Whom to Obey?

Sermon delivered on Easter 2C, Sunday, April 3, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, 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 5.27-32; Psalm 150.1-6; Revelation 1.4-8; John 20.19-31.

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

Last week we looked at why the Resurrection of Jesus signaled the turning point in history. We saw that in our Lord’s death and resurrection, God dealt decisively with our sin that alienates us from him and each other, and the death it causes. We also saw that God dealt a decisive blow to the evil that seems to run rampant in our world, unlikely as that appears to us at times. No longer is death our inevitable destiny, but rather new life, new creation. In dealing with our sins on the cross and raising Jesus from the dead, God demonstrated to us that we and his creation matter, and that he is good to his promise that one day he will restore fully his good but sin-corrupted and evil-despoiled creation and creatures. Today, I want us to continue to explore what that means for us as Jesus’ body, the Church.

In our gospel lesson this morning, John continues to flesh out the ramifications of his new creation theology that he introduced last week. For a second time he tells us that it is the first day of the new week, the eighth day, the beginning of God’s promised new creation. The disciples are still in hiding because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, a clear sign that Jesus’ resurrection was not yet their new reality. And here John gives us another glimpse of what the new creation looks like. Jesus suddenly appears to them behind locked doors and they are apparently terrified. To calm them down, Jesus tells them, “Peace be with you,” one logical outworking of his cry on the cross, “It is finished!”. Because of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection, the disciples and all who are in Jesus now have peace with God. As our NT lesson makes clear, this peace doesn’t mean there will not be trouble in the lives of Jesus’ followers, but rather we will have the peace of God, the peace that passes all understanding, to help sustain and comfort us in the difficult work our Lord calls us to do. More about that in a moment.

As we saw last week, we notice that the risen Lord has a physical body. Despite the fact that he suddenly appears to his disciples behind locked doors, they can hear his voice and touch him. To allay their fears and prove he is not a ghost or some imposter, our Lord shows them his wounds from the cross. John is once again reminding us that in the new creation there is both continuity from our mortal life (Jesus still bears his wounds) and discontinuity (Jesus’ body is able to do things that our mortal bodies cannot). Seeing and realizing that it was their Lord, the disciples are overjoyed, just as Jesus told them they would be (John 16.20). The reality of their risen Lord had finally taken hold. Why wouldn’t they be overjoyed to see him?

But John wants us to see that Jesus’ resurrection is much more than having personal joy, important as that is. The resurrection is not primarily about bolstering a private religion or personal spiritual experience. No, it testifies to the truth about God and his power to heal and redeem his world. As Peter told the Jewish authorities in our NT lesson, they had to testify to the historical truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection because both were the manifestation and culmination of God’s eternal plan to heal and restore his good creation hijacked by human sin and the dark powers behind our sin. This was the point of John telling us about Thomas. If nothing else, Thomas was a realist and he knew that dead people didn’t come alive again. He had to see for himself before he could believe such a fantastic story. Whistling through the graveyard about Jesus simply wouldn’t do. His faith had to be grounded in historical reality.

John tells us further that this is why he chose these signs to share with us, that we too might believe and have confidence that our faith is grounded, not in delusional or wishful thinking, but in historical reality. Jesus really did die and Jesus really was raised to life by God the Father. History was forever changed as a result and God’s new creation had begun. And as John the Elder reminds us in our epistle lesson, God is not finished with us yet. God has not only acted decisively on our behalf in the past, but continues to act on our behalf in the present, in the crucified and risen Christ through the power of the Spirit, and will bring to completion his saving work when our Lord returns in great power and glory. All this reminds us necessarily that our faith in Christ is not based on a pipe dream and that we have a real future and a hope.

It is critical that we understand this because as all our lessons testify today, we have work to do. God did not raise Jesus from the dead so that he could retire to a sunny beach to sip margaritas all day while working on his eternal tan. No, our Lord is not only risen and alive, but ascended into heaven where he rules over the cosmos until all his enemies are defeated. This means that the worldly rulers are not really the ones in control. Neither are the dark powers. Sure, it seems to us and our limited perspective that this is often the case. But as our lessons, along with the rest of the NT, emphatically testify, looks in this case are deceiving. Jesus is alive and rules over the cosmos. We can’t currently see him sitting at God’s right hand, NT language meaning that Jesus is Lord and King, but we can believe this precisely because his death and resurrection really happened in human history. So what does that mean for us?

