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Bearing Witness

The following sermon was preached by Raymond Pickett, Professor of New Testament, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, April 28, 2011.


Acts 10

Simon Peter is featured in both the first lesson and today’s Gospel reading from John. I must confess at the outset that I have never really gotten Peter’s starring role not only in the Gospel narratives and also in Acts. How does a Galilean fisherman who likely would have struggled to be even a mediocre seminary student, let alone a distinguished theologian, come to have such a prominent position of leadership among the followers of Jesus? In the Gospel of Mark the one Jesus calls “the Rock” is an example of seed sown on “rocky ground”, that is, a person who though hear the word with joy, they have no root in themselves. They endure for a while, and then when trouble comes they fall away. That is the story of Peter’s early career as a disciple in a nutshell. On the face of it Peter would appear to lack depth.

The Gospel of Matthew revises this portrait by turning Peter into the “rock” upon which Jesus will build his assembly and to whom he will give the keys of the kingdom. But in today’s reading from John, we find Peter, who has denied Jesus and is in serious need of redemption, being out loved and out run at the tomb by “the other disciple whom Jesus loved”. In a confrontation at Antioch, Paul rebukes Peter and calls him a hypocrite for withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentiles there. And yet in what is one of the most pivotal scenes in Acts and the formation of the assembly of Christ it is Peter, and not Paul, who is there when the Holy Spirit is first poured out on the Gentiles.

In this first week of the Resurrection of our Lord we celebrate the transforming power of God’s love through Jesus Christ! It is easy, perhaps too easy, to yield to the urge to assess a person’s character or credentials, or lack thereof, as if the power to bring life out of death somehow depended on us. But thankfully the resurrection is not about what we accomplish. It is rather about the power of the Spirit to remake reality. But the Spirit works through people. This remarkable encounter between Peter and a Gentile centurion by the name of Cornelius is a text appointed for Easter because it is about conversion. But Cornelius is not the only one who is converted. Peter also undergoes yet a conversion – or transformation! On this day confirmation of Christ’s resurrection comes not just through the story of an empty tomb. Rather the risen Christ is manifested through the metamorphosis of an apostle that intimates the possibility and prospect of our own metamorphosis!

Although Peter had the privilege of walking with Jesus during his ministry, he hadn’t learned everything he needs to know or discovered everything there is to discover about the Tremendum Mysterium that never ceases to surprise us. To live in relationship to the Source of Life is always to be pressed beyond the bounds of what we think we know! In this instance Peter learns something about God that he didn’t realize, namely that God doesn’t play favorites. Now, you might say, how is it possible that Peter hung around Jesus that much didn’t realize that the Creator doesn’t show favoritism? Was Peter really that slow?

But the truth of the matter is brothers and sisters that we are always trying to pull God into our own reality. That is the default theological mode we operate in most of the time. We are inclined to think that our reality is reality, and we would like it so very much for God to be a part of these lives that we have planned and crafted for ourselves. But make no mistake about it, the Life-giving Power that raised Jesus from the dead will not be domesticated or made to accommodate our projects. The resurrection of Jesus signals a new reality. It comes with a Holy invitation to share in new creation. But – and this is an important ‘but” – just as the heavens were ripped open at Jesus’ baptism and the temple veil torn at his crucifixion, to encounter the risen Jesus is to experience a tear or a rupture in the fabric of our own reality! Count on it!

That’s what happened to Peter. Indeed, that is how transformation usually happens. More often than not what we think we know or assume to be a given has to be called into question before we can begin to glimpse new possibilities. Peter has a vision in which the heavens open and all kinds of animals descend. He then hears a voice that contradicts a core conviction of his Jewish practice and belief: “What God has cleansed, you must not call common”. Most of us don’t have the luxury of divine visions and voices. So the beginnings of resurrection in our own lives can initially feel like dislocation or the end of the world as we knew it. We have to slowly feel our way toward new life.

The transformation that occurs to and through Peter is quite remarkable as we track his journey from Galilean fisherman to apostolic leader. But Peter’s authority comes not from his credentials or his accomplishments. Rather he is a colleague of the risen Jesus and his vocation is that of bearing witness to the good news and ongoing activity of the one who “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed”. The noun “witness” (ma&rtuj), which can also mean “martyr” and verb “to bear witness” are used no less than 24 times in Acts. The vocation of colleagues of the risen Jesus, which includes you and me, is to bear witness to the new thing God is doing in our midst.

The idea that our call is first and foremost to bear witness to the risen Jesus is difficult for us. It’s the end of the semester. We all work hard. There is so much to learn and to do. Surely it must be about the effort we exert and the results we can quantify. But don’t you believe it. We are conditioned to think that it is our accomplishments that are most important in life, and even in ministry. But upon reflection we will discover that the most significant moments in our lives, the incidents that impact us most profoundly and change us, are the things – and the people – that happen to us. Sometimes they begin as tragic moments and other times they are ecstatic experiences that take us outside of ourselves – beyond our own reality. But at the end of the day all we can do is tell the story of what happened and how we have born anew.

Stuff keeps happening to and through Peter, and all he can do is bear witness. Whatever limitations Peter had, he seems to exhibit the most important quality of all in following Jesus – openness – a willingness let go of what has been and step – and sometimes stumble - into the new reality that is emerging. Peter bears witness to the Jesus whom God raised from the dead and who poured out the Spirit on some of the most unlikely characters. If wasn’t for this righteous Gentile and Peter allowing the Spirit to re-draw the theological map that that led him to Cornelius’ house we wouldn’t be sitting here today. That’s how important it is to bear witness.

And finally it seems important to observe that this momentous outpouring of the Spirit comes as an interruption while Peter is speaking. The verse immediately after the passage for today says: “while Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word … even on the Gentiles. As you seniors transition into your first calls, as middlers move toward internship, and juniors towards CPE and others of us heed the call to bear witness to the resurrection, it’s good to be reminded that resurrection often occurs as interruption, and that Spirit is no respecter of persons or schedules. All that is required is an open heart and mind, and the willingness to speak truth to power about God’s penchant for bringing life out of death to create the world anew!

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