Easter 2A

April 21, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 20:19-31

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Acts 2:14a, 22-32

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 16

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    1 Peter 1:3-9

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    Orthodox theologian Frederica Mathewes Green comments on the difference between the way we celebrate Christmas and Easter in these wry words: “It’s that time of year again, when school children are coloring pictures of  Jesus hanging from a cross, and shop owners fill their windows with gaily colored cutouts of Jesus’ Flogging at the Pillar.  In the malls everyone is humming along with seasonal hits on the sound system, like ‘O Sacred Head Now Wounded.’  Car dealers are promoting Great Big Empty Tomb Size discounts on Toyotas.  Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Easter.  Who hasn’t been invited to an ‘In His Steps’ party where players move plastic pieces around a board emblazoned with a map of Jesus’ last suffering day in Jerusalem.”

    Her point is well taken.  “Somehow we just don’t make the same boisterous fun of Holy Week that we do of Christmas.  No one plans to have a holy jolly Easter.  But when you think about the astonishing claims Christians make for Easter, that neglect seems pretty strange, even to an outsider.”  Then Mathewes Green tells the story about her Jewish friend Mitch, who doubts whether there even is a God.  Yet last Christmas he sent this email to her.  “Looking at the Christmas thing from the perspective of an unbelieving Jew, the big celebration in the Christian faith should be Easter.  No Easter, no Christianity.  Why Christians don’t whoop it up at Easter is a mystery to me.”

    The apostle Peter agreed completely.  That’s why he opens his first letter, written some thirty years after Easter, with this call to whoop it up.  “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead….”

    If ever there was a man who wanted to celebrate Easter, it was Peter, because he had pinned his hopes on Jesus of Nazareth.  Then his hope died.  Jesus had announced that the kingdom of God had come to this sad and broken world, demonstrating its presence by healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and speaking the truth with the authority of God himself.  Jesus was Peter’s hope, and he had promised to follow Jesus to death if necessary.

    But when Jesus was arrested, Peter instantly denied that even knew Jesus.  He would like to have died for that.  Instead, Jesus died. Peter’s hope was nailed to the cross and Peter would live the rest of his life a hopeless and miserable man.  But then on that first Easter, Peter saw Jesus alive again, and he was born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  No wonder Peter opens his letter to hopeless people with this call to whoop it up.  “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” because this changes everything!

    This changes everything.  Let’s be clear about what “this” is.  Peter is talking about the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead—not a spiritual resurrection, but a bodily resurrection.  That makes all the difference.  In his book, The Undertaking, funeral director Thomas Lynch puts it well.  “What if, rather than his body, he’d raised his personality, say, or The Idea of Himself?  Do you think they’d have changed the calendar for that?  Easter was a body and blood thing, no symbols, no euphemisms, no half measures.”  It was his physical resurrection that raised us all to a living hope.

    Some time ago I found an interesting sermon by a Unitarian minister titled “Stories of Redemption,” in which he answers this question.  How does redemption happen?  He says, by telling ourselves different stories, better stories, stories in which the good comes out of the bad.  Isn’t that what we have in the resurrection—a story, a different story, a better story, a story in which life comes out of death.  We’re redeemed by a story.

    No, better said, we are redeemed by a fact, an historical fact.  Peter was not born anew to a living hope because someone told him a wonderful redemptive story.  He was born anew because he met the Risen Christ in his physical body.  Otherwise, nothing would have changed.  No Easter, no Christianity.  I love the gruff way Garrett Keizer puts it. “On the day when I can no longer believe in the resurrection, I shall no longer be able to follow Christ.  It’s not that I require a reward after death; it’s just that I refuse to have a dead guy running my life.”  Exactly!  This, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, changes everything.

    What do I mean by “everything?”  The world seems pretty much unchanged for thousands of years.  People are born, they grow up, they fall in love, they work, they suffer, they lose, and they die.  What has changed?  Well, everything that truly matters.  Here I want to take a cue from that sermon by a Unitarian, because he talked about the six kinds of redemption stories you find in human experience.  They correspond exactly to the changes produced in our lives by Jesus resurrection.  There are stories of redemption as self-actualization, as atonement, as emancipation, as recovery, as upward mobility, and as enlightenment.

    Do you know what I mean by redemption as self-actualization?  That is the kind of redemption you find in coming-of-age movies and books, like The Chosen by Chaim Potok, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Huck Finn by Mark Twain.  A young or not-so-young person struggles through a state of immaturity or innocence or confusion until there is some dramatic breakthrough.  Then that person becomes an adult who has it all together, who is finally the self he or she always wanted to be.  That was Peter and everyone who has ever come to Christ.  Except that Peter didn’t gradually grow into his full potential.  He was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by the living Christ, and he was born anew.  Thus, he became the person Jesus had always wanted him to be.  The resurrection of Jesus changes our central self, so that we are not merely hopeless sinners in search of an identity, but Christ followers with a living hope.

