The Cross and the Resurrection: Living Out Our Easter Hope

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Easter 2B, April 8, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Acts 4.32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1.1-2.2; John 20.19-31.

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

Last Sunday we looked at the integral relationship between Jesus’ death and resurrection. We saw that without the Resurrection, Jesus was just another failed Messiah and that he had not really died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. In other words, nothing was accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross. Our sins remain unforgiven and we remain enslaved by its power forever, which means death is our only future. The cross needs the Resurrection and the Resurrection needs the cross. We also focused on the nature of resurrection as a new bodily existence that is impervious to death. It is not a teaching about life after death or going to heaven or existing in some kind of disembodied state for all eternity. Most of what I said about the Resurrection, especially its attendant hope, is future oriented, i.e., we looked at what our future is in God’s new creation, the new heavens and earth. But there’s more to the Resurrection than that because as St. John makes clear in his account of the Resurrection we read both last week and this, the Resurrection signaled the beginning of God’s new world breaking in on God’s current good but sin-corrupted and evil-infested world. This is often hard for us to see, given that Evil and the dark powers still seem to be having a field day with us and the created order. Yet St. John insists that until the new creation arrives in full, we are called to live as faithful people in God’s good but broken world because we are Easter people who have a resurrection hope: the sure and certain expectation of things to come based on what God has already done for us in the past. So how do we do that? Last week, I suggested that Father Gatwood take up this topic. But then I had my one allotted bright idea for the year and decided I should follow up on last weeks’ sermon myself. Being the lazybones he is, Father Gatwood graciously allowed me to swap preaching dates with him so I could do just that.

Before we look at ways we can live as Easter people, let us keep in mind (and proclaim boldly) that as we saw last week, resurrection is not a concept, it is a person. Jesus, and only Jesus, is the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in him will live, even after dying. And everyone who lives in Jesus, i.e., who has a living relationship with him, and believes and trusts his promises, will never ever die (John 11.25-26). And what specifically is our resurrection hope based on what God has already done for us in Jesus? Hear St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 because he articulates it better than anyone else.

But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory/O death, where is your victory?/O death, where is your sting?” For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15.51-57).

Before I read you St. Paul’s conclusion to what he has just written, what would you expect him to say to us, i.e., what’s the punchline? That we have a great and eternal party awaiting us? That we should thank God for pointing us to the abolition of death when God raised his Son? That living in God’s new world will be more wonderful than we can ever imagine? All of that is true, of course, and we should indeed thank God for our future hope as Jesus’ people, even as we anticipate being part of the ultimate party of parties. But that is not how St. Paul concludes his description of our resurrection hope. Here is what he says: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless” (1 Corinthians 15.58, NLT). 

Did you catch that? St. Paul is telling us in no uncertain terms that our future hope is vital to how we live in God’s created order with all of its corruption and Evil-infestation, not to mention  the darkness of residual sin and brokenness each of us brings to the table. You see, St. Paul understood how difficult it is for us to live faithfully in a world that gives every appearance of being impervious to the death and resurrection of Jesus. So he understood we need to have a real hope, a resurrection hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come based on what God has already done for us—to sustain us as we live out our faith. This is never easy because as Jesus himself told his disciples, as the world hates him (which it does), so it will hate us his followers (John 15.18-20). And since none of us likes or wants to be hated, we need a hope strong enough to sustain us when we encounter the world’s hostility. Remember your resurrection hope and stay the course, St. Paul tells us. The new creation is a done deal, even though it is not readily apparent to most, us included at times. Stay the course because appearances can be deceiving. When God reconciled us to himself by defeating the dark powers on the cross and raising Jesus from the dead, God demonstrated his power to heal and to overcome the worst that the darkness can afflict on us and God’s created order. One day we will live in that reality. Until then, we must live it by faith in the power of God, the God who raises the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist (Romans 4.17b).

Jesus tells us essentially the same thing in our gospel lesson. For the second time in this chapter (the first being last week), St. John, pointing us back to the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2, reminds us again that Jesus appeared to his disciples on the first day of the week, the eighth day, the day of new creation, the day following Jesus’ completed work on the cross and his day of rest in the tomb. Here again we see the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body, along with our own future bodies. Jesus suddenly appeared to his frightened disciples hiding behind locked doors. Our Lord showed them his hands and his side, and the following week invited St. Thomas to touch his wounds. No disembodied spirit or ghost here, kids. 

