O God, who by the life and death and rising again of your dear Son has consecrated for us a new and living way into the holiest of all: cleanse our minds, we ask you, by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that drawing near to you with a pure heart and conscience undefiled, we may receive these gifts without sin and worthily magnify your holy name. Amen.
Sermon delivered on the sixth Sunday of Easter, May 9, 2010, at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. If you would like to hear the audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today is the sixth Sunday of Easter and we are nearing the end of the Easter season. During this Easter season, we have been looking at why the Resurrection of Christ changes everything for us as his disciples. Today I want to continue looking at this theme by reminding us what is our present and future hope as Christians.
I have personally benefited from this hope that is ours in Christ. This past Friday would have been my mom’s birthday and today, of course, is Mothers’ Day. And while I miss my mom, I am no longer sad that she is gone. Because mom died in the Lord, I know she is in the Lord’s Presence now and is in a far better condition than before she died. This appropriation of our Christian hope, which has become to me more than lip-service during this Easter season, is of tremendous comfort and joy to me. Consequently, I am convinced it can be a tremendous comfort and joy to you, and that is why I want to spend some time looking at it again this morning.
In this morning’s lesson from Acts, the apostle Paul has a vision in which he sees and hears a man from Macedonia pleading with him to “come over and help us.” We, of course, can relate to the man in Paul’s vision, can’t we? In just this past week and a half we have seen a failed attempt to blow up innocent people in New York, the meltdown of yet another famous athlete, a return to volatility and fear in the stock market with its attendant ability to wreak havoc on our savings and retirement funds, and another foiled attempt by high school students who were planning to kill their fellow students and teachers. When we combine this woeful news with our own personal troubles and sorrows, we, like the man from Macedonia, want to cry out to someone to “come and help us.” Unfortunately, though, we typically look for help in the wrong places or people. We try to rely on ourselves or we reach out to family and friends and ask them to help us fix our problems. Sometimes we seek help through financial security. Yet if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that these forms of “help” are ultimately unsatisfactory.
Where is God’s Grace?
But it is to the glory of God and his Gospel that we do have real help available to us. The help that God provides will not make us immune from trouble or sorrow but it will help us persevere and even live with joy and purpose in the midst of all that can go wrong in this life. What is this help? It is twofold. First, it is our resurrection hope, the promise of a glorious future made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the promise of uninterrupted life (John 11:25-26), beginning right here and now, and we dare not let our need for instant gratification, our own fallen nature, the Evil One, or anything else rob us of our hope that is in Christ.
We see this hope foreshadowed in today’s Psalm and described in vivid language in our Epistle lesson from Revelation. In it, John describes the New Jerusalem, apocalyptic language that attempts to describe the indescribable. The New Jerusalem, of course, is part of the New Creation that will be revealed to everyone at Christ’s Second Coming. It will be both a time of judgment and final redemption.
First we notice that in the New Creation there will not be a need for either sun or moon because we will get to live directly in the light of God’s glory and Christ the Lamb will be our lamp. This is an absolutely astounding statement because in the OT, we are told that nobody can see God’s face and live. Yet in God’s New Creation we are told that to see God’s face is to live. John is reminding us here that we will get to enjoy life in God’s direct presence because of his sheer love and grace for us manifested in the cross of Jesus Christ. Without the cross, we have no hope. With the cross and because of the resurrection, we have every reason to hope for a bright future because God has overcome for us the problem of sin and the alienation it causes. The blood of the Lamb has made us holy and fit to live in God’s direct Presence. Does that prospect excite you and fill you with hope? How you answer that question will give you keen insight into the state and nature of our faith and relationship with God.
