Maybe it’s a good time to remind people that we’re allowed to change our mind about what God may be calling us to. This week’s Acts passage opens with Peter saying, “I now know…” As in, I used to think something different, but now I am confident in understanding God in a new way. Will Willimon calls this new understanding an “upsetting, exciting, world-reversing word.” Just this morning, my 3-year-old son asked me if “excited means happy?” I said, “usually it does mean we’re happy for something that we think is about to happen.” But excited can also be used when we’re surprised or startled. The unexpected is a different kind of excitement, but it elevates our emotions nonetheless. Easter is exciting, and not just for the candy that seems to be driving my children’s anticipation. It is exciting because it marks our annual remembrance of the gratitude, hope, and anticipation we have for a world that has been reversed in Christ. Willimon’s three adjectives for Peter’s new understanding capture the mixture of fear, anxiety, and eagerness that comes with times when God does something unexpected to, for, or through us.
Sometimes, those who have heard the Easter message year after year can forget how profound the Easter confession, “Christ is Risen!” really is. Many who will hear your sermon this week will be inoculated to the life-altering power of Easter’s claims. Just as the vaccines many of our hearers will be getting initiate their defenses to COVID19 to minimize the consequences of encountering the new virus, many of us have had just enough Easter to minimize the implications of what we proclaim when we say—“Christ is Risen!”; “I truly understand that God shows no partiality”; or “everyone who believes in [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
So briefly, I want to highlight some of the ways this message had to be challenging and scary to Peter. The conclusion of this endeavor will invite you to remind your hearers of exactly where they fit in the story of Easter and of Acts 10 in particular. As you preach this text, remember that we preach to Gentile churches. We often don’t think in these terms anymore, but we do primarily preach to Gentiles. Our churches this week are evidence of the truth of Peter understanding God’s message that boundaries needed expanding. And this was a big shift for Peter to embrace. As Willimon notes, “Peter’s sermon is an attempt to struggle with his recently received new perception of the movement of the gospel. He has no proof text to justify himself. He is out on risky terrain without tradition or Scripture to back him up” (Acts, 98). We Wesleyans value experience for sure, but even we aren’t comfortable out in this “risky terrain” without a clear way of identifying things in the Bible to help us make sense of our experience of God.
Easter is a critical marker of God’s people finally recognizing a new truth about God that has been there all along. As Willie Jennings says in his commentary, “The world is turning over and Peter turns with it” (Acts, 109). Now, this turning is an important message of expansion and joining, not one of replacement for Peter. His life will demonstrate that he doesn’t thoroughly reject his identity as one of Israel’s people, but he is recognizing the way God’s message of forgiveness in Jesus is one that transcends his previous understanding of purity and boundaries.
The set up for these verses is the encounter between Cornelius and Peter. Remember that we’re in the position of Cornelius. We have received God’s invitation, we’ve been invited to seek and pursue, and lo and behold, we find ourselves the recipients of good news—now how do we live like this and carry that forward? Verse 33 ends, “now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” Are we ready for these opportunities when they come our way? Are our people ready when that opportunity to witness and testify presents itself?
You and I, and most who assemble in worship this Easter have heard from the witnesses—and we’ve received a message “that everyone who believes in [Jesus the Christ] receives forgiveness of sins…” Now, today, we celebrate that message, but it also comes with the demands that we continue sharing the message: we now become the next generation of witnesses in a long line of witnesses.
But quite honestly, we’re usually quick to get that point. We’re often primed and ready to hear that message. It’s the depth of God’s profound direct action towards Peter and Cornelius that we can quickly gloss over. Are we bringing the true Gospel and Good News to people? Do we proclaim a message that God is in the practice of drawing people together to gather more people into restored relationship and redemption, not moving past one group and moving on.
As Willie Jennings notes, “Peter listens and hears the word of God in new and unanticipated places” (111). This morning is an important time for us to invite our hearers to listen well to the implications of Easter for their lives. Jennings explains the crux of the matter when it comes to Peter’s sermon, that “Jesus of recent history becomes the defining moment of all history” (112).
Are we living like that? Do we view the world with that perception? Have we allowed Jesus, and in particular on this morning his resurrection victory, to inform and influence the way we see, relate, work, play, love, give, care, die, and forgive?
In verses 41-42, Peter emphasizes that “God allowed Jesus to appear” to those chosen to be witnesses, and God “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.” Those who hear our sermons this Easter are now among those who have been chosen as witnesses—the ones to whom God has allowed Jesus to appear in our preaching (and hopefully in our lives). So this is a time to invite people into the successive generations of witness and testimony that produces the ongoing community of God’s people who worship Jesus as Lord.
The lectionary passage stops at this point, but it leaves out a final key piece of Peter’s preaching; in the hearing of the testimony, the Holy Spirit falls on those who heard. This is our prayer and hope this Easter—that as we preach the good news of Easter, the good news of Jesus’ victory over sin and death, that the Holy Spirit would fall on those gathered in worship. And in this passage, we have a second Pentecost of sorts—the Holy Spirit is falling on people in new ways—transgressing boundaries that have been maintained and drawing people together who were separated by distinctions that suddenly don’t seem to matter in the body of Christ.