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Called to Witness Peace by Jesus

Sermon - 4/08/07 (Easter Sunday)
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Acts 10: 34-43

I'm always amazed at the variety in the [flowered] cross -- I think my yard doesn't look anything like this J.  I don't know where all these flowers come from this time of year, but I know they didn't come from our house.  Thank you for sharing with us in that beautiful transformation.

The text for this Easter Sunday is actually a sermon recorded in the 10th chapter of Acts.  A sermon given by the apostle Peter to the household of Cornelius, who is a Roman Centurion.  He has summoned Peter to his home (keep in mind that a Jew in occupied Palestine would not turn down a summons of a Roman Centurion).  When Peter arrives there, Cornelius relates to him a vision that he had from God -- so it comes from even higher authority -- to summon Peter, that he might here what he has to say.

And he says to him:  '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.’

It's important to keep in mind, that at this point in the story of the development of the early church, the church is still essentially a Sunday-school class.  Or a Sabbath-school class in the synagogue.  That is, all the members are Jewish -- there are not yet any Gentile members.  The Gentile mission, as we call it, begun by the Apostle Paul, had not yet started.  So, Peter then comes to the home of this Gentile Roman military official and begins to speak to them and says:

‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how 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. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not 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. 42He 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. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’


A preacher, wanting to impress upon his audience the virtue of living a life free of sin, placed 4 jars on the pulpit.  And into each jar he placed a worm.  And in the first jar he poured alcohol.  In the second jar, he lit a cigarette and put it in the jar, sealed it.  In the third jar he poured chocolate.  In the 4th jar, he filled with good, clean earth.  And then he began to preach, as I'm accustomed to doing, about an hour or so (get comfortable J), with lots of 'Amen', 'praise Jesus', 'thank you God', and at the end of his sermon, he turned again to the jars and he pulled out the first worm in the alcohol, and it was dead.  He pulled out the second worm in the smoke and it too was dead.  He pulled out the third worm in chocolate, tempted to eat it but he didn't J, and it was dead.  He pulled out the worm in the earth, and of course it was alive.

And so he says to the congregation:  "What, brothers and sisters, can you learn from this illustration?"  A little old lady in the choir, I think her name was Joanne, says (contemplating on what she had learned from this illustration):  "If you drink, smoke, and eat a lot of chocolate, you won't have worms!"  Can I hear an Amen?!

We live in a time when we are constantly being told of what we should do with what diets we should be on, or what foods we should avoid, what exercise we should do, the proper etiquette for cell phone usage (I hope you have yours off), what we should buy if we care about workers in the third world, what we should drive if we care about the environment, how we should vote if we care about most of anything, and today if you care about your pets you will check the recall list before you buy pet food.

Too often, Christianity has become something like that -- a list of do's and don'ts.  As if the Bible were merely a rule book.  Or as if Jesus rose from the dead to check on who's naughty and who's nice.

I want to suggest to you this morning that the good news of Easter is about more than teaching us good habits, and making us nicer neighbors.  Easter is about the wonder of the amazing grace of God.  Easter is about the power of love that cannot be sealed in a tomb.  Easter is about the justice of God that will not be buried by the power of empire.  Easter is about the transformation of the cross, a grotesque symbol of violence, oppression and death, transformed into a thing of beauty.  Of hope, and life.  Easter is about no less than God's desire, God's passion for us in our world.

Friday this week, Good Friday, there appeared a rather remarkable religious column in the mostly secular editorial page of the Register Guard.  Did you notice?  Written by E.J. Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post, who was commenting on the emergence of a neo-atheism, promoted by writers such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who have become the new media darlings with their very sharp attacks on religion in general and Christianity in particular.

If you haven't read Harris' best-seller "The End of Faith", then at least pick up the current issue of Newsweek in which he engages in a debate with the Reverend Rick Warren, the author of "A Purpose Driven Life" (and pastor of the large Saddleback Church down in California).  It's a good debate on the question of the existence of God.  Though I have to tell you that I was a little frustrated with Warren in that he represented a particular Christian viewpoint I find quite foreign to my own.  For instance, Harris gives a rational defense of evolution, and Warren simply dismisses it saying "God in a moment created Man.  If you believe in God, you don't have a problem accepting miracles".  

