Pages

Sunday, April 4, 2021

What It Can Mean | Easter Sunday 2021

"
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. 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 the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."Acts 10:34-43 NRSV

The words are attributed to Peter on the occasion of a Gentile household being converted to faith in Jesus. According to Acts this was the first time that people who were neither Jews nor Samaritans accepted the good news about Jesus. Ancient historians didn't have the means to record speeches verbatim, and often they were working from notes that others made or from the recollections of people who heard them. Probably about as often as anything, they made up the speech to fit the context and what they believed the person would have said in that situation. There's no reason to think it's any different with the author of Luke-Acts. When he wrote in the late first or early second century, he was putting down his best understanding of events through the lense of then-current understanding of the faith.  It leaves us to wonder what Peter might actually have said, if this event truly took place more or less as described.

...theology is not isolated from political, economic, and social realities. Context matters. Witnesses close to events have motives in telling their stories and can be unreliable, reporters. The powerful write history. Texts are expressions of the experience of the person or community who wrote them. Evidence is tampered with, documents are destroyed, and arguments of opponents are falsified to prove a point.—Diana Butler Bass, Rescuing Jesus, p 198

By the 4th century that proto-orthodoxy expressed by Luke had won out in the form of what is now considered orthodoxy, expressed in a creed that would describe Jesus as "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father." The plain-spoken tidiness of one generation had been replaced with the ornate but precise theological language of a later generation. To my knowledge, no church recites from Peter's speech on Sundays, but many do  repeat the words of the Nicene Creed. 

The patchwork of different Christian sects of the first couple of centuries may have held to variations of Peter's words in their beliefs, though it seems likely that the majority would have found room in that description for themselves. Whatever one's christology, whether believing that Jesus was somehow identified directly with God, or was an adopted human son of God, the words "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power" excluded no one who believed. Likewise the credal test for salvation was set relatively low compared to later times, telling us "everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

What about our time, though? Here, hundreds of years later, living in a time when the light of reason has exposed the darkness, with the scientific method and technological advances helping us to understand what before was utterly incomprehensible to our ancestors, we find less and less cause to take as concrete the meaning of religious beliefs. Much has become metaphor, which is just as well because at least some of it was intended as such in the first place, and the ugly bits promoting genocide, bigotry, and misogyny are becoming recognized for what they are and challenged as such. While the majority of Christians can probably still agree with the preaching attributed to Peter, a rising number cannot. And then there are people like me, Unitarian Universalists and others who see value in engaging with this ancient text through a critical approach. What can we say about Jesus, miracles, and sin? What about the resurrection?

 Speaking only for myself, and after having established how and when this particular text under consideration came to be, here's how I would break it down.

Then Peter began to speak to them: I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 

God or no god, we are all human beings and made of the same carbon, minerals, and water. It's been put this way in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. 
 
Article 2
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 

Preaching peace is wonderful, and seemingly rare. The UDHR also calls for it to be remembered, taught, and to be implemented for the purposes of peace.

Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Where it becomes problematic is where it says that Jesus Christ is "Lord of all." Does that mean that unbelievers must be converted? By what means? And what if they refuse? If it means only that, whether people know it or not, Jesus is Lord, then a) does it mean anything at all, and b) isn't that some smug bullshit? 

That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 

However this all would get unpacked theologically by someone who takes it with more than a few grains of salt, there is a key piece here that is too-often missed: "he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed." It doesn't say that he went about preaching that everyone was going to hell unless they believed in him and either said a "sinner's prayer" or was baptized. He went about doing good and liberating the oppressed. There's not a thing wrong with that.

We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. 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 the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 

The belief of Luke's community by the end of the first century was one of physical resurrection, which isn't surprising considering that in Second Temple Judaism belief in a future, physical resurrection of the dead was fairly commonplace. It's not unreasonable to think that the earliest church would have shared this belief, despite variations that arose in the larger Roman world that spiritualized it. The rationale for the resurrected Jesus not appearing to the world at large, and instead only to select disciples, is to my knowledge ever fully worked out in the New Testament. Presumably they would have thought of it as necessary for the purpose of people having faith. Given that faith isn't a moral virtue, that explanation falls flat for me. 

It could be that the best we can do with this is appreciate the concept of 'witness' in the sense of affirming one's experience, apart from the strict facts of a matter. The act of remembering something isn't the same as replaying a video. There is a sense in which we are inventing, editing, re-imagining, and re-contextualizing our memories. Often we omit parts, consciously or unconsciously, or simply forget details. Maybe there are aspects that we didn't even notice in the first place, and so they didn't register in our brains at all. The earliest disciples were remembered for having experienced a remarkable life that was brutally cut short, and then appeared to miraculously continue. 

He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 

This resurrected life is something they participated in, telling and retelling the stories of Jesus and conveying the impact he had on them. 

All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

For the church of the first and second century, the Bible was the Hebrew Scriptures, and through the lens of faith they found Jesus in those writings. Through this Jesus, their consciences found relief and their lives found renewal with the promise of a fresh start. That, for our modern and rightly-skeptical world, is good news we can believe in.