As evening fell on Easter Sunday, Peter had a lot on his mind. As his eyes grew heavy he remembered how he slept instead of watching and praying during his Lord’s struggle in Gethsemane. (Mark 14:32-42) The sword at his side reminded him of his foolish, rash actions as the mob, led by Judas, arrived to arrest Jesus. (Mark 14:43-52) He couldn’t help but kick himself for allowing a servant girl’s question to lead him to deny his Lord – a dark betrayal he would remember every time a rooster crowed. (Mark 14:66-72) The scene on Golgotha – the gambling soldiers, the wailing women, the angry mob, and in the midst of it all, the quiet determination of Jesus to die – was permanently impressed on his memory; but the shame of watching it all from a distance still left a bitter, guilty taste in his mouth. (Mark 15:21-41) And then there was the tomb. Earlier that morning Peter had raced with John to the tomb expecting to find…what? We don’t know what they expected to find – but all they found were the scraps of linen that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body. (John 20:1-9) And now in this locked room Peter felt fear; the fear of doubt, the fear of loss, the fear of the Jews – most of all fear of God’s judgment because of his weakness, his betrayal, his lack of faith. On Easter evening, Peter had a lot on his mind – but peace was not one of them.
But now it’s several years later and Peter is a changed man. No longer sad and guilty and fearful – now Peter has peace. Now Peter is in Caesarea, doing something he never imagined – walking into the house of a Gentile soldier named Cornelius to preach a sermon that all people need to hear. He proclaims that because Jesus rose from the dead you may know peace with God, the lasting significance of Jesus’ work, and the mission of the church.
From a human perspective, Cornelius had every reason to be at peace. He had a good job – as a centurion in the Roman army he had power and prestige, authority and a regular salary and a government pension. He lived in a Roman outpost on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. He had his spiritual bases covered – or at least he thought he did. Luke tells us earlier in Acts 10 that [Cornelius] and his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (Acts 10:2) And yet, Cornelius didn’t have peace, because all of his earthly success, his best efforts, his generosity to the poor, even his prayers couldn’t quiet the voice in his head that condemned him as a sinner and warned him of God’s impending judgment. So God sent Peter to Cornelius with the only message that could quiet that voice by removing his sin and guilt forever.
You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. God puts an innate, natural knowledge of himself into every human heart from conception – so it comes as no surprise that people of every language and nation believe in and worship a god or gods. But what is shocking is how drastically different the gods people make for themselves are from the one, true God revealed in history and Scripture. The Greeks and Romans fabricated dozens of gods whose lives were like soap operas – not so different from the celebrities people worship today: rich and powerful, but very flawed; very human. During Luther’s day most people thought of god as a harsh judge whose anger needed to be appeased by good works and offerings and prayers. Today, many think of god as a divine therapist whose only job is to help them deal with the uncomfortable realities of life. And there have always been those who have no more use for god than someone to point the finger at when things go wrong – and to be forgotten and ignored when things go right.
Thankfully the Holy Spirit used men like Peter to tell us what God is really like and what is really on his mind. And do you know what’s on God’s mind – has been on his mind since Adam and Eve brought sin into the world? Peace. Peace, the end of hostility and enmity, between himself and humanity. The message God has been trying for thousands of years to get through to humanity is that he has ended the war we started; he created peace in the midst of our treachery and rebellion. He is not mad at you, he doesn’t want you to try to buy his love – he wants you to trust that he loved you first, he wants to have you in his family, he has reserved a place for you in his home in heaven. Far from the vindictive, irrelevant, bully that many people think of when they make their own god out of thin air, the true God, the God of Israel, the God revealed in Scripture is a God of peace – and he wants you to know that peace.
