April 11, 2023

He is Risen!

When I was younger growing up in Korea, sometimes I wondered why Jesus was white. Korea was, at least until the 20th century, a homogeneous nation despite being invaded and attacked by many outside forces. The Korean had shared a single racial, ethnic, and cultural identity, so being different was not welcomed or accepted easily. I rarely saw non-Korean people or heard other languages except Korean. But at church, there were pictures of handsome white Jesus with blue eyes.

Then one day, I saw pictures of a Korean Jesus in Korean traditional clothes. It was a shock to me, and honestly, at first, it was weird because I was so used to the handsome white Jesus. But then, I felt so much closer to Jesus. Jesus who seemed different from ‘us’ was not actually different from ‘us.’ I could better understand how He became one of ‘us’ to save ‘us.’

A few years ago, while I was studying at Knox College, we went to Cuba for a cultural experience. One of the places we visited was an Afro-Caribbean Catholic church. There I saw black baby Jesus. It was again very different from the images of Jesus I had for a long time. The experience was eye-opening to me.

Today’s Scripture lesson is from the Book of Acts. Why the Book of Acts on Easter? Let us find out why today’s text is relevant to Easter. The Book of Acts is a crucial history book that bridges the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which is the ending of the four Gospels, and the rest of the Christian history. Acts is significant because it chronicles the spread of the Gospel, not only geographically from Jerusalem to Rome, but also culturally, from exclusively Jewish to the Gentiles. Many exciting and miraculous events are recorded in the book, but there are three pivotal events that changed the history of Christianity.

The first momentous event was the Baptism of the Holy Spirit in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. The second consequential incident was the conversion of Saul after his dramatic encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.

The third crucial occurrence was (Can anyone guess?) what you read today - Peter and Cornelius’ divine-intervened meeting. Why was this particular incident crucial in the history of Christianity? Because it is the beginning of the transition from the Jewish oriented community of believers to the Gentile inclusive Christianity. So let us look at what exactly happened on that noteworthy day in Cornelius’ house.

V 2 of ch 10 says, Cornelius, a Roman centurion, that is a captain of at least a hundred soldiers of the army, stationed in Caesarea, was a devout man who feared and honored God. Cornelius and his whole family worshiped God, and he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. So you can imagine what kind of man Cornelius was.
One afternoon, Cornelius was visited by an angel of God, who told him that his gifts and prayers had been heard and accepted by God, and that to invite a man named Simon Peter, someone he had never seen or met. So he quickly sent two of his servants and a soldier for him.

The next day, Peter, who was staying in Joppa, about 50 km south of Caesarea, had a divine visitation during his prayer time as well. Who is Simon Peter? Peter was one of the inner circle of Jesus along with James and John. However, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times on the night Jesus was arrested.

While Jesus was questioned, condemned, slapped, struck with fists, and spat at by the chief priests, elders, and the teachers of the law, outside in the courtyard of the high priest, Simon Peter shouted three times, “I do not know the man.”

Peter then ran away and could not even face Jesus dying on the cross. But when Peter almost gave up everything and returned to his old business as a fisherman, the resurrected Jesus appeared to him at the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus asked Peter three times if Peter loved him, and Peter affirmed his love for Jesus three times. Jesus then re-commissioned Peter to follow him as an apostle.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter and other disciples who gathered in the Upper Room, were baptized by the Holy Spirit. From that time on, the life of Peter had changed upside down. God had transformed Peter from a frightened and impatient fisherman to a fearless apostle of Christ.

So, while this apostle was praying, the Spirit of God spoke to him. In the vision, Peter saw something like a large sheet being lowered from heaven, and in it were all kinds of four-footed animals, reptiles, and wild birds.

Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter denied the invitation according to his cultural and religious regulations, “Certainly not, Lord! I have never eaten anything ritually unclean or impure.” In response, a voice spoke to him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Three times this interaction took place, and the sheet was taken back to heaven.

While Peter was still wondering about the meaning of this vision, the men sent by Cornelius came to the place Peter was staying. The Spirit told him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” Peter obeyed the voice of the Spirit, and followed the people from Caesarea to Cornelius’ house.

