A lapsed Catholic, a disillusioned Evangelical and an atheist walk into a Church…they hear the proclamation of the Word and they all come to faith! I know, that’s beyond being a joke. But maybe they would have, if they had heard Peter preach to the people of Israel, our first reading today. Because Peter’s proclamation goes to some of the root problems raised by many who would identify among these groups. And I want to address these using three words: kerygma, kingdom and apokatastasis.
One of the most commonly cited reasons by Catholics who go to the so called ‘non-denominational’ churches, is that they never heard the gospel in their own Church. How is it possible for a mass going Catholic to not hear the gospel? Yet, this is a common experience. What they mean by the ‘gospel’, is the kerygma (a word meaning ‘proclamation’ in Greek). It has come to mean the basic proclamation of faith, the good news about Jesus Christ. This is what Peter proclaims to the Israelites. At the core of the kerygma is the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins – which Jesus commands to do in his resurrection appearance. That because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, our sins can be forgiven, and we can be set free to live the life to which God has called us. When Catholics who leave talk about it, they are talking about an experience of the forgiveness of sins, which comes through the kerygma, which is incredibly powerful. This announcement of the Good News and the resulting experience is essential in the life of the Christian. Without it, Christianity devolves into moralism – it’s all about being a ‘good person’, obeying some rules, maybe doing some good works and who knows, we might get into heaven. God is completely impersonal. And that’s not Christianity.
But if not hearing the kerygma can lead to a soul-destroying moralism, stopping with the kerygma, is again, insufficient. We can remain at the level of private experience, chasing after feelings. At its worst, it can become a new age kind of ‘spirituality’, focusing on developing greater levels of consciousness and what not. Such religion has nothing to say about transforming the world, where there is so much suffering, the common atheist critique. That is again, where people get disillusioned, if that is what religion is about. But Jesus didn’t die on the Cross just so we can have a nice religious experience. The forgiveness of sins is just the first step. Jesus came to inaugurate a kingdom, and you and I have a role to play in it. God had been preparing Israel, his chosen people for millennia, for his kingdom; his kingdom was God’s plan to set the world to right and make all things new. Christ’s resurrection was the high point of this unfolding story; this life of the kingdom had started breaking in, in a new way, into a world in the grip of sin and death. And if it happened with Jesus, the Christ – i.e., Jesus the King – then the war has definitely been set up in favour of the kingdom. The king battled these powers of evil on behalf of his people; in his resurrection, they were defeated. Kingdom life had broken in.
But when the kerygma is not rooted in the unfolding story of the kingdom, we can interpret it in worldly ways, just like Israel. Christianity can become affiliated with politics or other kinds of ideologies; the change Jesus promised being brought about through worldly, even violent means. But Jesus said, his kingdom is not of this world (Jn 18:36). The gospel, in reality, is far more radical than all our ideas. And we can see all this in Peter’s sermon.
We are, unfortunately, hearing only a truncated version of it today. It’s worth remembering this whole episode is precipitated by Peter and John healing a lame man outside the Temple. As the people see him healed, they gather around them wanting to know what has happened. Peter first clarifies that this is not their own holiness or some way in which they had become self-actualised; this is the power of God’s king Jesus released in him. This man, in other words, is an image of creation which has gone wrong, and now, the new life was breaking into it, by the power of the King’s name. This is an image of grace. He was not expecting to be healed, but God unexpectedly broke into his life, healing him. The Jews were familiar with grace. God had broken unexpectedly into their history, right from Abraham, and when they were slaves in Egypt, and when in exile. The Christian life is no different. As St Therese used to say, ‘All is grace’. Everything is gift. If we miss this, we can go very wrong in how we view God, ourselves, what we are trying to do.
Peter doesn’t in fact begin with Jesus – he begins with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus comes as the fulfilment of the Kingdom promised by God. But then, Peter continues: this King Jesus, the Jesus he says, whom you denied and had crucified. If the first movement was grace, the second moves to sin. He is not pulling his punches; he names their sin. They have not just missed the Messiah, their King, because they misinterpreted their Scriptures in a worldly way, but they had killed the Messiah, who was God himself. Without naming sin, there can be no salvation. No one likes being told they are sinners, of course. But God doesn’t point out our sin to make us miserable, it is so that we can be healed. This proclamation is the same for us. We might have not been there, but we have the same idols in our hearts, which caused the Jews and Romans to kill God himself. The Cross is the judgment of God on all the ways of the world. It reveals the true value of the things we hold precious in this world, our idols. The Cross reveals that there is nothing in the world through which we can find new life or salvation. It has to come from outside, it has to come from God. We cannot make ourselves better. And Peter immediately offers them this salvation. God had turned the very evil they had done to their good, by raising Jesus from the dead. And just as the life of the kingdom had broken into the world, it could now break into people’s hearts – how? – through his forgiveness. The evil in the world starts from the human heart. And the King’s forgiveness begins to set it free from all its violence. The greatest evidence of that was Peter himself. He had denied Jesus, the same sin of which he accuses Israel, but he stands before them, forgiven. Forgiveness is the third movement. And the final movement is renewal of all creation – apokatastasis (meaning ‘restoration’). This is what Peter ends with (Acts 3:21).
The call of Israel was to bring restoration to the world gone wrong by man’s sin. This power broke in, through the resurrection; now it has to continue flowing through you and me. It breaks into our hearts, setting us free in forgiveness; it is meant to overflow into the world. This love is meant to be lived, in our families, in our work, everywhere. This power of the holy Spirit can overflow in all kinds of amazing works that God can inspire, as he has done the saints all through the ages. All of which works with God in the renewal he is bringing about. On the final day, God will bring all of it together in a great and glorious apokatastasis – and we would have played a role in it. God wants to do so much more than what we can imagine. Open your heart to the Holy Spirit today – ask him to renew you in his love, and maybe, dare to ask him what he wants to do through you!