Living Our Easter Hope

Sermon delivered on Easter 2A, Sunday, April 23, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Acts 2.14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1.3-9; John 20.19-31.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last week we looked at the nature of Jesus’ resurrection and all that God has done in and through it. We saw that not only has death been abolished (albeit not completely until the Lord returns), but also that God’s new world was launched in which God’s current good but corrupted creation, along with us, will be fully healed, redeemed, and restored. Today our texts focus on our response to the Resurrection. What’s in it for us and what does God expect from us as resurrection peeps? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

In our gospel lesson, St. John continues to echo the original creation accounts found in Genesis 1-2 as he did when he began chapter 20. As if to rub our noses in it, John again reminds us that this is the evening of the first day of the week, the beginning of God’s new world. Jesus appears suddenly to his frightened and cloistered disciples, even though the doors are locked. He greets them and offers them his peace as if to reassure them that he has forgiven them for abandoning him at his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Like his first disciples, Jesus continues to offer us his peace and assurance that we too are forgiven despite our unfaithfulness and cowardly behavior toward him, and we should take great hope and comfort in that, even as we repent of all such behavior. As St. Peter reminds us in our epistle lesson, God is gracious and merciful!

Then St. John tells us that our Lord showed his disciples his wounds that he bore into eternity, wounds by which we are healed. Let us therefore note a couple things about Jesus’ resurrected body. First and foremost Jesus had a physical body. Not only did he show his disciples his wounds from the cross, but the following week he invited St. Thomas to touch his wounds. You don’t do that with a ghost (cf. Luke 24.36-43). Second, in appearing to his disciples behind locked doors, St. John wants us to see that Jesus’ body is at home in both this world and the one we cannot currently see, heaven. Our mortal bodies simply cannot appear and disappear like that. But again, the point is that we are talking about a body, not a disembodied existence.

Jesus then breathed on his disciples and told them to receive the Holy Spirit, just as he had promised them in the Upper Room the night before he died (John 14.25-27, 15.26-27). In reporting this, St. John again echoes the Genesis narrative. The word John uses for breathe on is the same word used in Genesis when the writer reports that God breathed life into the first humans (Genesis 2.7). Without the breath of God in us, we have no life, even if we are biologic-ally alive. And surely within the context of new creation that St. John is stressing in these pass-ages, one of the things he wants us to see is that this act not only echoes the original creation of humans in God’s image, but also serves as a signpost for our future resurrection, when the Lord raises our mortal bodies from the dead and animates them with his Holy Spirit (think St. Paul’s description of “spiritual bodies” in 1 Corinthians 15.44) so that we will live forever in his presence.

This is the living hope about which St. Peter speaks in our epistle lesson. What God in his great love and mercy for us has done for Jesus in raising him from the dead that first Easter Sunday, God will do for us on the last day when the Lord Jesus returns to consummate his great victory won for us in his death and resurrection. Because we are given new birth, traditionally understood as baptism, we too will share in Jesus’ new life and God’s new world. Until that time, Peter reminds us, our inheritance and promise of new life, resurrected life in God’s new world, is kept safe for us in heaven by God himself where it is immune to corruption and defilement. We cannot currently see God’s new world in full. We only see bits of it breaking in on God’s old world. More about that in a moment. This of course echoes Jesus’ own admonition to us to store up for ourselves heavenly treasures (think resurrected life with all of its ramifications) that do not and cannot wear out or be corrupted instead of storing up earthly treasures that are temporary and fleeting, e.g., wealth, power, etc. (Matthew 6.19-21). And let’s be clear about what St. Peter is saying when he tells us our living hope—our future life in God’s new world when it comes in full—is stored for us in heaven. Peter is not telling us our future is in heaven, only that it is being kept in heaven until the time God chooses to reveal it in full. If I tell you I have a bottle of beer waiting for you in the fridge, it doesn’t mean you have to get in the fridge to drink the beer! St. Peter is talking about inheriting God’s new world, not an eternity of disembodied existence in heaven!

This living hope is based on faith because none of us have seen the risen Christ the way the first apostles and St. Paul saw him. St. Peter tells us we love Jesus even though we have not seen him, and none of us can prove without a shadow of doubt that Jesus actually rose from the dead. This doesn’t mean there isn’t convincing evidence that Jesus really was raised from the dead. It just means that it cannot be proven in a scientific manner that would satisfy all doubters. As St. John reports, St. Thomas refused to believe that Jesus was alive until he touched and saw him, and the Lord accommodated him. But the message is for those of us who have not seen the risen Lord. Believe the testimony of the first apostles and billions of Christians ever since. Jesus is alive, even though we haven’t laid eyes on him. God raised him from the dead and we will share in his risen life at the right time because God is merciful and kind and wants us to live, not die. So our faith in the living hope stored for us in heaven is not based on wishful thinking. It is based on historical fact. God has acted on our behalf in Jesus and will one day act again in a manner that will leave no room for doubt by anyone, not even God’s enemies.

