A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (NRSV).
Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him…’” Does that sound familiar to you? Have you heard it before? I’m guessing you have. I’m guessing we all have. It’s the beginning of the traditional Easter Sunday reading from the Gospel of John, and in some churches it is read every Easter without fail. It reminds me of that story about the little boy who told his parents he didn’t want to go to church anymore. When they asked him why he said, “Because every time we go to that church we sing the same songs. We either sing, ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is Come’ or ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today.’” That’s funny, but it’s true, isn’t it? On these high, holy days we tend to lean hard on tradition. We come back again and again to those familiar hymns and familiar readings. And so, even if you are not an every-Sunday churchgoer you have probably heard that reading from John’s Gospel before. You probably could have stopped me, but you didn’t, and I think there’s a reason for that.
Last week I was on a conference call with some fellow preachers looking for inspiration for the Easter sermon, and we ended up talking about why so many more people come to church on this day than on a regular Sunday. Someone suggested it might be because of the excellent preaching but we quickly agreed that we preach excellent sermons every week, it must be something else. Someone said, “Maybe it’s because it’s such a joyful service, and because everybody gets to wear their new spring outfits, and because they can be pretty sure the preacher is not going to fuss at them, not on Easter.” It was quiet for a moment and then someone else said, “You know, it seems obvious, but I think it’s because of the Resurrection. It’s because on Easter we sing hymns and preach sermons about that one time in human history when somebody came back from the dead. And people come, not only to celebrate that event, but to imagine that such a thing might be possible for them, too, that death might not be the end of them or the ones they love any more than it was for Jesus. I don’t think people need a lot of novelty on that day. They don’t need us to dazzle them with our keen theological insight or show off some new word we found in the Greek text. I think they just want to come and hear us say again, as we say every year, ‘Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!’”
If that’s true then I’ve got good news for you, friends: “Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!” And, yes, according to the Scriptures it’s not just something that happened for Jesus long ago, but something that is available to all of us, even now. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul insists that Christ really did rise from the dead, and that he is only the first fruits of those who have died. He says it like this: “Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” And then listen to this: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”[i]
If Paul is right, then one day death is going to be destroyed and those who belong to Christ are going to live forever. Death will “no longer have dominion” over them.[ii] That’s good news, isn’t it? And in so many ways it is the good news of Easter. But as I was looking through the readings for this Sunday I found something that may be even better news. And this is where you should probably stop me again and say, “Wait a minute, Jim: better than the destruction of death? Better than living forever?” Yes, I know it’s a stretch, but it’s in today’s reading from Acts 10:34-43 there is news that may be even better.
Let me give you some background.
You may remember the story about the time Peter was staying with Simon the Tanner, down in Joppa. He went up on the roof around noon to pray one day and while he was up there he got hungry. He fell into a trance and saw something like a sheet being lowered down by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures, and reptiles, and birds of the air, and a voice said, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” But these creatures in the sheet were on the list of forbidden foods for the Jews; they were not kosher. And so Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
To make a long story short, God was talking about the Gentiles. According to the Law of Moses they were not kosher; they were unclean; Jews weren’t supposed to have anything to do with them. But was the old law and God was doing a new thing. When Jesus died the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom, and when the stone was rolled away from the tomb salvation became available to the whole world. God told Peter not to call unclean what he had made clean, and then he sent him to the home of Cornelius—a Gentile.
You can tell how uncomfortable Peter was with the situation because as soon as he walked into the house he said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”[iii] And with that gracious introduction out of the way Cornelius explained how he’d had a vision of an angel, who told him to send for Peter. “So now all of us are here in the presence of God,” he said, “to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” And Peter began: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” And then he shared the Gospel with Cornelius and the others in ten, brief bullet points:
- God sent a message to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all
- That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced:
- How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power;
- How he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him
- We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and Jerusalem
- They put him to death by hanging him on a tree;
- But God raised him on the third day
- And allowed him to appear—not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
- He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.