And I wanted to say "Wait a second, stop, time out!"  There have been 10,000 clergy in this country, Christian and Jewish, who have signed a statement, released last year, saying that there is no conflict, none whatsoever, between evolution and faith.  Zero.  No conflict.  I signed it, as did many other clergy here in our area.  It's a project of Michael Zimmerman, you can Google it ("clergy letter project") and read the full statement and all about it.  By the way, Zimmerman is one of the Deans at Butler University in Indianapolis, a Disciples of Christ school founded by our church, supported by the special offering we will receive today.  So we can be proud of that.

I'd much rather read a debate between Harris and any one of those 10,000 clergy, because I think it would be more interesting.  But be that as it may, the Newsweek article provides a good summary of this neo-atheism, which I believe if we do not take seriously, and the issues it raises, then the church will largely become irrelevant in the decades ahead.  And Easter will be little more than a hunt for colored eggs and chocolate Easter bunnies (if that isn't what it has already become for many).

Back to Dionne and his critique of the new religion critics.  Yes, he says, much harm has been done in the name of Christianity.  But also much good.  To the neo-atheists claim of a certain arrogance that is inherent in all religion, to claim that this or that belief is the one truth, Dionne responds that atheists are just as capable of such arrogance.  And then he concludes the column with a quote from the book we studied last year during Lent (about 30 of us), a book I referred to often in my sermons during that season last year, by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, "The Last Week".  And so Dionne quotes Borg and Crossan, saying:

"Jesus attracted a following and took his movement to Jerusalem at the season of Passover. There he challenged the authorities with public acts and public debates. All this was his passion, what he was passionate about: God and the Kingdom of God, God and God's passion for justice. Jesus' passion got him killed."

That is why, writes Dionne in the conclusion of his column, "despite many questions of my own, I celebrate Easter".

We all come here for many reasons, for why we celebrate Easter.  But to find such a powerful statement on the meaning of Easter on the editorial pages of a secular newspaper, tells me that our culture is not nearly as hostile to Christian faith as some would claim.  But then I'm not always sure our culture "gets" what the Christian message is about:  the passion of Jesus, that got him killed by the authorities of his culture.

The story of Peter and Cornelius, told here in Acts, is really the story of the clash of that message with the culture then, if not now.  When we here Peter preaching in the home of Cornelius, we are not hearing just 1 sermon given on this single occasion, but decades of preaching in many location in the early church, boiled down to its most basic, key elements, as summarized here by the author of Acts and placed on the lips of Peter.

Some portions of this sermon sound familiar to us.  "Everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sin through his name".  And we nod our heads -- yeah, that's right.  We've heard that sermon before.  

And other parts may not be quite as familiar to us.  "God shows no partiality.  In every nation, among every people, anyone who honors God and does what is right is entirely acceptable to God".  And we tilt our heads -- huh?  Yeah, I remember something like that, but we forget that many times, don't we?  Have we really thought through what that means in our multi-cultural, multi-religious society?

And then there are parts of this sermon, if we stop to consider the full implication, are like a bucket of cold water in the face.  It gets our attention.  Did Peter really say what I think he said?  In the home of a Roman Centurion?  Now a centurion is the captain of 100 soldiers.  So this is a high officer in the Roman military system.  Not someone usually well-liked by Jews in that occupied land.  And recall, too, that a Roman Centurion was there at the cross of Jesus, which means, there were 100 soldiers nearby ready to keep the peace.  Peace they kept with crosses on hillsides.  And further, as an officer in the Roman military, a centurion would be required to swear allegiance to Caesar, Lord of all, the Son of God, on the Roman throne.  It is precisely here, in this centurion's home, that Peter summarizes the good news of the gospel:

"You know the message of God, sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he [not Caesar], is Lord of all."

