In this (Old Testament?) reading, we hear not the original story about how Jesus rose from the dead after being crucified by Roman soldiers, but a retelling of that story to a Roman soldier. If you want to emphasize the fact of the resurrection in your Easter sermon, choose the Gospel readings for your text. If you want to focus on the implications of the resurrection for the ancient and modern church, this shorter version of the story should be your choice. As Peter preached to that Roman soldier the shape of the church’s mission radically changed.
Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus had given the infant church the mandate of being his witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Luke has been tracing how the church was growing exactly as Jesus had commanded. In this chapter of Luke’s history, the Gospel reaches the edges of Israel in Caesarea. Yes, it had been preached by a deacon to the Ethiopian eunuch, but that story was a bit of an outlier.
Here we have the chief apostle preaching to an official of the Roman Empire, with a very clear implication for the future of the church and its mission. Interestingly, Jesus had designated the newly converted Paul as “my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings (Acts 9:15)….” But here God chooses Peter to preach the first Gospel sermon to a Gentile.
As we read the aftermath of this story, it is obvious why God chose Peter. Given the changes this event would bring to the church, God needed someone with the greatest credibility and authority—and that was Peter, not Paul. Thus, it would be Peter who gave the keynote address at the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15) where the church wrestled with the changes inaugurated by this event in Acts 10.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. In the run up to this story, we read that it took two visions from God to effect the meeting of the thoroughly Jewish Peter and the thoroughly Roman Cornelius. In the vision to Cornelius God told him to invite Peter to his home and listen carefully to his message. So he did. In the vision to Peter God told him to accept Cornelius’ invitation and speak the gospel. So he did, though not without considerable qualms. Jews, after all, were not allowed to enter the home of unclean Gentiles, any more than they were allowed to eat unclean animals. But God had commanded Peter to stop thinking in those clean/unclean terms. Just go preach!
Undoubtedly Peter had given much thought to his own vision as he travelled to Caesarea. So when he heard Cornelius’ account of his own vision, Peter came to a stunning conclusion, a conclusion that would reshape the way the Jewish Christian church would relate to and accept Gentile Christians. “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”
Peter knew that truth before, sort of, in a peripheral way, because the Old Testament teaches the impartiality of God. But that idea was always presented in the context of the covenant, in which Israel was the chosen people of God. It was hard to think of Israel’s special status and of God’s impartiality at the same time. But now God has brought that truth home to Peter in a powerful, personal way, a way that would change the church and society forever after.
God “accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” That is a universal declaration with very particular boundaries. God does not favor one nation; even the choice of Israel was always intended to be the source of blessing to all nations on the earth. But to be acceptable to God, says Peter, you have to fear God and do what is right. One commentator on this text says that God has no favoritism with respect to nation, race, sex, class, or religion. It is with that last word that Peter would have more than a quibble.
The “fear of the Lord” had, of course, a particular Old Testament meaning. It meant to reverence Yahweh, the God of Israel, by trusting and obeying Torah in all things. And doing “the right thing” meant more than just trying to be good. The word “right” is the Greek dikaiosune, “righteousness,” a word with legal connotations. It was at the center of the doctrine of justification that Paul would later develop.
I doubt that Peter had that doctrine in mind when he used that word here. But it is very clear what he did mean, because he goes on to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And he ends with this very particular clause, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” God universal favor comes to every person through Christ, the One who is for all people, regardless of their national origin, the ethnic heritage, their social class, their gender or age.
His sermon is all about “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all.” There’s that universal emphasis again, but there is the same particularity– it is Jesus who is Lord. This Jesus was a very particular man, which Peter emphasizes by briefly rehearsing Jesus’ Galilean ministry after his baptism by John and his anointing with the Holy Spirit. He went about doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil.
This story is not a myth, insists Peter. “We were witnesses of everything he did.” Note the use of the very word Jesus used when he commissioned his disciples for their world-wide mission. This is why they were with Jesus all those months and on the very days of his passion—to be witnesses.
