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Hear the Good News"
I know, that for some silly reason, there are folks who wander around believing that pastors have all the answers; that pastors fully understand all about doctrine and polity and theology and scripture.
Well, the truth of the matter is that the more we know, the more we know we don't know. The more informed we become, the more ignorant we feel.
And for me, the more complex the message of Christ becomes in my own mind, the more difficulty I have in knowing where to BEGIN in bringing that message to others. It would be nice if there were simple answers, but at least for me there aren't.
It seems that any time anyone provides me with what they think is a simple answer, it only raises more questions for me.
But within scripture, fortunately, there are tools; there are models. We can see how Jesus presented his messages; we can see how the apostles presented their messages.
And one of the most useful of the scriptural models is provided in the book of the Acts in the tenth chapter, in which we learn of the conversion of Cornelius.
Instrumental in that conversion was the apostle Peter, although HE has a distinct advantage: he was INVITED by Cornelius.
And in the thirty-third verse of that chapter we hear Cornelius say, "Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.
"Then Peter began to speak to them: I truly understand that God shows no partiality."
Now, that statement SHOULD stand on its own; we probably take it for granted. But Peter has had a vision earlier in the chapter, and in the fifteenth verse is told, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."
And as he stands before Cornelius and his friends, Cornelius being a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, Peter says, in the twenty-eighth verse,
"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."
And it strikes me as an ironic situation. Is this the same Peter who was one of the twelve? Was he not within earshot when Jesus said, "Go therefore and make disciples of ALL nations"? To WHAT was he paying attention in Jesus ministry?
It sounds like the command to "love your neighbor" applied only to Jewish neighbors. And maybe they believed that! Which may have been why it was necessary for this vision to come to Peter, to clear up his blindness to the rest of the world.
"But," Peter continues, "in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." That sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? But if you look closely, that statement might become troublesome. For within it is no reference to Jesus Christ.
And I think that scripture is telling us that not only is God not partial, but that we, as Christians, should not be partial either. If there are those who fear God and do what is right, they are acceptable to God. Period. And who are WE to say that they are NOT acceptable? "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." And here we are talking about the Jews, the Unity Church, the Unitarian Universalists, and probably some others with which I am not familiar, who don't place a high priority on the place of Jesus Christ in their theology.
And we hear a similar message from Paul in the ninth through the eleventh verses of the second chapter of his letter to the Romans: "There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality."
But then, Peter sets out to tell about Christ: "You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he is Lord of all."
Well, Peter may be stretching here. It's unlikely that these folks DID know the message. In addition, the parenthetical observation of Christ's sovereignty is probably something that Luke added to Peter's words.
But even without those embellishments, this message is a clear, strong one. God has sent a message to Israel. It is a message of good news of peace. And it comes in the person of Jesus Christ. And the implication in all of this is that this is fulfillment of prophecy. The message is not limited to Israel, but came to this nation because it was promised to it.
But what IS the message? Is it WHAT Christ preached? In this context it sounds like it! Or is it what Christ LIVED? Or is the message this: that Christ, after dying, was resurrected? For us, it is all of these things; but at this point in Peter's sermon, it is only Christ's preaching.
And Peter goes on to elaborate on the message sent by God to Israel:
"That message spread through Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced."
And in this verse, Peter pinpoints the start and the source of the message God has sent. It began with Jesus baptism, and he was the sole source of the message.
Now, Jesus had disciples, but it is clear from Peter's sermon that Jesus is the embodiment of the message. Yet, even with his disciples, the proclamation of the message does not cover much territory.
"Judea" was only about fifty or so miles from north to south and the same from east to west. From our perspective, looking back almost twenty centuries to the other side of the globe to a tiny piece of land, it's amazing that what happened so influences us today. But what was the response of Cornelius and his crew? THEY were in the FIRST century, in Caesarea on the Mediterranean.
This was not ancient history to them; it was happening now!
So Peter continues to tell who this person was who was baptised by John:
"God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power;...he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him."
Now, it may sound like there are two separate messages here; but if Peter had NOT had the evidence of Jesus good deeds and healing, his references to the Holy Spirit and God's power would have been meaningless. And I am reminded of Jesus words in the tenth chapter of John, "If I am not doing the works of my father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works."
And indeed, we don't have to settle for mere assertions, because we have the evidence.
But was it possible that the evidence of Jesus good deeds was not necessarily sufficient to prove that he was anointed by God with the Holy Spirit? I mean, there must have been other high-minded well-intentioned folks in Judea doing good deeds!
And the answer to that question, I believe, comes in what follows next in Peter's sermon.
"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."
And Peter sets for no reasons for why this happened. He doesn't attempt explanations for the crucifixion. In this sermon there are no links between the "doing good and healing" and the crucifixion. Peter simply tells Cornelius and us that it happened.
So we have to read between the lines. And in reading between the lines, we can find no logical link between the good deeds and the crucifixion; but we can imagine the crucifixion taking place because Jesus WAS anointed with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus was NOT just "good deeds," but the very embodiment of the goodness of God. And the evil in the world, incapable of striking back at the divinity of Christ, chose to destroy the HUMANITY of Christ.
As I said, I'm reading between the lines. But look at the pattern of Peter's simple message. Christ was sent to earth by God. Christ was baptised by John. Christ went about doing good and healing. Christ was crucified.
And up until that last point, unbelievers may doubt that this really was the Christ! But when Peter says, "They put him to death," doubt is forced to disappear.
But not only was the crucifixion in all its absurdity the proof of the Christ, God also used that death as a turning point, and "God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear."
And although the powers of evil in the world could destroy the physical body of Jesus, it could not prevail over the spiritual power of God within Christ. But again, Peter affirms his evidence. As he said earlier, "we are witnesses to all that he did," he now emphasizes that Jesus was "allowed to appear."
And that appearance, evidence of Jesus' resurrection from the dead, becomes the ultimate compelling evidence that Jesus was the Christ.
But Peter knows that his experience has been unique, and he proclaims the responsibility of his witness, because the appearance of Jesus after his resurrection was
"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."
Now, I know that there are lots of United Methodists who think that holy communion observed on a quarterly basis is more than enough. Even though John Wesley believed that we could never celebrate communion often enough. But I think that this verse speaks to us contemporary Christians as well as it spoke to Peter.
WE are not all the people, but WE have been chosen by God as witnesses, and WE eat and drink with Jesus each time we celebrate communion. Of course, our witness is different from that of Peter's, and our meals with Jesus are different.
But, nevertheless, I believe the symbolic power of Peter's statement still holds true for us.
So what is the obligation of those who are witnesses? What is the obligation of those who eat and drink with Jesus? It's interesting--and a bit odd--that early in this passage Peter tells his listeners, "You know the message," and then proceeds to tell them the message as if they did NOT know it. But I think that there is a reason.
"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."
And what is Peter's final evidence?
"All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."
Like I said earlier, we have models. This isn't the only model, and Paul's models would be different. But it is a very GOOD model, I believe, because Peter witnesses to the TOTALITY of the person of Jesus.
If we take that picture apart, break it down into little pieces, we may not have much; but if we can affirm the complete picture that Peter gives us--the baptism, the life, the death, and the resurrection--we can truly testify that Jesus IS the one ordained by God.
But still, there are, for me, no simple answers. As a pastor friend of mine once remarked, "I don't believe we can measure our evangelism effectiveness by the number of times we can say the name of Jesus in a sermon."
And I'm not so sure that Peter believed that there were simple answers. Indeed, he doesn't meantion here the times HIS faith faltered.
But Peter does know that there IS an answer, and THAT answer IS Jesus Christ, and everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. Amen.
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