Column: Peter’s ‘stump speech’ wins over gentiles

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

A candidate running for political office will often deliver basically the same speech time after time.

The candidate may tweak it slightly to address the particular audience, but otherwise repeat the points.

This speech is called a “stump speech,” from the practice, in the early days of the United States, of the candidate standing on top of a sawed-off tree stump to make the speech.

It appears as though the apostles in the early church followed a similar practice when evangelizing. They would always present the same basic points about Jesus Christ to the crowd. The sermons of Peter in the Acts of the Apostles offer us the perfect example.

First, Peter will explain how Jesus is the Messiah sent by God. Then, Peter tells how Jesus was unjustly put to death. Next, Peter proclaims that Jesus is risen from the dead, as a sign of God’s favor. Finally, Peter urges the crowd to repent and be baptized.

On April 22, the Third Sunday of Easter, we heard one of those sermons as the first reading of the Mass: Acts 3:13-15, 17-19. That was Peter’s sermon at Solomon’s Portico. The following Sunday, we heard Peter’s reply to the Sanhedrin, which includes the same principal points: Acts 4:8-12. And on the day of Pentecost, Peter delivers his first sermon — Acts 2:14-39 — always adhering to the same pattern.

This Sunday, the first reading — Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48 — sets the scene for yet another stump speech by Peter. He is addressing the household of Cornelius, a prominent gentile. Since Jews would have ordinarily avoided contact with gentiles, this is a daring move on Peter’s part, a departure from accepted practice. But God approves this outreach to the gentile world: “While Peter was still speaking these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.”

Interestingly enough, the Lectionary reading omits most of the things Peter was saying, vv. 36-43. After all, we have heard it before. It is the basic stump speech that Peter has delivered many times before.

Instead, the reading stresses the reaction to the speech. As already mentioned, the Holy Spirit descends upon the audience. But just as important, Peter orders that they be baptized. “‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?’ He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Ordinarily, Peter would conclude the stump speech by urging the crowd to be converted and to be baptized. But, in this particular instance, the Holy Spirit has taken the initiative. It is no longer the decision of the crowd. God has already decided. It is only for Peter to recognize that decision.

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