Sermon delivered on the third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2010.
Lectionary texts: Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the third Sunday of Easter. Over the past two weeks, we have been looking at why the Resurrection of Christ changes everything for us as his disciples. Last week we looked at why it was necessary for Jesus to show his resurrected body to the apostles and others. We saw that in Jesus’ resurrection, God confirmed that his promises to us are trustworthy and true, even when it is sometimes not obvious or evident in this broken world of God’s.
Today I want to continue to look at the theme of why the Resurrection changes everything for us, specifically by looking at how Jesus’ resurrection makes God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy offered to all on the cross personally real for each of us on an individual basis. He does this, of course, on the basis of faith and through the relationship he establishes with us because of our faith.
In today’s Psalm, the psalmist remembers how he deluded himself into thinking that he was in charge and able to handle anything that came his way. Then catastrophic illness struck and he was reminded just how delusional his thoughts of independence were as he cried out in desperation for God to help him.
In our lesson from Acts today, we see a proud and self-righteous Paul breathing out threats and murder against Christ’s Body, the Church. Reflecting back on that time in his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes that he had every reason to put confidence in himself. He was a man’s man and Hebrew’s Hebrew. He was zealous for achieving a legalistic righteousness and persecuting the Church (Philippians 3:4-6). From this it is not hard to believe that Paul saw himself as helping God preserve the Jewish faith by getting rid of these fools who claimed to follow an even bigger fool, one Jesus of Nazareth, who had claimed to be Messiah but who had managed to get himself crucified as a common criminal. Unwittingly, Paul was fulfilling what Jesus had predicted would happen to his followers when he told them in the Upper Room on the night before he was crucified that there would be those who would persecute them because they believed that in doing so they were offering worship to God (John 16:2). But then on his way to Damascus, Paul is struck down in a blinding vision of the Lord Jesus. He is left blind and essentially helpless for three days as he prays and fasts. Suddenly his proud self-sufficiency is exposed for what it is—delusional.
Next, we turn our attention to the Upper Room, just hours before the arrest of our Lord in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus has just told his disciples that one of them would betray him and the rest would desert him in the coming hours. Peter takes issue with our Lord, proudly boasting that not only would he not desert his Lord but would gladly go to prison and die for him (Luke 22:33). Then hours later we see this same man weeping bitterly because when he feared for his own safety, he denied the Lord he claimed to love three times, just as Jesus had predicted at table (Luke 22:61-62).
In each of these stories we see the pride and foolish self-confidence of humans exposed for what they are—a delusion and a lie. And these stories resonate with us because they are our stories, they are us. If we have lived long enough, each one of us has suffered from self-righteous pride and bravado. In times of prosperity we have allowed ourselves to be fooled into thinking we really do have it all together. We pat ourselves on the back for our skill and ingenuity. And then like the people in these stories, disaster strikes and we realize that we do not even have control over our ability to act and think uprightly, let alone control over life as it unfolds. Like the psalmist, we know what it is like to cry out to God in desperation. Like Paul, we know what it is like to feel a proud self-righteousness, and like Peter, we know what it is like to lose our moral courage and deny the Lord we profess to love. Even though these stories resonate with us, we don’t like to think about these things because they are too painful and they expose us for what we are—broken and fallible beings out of control and in desperate need of God’s healing.
But it is precisely at these most desperate moments that we are ready to hear and receive the Good News of Jesus Christ because in the Gospel we are offered forgiveness and healing through the blood of Christ. Today’s stories are evidence of the great love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness of God offered to us, sometimes in spite of ourselves as was the case with Paul. As we have just seen, Paul was a proud and self-righteous bean counter by his own description. I do not doubt for a minute that before he met Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul thought he was serving God by persecuting the Church. He could not conceive of a crucified Messiah, let alone a Risen One, because this kind of thinking was entirely out of the box for any self-respecting Jew (or anyone else for that matter—see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 1).
But then he met the Risen Christ on that road to Damascus—not the crucified man from Nazareth, but the glorious Risen Christ that we get a glimpse of in the eschatological vision contained in today’s Epistle lesson from Revelation—and everything changed for Paul. Notice carefully the dynamics of Paul’s encounter with Jesus. Our Lord asks him first why he is persecuting him. The implication is clear. In persecuting Christ’s Church, Paul was persecuting Jesus himself. Here Paul gets his first lesson on what it means to be “in Christ” (see, e.g., Romans 8:1; 12:5). Paul will have this lesson reinforced to him in a very tangible way when Ananias lays hands on him and Christ restores Paul’s vision through Ananias. Jesus lives in and among his Body, the Church.