So what’s that mean for us? We’ve already seen what’s in it for us—new life with new bodies in God’s new world, all gifts from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who loves us and gave himself for us in a terrible and costly act, thanks be to God! But our living hope also  demands that we live in the here and now as well as the future. We are to live in the manner that God created us, reflecting God’s goodness, justice, mercy, and love out into the world. We are to live for the world because God loves the world and is for it. This will result in our suffering because as Scripture makes very clear, the world is generally hostile to God and hates those of us who give our lives to Christ. But as St. Peter makes clear, our suffering will bring Jesus additional honor, praise, and glory, and we are to take joy in that. How so, you ask? That sounds cray-cray. Well, thanks for asking and consider as one of many examples the remarkable impact the forgiveness Egyptian Coptic Christians offered their murderers had on Muslims who witnessed it:

Twelve seconds of silence is an awkward eternity on television. Amr Adeeb, perhaps the most prominent talk show host in Egypt, leaned forward as he searched for a response.

“The Copts of Egypt … are made of … steel!” he finally uttered.

Moments earlier, Adeeb was watching a colleague in a simple home in Alexandria speak with the widow of Naseem Faheem, the guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city.

On Palm Sunday, the guard had redirected a suicide bomber through the perimeter metal detector, where the terrorist detonated. Likely the first to die in the blast, Faheem saved the lives of dozens inside the church.

“I’m not angry at the one who did this,” said his wife, children by her side. “I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’

“‘You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.’”

Stunned, Adeeb stammered about Copts bearing atrocities over hundreds of years, but couldn’t escape the central scandal.

“How great is this forgiveness you have!” his voice cracked. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”

Millions marveled with him across the airwaves of Egypt (Christianity Today Online, April 20, 2017).

This is the power of crucified love we are called to embody in our suffering. We do so because we have a living hope. Who knows how God will use this to advance his kingdom on earth as in heaven? Our faith, however, knows God will use the Copts’ suffering (and ours) for good, precisely because God used Jesus’ suffering for good and we are united with him in baptism.

Not only that, because we live in a fallen world with mortal bodies, we will suffer from other things as well: health issues, broken relationships, loneliness, and depression to name just a few. Here St. Peter reminds us our suffering is temporary and we have a real future ahead of us, giving us reason to rejoice, despite our suffering. This isn’t always easy to believe when we are suffering. If you have ever been in serious pain, it is anything but fleeting and we have to train our minds and emotions to remind ourselves of our living hope that is in the crucified and risen Jesus. This takes work and intentionality and mutual support. We must comfort each other. We must remind each other in the midst of our suffering that it isn’t the end game, that God’s new world, which will be free of suffering and sorrow and death, will last a lot longer than our mortal days. We must remind ourselves and each other that on the cross of Jesus, God has won the victory over the world (the people and systems hostile to Jesus), the flesh (our own fallen nature that left to itself will lead us to ruin), and the devil (the ruler of this world who has usurped it from God, its rightful owner), and our future is guaranteed because Jesus’ future was guaranteed when God raised him from the dead.

And as Jesus commanded his disciples when he breathed the Holy Spirit into them, we are to live as his people, offering God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness to others, as well as retaining their sins, i.e., we are to warn others that there are deadly and mortal consequences in rejecting Jesus as God’s Messiah and Son. We tend to shrink from this latter command in today’s culture because doing so is interpreted by many as being “unloving.” What exactly is unloving in telling others that their only hope and future is in Jesus and that they risk permanent death in rejecting him hasn’t been fully explained (at least to me) in a way that is comprehensible.

We do none of this on our own power, of course, because left to our own devices we are as hostile to God and his Christ as the next person. Jesus commands us to do this in the power of the Spirit who lives in us and heals us to become real human beings. Even then things are not always straightforward as St. John reminds us. Jesus came to his disciples that evening on the first day of the week and offered them peace and forgiveness. So why were they huddled behind locked doors the following week? Why were they out fishing a few weeks later instead of out making disciples and forgiving and retaining sins as our Lord commanded them to do? All this suggests that things weren’t (and aren’t) always so straightforward when it comes to living out our living hope and embodying our Lord’s love and mercy and forgiveness to others.

But just because things aren’t always neat and tidy in our relationship with the Lord and our understanding of how God works doesn’t mean we tuck tail and run and hide. This is where our faith comes into play. We have the testimony of Scripture. We have the testimony of the apostles and of Christ’s Church throughout time and across cultures. We have the testimony of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. We have the testimony of our own lives when we are faithful to the Lord and the lives of others when they are faithful to the Lord. St. Augustine’s is a living testimony to the truth of our risen Christ and of St. Peter in today’s epistle lesson! It doesn’t mean our hurts and heartaches and sorrows and suffering magically disappear. It means we persevere as people with hope. (You all know what this looks like because you’ve listened to Fathers Sang, Bowser, and Gatwood preach. You persevere and hope their sermons will end quickly.) It means that our faithfulness in the face of these trials demonstrates that we do love the Lord. Not perfectly to be sure, but then flawless perfection never has been a demand placed on us. God knows our weaknesses and has done something about it in the death and resurrection of Jesus and in sending us the Holy Spirit to make the risen Lord available to us. The work and our lives aren’t always easy. Sometimes it is downright chaotic. But we have a future and a real hope. We live and breathe and struggle and suffer and grieve as people who have this hope because we don’t worship some dead guy who cannot help us. We worship the crucified and risen Lord who is faithful to us and who will never abandon us. Ever. And when we doubt this, we must always return to our story and its witnesses, both known and unknown to us, confident that our story is true, and because it is true we have Good News to offer not only to others but to ourselves, now and for all eternity. This is how we are to live out our Easter hope, my beloved. Let us do so with joy and thanksgiving. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.