Witnesses | Easter Day

Acts 10:34-43

34 Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. 35 Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! 37 You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. 38 You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, 41 not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (CEB).

Witnesses

Let’s be honest, resurrection is not an easy sell in our modern world. I’d imagine that a lot of us have a difficult time believing in such a thing. And, if we do believe the resurrection happened, many of us hold the assumption that the resurrection doesn’t really affect us right now, there’s no immediate resurrection-impact on our lives, because it’s something that won’t really come into play for us until after we die.

That’s kind of how Karl Marx viewed religion. The reason Marx called religion “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and “the opium of the people” is because he thought religion promised oppressed and poor people a heaven that is denied them on earth. Thus, songs like The Preacher and the Slave became popular. Its refrain says: “You will eat [You will eat] bye and bye [bye and bye] in that glorious land above the sky. [Way up high]. Work and pray, [Work and pray], live on hay, [live on hay], you’ll get pie in the sky when you die. [That’s a lie!].”

What Marx and, I suspect, many Christians failed—and still fail—to recognize is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ isn’t about the future only. The resurrection is about now. The resurrection leads individuals and communities in the conversion of their hearts and minds now.

Part of our misunderstanding of the resurrection comes from the fact that we misunderstand the Gospels, themselves. We read the Gospels from beginning to end and assume that the resurrection is the miraculous happy ending to the story of Jesus. And, hopefully, we’ll get a miraculous happy ending, too when we die. I mean, we love happy endings, right? Even if we read a book or watch a movie where the ending isn’t happy, I at least feel some satisfaction if the bad guys face justice. I don’t like it when they get away with stuff. We want the happy ending that Jesus got.

What we forget—perhaps what we’ve never even noticed—is that the only reason the Gospels were written, the only reason we have the accounts of Jesus’ birth, life, and teaching at all—is because of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is the precondition for the witness of the Gospel accounts. The resurrection is the basis for every account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Without the resurrection, we would not have the four Gospels, nor a New Testament, nor a Christian faith. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to everything. That’s why Easter is the holiest day for Christian people. We all love Christmas, but Christmas only ranks #3 on the list of holiest days on the Christian calendar. Pentecost comes in at #2. Without Easter, without the resurrection, we wouldn’t have the other celebrations.

When Peter visited the house of Cornelius—a Gentile centurion—and preached this message to his household, the foundation of Peter’s witness to Cornelius was the resurrection. None of Jesus’ earlier activities could be understood without the resurrection. That fact is clear in the Gospel accounts. The disciples, themselves, understood nothing of Jesus’ teaching and ministry until after Jesus was raised from the dead.

Only in light of the resurrection did God’s revelation through Jesus Christ make sense. Only in light of the resurrection could Jesus Christ be claimed and affirmed as both divine and human. Only in light of the resurrection could the saving grace offered to us through the life, teaching, and death of Jesus be believed as God’s initiative to save us and be reconciled to us.

Without resurrection, we have nothing. That’s why Paul wrote, “So if the message that is preached says that Christ has been raised from the dead, then how can some of you say, ‘There’s no resurrection of the dead’? If there’s no resurrection of the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless… …If the dead aren’t raised, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. (1 Corinthians 15:12-14, 16-18 CEB). The resurrection is central to everything we believe and everything for which we hope.

The resurrection is also central to a Christian understanding of peace, freedom, and impartiality. And I said, a Christian understanding because we can use those same words in a secular sense and have radically different meanings from the Christian sense.

Peter’s first line to Cornelius’s household is that he really is learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Think about how incredible that statement is coming from a Jew who had lived his entire life in the unquestioned certainty of God’s particularity. God chose the Jewish people, not the gentiles (which is everyone else). Yet, Peter comes to recognize, by God’s initiative, that God does not show partiality or favor. Rather, God offers restoration and inclusion in God’s plan of salvation to all people.

