< March 23, 2008 >

Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

 

Nothing about Easter is routine or predictable.

The same can be said about preaching the Easter story. When we view Christ's resurrection with an understanding that God continues to be concerned with our world, then our situations lead us to perceive that event with new significance. Because our lives and our encounters with God continually provide possibilities for grasping the implications of the resurrection in new--and renewed--ways, we must not assume that the Easter story always communicates the same message. Rather, it accumulates new meaning whenever it is preached, because it continues to say something about God's intentions for humanity with fresh and vital connections to our lived existence.

The short sermon Peter delivers to Cornelius's household illustrates how the proclamation of the resurrection can work. Peter's words are important insofar as they summarize the story of Jesus, but their deeper significance resides in the way that they reflect and inform Peter and Cornelius' enlarged understanding of the gospel and its capacity to transform how they both comprehend God. For these men, the significance of Jesus' resurrection does not consist in merely knowing or reciting details about an empty tomb, as vital as such details may be. More important, the resurrection provides them evidence of God's commitment to all humanity--a commitment that Peter, thanks to his recent experiences, has just come to perceive in a new light. The resurrection, he tells Cornelius and others, provides the foundation for the pivotal new realities that God has revealed to them.

A cursory glance at Acts 10:34-43, when unglued from the wider context of Acts 10:1-11:18, gives the impression that Peter's sermon offers a generic summary of Jesus' history: he lived, did good, died, and rose. But grasping the sermon's purpose and the significance of its emphases requires, first, taking a broader view of Peter and Cornelius's encounter and, next, considering the sermon's details in light of that encounter.

First, why does Peter speak to Cornelius? Peter begins his message in v. 34 having just navigated a surprising set of circumstances, which finally convinced him that his previous assumptions about God were no longer valid. The whole sermon proceeds from what is a new confession: "God shows no partiality." This does not describe God as indifferent or detached; Peter means that God does not play favorites among people. Put positively, God has concern for all humanity and welcomes all peoples. This would not have been an entirely new theological insight for Peter and his Jewish contemporaries, but Acts indicates that God declared this truth in shocking ways, for its implications invalidate longstanding standards (see 10:28; 11:2-3). Peter has derived his new understanding of God's impartiality from recent visions and their interpretation (10:9-16), the story relayed to him by Cornelius's men (10:17-23a), Cornelius's own report (10:30-33), and the hospitality that both men extended in response to what God was orchestrating in their midst. Peter therefore describes Jesus' life, death, and resurrection for the explicit purpose of grounding and substantiating his conviction about God's impartiality. He talks about Jesus from the perspective of one who has only just recently come to realize God's embrace of all peoples--including a Roman soldier--in a tangible way.

Second, what details emerge as emphases when we focus on the fact that Peter is testifying about God's bringing salvation to gentiles? Peter describes the gospel story and his own ministry by accenting the universal scope of that story and ministry. Jesus is Lord of all (v. 36). Because God was with him, he healed all who were oppressed (v. 38). Release from sins now comes to everyone who believes in him (v. 43).

At the same time, the source of this salvation for all remains very particular, being rooted in God's actions through Jesus Christ, who was sent specifically "to the people of Israel" (v. 36) and proclaimed his message only in Galilee and Judea (vv. 37, 39). Subsequent encounters with the risen Christ were also somewhat circumscribed, limited to Jesus' followers in the days after the resurrection (v. 40-41). But the particularity of the Christ event within the history of God's relationship with Israel does not limit the event's effects. Instead, Jesus' particularity remains the basis for salvation's universal reach. (For if God were not faithful to Israel, why should any other peoples trust God?)

Throughout the sermon Peter emphasizes God as the agent behind all aspects of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Because God was active through Jesus, Jesus' story attests God as welcoming of all, as refusing to make distinctions among people. Peter sees in Jesus' story evidence that confirms what he has come to learn about God. To borrow Simeon's words from Luke 2:29-32, God, through Jesus Christ, has prepared salvation "in the presence of all peoples."

Perspective matters. Few people in churches this Easter will be surprised to hear that Christ is risen. But most people will want to know what that claim means, from the perspectives of their own lives. They will be looking, not for dry doctrinal statements or rote storytelling, but for a message that tells how the resurrection matters for their particular experiences--their understandings of their selves, their lives, their neighbors, and their world, and the God who raised Jesus on the third day.

Because Peter's message to Cornelius is not a canned summary of the gospel, preachers should resist the temptation to deliver a canned Easter sermon that treats the biblical text superficially or uses it as a launching pad to discuss the resurrection in abstract terms. About Easter some say, "Just preach the resurrection, don't worry about the text." But that utterly fails to respect how this biblical text prompts us to consider Jesus' resurrection in light of all that we have come to know about God--whether that be what the Bible tells us about God's leading the early church to understand that the gospel extends to gentiles, or what Christians cooperatively discern to be God's activity or presence in our experiences today.

In Acts 10:34-43 Peter preaches to a gentile soldier whom he might have previously dismissed as "profane or unclean" (10:14, 28). He preaches, then, as one attentive to God's leading and God's presence. This attentiveness allows him to do more than recite the details of an already familiar story (v. 36); it creates an opportunity to consider the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the light cast by the fresh and surprising work of God in their midst. We ask: where (else) is God extending salvation today, within our world? How might our answers to that question lead congregations to discover new, corresponding meaning in the Easter story?