We hate it when someone “lays a guilt trip” on us. It feels rude, manipulative. (Of course, a guilt trip only works if we’re at least a little guilty, right?) No one likes to have a finger pointed at them.
That includes at church. Perhaps even especially at church.
We hardly ever hear the kind of hellfire and brimstone sermons of the past that were designed to make us tremble and repent. I think, for example, of the 18th century revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards and his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards was not known for his fiery delivery; this famous sermon was reputedly given in a rather matter-of-fact manner. Nevertheless, he had people weeping and pleading for mercy as he described them as spiders dangling by the slenderest of threads over a pit of fire; God was holding the other end of the thread, ready to let them drop to damnation.
Imagine someone preaching a sermon like that today, in your church. We’re what? Scurvy little spiders? Some might walk out. And even those who stayed might worry that the preacher had serious anger issues.
We prefer nicer sermons. A little guilt is okay; after all, grace means nothing unless we have a sense that we actually need it, that we deserve worse from God than we get. But we want lots and lots of grace and love to balance that sense of guilt, shame, or inadequacy.
So preacher, talk about sin if you must, but don’t overdo it. We’re paying your salary, and we didn’t come here to be browbeaten!
The apostle Peter, it seems, didn’t get the memo.
In Acts 2, we got to listen in on Peter’s first sermon. And already in Acts 3, we get to hear the second. The sermon will get cut off as the temple police come to arrest him, but it will be nearly as successful as the first: another 2,000 people will believe as a result of it (Acts 4:4).
There’s not much warm and fuzzy about what Peter says. He pulls no punches. In his first sermon, he had already made his hearers guilty of the Messiah’s crucifixion (Acts 2:23, 36). But in his second sermon, he ratchets up the tension:
- In Acts 2:23, Peter accused the crowds of conspiring with the Romans to kill Jesus. But in 3:13, he emphasizes that the Roman governor Pilate actually wanted to set Jesus free; it was the people who refused (Luke 23:16).
- Furthermore, in doing so, they “rejected the Holy and Righteous One” (3:14, NRSV). They rejected, in other words, the One who was both God and Messiah — and asked for the release of Barabbas, a convicted murderer, instead (Luke 23:18).
- And irony of ironies, the one they killed was the very Author of life (e.g., John 1:1-4).
That’s three strikes against them.
But they’re not out. Not yet. As we’ll see, Peter will still give them a chance to realize their mistake and repent.