The Big Bang

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For the four weeks leading up to and going beyond Easter, we’re looking at the life of Peter.  Because he’s so often at the center of both the brightest and darkest moments in the Gospels, he has always been a source of hope and inspiration for those endeavoring to follow Jesus.

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson figured they had a pigeon problem.

In 1965, the two astronomers were using the huge horn-shaped radio antenna owned by Bell Labs on a hilltop in New Jersey to listen for sounds from deep space.  But there was static on the line.  No matter which direction they pointed their instrument, they kept picking up an annoying hiss – background noise that threatened to compromise their delicate readings.

Wilson and Penzias assumed the problem was local.  Pigeons had been roosting inside the horn.  They shooed them away and cleaned up the droppings.  The hiss remained.  Maybe they needed the equivalent of WD-40.  They disassembled the radio antenna and lubricated all the moving parts.  Nothing changed.

The two men became obsessed with finding a solution. 

That’s when they heard that Princeton professor Robert Dickie had recently suggested that if the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe was really true – if the cosmos had originated by means of a primordial explosion of an infinitely dense “singularity” – then something would be left over.  There ought to be low-level background radiation in every direction.  Dickie and a team of scientists were trying to find that faint noise as a way to prove the reality of the Big Bang.

Penzias and Wilson called Dickie and described their “hiss problem.”  Could this be what he was looking for? 

When the Princeton prof hung up the phone, he turned to his colleagues and sighed, “We’ve been scooped.”  Indeed they were.  Wilson and Penzias were ultimately awarded the Nobel Prize for accidentally discovering what physicists now call cosmic background radiation – one of many compelling clues that the universe began with a bang. 

The Church began with a bang, too – a spiritual explosion that sent the Good News of Jesus in every direction around the world, an expansion that continues to this day.  It happened on the Jewish holiday called Pentecost.

And Peter was at the very center of the action. 

The story begins in Acts 2:1: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.”  Pentecost means “fiftieth day.”  Fifty days after the celebration of Passover, every adult Jew who could possibly make the trip came to Jerusalem.  Pentecost was a divinely-commanded spiritual and agricultural festival, and the streets would be packed with Jews who had come from all parts of the Mediterranean world.

During that particular year, those 50 days had been unusually eventful.  Jesus had died just as Passover began.  On day three he rose from the dead.  On day 43 – after encouraging his disciples and commissioning them to “go into all the world” with his message – Jesus had ascended into heaven. 

Now, one week later, Jesus’ followers are sitting together waiting to see what will happen.  They’re like flashlights with no batteries.  They’ve been assigned the task of being the light of the world, but they have no power.  All that changes in verse two:

“Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”

The disciples have no way of knowing it, but this is the birth of the Church.  This is the unrepeatable Big Bang that will send the Good News in every direction.  The disciples are miraculously enabled to speak in a variety of languages to start spreading the word.  After 20 centuries, approximately 96% of the world’s languages are in possession of at least a copy of the gospel of John – a linguistic accomplishment that has no historical parallel. 

These events startle the city of Jerusalem.  Some think the commotion is evidence of a party that has been going on a little too long.  Therefore the first thing Peter has to do is vouch for everybody’s sobriety.  “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd, ‘Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.  These men are not drunk, as you suppose.  It’s only nine in the morning!” 

Peter next does something he apparently could not have done even one day earlier:  Inspired and empowered by the Spirit, he preaches the world’s first Christian sermon. 

This untrained fisherman, who for the past three years has stumbled from one awkward verbal outburst to another, knocks it out of the park. 

“This is it,” he says. “This is the Promise you have always heard about.  The plan that God launched at the beginning of time is culminating right before your eyes.”  And it all has to do with Jesus.  The emotional peak comes in verse 36: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” 

It is difficult for us who have heard so much about Jesus for so long to recover a sense of the original impact of these words.  Jesus had been nailed to a cross just 50 days earlier.  Crucifixion represented the Roman Empire’s attempt to inflict the maximum amount of shame and humiliation.  According to Roman law, it was reserved only for slaves and traitors.  Roman citizens were legally exempt from such horror.  Crucifixion was considered so shameful by the first generations of Christians that it was never even depicted in early Christian art.  The earliest representation we have dates from about 400 years after the time of Jesus, which is at least a century after crucifixion itself had been banned.  Thus there was no living memory of what a crucifixion even looked like.

This we know for sure:  In the Jewish mind, crucifixion was a guarantee of the spiritual failure of the one who suffered it.  Because Jesus died on a cross, it was certain that God had rejected him and everything he stood for.  Now look again at what Peter says: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”  

This is a startling twist.  According to Peter, why was Jesus humiliated on the cross? 

It was not because he was a failure, but because God was at work in the middle of his life – and furthermore, because the very crowd he is preaching to wanted it to happen.  They meant it for evil.  God meant it for good. 

Look at the result in Acts 2:37:  “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what we shall we do?’”

Peter, to his everlasting credit, does not at this moment lean over to Andrew and Thomas and say, “What a great moment to take an offering.”  Nor does he say, “Come back next week because we’re going to begin an exploratory ten-week Bible study.” 

Instead, Acts 2:38 is one of the most important statements in all of Scripture.  Peter says, “Repent [that is, turn your life in a completely new direction] and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The promise [that would be God’s original promise to Abraham, that he would be “blessed to be a blessing”] is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

That morning, when Pentecost dawned, the total number of confirmed followers of Jesus was about 120.  Verse 41 tells us that by dinnertime there were at least 3,000 more.  The Spirit-prompted explosion had begun.

Just as the expansion of the cosmic Big Bang is still happening at this moment – the fringes of the universe accelerating in all directions at the speed of light – Jesus’ message continues to transform our planet.  It’s hard to comprehend, but there are something like 3,000 more Christians in China today than there were at this time yesterday.  And there will be at least 3,000 additional Chinese Christians at this time tomorrow.  Historians believe that Christianity has been expanding at this Pentecost-like rate in the largest nation on Earth since 1949 – even during the most repressive years of Chairman Mao.    

Peter was there to see it all begin.

At last, he is living out Jesus’ assurance that he is the Rock on which the Church will be built.

And as we’ll see over the next few days, even greater surprises are in store.