Next, we notice that those who live in the New Jerusalem will no longer be subject to any kind of evil because only those in the Lamb’s book of life will be able to live there. This is a subtle warning to us that we will not have a chance to repent once we die. At our death, our days of grace will have ended forever and we must walk down the path we have chosen, for good or for ill. If we are going to choose life, we are going to have to choose it here and now. How do we do that? By believing in Jesus Christ and obeying him. As Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel lesson, those who love him must do more than pay lip-service to him. We must follow his words and commands for us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. That, of course, is a very difficult thing for us to do because we are weighed down by our body of sin. But we have his cross to cover our sins and as John reminds us, if we persevere in faith and obedience, the rewards will be unimaginably wonderful because our God is unimaginably wonderful.
John continues his description of the New Creation by telling us there will be permanent healing for all that has plagued us in this life, whether it be physical, psychological, or emotional. Whatever we have to struggle with here in this life will be healed. From this we can reasonably conclude that there will be no more sickness, decay, infirmity, fear, loneliness, depression, anxiety, addiction, or death. And because John has told us that there will be no evil allowed in the New Jerusalem, we will not have to fear earthquakes or tornadoes or fires or any other kind of natural catastrophe in God’s New Creation.
Furthermore, John reminds us that the curse that was imposed on humans and God’s creation after the Fall will be lifted forever. There will be nothing but life, wholeness, happiness, and joy in the New Creation. As we think about this, we remember that on the cross, Christ became a curse for us so that we could be redeemed by his blood (Galatians 3:13) and we have real hope as we thank God for his wondrous gift to us in Jesus Christ.
As we reflect further on John’s description of the New Jerusalem, including his description of the tree of life, we cannot help but think of its similarity with the Garden of Eden before the Fall. In John’s vision of the New Creation, history has come full circle so to speak. John seems to be telling us that in the New Creation, we who are redeemed by the blood of Christ will get to enjoy life as God originally intended and created it to be. Our final destiny is not to live forever in some disembodied state in heaven. That is only a stop along the way. No, our final destiny is to live in God’s New Creation with our new resurrection bodies, the kind that our Lord Jesus has. There will be continuity in the New Creation, but there will also be a radical discontinuity in which we will never again have to deal with sorrow, suffering, infirmity, or death that afflict us in our mortal life. In this vision of the New Creation, John is reminding us that God values creation and his creatures. He does not intend to destroy his creation but to renew it and redeem his children. This is our hope and our destiny as Christians. Does this fire your imagination and excite you? Does this give you real hope? Again, how you answer these questions will give you keen insight into the state and nature of your faith and relationship with God.
“That’s all well and good,” you may say, “but I need help right here and now because I am up to my eyeballs in alligators.” Fair enough. I am glad you raise this issue because it leads us to the second part of our resurrection hope. God delivers and because God knows us and our desperate condition when left to our own devices, he offers us help right now so that we might be strengthened in our decision to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. He offers us help to overcome all that can go wrong in life so that we can live our days with power and joy. What is that help? Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel lesson. He reminds the disciples and us that he is going to send the Holy Spirit to instruct us in matters of faith and to give us his peace, a peace that is much more than just an absence of violence or conflict. It is peace with God that surpasses our understanding and is obtained by his very blood shed on the cross. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, Jesus has ascended into heaven as our great High Priest, and he offers to give us grace and mercy to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).
What this means, of course, is that we do not have to live life alone. We have God’s very Spirit living in us and helping us overcome our weaknesses and the body of sin that weighs us down. The Spirit instructs us so that we are better able to receive and understand God’s word and promises to us as Luke reminds us in our lesson from Acts this morning. Lydia was able to understand Paul’s message to her because through the Holy Spirit, God opened her heart and mind to hear and understand the Gospel. The same Spirit that guided Paul and opened up Lydia’s heart to the Gospel is available to us today to help us learn and appropriate the Gospel. When that happens, we have God’s power working in us to help us overcome all that can go wrong in our lives, just like he helped me find joy in remembering my mom’s birthday on Friday.
