I’m preaching from Acts 10:34-43 for Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009. I hope you have a wonderful Easter and that the story of Jesus is told in new and powerful ways in every church on Easter Sunday morning. He is risen. He is risen indeed!
He Is The One
Acts 10:34-43 NIV
34Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”
36“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.
37You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”
39“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He 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. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
A Christmas Story at Easter
Paul Hiebert, the late missiologist and teacher, told this story of an experience he had when he served as a missionary in India:
It was Christmas time, and in the little village in South India where he had gathered with Indian Christians in the modest church there, the villagers had put on a Christmas play, the Christmas story.
The boys dressed as shepherds had come stumbling out onto the the stage, acting drunk. Apparently shepherds in that part of India were notorious for their drinking, and so the villagers howled with laughter at the boys’ comical portrayal of the Biblical story with a local twist.
But then the angels appeared and shepherds and villagers sat in rapt attention at the announcement of the birth of Jesus. Wise men soon appeared, making their way to Herod’s court where they enquired as to the exact location of the birth of the new King of the Jews. Everything seemed to be going according to plan as the play went along.
As the Biblical story came to its conclusion, Hiebert thought the play was ending. But just at that moment, the stage curtain was pulled back to reveal Santa Claus with gifts for everyone! Hiebert was shocked. At first he thought that these new Indian Christians were guilty of syncretism — blending in Christianity with their own myths and ancient beliefs.
But then he realized that the missionaries themselves had brought two stories of Christmas. The first, the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph, and baby Jesus born in a stable in Bethlehem. In that story, the setting was not far from India itself, and the climate was subtropical. Palm trees and deserts formed the landscape, and sheep, goats, shepherds, and wisemen were the characters.
The second story was the story of Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, the giver of gifts with Mrs. Santa Claus, the elves, and reindeer as the supporting cast. Santa was the giver of gifts, and lived in a climate of snow and ice, where it was always cold and wintry.
Hiebert realized that while the missionaries had brought two stories of Christmas, the villagers in South India had combined them into one great Christmas story of Jesus and shepherds and sheep, along with Santa and reindeer and elves. Both wonderful stories, but each with a very different point.
You might wonder why I’m telling a Christmas story here at Easter. Here’s my point: we have to be careful about how we tell the stories of God. And the Easter story is no exception.
The Story of Spring Is Not The Story of Easter
Of course, Easter has some of the same wonderful folk stories that Christmas has. At Easter time, we look for the Easter bunny with baskets of candy and eggs. We dye eggs multiple colors, hide them from each other, and then make a great game of hunting for these prize eggs outdoors among the rest of nature.
We no longer believe the ancient mythic tales of strange gods and goddesses, and of the rites of spring, or other such nonsense. The Easter bunny and Easter eggs have been given a whole new story — a story of fun, of springtime, of a harmless and exuberant children’s activity. And, that’s exactly as it should be.
But, here today, we know there is a difference in the Easter bunny and in Jesus, just as we know there is a difference in Santa and Jesus. It does not hurt us at all to believe in jolly old men who bring gifts, or to believe that as a sign of spring the Easter bunny distributes eggs just for our amusement and enjoyment. But, we know that one story is not the other, that there is a difference in the Easter story in the Bible and the Easter sale at the mall.
Okay, so we aren’t like the villagers in South India who confused two very different stories. But we still must be careful when we tell the story of Easter, because even if we know the story of Easter is not the story of the Easter bunny, we still tell the wrong story sometime.
The Story of Church is not the Story of Easter
One of the stories we tell at Easter is the story of church. And, many people put on their Easter best and come to church on Easter Sunday. That’s a good thing to do. But it’s not the Easter story.
Like many of you, I grew up in the South. And in the South, we have a way of making language mean what we want it to. We say things like, “Ya’ll come to see us,” when we don’t really mean it. And we use phrases to qualify our gossip, like when we say “bless his heart.” That conversation usually goes something like this:
“Did you hear that Billy Smith was out drunk again last night?”
“Well, yes, I did. Bless his heart, he’s not ever going to amount to anything.”
So, the “bless his heart” kind of softens the gossipy part, and makes us sound really concerned for poor old worthless Billy.