There are whispers of God’s universal love and care for all people throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. After all, the promise God made to Abraham included the words: “all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you” (Genesis 12:3c CEB). God’s exclusive claim of Abraham’s descendants ended on a note of God’s radical inclusion of all the families of the earth.

The prophet Jonah was sent to a foreign city, Ninevah, so the people there could change their hearts and minds and find salvation in God. When Jonah got angry that God didn’t kill them all, God had to remind Jonah that God cared about those people and even their cattle, too.

We find that same theme in the New Testament, too. When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, the angel said, “Look! I bring goods news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people” (Luke 2:10 CEB).

God took the initiative in changing and expanding Peter’s understanding of who is included in God’s plan of salvation. Peter experienced a conversion. His unquestioned assumptions about the particularity of Israel grew into a new insight of God’s expansive impartiality and inclusion of all peoples.

Another piece that we we desperately need to understand—just as Peter had to learn—is that salvation is not our plan. Salvation is not something we do. Salvation is neither ours to offer nor ours to withhold from others. Salvation belongs to God and is offered by God to all. God doesn’t show partiality to one group over another, which tells us that the church can and should become a community of radical reconciliation and peacemaking between women and men, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, gay and straight, between differing cultures and faiths and skin tones and languages.

It sounds nice, right? God loves everyone, and so should we. Yet, Peter’s new insight into God’s cosmopolitan impartiality should not make us feel particularly good about ourselves. We can’t pat ourselves on the back and feel good about the fact that we serve a God who knows and loves everyone. That’s not where this should lead.

Rather, Peter’s insight ought to chasten us because, while we’re called to love everyone, we don’t. Do we? I don’t.

God is the God of impartiality, so we’re supposed to be a people of impartiality, but we aren’t. Are we? I’m not.

God wants us to be in relationship with all kinds of people but we don’t often bother to build relationships with those who are different from us. We don’t have to look much further than the political rhetoric of the day to see how partial our thoughts can be. Much of the time, I act like God is partial, and I assume that God favors my way of doing things. Don’t we all do that?

Yet, the resurrection of Jesus Christ demands conversion. There’s some irony in the fact that Peter became the foundation for the Church’s own conversion in its earliest days. Peter’s name means rock. The image of a rock doesn’t lend itself much to change, yet Peter had his mind changed by God. When the other leaders of the church in Jerusalem questioned Peter about what he’d done, He convinced them that God had accepted even the Gentiles, and the whole church experienced a conversion. If God could change Peter’s mind, then God can change our minds, too.

Peter was a witness to the resurrected Jesus. Peter, along with other witnesses, ate and drank with Jesus after he was raised from the dead. And, it wasn’t until after Christ’s resurrection that Peter and the other disciples began to understand the radical social implications of resurrection life.

What we proclaim on Easter is that Christ has been raised from the dead, and Jesus Christ really has taken away the sins of the world. Christ alone is appointed by God as the judge of the living and the dead, and everyone… everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. Christ is Lord of all.

Christ has been raised from death. And, we are called to be witnesses of Christ’s resurrection by living resurrection before the eyes of the world now, by living out God’s radical impartiality now. One of my seminary professors at Duke was fond of saying, “Show me your resurrection.” So, what does your resurrection look like? Like Peter, in what ways do we still need to experience conversion?

We don’t have to wait until we die before living a Resurrection life. We can live Resurrection now. We can live in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, and in the grace offered to us because of Christ’s work on our behalf now. Resurrection is where our faith begins and ends. The only reason any of us are here today is because Christ has been raised. Resurrection is the message of Easter. And Peter reminds us that everyone is invited to dine at the table of the Lord. Everyone is invited to live as members of God’s family. All of us, together, are the reason Christ came into the world and was raised from the dead.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Advertisements

The Goal | 5th in Lent

Philippians 3:4b-14

4b If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more: 5 I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. 6 With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless. 7 These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8 But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. 10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.

12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.

The Goal

We live in a credentialed world. When my wife was working toward her credentials as a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, she had to get a Bachelor of Science degree, complete required internships, and pass a test. Only after she met the right criteria could she put the letters CTRS behind her name to show that she had the right credentials in Therapeutic Recreation.

