Acts 3.12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3.1-7; Luke 24.36b-48
HAVING “opened their minds to understand the scripture” concerning his resurrection, and “the repentance and forgiveness of sins which is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations”, Jesus tells the apostles that they are “witnesses of these things”. His words contain a twofold truth. The apostles were not only eyewitnesses to the bodily resurrection of their Lord: they were also the first to witness the forgiveness of sins which flows from his Easter victory — through their direct experience of God’s restoring grace and mercy.
After the resurrection of Christ, his apostles had to reckon with their own faithlessness. Encountering their risen Lord must have been a cause of shame as well as joy. In the crucial moments of Holy Week, almost all of them had fled in terror and denied him. Their place as Christ’s apostles, whom he now sends out to proclaim the good news of his Easter victory, is not one that they have earned. Their restoration is a gift of grace.
The apostles’ own experience — of betrayal and shame, forgiveness and restoration — shapes their proclamation of the gospel. In Acts 3, Peter addresses a crowd who “wonder” and “stare” because of his healing of a lame man. Peter is clear that the glory belongs to God alone: the healing is not due to his own “power or piety”. As St John Chrysostom writes, his words “reveal that what has just taken place was not a human act but divine, and that [the apostles] were worthy of joining the beholders in admiration, and not of receiving it from them”.
Because Peter has experienced God’s forgiveness, his proclamation of the gospel is also filled with mercy. In an echo of Jesus’s prayer on the cross (“Forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”), Peter acknowledges that those who crucified Jesus “acted in ignorance”. The invitation that he issues to the crowd is one that he has accepted for himself: “Repent, therefore, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.”
In the experience of Peter and his fellow apostles, the power of the Holy Spirit had both “wiped out” sin and provided the grace necessary for amendment of life. In place of cowardice and betrayal, they are now witnesses (marturia) to the good news, even unto death.
This same process of repentance and reconversion continues throughout each Christian’s life. As Jaroslav Pelikan observes, the Church’s practice of penance flows from a recognition of the “mutual and inseparable” relation between penitence and conversion of life, and the fact that this is a continuing process rather than a single event (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Acts).
When asked to describe his life as a Christian monk, one of the Desert Fathers replied: “We fall down and get up; we fall down and get up; we fall down and get up.” Each believer experiences this ongoing process of reconversion, and thus an ongoing need for God’s mercy.
Our psalm provides a fitting counterpart to these readings from Luke and Acts. Psalm 4 is most commonly encountered in the service of compline, because of its closing prayer: “In peace I will lie down and sleep; for it is you Lord, only, who make me dwell in safety.”
But the Psalmist begins by reminding us of the source of his peace: the “mercy” which comes from the “God of [his] righteousness”. Commenting on this opening verse, Theodore of Mopsuestia writes: “One who seeks mercy from God shows clearly that he does not demand the fruit of his own merit and the debt of his own zeal, but that he wishes to benefit from the patience and kindness of God.”
When God’s people forget to call on his mercy, they fall either into complacent boastfulness (as if they have earned their righteousness) or anxious self-justifying activity (as if they still need to earn it by good works). By contrast, the apostles preach from a posture of humility and joy, because they know themselves to be entirely dependent on God’s generous love.
Rejoicing in the forgiveness that they have received, the apostles invite others to experience God’s mercy for themselves. Salvation is not their achievement: it is a gift that they have received and long to share with others. Their generosity, humility, and joy provide the basis for a fruitful proclamation of the gospel in each new generation.
Canon Angus Ritchie is director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and Priest-in-Charge of St George-in-the-East, London.