Well, we did the same thing with this business of church and faith. I remember as a primary boy, when you walked down the aisle most of the time we called it “joining the church.” Which is exactly what part of that decision was, but not all of it. Somehow, we in the South just couldn’t bring ourselves to say, “He became a Christian today.” Or, “She became a disciple of Jesus today.” No, we talked about the part of that experience that was less difficult. We said, “He joined the church today.”
Now, before you get too concerned, I know we meant to include the full meaning. You joined the church because you had professed faith in Christ, because you had asked Jesus to forgive your sins, because you had repented of all the bad things you had done, even if you were only 6 years old. I know we understood it meant all of that, but mostly all we could say was, “He joined the church.”
The story we were telling then was the story about church. And, here’s how the rest of that story went:
You joined the church by walking the aisle at the end of the service.
Then the church (if you were Baptist) voted to receive you into its membership upon your baptism.
Then you were baptized.
Then you were expected to take your place as a good church member, which meant coming to church, serving where you could, giving to the church, and doing some other things like reading your Bible and praying. And when you came to church, they even helped train you to do all of that.
And that was the story about church. We really thought it was the story about being a Christian, but in our Southern culture and minds both of those stories were the same.
I’m reading a fascinating book titled, The Death of Christian Britain. by Callum Brown, who is professor of religious and cultural history at the University of Dundee in the UK. Brown examines the decline of the Christian church in Britain where now less that 7% of the population attends religious services, even though The Church of England is the official state church.
Brown looks at the popular theories for church decline in England. He examines the theory of the “wicked city” which is the theory that urban centers broke ties to family and friends as the population migrated from the rural countryside to the cities during the Industrial Revolution. But Brown actually demonstrates that during the period of manufacturing increase, more people joined churches than ever before.
He also looks at the theory of the Industrial Revolution itself as a contributing factor to the decline of churches, but again the data show that during the 19th and 20th centuries, up to the 1960s, church attendance and participation in Britain actually continued to increase, and at times increased sharply.
Brown concluded that neither the growth of urban centers, nor the rise of manufacturing were the causes of the decline of the church in England.
His conclusion was that the English simply began telling themselves a new story about church. Let me explain. The old story they told themselves about church, as did we in America, is that good people go to church, church is a good influence on growing children, respectable people live according to Christian principles, and that being a church member was a good thing. You were baptized into the church as an infant, confirmed in the church as a pre-adolescent, married in the church as a young adult, and buried by the church when you died. Your life was woven into the fabric of the church.
But some time in the 1960s, during the rise of the Baby Boom generation, a lot of social narratives were being called into question. Women were finding a new place in society, young people were rebelling against their parents and the system, and society was in turmoil. We experienced the same thing here in America, with similar results.
But, in England people began to tell themselves that you can be good and not go to church. You don’t have to be baptized, or confirmed, that life isn’t much different for those who are than for others. That you don’t have to do what the church tells you to do, and you can get along very well without all that religious fuss. And church attendance began a steady decline that is unabated to this day. Part of the point of Brown’s book is that there is a point at which Britain ceases to be Christian at all, and the church becomes totally irrelevant.
So, the story of Easter can’t be the story of the Church, because it’s easy to explain away the need for the institution of church itself.
The Story of Heaven Isn’t The Story of Easter
We have often told the story of Easter this way: Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected so that we can all go to heaven when we die. Now, there is truth in that statement, but that is not the story of Easter. Actually, if you read all of the accounts of the Easter story, and of what the disciples experienced on that first Easter morning, there is nothing about going to heaven when you die in those accounts.
There is wonder, and mystery, and sadness, and surprise, and unbelief, and incredulity, but not much talk about heaven or our own death. Now, we have come to understand that a result of the death and resurrection of Christ is our own salvation which includes being in the presence of God eternally, but the story of heaven isn’t the story of Easter, either.
The Story of Easter is the Story of Jesus
In our passage today, Peter is speaking to Cornelius. Cornelius is a Roman centurion who lives in Caesarea. Amazingly, Cornelius, even though he was in the unit known as the Italian Regiment, was a believer in the God of the Jews. He was well-known and respected by the Jewish community. One day in prayer, Cornelius saw an angel who told him to send for a man named Simon, who was also called Peter. The angel told Cornelius Peter was staying in a house in Joppa, about three days’ journey away.
