by Daniel Harrell
Today being the hundredth anniversary, I probably should say something about the Titanic. The deluge of retrospectives, TV movies, documentaries and commemorations are but the tip of the iceberg. James Cameron’s Oscar-winning epic is now out in 3-D following an 18-million dollar conversion. One historian has argued that “the three most written-about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic,” not necessarily in that order. Why does this tragedy grip us so? Some call it schadenfreude, that twisted pleasure people experience at another’s misfortune. Others cite a recent study suggesting that witnessing tragedy makes us happy because we’re then prompted to count our own blessings. At the existential level, Titanic provides the quintessential lifeboat dilemma. It poses big questions such as: How would I have responded? What matters most? Who gets to survive?
First-class men aboard Titanic, collectively glorified for letting women and children go first, actually survived at a higher rate than the third-class children did, proving the true rule of the sea to be “every man for himself.” And yet stories of the Mr. Guggenheim changing into formal wear on that night to remember, Mr. and Mrs. Macy going down together, the orchestra continuing to play “Nearer My God To Thee” still fascinate. Had the luxury liner not sunk on her maiden voyage, it probably wouldn’t haunt us so. As one writer put it, “it’s the incompleteness that never stops tantalizing us, tempting us to fill in the blanks.” Titanic, of course, was named for the Titans, that mythical race of super-humans who fought the gods and lost. This theme of hubris defeated has survived as the classic lesson. As a Titanic deck hand, beforehand, famously and ominously quipped, “God himself could not sink this ship.”
Applied to this Sunday after Easter, hubris defeated also works as a lesson. Here in Peter’s second sermon in Acts, the first of three I plan to explore this month, the Pentecost-powered apostle takes on the hand-picked people of God, who, thinking they knew better than God, handed over the Son of God to be strung up on a criminal’s cross. Peter pinpoints their culpability, accusing the Jews of “rejecting the Holy and Righteous One and killing the Author of life.” This is a sensitive passage with a long and regrettable history of stoking anti-Semitism. But this was not its intent. Though God’s people sunk Jesus, God raised him up for their sake; for their repentance and restoration.
The story begins with a crippled beggar panhandling by the Temple gates. It was sweet coincidence to hear this passage read at the Minnesota Prayer Breakfast on Thursday. Peter and John pass the beggar on their way to an afternoon prayer meeting. The beggar wanted money, but Peter didn’t have a nickel to his name. But he did have the name of Jesus—a name he’d denied three times ever knowing. The risen Jesus restored the repentant Peter, who now boldly evoked Jesus’ name and commanded the crippled man to rise up and walk. The language is pure resurrection. The man rose up and danced and gave glory to God, astonishing a crowd who marveled at Peter’s titanic power. Seizing on the teachable moment, Peter immediately discredits himself. It was not by any power or piety of his own that this beggar was healed. This was the risen power of the sunken Jesus—the same sunken Jesus they had tried to keep down.
Titanic director James Cameron tried to keep Jesus down. You may remember the 2007 documentary he produced for the Discovery Channel which made the “shocking” claim that Jesus wasn’t resurrected. Cameron had discovered his bones buried near Jerusalem. With the help of statisticians, historians, DNA experts, robot-cameras and NCIS, a case was made that bones unearthed back in 1980 were in fact those of Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene. Why did this take so long to make the news? Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t news. The burial cave wasn’t extraordinary and the names on the bone boxes were very common for that period. That they echo the names of the Holy Family was a fluke.
Dr. Joseph Zias, the Jewish museum curator who originally catalogued the discovery, remarked: “These guys are pimping off the Bible. They’ve got this Cameron guy, who made the movie Titanic or something—what does he know about archeology? Projects like these make a mockery of the profession.”
God’s people made a mockery of their profession too. They professed to be the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the followers of Moses, adherents of Torah, subjects of David, obedient to the prophets who eagerly awaited a promised Messiah. Moses predicted another prophet like him, one who would rescue God’s people not from slavery in Egypt, but from slavery to sin and to death. Isaiah the prophet spoke of a suffering Messiah, one who “was pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities” and how “by his wounds we are healed.” King David sang in the Psalms of the Messiah whom God would never abandon to the grave nor let rot in the ground. The prophet Daniel envisioned a glorious “Son of Man” who would come on the clouds to heal and restore and make all things new. He would be the rightful recipient of “dominion and glory and kingship, so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingdom is one that shall never be destroyed.” It was all in their Bible. It’s was what they always wanted. But when it finally happened, they wouldn’t believe it.
The point is sometimes made that the reason God’s people rejected Jesus was because he wasn’t the kind of Messiah they expected. They wanted a superhero, not a suffering servant. But Berkeley Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin, in his recent book, The Jewish Gospels, demonstrates how Jesus was exactly the kind of Messiah first century Jews had in mind. A Messiah who suffered for the sins of the world was not an early Christian concoction. Jews always believed that their Messiah would look like Jesus. Boyarin writes “A people had been for centuries talking about, thinking about, and reading about a new king, a son of David, who would come to redeem them from oppression, and they had come to think of that king as a second, younger, divine figure on the basis of the Book of Daniel’s reflection of that very ancient tradition. So they were persuaded to see in Jesus of Nazareth the one whom they had expected to come: the Messiah, the Christ. Details of his life, his prerogatives, his powers, and even his suffering and death before triumph are all developed out of close reading of the biblical materials and fulfilled in his life and death.”
