< April 12, 2009 >

Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

 

"This one (touton) God raised from the dead on the third day" (Acts 10:40).

We appropriately turn this Easter season to the book of Acts, as it narrates the early church's pioneering witness to the resurrection across the eastern Mediterranean world.

In the present text, the apostle Peter proclaims the resurrection in an unconventional setting.--not in synagogue or church, religious temple or philosophical forum--but in the home of a Gentile, a Roman officer named Cornelius, whom a scrupulous Peter would normally avoid like the plague (10:28).

In Peter's mind, this was off-limits, "unclean" territory, until God convinced him otherwise through a dramatic power-point display of "unclean" animals. They are flashed on a screen, punctuated by a threefold command, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat," and the commentary, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane" (Acts 10:9-16). Slowly but surely it dawns on Peter that "God shows no partiality, but in every nation (ethnei) anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34). And that includes a centurion from the imperial Roman nation that had recently crucified Jesus.

Peter's sermon in Cornelius' house focuses on the singular, seismic resurrection of Jesus Christ that theologians and biblical scholars often refer to as eschatological--that is, world-shattering and history-shaping in the overall "plan" (boulē) of God for God's people and, indeed, all creation.

Peter wastes no time setting the stage with other, lesser resuscitations, however marvelous they might have been at the time.

Nothing is said about Elijah or Elisha's restoring deceased sons to their mothers (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:8-37). There is no mention of Jesus' raising other dead persons to new life, such as the son of the widow at Nain (Luke 7:11-17), Jairus' daughter (Luke 8:49-56), or Lazarus (John 11:38-44). Peter remains silent about his recent experience of reviving Tabitha's lifeless body (Acts 9:36-43). Popular redivivus myths surrounding Greek and Roman heroes are ignored. Such stories pale in significance to the climactic resurrection of "this one" (houtos) named Jesus whom God raised from death on a cross ("hanging on a tree," Acts 10:39) and vindicated as the living "Lord of all" (Acts 10:36).

Peter does not simply announce, however, the epochal event of Christ's resurrection as a datum of belief: "Christ is risen"--period, end of report.

As important as that confession of faith is, it derives its full import from the larger theological narrative surrounding the resurrection centerpiece. Peter ultimately proclaims God's story, especially highlighting God's purposeful work in Jesus Christ, first leading up to, and second flowing out of, God's raising him from the dead.

First, "God anointed (echrisen) Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power" (Acts 10:38) to do certain things throughout his life and ministry. This "christ-ening" harks back to the baptism of Jesus when God poured out the Holy Spirit on his Beloved Son (see Luke 3:21-22).

As his ensuing temptation by the devil proved, however, Jesus' privileged, powerful relationship with God was not to be exploited for his own benefit, but rather for God's glory and others' good (Luke 4:1-13). Indeed, as Peter aptly summarizes, the divinely anointed Jesus "went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil" precisely "because (hoti) God was with him," guiding and energizing his mission (Acts 10:38).

Luke's gospel narrative, the prequel to Acts, is replete with examples of Jesus' mediating God's beneficent, curative, and liberating grace. This continues all the way through to his final moments on the cross when he forgives his executioners and ushers the criminal hanging next to him into paradise (Luke 23:32-43). God's raising "this Jesus" from the dead three days hence thus functions both to vindicate Jesus' dynamic, redemptive ministry up to his last breath and to certify its continued efficacy in the future.

The crucified Jesus lives still to lavish God's powerful love on the sick, the enslaved, and the sinful "through his name" and through God-chosen witnesses like Peter (Acts 10:41-43).

Second, the resurrection of Jesus confirms that God appointed him "as judge of the living and the dead" (Acts 10:42; cf. 17:31). This designation of Jesus as Chief Justice of the universe, along with "Lord of all," marks an astounding claim before a Roman centurion accustomed to acknowledging Caesar's supreme authority and judgment throughout the world (empire).

Of course, as is typically the way with worldly political powers, Caesar's iron-hand rule often served elite, imperial interests rather than those of the poor and disadvantaged. Justice was skewed toward the top of the social pyramid. Might made right, and if some unfortunate innocent folk had to be crucified to sharpen the point and keep the peace, so be it.

But the resurrection of the crucified Jesus establishes a new order, a new realm  nothing less than God's kingdom of righteousness and justice for all ("God shows no partiality," Acts 10:34). This one who went about doing good and delivering all from oppressive injustice himself ultimately bore the full brunt of that injustice in his unmerited suffering on the cross.

Another centurion came to this same insight: "Certainly this (houtos) man was innocent (dikaios ['just', 'righteous'])" (Luke 23:47). By raising this innocent one from the dead and appointing him as Supreme Lord and Judge of all, God says, "Enough already!" A resounding "No!" is proclaimed to the ravages of self-promoting power and death-dealing injustice, and an emphatic "Yes!" to God's good purposes for all humanity and creation.

May we live and work in our challenging world today--still beset by overwhelming poverty, oppression, violence, death, and much that defies God's goodness and grace--in the Easter hope of Christ's resurrection and restorative justice for all.