Now don't you wish that the author of Acts had told us more of what happened that day?  I mean, can you imagine that after the service this Roman Centurion, loyal to Caesar, simply shook the hand of this Jewish disciple loyal to Christ, and said "Nice sermon, preacher"?  I mean, wouldn't he have said something like "Well, I know was Pax Romana is, because that's my job -- to keep the peace, without violence if possible, but with brutal violence, overwhelming violence, if necessary.  So what is this Pax Christi about?"  The peace by Jesus.  What does it mean for me as a Roman soldier?  What does it mean for us as occupiers?  Do I crucify insurrectionists and messiahs when instructed to do so?  How do I practice this peace by Jesus?

And we do not know Peter's response to such a question.  So let me fill in what he might have said in the mid-first century by what another hero of the church did say in the mid-twentieth century.

Thirty nine years ago, on Maundy Thursday, in 1968, an assassins bullet brutally took the life of Martin Luther King Jr.  That means we have now been as long without Dr. King in the world as he lived on it.  History remembers him as the great civil rights leader, but we often forget that the last three years of his life were devoted as much to opposing the war in Vietnam as they were to ending racism.  The Reverend King was criticized for speaking out against the war.  It would detract from the movement, they said.  But what the critics forgot, or did not realize, was that that movement, led by Dr. King, wasn't really about racial equality.  It was about God's justice for all people.  And it got him killed.

King said that the Nobel Peace Prize which he received in 1964 was "a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances.  That even if it were not present, I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ.  To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask why I am speaking against the war.  Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all people?  For Communists and Capitalists?  For their children and ours?  For black and for white?  For revolutionary and conservative?  Have they forgotten that my ministry is an obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?".

I can imagine Peter saying something like that, can't you?

In his 1967 Christmas sermon on peace, King preached on the inter-relatedness, the sacredness of life.  "Every person is somebody because he or she is a child of God.  When we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won't exploit people.  We won't trample over people with the iron feet of oppression.  And we won't kill anybody".

Now, maybe Peter was not as direct as that when speaking to Cornelius.  Perhaps he was more philosophical, talking to Cornelius about how to combine his power as a Roman officer with the power of love of Jesus Christ.  If so, we can imagine something like this, again from the words of Martin Luther King in his last address to the Southern Christian Leadership Council:

"What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive.  And love without power is sentimental and anemic.  Power, at its best, is love implementing the demands of justice.  And justice, at its best, is power correcting everything that stands against love".

Maybe Peter simply quoted Jesus, and said:  "Cornelius, Jesus taught us not only to love God and neighbor, but to love our enemies.  You'll have to figure out what that means for yourself".  

Whatever Peter said on that afternoon, it's hard to imagine that this first Gentile convert to Christian faith continued life as before.  For if he had, then the transformation of the cross means nothing.  And Easter is as empty as the tomb.  So how do we know that is not the case?  That we, not the neo-atheists are right about the good news of Easter?

The wonderful Jewish biblical scholar, Abraham Heschel, provides perhaps the best answer for Christians and Jews and people of all faiths alike:

"The facts that deny the divine are mighty", said Heschel, "indeed, the arguments of agnosticism are eloquent.  The events that defy God are spectacular.  Our faith is fragile, never immune to error, distortion or deception.  There are no final proofs for the existence of God, father and creator of all.  There are only witnesses".

Witnesses, like Mary and the women at the tomb.  Like Peter and that other disciple.  We have no proof that Jesus rose from the dead, only witnesses that he lives in you and me.  Amen?  Amen.

We have no proof that peace by Jesus is better than Pax Romana or Pax Americana, only witnesses like Martin Luther King, who said either we learn to live together as brothers or sisters or we are all going to perish together as fools.  

We have no proof that the justice of God will bring an end to violence, only witnesses to the non-violence of Christ exposing the injustices of the world.

We have no proof that love is stronger than hate.  We have no proof that hope is greater than despair.  We have no proof that life can triumph over death.  Only witnesses, called by God to testify that Christ has made such possible for all of us.

Never, never underestimate the power of witness, the life in Christ, and peace by Jesus.

We have no proof of the good news of Easter.  Only witnesses.  Will you be one?


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