But how can we be sure? Everything we experience tells us just the opposite. We sin with terrible frequency. Our consciences testify against us. The law – not to mention our coworkers, spouses and children – regularly point out how imperfect we are. We know, without anyone telling us that we have not done enough good and done far too much evil to be right with God. Cornelius knew that too. That’s why Peter pointed him in a different direction. He told him the really good news that peace with God didn’t depend on him, but on someone else. You know what has happened throughout 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 tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
Do you want proof that you have peace with God? Then don’t look in the mirror, look at Jesus, look at his life, his cross, his empty tomb. Jesus’ life, from his baptism in the Jordan to his miracles to his preaching, proves that he is the one sent by God. When you see the cross you see how seriously God takes disobedience to his commands. There you see the kind of punishment all of your sins – from the biggest to the smallest – deserve. Look at the tomb and see that God means it when he declares that the wages of sin is death. (Romans 3:23) But then look at your hands and feet and remember that it wasn’t you the Roman soldiers nailed to that tree. Look at the cross and see how much God wants peace with you – so much that he sacrificed his own Son to create it. Look there and know that because God poured out every ounce of his anger on Jesus, his mercy and forgiveness are freely given to you. Look at the tomb and see evidence that because Jesus is gone, your sins are gone – removed from God’s record books forever. You may still have all sorts of doubts and fears and anxieties in life (certainly Peter and Cornelius still did) – but when you know and believe that everything Jesus did, he did for you, you will have peace even when doubts arise and even when life doesn’t go the way you planned. That’s why Jesus taught and healed and suffered and died – and because he has risen, you can know that with certainty. That’s the lasting significance of his work.
And, finally, Christ is risen so that you may know the mission of his church. One of the reasons people, especially young people, lose interest and leave the church is because they misunderstand or forget the purpose of the church. Sadly, in large part this is the church’s fault. People think that the church simply exists to enforce earthly morality – because the church has often made the enforcement of earthly morality its highest priority. People treat the church like nothing more than another social organization – because too often the church has emphasized fellowship over discipleship. Too many churches ask “what do people need?” and then spend every resource filling that need. So you can find churches that offer Christian yoga because people need to lose weight; churches that hold financial seminars because people need help with money management; churches that hold concerts instead of worship services on Sundays because people think they need an emotional escape from life. Now, none of those things are necessarily evil by themselves. But if you’ve ever come to church hoping to find financial peace or physical health or emotional relief – you’ve probably left disappointed, not only because the church isn’t very good at those things, but because that’s not the mission God gave to his church.
For a long time Peter didn’t get that either – he too thought Jesus’ kingdom should be an earthly one that fixes earthly problems – but now he gets it: 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. This is God’s message for his church. Is it good news or bad news? Both, right? The bad news: Judgment Day is coming and Jesus, the one you put to death by your sins will be the judge. The good news: the one you put to death died to pay for your sins so that you may be found “not-guilty” in his courtroom. Preaching and teaching law and gospel, the church’s mission is as simple as that. And, if you don’t want to take Peter’s word for it, then listen to Jesus. He strips down his mission for his church to its bare essentials: he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:22) Jesus did not commission his church to make this world a better place or solve every problem or satisfy the needs of every person on earth. Christ has commissioned his church to distribute the one thing that every single person, young and old, wealthy and poor, absolutely needs: the forgiveness of sins. Whether this takes place here at the baptismal font, from the pulpit, the altar, in a Bible study; or out there when a parent lovingly disciplines their child or Christian spouses forgive each other or a family gathers for a devotion at the bed of a loved one – the church’s business is sin: forgiving those who repent and refusing forgiveness to those who refuse to repent. That is what Christ commanded his church to do. That’s what all people need. That is the church’s mission. Whenever the church loses its focus on this mission, there will be unrest, disagreement, and the absence of any real peace.
But God sent Jesus to earth so that we may have real peace. He brought peace to a rebellious world by satisfying God’s demand for perfect obedience. He brought peace to sinful people by paying the price for sin with his blood on the cross. He proved that peace is ours by walking out of the tomb alive. And, he brings peace by making the church’s mission clear: to proclaim the forgiveness of sins in his name. We may not know everything and we certainly cannot do everything for everyone, but we know peace with God through Jesus' work and we have our mission – because Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Amen.