Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!
Our text this morning is our first scripture lesson, from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 10.
This lesson is a wonderful proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It certainly gives a strong witness to His resurrection, so it is appropriate that we give it our consideration on this Easter morning, even when we have already heard the wonderful account of Jesus’ return to life from the gospel of St. Matthew.
In order to consider this text from Acts properly, it is important for us to know the context in which St. Peter preached it—and he did preach it, make no mistake. Perhaps not from an ornate pulpit in a gorgeous church building, to well-dressed listeners gathered to celebrate a festival day, such as I have the privilege to do today, but it was indeed a sermon.
It was none other than Peter’s communication of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus to a group of listeners, eager and needing to hear God’s word.
In spite of the difference in settings, however, be assured that each and every one of you has a significant connection to this story. In fact, if it were not for God’s action through Peter as recounted in this text, none of us might be here today. Without this event taking place and having been recorded in the inspired Word of God, the Gospel might not have come to us. We might not be here, rejoicing once again in this community our Lord has, through the Holy Spirit, “called by the Gospel, enlightened with His gifts, and sanctified and kept in the one true faith,” as we learn in the Small Catechism.
But it was the will of God that His Gospel reach you, and that is why you are here. Not because you were born into a Christian family, although that sometimes is how He reaches us. Not because you live in a Christian nation, for the historical and current evidence both show we don’t.
And certainly not because you or I are good people, deserving of His grace, or are smart people, believing in Christ because it’s the logical thing to do.
So, how then are you and your faith connected to Peter’s sermon of so long ago? Why should we consider it important for our own connection to the Church? It goes back to the context I spoke of earlier.
In the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, and for some time afterward, the message of Christ, the Messiah of Israel, was only being spread among the Jews of Palestine and the surrounding lands. After all, Jesus had been a Jew, had taught in the temple and in synagogues, and had fulfilled all the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, the scriptures of the Jews. It seemed logical that the Christ, the anointed one of Yahweh, would be proclaimed to His own people.
Apparently, the apostles had somehow forgotten that little part of Jesus’ farewell address, the part in which He told them to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Maybe they’d only heard the “baptizing and teaching” part, or didn’t feel comfortable doing the rest of it.
After all, isn’t that what we do all the time, too? We choose those parts of God’s word that we like, or are comfortable with, or suit our purposes, and we ignore or discard the rest? Our sinful nature loves to “pick and choose” the things our rational mind can accept, or that we think will give us an emotional boost or the strength to get through the day.
Yet when it comes to accepting the fullness of the Bible, to letting the whole truth shape our lives, and inform our hearts, and govern our words and actions, we set that part aside. With the serpent in the garden, we love to play that game of, “Did God really say?”
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength? Hey, God, I’ve got a lot of other responsibilities on my plate you know.
Love thy neighbor? Not if he or she isn’t going to love us back, we say.
Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, and keep the other 90% you give me to meet my own needs? What, Lord, you think I’m made of money or something?
And the Lord might readily answer you something like this: Yes, you are to love me above all things. Yes, you are to love them even if they hate you. And, no—you’re not made of money; you and everyone like you is made from a pile of dirt into which I breathed your very life; so I’m not asking all that much in return.
And so, Peter, faithful and eager as he was to serve the Lord and convey the Gospel, still needed a little reminder about some of Jesus’ words. A man named Cornelius had received a vision in which he was told to summon Peter to his house.
Cornelius was a Gentile, we are told—a centurion in the town of Caesarea. Apparently he was a believer in God —just like many of those you come across daily in your lives. He had a certain righteousness about him, in the human sense. But he had not yet been confronted with the gospel truth about Jesus Christ, and given the gift of saving faith through that hearing. Sound familiar, too? There are plenty of those folks out there, too—in your schools, your jobs, your clubs, your neighborhoods.
