Living Signs of New Creation

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Easter 2B, April 12, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Acts 4.32-35; Psalm 133.1-5; 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 week we saw that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God’s promised future has burst in on us so that we are given a glimpse of God’s new world where we are forgiven and healed. We can claim this by faith because of Jesus’ atoning death on the cross. John continues to flesh this out for us (no pun intended) in our lessons today, giving us our marching orders so to speak, and this is what I want us to look at this morning.

In our gospel lesson, a continuation of our Easter story from last week, the scene has shifted from morning to evening. John is again careful to tell us that it is the first day of the week, reminding us as he did last week, that we are witnessing along with Jesus’ disciples the beginning of God’s new world and enjoying a foretaste of things to come. We see this “already-not yet” state manifested in several ways. Jesus’ resurrection body has elements of both the old and the new. He shows them the marks of the cross and later invites Thomas to put his hand on and in those marks, clearly demonstrating that he is the crucified Jesus they knew in his mortal life. Yet he appears to them as they are hiding behind a locked door for fear of the Jewish authorities. Clearly there is something new about Jesus’ body because no mortal body can suddenly appear in a locked room. John doesn’t tell us if Jesus ate and drank with his disciples during this particular visit, although Luke does if this is the incident he is reporting (Luke 24.36-42). All of this suggests a continuity with the old but also a discontinuity, complete with new properties in play that we do not fully understand. But the point remains. When we get our new resurrection bodies patterned after Jesus’ body in God’s new world, the mortal is swallowed up in immortality and death is swallowed up forever in life (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.42-58).

And lest we think that it is only recently there have been doubters of the resurrection with its new mode of physicality, we need look no further than John’s report of Thomas and Jesus to put that mistaken notion to rest. Thomas had not been in the room with the rest of the disciples that first Easter evening and he flat out scoffed at the notion that Jesus was raised from the dead. He had to see Jesus with his own eyes and touch him with his own hands. Careful what you wish for, Thomas! Jesus didn’t berate his skeptical disciple. Surely Jesus would have understood (and still understands) what a mind-blowing thing the resurrection and God’s new creation is. Instead, Jesus commended those who would come to believe in him even though they would not experience his risen presence in the manner his first disciples did. This apparently is the reason John tells us he wrote his gospel, so that by his testimony and the testimony of others after him, we might come to believe that Jesus really is the Son of God and have life in and through him, echoing what he tells us in our epistle lesson this morning.

Getting back to our story, when Jesus appeared to his disciples that first Easter evening, John tells us their fear was turned into rejoicing because their crucified Lord was alive, never to die again. But Jesus didn’t appear to his disciples just to make them happy. He gave them work to do. In John’s account, this was their Pentecost moment and we need to pay careful attention to what is going on here because it has everything to do with us living as Easter people. “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus said to them, “so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive sins, they are forgiven. If you retain sins, they are retained.” And we want to say right back to Jesus, “Say what? And, uh, oh yeah. What are you talking about, Jesus?”

Glad you asked because I’m here to help. I’m just that kinda guy. Here’s the logic behind Jesus’ commission. Why did the Father send the Son? Because as Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, salvation is from the Jews (John 4.22). This, of course, requires us to recall the larger story of how God chose to rescue his sin-sick world and us. He called for himself a people to bring his healing love to the world. But as we have seen many times before, the people of Israel were as much part of the problem as they were the solution. But God is always good to his word and so he became human to do and be for Israel what Israel could not do and be for itself and the world. We see this ultimately played out on the cross of Jesus. As John reminds us in our epistle lesson, by his blood shed for us on the cross, Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. And not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world. As a result of what Jesus has done, everyone who believes in Jesus can enjoy fellowship with God and each other as well as find complete forgiveness of all our sins.

God has done this because he is faithful and just. He is faithful because God is always true to his promises, and God promised to heal his sin-sick world and its people through Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12.1-3). Now Jesus, sent by the Father, is the true Israelite through whom God would make it all happen, unexpected as it was (and is) for Israel and the world. Likewise God is just, and in an equally unexpected way. On the cross, we see God’s holy justice being executed. Instead of condemning us for our sin, God took our just punishment on himself, condemning our sin in the process while sparing us, thanks be to God (cf. Romans 8.1-4)! That is why Paul could exult that there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus, i.e., for those of us who have a real and ongoing relationship with God the Son. The cross stands as the eternal symbol of God’s just and holy love for his sin-sick and hurting people. This is why the Father sent the Son, i.e., why God became human. He had a world and its people to rescue and restore! This is the God we worship, praise, and adore!

And now that God has rescued his world and its people in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus, our Lord calls us as his followers to be living signs of his new creation to embody its reality to the rest of the world, especially in our own little neck of the woods (recall Jesus didn’t die just for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world). Don’t misunderstand. Only God can ultimately bring about the kingdom. But the fact remains that even though this is true, Jesus calls us to be part of that kingdom-bringing work. Just as Jesus brought his healing love to Israel, thus fulfilling its saving purpose for the world, so he gives us the wonderful privilege of bringing his healing love to the world on his behalf. We have been healed and forgiven by his blood shed for us. Now he calls us to be living signs of his healing love that will characterize his new world that has broken in on the old with Jesus’ resurrection.

At this point we are tempted to shrink back in fear or dismay because we know we are neither deserving of this call or able to fulfill it on our own. I suspect some (if not many or most) of us struggle with the notion that we are forgiven and so are called to share God’s new reality with those around us. We are like David, who lamented in Psalm 51 that he knew his transgressions and his sin was ever before him. Many of us likewise know our transgressions and our sin is ever before us so that we struggle to believe the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection with its promise of forgiveness and new life, God’s life, eternal life. With that in mind, we wonder how we can ever really be signs of God’s new creation. We are like Moses or Isaiah or Peter or John himself when they were confronted by the reality of God’s presence (and this is what new creation is really all about!). They rightly wanted to run away or became faint from a real sense of terror that comes when the sinful comes into the presence of the Sinless and Holy One. We get this at a gut level and it leaves us struggling with God’s promise that we have been forgiven and healed in and through Jesus.

