chosen as witnesses

Acts 10:34-43

As we move into our Acts passage this morning
(“Acts?” some of you are wondering,
nudging each other, “It is Easter, isn’t it?”)—
as we move into our Acts passage,
let me suggest that it’s both interesting and important
to take note of some of the politics and some of the geography
(“What?” some of you are wondering,
“Boy, that’s really going to get the Easter juices flowing!”).
Aren’t you so glad you came?!

First of all, let’s place our main characters.
Peter had been in Joppa
on the Mediterranean coast some 35 miles northwest of Jerusalem.
And Joppa should ring some bells for those attuned to the larger story.
Joppa’s the port from which Jonah sailed
in his futile effort to escape God (Jonah 1:3).
Remember, God wanted him to go to Niniveh—
wanted him to go to the enemy—to the Gentiles,
and Jonah took off for Tarshish (in the opposite direction).

Now, was Peter, in Joppa, running from God?
Well, certainly not like Jonah.
But what we do learn in Joppa, is that Peter, one of the disciples,
one of the leaders—one of the authorities—in the early church—
Peter, who learned at the very feet of Jesus,
who walked and talked with Jesus for three years,
still—nonetheless—had too small a vision!
What we learn in Joppa is that Peter still had to learn.
And Joppa was where a hungry Peter received his vision
of the impartiality of God—that vision of the sheet from heaven (Acts 10:9-16),
loaded with all kinds of animals, and God telling him to kill and eat.
By no means,” said Peter, “for I have never eaten anything profane or unclean.”
Came God’s response, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

So here’s the thing: Peter wasn’t running like Jonah tried to do,
but when you encounter the vast grace of God,
when you are called into the marvelous love of God,
you can run by standing still.
You can run by not growing ever more into grace and into love.
You can run by thinking it will all stay the same—
that you won’t be challenged to love more—
because you know what’s right.
You can run from God thinking you’re honoring and obeying God.
You can run, as did Peter, in the assurance
of his own rigid, religious sense of what was expected of him—
his own sense of faithful appropriateness.

Cornelius, a centurion, commander of 100 soldiers
in a company of 5 to 6 hundred, is the other of our main characters.
He lived in Caesarea, another Mediterranean port,
some 40 miles north of Joppa.
And Caesarea should ring some bells too.
Built by Herod to impress Caesar—
headquarters to the Roman legions,
home of Pontius Pilate.

So I ask you, could you bring together more of the characters
associated with the death of Jesus?
Seriously, what do you think it was like for Peter
to proclaim resurrection
in the shadow of Herod’s palace, Pilate’s home, Caesar’s temple?

Cornelius, a centurion, but one respected among the Jews.
one whose prayers God had noted (and whose almsgiving).
Cornelius sent word to Peter down in Joppa, “Come see me.”
and Peter went to Caesarea—went to Cornelius.
Upon arriving he said, “You know it is unlawful (profane or taboo)
for a Jew to associate or visit with a Gentile;
but God has shown me I should not call anyone profane or unclean
” (10:28).

Now how do you hear that?
I can’t hear that in my head.
Does it come across as begrudging or as gracious?
You know with Peter, it could go either way!
But whichever way it came from Peter, Cornelius responds graciously,
“You’ve been kind enough to come,
and we’re all ready to hear what God would have you tell us.”

And the first thing Peter says, is,
I truly understand that God shows no partiality—no favoritism,
but in every nation anyone who fears him
and does what is right is acceptable to him
.”

Wow.
There goes any theological justification of racial, cultural or religious prejudice.
There goes any theological justification of racial, cultural or religious prejudice.

Anyone who fears God—anyone in relationship with God—
and doing right—
and given the strong identification in the prophets and in Luke
between care of the poor and righteousness—
given Cornelius’ status as someone who did not follow Torah
(he was a God-fearer, not a proselyte), yet, very specifically,
we are told, gave alms to the poor—
given all that, doing right has to be less a matter
of following religious rules as working for justice and righteousness.
So anyone in relationship with God working for justice is acceptable to God.
It’s the appropriate balance of faith and works—
affirming both, denying neither.