    All Christians understand atonement.  In the Christian story of redemption as atonement, it isn’t just that sinners come to terms with themselves.  More important, we come to terms with God.  Peter knew very well that he had sinned often in his life, especially when he denied Jesus.  He knew he deserved to go to hell for such a terrible deed.  But when Jesus was raised from the dead, Peter believed in him as Savior and Lord and his sins were forgiven and he had peace with God.  That’s what he means in verse 9 where he says that we receive “the goal of our faith, the salvation of our souls.”  Here’s how Romans 4:25 explains it.  “Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins, and was raised for our justification.” Because of Jesus resurrection, we can have peace with God.

    We all know stories of redemption as emancipation, as release from bondage.  Think of Israel’s release from the house of bondage in Egypt or the stories of release from slavery told by African American slaves.  Jesus said in John 8 that everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  How can we ever be liberated from sin’s diabolical power and dark presence?  There’s no hope because sin is too much a part of us.  Well, yes there is hope, says Peter, because we have been born anew to a living hope by Christ’s resurrection. The power of Jesus resurrection sets us free from that bondage.  If the risen Christ is in you by his Spirit, thunders Paul in Romans 8:11, “he who raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies….”  Because Jesus rose, we are free from bondage to sin.

    Who doesn’t love redemption stories in which people recover from some set back– an illness, a divorce, the death of a loved one, an addiction, a defeat by an overpowering foe?  Someone is redeemed from hell on earth.  Think of the Rocky movies.  By his resurrection, Jesus offers us hope for such redemption.  If he can overcome death itself, he can give you the power to recover from anything.  Indeed, in the early church, Christians often spoke about Jesus victory over hell itself.  In a famous sermon St. Chrysostom said, “O death, where is your sting?  O Hell, where is your victory?  Christ is risen and you are overthrown.  Christ is risen and demons are fallen.  Christ is risen and the angels rejoice.  Christ is risen and life reigns.  Christ is risen and not one dead remains in the grave.”  Because Christ rose, hell and its earthly shadows are not the last word.  His resurrection is, and we can recover.

    It’s not just that hell is closed for us, but that heaven is wide open.   I’m talking now about those redemption stories that feature upward mobility.  Think of the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness,” in which Will Smith is a homeless man trying to provide for his son, or “The Blind Side,” in which a poor black kid is adopted by a rich white family and ends up playing in the NFL.  Peter says that by Christ’s resurrection we have unlimited upward mobility, because we have “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade, kept in heaven for us…..”  No matter how poor and miserable we may be in this life, we have an inheritance in heaven, because Jesus has opened wide heaven’s door.

    And then finally, there are redemption stories about enlightenment, in which people living in the dark suddenly see the light.  The resurrection gives us a whole new world view, says Peter, in which we see suffering in a whole new light.  Now we know that the trials of life are not punitive; they are preparatory.  “These trials have come,” says verse 7, “so that your faith may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when the risen Christ is revealed.”  After a devastating hurricane relief workers in Haiti were stunned to find Christians singing joyfully in the midst of the ruin and death.  How could they do that?  Because they knew that suffering is not the only story.  They know another story about God defeating death, so they see the world differently.  So, in Port-au-Prince they were singing: “Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!”

    That’s what Christians mean when they say, “This changes everything!”  The resurrection of Jesus changes our sense of self, our relationship with God, our struggle with sin, our battle with hellish situations, our eternal destiny, and our world view.  The question we should ask our congregations this first Sunday after Easter is this:  Has Jesus resurrection changed everything for you?

    In Flannery O’Conner’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a vicious criminal called the Misfit is holding an old woman at gunpoint.  As she softly calls on Jesus’ name, the Misfit snarls at her, “Jesus was the only one who ever raised the dead, and he shouldn’t have done it.  He threw everything off balance.  If he did what he said, then there’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow him….”

    The Misfit was right.  If this is all true, it should change everything and we should give our whole life to him.  But how do we know it’s true?  The Misfit says, “I wasn’t there… I wish I had been there…. If I had been there I would have known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.”  That’s right, but here in our text we have the words of someone who was there, someone whose life had been completely changed by what he knew to be fact.  He calls out to us over the years, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  In his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead….”

    Illustration Idea

    In his marvelous little book on hope, Standing on the Promises, Lewis Smedes tells this little parable.  “To live the human life is something like taking a long hike on a crooked trail up a rocky hill to a place at the crest where we have all that our soul longs for.   Things like lasting love, good health, peace of mind, joy of heart, and, to make life completely blessed, a close fellowship with God.  The hill is not all that steep, amateur climbers in reasonably good shape can manage it, but there are obstacles at every twist of the trail: rapid streams without bridges;  logs fallen over the path; the trail is often fiendishly slick.  And there are temptations to give up and settle where we are: wondrous vistas, campsites so comfortable we hate to leave them, and contented folks we meet along the way who tell us that things are as good as they can get.  But we keep climbing.  What keeps us going?  Only one thing provides strength for the journey; it is the hope that we will make it to the top.”  Smedes concludes with this powerful claim.  “There is nothing more important to the success of our journey to a future we cannot control than keeping our hope alive.”