April 21, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
It seems like social media has been endlessly abuzz lately about the new movie Noah. I have not seen the film but all of the Noah-talk did remind me of the classic Bill Cosby comedy routine on this, which I first heard many years ago and that I found side-splittingly funny (despite its tap dancing on the borderline that led to the territory of what my Dutch relatives always labeled as “sputton,” a.k.a “sacrilegious”). But in the comedy bit, as God revealed his plans for a flood and then ordered Noah to build an ark, Cosby’s Noah responded again and again with a wry, “Right!” (Here is a brief taste in case you’ve not seen it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bputeFGXEjA ). It was Cosby’s cheeky way to remind us that despite the Bible’s tendency to tell stories that proceed with an air of ho-hum inevitability, the truth is that if God ordered you to build a giant boat in the middle of a meadow, your first response would not be “OK, fine, when do I start?” but rather more along the lines of “Right!” and “You can’t be serious!”
So let’s stop pigeon-holing poor Thomas with the adjective “Doubting” for saying exactly what we’d all say if someone came up to us three days after a loved one’s funeral to say they’d run into the once-dead person. Not one of us would say, “That’s wonderful! Thanks for telling me!” No, we’d say “Right!”
Thomas did too and it is wholly understandable. The notion that a dead man was back alive again was not exactly something you grabbed hold of and easily believed in a minute or two. So Thomas plays it safe but also then speculates aloud as to what it might take for him to believe this after all. As he talks, his rhetoric gets more and more exaggerated. “My friends, I’d have to see with my own eyes the nail holes in his hands. No, tell you what, I’d need to touch those holes with my own finger. Better yet, I’d want to stick my whole hand right into his side where the sword pierced him!”
Thomas kept mounting up an ever-larger heap of evidence that he thought he’d need to believe (and was just maybe being increasingly cheeky the more radical he got).
Of course, once he does meet Jesus, all that evaporates. To paraphrase a traditional aphorism, if you don’t have faith, then there will never be evidence enough to convince you and if you do have faith, no evidence is needed. Without faith, no evidence is sufficient; with faith, no evidence is necessary. And although most of us probably agree with that in principle, we can perhaps admit that sometimes we are still hungry for a little evidence, or a little more evidence than we usually have.
Jesus himself knows that faith is both a blessing and a miracle. That’s why he says in verse 29 that while it was one thing for Thomas to believe with Jesus standing right in front of him, it would one day be quite another thing to believe without such undeniable physical proof standing in the same room. But John at least seems confident that he has given us enough for just such faith to be born. That’s why he immediately follows this comment by Jesus with his own commentary in which he says, “Now listen, friends: I have left out a ton. Jesus said and did lots of other really amazing things that I just have not gotten around to even mentioning. But what I have given you is enough. Read it and believe!”
Now I don’t know about you, but when I read how much John left out, there is a part of me that wants to cry, “Tell me!” It’s rather like narrating a story to a little child. You know what happens the moment you say something like, “I’ve left out some of the best parts but I’m not going to tell you all that now!” The child’s reaction is predictably along the lines of, “Awww, come on! Don’t leave me hanging in suspense!”
There was so much more to say but John seems convinced that he had said and written enough. And by the Holy Spirit who guided John’s pen, we believe that he’s right about that. If John could know how many millions of people over the centuries have come to faith, or had their faith strengthened, by what he wrote in this gospel, wouldn’t it most certainly reduce him to tears? Could he have had any idea how great an effect his carefully crafted account of Jesus would finally have?
Sometimes we may find ourselves wanting more, but by faith we need to be satisfied with enough, which is exactly what our God in Christ gives us.
As everyone knows, John 20:30-31 looks powerfully like the end of the gospel. Jesus’ ministry is summarized, John admits he’s written down only a portion of what all Jesus said and did, and then gives the purpose statement for the whole gospel: “But these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ of God and that by believing, you may have life in his name.” You can almost see the words “The End” following that verse. Fade to black.
But then comes the surprise: another entire chapter with a homely story on a beach. Jesus cooks breakfast for his friends, re-commissions Peter despite his recent failing, and then John again concludes the narrative in almost word-for-word replication on the conclusion of John 20 but this time, in John 21:25, he reaches for a hyperbole to indicate that not only did he not write everything down that Jesus said and did (a point he’d already granted at the end of chapter 20) but that as a matter of fact, IF anyone even could write them all down, the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.
This double-ending of John seems strange. It’s almost as though John finds it hard to ring down the curtain on his gospel. He knows it has to end and yet . . . and yet maybe not just yet. One more story. And then when that one final narrative snippet gets written down, he knows he has to quit and so says in essence, “I’m really going to quit this time but it’s not the end of the story. In fact, the story has no end. I have to quit writing and you have to quit reading but in truth, the world isn’t big enough for this story.” It seems to be John’s way of reminding us that when he quits writing and we quit reading, what remains is for us to go out into all the world to tell of the Christ who, though for a while he was in the world, was actually bigger than the world, too. And THAT is something to talk about every day forever and ever!
