Tuesday, May 1, 2012

After Easter 3

In the text before us this morning we have before us another passage of scripture that is familiar to many of us (Acts 4: 5-12). The passage often comes up this time of year, as the lectionary reminds us that we need to take time to ponder together the remarkable events that follow quite closely on the heels of the resurrection of the Son of God. The rhythm of the lectionary, so to speak, is inviting us to linger for a while on the impact of Easter. And so for the past few Sundays we have been taking note of several of Jesus’ post-Easter visits with his disciples. DON’T FORGET that the one common theme to all of these visits was Jesus’ desire to help his followers face their failures and weaknesses and restore them them to their vocation of following him in mission. As someone has put it, “On the far side of the resurrection, vocation and forgiveness occur together....”.

In the passage before us this morning we meet Peter, recently forgiven and restored by Jesus, now proclaiming boldly the gospel of Jesus Christ in the very city where Jesus was crucified, in the very city where Peter had denied him three times. Stop there for just a moment. Isn’t it amazing how powerful a hold geography can have on us?! I think all of us can relate to being back in familiar surroundings - even literally geographical surroundings (for Peter, Jerusalem) - where our past actions in those surroundings confronts us with our failure. In those moments it can at first feel like nothing has changed. You look up and you see a park bench or a cafe and you think unpleasant thoughts. Yet because of God’s forgiveness and acceptance in Christ the landscape of our pasts can become places of hope instead of a reminder of our failures. I am not suggesting that this happens lightly or automatically but if we learn to practice seeing ourselves as those who have been forgiven by God in Christ slowly but surely even the most haunting of landscapes can become vistas of God’s grace and love for us. It is because this stuff doesn’t come easily or automatically that some spiritual traditions with our faith have emphasized joining confession and acceptance of God’s love with physical practices like breathing, praying with icons in hand, getting on one’s knees, coming forward to receive communion each week, etc. This is because leaving the difficult practice of accepting God’s love and forgiveness simply to a cerebral exercise is too tall an order for our feeble minds.

Back to the Scripture text at hand: so, here is Peter proclaiming the gospel to the very religious leadership who had conspired to have Jesus murdered by the Roman government. Specifically, Peter and John are being detained and threatened for preaching and healing in Jesus’ name and so Peter takes the opportunity to appeal to the religious leadership to recognize the horror of what they have done. He says to them, in so many words, the one whom you crucified is now the one in whom you need to find salvation. Your victim has been raised from the dead; your victim is your judge; your judge forgives you. Repent and accept his forgiveness because there will be no other way of dealing with your sin if you refuse God’s love for you in the very one you crucified.

The language that Peter uses here to confront the authorities is strong and courageous, to be sure. But what is easy for us to miss is how much this tells us about the persistence that God has with regard to his passion to forgive people - even specifically those who conspired to murder the innocent Son of God. The proclamation to them from the OT, a text with which they would have familiarity, the stone the builders have rejected has become the chief cornerstone, is said to them to jar them out of their blindness and to beckon them to see that it is in Jesus that God is at work in the world to bring forgiveness, healing, and newness of life. He does not say to them, you had your chance - now you may as well go hang yourselves because God is never going to accept you. No, just the opposite: and one thinks here of the powerful words of the theologian, M Volf: "If God does not find what is pleasing in an object - if human beings have become ungodly - God does not abandon the object in disgust until it changes its character. Instead, God seeks to re-create it to become lovable again... God is not just generous even to the unrighteous; God also forgives their unrighteousness so as to lead them through repentance back to the good they have abandoned."
Sadly, in today’s religious climate, there are a great many Christian people (and to my dismay it seems like theirs are the voices most often heard in the media) who talk as if God somehow delights at the prospect of condemning the unbeliever. In this sort of climate it becomes even more important that we take great care in how we present the uniqueness of Jesus that is portrayed in this passage. When we talk about “salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved”, we must make sure that people don’t imagine us to be saying that we know the end game between God and any individual person. What we are saying positively is that we, as followers of Jesus, believe that we have found our life in God to be in Jesus Christ and that the forgiveness, newness of life, wisdom, and life-giving community we have found in him can be found in no one else. This approach to dealing with the uniqueness of Jesus - this positive approach (which I think is the approach taken even in this bracing mini-sermon of Peter’s when you really think of it in its context) - is really very important. It is important because in this approach to the teaching in this text we are reminded of something very important that we need to come to terms with: God wants us to experience forgiveness and life in Jesus in such a genuine and palpable way that we are always at the ready to say to anyone and everyone that what we experience of human flourishing comes to us by no other name than Jesus. We should live our lives so that we are able to say to anyone and everyone that it is by no other name than Jesus that we have been drawn out of our selfishness in order to love others with the same love that God has loved us; that it is by no other name than Jesus that I have found the humility and impetus to ask my spouse to forgive me for the way I spoke to her. We should be able to confess that it is by no other name than Jesus that I am put in a space where I remember how much I am loved by God, in turn giving me a proper love of self that can enable me to turn from self-destructive patterns of sin that are appealing only in moments when I forget how much I am loved by God. It is by no other name than Jesus that the landscapes of my life become transformed from fields of despair and selfish wandering into places of hope where I can find my life in Christ and in loving my neighbor as myself. You get the picture.

Questions for discussion:

1. If someone who is not a Christian were to ask you to explain what Peter means when he says there is salvation in no one else what would you say? Would you draw a distinction between uniqueness and finality on the one hand and narrowness on the other?

2. As we noted above, Peter confronts the religious leadership with their sin and says to them, in so many words, there is no way out of the trap you have made for yourself regarding Jesus other than repenting and being reconciled to him. This is shocking in at least two way: (a) his appeal to them is to be forgiven when he is probably angry with them and afraid of them (b) they are given only one route to move forward and it is through the risen Jesus. Does this part of the passage make you think of people from whom you need forgiveness?

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