Sermon delivered on Sunday, Easter 6A, May 25, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would prefer to hear the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Acts 17.22-31; Psalm 66.8-20; 1 Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As Christians, at our very core we are resurrection people. As we have emphasized throughout this Easter season, when God raised Jesus from the dead, he not only destroyed the last enemy, death itself, so that those of us who are in Christ know that our destiny is resurrection and life, God also ushered in his promised new creation in which he will ultimately put all that is wrong and hurtful to rights and banish evil forever in his righteous judgment. In other words, God’s good creation matters to God. We matter to God as his image-bearing creatures and this is both Good News and our hope. This should be a game-changer for us! As we have also seen, if God didn’t really raise Jesus from the dead, we have nothing and are without a hope and a future (cf. Jeremiah 29.11), and all our work in Jesus’ name is in vain.
But there must be more to our resurrection hope than making it all about us and our needs and anxieties. The Good News that is in the death and resurrection of Jesus is available to all people, even those who are our enemies, and as God’s people in Jesus we are called to speak the truth of God’s righteous salvation and judgment to a world that is fundamentally hostile to God’s truth but which paradoxically wants desperately to hear it. How else are we to explain the plethora of false, manmade gods? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning. Specifically, I want us to look at how and why our resurrection hope must lead us to be bearers of God’s Good News in Jesus, with its twin messages of salvation and judgment.
Before we look at this more closely, let us acknowledge that proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection is going to be an increasingly difficult thing for us to do because our society is increasingly rejecting the gospel and God’s authority over our lives. Like Paul in Athens, we are confronted with voices who oppose the Good News of Jesus in favor of their own gods or version of religion. We are told, for example, that there are many paths to God, that all religions are essentially equal. We live in an age where folks increasingly reject the idea that there is one standard of truth. Instead, we are told that truth is in the eye of the beholder and it is up to us to establish our own truths. Furthermore, we are told that if there really is a God, he is more like a distant landlord who only occasionally peeks in on his tenants, and then only to harass them for their behavior. Do you hear the echoes of this in Paul’s speech to the Athenians? Increasingly, we as Christians can expect to have our worldview marginalized in favor of something else that is fundamentally hostile to God and his truth contained in Scripture (see examples here, here, and here). And if current trends remain unchecked, we can expect to be actively persecuted for our beliefs because many are increasingly unwilling to tolerate hearing God’s truth. They only want to hear their own and we need to engage in this work with eyes wide open to the very real dangers that exist.
Despite all this, however, we are called to proclaim God’s great love for his stubborn and rebellious human creatures and as both Peter and Paul remind us in their own ways (I’m not sure what Mary’s views are), we should always be prepared to give a defense for the basis of our hope. But we are to do it gently and graciously, and we have a magnificent example of this kind of defense in Paul’s sermon to the Athenians, which we will look at shortly.
Our hope, of course, is in the cross. There God dealt decisively with our sin and the dark powers of evil. As Peter puts it, Jesus suffered for sins once and for all so that he might bring us to God, i.e., so that we might be reconciled to God and finally begin to enjoy real life in ways God originally intended for us. Peter also reminds us that because Jesus is now raised from the dead and ascended into heaven (God’s space) as Lord and ruler of the cosmos, the powers and current rulers have been made subject to him (cf. Col. 2.15). In this dense little passage, Peter reminds us that if the resurrection did not happen, nothing has changed. Jesus is just another failed Messiah and we are lost, alienated, and separated from God forever, cut off from our very Source of life because only in God can there be life. But because the resurrection did happen, we are assured that God’s goodness and life-changing love for us have won the war. The bad guys, while winning some battles, have won only a temporary victory and are ultimately defeated. And our archenemy, death, has finally been conquered forever, thanks be to God!
But there is more. Because Jesus has ascended into heaven and is no longer available to us in his bodily presence, he has promised that even this will not separate his followers from him because he has promised to be with us in the power and person of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us individually and collectively as Jesus’ body, the Church. And because we have been given the gift of the Spirit, we never have to fear being left alone or abandoned by Jesus. Ever. This latter point is massively important to help us speak the truth in love to a hostile world because we need to be convinced that the Spirit will give us wisdom and insight when speaking to the enemies of the cross and to help bolster our faith when we (and it) come under attack.
In sum, we believe that God the Father has come to us as God the Son to suffer and die for us so that we could be healed and reconciled to God and to finally defeat the powers of evil that plague us, especially death. We further believe Jesus is always available to us in the per-son of God the Spirit and that God does this because of his great love for his creation and his desire to rescue us from evil, sin, and death. It’s all about God’s faithfulness to his creation and this emphasis on the game-changing impact of Jesus’ resurrection is woven throughout the NT. Take away the resurrection and we lose the entire NT. It’s that important!!
And we must be very clear on this point. If we do not believe our own story, the story of God’s rescue plan for his fallen and disordered creation through Abraham and his family Israel (Genesis 12.1-3) and ultimately through Jesus the Messiah, there is no way we can be faithful witnesses to Jesus. If we have bought the enemy’s line that Jesus is really no different from other religious leaders or that he is somehow just a great teacher and nothing else, we might as well stay at home on Sundays because that is the surest indication that we really are not resurrection people, i.e., we really don’t believe the hope and promise of resurrection as it is manifested in Jesus. This kind of thinking is also decidedly unbiblical. Notice, for example, how Peter assumes we have a resurrection hope in us for which we must always be ready to give an account!
