That I can remember, although I’ve likely preached over a hundred sermons, I’ve only preached one on Easter Sunday, and even though it happened almost a decade ago (2001, if I remember right), I still think on it as one of the best I’ve delivered.
Three and a half semesters into my seminary career, I had developed enough vocabulary and had spent enough time with the folks at West Main Street Christian Church that I could preach a sermon that spoke with the help of the scholarly community at the same time that I shaped my message for those people at that moment. In other words, with my parents and brother in the pews (they were visiting for Easter that year), I really did deliver a sermon I can remember as exemplary for the genre, and that’s saying something for someone who generally finds significant faults with all of his own homiletic work.
Another thing I remember as developing in those years was a tendency in my own theology to overuse the preposition “through.” I was convinced that one must read the New Testament “through” the Old. Moreover, I advocated seeing ethics “through” the Christian narrative. And of course one should read all of the Bible “through” Christ. Back then, I fear, prepositions were somewhat arbitrary markers in the way I talked about God, nothing like the precise technical sense in which a believer (according to Paul) is a part of the Body of the King and is therefore “in Christ.” In other words, like many a young grad student, I knew that the intellectual tools were there, and I knew that some of my favorite writers used prepositions in similar ways, and I followed along.
Now, almost a decade later, I’m far more cautious about how I use prepositions, though passages like the Resurrection narrative in Luke remind me that “through” does work when in fact a soul travels from A to C and must spend some time in B to do so. So I’ll go ahead and say it, cautious as ever that I’m letting my old prepositional sloppiness back into the world: forgivness, in the account of Acts, comes to the nations through Church.
On a surface reading of Acts 10, that much is obvious: Peter quite plainly says that a mysterious election is at play in the spread of the tidings of God’s victory, and the faithfulness that accompanies forgiveness becomes possible because of real human beings’ travels, their delivering real orations in real towns and cities, and the sheer particularity of that election is evident in the fact that many a study Bible produces maps of Paul’s journeys, and those maps are not hard to chart given the emphasis on place in Acts.
In a slightly more philosophical-theological register, that Jesus rarely uses the Greek word ekklesia and never the Latin religio is hard to dispute given the gospel texts, but even harder to dispute is that, when Peter and Paul and Philip travel the Mediterranean rim proclaiming the victory of God’s anointed King, one of their first impulses was to establish new communities, governed by elders just as the old tribes of Jacob were, dedicated to koinonia and to teaching and to the breaking of bread and to common gatherings. They might not have dressed like Texas politicians (as do Texas Baptists, in the famous formula of Stan Hauerwas), but in some manner, and following some conventions, they did gather often enough that, by the time the word cirice (the earliest Church-cognate I’m aware of) enters the early English language, it refers as often to the halls erected for common gathering as it does to the people gathered there.
Now I’m not one to say that God must do that or that God can’t do that, but looking at the actual text of Acts and the actual texts of early English Christianity, what strikes me about both contexts is that proclaiming Christ crucified and resurrected is always central, and the forms of common life grow up around the proclamation. Although “humanity is a political animal” is not at its root a Christian claim (it comes from the text either of Plato or Aristotle, but not from both), nonetheless the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection always brings with it neither simple dissolution of this or that political order nor slavish adherence to tribe or synagogue or Athenian ekklesia but, to paraphrase Isaiah 65, a community in which God creates Jerusalem to be a joy.
By no means would I minimize the pain and sorrow that have come at the hands of this or that iteration of Church through the ages. By no means will I deny that Church is not only an outgrowth of divine forgiveness or the means by which hear about divine forgiveness but also the place where God would show the world what love looks like. Such is the complexity that arises when the Creator of Heaven and Earth puts treasure in earthen vessels.