The resurrection surprised the disciples. Peter hesitated to enter the tomb. Mary wept. No one knew what it meant. But after two thousand Easter Sundays, we hardly seem surprised at all. We’ve turned the miracle which dumbfounded the disciples into a festive day marked by traditions and customs. Every year I look forward to hearing Bill and Mary’s duet; but I’m hardly surprised. After all these years, can anything about Easter surprise us?
The story, whether we believe it or not, is well known. Jesus gathered a group of disciples among the people of Galilee, taught about God’s love and the life of equality, performed miracles, and came into increasing conflict with the authorities. The authorities arrested, tortured, and killed him. But just when the disciples thought all was lost, he somehow and in someway escaped the oblivion of death. On Easter morning the disciples discovered the grave could not contain the power of his life.
Easter was not a magic trick that we can puzzle over to solve. Not a Houdini Sunday, a time to find out how he did the impossible. Instead, Easter begs the question: how will the power of Jesus’ life transform us? How will the life not even death could contain shape our lives?
Sharon Baker, a theologian who grew up as a Southern Baptist, once noted all the ways the church focuses on the death of Jesus. Too often she heard people who suffer talking about the “cross they have to bear.” Too often she learned of people counseling each other to “take up your cross.” Instead, Baker wanted to know how the uncontainable life of Jesus could transform her. She decided it was time to take up the resurrection. Instead of taking up your cross, what would it mean to take up your resurrection?
We can learn from Peter how the resurrection power of God works in our lives. The Book of Acts, from which our first reading came, tells the story of the disciples after the resurrection of Jesus. In our reading today, we heard of Peter’s visit to the home of the Roman commander Cornelius, the way Peter preached to him, and a miraculous moment when the spirit of Jesus filled the room.
But of course there is a backstory to Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius commanded a legion of soldiers; today we’d call him a colonel. The army base was in the Roman colony of Caesarea, but the legion also garrisoned the city of Jerusalem. Which means Cornelius’ soldiers were the ones who crucified Jesus.
Peter came when summoned, but he must have felt trepidation as he passed through the gate of Cornelius’ home. Like other grand Roman homes, he was ushered into a central courtyard. Covered porches surrounded a central pool. All around him were Romans - the conquerors of his native land - and slaves imprisoned from around the Roman world - Germans from Cornelius’ last posting on the Rhine, Egyptians to teach the children, Syrians to serve as cooks.
The colonel started to question Peter. At this point Peter surely thought of the last time he’d been in another courtyard, hearing questions about Jesus: the night he’d denied Jesus three times in the house of the high priest. But this time Peter stood fast. He spoke about what he most knew to be true: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but to all the resurrected Jesus offers forgiveness” (Acts 10: 34, 43).
His testimony spoke to the tremendous ways Peter’s life changed. Peter started life as a parochial man, one who just liked his own people and his own town. In the Gospels, Peter worried when Jesus spent time with Samaritans and he didn’t even want to leave Galilee. But now Peter can walk into the house of one who would seem like an enemy, into the very house of the leader of Jesus’ killers, into a multi-ethnic household, into the heart of Roman culture, to speak of God’s amazing love. In Peter we see the resurrection power of God changing a life.
Recently I heard a story much like that of Peter, of a man whose perspective radically changed. Michael Goetzinger, who died this Spring, long struggled with an addiction to alcohol. We all know alcohol changes our eyesight in the short-run: too much alcohol makes us blurry-eyed and affects our depth perception. But it can also cause long-term damage. In Michael’s case his years of drinking left him colorblind.
Michael was a chef: he loved food, presenting it artfully, sharing it with friends. But imagine how hard it was too cook without the ability to perceive the full range of color. Food looked gray; how could he tell a ripe tomato from one not at its peak? Of course the color blindness served as a physical manifestation of the damage elsewhere in his body, in his relationships, in his life.
But then Michael began a long, hard road to recovery. It was not easy, it was not perfect, but he got himself sober. And one day, with his family in Florida, the color came rushing back into his life. He could see everything again; the beauty of the sunset on the gulf overwhelmed him, a moment of resurrection power which allowed him to see again the glory all around him.
