‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power’ (Acts 2:22-24)
‘The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses (Acts 3:13-15).
‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it‘ (Acts 7:51-53)
‘My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family, and others who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent. Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything 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; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus’ (Acts 13:26-33)
I’m still working my way through the book of Acts, and I notice as I go that it contains a number of sermons. The extracts above are from some of them: two by Peter, one by Stephen, one by Paul. And the thing that strikes me about all these sermons is how little they mention the Cross. True, they all relate the fact that Jesus was killed, at the instigation of his own people. Which reminds me of what I call the saddest verse in the whole of the Bible, John 1:11:
‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.’
As a Jesus follower of Jewish origin, I find this incredibly poignant (though I need to point out that there is no justification, either in John’s prologue or in any of the sermons in Acts, for the historic persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers’).
Yet while all these sermons allude to the crucifixion, not one of them has any sort of developed theology of the Atonement. They don’t even mention that Jesus died ‘for our sins’, though they do go on to declare that repenting and following him gains us forgiveness. You may argue that at the historic point in the life of the church that Acts recounts, Paul had not written his many letters, especially Romans, exploring the implications of the Cross. But that argument doesn’t really hold water; we know that Paul’s letters mostly pre-date the Gospels and Acts, and though Luke is relating events prior to Paul’s teaching, this cannot really be a verbatim account of Peter’s, Stephen’s and Paul’s sermons, but an interpretation based on witness memory — so Luke could easily have added to them some exposition of the Atonement. But he doesn’t. Why doesn’t he? Could it be because it wasn’t there? that the earliest preaching of the apostles and their associates actually didn’t emphasise Jesus’ death at all, except as evidence of rejection by his own people?
Instead, these sermons seem to have a quite different version of what the ‘good news’ is — and it is the Resurrection. Look at that last sentence of the Acts 13 extract: ‘..we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us… by raising Jesus’. For the preachers and evangelists of Acts, it is not the Cross of Jesus that is the good news, but his resurrection, which demonstrates both that he is truly the Son of God, and that the love and righteousness he taught and showed cannot be defeated by death.
In certain church traditions, when we say ‘the gospel’ what we actually mean is a particular formulation of what was happening through Jesus’ death, and how it changed the relationship between God and humankind. When I have heard ‘the gospel’ preached with this emphasis, often the Resurrection becomes little more than a divine ‘I told you so’; or at best, a harbinger of our own resurrection to some disembodied heaven far away from earth.
But that formulation of the gospel is prominent in these early Christian sermons only by its absence. Have we got it all wrong? Is the good news in fact less about ‘Jesus died for our sins’ (though that emphasis is certainly there, and significant, in the teachings of Paul), and more about ‘God’s love as embodied in Jesus is so great that it cannot be destroyed by death’? Or even, from my perspective as an Anabaptist, ‘the non-violence of Jesus’ death is stronger than the violence of the powers-that-be’?
I don’t deny that the death of Jesus is in some way, which we can only define by a number of different images (and Paul himself uses a wide range of them, not just drawn from the law courts), salvific. But what these sermons from Acts suggest is that it is not Jesus’ death alone that is salvific, but the whole package of his ‘life-death-resurrection’. In fact, almost all of these sermons also dwell on the life of Jesus as a demonstration of his messiahship. He didn’t just come to die for us, he came to live for us, to fulfil in his life the true goodness, the just and compassionate human life, that we are all called to live by his Spirit.
I have a Christian jewellery idea — don’t laugh. We wear crosses round our necks, even as earrings, which has always struck me as an odd thing to do — would we wear a tiny gallows or electric chair as jewellery? But my idea is for a pendant made of two overlapping circles, one solid, the other just a ring with a hollow centre. This is to represent the stone rolled away from the empty tomb. That seems to me far more appropriate for Christians to wear as adornment or indeed as witness: because the good news is not just the Cross, it is the Resurrection too — in fact, as these sermons suggest, it may be mainly the Resurrection.