Sermon delivered on the seventh Sunday of Easter, May 16, 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 seventh Sunday of Easter and we are nearing the end of the Easter season. Can you believe it? During the past six weeks of Easter, 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 why our future hope should have an impact on how we live our lives now. In the context of today’s lessons, I want to look specifically at why our resurrection hope can give us the needed motivation to live obedient lives and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with a broken and hurting world that desperately needs to hear it.
How many of you, after having been unjustly imprisoned and beaten to within an inch of your life over matters pertaining to your faith (or anything else), would be up late in the evening that same day praying and singing hymns to God the way Paul and Silas did in today’s NT lesson, presumably in thanks for having been deemed worthy of the honor to suffer for the Name (cf. Acts 5:41; Philippians 4:4-6; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10)? In my better moments, I would like to think that I could do this, but in my secret heart of hearts I know better. Left to my own devices—and that’s the key phrase—I would likely fold like a bad poker hand. And I suspect I am not alone among those of us who call ourselves Christians. So what did Paul and Silas have that many who claim to be Christian today don’t? What was their secret? Have you ever stopped to ponder this? Have you ever wanted to have what they had? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve come to the right sermon because today I am going to remind you of their secret. Thankfully, Paul and Silas’ secret to living life with joy and power under any circumstance is the same as ours.
Where is God’s Grace?
That secret, of course, is our resurrection hope made possible by God himself in Jesus Christ. In today’s Epistle lesson, our Lord alludes to our hope and promise when he tells us that he is coming soon and his reward is with him, where he will repay everyone according to his or her works. We will return to this shortly, but for right now we do not want to miss the fact that the reward Jesus is talking about is admittance into the New Jerusalem. John talked about this in the last two Epistle lessons and I would encourage you to reread Revelation 21-22 again to remind yourselves of the hope and glory that is yours in Christ.
When Christ returns and ushers in God’s New Creation, of which the New Jerusalem is a part, our mortal bodies will be raised and transformed into new resurrection bodies like our Lord has (see, e.g., 1 John 3:2). In God’s New Creation, we will get to live directly in God’s Presence and he will wipe away all of our tears. There will be no more sorrow or sickness or loneliness or alienation or any of the awful things that afflict us in our mortal lives. We see this poignantly illustrated in today’s Epistle lesson when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who wash their robes so that they will have the right to the tree of life.” The verb John uses for wash implies the need for continued washing, which likely alludes to our constant need for confession, repentance, and obedience in this life because we are so heavily weighed down by our body of sin. But in Revelation 7:14, an elder tells John that the saints in heaven have already washed their robes with the blood of the Lamb and do not need to do so any longer. In other words, life here is a constant struggle because we are fallen creatures. But those who die in Christ are released from their struggles because of God’s great grace and mercy toward us. That is the hope and promise of the New Creation.
Moreover, we will be reunited with those in Christ we have loved and lost for a season and sin, death, and evil will be abolished forever. In the interim, those in Christ who have died are safely with their Lord awaiting his return like Christians here on earth who are still living in their mortal bodies. None of this is speculative; it is all biblically based and it is offered freely to anyone for the taking.
Our hope is made possible for us through the cross of Jesus Christ. We are cleansed by his blood and offered our one and only chance to live with God forever. We know this is true because God raised Jesus up from the dead and validated who he said he was—God’s Holy and Anointed One, the coeternal Son who is One with the Father. Jesus ascended into heaven, an event we celebrated this past Thursday, where even now he intercedes on our behalf and serves as our High Priest, by whose blood we are made holy and fit to live with God, both now and forever.
But the Good News doesn’t stop there because while Jesus has returned to the Father to serve as our great High Priest, he as promised us that he would never leave us alone. Consequently, he has sent us his Holy Spirit to help us in our weaknesses and build us up in the faith. This reminds us that we do not have to live life alone or try to lift up ourselves by our bootstraps, something that none of us can do when it comes to ridding ourselves of the sin that has so deeply infected us. This is the hope that Paul and Silas had. This was their secret. This is what enabled them to sing and pray and give thanks in the midst of severe suffering and persecution. It was real for them because they believed the promise and knew the Risen Lord. They knew that no matter what happened to their mortal bodies they were safely in God’s care because Christ had claimed them and lived within them. And where God is, there is life, not death.
Where is the Application?
The same power that enabled Paul, Silas, and countless others to live life with joy and power is available to us as well. The Good News of Jesus Christ is offered freely to everyone and we make it ours through faith. But what about Jesus’ word in today’s Epistle lesson that he is coming soon and his reward will be with him so that he will repay each one of us according to our work? Does that not suggest that we must earn our Easter hope instead of accepting it by faith as a free gift offered to us by the sheer grace of God?
Not at all. As James reminds us, our faith is made manifest in our deeds and a faith without works is dead (James 2:14-18, 26). You recall that this echoes the words of Jesus in last week’s Gospel lesson when he told his disciples that those who love him will do more than pay lip-service to him. That is why he tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that there will be those who call him, “Lord! Lord!” but who will hear the terrible words, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23) because their faith was never made manifest through their obedience to his commands.