Not that Professor Boyarin actually believes Jesus to be the Messiah. Like Jews of Peter’s day, he can’t make that leap. “That is surely a matter of faith, not scholarship,” he writes. But other Jews believed. Jews like Mary and Martha and Salome and Peter and John and Paul and James and Matthew, Mark and Luke and hundreds and thousands more. Peter’s speech in Acts 3 is not a Christian apologetic. There are no Christians in the non-Jewish sense of that label yet. In the early chapters of Acts it’s all about the biological descendants of Abraham. However being the biological descendents of Abraham wasn’t what made them chosen people. The Professor is right: it was always a matter of faith.
Peter declares how “The God of our ancestors glorified his servant Jesus… God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.” Jesus fit the bill. So why didn’t they believe? How could they trade in their long-awaited Savior in exchange for a murderer? It’s one thing to turn down what you can’t believe could ever be true, but how do you reject what you’ve always wanted when it finally appears before your eyes?
Why weren’t they more like Kate Winslett? Albeit a first-class debutante, engaged to marry into fabulous wealth and position, she nevertheless saw the light and made the leap from a secure lifetime of misery into the improbable arms of a steerage class savior who sacrificed his own life for her sake. She found not only the freedom to be who she was meant to be and live the real life she longed for, but in the end she’s welcomed aboard that heavenly home she had always hoped for, a place prepared just for her, and eleven Academy Awards to boot. Clearly no Christian himself, James Cameron still produced a heck of a gospel story.
What would you have done? Could you have lost your life to find it, even for a savior who looked like Leonardo DiCaprio? It is the quintessential lifeboat dilemma. What matters most? How would you have responded? What do you believe? Isaiah the prophet foretold of a time when “the lame man leaps like a deer, and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy.” Peter showed that time was now. “By faith in Jesus’ name, his name itself has made this lame man strong,” he said. “And all the prophets, as many as have spoken, also predicted these days.” Prophets like Daniel and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos and Micah who predicted how “Nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall study learn war any more; … and no one shall make anybody afraid.”
I got a glimpse of some plowshares at the Minnesota Prayer Breakfast—my thanks to Dave and Sherry Hall for the invite. Not only was the Hilton Ballroom luxuriously decked out like that last heavenly scene in Titanic, but all kinds of peoples, nations, languages and political persuasions gathered in Jesus’ name, just like the prophet Daniel envisioned. As for the plowshares, Republican and former first lady, Mary Pawlenty, graciously and honorably introduced Democratic Governor Mark Dayton, who in turn courteously recognized as his friend, the Republican House leader Kurt Zellers, all under the banner of spiritual unity. Talk about the power of prayer. Yet even though I witnessed it with my own eyes, I found it hard to believe such cordial camaraderie could last very long. I read the news. I hear the rhetoric. I know how things will likely go once the next piece of legislation comes up for debate.
It takes more than seeing to believe. I remember one Easter Sunday some years ago, I was shaking hands with a few folks after church when a visitor walked up with a theological question. She wanted to know how she could know that the Bible is true. I reeled off seminary reasons like how the Bible is the most authenticated text in antiquity, its reliability corroborated by reams of archeological evidence. I mentioned how countless billions of people have been totally transformed by its words. And then there’s the church itself. Had Jesus been a fraud and his words a joke, how is it that the church continues to thrive? Christianity is neither illogical or unreasonable. The visitor simply shrugged her shoulders. The evidence wasn’t sufficient to convince her. The Professor is right: “It is surely a matter of faith, not scholarship.” “You have to see it to believe it” may apply to some things. But when it comes to the gospel, you have to believe in order to see.
It’s like another visitor I met who was considering Christianity but first wanted to know Jesus’ political position. Would he have been a Republican or a Democrat? A socialist or a capitalist? Big Money or Big Government? How would he pay for a new Vikings stadium? Sensing a set up, I responded by asking the visitor whether he believed Jesus rose from the dead. He said, “I’m not sure. You know, that Titanic director found Jesus’ bones.” So I said, “if you don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, why does it matter whether Jesus was a Republican or a Democrat? If Jesus’ bones are still in some graveyard, who cares what he said about anything?”
As we saw last Sunday, the resurrection is Christ’s validation, his vindication, the proof that all he said was true. Take the resurrection away, and he’s nothing but a fly by rabbi with a few pearls of wisdom you can make into a charm bracelet. However if Jesus was raised from the dead, and you believe it, then it shapes not only how you think and act about politics and power, but about success and money and ambition and possessions and love and forgiveness and relationships and life and death and just about everything else. What you believe matters because what you believe changes your life. And if it doesn’t change your life, then you probably don’t believe it.
The people Peter indicts did not believe in Jesus, and they did all they could to sink him. Peter delivers their verdict in verse 23: According to their own Bibles, “everyone who does not listen to the Christ will be utterly rooted out and completely cut off from among their people.” They will go down with the ship. Yet because Jesus rose from the dead, going down with the ship did not spell their doom. “Father forgive them,” their Savior prayed, even as he went down with them. “They know not what they do.” “My friends,” Peter echoes, “I know that you acted in ignorance.” You did not realize the tragic mistake that you made. And yet the evil you intended, God redeemed for your good. This is the power of resurrection. They committed a hideous deed, a deed in which our sins make us likewise complicit. And yet through that hideous deed, we read, “God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. … You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring, by faith, all nations of the earth shall be blessed.’ God raised up his servant Jesus to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.”
“Therefore repent,” Peters says. It is a remarkable offer. Clearly there remains no sin so severe that grace cannot reach it; no rejection so complete, no death so final, no submersion so deep, no hubris so great, no deed so evil, no grave so dark that resurrection light cannot break through. God give us faith to see it. God give us grace to repent and receive and it.