The reading from the book of Acts this morning is one of the earliest examples of apostolic preaching in the primitive Christian church. It is important to pay attention to its content because it reveals the core beliefs of those who were closest to Jesus: the ones who knew him in his lifetime, who shared in his ministry, who witnessed his death and resurrection.
It is also important to understand the context in which Peter preached. The sermon was delivered in the prosperous Roman seaside city of Caesarea where a centurion named Cornelius was stationed with a detachment of Roman soldiers. The centurion was widely respected in the Jewish nation as a devout, just and generous man. While the record does not disclose what his specific religious affiliation was, it is self-evident that he was a Gentile rather than a Jew. Above all, he was a seeker after truth.
Cornelius was instructed in a vision to send for Simon Peter, the lead disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. About the same time Peter, who was staying in Joppa not far away, had a vision of his own, which prepared him to respond positively to the emissaries sent by Cornelius. When he arrived in Caesarea, Peter found the centurion waiting for him in his house with a group of family and friends. That is the setting in which Peter spoke: a Jewish Christian addressing a small gathering of Gentile seekers. He got to the heart of the matter quickly, concisely, persuasively and, apparently, without an unwarranted assumptions.

In his sermon Peter makes one central proclamation and several subsidiary points.
He sketches the life and ministry of Jesus very briefly, almost in shorthand. And then he says this: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear. . . ” (vv. 39b-40). Peter’s fundamental declaration is that everything about Jesus rests on his resurrection from the dead. His crucifixion ended with a semicolon not a period. The pivotal point in history is that tiny conjunction but.
The resurrection of Jesus turned a band of fearful disciples into a group of confident advocates, who sallied forth from Jerusalem with a radically new message for men and women everywhere. The resurrection is what enabled the Christian church to see the ministry of Jesus as the turning point in the human saga. The resurrection has shaped much of the history of the world ever since. Without the resurrection this Cathedral would not be here today and, of course, we would not be in it. It’s impossible to imagine how different our lives would have been, had Jesus not been raised from the dead.

Woven in and around Peter’s central proclamation are three assertions that are grounded in the reality of the resurrection. These affirmations became the energizing force that fueled the missionary journeys of Peter and Paul and the other first century apostles. They are essential criteria also, I believe, for assessing the nature and relevance of the Christian mission today.

First, Peter declared that the concern of the God of Abraham, Moses and the prophets is universal, not limited to one people or a single nation. “God shows no partiality,” he said. “Jesus Christ … is Lord of all,” he said. This was a profound breakthrough for Peter. Previously, he had seen the Jesus movement of which he was a part as a force for renewal within Judaism alone. But now God had led him to engage the Gentile world through his encounter with the Roman centurion Cornelius together with his friends and relatives. In due course, the change in Peter’s perspective was adopted by the wider Christian community as a whole. It was a landmark shift for the young church, still in the process of getting its bearings.
That breadth of vision about the nature and activity of God is as crucial today as it was in the first century and in every century since.
Surely it lies behind the ability of Catholics and Protestants in Ireland to reach even a tentative and fragile agreement to bury sectarian strife and self-righteousness and to be raised to an entirely new way of living under the God of unity and peace. Our fervent prayer on this Sunday of the Resurrection is that the people of Ireland—both in the North and in the Republic—will respond positively to the resurrection vision now open before them.
Closer to home, the conviction that God is one and cares for everyone without partiality is the foundation on which this Cathedral was built as “A House of Prayer for All People.” While rooted in one particular Christian tradition, Washington National Cathedral is committed to being a place where people of all traditions—and of no tradition—can come to worship the one God, to seek educational and spiritual formation and to work together on ethical and moral issues crucial to the future our common life.
You and I, as individuals, are challenged by the apostolic preaching of St. Peter to keep our vision of God as wide as we can. The one who cares for all calls us to adopt a spirit of inclusiveness that enables our hearts and minds to be open to all sorts and conditions of women and men.

This leads to Peter’s second resurrection assertion. His Caesarea sermon establishes two touchstones for determining who truly belongs to God. “Anyone who fears [God] and does what is right,” Peter proclaims, “is acceptable to [God].” The basic criteria for judging who is or is not a godly person are that individual’s affirmation of faith in God and his or her ethical behavior. For Christians, baptism is the occasion on which the primary faith commitment is made. The living out of the implications of the baptismal covenant is the evidence of right action.
This is a very roomy understanding of what it means to be a Christian. It flies in the face of the heresy trials and sectarian tendencies that have dogged the church from its earliest days until now. It’s a caution to you and me as we blithely paste judgmental labels on those who do not practice their religion the way that we do.

Peter made it clear, in the third place, that those to whom the risen Lord appeared, those who ate and drank with him, are commanded to proclaim the good news that the risen Christ reigns, not only as judge but also as the one who forgives.
Jesus revealed himself in his resurrected body to a relatively small number of people. The eleven and a handful of other disciples had the initial responsibility to make known what they experienced and understood about their new resurrection-ignited faith. They carried out their task very well. The company of believers grew phenomenally during the apostolic age.
You and I are the heirs of their work. We are the ones now that eat and drink with the risen Christ, as we do in this eucharistic feast today. So we bear the same apostolic obligation that our spiritual forbears did. It’s an inescapable part of our calling.
What does this require of us? It begins with our acknowledging that life is a series of dyings and risings. Pain, suffering, betrayal, grief, anxiety, self-denial are some of the multiple dyings that each one of us experience in a lifetime. In the face of these deaths, we Christians turn to the risen Lord to embrace us with love and compassion and to lift us out of one grave after another. It is these little deaths and resurrections that prepare us for that final death, through which Jesus Christ leads us into life eternal. Those of us who truly know the resurrection faith in this way will surely share it with others by what we say and what we do.

Peter spoke with such power to Cornelius and his household that his sermon led directly to the baptism of the entire group. May Peter’s apostolic preaching touch us with equal power so that we may respond by living out the fundamentals of the resurrection faith.