Tuesday, April 24, 2007

You put him to death, but God raised him from the dead

As our Forty Day series on the Resurrection continues, I will need to apologize for moving quite beyond the narratives of that particular period. Although I find this period of time incredibly interesting, the focus of this series is on the significance of Christ's resurrection, not a particular stretch of time. The Forty Days when the risen Jesus walked and talked with his disciples is thus the occasion, not the subject-matter, of our series. Thus last week we jumped back to the raising of Lazarus. This week we will jump forward to the content of apostolic preaching in Acts.

The Book of Acts is full of sermons. This is part of what makes Acts notoriously difficult to preach through: it's hard to preach a sermon on a sermon. One is tempted to just read (or better yet memorize) Peter's dense yet convicting Pentecost sermon (Acts 2), Simon's retelling of the whole Old Testament before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7), or Paul's erudite engagement with the intellectuals on Mars Hill (Acts 17).

But instead of treating these as isolated sermons, one could also read them synoptically in order to identify common patterns of preaching in early Christianity as portrayed by Luke. One of the most striking parallels between the vast majority of these sermons is their shared climactic phrase: you/they put Jesus to death, but God raised him from the dead.

Here are a few examples:

"... you put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead ..." (Acts 2:23-24)

"You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead." (Acts 3:15)

"... Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead ..." (Acts 4:10)

"The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree." (Acts 5:30)

"They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day..." (Acts 10:39-40)

"When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead." (Acts 13:29-30)

As my italics indicate, the key word here is "but." This little words sets in contrast the false ending of Good Friday and points to the surprise ending of Easter Sunday. According to the sermons in Acts, the move from crucifixion to resurrection is a move from a human act to a divine act. It is a climactic reversal, a twist in the story. What we humans have done, God himself has undone. The tension is not released but heightened by the death of Jesus. The resolution of the story comes with God's resurrection of Jesus. The gospel story does not end with the sigh of the cross. The gospel story ends with God breathing life in the dead Jesus. Only after the story reaches its climax in the resurrection of Christ do the apostolic preachers offer a word of repentance, forgiveness and hope.

What implications does this "but" have for our preaching and teaching of the gospel?

(1) Beware of premature alleviation. Early apostolic preaching calls into question our practice of moving straight from talk of Christ's death to talk of repentance, forgiveness and hope. This kind of Easter-hopping is a bad habit. We certainly must not neglect the cross in favor of a shallow overcomer spirit. But such shallowness would not be the good news of Easter, for a resurrection story requires a death story. The surprise ending of the story of Jesus must not be forgotten.

(2) The importance of witnesses. As these sermons show, the resurrection is a discreet act of God in time. This act was witnessed by God's chosen apostles, who have passed this message to the world. The passing on of this witness is the continuing mission of the church. This means that the content of our message is not first and foremost what God is like, but what God has done. The center of our message is that God did such and such a thing at such and such a time and at such and such a place. We have heard about these events. We should never stop speaking about these events.

(3) Who's the boss? Why is the resurrection so significant? Why do the apostles move straight from "but God raised him from the dead" to "repent and be baptized"? Because by raising Jesus from the dead, God has put him in the position as judge over the whole world. We can no longer relegate God's authority to the Jews. Nor can we pretend to reckon with some general concept of God. We must reckon with the God of Israel through his Son Jesus Christ, for this particular God and this God alone has entered time to overcome the most universal problem of all: death. The one who has overcome death is thus the one we must face upon our death. He is seated at the right hand of the Father and will come again to judge the living and the dead. This is good news, because it will be one of us who will judge us. This is good news, because he has invited us to become his brothers and thereby become adopted sons and daughters of God. This is good news, because the one who will judge us is the one who prays for our forgiveness, including our murder of him.

Any thoughts?
Are there other interesting patterns you've observed in the sermons from Acts?
Am I right to emphasize the contrast within this climactic statement?
What other implications can be drawn from the emphasis on resurrection in these sermons?

7 comments:

WTM said...

John,

This is a really good post. I especially appreciate the attention you draw to the "..., but..." pattern. Your three points toward the end are also spot on. I would have to do too much work to think of something you should have done / done differently, so I'll just praise you and tell you to keep it up!

JohnLDrury said...

thanks for the e-props, travs. by the way, I atempted an answer your question from two weeks ago.

Erik said...

John,

Really good stuff here, as usual (yes I read your blog, but rarely comment). One point of clarification, or something I'd like to hear more about. You say that the content of our witness is that God has done such and such at such and such a time, and not who God is (something like that...if I've botched it up sorry). I agree wholeheartedly with you, but isn't it one of the central insights of Barth that when we talk about what God has done, we are also talking about who God is? It seems then that precisely because we bear witness that God has done such and such, we are also bearing witness to who God is.

Erik said...

I should clarify my agreement: I meant to say I agree with your insistence that we need to bear witness to what God has done.

JohnLDrury said...

Erik,
Ooooo - good question! I would not want to give the impression that there should be a focus on past events to the detriment of present and future eventfulness of God's being. This is precisely why I start with not just any event in God's history, but the event of Resurrection, because this event itself (by overcoming the barrier of time and death) points forward to the future and includes the present. See this post for a bit more on this. Thanks for raising this important concern.

jes said...

John,

Thanks for a most appropriate of Resurrection readings, particularly in this Easter season. Here's a minor quibble:

The Greek of these texts from Acts lacks any disjunctive rhetorical force whatsoever in the six passages you cite. In fact, if there *is* any rhetorical force to the narrative texts on which you draw, then the force is arguably conjunctive, not disjunctive. No conjunctions -- disjunctive or otherwise – appear in the Greek; only relative pronouns (and one demonstrative pronoun) are employed by the author(s).

This does not necessarily deny or even address the *theological* validity of your reading, but it certainly is the case that your reading is not *philologically* warranted. The broader question, of course, concerns what, if any, relationship exists between philological warrant and theological validity in one's reading of the biblical text. Granted, all translation necessarily involves interpretation. Nevertheless, it seems that the broad reading of Acts you suggest actually stands at odds with the original (or hypothetically reconstructed original) text of Acts.

J.E. Soyars

JohnLDrury said...

Soyars,

Thanks for the philological note. I should have done my homework! I personally think that at least philologically-driven theological arguments such as the one I was trying to make are subject to philological justifictaion.

Gladly, my point only required the disjunctive "but" for rhetoric purposes (I am a preacher ;-). The substantive point I was trying to make was the consistent reference to resurrection immediately between talk of Christ's death and his saving power. There is no direct route from cross to salvation. In the future, I will will dump the rhetorical "but" and stick to the substance.

Thanks a bunch!
John