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).
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