As Peter and his fellow Jewish Christians from Joppa entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. Do you know how odd this scene is? Cornelius was a Roman centurion and Peter was a Jewish fisherman. I don’t know if you ever watched the movies about Jesus or the Chosen. A Roman soldier would never bow down to a Jew.
Here we see the barriers of division - the barriers of class, ethnic discrimination, religious superiority were totally broken. How? Because of Jesus’ death on the cross. When Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday, the veil of the temple, which signified that man was separated from God by sin, was torn in two from top to bottom.

The tearing of the veil at the moment of Jesus' death symbolized that His sacrifice, the shedding of His own blood, made the gateway into the Holy of Holies, the way into the Presence of the Holy God. It was open for all people, for all time, both Jew and Gentile.

Peter had not realized this truth completely yet. He reluctantly came to the Roman centurion’s place just because the Spirit of God told him to go. He didn’t know what was exactly going on here. When he saw a large gathering of people Cornelius had invited, he was still cautious and said, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”

When Cornelius explained his vision, Peter said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Then he started proclaiming the gospel, the Good News of PEACE, the Good News of LIFE, the Good News of HOPE, the Good News of RECONCILIATION, the Good News of SALVATION through Jesus Christ. Peter proclaimed, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through the power of His name.”

Salvation comes to everyone who believes in the powerful name of Jesus. Cornelius, his household, and his friends who were there when Peter preached the good news of salvation believed the message and accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord. Do you know what happened next? While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came upon all who heard the message. And Peter baptized them in the name of Jesus Christ and accepted them as the family of God.
Many of us think that if a person is honest and does good, it really doesn’t matter what he or she believes. We hope that if we do our best to be a good person, if we don’t hurt anyone, if we help others, then we will get into heaven. And in fact, we find numerous ‘better people’ than average Christians around us, don’t we? And we wish that God somehow finds a way to save them. That’s our hope and prayer. And I believe that’s what God our Father wants because the Bible claims again and again that it is God’s will to save everyone. However, that’s totally up to God, the Ultimate Judge on the final day.

Look at Cornelius, he was a devout God-fearing man who helped the needy, who prayed regularly, who was highly respected by people around him. But he didn’t know that Jesus is the Son of God, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. So God orchestrated a life-changing encounter so that he could be a born-again disciple of Christ.

Through the encounter of Peter and Cornelius, Peter’s view of God’s salvation was changed radically. He realized that God’s message of salvation and hope was extended to all people including the Gentiles. He realized that Jesus’ arms of love open wider than he ever imagined. As for Cornelius, the Roman centurion, his household, his friends, and himself could hear the life-giving gospel message - the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Messiah, and were saved.

Do you think there are certain people or particular groups of people who are not worthy of the Gospel? Do you think that the message of salvation through Jesus Christ is limited geographically, ethnically, racially, socioeconomically, or by any means? Is the invitation to eternal life exclusively ours?

Absolutely Not! You and I do not deserve God’s grace but we have been given His indescribable love and mercy. His love is for each and every human being in the whole world. The boundaries that Peter thought there were, were being torn down by the blood of Jesus. God, through the Spirit, is once again on the move breaking into borders, annihilating categories of race, ethnicity, gender, wealth, education, nationality, etc., and He is reconciling all the world to God. Have you imagined Jesus coming as an Indigenous, a Korean, a Cuban, a Cameroonian, or homeless or even as a female?

In the power of the resurrection, we are all bound to the promise of God to reconcile all things, to forgive all things, to go all places, so that in the face of division we can proclaim Jesus is Lord of all!

The message of the early church that was spread from Jerusalem to all Judea, Samaria, and to Rome is still spreading. And the power of the new life that was unleashed in this world by Jesus’ resurrection is still working to transform our hearts and lives today.

Brothers and sisters, today, as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, it is our turn to share the good news - good news that the abundant welcome, the radical forgiveness, the amazing grace, the overwhelming love God gives to those who we would not expect to be acceptable - that God has given even to us. The Risen Lord Jesus is for everyone in every nation with no partiality. This is surprising! This is Good News! This is the Easter Story!