Cross, Resurrection, and the vocation of the church: Reading Acts 10 with Rowan Williams

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April 18, 2013 by jmar198013

Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. He 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. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10.34-43 CEB)

These words from Peter come just after he has made the first Gentile convert to the Jesus movement: a Roman centurion named Cornelius. His experience with Cornelius–aided by a prophetic nudge from the Almighty–has given him the insight that God intends to embrace all peoples through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Yes, Christ was an Israelite sent to Israelites. But he was not intended as a gift only for Israelites. Rather, as Peter exclaims: This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! The logic of cross and resurrection, spoken by God in the person of Jesus Christ, is a word about the redemption of the world, not just one group of people. Just as Jesus–the incarnate Word from God (John 1.1-14)–embodied God’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation, so does the church–as Christ’s body (Rom. 12.1-8; 1 Cor. 12.12-30)–echo in our life God’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation. Acts 10.34-43 is a word about the implications of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ for the vocation of the church.

Rowan Williams, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, did a masterful job last Easter at connecting the Word of God through Christ and the life of the church. He said:

We are not told that Jesus ‘survived death’; we are not told that the story of the empty tomb is a beautiful imaginative creation that offers inspiration to all sorts of people; we are not told that the message of Jesus lives on. We are told that God did something – that is, that this bit of the human record, the things that Peter and John and Mary Magdalene witnessed on Easter morning, is a moment when, to borrow an image from the 20th century Catholic writer Ronald Knox, the wall turns into a window. In this moment we see through to the ultimate energy behind and within all things. When the universe began, prompted by the will and act of God and maintained in being at every moment by the same will and action, God made it to be a universe in which on a particular Sunday morning in AD33 this will and action would come through the fabric of things and open up an unprecedented possibility – for Jesus and for all of us with him: the possibility of a human life together in which the pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit makes possible a degree of reconciled love between us that could not have been imagined.

. . .

And what’s the difference it makes? If God exists and is active, if his will and action truly raised Jesus from the dead, then what we think and do and achieve as human beings is not the only thing that the world’s future depends on. We do all we can; we bring our best intelligence and energy to labour for reconciliation and for justice; but the future of reconciliation and justice doesn’t depend only on us. To say this doesn’t take away one jot of our responsibility or allow us to sit back; as Pascal said, we cannot sleep while Jesus is still in agony, and the continuing sufferings of the world are an image of that agony. But to believe that everything doesn’t depend on us delivers us from two potentially deadly temptations. We may be tempted to do something, anything, just because we can’t bear it if we aren’t making some visible difference; but to act for the sake of acting is futile or worse. Or we may be consumed with anxiety that we haven’t done enough, so consumed that we never have time to be ourselves, to give God thanks for his love and grace and beauty. We may present a face to the world that is so frantic with fear that we have left something undone that we make justice and reconciliation deeply unattractive. We never acquire the grace and freedom to give God thanks for the small moments of joy, the little triumphs of sense and kindness.

. . .

To believe in a God who raises Jesus from the dead is never an alibi, letting us do less than we thought we would have to. But it is a way of allowing in our own thoughts and actions some space for God to emerge as a God who creates a future. Someone once remarked that resurrection was never something you could plan for. But what we can do is to make the space, the silence, for the act of God to come through.

I think it’s worth noting that Peter said: They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. We are the witnesses to his life. We are the ones gifted with the vocation of telling his story faithfully. We are the ones who continue to dine and drink with the risen Christ when we gather around his table. Not everyone can see him, but the church can. And if we live in such a way as Rowan Williams indicates–“to make the space, the silence, for the act of God to come through”–the world will be able to see the truth about the Crucified and Resurrected One through our lives. The death and resurrection of Christ are not gifts to the church to ease our consciences or provide passports into the gated community of heaven where we have “got a mansion just over the hilltop.” Rather, they are gifts for us to share with the world through our lives and our life together. As Jesus said, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven(Matt. 5.16). And as Paul affirms: you are Christ’s letter … You weren’t written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. You weren’t written on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Cor. 3.3).

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