Bishop Ames preached a wonderful sermon yesterday but unfortunately there is no manuscript for it so I cannot post it here. In lieu of that, I am reposting a sermon I preached on the second Sunday of Easter a couple of years ago.
From the archives. Sermon preached on April 11, 2010.
Lectionary texts: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning I want to continue to develop the theme of the Resurrection changing everything for us. I want to encourage us, especially those of us who are struggling with our resurrection faith or trying to find one, to be bold in embracing the hope that is ours in the death and resurrection of Jesus because it gives us power to live our lives with joy and hope and purpose, even in the midst of all that can go wrong in our broken and fallen world.
Have you ever wondered what changed the apostles from being fearful cowards to bold apostles? In today’s Gospel lesson, John tells us that the apostles were hiding behind locked doors because they feared that the Jewish authorities would arrest them and they would end up like their crucified Master. Despite Jesus’ earlier promises to them that he would be raised on the third day, John gives us no indication that the apostles believed this (or perhaps in the midst of their grief they had forgotten Jesus’ promises). Whatever the reason, the apostles weren’t expecting to see Jesus that evening.
And we can surely relate to them because we are just like them aren’t we? We may not be afraid of arrest and execution like the apostles were but we often behave like they did that first Easter. We learn that we or our loved ones have a life-threatening disease and we become afraid. We lose our job or our retirement savings get virtually wiped out and we become afraid. We or our loved ones fall victim to addictions or destructive habits and seem to hurtle toward self-destruction and we become afraid. Whatever the fear and the situation that caused it, we shouldn’t be too hard on the apostles as they hid behind locked doors that night because we too know what it is like to be afraid.
Now fast forward the clock several weeks to Luke’s NT lesson from Acts this morning. Instead of seeing cowardly, fearful men we see bold speakers on behalf of Jesus. They are telling Jerusalem’s most powerful movers and shakers that they cannot obey their commands to keep quiet about Jesus. They have just spent some quality time in jail for Jesus’ sake and now they tell the high priest that they must obey God rather than humans, especially when humans have gotten it wrong. The apostles tell the Sanhedrin that God has demonstrated that Jesus is Lord and Savior, that they are witnesses to these things and so is the Holy Spirit. These would be stunning, blasphemous words to any self-respecting Jew or to any proud, arrogant person for that matter.
Our lesson ends here but it is not hard for us to predict the outcome of this interchange. The leaders of the Sanhedrin are furious and want to kill the apostles. Luke tells us that this didn’t happen but that the Sanhedrin did have the apostles flogged and this is where the story gets really interesting because Luke tells us that instead of complaining about this or being afraid or feeling sorry for themselves or renouncing Jesus, the apostles actually rejoiced that they had been found worthy enough to suffer for him! Imagine that. They rejoiced in their suffering for Jesus! Would you like to have a resurrection faith like that? You can if you will become weak so that Christ can become strong in you.
So what changed? What happened to these apostles that transformed their fear into boldness and courage? What allowed them to actually rejoice in their suffering for Jesus? Were they just secretly masochists who decided to come out of the closet? No! What had changed for them was the reality of the Resurrection. Knowing Jesus was alive and his promises to them were true made all the difference for the apostles.
John’s account of Jesus’ appearance to the apostles gives us insight into this transformative process. First, did you notice that Jesus did not castigate the disciples for deserting him, denying him, and apparently not believing his promises to be raised on the third day? Instead, Jesus appeared to them as they hid behind locked doors and offered them peace in the fullest sense, peace with God and reconciliation brought about by his very blood. Without telling them explicitly, Jesus was reminding them (and us) that because of him we are no longer God’s enemies. Instead, we are reconciled to God through Jesus’ cross. Jesus here is introducing them to God’s grace, wisdom, and love, which are manifested in the cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 1), and showing the apostles that they could count on that love no matter what. That love made all the difference in the world for them and it can for us as well.
Second, it should not surprise us that the apostles needed to see Jesus for themselves. Human beings are “show me” creatures by nature and the idea of the Resurrection was mind blowing and completely unexpected. Yes, many Jews believed in a general resurrection at the end time, but no one expected the resurrection of the dead to be a two-stage event in which God’s Messiah and Son was its first fruits. And so in this story we see God in his infinite wisdom and mercy granting the apostles an especial grace to seal their faith.
Even with this especial grace, it was apparently very hard for the apostles to understand what had happened. As Luke tells us in his account of this story, the disciples were terrified even after Jesus appeared to them. They thought they were seeing a ghost because they had no frame of reference to help them understand the very nature of the Resurrection that they were witnessing. Likewise, Matthew tells us that some doubted, even as others worshiped Jesus. From this we can infer that those who doubted had not seen the Risen Lord with their eyes.
And of course we see this need to see before believing poignantly epitomized in Thomas, don’t we? But note the encouragement Jesus gives him and the special blessing Jesus gives those of us who believe in him without seeing him. From this we understand that seeing Jesus physically is not in the Father’s good plan for us. We must live by faith and allow God to demonstrate his trustworthiness to us, just the way he did when he raised Jesus from the dead.
The Resurrection was, and will always be, a mind-blowing event. But as John tells us, to help his disciples further, Jesus breathed on them and gave them the promised Holy Spirit who would live in them and remind them of this truth after Jesus ascended to the Father. And like the first disciples, we too have the Holy Spirit living in us, testifying to the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection, and reminding us that he is alive and with us always, even though we cannot see him the way the apostles did. If we do not have this conviction that Christ is living in and with us, we can never hope to have the kind of resurrection faith the apostles had.