Many fields require credentialing. The credentials are why we believe people when they talk about their area of expertise. The credentials are why we trust people like doctors, nurses, lawyers, therapists, pastors, teachers, meteorologists (sometimes), firefighters, police officers, and so many others. When they have the right credentials, we can trust that they more-than-likely know what they’re talking about in their particular field.

You might not know this, but one of the steps for a person who’s seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church is that we are certified. We are certified as a candidate for ordained ministry. I think it’s an accurate term—despite the negative connotation—because you almost have to be crazy to go into ordained ministry. But they check that too through psychological examinations to make sure that, while we’re certified, we aren’t certified.

There are many autobiographical passages found in Paul’s letters. I think they’re powerful because Paul takes the little story about his life and makes it meaningful by showing us how his story connects to the bigger story of God’s activity of salvation. In this text, Paul lists some of his credentials.

Yet, for us, the idea moves beyond credentials. Because, if we’re properly credentialed, we should become a success. How do we judge our lives as successful? Maybe we can hold up our list of personal accomplishments and achievements. How do we judge others as successful? We probably hold up their list of personal accomplishments and achievements. We might also look at what kind of car they drive, how well they dress, or how big their house is.

This practice of judging successfulness is most visible in the world of professional sports. Before the Colts won the Superbowl in 2007, the commentators all said that Peyton Manning, as great as he was, needed to win the big one in order to be considered one of the elite quarterbacks ever to play the game. After he won, the commentators started to say that he needed to win two Superbowls to be considered “elite.” Even winning it all is never enough. What do all sports commentators still say about Dan Marino? He’s the greatest quarterback who never won a Superbowl. For all the things Dan Marino accomplished, his successes are all tempered by this one lacking achievement.

Let me tell you about myself. How would you judge me?

I grew up at Central United Methodist Church where all the Romains worshipped as a family.

I was baptized by the Rev. Dr. Web Garrison, the former Dean of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

As to zeal, I hardly ever missed a Sunday of worship or Youth Group unless I was too sick to go. God called me to ministry when I was a child so young that I didn’t understand what it meant, and God continued to call until I was old enough to answer.

I graduated from Evansville North High School in 1995, which was the year Redbook Magazine ranked my high school as the #3 academic high school in the United States of America.

I was accepted as a Certified Candidate for Ordained Ministry by the Evansville District of the South Indiana Conference in 1998.

I attended The University of Findlay and graduated in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science degree. I majored in Environmental and Hazardous Materials Management with an emphasis in Environmental Policy and Compliance, and I had two minors: one in Political Science, and one in Religion. I was even voted the 1998 Homecoming King by the student body. (I have the crown to prove it).

I continued my education at Duke University: The Divinity School, and I graduated in 2003 with a Master of Divinity degree.

I am a United Methodist of United Methodists.

I was Commissioned as a Probationary Elder by Bishop Woody White at the 35th Session of the South Indiana Annual Conference at Bloomington, Indiana on June 06, 2003.

I was ordained as an Elder in Full Connection at the 38th Session of the South Indiana Annual Conference at Bloomington, Indiana on June 09, 2006. Two bishops laid hands on me at my ordination: Bishop Michael Coyner of Indiana, and Bishop Hans Vaxby of the Eurasia Area. Others who laid hands on me were Rev. Craig Duke of the United Methodist Church, and Pastor Will Miller of The University of Findlay who is ordained in the Churches of God, General Conference.

I have served in ministry at a North Carolina state institution, a mission agency of the Southeastern Jurisdiction, and multiple local churches, large and small across North Carolina and Indiana.

I’m 42 years old. I have 3 amazing children, an intelligent and capable wife (which is, of course, the singularly most important thing on my resume).

As a family, we have always given the full 10% tithe to our churches, and we give to other charities as well.

So, what do you think of my résumé? Would you judge me as successful? Or would you say that I’ve not really been successful until I become a bishop?

