Guilty bystanders can be saved by repentance

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April 4, 2016

St. Peter's speech on Pentecost to "men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem" is one of the most dramatic moments in the Acts of the Apostles (2.14-36). In the speech, Peter directly accuses his hearers of crucifying Jesus and then proclaims that God "raised him up."

Hearing his speech, the men "were cut to the heart" and asked Peter how they could overcome their sin. "Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins," Peter replied. That day, about 3,000 souls were baptized (2.37-41).

This is the final episode in St. Luke's running commentary on the crowd that followed Jesus from his preaching of the parable of the sower (Luke 8.4) to his death on the cross.

In Luke's account, Jesus quickly gains enough followers that he can send 70 ahead of him into the towns he will visit (10.1). Soon, "so many thousands of the multitude had gathered together that they trod upon one another" (12.1).

As Jesus heads to Jerusalem, he tells the "great multitudes" the unpopular message that a disciple must bear their cross and "hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters" (14.25-26).

Finally, Jesus enters Jerusalem where "the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen" (19.37). As Jesus preached and ministered in Jerusalem, "all the people hung upon his words" (19.48).

The next crowd is led by Judas. It includes "the chief priests and captains of the Temple and elders" (22.47, 52). This crowd took Jesus, after a brief trial at the high priest's house, to Pontius Pilate. It called for Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be crucified.

On the way of the cross, Jesus was still followed by "a great multitude." At the crucifixion, "the people stood by watching," while the rulers, soldiers and a criminal mocked Jesus. "All the multitudes who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts" (23.48).

While only a small number called for Jesus' death, the multitudes who had lauded him stood by "watching" as he was executed. This is always the way of the multitude. People will praise the prophet until times get tough. They may sit passively through the execution, but they are still guilty bystanders.

Yet, there is hope. Hope comes through apprehending the truth of God's word, admitting guilt and seeking repentance. It is then that the Holy Spirit comes and fills the redeemed multitude with an outpouring of grace.