The Depth of Spiritual Ignorance
By Dennis S. Hankins
You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. – Acts 3:14
The mock trial and crucifixion Jesus endures and his resurrection from the dead makes Peter a bold and persuasive preacher of the gospel. His transformation reminds me of how a potter transforms the clay in his hands into a beautiful and usable vessel. What a difference fifty days make. Peter is not the man he was. A visit to an empty tomb and a sea side morning breakfast with Jesus make Peter a true fisher of men.
Peter is direct. He’s not pointing fingers. He speaks with denouement as he ties together the great salvation story from Abraham to Jesus. In a masterly and convincing way Peter discerns the destructive darkness in the heart of his own people. He describes their condition without denouncing them. He piques their interest with a simple explanation: “And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.”
He laments the spiritual ineptness embedded in the hearts of the Chosen people before him. And I can believe that Peter replays the acts of denial of Jesus in his own heart. Not many days ago Peter wrestled with the distance and alienation of his own making. He didn’t even stand with Mary and John under the cross of him he declared to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. Some standing before him are aware how Peter denied the Lord three times and cursed and resisted the truth that once made him free.
Only a few minutes ago just before 3 p.m., the hour of prayer at the Temple, Peter and John enter the Temple through a gate of particular splendor where a man lame from birth is begging alms. This lame man asks Peter and John for alms. And Peter explains, “I have no silver or gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And taking him by the right hand, he helps the man get up as his feet and ankles are immediately filled with strength! The nameless man then enters the Temple area walking and leaping and praising God. (Acts 3:1-10)
Imagine the commotion this causes. For as long as anyone can remember this man has begged for alms. And all are filled with wonder and amazement that he is now walking. Of course the lame man introduces himself as the new friend of these two men he has just met.
“What are your names again? he asks.
“Well, uh, my name is Peter and this is my good friend, John.”
“Hey everybody, this is Peter and John,” the once lame man exclaims. Peter takes stock and understands he needs to explain some things now and quickly.
Raising his hands to calm the crowd, Peter explains, “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we make this man to walk?” He speaks like a shepherd; a new and welcomed feature of Peter’s character.
And then addressing the crowd he recalls for everyone the event of not many days ago.
“The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus,” Peter reminds everyone. Heads begin to drop. Some were in that crowd before Pilate crying, “Give us Barabbas!”
“But what do you want me to do with Jesus?” Pilate is thinking he should release Jesus.
“Crucify him! Crucify him!” Some in Peter’s audience remember that day. Some in that crowd were the ones in that other crowd chanting death to the Author of Life. I remember being in that crowd chanting the same thing on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. And on Good Friday I sang, “Were you there when they crucified, my Lord.”
I bow my head and say, “Yes.”
Then Peter says, “I know. I was too. You acted in ignorance. But I…tears not yet cried run between the wrinkles in Peter’s cheeks. I knew him as the Son of God.”
We believe Mark composed his Gospel in Rome as a result of hearing Peter’s preaching. (1 Peter 5:13) Mark recall’s Peter’s reflection on his denial of the Lord: “And he broke down and wept.” (Mark 14:72)
With a heart shaped by events still fresh on his mind, Peter lifts his voice in the triumphant testimony of the early Church, “But God raised him from the dead. To this, I can assure you, John and I are witnesses.” (Acts 3:15)
Spiritual ignorance is a real and black hole of unbelievable depth and arrogance. St. Paul addresses the darkness and slowness of the soul to believe. He describes the message of the cross as a ‘secret’ and ‘hidden’ wisdom of God imparted by the Holy Spirit. This message is, he says, for our salvation and glorification. Paul recalls that none of the rulers of this age understood this. For if they had, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor. 2:6-8)
Only for a little while is Jesus made lower than the angels. He is crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one. (Hebrews 2:9) But in the Easter Vigil Proclamation we hear the words of rejoicing:
O happy fault. O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a redeemer. Most blessed of all nights, chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!…The power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy; it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly pride. (The Exultet)
As Peter finishes his irresistible discourse, the light of the Resurrection fills those listening to him at their holy hour of prayer. A notable miracle has occurred in the healing of the man born lame, and a greater miracle is taking place as many of those who hear Peter’s preaching, believe; and the number of men alone who believe is about five thousand.
As for Peter and John, they spend the night in jail. And the next morning they pierce the spiritual darkness again proclaiming Jesus Christ and him crucified who makes the lame to walk and the blind to see and the deaf to hear. With power they proclaim there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men that can save us! (see Acts 4:1-4;10-12; 30-31) Amen.