Like Michael, Peter went from a kind of blindness to being able to fully see. With his new perspective, Peter could perceive the Holy Spirit enfolding everyone in Cornelius’ house; he saw his onetime enemies transformed into sisters and brothers.
Tracing out how exactly the resurrection power changed Peter can help us imagine what new sight it could give to us as well. One of the key phrases of Peter’s testimony came when he called Jesus “the Lord of All.” Normally when Christians hear a phrase like this we place all of the emphasis on the word “Lord.” We hear it as an affirmation of Jesus’ importance and rank: nothing else matters as much as Jesus. Of course the centrality of Jesus can become the reason to exclude others, a reason to discriminate. We’ve seen just this last week how some people want to say, “Because of my Lord and Savior, I need the religious freedom to hate some people.”
But what if we heard “all” as the key word of the phrase: Jesus is the Lord of all. Heard this way it would mean no one could be excluded. It would mean nothing else matters as much as our neighbor. I think that’s what Peter meant when he stood before the crowded household of Cornelius - as he looked out at Roman soldiers and people from Germany, Egypt, and Syria, pagans, others, even enemies. A resurrection faith gave him the freedom to love them all.
We humans seem to find endless ways to divide ourselves. Here in Milwaukee, we live in one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in America, we’re divided by race and class and politics. But, our Lord of resurrection puts us back together again.
Recently I attended a prayer breakfast for pastors hosted by Congresswoman Gwen Moore. I found myself the one white person at the breakfast. The breakfast took place close to her birthday, so one of the pastors called on us all to sing Happy Birthday to Congresswoman Moore. Now, as the choir knows, I can’t really sing. But I thought I could do this; it’s so familiar. And yet as soon as we started to sing, I realized everyone else knew a familiar song by a different tune. I was hopelessly unable to catch the rhythm. And yet I felt the joy of being there.
God called Peter beyond his comfort zone; God calls us too. Where could you go to get beyond our comfortable and familiar routines to find yourselves in unexpected places? How could you take up your resurrection to experience God’s love for all?
And yet, we ought not to be naive about what it required for Peter to stand before the commander of the men who killed Jesus. Peter’s journey to an unexpected place could only happen because Peter found the inner resources to forgive Cornelius. The resurrection did more than spring Jesus from a tomb, it opened a part of Peter’s heart closed by fear.
Brutus is surely one of the most famous assassins in history; he delivered the fatal knife wound to his friend Julius Caesar. Afterwards, leading a civil war for control of the Roman Empire, Brutus wrote to Cicero, saying, “How much more attention people pay to their fears than to their memories.” It was a confessional comment, for surely Brutus had paid attention to his fears of Caesar’s power more than his memory of their deep friendship.
Fear certainly could have ruled Peter’s life. Until the resurrection, that is. Afterwards, he paid more attention to the memory of Jesus and let the fear leave him. Rolling away the stone of fear from his heart allowed Peter to bring forgiveness even to the house of Cornelius, the colonel, the soldier, the man who occupied his land.
Part of what Peter remembered was the claim Jesus would be the judge of the living and dead. That Jesus would judge freed Peter of the need to make those judgments about who was right and who was wrong. It freed him from judging Cornelius. And it also freed Peter from judging himself. For just as surely as he could list Cornelius’ faults, there were his own denials.
The resurrection allowed Peter to hold on to his memories while letting go of his fears. He didn’t need to judge anymore.
Could the resurrection power of God bring a similar change to our hearts? We all have someone we find ourselves judging. Someone who disappoints us. Perhaps it’s ourselves. Perhaps it’s a spouse. Perhaps someone we see every day. Could we roll away the fears which cause us to judge others and ourselves?
The news of Jesus’ resurrection no longer surprises. But what can still surprise is all the ways the resurrection power of Jesus can change our lives. We can be like Peter, seeing in a new way the people around us, seeing them all as God’s beloved, seeing them without fear and judgment, knowing in the depths of our hearts the amazing love of God which not even death can contain. Take up your resurrection and go into all the unexpected places it leads you.
Alleluia and Amen.