One of the most difficult disciplines that film actors need to learn is to resist the temptation to look directly at the camera. Actors need to pretend like the camera is not even there because if for even a second or two they glance into that lens, viewers see it immediately. In fact, if you’ve ever watched amateur video productions, then you know that one of the main things that distinguishes amateur work from professional films is that you can often spy one of the people in the scene cutting their eyes in the direction of the camera. It’s hard to resist! But it’s a problem because when it happens, it breaks the magic spell that films try to cast—it breaks down what in theater they call “the fourth wall” which is the one that exists between the stage and the audience. Viewers need to suspend the awareness that this is just play acting so as to get immersed in the movie or the play as though it were really happening. But the second some actor becomes obviously aware of the camera, the viewer is aware of it too and the gig is up.
Occasionally, of course, having an actor intentionally look at the camera is done for humorous effect. It becomes like an inside joke between the actor and the audience. (As in this clip from the movie Trading Places when Eddie Murphy’s character is being condescended to so badly that he looks square at the camera as if to say to the viewers of the movie, “Oh puh-leeze!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emvySA1-3t8 )
In general, though, not looking into the camera remains a thespian rule of thumb.
If you read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, then you know that these three evangelists also avoid, as it were, “looking into the camera.” They tell the story of Jesus straight out but without addressing their reading audiences directly. John, however, is different. Throughout his gospel John keeps stepping out of the scene to talk to us directly as readers. As you read various stories, it’s almost as though John stops the narrative now and again to whisper into your ear, “Now, remember, when Jesus first said this to us, we didn’t get it. It was only years later that we figured it out. OK, now back to our story!”
But nowhere is this as clearly evident as at the end of John 20 when we readers take center stage as John turns directly toward us. He even uses the second person pronoun: “This is written so that you may believe.” You can almost see John’s finger pointed in your direction.
But then . . . what John is writing is no piece of fiction, no novel or play or short story. It is the truth. And it is a truth that comes straight at every one of us!
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Garry Wills once wrote a fine book titled, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. Wills claims that in the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln—in the span of a scant 272 words that took him all of three minutes to deliver—forever altered our understanding of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln was not even the main speaker that day. That honor was given to a then-famous orator named Edward Everett, who spoke just prior to the President. Everett’s soaring rhetoric about the Civil War lasted a whopping two hours. But few now recall his many words, elegant though they were. Lincoln had been asked to make just “a few brief dedicatory remarks” for the new cemetery at Gettysburg, and that’s what he did. So short was the President’s speech that some in the crowd were disconcerted, wondering, “Is that it?!” Indeed, it was.
But it changed history.
The Gettysburg Address changed history but it did so subtly. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here . . .” Mr. Lincoln intoned. But he was wrong. The world has little noted what the Honorable Mr. Everett had to say, but Lincoln’s handful of words are the stuff of oratorical legend. Again, however, it was the subtlety of what he said that altered the nation’s collective thought.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” But Mr. Lincoln, unlike those founding Fathers, was now including the Negro people in the definition of “all men.” That had not generally been the meaning.
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Through a linguistic sleight-of-hand Lincoln turned the tables on his audience and on the nation: he shifted from dedicating a cemetery to making the American people dedicate themselves to a new birth of freedom–a new birth that was nothing less than the end of slavery. Sometimes you do not need many words to create a huge effect. Sometimes you do not need “in your face” rhetoric to get someone’s attention and so alter his or her viewpoint from the inside out.
I was reminded of this speech by a passing comment William Willimon made in his commentary on Acts 2. Given a choice, Willimon noted, most people would much rather read a great narrative than a sermon or a speech. Yet Acts contains lots of sermons and speeches—in fact, Acts contains as many sermons/speeches as it has chapters (28 in all) and Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is the first one.
It’s a remarkable sermon coming from Peter. Actually, it would have been equally remarkable had it come from any of the disciples. After all, a scant ten days earlier the disciples were still just itching for Jesus to “restore the kingdom to Israel.” Nearly six weeks after the resurrection and the disciples were still waiting for Jesus to make his move. Being raised from the dead was a nice trick, sure, but now let’s get down to business and figure out how to get rid of those loathsome Romans.
Jesus had other plans, the first hint of which for the disciples was his floating clean off this earthly plane to return to his Father, telling the disciples as he drifted away to be patient and to wait for some power from on high to descend on them. They did so but across the next week-and-a-half it looks like they accomplished no more than filling Judas’ empty chair with someone named Matthias. I suppose you could find their doing that to be a hopeful sign—after all, you don’t replace someone unless you have some kind of hope and belief that your little enterprise is going to continue. (You don’t hire a new cashier the day before you plan to shutter your hardware store for good, for instance). Still, getting Matthias on board was about all we know about the time that passed between Ascension and Pentecost.