Then our Lord breathed on his disciples, evoking memories of how God breathed life into his image-bearing creatures in Genesis, and giving them the Holy Spirit so that Jesus could remain with them (and us) always, even after he had ascended back to the Father (and hence out of our sight) to rule over the present created order as its Lord and King. You’ve got work to do in my name, our Lord tells us. But you will never have to live out your faith alone because I am present with you in the power of the Spirit who lives in your mortal bodies. Because I am alive forever, your future is secure and I am calling you to do my healing and Kingdom work on my behalf. You are to announce the Good News of God’s love shown most notably in my death and resurrection and warn folks what will happen if they are foolish enough to reject the gift my Father and I offer them (and you). Don’t you be fools along with those who hate me and refuse my Father’s gift offered to all freely and at great cost to my Father and me.

With all this in mind, we are now ready to consider what being Easter people who live in the present created order looks like. I do not offer you an exhaustive list of ways we might live out our Easter faith. Rather, I offer you some suggestions that hopefully the Spirit will use to help you jumpstart your own reflections and thinking on this essential topic for us who profess to be Christians. 

The first distinct trait of Easter people is that we are wise enough and humble enough to accept the gift of being forgiven our sins that was accomplished on the cross. Our acceptance of this gift, coupled with our resurrection hope, should produce in us an unmistakable joy that is not contingent on our current life situations. More about that in a moment. In other words, it is not a joy that depends on the happenstances of this world for its energy. Rather, its energy is derived from God’s gracious love for us demonstrated supremely on the cross so that we know we are forgiven and that Sin’s power over us is broken forever, even though we are not yet sin-free. Despite the residual darkness that remains in us, we are equipped to stand in God’s presence forever, starting right now, all because of our Savior’s blood shed for us. 

Yet it is curious how many of us refuse to accept God’s gift of forgiveness won in Christ and offered to everyone freely. Many of us like to wallow in our past sins, choosing in our prideful arrogance (usually masquerading as pious humility) to believe our sins are greater than God’s love and mercy for us. Why do we continue to think and act as if our past sins are still being counted against us when in fact they have already been dealt with once and for all on the cross? To think and act in this way is to effectively retain our sins and to thumb our nose at God’s grace, mercy, and love for us, not to mention having to deal with the anxiety and joylessness that retaining our own sins produces. Even if we believe in the resurrection of the body, if we retain our sins, we will never be Easter people in any meaningful sense of the term. At best, we are without hope and can only try to manage our own anxiety over being unforgiven and unreconciled with God. As our own St. Augustine observed in one of his sermons, “Those who despair of God’s merciful kindness inwardly suffocate themselves and make it impossible for the Holy Spirit to remain in them” (352.8). And without the Holy Spirit, it is impossible to have a relationship with Christ, the only source of real life. Does your Easter faith lead you to truly forgive your own sins just as God in Christ has forgiven you?

As forgiven people, then, we are quick to forgive others, costly as that is to us, and to seek to be reconciled with those who do us wrong, always with the understanding that it takes two to make real reconciliation happen in any relationship. This will entail that we suffer for our Lord because the enemies of Christ (and sadly sometimes his friends) will not offer us forgiveness or mercy. Yet how many Christians take to social media and other venues to rail against our enemies? To be sure, if we love people, we must warn them about the consequences of human pride and hardheartedness that make us hostile toward God and his Christ. But that is different from getting into shouting matches with enemies of the cross and condemning them as so many Christians today seem to want to do. Doing so effectively denies what God accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection. My beloved, let us resolve to love others as Christ loved us and when we fail, as St. John tells us, let us approach the throne of grace and ask for forgiveness, confident it will be granted to us because of our Lord’s cross. Our ability to love and forgive, to show mercy where none is deserved, is one of the most powerful signs of the in-breaking of God’s new world on the old. It is also one of the most costly.