Second, Paul’s pride is exposed for what it is when he is left blinded by his encounter with Jesus. It is hard to be zealous to persecute someone if you have to rely on others to help you see your target. For three days Paul fasted and prayed. He was surely reevaluating his relationship with God and learning what would constitute a proper relationship with this Christ who had claimed him. Luke tells us that Paul was learning how to be obedient, and how to rely on Christ’s strength as he prepared to face persecution and suffering for the sake of his Name. We know from Paul’s letters that learning how to trust and obey Christ was an ongoing process, especially when Paul writes to the Corinthians about how Christ refused to remove the thorn in Paul’s flesh so that Christ’s grace might be made stronger in Paul (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Apparently even for one like Paul, who enjoyed a direct encounter with the Risen Christ, the lesson of obedience was a hard one to learn. But once he started to learn to obey Christ and rely on his power, it made Paul realize the utter futility of self-reliance and pride (see, e.g., Philippians 3:7-11). As he wrote to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again; Rejoice!” and “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:4,13).
Likewise for us. It is the consistent biblical witness that there is real power in obeying Christ. Paul’s great ministry stands as a gigantic witness to this fact, but so does the story of Ananias. We do not hear of Ananias again, but because he obeyed Christ’s command to go and lay hands on Paul—despite his misgivings about doing so—Ananias was given the power to heal and his name forever remembered as having brought glory to Christ by obeying his command. Paul, like Ananias, found that he had great power, the Power of Christ, to love and serve others because Paul started to learn humility and obedience as a result of his encounter with the Risen Lord. Are you learning those lessons from Christ as you continue in your faith journey with him?
In Peter’s case, we see a different kind of encounter than we did in Paul’s case. This is probably because Peter needed a different medicine to be healed. But like Paul, Peter’s encounters with the Risen Lord changed everything for him. As we have seen, Peter also had an ego problem that caused him to shoot off his mouth and act impulsively. Peter’s pride and confidence in himself led him to boast that he would never abandon Jesus, let alone deny him. But when push came to shove, when Peter had a chance to demonstrate his love for Christ, he lost his courage and his will.
The story in today’s Gospel reading raises some questions for us. John previously reports that Peter had seen the Risen Christ at least twice before today’s account. You recall that in last week’s lesson, Jesus appeared to the disciples when they were hiding behind locked doors. They saw Christ’s resurrection body and got a preview of coming attractions of their own future glory with him. Jesus also commissioned them for mission work, sending them out in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-22). Why then do we see Peter and some of the other disciples back at the Sea of Galilee fishing? John does not tell us and we must be careful in our speculation. But one reasonable explanation is that Peter had lost his false confidence, a good thing, but something that also perhaps caused him to lose all confidence in his ability to fulfill Jesus’ call to him. This is not healthy because our Lord equips us with gifts and expects us to use them in his service. Because he works through us and helps us use our gifts in the process, we must therefore have confidence that he will equip us to use our gifts. Consequently we must never lose all confidence in our ability to fulfill Jesus’ call to us. If this is the case for Peter, it is another subtle indication that it was still all about him and not Jesus. Furthermore, perhaps Peter had not yet really accepted that our Lord had forgiven him (or had been presented with the opportunity for Jesus to forgive him) for his threefold denial after his arrest. Whatever the reason for Peter’s return to fishing, our Lord appears to him and restores him and we must not lose sight of this point amidst speculations about Peter’s motives.
Once again, it is helpful for us to look carefully at the dynamics of this story. The first two times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, the Greek word John uses for love is agapao, which denotes the sacrificial self-giving love of Jesus when he died for sinful humans. The word for love John uses to describe Peter’s response is phileo, which denotes an affinity, friendship or affection. In using these verbs, it is as if John is telling us that Jesus is asking Peter if he is willing to love him at all costs, something that Peter had been unable to do on the night of Jesus’ arrest, but which he must do in the future as Jesus reminds him later in the passage. Each time Peter is unwilling to answer yes, perhaps because he knew what his heart was capable of doing. After the third time Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, Peter is grieved and responds that Jesus knows all things.
In making Peter face his inability to overcome the darkness of his heart despite his great affection for Jesus, our Lord is helping Peter see that he is utterly dependent on Jesus’ power, not his own. He is also setting up the necessary conditions for reconciliation and restoration by making Peter confront the darkness of his soul that caused the alienation in the first place. It was not fun for Peter, but it was necessary for him to learn the conditions for having a real relationship with Jesus. We must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. As with Paul, in restoring Peter by forgiving him, Jesus demonstrated his great love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness in a very personal way, the same love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness that he showed all of humanity when he died for us on the cross.
