, to be the change we want to see!

A few years after my time at the Brigham, I came across a prayer of Dorothy Sayers about taking stock of our lives and being honest with ourselves. She wrote: “Lord, teach us to take our hearts and look them in the face, however difficult it may be.” (1) I recalled that moment in the ICU, how awed I was to actually looked a human heart in the face! And I saw that it was beautiful, a sign of the miracle and majesty of life and creation. I also saw how vulnerable and exposed we all can be, especially when we are cut to the heart by life’s events— medical, spiritual or otherwise.

Friends, when was the last time you were so cut to the heart? When was the last time you felt so open and exposed? When was the last time you had one of those moments of “What do I do now?” At times like this, we would be wise to remember Peter’s words, not of judgment of ourselves or others –where we so often go when we are stressed, but instead of loving invitation! Repent and be baptized! Look your own heart in the face. Remember we aren’t supposed to go it alone. Turn your life to God and community. Remember your baptism, remember the outpouring of love, the promises of support.

If you ask me, I’d say our entire nation is in a season of intensive care right now, and it is a moment with life-changing, maybe even life-saving potential. The call to repent, to look our own hearts in the face, to change what we can and turn toward one another in community is how we too will pull through this time, by God’s grace. We are all prone to have broken hearts in need of healing. We are prone to infection by those evils we deplore. We are cut to the heart when we hear stories like those we will hear later today, whether in our workshop address sex trafficking in Boston or in our Muslim solidarity teach-in. Consider how many of us are having painful encounters with strangers laced with racism, bigotry, misogyny and other forms of hatred that seem to be so on the rise. Consider how many are right now experiencing some existential heartbreak, struggle, grief, sickness or fear. We need to be intensively caring for one another in these “what do we do now” times, and we need to be taking time now, amidst the chaotic beeps and bustle of our lives, to remember what matters, to expose our hearts to God’s grace and to one another’s tender care.

My prayer is that we all may learn to lay and pray with chests and hearts open wide, placing the care of our hearts and souls into the hands of one another and into the hands of our God. May we have the strength to look our hearts in the face, to change, to be baptized into a new hope and new life and into a new community of love and mercy that the Risen Christ offers us even now. Amen.

1) Dorothy Sayers, quoted in Martin Smith’s A Season for the Spirit. Boston: Cowley Publications, 1989.