Third, living as Easter people means we resolve to live as a family, warts and all. In other words, we resolve to live out our Easter faith and hope together. This was the point of our NT lesson, not that the first Christians were really Marxist wannabes. It means we are willing to get in the trenches with those in our parish family, to rejoice with them and weep with them and everything in between. It means we are quick to forgive and slow to anger when our fellow family members don’t treat us fairly or are ungracious to us instead of taking our toys and leaving. It means we speak the truth in love to family members, hard as that is to do sometimes, always with their welfare and best interest in mind, not our bruised ego. How we settle our disagreements—and let’s be clear about this, there will always be disagreements among us because that is the nature of life; just ask St. Barnabas and St. Paul who disagreed so severely that they never worked together again, but whose disagreement God used to spread the gospel even further (Acts 15.36-41)—is a key indicator of the nature of our resurrection hope and faith. Our Easter faith demands that we dare love each other and forgive each other, surrendering our own prideful needs for the sake of the other. Without a real hope in the future, not to mention the power of the Spirit who lives in us, it is impossible for us to do any of this. Our ability to live together as a parish family, however imperfectly, is another powerful sign of God’s new creation breaking in on the created order. I think overall we do that pretty well as a parish family.

Last, we as Easter people must live and act as people who are part of God’s eternal party, even in the midst of darkness and desolation. I am not talking about being glib in the face of Evil. I am talking about having a hope and joy that are impervious to it. This gets to the heart of what St. Paul told us in his first letter to the Corinthians. We suffer setbacks and defeats. We face personal obstacles, from health issues to alienation to poverty to all kinds of injustice in our lives. Of course we will weep when we are afflicted. But we will weep as people who have hope. For example, we will bury our dead with the hope of resurrection in mind and its accompanying joy. We will face health issues with a resurrection hope, always mindful that our mortal bodies must be changed into immortal ones. Or consider this story about Bob B’s mother when she was a child. It is a powerful example of living as an Easter person and I share it with his permission. Bob’s mom lived in a household ravaged by their father’s alcohol abuse. During one particularly bad evening, Mary Lou did the most remarkable thing. In the midst of the darkness of being left alone in the house with little to eat, Bob’s mom, at the tender age of 11, lit a few candles, turned off the lights, set the table for her sisters and her, and then cut an orange into four slices—a piece for each sister—sprinkling them with sugar and offering up a feast of light and love that could only come from a resurrection hope, knowingly or otherwise, a tangible sign of Christ’s love in their otherwise desolate lives. It is such a remarkable story that Bob’s aunt still revels in telling it. This poignant story reminds us that our resurrection hope gives us a fresh and new perspective, and is the best antidote to prevent us from being overwhelmed by all the darkness that confronts us in the living of our days. Like Bob’s mom, we remember that nothing we do on the Lord’s behalf is ever in vain because God has overcome the darkness that afflicts us and promises us eternal life in the death and resurrection of Jesus, thanks be to God!

Certainly, being the flawed characters we are, we will need help in remembering this. This is why having a family to walk with us and remind us of our hope is so critical to our well-being. Every one of us needs to be reminded from time to time (some more than others), that we are forgiven and redeemed sinners who have immediate access to our risen Savior in the power of the Spirit, through prayer, in our reading of the Scriptures, through each other, and in the eucharist. And every one of us needs to be reminded that as we walk through life’s darkest valleys, our Lord is with us in any and every circumstance. God has a proven track record with God’s people. Therefore we must constantly remember. For God’s people Israel, the go-to remembrance is the Exodus, where God rescued God’s people from their slavery in Egypt. For Christians, our go-to moment to remember is Jesus’ death and resurrection, where God rescued us forever from our slavery to Sin and Death and promised to heal his good but disordered creation in the process. As Easter people who have a joy that does not have its origin in the present created order, we are to remind each other and encourage each other, not to mention those in the world around us, to remember what God has done for us in Christ and then get to work in a thousand small and great ways to bring the love and mercy of God to bear on God’s world. We do this without losing hope because we know our future is secured, unlikely as it appears at times. We have heard our Lord’s cry of dereliction on the cross and seen his empty tomb. We have been given the Holy Spirit to live in us to make Christ’s presence known to us, and we have been given each other to provide the much-needed human touch, itself a glorious foretaste of the resurrection. So we get to work on the Lord’s behalf, remembering always that God’s power demonstrated most spectacularly in the Resurrection ensures that our work on Christ’s behalf is never, ever in vain. Join the biggest and best party of all (life in the new creation) and ask others to join you. Let us never be bashful or afraid of sharing this Good News with anyone, now and for all eternity. Alleluia! Christos Anesti! 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.