But if we really are resurrection people and we really do take God’s command to us seriously that we are to love God with our whole being and others as ourselves, why would we want to keep quiet about the Good News that is ours in Jesus? If Jesus really is the only way to the Father and the way, the truth, and the life, how could we possibly keep quiet and claim to love others? Does not compute. But we have generally let our enemies cow-tow us into silence. Why is that?
So how do we proclaim the Good News in the midst of a hostile society? Here we can take our cue from Paul in today’s NT lesson. Notice that Paul did not come to Athens and immediately start to denounce it. While he certainly would have been justified in doing so, he didn’t because he surely knew that people do not generally respond well to denunciation when that is the first thing out of our mouth. And besides, how can we as Christians proclaim God’s love for people if we immediately tell them they are evil, wicked, mean, and nasty, and going to hell if they don’t get with the program? Of course there will be a time for us to talk honestly with people about God’s righteous and holy judgment on his sinful and rebellious creatures. But that time is not when we are first trying to get people to hear us about God’s great love for them and his plan to rescue them in and through Jesus the Messiah. So when we begin to talk to others about God’s love for the world as manifested in Jesus, we must be prepared to meet folks where they are, just like Paul did with the Athenians.
So, for example, if we hear folks advancing the idea that all religions are equal, we should be prepared to challenge that notion by reminding them that no other religion makes the claims the Christian faith makes, that God is indeed the creator of the world and has revealed his plan to rescue it and us from evil, sin, and death by raising Jesus from the dead. We should be prepared to tell others why Jesus’ resurrection is the first-fruits of God’s promised new heavens and earth and why that is the basis for our hope as individuals. No other religion comes close to making such a claim and if the resurrection is an historical fact (here we can be prepared to offer reasons why we think it is), it is decisive proof that our claim to truth is complete and valid.
Or we might hear folks expressing a deist view of God, in which they talk about a distant or uncaring God. We can point out to them, gently of course, that this is not the God of the Bible and we do not worship that god either because that god is a false god of human making! We should be prepared to talk about God’s intimate involvement in the lives of his people, e.g., Ruth, David, Abraham, Noah, Esther, et al., including our own, and about how we know Jesus’ promise to send us the Holy Spirit is true because we see the fruit of the Spirit and signs and wonders in our lives. Think, for example, of the many times you have had prayers answered or how God’s people have helped you when your prayers seemingly went answered. Tell folks about how God has helped and been with you as you have walked through the darkest valley or how you have walked with others in theirs. Remind the person that God usually works in and through his people (and occasionally even through those who are his enemies). This is no deist god and it is certainly not the God of the Bible. This is exactly what Paul told the Athenians!
There are literally hundreds of examples I could cite, but I hope you get the idea. Notice that in these examples, we are meeting folks where they are and we are not beating them down (or up) over their beliefs. We are trying to share the truth, God’s truth, with them and we should always understand there is real power in sharing the gospel with others. We are Spirit-filled people, remember? So that when we share God’s word and truth with others we can expect God to produce some positive results. Our NT lesson ended before we heard the outcome of Paul’s preaching in Athens. Luke reports that when they heard Paul talk about the resurrection, some of the Athenians scoffed. It was too incredible for them to believe. But some wanted to hear more and some decided to become believers like Paul. At that point, Luke tells us, Paul moved on. His work was done. There were more people to reach. The point here is that Paul understood about witnessing for Jesus. It is not our job to get people to believe. That is God’s job. Our job is to invite them into a life-giving and saving relationship with Jesus and if it is going to be any kind of real relationship, people must enter into it freely and without coercion.
And what about those who scoff at us, who try to make us feel like we are out-of-touch, or lunatics, or hate-mongers, etc.? What do we do with those folks and their attempts to demonize us (and sadly we will encounter more of them than we might care to)? We leave them with a blessing. We might politely tell them that we are saddened at their attempts to demonize us and the hard-heartedness and closed-mindedness that is always reflected in such attempts. We might say that we were simply offering real life and real truth so that they too could benefit from a relationship with the living Lord as we have and that is our heart’s desire, not to impose our will or some arbitrary rules on them. This response may further infuriate some and if it does, we need to move on and ask God to bless them and open their mind to his great love for them as manifested in Jesus. This is probably best done silently, but the point is this. Christ came to offer everyone life and healing and forgiveness, not just those who treat us nicely. As Peter reminds us, Christ the righteous died for us the unrighteous. As his baptized image-bearers, we are called to take up our cross and proclaim our Lord, rejoicing in our suffering because we know that like him, God will also vindicate us in our suffering for the Name. Of course we cannot do any of this on our own power. We do it in the power of the Spirit and we do this work together so that we can support and encourage each other when we encounter opposition. When we are able to act thusly toward our enemies, we have further proof that the Lord’s promises are true.
And of course the effectiveness of our witness to Jesus will be ultimately influenced by our lifestyle. If others see us preaching one thing and practicing another, we are telling them in a very powerful way that we don’t really believe our story, that like the world, we are simply trying to fabricate a god of our own making to justify our chosen lifestyle and that we are still hostile to the Spirit who dwells in us to heal and transform us. We don’t try to obey God’s ethical commands to get our ticket punched because it already has been punched in the cross of Christ. We choose to live like Christ because we know that only in him can there be real life as well as a real hope and a future. We believe this because we believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection marked the turning point of history, and for our good. And that of course means we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.