January 9, 2016
Being so familiar to us, the story is more amazing than we realize. It's no wonder that the message was rejected by its original recipients: that Jesus is the One through whom our sins are forgiven. One of the earliest recorded Christian sermons to people outside of Judaism was preached by the apostle Peter to the household of Cornelius, a Roman military officer. The blunt reality of the Christian faith is spelled out with stark clarity in Acts 10:37-43.
"You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
"We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us 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 whom God appointed 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."
If I were to go around doing good, and even healing people and delivering them from spiritual, emotional, or psychological bondage, people might well call me a good man and praise me for the wonderful things accomplished. And if I were falsely accused, sentenced, and executed, people might think it a travesty of justice, but it would end there. The Christian message however, is that God raised from death this particular otherwise ordinary man and that some day this man will judge the living and the dead. But even more, he grants forgiveness of sins to those who believe in him.
You have to admit, that's a pretty wild story! It is not surprising to me that people have a hard time believing it. Sometimes I have a hard time believing it. There are times when I read it and say to myself, "Naw, this can't be real!" It stretches the imagination almost beyond credulity, seems like a science fiction or fantasy story. There's just one thing in it however, that keeps drawing me back: When (as Peter says) I believe, I have this strange inner conviction that I am forgiven, and that all that has been wrong and distorted and twisted inside me has been put right, not by some big act of penance on my part, but by God's mercy and grace. Even better, the guilt and shame I rightly and keenly felt simply evaporates.
Years ago I talked with a Spiritualist friend who told me, "We don't believe in vicarious atonement (ie. that someone else can pay for our sins). Each of us has to take responsibility for our own actions." While that sentiment is laudable, it also is impossible. There is no way I can undo the bad things I've done. Even if from this day forward I never committed another sin, but instead every single thought, word, and deed were for the benefit of others, I could not undo the selfish and hurtful things in my past. And no amount of penance could wash away the guilt. Only forgiveness can do that. And the magnitude of forgiveness I need is greater than any ordinary human can give. Which brings me back to Peter's sermon. This man Jesus went around doing good. But when he died, he didn't stay dead. God raised him up to show us that life isn't just (as some of my friends would say) a bitch, and then you die. Not at all! There is something very special about this man: He forgives my sins. And that changes everything. Am I thankful? You bet I am!