No, our works done in obedience to Christ’s commands are the unmistakable evidence of the loyalty of the heart. They express either belief or unbelief, faithfulness or unfaithfulness. This is essentially what Jesus was praying for in today’s Gospel lesson when he prayed for the unity of all believers, a unity that was based on obedience to his word and commandments. That would make a difference and the world would take notice of it. Instead of seeing business as usual, the world would see Christians really love each other. As Jesus loved the Father perfectly and came into this world to obey the Father’s commands, so we are to be like Jesus in our obedience to his commands. By our obedience we show both our love for him and our faith in his saving act for us on the cross.
And this should make perfect sense to us because we see it in action in every other aspect of our lives. Take, for example, two lovers. Remember when you first met your beloved how eager and anxious you were to please him or her? In effect, you were saying, let me show my love for you in how I treat you. Or perhaps you get a new job and are blessed to have a boss whom you really like and admire. How will you react toward that person? You likely will work hard to please him, in part because you are trying to build job security, but also in part because you are trying to please him because you like and admire him, and want to do a good job because of that.
Likewise with our faith. When the Spirit opens our minds and hearts to the reality of our Easter hope, we are freed to joyfully obey our Lord, not because in doing so we think we can earn our salvation, but because we want to obey Christ in loving response to what he has done for us and promises to us. By faith we believe we are made holy and worthy to live in God’s direct Presence in his New Creation because of what Christ has done for us on the cross.
We can see this joyful obedience illustrated plainly in today’s story from Acts. Both Paul and Silas were doing what God had called them to do and Paul showed his obedience to the Risen Christ in his actions toward the jailer. In Paul we find a man who actively persecuted Christ’s church before the Lord claimed him on the road to Damascus. Now we see a radically different Paul who shows love and mercy toward a man who had treated both Silas and him cruelly. By the standards of the world, Paul had every reason to let the jailer kill himself. But by the standards of Christ, Paul did not want that to happen. Instead, he wanted the jailer and his family to discover the Christ he knew and really begin to live. This same joyful obedience also led Paul and Silas to pray and sing to God in the midst of their extreme suffering.
They did so (and we do so) because they believed the Good News of Jesus Christ and developed a living relationship with him so that they would have strength to do the work Jesus called them to do. Their Easter hope was real for them and it motivated them to live obedient lives. And because they were obedient, they had a joyful and confident expectation that their faith made manifest by their obedience would be rewarded. It is the reward Jesus speaks of in today’s Epistle. A reward has a positive worth for a person and usually causes us to work hard to attain it. We see people doing this all the time in their daily lives. Some work to become rich or famous. Others work to become powerful or influential. Whatever the nature of the reward, it motivates us to do what is necessary to achieve it.
In the context of today’s lessons, because Paul and Silas knew and loved the Lord, they wanted to be with him forever but they also knew that they had work to do while they lived out their mortal lives. Yet their Easter hope also led them to believe that when their work was done, they would get to live with Christ forever in the New Creation. That was their reward because Christ was the desire of their hearts. Their faith and desire were made manifest in their obedience and found a reward by being able to live with Christ forever. Not so, however, for a person who does not love Jesus or want anything to do with him. How can being with One you do not like or want anything to do with be a reward? Why would you want to obey someone you did not believe or in which you did not trust? It just doesn’t make sense.
And so because Paul and Silas had their Easter hope, the hope of eternal life lived ultimately in God’s New Creation, and made possible by the blood of Christ, their faith was made manifest in their obedience to Jesus’ call. Consequently, they were eager to share the Good News with others because they believed it and had experienced it. Again, this makes perfect sense because we naturally want to share good news of any kind with others. And so we see that our Easter hope leads us naturally to live obedient lives to Christ and share his Good News with others.
So how are you doing in these two areas? Here are some questions to help you assess your faith and the state of your relationship with God. As I described the Easter hope to you earlier in the sermon, and assuming I did a halfway decent job of it, did it excite you and fire your imagination? Did it evoke a sense of love, gratitude and awe in you, this promise of eternal life lived ultimately in God’s New Creation? Did the promise of being able to live directly in God’s Presence make you happy and anticipate it eagerly? Did the wondrous grace of being freed from your body of sin by the blood of Christ fill your heart with a sense of thanksgiving and praise? Did it want to make you love and obey him in response?
What about your willingness to share this hope with others, not by banging on people’s doors but in the context of your everyday relationships? Are you willing to share with others how Jesus helps you in your joys and struggles? Can you articulate your Easter hope and how it motivates you to live faithfully as a Christian, even when you do not always get it right? Or are you more worried that you will be branded as a “religious nut” or “fanatic”? How you answer these questions will give you great insight about the state of your faith and relationship with God. Without a solid Easter hope you will likely have trouble with these questions because in all likelihood, you are still laboring under the delusion of self-help and works righteousness and there is no Good News to be had in either.
Our Easter hope provides us not only hope for the future but motivation to live obedient and joyful lives starting here and now. When you begin to understand the wondrous Good News that is in Jesus Christ, it will certainly make you want to give your life to him in joyful obedience for all that he has done for you, and you will naturally want to share your secret with others as opportunities arise. You will also find hope, joy, and purpose beyond that which you ever dared hope for or dream of, Good News that will sustain you now and for all eternity. Therefore, embrace your Easter hope and live it. Ask the Lord, the giver of life, to help you and you will find help for any and every situation.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.