Sunday, April 26, 2020

Sermon: “The Witness of Unexpected Reactions”, Acts 2.14a, 36-41 (April 26, 2020)


Have you ever heard of “reaction videos”? It’s an online phenomenon where people post videos of themselves (or others) as they encounter things for the first time. They can be experiencing anything from a video game to popular music to unfamiliar technology to a viral video, but no matter what it is, the whole point is to watch their reaction. Yes, you heard that right: the entertainment value of one of the most popular trends on YouTube lies entirely in the unfiltered reactions of strangers.

This may sound like a bizarre fad (and might make you reflexively roll your eyes and say, “Kids today!”) but there’s actually a scientific explanation for its appeal. Basically, human beings are drawn to reaction videos because they make sense to our psyche, and it’s gratifying for us to be able to relate to the emotions of another person[1]. Our empathy allows us to connect with one another, even when we have absolutely nothing else in common. So, we seek out these opportunities for shared experience—and in the modern age, the internet places these opportunities right at our fingertips.

The early Christians, of course, didn’t have the benefit of the internet for such psychological satisfaction, but they WERE able to share their experiences through their writings. In a way, the book of Acts is kind of like a viral “reaction video”. As word of this new religious movement spread throughout the known world, dramatically different people from all corners of the vast Roman empire were able to see themselves in these stories told about the early Christ-followers. The further away from the actual events we get (both physically and temporally), the less the audience has in common with the crowd described in this passage. But through Luke’s writing, we’re able to “see” them react to the news that the apostles bring, and therefore connect with them on an emotional level in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

Now, part of the appeal of a “reaction video” is based in our own expectations. If the object of the video is a funny clip, we anticipate laughter. If it’s an old, obscure piece of technology, we anticipate confusion. If it’s unpleasant, we anticipate cringing. It’s most satisfying to watch reactions that match our expectations, because it means that our sense of empathy is on point. So of course, as we “watch” the crowd react to Peter’s sermon, we look forward to their joy and celebration at hearing the Good News. That’s what Easter’s all about, right? Bright colors and joyful hymns and triumph and victory. Christ is alive! We should see nothing but positive reactions.

But human beings are more complex than that. We’re capable of holding multiple emotions in tension at the same time. So while the crowd undoubtedly felt joy at the Good News that Jesus was, indeed, the long-awaited messiah, it isn’t the reaction that emerges from the page. Instead, we see the anguish that the crowd feels at realizing their role in the crucifixion. An unexpected reaction. Although the joy must have been there, it wasn’t the prominent emotion driving their initial response.

Normally, I prefer the CEB translation of scripture because it’s easy to understand while remaining faithful to the original languages. But today, I chose the NRSV translation because of how it describes the crowd’s reaction. Since we don’t have a video of this moment, descriptive language is important, and in my opinion, you can’t get much more descriptive than the NRSV here: “When they heard this [news], they were cut to the heart.” Have you ever felt “cut to the heart?” What sort of thing elicits this kind of visceral reaction? This isn’t just feeling “deeply troubled”, as the CEB puts it. No, this is a reaction that’s so strong you can physically feel it in your body; it reverberates through your bones, and aches so deeply that you’d do anything for relief. Even though it’s not the reaction that we may have expected from the crowd, we can still certainly relate to it.

The question remains, though, WHY this is the most prominent emotion in the crowd’s reaction. WHY does their distress become the most readily recognizable part of their response? The reason for their discomfort in spite of the Good News is that Peter didn’t sugarcoat the truth. Yes, Jesus is both Lord and Christ, but the savior was killed because of the people’s slavish devotion to the empire. It’s doubtful that anyone in the crowd had physically hammered the nails into Christ’s hands and feet themselves, but they’d all played a role in the murder by virtue of their support of the status quo.

The fact that their anguish is more pronounced than their joy tells us a lot about their priorities. See, they must have recognized the Good News for what it is; otherwise, nothing that Peter said would have mattered to them. But instead of immediately laying claim to their salvation, they chose to focus on their own actions and responsibility first. They realized that they’d messed up, and they knew that they had to do something about it before they could enjoy God’s redemption fully. God’s promise was offered freely, without condition, and yet the people recognized that that didn’t let them off the hook. So they asked Peter, “What do we do to make this right?”

Does this reaction surprise us? Why? Can we honestly say that we would we react this same way in the face of the news of our salvation? Really, it’s not even a hypothetical question: when we hear the Good News of the resurrection during the Sundays of Eastertide, are we able to still recognize our culpability in the sin that holds God’s kindom at arm’s length even now? And if we are…are we willing to ask, “What do I do to make this right?” Is this a reaction that we can relate to?

The value of a “reaction video” lies in our ability to empathize with the people doing the reacting. The crowd that Peter addresses in Acts 2 defies our expectations, but maybe they have something to teach us about how we SHOULD react. Because we’re not just passive consumers of “reaction content”, reading about what the early Church did. Society is watching OUR reactions, too. As Christians, how we react to emerging situations tells the world a lot about who we believe God is. And how we take responsibility for our own actions (or don’t) tells the world a lot about who we believe God wants us to be.

As our leaders discern how and when to open our society back up, do we focus on our “right” to get things back to normal, or do we lament the times that we’ve put others at risk for the sake of our own comfort? As we begin to consider gathering together in person once again, do we celebrate our needs being filled, or do we grieve for those whom we exclude because of their vulnerability? As we start to figure out what this new world post-COVID-19 will look like, do we point fingers and place blame, or do we ask, “Siblings, what should we do?” What will people see as they watch our reactions to the events that unfold around us?

How we react matters. We can talk about compassion, repentance, and responsibility until we’re blue in the face, but actions speak louder than words, and the way we react to a situation will always be the first thing that people notice. Consider your whole life a live “reaction video” that the world is tuning into to see what Christians are all about. In fact, there’s a word we already use to describe such real-life “reaction videos” based in faith: our witness to Christ. The way we encounter the world speaks volumes about God. There’s much more at stake than just our own experience. We also need to consider what others experience through us.

When the world saw how the people reacted to Peter’s message, the community grew by three thousand people. Certainly, this wasn’t the only factor—Peter preached a heck of a sermon, and it was God who ultimately transformed the people’s hearts. And certainly, the crowd didn’t always react in a righteous way every time. But this particular time, they did, and the world was watching. They saw what it really means to follow Christ. It means being honest about your own responsibility, even if it means being cut to the heart. It means repenting and turning away from sin—not just in theory, but in action. It means hearing the WHOLE message, and not just the parts that you like.

In other words, it means reacting how Jesus has always called us to react, because the world is watching. What do your reactions tell them? What is your witness saying about God? Amen.



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