- All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
Before we move on, let me just point out a few of the more remarkable features of Peter’s ten-point Gospel. First of all, it’s short—less than 200 words (take that, Gospel of Mark!). Second, it has a slightly different emphasis than we’re used to hearing from the Gospels: it’s about God sending a message of peace to the people of Israel through Jesus Christ, who was baptized, anointed by the spirit, and who then went around doing good and healing those who were oppressed by the devil. And then (listen to this) they put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him up and allowed him to appear. “Not to everyone,” Peter says, “but to us who were chosen as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (and by the way, if you’re looking for a good text for your Easter sermon I don’t think you could do better than this one, where Jesus not only rises from the dead but eats and drinks with his disciples. That’s my kind of resurrection!). And then Peter says that he and the others were commanded to preach to the people and to testify that Jesus is the one ordained as judge of the living and the dead. And finally, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.[iv]
Remember, Peter was preaching this to a gathering of Gentiles, those who were considered unclean by the Jews, and outside the circle of God’s salvation. But Peter had just said that “everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins in his name,” and no sooner had he said it than all heaven broke loose. “The Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word,” Luke says. “The circumcised believers who were with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” And that’s when Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and they invited him to stay for a few days.[v]
Let’s pause long enough to appreciate the fact that, from a Jewish perspective, what happens in this story is perhaps even more remarkable than the resurrection of the dead: salvation has come to the Gentiles. The Gentiles! (shudder). Replace that word with the most despicable group of people you can think of and you would only be coming close. In fact, when Peter got back to Jerusalem he had a lot of explaining to do. The circumcised believers demanded to know why he had gone to the home of the uncircumcised, and eaten with them. And so he told them the whole story, about the sheet, and the animals, and the voice saying “kill and eat.” He told them how the voice had said, “What God has made clean you must not call profane,” and how the Holy Spirit told him not to make a distinction between Gentiles and Jews. He told them how he preached the Gospel to Cornelius and his household, and how the Holy Spirit fell upon them. “That’s when I remembered the word of the Lord,” he said, “how he told us, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” And when the others heard this they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”[vi]
Which leaves us with the question: is there anybody outside the circle of God’s salvation? Anyone for whom Christ did not die and rise again? Back in Acts 10:34, even before Cornelius and his household received the Holy Spirit, Peter said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” And that’s where you could stop me again and say, “Aha! It’s not everybody. It’s everybody who fears him and does what is right. Those are the ones he accepts.” But I looked up those words. The one who “fears” God is simply the one who acknowledges him as God, who has a “profound respect” for him. And the one who “does what is right”? Well, the word for right in this verse is the same one Paul uses in Romans to mean “justification.” It’s a word I sometimes translate as the “right-making power of God,” that is, God’s power to make us right. And the word before that is a passive form of the verb for work that means something like “to be worked upon.” So you can translate the verse like this: “Everyone who has been worked upon by the right-making power of God is acceptable to God.” Not only the ones who do right, but all who have been righted..
I once taught the book of Romans and wrestled with that Greek word for “righteousness”—dikaiosune. “Whose righteousness is it,” I wondered; “Is it ours or God’s?” But the more I dug down to the roots of that word the more I saw that dikaiosune wasn’t righteousness in and of itself, it was God’s power to make us right, or God’s “right-making” power. The more I studied that word the more I became convinced that the power to make us right is no less miraculous than the power to raise the dead, and in some ways it is more miraculous. God reached down into that cold, dark tomb on Easter morning and touched the lifeless body of Jesus with the power of resurrection, but a few months later God reached down into that Gentile home and touched Cornelius and his family with the power of justification. It is the same power. It is God’s power, used in one case to raise the dead, in another to justify the sinner, in another to bring back the lost, in another to mend what is broken.
What we celebrate on Easter Sunday is not just the power that once upon a time raised Jesus from the dead, but the power that has been loose in the world ever since: the power that fell on those disciples on the day of Pentecost, the power that healed the crippled beggar by the Beautiful Gate, the power knocked Saul off his high horse on the road to Damascus, the power that fell on Cornelius and his household that day in Caesarea. If you have ears to hear it, it is the same power that got you out of bed this morning, the power that pulled you into this place, the power that held you captive in your pew, the power that helped you hear the Gospel—that power is alive and well on this Easter morning, and available to everybody who is willing to be worked upon by the right-making power of God. There is not one person who is outside the reach of that power, not one person who is too sinful, or too broken, or too lost. The author of Acts 10 is trying to tell us that if it can happen for Cornelius and his family it can happen for anyone, literally, anyone!
In the end even Peter is convinced.
I’m glad that people come to church on Easter. I’m glad that we dress up, and sing the familiar songs, and say the familiar words. But this morning I’m thinking about those people who didn’t come to church because they weren’t sure they would be welcome. They think church is for good people, righteous people, who wear the right clothes and believe the right things. I hope when you see them next time you will tell them that Jesus is Lord of all, and that everybody is welcome in his church, that Christ is risen, the stone has been rolled away, and the life-giving, life changing power of God is now available to everyone—every one.
And that’s good news!
[i] 1 Corinthians 15:20-26
[ii] A reference to Romans 6:9, where Paul says death no longer has dominion over Christ, who has been raised from the dead.
[iii] Acts 10:28
[iv] Acts 10:36-43
[v] Acts 10:44-48
[vi] Acts 11:1-18
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.