So, Cornelius, having been confronted by a vision of an angel, sent for Peter, who was about 30 miles down the coast in Joppa. It’s interesting that God didn’t just “zap” Cornelius with the Holy Spirit while he was having that vision, and make him a believer, isn’t it? Maybe God prefers to work faith in people by having them hear the Gospel from fellow human beings.
Meanwhile, Peter is having a vision of his own. He’s confronted by a dilemma: He, the devout Jew, is being told it’s OK to eat some of the foods that had previously been considered unclean for those descended from the Israelites. God had given His people strict ordinances about this, back in Moses’ day. Now, however, God was telling Peter that those dietary laws of the past, intended for the people’s well-being and to demonstrate faithfulness and trust in God, no longer applied. Indeed, the voice of God told Peter not to consider anything impure which God had made clean, including people who were Gentiles.
It was then that those sent by Cornelius to get Peter arrived. The next day, they and Peter set off for Caesarea, with several believers accompanying them. When they came to Cornelius’ house, the centurion had gathered many of his friend and relatives to hear what Peter had to say. Peter explained his recent vision, and how it had removed any hesitation about coming to visit a Gentile’s house.
Cornelius, for his part, related to Peter his own vision, concluding with a request that Peter tell them everything the Lord had commanded him to say.
This is where our lesson for the day begins, with Peter informing Cornelius and the other listeners that God shows no favoritism to anyone, but accepts all who fear him and do what is right. Implicit in this “do what is right” is—first and foremost—to believe in Him and what He has given us to believe. That is the most “right” thing any of us can do.
And that’s just what Peter communicates to Cornelius and all those who had gathered in his house that day. He gave them the message of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, living a sinless life of service to others, then dying on the cross. And Peter told them the same news that you have heard again today: That Christ is risen. He was seen after His resurrection by many witnesses, who have passed along this good news—generation upon generation; century after century—even to us.
Peter concludes his sermon with statements that might be every bit as powerful a testimony about Jesus as Peter’s earlier words, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Listen to those concluding statements once again, for they are nothing less than a creed every bit as true and effective as what we ourselves speak in reciting the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed.
Peter says: “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.”
Can you see it all there, condensed but apparent? God the Father almighty, sending the Son to the world. God the Son, judge over the living and the dead—given the power to redeem sinners, cancel sin, defeat death, and bestow eternal life.
And God the Holy Spirit, who spoke by the prophets, and gives the communion of saints—those who confess the name of Jesus—the forgiveness of sins. That’s God, and that’s us, and that’s what we believe and what we receive.
And then, after Peter had concluded this brief sermon, an interesting thing happened, which is noted in the verse immediately following our text for today. Here’s what it says: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” Not while Cornelius was having his vision, nor out of the blue. Rather, while Peter was sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with Cornelius and his family and friends.
That’s how God works, dear friends. He works through the means He has told us of and given us. He works through Word and Sacrament. He works where He has promised to be, and where His promises are given: at font and lectern, from pulpit and altar. Water and Word; Body and Blood.
Like Peter and the rest of the apostles, and like all the faithful Christians that have gone before us, we all have a call to be witnesses, too—to rightly proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. Wherever we are summoned. In whatever circumstances we find ourselves. To whomever we come across, whether we think them clean or unclean. Because God will make them clean, in the time and manner He sees fit.
You were brought here today not only to hear again of the resurrection of Jesus Christ for your own benefit. You were drawn here by the Gospel to serve, to support, and to carry out the mission of Christ and His Church to the men and women of every nation—starting right here in this place, and wherever you find yourself—today, tomorrow, and for the rest of your lives.
Thank God daily that He gave Peter, a Jew, the vision that told him to bring the gospel message to those of all nations. Praise Him that you, a child of Gentile blood, were brought the Gospel message of salvation through Christ Jesus alone, and that in hearing that word, the Holy Spirit came upon you and moved you to receive it.
And do what both Cornelius and Peter did when they were moved by the power of God’s word: they eagerly sought to do God’s will, to ensure that the Word of God was heard by those who need to hear it, for the salvation given by our crucified and risen Savior.
Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!