Reflection: What Peter Said
By Dr. Burton Z. Cooper
The following was originally presented as a sermon at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church – Nortwich, Vt., on Sunday, January 8, 2017.
- Isaiah 42
- Acts 10:34-43
- Matthew 3:13-17
Peter said: “God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit;
He went about doing good and healing … for God was with him; 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, but to us … to testify that …
Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins.”
We are so used to these words, they sum up such basic affirmations of Christian faith that they trip lightly off our tongue, and we hardly notice the non-sequiturs in them, the abrupt disconnections, their defiance of our usual moral and logical expectations. For example, Jesus “went about doing good and healing” … and “they put him to death?” “God was with Jesus” … and they hung “him on a tree?” And if these aren’t puzzling follow-ups, consider the final one: to believe in the one hung on a tree and then, disjunctively enough, raised on the third day … (just to believe in this one) is to receive forgiveness of sins. No obvious connection there. Fifty or so years ago, when I was in seminary, I would not have noticed these disjunctions in our faith claims; they were just Christianity, and Christianity was normative, normal, in those days, the late fifties, the sixties, when the seminaries were full of students, the churches filled with believers, when if you didn’t come early enough to an Easter Eve or Christmas Eve service, you would find yourself standing in the back throughout the service, or if you were lucky you might still find a folding seat in the side aisles. Looking back, we can think of those days as the time of the Church Triumphant, when it felt natural, comfortable, to be a Christian, when, as Kierkegaard, that brilliant, cantankerous Dane, said of the established church in nineteenth century Denmark, there’s nothing easier than being a Christian, it simply happens to you by being born in Denmark. Well, those easy, untroubling days are gone, certainly in Denmark, but here, also, of course. So let’s spend some time this morning with the disjunctions, the strange claims of Christian faith, asking ourselves what kind of truth, what kind of understanding of the self and the world are these claims seeking to move us towards. Or to put it another way, to follow up on Jennie’s sermon last Sunday on the power of naming and renaming, what does it mean to name ourselves as Christians.
When I read Peter’s words four or five days ago, I found myself staring at those three days between Jesus hanging on a tree and the time of his appearing to his followers, appearing to “us,” as Peter put it. Those three days marked a dark time, a time of despondency, for Jesus’ followers, a fearful time according to some of the accounts, a time when the words “disappointed expectations” understates the heaviness of heart of those who loved, followed, listened to Jesus, believed him to be the long expected, longed for messiah, God’s Son, the Beloved, — and this one, the one in whom God is well pleased, this one, against all expectations, ended up hung on a tree. I was drawn to thinking of those three dark days because of my own darkness and fearfulness these days, my disappointed expectations — not that there’s any equivalency between my post-election day despondency and the despondency of Peter, Mary, John, Martha, Nathanael, Mary Magdalen and all the others, but only an analogy, an analogy that spurs my thinking regarding what Peter said in this morning’s reading from the Book of Acts. Also, I’m well aware that millions of Americans, including perhaps a majority of those who name themselves Christians, do not share my darkness, my fears, but have high hopes that this confident, assertive, free-wheeling, unpredictable president-elect, with all his faults, is just what this country needs to overcome all its problems. So I do not claim any righteousness for my darkness, just that it focused me on an aspect of Christian faith that perhaps we do not pay enough attention to. For what if we take those three days of darkness, fear and disappointment not as simply referring to some past event two thousand years ago but as an element in the structure of Christian faith; that we don’t have our faith, we don’t live our faith, without that element of fear and darkness; or, rather, that Christian faith involves a constant overcoming of fear, darkness, disappointment, that there’s no such thing as the constant, even life of faith, but that the life of faith is a dynamic, bumpy odyssey in which the very power of faith, the power of its spirit, is to take us through, time and time again, life’s inevitable disappointments: its evils when we looked for good, its injustices when we looked for justice, its sufferings when we looked for healing.
By “taking us through,” I mean faith’s power to overcome the despondency that can deaden all life for us, so that we are set back on our feet with renewed energy and up-building purpose. Is that not what happened with the resurrection faith of Jesus’ followers, were they not renewed, restored set on their life’s constructive way? Which did not mean that those followers of Christ, the life of the early church, did not ever again experience setbacks, disappointments, suffering. Quite the opposite, of course. And I am not simply referring to the persecution endured by the early church. Paul’s letters, the Book of Acts, testify to the conflicts, dis-unities, betrayals within those communities of faith. God did not protect even the early church from division and destructive activity within its own life, no more than God protected Paul from imprisonment and death by governing authorities, no more than God protected Peter from being put to death upside down on a cross, no more than God protected Jesus from being crucified. I’m about to say something I’ve said before, many times, please forgive me: but despite some scriptural statements suggesting the contrary, the whole notion that faith in God protects us from evil, with its corresponding notion that God’s power is of the coercive, controlling, intervening kind, is one of those bad theological ideas that has plagued people of faith throughout the centuries. Let us instead take our cue from what Peter said and did. He said that God ordained Christ as judge of the living and the dead, and that those who believe in him receive God‘s forgiveness of sins. This seems like such a simple thing, and yet so much flows from it. To take the name of Christian means that we stand before God, stand before a judge who knows us deeper than we know ourselves, judges us and yet forgives us from all our failings, misjudgments, destructive activities; not that what we did or said no longer matters, but what we did or said no longer counts against us, so that our past does not undermine our spirit, so that we can get on constructively with our life, a life under God’s forgiveness and God’s call. It’s as if Christianity wants to show us, remind us, that we are something extraordinary, that we stand before God, each of us, individually, stands before God, that we are not only in relation to others, not only in relation to the world, but that, wonderfully, transcendentally, each of us stands in relation to the ultimate reality, the ground of reality, a reality which we call God.
In those three dark days we are told that the disciples of Christ huddled together despairingly, sometimes in an upper room with locked doors; despairingly because the life course that they had so confidently anticipated for themselves — remember how they talked amongst themselves of whom would be first in the kingdom of heaven. And now the possibility of that anticipated life course was cut off from them, so that they hardly knew how to live, except to huddle together despairingly, and do we not all know, only too well, that to live without possibility, or at least to live without good possibility, is to live in despair. Into that despair, Peter says, God allowed the resurrected Christ “to appear to us” … and the “us” to whom Christ appeared got turned around. This is not the time or place to talk about the nature of that resurrected body, Paul thinks of it as a spiritual body, which has been the way that I’ve always found helpful, but let that be for now. For what’s important to note is that what turned the disciples around was the opening to them of a new possibility for their life course, a possibility that Peter and the others said “yes” to, the possibility of building a new community of faith, a community whose spirit is the spirit of Christ, a spirit of compassion, forgiveness, a spirit that impels us to go out to others, caring for them, a spirit that is alive and with them. Sisters and brothers in Christ, when we name ourselves Christian, we, like Peter, like Paul, like Barnabas, are opening ourselves to possibility, the possibility not only of experiencing the power of God ‘s forgiveness, but the possibility of finding a way forward to overcome the particular evil confronting us, for to be open to God is to be open to new possibility, to possibility unforeseen by us, but envisioned by God who draws us towards it. What shall we call the power of this God who draws us forward? Shall we not call it creator, redeemed, shall we not call it love, unconditional love, easily confused with weakness, but in fact the eternal power of God. So that when we are deadened by despair, let us bear in mind that God’s love abides, that love never ceases to draw us forward into new possibility, that it is God’s love that gives life, that gives us, hope and meaning and purpose in life, purpose that we can humbly and joyfully live towards.
So … thanks be to God for this great mercy. Thanks be to Christ.