Monday, April 08, 2013

Chosen to Testify

Chosen to Testify
Acts 10:34-43[1]
  We all have our comfort zones.  Your favorite restaurant.  Your favorite grocery store.  Your favorite route to work.  Your favorite chair at home.  We like staying in the comfort of what is familiar.  But Easter pushes us way beyond what is familiar.  When was the last time you heard of an executed convict becoming one of the great religious leaders of the world? And even more, when was the last time you witnessed someone come back to life after being dead for two days?  Easter definitely takes us out of what is familiar and puts us squarely in the middle of something so strange, so new, that it changes everything and everyone.[2] No one can stay in their comfort zones in new light of that first Easter morning.
  In our lesson from Acts for today, there’s a lot that lies behind the seemingly simple story of Peter’s preaching.  In the first place, Peter was preaching to the household of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion.  He wasn’t preaching to Jewish people at the local synagogue.  He was preaching to a gathering of Gentiles--and to the family and friends of a Roman soldier!  Normally Peter would not even enter such a home.  Probably a short time earlier, in Antioch of Syria, he had refused to even eat with Gentile believers converted by Paul’s ministry (Gal. 2:11-14).  And in this case, Peter only consented to go to this unfamiliar place because God had specifically commanded him in a vision to do so (Acts 10:9-20)!
  I’m not sure Peter knew what to expect when he went so far outside his comfort zone.  All he knew was that he had been commanded to go.  And when he got there Cornelius told Peter he had been commanded by God in a dream to seek him out and listen to whatever he had to say.  That was Peter’s cue. He finally put all the pieces together and realized that God wanted him to tell them the good news about Jesus, because God would accept people from all walks of life, from all ethnic backgrounds, from all races and classes (Acts 10:35).  It was one more sign that Jesus’ death and resurrection had changed everything and everyone.[3]  In case Peter had any lingering doubts, the Spirit came upon this group of foreigners just as he had come upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost!  God made it crystal clear that the amazing events of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead were changing everything and everyone.   No one could stay in their comfort zones any longer.[4]
  One of the ways in which the apostles talked about Easter was by repeating again and again that God had chosen them to be witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection and therefore to testify to what they had seen.[5]  But as is the case with the way God always “chooses” people, it was not for them to enjoy a special privilege, but rather it was for them to carry out a task.  They were chosen to spread the news about Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead changing everything and everyone.  I doubt any of them could foresee what that would mean for them.
  Although some of the Apostles were slow to leave their own “comfort zones,” various events made it impossible for them to avoid spreading the good news beyond Jerusalem and Judea and even beyond Galilee to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  The purpose of their calling was to take the message to all people everywhere.[6]  That is a continuous theme in the Scripture lessons throughout the Easter season--that they were to spread the news far beyond their “comfort zones.”  The Scriptures repeatedly express the idea that the purpose of our experience of new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is to spread the news far and wide.[7]  And that means going beyond our comfort zones. 
  I think one of the biggest obstacles to the growth of this or any other church is that we tend to stay in our comfortable, familiar routines.  Some might say, we stay in same rut we’ve been in for years.  It’s uncomfortable changing your routine.  It can make us feel uneasy to try to get outside our comfort zones in order to share this new life with people who are strange to us.  But the Scriptures make it clear that the events of Easter will not allow us to stay where we are.  Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the first act of God’s work of making all things new.[8]  That means everything is changing.  And that means we all have to change--even changing our routines and getting outside what feels comfortable to us because we too have been chosen to testify to others about the new life God offers us all in Jesus Christ

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/31/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:143, where despite the uniqueness of the resurrectin, he emphasizes that it is an event among others which can be witnessed, saying, “It is an event which involves a definite seeing with the eyes and hearing with the ears and handling with the hands, as the Easter-stories say so unmistakeably and emphatically, and as is again underlined in 1 Jn. 1. It involves real eating and drinking, speaking and answering, reasoning ... and doubting and then believing.”
[3] Cf. L. Susan Bond, “Acts 10:34-43,” Interpretation 56 (Jan 2002), 81: “When Peter announces that God is not partial, it is good news and bad news. It means that Cornelius can be included in the promises. It also means that there are no longer insiders and outsiders.”
[4] cf. Bond, “Acts 10:34-43,” 82, where she points out that in light of the cross, “If Cornelius follows this peculiar Lord, he’ll have to lay down his sword and lose social status. Peter, along with other Christians, will have to enter into the risky business where only God in Christ judges. He will have to lay down his religious membership card.”
[5] Cf. John B. Polhill, Acts, 85, 93; William H. Willimon, Acts, 34-37.  In fact, after the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, they rarely mention the events surrounding Jesus' resurrection without adding, “We are witnesses of these things.”
[6] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3: 488-91, where he discusses at length (ibid., 488-491) the fact that the Scriptures speak of a universal renewal of all things and all people, despite the fact that they also maintain the distinction between those who have responded to the call and those who have yet to respond.  Barth also maintains this distinction, while at the same time concluding (ibid., 490), “In the light of the universalistic passages of the Bible, we can say that man in every time and place stands already in the light of life.”
[7] Cf. Dictionary Of The Later New Testament And Its Developments, ed. R. P. Martin & P. H. Davids, s.v. “Evangelism in the Early Church,” by D. S. Lim.  He says that “testifying” “consisted of one’s personal experience of salvation, especially the power behind one’s transformed and/or exemplary life (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).”
[8] Cf. Willimon, Acts, 3;cf. also  Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33.J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 98-99, 191.

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