They were there when the Jews “killed him by hanging him on a tree.” And they were there when “God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.” They were the “witnesses whom God had already chosen.” They were the ones who “ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” And they are the ones whom Jesus “commanded to preach to the people… that he is the one whom God appointed to judge the living and the dead.”
This is a very particular message for the whole world—a message centered on Jesus who was not only a teacher and miracle worker (there were plenty of those wandering the earth back then), but also, and mainly, the Savior who died on a cross, but rose from the dead, and who is now the judge of all human beings. The good news is that there is peace for everyone who believes in him. Yes, he is the judge, but “all the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” God does not show favoritism but accepts men (and women, of course!) from every nation who fear him and do right, by accepting the gospel and putting their trust in Jesus Christ, the Lord of all.
This message had tremendous implications for the early church, as became immediately evident. “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came upon all who heard the message.” The Jewish attendants of Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out “even on the Gentiles.” Underline those words. Yes, they knew Jesus had told them that they should go to the ends of the earth, but they hadn’t anticipated that Gentiles might become equal partners in the covenant love of God. They knew that a few Gentiles had become proselytes in the past, becoming sort of Jewish. But these Gentiles have now believed in their Jewish Jesus and received the same Spirit they had received at Pentecost. The Gentiles have a Pentecost, too.
What does this mean for the church going ahead? How Jewish do these Gentiles believers have to become? How many of our covenantal rules do they have to keep to be considered real Christians? If God has fully forgiven and accepted them, as evidenced by this outpouring of the Spirit and signified in their immediate baptism, how should we treat the Gentiles going forward? In the past, we have seen them as unclean, people to avoid, people to exclude from our fellowship. What do we do now? That was the subject of much debate in the early church. Even when the Jerusalem conference settled the question, it remained a very controversial subject for decades, even for Peter himself, who withdrew from the Gentiles when he was criticized for associating with them (Galatians 2:11-21).
It has remained a controversial subject to our day. While we don’t disagree about Gentiles (since, as someone put it, “we are one”), we battle fiercely about how to treat Christians who are different than us. While God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation, Christians get embroiled in issues like immigration policies, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, class strife, just like the rest of the populace. It often seems as though we have never heard the universal message of the Gospel. Instead of focusing on the particular Person who saves all humans regardless of their race or nations or any of that, we focus on the particular people and exclude them from some of the privileges we enjoy.
On this Easter Sunday, we need to focus on the One who rose, so that All could have life. You can focus on the story of his resurrection; that’s a good thing in a world that denies it ever happened. Or you can focus on the implications of that story for the life of the church today. That’s a good thing for a church that sometimes acts as though Jesus didn’t rise from the dead so that all could have the fullness of life in him. Cornelius had a vision that led to his conversion to Christianity. Peter had a vision that led to his conversion from a narrowly conceived church to a church for everyone who believes in the Name of Jesus. Maybe what the church needs today is a new vision.
In “The Revelation,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor, Mrs. Turpin has quite a vision. While sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, Mrs. Turpin has a conversation with another patient about people who are below her on the social ladder, white trash and black n-word. A young girl overhearing this patronizing blather, hurls a book at her and calls her an old warthog from hell. Back home, nursing her head and her wounded ego, Mrs. Turpin considers whether God might be sending her a message about her attitudes. As she sprays down her hogs, she argues with God. “Why me? Who do you think you are?”
That’s when she received her vision, “The Revelation.” The rays of the sun form a kind of bridge, and on that bridge is a “vast horde of souls marching into heaven.” In that horde are “whole companies of white trash, bands of black n-word in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics.” It is only at the end of the procession that she sees people who like herself “had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right….” She and her ilk were marching behind that vast horde of undesirables “with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.”
In her vision, Mrs. Turpin sees her social ladder turned upside down with the least taking precedence over the best.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 12, 2020
Acts 10:34-43 Commentary