Third, in John’s and Luke’s accounts, we get a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrected body and we take note of that because when he raises us from the dead on the last day, we will have bodies like his. We note that he can appear suddenly, even when the disciples are in a locked room. But we also notice that Jesus has a recognizable body, that he can eat and be touched. There is continuity but there is transformation. Because death no longer has any power over Jesus’ new body, and because our resurrection bodies will be like his, neither will death have any power over our mortal bodies when we are raised from the dead. Moreover, as the author of Revelation reminds us in today’s Epistle lesson, we will get to live in the direct Presence of the Lord forever. All this reminds us what real life is all about. It reminds us that nothing in this world can ever separate us from God’s love for us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Nothing.
These things, among others, changed everything for the apostles. First, it allowed them to understand in a new way that their exile from God was over but not yet fully consummated. They understood that the alienation from God their sin had caused was put to an end by the blood of Christ. The apostles realized that in Jesus, God had borne their punishment himself and they were free to enter a new and life-giving relationship with him based on Christ’s merits, not their own.
Second, Jesus’ resurrection reminded them that God’s promises in Christ were trustworthy and true, that he was alive and that they could have a transforming relationship with him in this world as well as the next. As the Spirit testified to them, the apostles realized that life is more than mortal existence; it was about having a relationship with the Living God and his Son, Jesus Christ (John 17:3). Consequently, threats of punishment and death simply became irrelevant to them because they knew that regardless of what happened to their bodies, God was in charge and they were safely in Jesus’ loving embrace and Presence. They might not be able to see him any more but that did not make this Truth any less real for them because God had done what needed to be done to seal their faith.
So what does all of this mean for us? When serious illness or economic catastrophe or some other terrible thing strikes, how can our resurrection faith help sustain us and even help us overcome all the bad things of life? First and foremost we must learn to rely on God’s wisdom and power, not our own. And God’s wisdom demands that we become weak so that his grace can be made perfect in us. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, the cross is God’s wisdom and power but the world regards God’s wisdom as foolishness. Like the apostles learned on those two Sundays after the Resurrection, we can count on God’s love for us no matter what our circumstance. We may not understand why bad things sometimes happen to us or our loved ones but knowing that Jesus is alive and with us reminds us that God is in control even when we cannot apparently see it.
God in his wisdom has simply chosen not to share all his purposes and ways with us and asks us instead to trust him in any and every circumstance. If we are not satisfied with this answer, it is probably an indication that our pride is being offended. We want God to treat us as equals when in fact we are not equal to God. As God reminds us through the prophet Isaiah, his ways are not our ways nor are his thoughts our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8ff). When we learn to trust God irrespective of our circumstance, we are learning to rely on God’s wisdom and power as manifested in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Think about it in this way. Parents do not often share their ways with their infant children because infants are simply not able to understand why their parents do what they do with them. As parents we often tell our children to do something or not do something based on whether it would be good or harmful to the child. As they grow older, our kids often question us even when they don’t see the bigger picture or understand what we as parents are doing or why. Likewise with God and us. For whatever reason, God has chosen not to share with us why he allows suffering and injustice. Instead, he tells us to look to the death and resurrection of Christ and to trust him because he has demonstrated his trustworthiness when he raised Jesus from the dead.
Our resurrection faith therefore reminds us that no matter how things might turn out for us in our mortal lives, it really does not matter because God has secured our life and our destiny. Yes, our bodies die but we live because Christ lives. We no longer have to fear sickness or death or anything else because we have been redeemed from sin and death by Christ’s blood. We don’t deserve any of this, but we have life offered to us anyway because God loves us and wants us to live forever with him. We know this to be true because when God raised Jesus from the dead he confirmed that his promises to us are true. This doesn’t mean we are immune to hurt, heartache, or sorrow. What it does mean that in the midst of our sorrow we can have the basis for real hope and even joy because we know that suffering and death are only temporary and cannot ultimately hurt us.
Last, our resurrection faith helps us reorient our lives in radical new ways. Instead of making the things of this world our top priority, we make developing our relationship with God our top priority. We are bound to be disappointed when we make things of this world our priority because this world is finite and fallible. But when we make our relationship with God our top priority, our resurrection faith reminds us we will never be disappointed because God is trustworthy and true. Like the apostles, we can actually find joy in suffering for Jesus because he is the only thing that really matters. Like our Master, our suffering for his sake is our path to glory because his grace is made perfect in our weakness. Again, the only way we can learn this is to take the plunge and trust God, but it is the testimony of Scripture and countless Christians over time and across cultures that God does not disappoint when we focus on making our relationship with him our top priority. He did this with the apostles that first Easter and he continues to do that for us today.
The death and resurrection of Jesus remind us that God is good to his word and promises. He has rescued us from sin and death and promised us life forever if we will but put our hope and trust in Christ. Christ’s death and resurrection remind us to keep an eternal perspective on life and help us to remember that even in the midst of living in a broken and fallen world with all of its mysteries and hurts, God is in charge and working out his plan of salvation. For those of us who have put our full hope and trust in Christ, we are assured that we are part of that plan, not outside of it. Consequently we work to become the creatures that God created us to be so that we can live in joyful obedience and hope, even in the face of all that can go wrong in this world because we know that life is about having a relationship with the Living God, starting right here and now, and nothing, not even death, can break that relationship. There will be troubles in this world but fear not, because Christ has overcome the world. If you really truly believe that, you have power to overcome any adversity and good news, 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.