Resurrection of Our Lord

God’s activity looks like raising those who heal the oppressed even when their efforts feel futile

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April 9, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

When Peter opens his mouth before Cornelius, his message succinctly captures the heart of Acts’ understanding of the good news. For those who consider Acts’ speeches as models for preaching in the first centuries CE, this message could easily be understood as a paradigm. In cliff note fashion, it relays the life of Jesus, his violent execution, his subsequent resurrection appearances, and his eminent role as judge. The message ends with a call to action—an invitation to trust Jesus and receive something that U.S. student loan holders have yet to receive—forgiveness of debts.

There is one aspect of Peter’s sermon that I have left out in my recounting above, but it is fundamental to this message, to this scene in Acts, and to the larger narrative altogether. The aspect is God’s role in the life of Jesus, which mirrors God’s role in Acts more broadly. By looking at what God does or has done in Peter’s speech, we can potentially celebrate the resurrection with even more enthusiasm.

God (Theos) is directly named six times in this pericope (Acts 10:34, 38 (2x), 40, 41, 42). In most of those occurrences (four out of six), God’s activity is portrayed with passive verbs. Twice the passivity includes a version of the verb eimi (to be) to reflect God’s state of being. In the other two occurrences of Theos, God’s deeds are depicted with active verbs. Paying attention to God’s being and activity in this passage provides clues for Acts’ understanding of how audiences should be and act.

The first mention of God in this reading is in verse 34. There Peter employs a passive verb to present God’s character. Although many versions, including the New Revised Standard Version (updated edition), translate this verse as active: “God shows no partiality,” the Greek uses a form of the verb eimi (estin) to more literally state that “God is not a respecter of persons.” The word behind the term “respecter of persons” or “shows no partiality” is a hapax legomenon in the New Testament, which means that this is the only place where this term occurs. The constitutive parts of the word could be taken to mean that God does not “accept/receive persons.” This can sound a bit harsh, but its force in some ways is mitigated by the NRSVue translation mentioned above. But the harshness does not necessarily need to be mitigated. This passage is more than a milquetoast statement that God does not put people over others.

Indeed, the rest of Peter’s message does not even fully support that interpretation, because in verse 35, Peter shows that there are people that God accepts (dektos). The people that God accepts are not accepted because of where they were born or because of the nation or family (ethnei) from which they come. God accepts people based on their respect (phoboumenos) for God and their practicing of justice (ergazomenos dikaisunē). God’s being is connected to those who do justice. The one who respects God and works for justice is (estin) accepted by God. Their being is rooted in God’s being and vice versa.

In Acts 10:38, one of the two active verbs linked with God (Theos) is “anointed” (echrisen). God anointed Jesus with holy spirit and power. Jesus’ anointing was not to be a king as other kings had been anointed in the Hebrew Bible. Nor does Acts link Jesus’ anointing to fulfilling priestly roles. God’s anointing of Jesus was most obvious when Jesus was doing good (euergetōn) and healing those who were oppressed by the trickster (diabolos). In that work, God was with him. The anointing and sign that God is with someone according to Peter’s message can be evidenced by their commitment to doing good and healing those who are oppressed.

Interestingly, Peter’s message does not discuss Jesus directly confronting the oppressor, but it does acknowledge the care that the oppressed need from larger-than-life diabolic forces that attack their health, dignity, and general well-being. Perhaps the reason that Jesus is not portrayed as vanquishing the diabolic trickster in Peter’s message is because that was not for Jesus to do. In Jesus’ good work of healing those who had been oppressed, he was himself oppressed.

His oppression most notably appears when “they” hung him on a tree. Peter does not name the “they” here, but from the larger context of Acts, it is the Jerusalem court. I intentionally say the Jerusalem court, rather than “the Jews” or the Jewish court, because centuries of anti-Semitism have led to passages like this being used to harm Jewish people and to blame them for the execution of Jesus. I instead present the antecedent of the “they” here as the Jerusalem court to highlight how Jesus, as an impoverished Jew, born in what is modern-day Palestine, was executed by the judicial system of his day—a system that Acts repeatedly presents as unjust. To this injustice and oppression, God Godself responds. God does so by overruling the unjust courts and raising Jesus from the dead. Here it is important to note Acts’ language. Jesus did not just get up. Nor is it ambiguous for Acts what happened. Acts uses an active verb to declare that “God raised him on the third day.”

God actively intervened in human history and systems of injustice. God is so connected to the one who does good and the one who works for justice and the one who heals the oppressed that God does not let corrupt courts, unjust judiciaries, sick systems, or death dealing have the last word. God acts, and God’s activity looks like raising those who heal the oppressed even when their efforts feel futile. In such cases, the hanging will never overshadow God raising.