But this is where we must pay attention to our epistle lesson. John tells that we should confess our sins and then believe God has forgiven us. We are to believe this because God is always good to his word and we have the cross of Jesus as eternal testimony of God’s gracious faithfulness to his promises. Yes, we are sinful creatures. But yes, we are forgiven and called to do the work and be the people God called us from all eternity to do and be. Paul echoes this sentiment when he wrote the Corinthians that anyone who has a real relationship with Jesus is a new creation, that the old has passed away and everything is new! All of this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself and given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.17-18). None of this of course means that once we put our hope and trust in Jesus we magically stop sinning. As Paul reminds us in Romans 6.7, none of us is completely free from sin until we die. But the NT writers are adamant that sin no longer controls us as it once did and that when we sin we are forgiven by the blood of Jesus shed for us if we confess our sins. And because of that forgiveness and Jesus’ resurrection, we have new life, abundant life, God’s life, eternal life.

Why am I belaboring this point? Well, mainly because I like to hear myself talk. But also because if we do not really believe we are forgiven and reconciled to God (what I constantly refer to as being healed), we can never enjoy the peace Jesus promises in our gospel lesson. We can never be reconcilers if we don’t really think we’ve been reconciled to God in and through Jesus. We can never offer forgiveness to others or ourselves if we do not think we have been forgiven by God. We can never experience the wondrous sense of pardon and release that comes with God’s forgiveness. We can never experience the real joy that comes with God’s forgiveness. And if we do not experience any of this, we can never hope to be signs of God’s new creation to others and to the world. But this is precisely what Jesus is calling us to do and be, and it is God’s love and forgiveness that must power and sustain our Easter faith. We can share in God’s new world only because we are healed and forgiven by the blood of Jesus shed for us. This was the resurrection faith the first apostles preached with great power as reported in our NT lesson and this is what we are called to preach and live out each day of our lives.

Now that we have addressed our worthiness to be Jesus’ signs of new creation (none of us is worthy but it isn’t about our worthiness, it’s about God’s grace and power), what about our ability to accomplish Jesus’ commission to us? Who or what gives us the authority to forgive sins and retain them, i.e., to warn people that certain courses of action oppose God and will inevitably lead to destruction? Isn’t that being all judgmental and stuff? Who among us (other than the wickedly proud) thinks we have the right to forgive and retain sins?

None of us, of course. But notice Jesus doesn’t tell us we have to do this work on our own. Just like God breathed the breath of life into his first human creatures in Genesis 2.7, so Jesus breathed new creation, the life and power of the Holy Spirit, into his first disciples and he continues to breathe that same power into us so that we can be signs of new creation, not in our own power, but in the power of the Spirit. This is the only way we can possibly hope to be the kind of people capable of doing the work Jesus commands us to do here. Again, this does not mean we will magically become sinless, mistake-free people. It means that we can tap into a power far beyond our own to do and be signs of God’s new world, and to pronounce forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name as well as warn against all kinds of ways that dehumanize and destroy us as human beings. This latter function is extremely difficult in our culture today because the various enemies of the cross brand us as intolerant and unloving. But nothing is further from the truth. We are to warn folks and call them to repentance precisely because we do love them and want them to experience God’s love and healing just like we have and do. If the resurrection of Jesus really is true, then it would be extremely unloving on our part if we were to lie to people and encourage them to maintain lifestyles that will inevitably result not in eternal life, but death.

Jesus’ death and resurrection as well as his call to us to be for the world what he was to Israel is why I challenged us last week to think about ways we can party like it’s the eschaton, to figure out ways in which we can be living signs of our resurrection faith and hope to a world that desperately needs to experience that hope. As we have seen, we can do that in a number of ways, including being Easter people who embody God’s healing love as well as the hope of a new world that is flooded by God’s love and presence, and who are courageous enough to serve as prophetic voices of warning to people and lifestyles that are in direct opposition to God’s good purposes and love, doing this latter task always with a profound sense of humility.

But there is another practical way to be signs of new creation and we see it lived out in our NT lesson. We can be signs of new creation based on how we treat each other as part of Christ’s body and it involves more than just paying lip service. This is what Luke wants us to see (not that the first believers were primitive communists) when he tells us there was no one in need in the early church because folks would sell property as needed to help provide for the truly needy. This is what being of one heart and soul as Jesus’ people looks like. This was putting their money where their mouth was and as we all know, putting our money (or time or patient effort or forgiveness or whatever else is costly to us) where our mouth is is the truest test of love. It is also powerful and tangible evidence that we are living out our resurrection hope and that nothing we do in the Lord’s name will be lost or is in vain (1 Corinthians 15.58).

Are we able to love each other like this? As I said last week, I think we are and I continue to be amazed at the tangible ways we embody Christ’s love for each other. And this is the key, I think, to being signs of new creation and Easter people: That we figure out ways to express God’s love tangibly to one another and to his world, and that we do it with the unmistakable joy that comes from knowing we are loved, forgiven, and have a real hope and future, despite who we might be and/or the darkness that confronts us in this life. We have this hope because of Jesus Christ, crucified, died, and raised from the dead to usher in the beginning of God’s new world. We are part of that world right now because where our Lord is, he promises that we too will be with him. And as we have seen, he is always present to us in the power of the Spirit. And as surely as we live and die, our Lord promises to be with us in even more wonderful ways when God’s promised new world comes fully into being. That’s the Good News we are to live and proclaim to each other and the world, folks, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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