And then Peter launches into a sermon—
which, when I’m visiting in someone’s home,
is what I always do if I’m asked, “Do you have anything to say?”

And in one sense it’s an Easter sermon.
You know,” Peter assumes, “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 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 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
.”

There’s the Easter part. He is risen. (He is risen indeed!)

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.

So Peter’s sermon prompts a couple of Easter morning questions:
First: what have we witnessed of God? What have you?
of God’s power? of resurrection—
the truth of life amidst death—life after death?
What is our testimony as individuals and as church?

So I’m not asking what the story is that we tell
or even the story we believe—that we profess.
I’m asking you to consider, very specifically,
very particularly,
what is your witness?
what is it you know
that rings not with the passion of belief,
but with the conviction of your own lived experience
of the power of God at work?

When Peter says, we are witnesses to all that he did,
what has God done to which we are witnesses?
When Peter identifies God’s work both in Galilee and Judea,
what about Baltimore?
That’s my first question.

And my second question is this:
what is it that Peter says that would lead Cornelius
to believe in the impartiality of God
and the universality of this particular message—
its importance and relevance for all people?
Cause I don’t see it.

This is, after all, in Peter’s words,
a particular message to the people of Israel—
localized in Galilee and Judea.
and then after Jesus was hung on a tree and God raised him,
he didn’t appear to everybody, but only to a select few—
who were commanded to preach to the people
that this is the one to judge the living and the dead.
What, in what Peter says, is good news for an outsider?

I’d like to suggest, it’s not so much what Peter says,
as that he was there to say it—there in the home of a Gentile—
in Caesarea—so full of reminders of Jesus’ death.
His presence testified to a faith
that will not allow even its leaders—its authorities
to rest in their certainties.
His presence testified to an obedience, discomforting perhaps,
beyond custom and expectation.

So my Easter sermon is not just what I can tell you about God,
no matter how important,
but also about what you see of God (or don’t)
in the way I relate to you and others.
And your Easter testimony is not just what you say about God,
not matter how important that is,
but also about what others see of God (or don’t)
in the way you relate to those all around you.
Back to that balance of fearing God, on the one hand,
and caring for the poor, working for justice,
being a part of righteousness, on the other.

So let me summarize:
a/ I believe that at least as important as retelling a story
(even such an important one),
is the witness of our own story.
We are to tell the story of Easter
not so much as those who just celebrate it,
but as those who live it—
as those in whose lives its power is made real.

And b/ do we tell the story of Easter—live the story of Easter
as those who are continually shocked by the bigness of God—
of God’s love and of God’s grace—
surprised out of our presuppositions, our neat categories,
our comfortable religious assumptions?
Do we live the story of Easter
as those who do not run from God by standing still?

The best Easter sermons, in other words,
aren’t preached in words,
but in and through lives.
They’re relationships and conversations.
The best Easter sermons are experienced—
full of the surprise of grace—
the surprise of being called to include
someone you never before thought belonged,
the surprise of being so unexpectedly included,
and the subsequent joy
of transcending perspective and tradition into new possibility.
And that’s death itself overcome
when we are called always beyond ourselves.

So amidst the truth of life that surrounds us,
which is to say amidst all the death and dying that surrounds us,
we have not just a word—
not just a word of a power that transcends death,
not just a word we wait until we die to claim,
but a word of our own experience—
a word of specific memories—
a word of testimony—of witness for the here and now.

And so now—Easter.

Amidst the accumulated grief of years
so many of us know all too well,
that’s not just new grief on top of grief,
but also the old deep griefs that just don’t go away,
we have experienced the hope that rises from the ashes.
We have memories and pictures that restore to us our joy.
The light rises from the darkness.
This we know. This is the way of Jesus.