The thing is, everyone here could give a story of your own grand successes—much grander than mine—be it in business, or farming, or education, or the medical field, or parenting, or volunteer work, or whatever else. We all have something on our résumé that speaks of our success.

Paul says, “If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more: I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless” Philippians 3:4b-6 CEB).

If it is all about success, Paul has it made! He’s got every important detail on his résumé. He has all the right credentials. We know that he was educated by Gamaliel, the son Hillel, who of one of the two most influential teachers in the last 2000 years of Jewish history. His heritage and religious achievements are unparalleled!

But then Paul gives us a reevaluation of his life in light of knowing Jesus Christ. He says, “These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11 CEB).

Let me give you a reevaluation of my résumé. Compared to knowing Jesus Christ, it is all rubbish. My education, my ordination, my financial situation, everything in my life is counted as loss compared to gaining Christ.

Will my education save me? How about my ordination? Won’t my ordination save me? I mean I’m a pastor, for Pete’s sake! No. No. No. In the light of Christ, what the world sees as important becomes unimportant. My life, my achievements, mean nothing without the presence of Jesus Christ in my life. And I can say with all certainty that I would never have achieved a thing in my life had God not provided the way and the means for me to achieve it. Everything I have done has its root, its beginning, in God. Rather than what I have done, any accomplishments I might claim are what God has done in me, what God has accomplished in me, and what I expect God to yet accomplish in me.

In coming to know Jesus Christ, Paul gained a new lens through which he viewed life differently. Paul uses the commercial terms of “gain” and “loss.” Knowing Jesus Christ, to mix the metaphor a little, rearranges the price tags of life in such a way that items we previously thought of as valuable are recognized as worthless, and items once regarded as having little importance are cherished.

The surpassing value of knowing Christ means having a relationship to God that is based on faith in Christ. No credentials of success in life or religion will determine our status before God other than that of knowing Jesus Christ and following his example in faith. We are accepted by God not because of our achievements, but because of the faith we have in—and the obedience we show to—Christ.

You see, knowing Christ is spelled out in terms of participation with Christ, of knowing the power of his resurrection and sharing his sufferings by being conformed to his death. The way Paul writes this is arresting. I would have thought a different order was more appropriate—of suffering and then resurrection, of Good Friday and then Easter, of anguish endured and then resolution. Instead, the reverse is suggested: that the power of Christ’s resurrection leads to and is known in the obedience of our faith and the inevitable strife it brings.

Karl Barth puts it this way, “To know Easter means, for the person knowing it, as stringently as may be: to be implicated in the events of Good Friday…The way in which the power of Christ’s resurrection works powerfully in the apostle is, that he is clothed with the shame of the cross” (Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C, p.234).

So a question for us to consider is: do we see ourselves as being clothed in the shame of the cross?

Paul then tells us his intentions for how he’ll live the rest of his life because he knows Jesus Christ. He says that he hasn’t reached the goal or ben perfected, but he strives to grab hold of Christ because Christ grabbed hold of Paul for a purpose that is bigger than Paul. He said, “Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14 CEB).

Like my story, and like your story, Paul’s story is—at the time he wrote this—unfinished. God’s future beckons to us to press on and strain forward to what lies ahead. We have not yet arrived, but we are on our way. God has accepted us, and this acceptance by God can energize us to continue to press forward, to pursue the vocation to which God has called us. Our motivation comes from God’s grace and the promise of our participation in the resurrection. Paul’s story provides a paradigm of the Gospel. It shows us how the Gospel works to powerfully change our view of life and create in us a renewed sense of expectation for the future.

God’s plan for us is not to make us successful according to the way the world views success. God’s plan is to make us faithful, to make us holy, to reveal the power of the resurrection in a fragile body which is subject to death. Whether any of us are successful according to the judgment of the world, or not, it doesn’t matter. In light of Christ; in light of knowing Christ; in light of participating in Christ; our worldly successes and accomplishments are all rubbish anyway.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!