The Promised Promise

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
April 23, 2023

The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls.
—Acts 2:39

These are the words of Acts 2:39, the verse that truly stands out in today’s scripture reading. I repeat that verse whenever I do a baptism—especially a baptism on the UCC side of the sanctuary where we sprinkle and most of the baptisms are of infants. But it’s no less valid on the Disciples side where we dunk. Each side believes the promise is true—they’ve just traditionally remembered it at different times in a person’s life.

When I thought about the hymns for today, a day we’re talking about God’s promise, I think it’s natural that the first one I thought of was Standing on the Promises. It was harder to think of another one, though—especially one that you all might know. But there was one other that mentioned God’s promise, and it’s the one we just sang.

O for the wonderful love he has promised, promised for you and for me.

This one comes from a hymn I’ve talked about before: Softly and Tenderly. To be perfectly honest, this is not the style of hymn that I usually cotton to. But this particular song has a special place in my heart because it’s featured in a movie I love. The movie, as you might remember, is The Trip to Bountiful. It won Geraldine Page an Oscar for best actress back in 1985. She played an elderly woman named Carrie Watts, who lived with her son and daughter-in-law in a tiny apartment in Houston in the late 40’s. But she longs to return to her hometown—a tiny community named Bountiful near the Gulf coast. So one day she absconds with her pension check. She finds out that there are no buses to Bountiful anymore, so she takes one to the nearest town.

In the meantime, her son, Ludie, has reported her missing, and the sheriff finds her. He tells her her son’s on his way to pick her up and so she knows she’ll never see Bountiful again… until she convinces the sheriff to drive her there himself. Once there, she finds it deserted, with only a couple of old buildings still standing. The sheriff leaves her at her old house, now just a shell, and she reminisces as she waits for Ludie to arrive and take her back to Houston.

When he gets there, she tries to get him to remember, too, but he says he can’t—they moved away when he was just a boy. But finally he admits that he wasn’t being truthful. He could remember. He could remember all of it, and it hurt to remember. He felt he’d never amounted to much and had never lived up to the promise of his childhood and youth. We don’t know what exactly, but there’s a reference to problems with his mental health that have held him back. He compares himself to his grandfather and to his co-workers, and he always comes up short. How can somebody like him have a future?

There’s something healing about being in Bountiful, though. When Ludie finally talks about it, he finds that there’s renewal in remembering. Rather than being condemned, he is somehow empowered by his past. Its promise is not dead, and he really does have a future.

Surely if this was true of a character in a 20th century movie, how much more true must it have been of Peter. He had held such promise! He was the first of the disciples to say that Jesus was Messiah. So often he said what others dared not. But when push came to shove, it was he who wouldn’t admit to being one of Jesus’ followers. He didn’t even have the guts to admit he even knew Jesus. Three times he denied him.

And yet Jesus’ promises still held. Maybe he should’ve been cast off. Maybe, in his resurrection triumph, Jesus should have denied unfaithful old Peter. But he did not. He redeemed Peter’s mistake and gave him a double portion of his own Spirit. Peter was living proof that, in Jesus Christ, God keeps his promises—God keeps them, even when we are unfaithful.

And so don’t think that when Peter stands up on the Day of Pentecost and reminds people what they did to Jesus that he’s feeling morally superior. He absolutely is not. He is in no position to judge anyone after knowing all that he did—after confessing that Jesus is the Promised One of God—and still denying he ever knew him. He’s pointing out others’ mistakes from the point-of-view of somebody whose mistakes are, if anything, even worse.

Maybe this is what gives Peter’s words that day so much power. When the people heard the truth about Jesus—about his death and resurrection, his defeat and triumph—Luke tells us in Acts 2 that they were “cut to the heart.”

“What should we do?” they asked desperately? They must’ve thought their case was hopeless. “Repent,” Peter said. In other words, Change your minds. Instead of condemning this Man Jesus, immerse yourselves in him. Be baptized. Become part of his family. God promises you renewal, and this promise is for you. It’s for your children. It’s for everyone, near and far. Anyone who can hear the promise can receive the promise. God’s love for God’s people isn’t dead. The promise of the past is brought into the present by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Now remember, this was not a small crowd. There were thousands of people thronging the city to celebrate a Jewish holiday called Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks, also called Pentecost). Though they were all Jews, they represented every nation and were fluent in every known tongue. Who knows how many Peters there were in that crowd—how many who had denied God in their words and actions. Who knows how many Ludies—how many there were who had fallen short in everything they did, who never lived up to their potential. But here was someone who, despite all they had done and failed to do, was telling them of God’s promise, and telling them that the promise was promised to them. All they had to do was believe.

And here we are, centuries later, hearing the same promise. How many times have we denied our Lord in thought or word or deed? How many opportunities in life have we squandered? How many times have we failed? How many people have we let down? And yet, Peter says to us as he said to those Israelites so long ago, “The promise is for you, for those who come after you, for those who think they’re too far removed from the promise for the promise to even apply to them.”

Perhaps we’re all asking, “What can we do?”

And to that the apostolic faith answers: Change your minds. It’s not too late to turn your lives around. Be immersed in this Jesus you’ve heard about. Be part of his new family—a family not based on biology, but on love. The call has gone out. Some of us hear it softly and tenderly. While others need it to be loud and clear. But Jesus calls us to come home to a place we may never have been before, and have a promise fulfilled in our lives that we may not have known was intended for us.
—©2023 Sam L. Greening, Jr.