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Devotion by N.T. Wright
When they heard this, the crowd were cut to the heart. ‘Brothers,’ they said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘what shall we do?’ ‘Turn back!’ replied Peter. ‘Be baptized—every single one of you—in the name of Jesus the Messiah, so that your sins can be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the holy spirit. 39 The promise is for you and for your children, and for everyone who is far away, as many as the Lord our God will call.’ He carried on explaining things to them with many other words. ‘Let God rescue you’, he was urging them, ‘from this wicked generation!’ They welcomed his word and were baptized. About three thousand people were added to the community that day (Acts 2:37-41).
It’s one thing to discover you are driving along the wrong road. It may be frustrating, and even embarrassing if you have people in the car who thought you knew where you were going. But you can at least admit the mistake, turn round and set off again, this time in the right direction. But it’s quite another thing if you are sliding down a steep slope—say, on a toboggan, or on skis and suddenly realize you are heading for a sheer drop. You seem to be accelerating towards it, and the slope is too steep for you to check your speed, let alone to stop, turn round, and go back up again out of danger. What are you going to do?
The answer may well be that there’s nothing you can do. You need to be rescued. You need, in fact, someone to stand in the way: someone who has managed to get a fixed foothold on the slope, and who will catch you, stop you, and help you to safety. And if you were lucky enough to see someone offering to do that, you’d have to steer towards them and be ready for the shock of a sudden stop. Better that than plunging over a cliff. The key thing to realize, in reading the early chapters of Acts, is that Jesus himself had warned his fellow Jews that they were precisely in danger of accelerating towards a cliff. If you read Luke’s gospel straight through, you will notice how the warnings which Jesus gave seem to increase in quantity and volume all the way to chapters 19, 20 and 21, where he solemnly declares that if the nation as a whole, and the city of Jerusalem in particular, don’t stop their headlong flight into ruin, their enemies will come and destroy them. The warnings are very specific. Jesus declares, Israel has bought into a way of life which is directly opposite to what God wants: a way which ignores the plight of the poor, which embraces violence, which denies God’s call to his people to become the light of the world. Again and again Jesus warns, ‘If you don’t turn back, you’re heading for disaster’ (Luke 13:5). When he arrives in Jerusalem he bursts into tears as he describes, in a prophetic vision, a great military force laying siege to the city and leaving no stone on top of another. This will happen, he says, ‘because you didn’t know the way of peace’, and ‘because you didn’t realize that God was visiting you’ (Luke 19:41–44).
He warns that, though he is about to bear this judgment Himself, dying on a charge of which he was innocent but thousands around him were guilty (Luke 23:2–5, 18–25), those who nevertheless persisted in their headlong rush towards the sheer drop of violence would reap the consequences. And, of course, when the crowds, the chief priests and the other leaders rejected Jesus at that Passover, Jesus himself saw that as the culmination of their rejection of his way of peace, his kingdom-way, the way he had been urging them to follow all along. It wasn’t that their sending of Jesus to his death was an isolated act of folly or sin. It was the symptom of their rejection of God’s way. It was the sign of what Jesus had said many times: this generation is wicked and corrupt, heading for disaster.
But now, with Jesus’ resurrection, Peter and the others can unpack the meaning of the crucifixion for the benefit of the crowds. This is, perhaps, the first beginning, the first small glimpse, of the church’s developing understanding of the purpose of the cross. That understanding doesn’t begin as an abstract theory about ‘sin’ or ‘judgment’. It begins as the very concrete and specific awareness: ‘this corrupt generation’ is heading for disaster, but Jesus stands in the way and can stop them from falling over the cliff. The message is then clear: ‘Be rescued’—in other words, let God rescue you, let Jesus rescue you.
But how do you steer towards Jesus? How does he catch you, stop you, and rescue you? Peter and the others are quite clear—and the message of the Christian gospel fans out from this point to all people and all times. You need to turn back. You need to allow Jesus himself to grasp hold of you, to save you from the consequences of the way you were going (‘forgiveness of sins’) and to give you new energy to go in the right way instead (‘the gift of the holy spirit’).
All this was very concrete and specific for the crowd in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost. Join this movement, allow the death and resurrection of Jesus to become the badge you wear, the sign of your identity, with you and your children (verse 39) sharing in the new life of the baptized community, the life which has the stamp of Jesus upon it, the life which is defined in terms of turning away from the course you were on and embracing Jesus’ way instead. And, though circumstances change, we can see how the same message translates without difficulty to everyone in every society and at every moment in time. ‘The promise is for you, and for your children, and for everyone who is far away, as many as the Lord our God will call’ That means all the rest of us. And, whenever we are in a mess, of whatever sort and for whatever reason, we should remember this: we are ‘turn-back-and-be-rescued’ people. We are ‘repent-and-be-baptized’ people. Anyone has the opportunity to cash in that promise at any place and any time. No wonder 3,000 people signed up that very day.