Amidst the toll of years,
as the list of what we used to be able to do grows,
as funerals of friends become more common,
and doctors’ appointments fill our calendars
with frustrating regularity,
amidst the pervasive fatigue that drains us of energy and interest,
we know the refreshing truth of love that never grows old,
of smiles and memories that strip away the years
and leave us still visible in all the strength and vitality of our youth.
And this is the way of Jesus.

Amidst disease, physical and otherwise—dis-ease,
within the fear, the pain, the anger of a cancer diagnosis,
or a heart that just gives out,
or an anxiety that won’t subside,
an illness that goes on and on and on,
within the fear and pain of treatment,
within the joy and relief of effective treatment,
and the resentment and grief at treatment that doesn’t work,
we know the connections made even in the depths of despair,
in hospital rooms and hospice rooms.
We know the healthiness that disease cannot banish.
This too, the way of Jesus.

Within anger and resentment in relationship—frustration—
arguments and shouting and not hearing or being heard,
we know forgiveness and grace.
We know conversations that begin again.
We know redemptive hugs.
We know relationships restored.
This is the way of Jesus.

Amidst questions of meaningfulness, relevance,
accomplishment, what have I done with my life?
We know there is nothing more important
than having loved and having been loved—
of having surprised someone with your love.
And this is the way of Jesus.

Within the loss of an anticipated imagined future
in job loss and economic stress,
or within miscarriage or still-birth,
or within marital discord—within relational decay,
or just within big hopes creating a future story that got squashed,
yes, we know that angry, “I’m never going to invest in hope like that again,”
but we also know hope reclaimed bigger than ever.
We have experienced possibilities for transformation made manifest.
This, our witness; this, our testimony;
this, our faith; this, our assurance and the way of Jesus.

Within our culture so stained by death and violence—
by all that is death and all that is of death,
we know the life-long discovery and exploration
of the love that makes of short-sighted strategies a travesty.
And that is the way of Jesus.

Amidst the various addictions that we think bring escape,
amidst the terrible apathy that justifies the status quo,
amidst the thoughtless … or terribly intentional chatter
that wounds and tears down,
amidst the bullying of the weak who think themselves strong,
yes, we know the pain of isolation and abandonment,
we know the humiliation of feeling powerless,
but we also know the immense power
of the grace of presence and community—
of being called into working with God for redemption.
This too, the way of Jesus.

Amidst obsessive focus on the lesser important,
the prioritizing of the lesser significant,
within toxic exchanges of disrespect,
amidst the shallow meaningless rhetoric,
even within fear—paralyzing fear,
we know a hope deeper than our fear,
and we know deep truth that reorients us time and time again.
This is the way of Jesus.

And yes we know interminably awake in the dark early hours.
We know there’s little about resurrection that’s easy.
We know, in the words of Bruce Cockburn,
that “You have to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight”
(Bruce Cockburn, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” Stealing Fire, 1984)
This too, is the way of Jesus.

But then, even within the despair that leads someone to take their life,
we offer each other the affirmation, rooted in what we do know,
that light is a deeper truth than we know—than we can know—
that we know in part—as through a glass dimly.

This, our witness; this, our testimony;
this, our faith; this, our assurance.
This we know.

And if we don’t—if we don’t know all this—
if it’s not our witness, not our testimony,
if it’s not our experience, not our assurance,
then we gather with those for whom it is,
to let them believe for us, to hope for us,
to share with us their witness.
And amidst our commitment to live in community
in the way of Jesus,
manifesting Jesus’ love and grace to each other and to others,
we come to know Jesus among us—full of grace and truth.
For if Jesus has risen, but the way of Jesus has not,
what is our truest testimony but that Jesus died?

He is risen. (He is risen!)

And Jesus lives.
This we know.
Thus we live.
You see?

This the testimony of  Woodbrook Baptist Church  in worship
on this 31st  day of March , 2013   . Easter Sunday morning.

Thanks be to God.

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