“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” No, I reflected two days ago: all I could do to mark Good Friday was to “imagine the unimaginable: the death of God.” This Easter Sunday, I woke asking myself another verse from that same spiritual: “Were you there when he rose up from the grave?”
And again, the answer has to be no. To imagine something equally unimaginable, my mind can’t call upon memory; I can only see Christ’s resurrection through other people’s eyes.
And so I decided to spend my morning lectionary time not with John’s account of Jesus rising up from the grave, but with Peter’s summary of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in Acts 10. For on a most unusual Easter Sunday, a feast that finds sanctuaries emptied, I wanted to be reminded of who the church is and why it exists.
Eventually, the powerful story of Paul dominates the narrative of Acts, but in the first ten chapters, it’s Peter who is most central. And what we see is a transformation as remarkable as Paul’s.
The most erratic of Jesus’ disciples becomes the steadfast leader of the new church. The poor fisherman, an “uneducated and ordinary” man (Acts 4:13), becomes an extraordinary preacher, weaving together personal testimony and scriptural quotation to convince thousands of fellow Jews that God raised up Jesus of Nazareth, “having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (2:24). Then in the temple itself, after he had healed a man “lame from birth,” Peter again addresses his own people, with words that were hard and hopeful:
…you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you. (3:14-16)
Having healed like Jesus, Peter is now called before the Jewish leaders like Jesus. And the disciple who had betrayed Jesus outside of his trial now fearlessly confesses that “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead… is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (4:10b-12).
Peter — Peter! — becomes so renowned among the people of Jerusalem that people bring the sick to the streets, “in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by” (5:15). But he has yet to fulfill his most important role in the story. Having already taken the Gospel from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria (8:14-25), Peter now begins to bring good news to the ends of the earth — starting about 70 miles from Jerusalem in Caesarea.
Having received a strange vision of animals forbidden by Jewish dietary law and been told by a mysterious voice that “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (10:15), Peter is invited to come to the home of a Gentile named Cornelius. Though he tried to practice Jewish spirituality (like Peter, he prays at fixed hours), Cornelius was a Roman centurion, part of the occupying force that other Jews hoped the Messiah would defeat. But Peter, invited to share whatever “the Lord has commanded you to say” (10:33), recognizes that a new chapter in church history is beginning:
I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. (10:34-35)
As he had in Jerusalem on Pentecost, Peter again tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection:
We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not 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. He 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. (vv 39-42)
It would be Paul commissioned as the evangelist to the Gentiles, but that only happened because the Jerusalem church recognized that God had started to give “to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (11:18) via Peter’s experience in Caesarea, a port city that connected Judea to the Mediterranean Basin and the rest of the Roman world.
So what does this mean for us this Easter? First, I’m reminded that while today is about celebrating the community already given new life in Christ, the church doesn’t exist for its own sake. The church was never meant to stay in one place, to accustom itself to one cultural context. The church was always meant to scatter, to bring the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it — or like Cornelius (or some of the Athenians whom Paul met) are reaching blindly for it.
What then is the Gospel? I don’t know that Luke meant to give us a complete transcript of Peter’s various sermons, but it is striking that what’s recorded of them is not primarily theological argumentation or even biblical exegesis. Most of all, Peter simply tells the story of Jesus. This is the Gospel: who Jesus is, what he did and is doing. Likewise, Paul closed one of his greatest epistles by reminding fellow believers “of the good news that I proclaimed to you… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve” (1 Cor 15:1, 3-5).
Whatever else the church is supposed to do, it must keep telling this story, with whatever voice it has left.
On this Easter Sunday, we are being tempted to focus on what we are unable to do. But surely, one implication of what we celebrate today is that God truly can accomplish more than we can even imagine. Because of the Resurrection, Simon Peter went from denying the Good Shepherd to feeding sheep like Cornelius.
This Easter, like each that came before and each that will come after, God enables us to keep bearing witness to what the women who first saw the empty tomb told Peter, who then told the people of Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and Caesarea.
We weren’t there when Jesus rose up from the grave, but we can tell the story and proclaim the good news. Christ is risen!