Because we are fallen and sinful creatures, we cannot possibly hope to obey God’s commands to us on our own. In fact, we don’t even want to do so. But with God’s Spirit living in us, we have power to overcome our sinful nature. We have grace to hear and believe the Gospel, and in doing so we find hope, joy, courage, and strength to live our days.
Where is the Application?
So what does this all mean for us right now? I am only going to focus on one lesson today because I think it is critically important. If we hope to enjoy the benefits of having God’s Spirit live in us to help us make the resurrection hope our own, we must take our cue from Lydia. We must do our part so that the Holy Spirit can do his. As Paul reminds us in Romans 7, we are weighed down by our body of sin and have no hope without the Spirit’s help living in us. But the Spirit will help us make the resurrection hope our own. He will also help us deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus, but we must do our part in cooperation with him.
What does that look like? If you are struggling to make the resurrection hope real, start by taking time to learn it, either for the first time or afresh. Instead of starting your day by reading the newspaper or watching TV (or whatever it is you do), start by reading the Bible and make it a daily habit. Read Paul’s magnificent tract on the resurrection found in 1 Corinthians 15. Read Revelation 21-22 to learn more about the promise of the New Creation. Check out 1 & 2 Thessalonians to see what Paul has to say about the Second Coming. Read Hebrews to discover what is the role of the ascended Christ. Be amazed over God’s grace that can be found in chapters 5-8 of Romans, Colossians 2:11-13, and John 13 and 15, among others.
Have a good commentary and Christian friends on hand to help you understand what is not clear to you, or ask one of your priests. Pick up one of N.T. Wright’s books on the resurrection hope. Start with his little book, For All the Saints. If you want something more substantial, read his book, Surprised by Hope. Or if you really want to do some heavy duty reading, pick up a copy of The Resurrection of the Son of God. Doing so will allow the Holy Spirit to work in you to broaden your faith and knowledge.
It is hard to have real hope if you do not understand the object of your hope or the Promise offered. But if you are intentional and take the time to read, reflect, and prayerfully study God’s Word in Scripture, you can count on the Spirit’s Presence to help you grow in knowledge and faith. When that happens (if it has not already happened for you), you will find the joy Lydia experienced when she heard Paul preach the Gospel or that I experienced on Friday as I remembered my mom’s birthday. Because I have spent this Easter season reading, reflecting, and focusing on our Easter hope and promise, God was gracious to me and expanded my understanding and deepened my faith. The Easter hope is no longer a set of propositions. I no longer give it lip-service. It is real and I believe it with all that I am. It is Jesus’ promise in today’s Gospel made real in the life of a believer and it is available to all of us. Thanks be to God! And when you finally begin to understand the wondrous nature of our resurrection hope, you will find that you are also freed to obey the Lord in joyful obedience, aided and guided by the Spirit’s abiding help and Presence.
We Christians have the hope and promise of living life with God starting right here and now. Because we live in a fallen world and are weighed down by our body of sin, we have to struggle for a season. But take heart and hope. God does not leave us to our own devices, but has given us his Spirit to build us up and to help us live the kind of lives he created us to live. He became human and died for us so that our alienation from him would be ended forever. And he has a party planned for us that is beyond our wildest imagination, hopes, or dreams. This is your hope and destiny, Christian. Learn it, embrace it, rejoice in it, marvel in it. This will not happen in a day or even a year. It will take a lifetime, but there is nothing more valuable that you can pursue because you are pursuing Life itself. Do your part and God through the Spirit will do his.
If my experience this Easter season is valid to any extent, if you take the time and make the effort, God will grant you a breathtaking freedom to love and serve him out of joyful obedience, rather than out of some dreadful sense of obligation or because you delude yourself into thinking that it will earn you a spot with God in paradise and ultimately in his New Creation. You will also find hope, joy, and Good News beyond that which you ever dared hope for or dream of, Good News that will sustain you now and for all eternity. If you have not already embraced your resurrection hope and made it your own, what are you waiting for?
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.