March 23, 2008

A Limited Engagement
Acts 10:34-53

Few words motivate a young child more than, “I dare you to do it.” Craig Schmeltzle uttered those very words to me back when I was in 3rd grade. “I dare you to throw that rock at Mrs. Schwartz’s window,” he said. You’d never hit it anyway, not in a million years.” “I could do it,” I responded. “I could hit it with my eyes closed.” “I dare you,” Craig repeated. So I went into my pitcher’s motion, kicked my leg high, and threw—and hit the window dead center. My parents weren’t overly impressed when they received the news, and I was several dollars poorer by the time all of the glass settled. But I had set the record straight. Terry Brensinger could in fact throw a rock through a window from clear across the street.

People do all sorts of things to set the record straight—it’s a deep, deep urge. The current presidential candidates, for example, are constantly explaining something they’ve said or done, even years ago, or how they feel about someone they have been associated with. And we do much the same thing, whether we are falsely accused of some wrong-doing or simply feeling misunderstood. Can you remember a time when you said something in a conversation, and the next person to speak made a comment that seemingly called into question what you had just said? What happened inside of you? Didn’t you feel a rising urge to “set the record straight” and immediately tell everyone what you really meant? And what parent here hasn’t offered some profound word of advice to a son or daughter, only to have that advice ignored? Then, a day or two later, someone else said precisely the same thing to that son or daughter, and the child acted as though it was an entirely new revelation!! “Didn’t I say exactly the same thing to you a few days ago?” the parent asks with more than a trace of bewilderment. Or how about this one? Who in this room consistently resists the urge to say “I told you so” when someone you’ve counseled disregards your insight and runs into some sort of trouble? Whether dared, falsely accused, or misunderstood, we often sense that same basic impulse at work within us—the impulse to set the record straight. It must be among our most basic urges.

Which is precisely why a seemingly insignificant phrase in Acts 10:41 caught my attention in our text for today. The gist of the entire passage is clear enough, it seems to me. For the first time in the life of this newborn church, Peter finds himself explaining the heart of the Gospel to a Gentile audience gathered in the house of a certain man named Cornelius. According to the Jewish worldview of the day, all Gentiles were unclean and therefore to be avoided. In a rather shocking vision, however, Peter had just come to realize what Luke has been saying all through his Gospel and on into the book of Acts; namely, God loves all people, regardless of who they are and what they have done. Now, Peter finds himself actually meeting with them in their house and sharing with them the Good News.

Peter, as a simple scanning of these verses reveals, provides a brief outline of Christian history and thought—a sort of “Cliff Notes” version of the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus, he begins, is Lord of all (v. 36). He walked on earth doing good and healing the sick (vv. 37-38), was crucified (v. 39) and rose again from the dead (v. 40). Following his resurrection, Jesus appeared to select witnesses (v. 41) who he then sent into the world to proclaim the good news of Christ, as Peter was himself now doing (v. 42). Everyone who believes in Christ, Peter concludes, will be forgiven of their sins (v. 43). Straightforward enough. But then, like a witness eyeing a lineup at the police station, our eyes return to an odd-sounding phrase in v. 41: “…but God allowed him [Jesus] to appear, not to all of the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses,…” What a strange thought. Why did God seemingly micromanage who the resurrected Lord did and did not appear to?

Who, it made me wonder, did Jesus actually appear to? In Matthew’s Gospel, he appeared to Mary Magdalene, another Mary, and the eleven disciples. Luke recounts Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and the eleven disciples a bit later as a group. John suggests that Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples in general and to Thomas and Peter in particular. Mark records no post-resurrection appearances at all. And that’s it. A handful of appearances to only his closest associates following the most strategic event in all of history!?! I can certainly understand—can’t you?—why Jesus would want to hang out with his friends during his final days on earth. I can see why he, like someone who just received a clean bill-of-health from their oncologist, would want to share the good news of his resurrection with them. But, is that it?? These appearances are like a fleeting matinee. This certainly is not how I would have written the script! Why such a limited engagement? What about setting the record straight??

If I had been Jesus, I suspect that the Father would have had to tie me up. I would have gone back to:
the rich young ruler who walked away from when I told him to sell everything that he owned and give it to the poor. “You made a serious miscalculation that day,” I would have told him.
the Pharisees and other religious leaders who constantly challenged me and asked them, “How do you like those apples?”
the crowds who walked away from me when my teaching became too weighty and said to them, “You should have stayed with me.”
the policeman who struck me on the face when I was being interrogated by the high priest. “I dare you to strike me now,” I would have said.
Pilate, who asked me in one of my darkest hours, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ “Who do you think has the power now?” I would have asked him.
soldiers who mockingly dressed me up in a purple robe and pressed a crown of thorns upon my head, and I would have said, “Try it again.”
the officials who saluted me and said, “Hail, King of the Jews,” as they beat me with reeds, spat on me, and knelt laughingly at my feet. “Who is in charge now?”

I probably would have asked.
soldiers who cast lots for my clothing—it was everything I owned—and demanded to have it back.
the chief priest, scribes and elders who taunted me to the very end—“He saved others,” they shouted as I hung dying on the cross, “but he cannot save himself.” “Who do you think needs saving now?” I would have asked.
to the gawkers and hecklers who made those annoying faces at me as they tested me, “If you are the son of God, then come down from there.” “Well I came down, didn’t I” I would have said.
the thief crucified beside me who seemed to think that I was as guilty as he was. “You should have listened to you friend who asked me to remember him when I return to my kingdom,” I would have commented. “But oh, no, you had to be stubborn and obstinate.”
to the chief priest and Pharisees who, concerned that a rumor might get started, asked Pilate to secure the stone in front of my tomb. “So much for your hypothetical rumor,” I can hear myself saying.
And I certainly would have gone back to my heavenly Father and asked him why in the world he turned his face from me during my darkest hour.

I would have gone back if I had been Jesus, with or without God’s permission, and I would have set the record straight. I would have confronted those who taunted me, corrected those who ridiculed me, flexed my muscles in the face of those who dared me, and said “I told you so” to those who refused to believe me. I would have cleared my name and defended my reputation. If I had been Jesus, I would have vented the frustration that had built up inside of me over the abuse that I had suffered during the previous weeks and months—I would have lashed out at the mindless people who spoke before they thought. I would have blasted the religious legalists who clung to their rules but were too stupid to figure out who I was and what I came to do. And I certainly would have chided the faithless who seem unable to believe anything unless it strikes them in the face. “Here I am,” I would have said. “What do all of you think of me now?!?”

But I wasn’t Jesus. Thank God. For in going back to set the record straight, I would have effectively denied the very newness of life that the resurrection of Jesus provides. The resurrection is not about God saying, “I told you so.” It is not about Jesus waving his finger in front of our stubborn minds and reminding us of just how thick-headed we can be. The resurrection is not yet another attempt on God’s part to belittle us or make us feel guilty. The resurrection is one thing and one thing only—a gracious invitation on the part of a loving God to all of us hecklers, doubters and darers to die to ourselves and to come to life again in him.