Again, it means we have work to do. The resurrection doesn’t give us license to sit around and act snotty, gloating over the fact that we are saved while others are not. As we have seen, it is not an invitation to a private religion or spirituality where we commune with our risen Lord while we withdraw from the world and its affairs. No, as John reminds us, Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate reminder to us that God is at work healing and restoring his creation to its original goodness and beyond. And even more shockingly, he calls us to be part of that healing work! Jesus tells us this himself. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This is the point behind the resurrection.

We hear these words from Jesus and we want to say back to him, “Are you crazy, Jesus? Only God can forgive sins. I am not qualified to do that. And to retain sins? No way, dude! Who would even dare consider doing that?” So what is going on here? What does our Lord mean by this? First, it means that God is consistent with us. Recall that God created us in his image to be wise stewards over his good creation and reflect God’s glory out into it. So this call for us to continue Jesus’ healing and saving work should not surprise us. We’ve been called to do that all along. We just didn’t know how to do it (or refused to do so). In telling us that we as the Church have been empowered to forgive sins, Jesus is reminding us that we do so under his authority and ultimately under God’s authority. Just as God became human to die for our sins and break the power of evil over his good creation, so now Jesus gives us the authority to announce repentance for the forgiveness of sins to the world, just as the apostles did in our NT lesson. Notice this got them in big trouble with the ruling authorities. But notice too that even those who were responsible for Jesus’ death could find healing and forgiveness if they chose to believe in the risen Lord and accept the forgiveness that is available to all in his Name. There is nothing we have done that can’t be forgiven, thanks be to God! And this is our primary task as Jesus’ followers, to announce in his Name that repentance leads to forgiveness of sins.

But we are also called to warn the world that refusal to take sin seriously, the refusal to put its hope and trust in the crucified and risen Lord, will inevitably lead to death. We are not to pronounce this out of some kind of haughty self-righteousness because we too are in desperate need of Jesus’ forgiveness and healing. We respond to Jesus’ call because we love people and want them to find the healing and forgiveness in Jesus that we have found. How ironic it is that we have been kowtowed into silence by our culture in the name of “tolerance.” How remaining silent on an issue that is literally a matter of life and death represents tolerance and love has never been adequately explained. There is only one Name under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4.13) and that Name is Jesus the Messiah, our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord. This is why we must be clear about our faith and regain our voice and boldness because no other religion offers the hope and promise that the Christian faith offers.

But who among us is up for this task? Again, John’s brilliance as a theologian shines through. He tells us that before Jesus gives us this command to represent him in the world, a task for which none of us is qualified, our Lord breathed on the apostles and imparted the Spirit to them. John uses the same verb that the writer of Genesis 2.7 used when describing how the Lord breathed life into Adam. Here John reminds us that we are not doing Jesus’ work on our own. We do it under his authority and in the power of the Spirit. When we receive the Spirit, we are slowly and often messily changed into new creations so that we can do the work Jesus commissions us to do as his body. And let’s be clear, we are to do this work together primarily. We do so, confident that the risen and ascended Lord whom we love, worship, and obey, will use our imperfect efforts to help in the process of bringing in the kingdom on earth as in heaven. So whom will you choose to obey? Our risen Lord or the pseudo leaders and the powers behind them that tell us to obey is crazy? Do we want peace and real power or chaos and madness?

This is our challenge as God’s people at St. Augustine’s, especially during the 50 days of Easter. How do we announce forgiveness of sins to others (and to ourselves, when needed)? How do we retain the sins of others? There are many ways, but consider these two possibilities. First, this work starts in-house, by how we treat each other. The world is paying attention to this and our commission starts right here. I think overall, we are being faithful to this aspect of Jesus’ commission to us. We do indeed treat each other as the forgiven people in Christ that we are.

Second, this gets back to my charge to ,you last week. How will we party during this Eastertide that can announce forgiveness and retention of sins? The former is easier than the latter because we all rightly shy away from being self-righteous and proud moralizers. Finding ways to celebrate our healing and forgiveness can provide the appropriate gateways to talk about the deadly consequences of sin as well. When we make our joy in Christ manifestly self-evident, it gives us a way to talk about the reality of evil, sin, and death, and how God has chosen to deal with it all. So let us not shy away from our work. Let us remember that though this call is difficult and will be met with resistance, we do not engage in it on our own. We do so in the power of the Spirt and under the authority of Jesus our Lord. So let us be bold in our work because we really do know that we have Good News, 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.