So what does all of this mean for us? First, the stories of Paul and Peter remind us that no one is beyond forgiveness, unless of course, we do not think we need God’s forgiveness or refuse to accept it. In Paul’s case, he was separated from Christ by his sinful pride which led him to persecute Christ’s Church and vote to have Christians put to death (Acts 26:10). Yet the Risen Lord claimed this proud and self-righteous man and made him a great Apostle and servant.
Likewise, Peter had boasted he would never desert his Lord but in a desperate moment when his courage failed him, he denied even knowing Jesus. Yet Peter found forgiveness in his encounter with the Risen Christ because Jesus loved him enough to heal him. Luke tells us elsewhere there was a time when people would bring their sick into the streets so that Peter’s shadow might fall on them as he passed by (Acts 5:15). That’s real power. Likewise with us. Perhaps not in as dramatic a fashion but nevertheless, likewise with us. It does not matter who we are or what we have done or not done. If we are willing to humble ourselves, acknowledge our own inability to save ourselves, and seek to follow Christ in all that we do, we too can enjoy a relationship with the One who loves us and gave himself for us because he is alive and wants to be our Leader, Guide, and Savior.
If you have not already done so and are ready to commit yourself to Christ in this manner, like Peter and Paul, you will find power to live and overcome anything life can throw at you because you will have Christ’s power working in you and he will remind you that real life is about having a relationship with the Living God. Consequently your life will be oriented around developing that kind of relationship with Christ and seeking to obey his will for your life. Do your daily activities reflect that kind of desire and commitment?
Second, our lessons this morning remind us to let God love us through his people, the Church. Christ used Ananias to restore Paul and reminded Paul that when he persecuted the Church, he was persecuting Jesus himself. Our Lord knows we are flesh and blood creatures who need a human touch as well as a spiritual relationship with him and he blesses us with that in the fellowship of believers. Do you have the kind of relationship with believers that will allow God to love you and strengthen you in times of adversity through his people?
Conversely, the story of Paul’s conversion reminds us to treat each other with respect. When we get mean spirited with each other and bicker with each other as a church, we are really being mean spirited and bickering to Christ. This should remind us of who we are—Christ’s Body, the Church—and help us love each other, to be patient and tender hearted toward each other, and to work hard to build each other up other because in doing so, we are demonstrating our love for Christ himself. And if we are hesitant to try because we know our own hearts, we must also remember that we have Christ’s very Presence in us to help us be the people he calls us to be.
If you are one who desperately seeks forgiveness or healing or believes that you are beyond forgiveness, take heart and take great hope. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ makes his love and forgiveness available to each of us in a very real and personal manner. Jesus died a terrible death on the cross to make our healing and reconciliation with God and each other possible. It does not matter who we are or what we have done (or not done). Christ is alive and wants each of us to enjoy the love and forgiveness he offers to all humankind through his blood shed on the cross. He invites each of us into a proper relationship with him, one in which we acknowledge that he is God and we are not, one in which we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. When we are willing to do that, we can have confidence that he will be with us in any and every circumstance to help us persevere and even transcend all that life can throw our way. Why do we have this confidence? Because we have the testimony of Scripture and of countless Christians who have found power by trusting in Christ and Christ alone.
And because he lives, we can have confidence that we too will live and that he will transform us so that we can be like him and live with him now and forever. Right now we must live by faith in our mortal bodies and in a broken and fallen world. But the promise of the Resurrection reminds us that one day God will recreate and restore all that is wrong with his good albeit fallen creation. He will give us new resurrection bodies fitted to live in his New Creation and best of all we will get to live directly in his Presence forever. Until that glorious day comes, the Resurrection reminds us that we have the Power of Christ in us to help us in our weaknesses and struggles. This doesn’t mean we will have it easy or that life’s problems magically disappear. Rather, it means that Jesus will help us prevail because he lives in us and by his death and resurrection has overcome the world (John 16:33). So we have power to live joyfully and in peace, even in the midst of brokenness and chaos. Paul learned that. Peter learned that. Ananias learned that. Countless other Christians over time and across cultures have learned that. So can we if we will learn to trust him with our whole being. If you are willing to do this, you will find that you really do have good news, folks, now and for all eternity. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.