Cornelius dispatched 2 servants and a soldier to bring Peter to Caesarea. As they were approaching the house where Peter was staying, Peter had a vision. A large sheet was let down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals, birds, and reptiles. The voice told Peter, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
Peter objected that he had never eaten anything unclean. Jewish dietary laws prohibited the consumption of certain animals, or meat prepared in certain ways. But the vision persisted three times.
Then the Spirit told Peter, “There are some men looking for you. Go with them.”
Peter does, and arrives at the house of Cornelius, where he is well-received. Peter then begins to address Cornelius, and he tells him the story of his vision. Then he begins with the passage we read today.
Peter tells this story:
God doesn’t show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. (Cornelius is a God-fearer.)
God sent the good news of peace to the Jews through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. (Not Caesar, who thinks he is Lord of all.)
You know the story of Jesus, how he preached in Galilee, was baptized by John.
You know that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth (Christ means Messiah which means the anointed one).
You know the ministry of Jesus who went about doing good, and healing (saving) those who were under the power of the devil because God’s power was with Jesus.
We, the apostles, are witnesses of everything Jesus did in the country of the Jews, but they killed him by hanging him on a tree (OT prophecy).
But God raised him up from the dead on the third day (more prophecy) and caused him to be seen (this was no secret).
He wasn’t seen by everybody, but by the witnesses whom God chose.
We ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
He commanded us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one who God appointed to judge the living and the dead.
All the prophets testify about him, that every who believes in him has forgiveness of sins through his name.
So, Peter tells the story of Jesus. Not the story of the church, or the apostles, or the things that have happened to him. Peter tells this centurion who seeks God, the only story that matters, God’s story, the story of Jesus.
When we tell God’s story, Paul Hiebert says, “We must begin with the King, for it is the King who defines the kingdom. The central message of the gospels is the coming of Jesus Christ as King and Lord over all Creation.”
Hiebert goes on, “In the end Jesus was tried for treason by the Jewish and Roman courts and executed as all insurrectionists were — on a cross. The high court in heaven found Jesus innocent, and Satan and humans wicked. Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to his lawful throne, and cast out the principalities and powers that had opposed him. Ironically, his death, which looked like defeat to humans, was the means by which God wrought salvation for those who turn to him in repentance. In the end, every knee, in heaven and on earth, [and under the earth] will bend before the King.
With the King comes the kingdom. Within the kingdom is the body of Christ, the church. And the mission given to the church is to tell the story of Jesus. Not the story of an institution, not the story of a myth or legend, but of Jesus.
Peter says, “He is the one God appointed…”
He is the one born of a virgin, God incarnate.
He is the one who grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.
He is the one who made blind eyes see, lame legs walk, deaf ears to hear.
He is the one who said, You have heard, but I say unto you — re-imagining the law of God in new, loving ways.
He is the one who forgave the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the cheating tax collector, and the thief on the cross.
He is the one who taught love for God and neighbor as the summary of the Law and the Prophets.
He is the one who wept at the grave of a friend, and then called him forth from the dead.
He is the one who broke bread with his disciples and said, This is my body broken for you.
He is the one who prayed in the garden, Not my will but Thine be done.
He is the one who walked into the night after that Passover meal, knowing it was a walk to his own death.
He is the one who was abandoned by friends, rebuked by the religious, mocked by the soldiers, taunted by the crowd.
He is the one whose hands and feet were nailed to the cross.
He is the one whose side was pierced and whose heart was broken.
He is the one who cried, Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
He is the one who gave up his own life, and died the innocent victim of the Roman system of capital punishment.
He is the one whose body was laid in the grave.
He is the one whom God raised on that first Easter morn.
He is the one who comforted his disciples, breathed the Holy Spirit onto them, and sent the Spirit to empower them.
He is the one who ascended back to the Father.
And He is the one who is coming again.
The story of Easter is the story of Jesus. It is the story the world needs to hear, and we need to tell. It is the story in which we find our place, for it is our story. It is a story that goes on, it lives because He lives.
I’m still working on the sermon for Easter Sunday, but here’s the sermon I preached last Easter titled, “Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time.” The text is John 20:1-18. The manuscript is here, and here’s the audio mp3 and the video. Sunday’s coming!