But then the promised Holy Spirit did come and if the Spirit made once-weak and awkward and shy disciples into bold preachers, it is hugely clear from Acts 2 that the Spirit’s first order of business was also to clear up the fog of confusion that had for so long characterized the disciples’ minds when it came to figuring out who Jesus was and what he had come here to accomplish. In a flash, the disciples caught up on all the theology they had never before quite figured out. It was as though God downloaded an entire three-year M.Div. education into their hearts and minds with a broadband speed never before known!
Suddenly it all made sense: Jesus’ life, his witness, his humility, and even that seemingly disastrous event that had taken place on a Friday some seven or so weeks earlier. Suddenly it was not just a coherent story but a divine plan and the successful execution of that plan spelled nothing short of cosmic salvation for all who would believe.
I sometimes think Peter could just as well have been talking about himself and his fellow disciples in this sermon when he says things like “Now once upon a time you all thought Jesus was just kind of special on account of all his miracles . . .” Well, that was true of the disciples, too. The fact that he had been raised as both Lord and Christ seemed to be as much a new piece of information for Peter that day as for anyone who heard his remarkable sermon. They had known Jesus was special, different. But what they did not know was a lot!
Yet on Pentecost it all came clear in a miracle of understanding that is, for my money, far more miraculous and awe-inspiring than any gifts of language or any roaring wind or any tongues of flame. The outward events of that day were really something. But the inward event was no less startling. And it all shows in the sermon that changed the world. For the first time ever in a clear and compelling way, Jesus of Nazareth was publicly proclaimed to have been all along not just a man but the divine Son of God whose death had caused the whole cosmos to turn the corner from darkness into light.
Peter and company were the witnesses, as he said in the final verse of this Year A lection. And as we noted in the sermon starter notes for last week and the Easter passage of Acts 10, it’s quite amazing that God chose to do it this way. The most compelling witness to Jesus came only ten days after the man in question had disappeared from the planet. And although the Holy Spirit is a gift without parallel, the fact is that Peter and company were left with exactly what Peter said: just the ability to bear witness, to testify, to tell people what they knew to be the truth.
That’s what the Church has had from the beginning: words, water, a little bread, a little wine. It doesn’t look like much on the face of it.
But it has changed the world. Thanks be to God!
Peter quotes Psalm 16 and claims that in writing this David (or whoever, we might now point out) was predicting no less than the resurrection from the dead via these words. It may seem an odd use of the psalm. After all, Psalm 16 is a fairly sunny poem and appears to have been written by one of those (vaguely annoying) people for whom everything in life has turned up roses. No wonder such a winner found it easy to believe that his body would rest in hope and that God would not abandon him to the grave—why would God stop blessing him after death seeing as it’s been nothing but a non-stop Blessing-Palooza all along! It’s a little hard to see how this psalm can apply to Jesus, whose life was no bed of roses and ended in a bitter death in which he was abandoned by even God. But since Peter says this points to Christ and to his not being abandoned in death, who are we to argue? (The apostolic credential means Peter always wins!)
But maybe there is another way to think of this. Psalm 16 may seem to be only the celebration of one of life’s lucky winners but it may also be a revelation of the kind of flourishing in this creation that God desires for all people. God never wanted the kinds of suffering and death that has come to characterize altogether too much of life on this planet. God’s ultimate desire was for everyone to thrive, to feel like “a winner,” and to have a life that not even death could eliminate, squash, or snuff out once and for all. God wanted everyone’s body to rest in hope and to know that God would not be undone or unmade by even the one thing that in this world seems more final than final can be.
And God found a way to ensure that for his people. It’s called Easter.
Maybe Psalm 16 points more to Jesus than we thought!
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
Most biblical scholars recognize that Psalm 16 is especially difficult to categorize. Yet most also recognize that the poet’s trust in the Lord is at the heart of this psalm. It shows he knows just where to turn when he’s in trouble.
The psalm’s beginning suggests the poet is under some kind of duress as she writes it. “Keep me safe,” literally, “Watch over me,” she begs God in verse 1. “For in you I take refuge,” she continues. The term “refuge” is the kind of place to which beleaguered people would flee for protection. So the psalmist quickly suggests that she trusts in God to her shelter from whatever (or whomever) is harassing her.
This gives those who preach and teach this psalm to reflect with hearers on to where we naturally turn for protection. People vulnerable to war or terrorism often turn to their government. Those who fear for their personal safety often look to public safety officers. Those who are ill often turn to medical professionals and medicines. The destinations for flight from danger are nearly as diverse as the threats.
So it’s counter-cultural to profess that protection comes from “God” (1). Even the most faithful sometimes turn to God only as a last resort when neither we nor our other protectors can give us what we need.
This counter-cultural profession extends to verse 2 where the psalmist adds, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.” Scholars note this was counter-cultural already in the poet’s day. “Lord” was, after all, a title generally assigned to human masters (and maybe to other gods).
Her profession shows the psalmist recognizes, as James Mays points out, she’s someone who belongs to another. After all, the implication of her confession, “You are my Lord” is, “I am your servant.” Yet the poet doesn’t belong to the variety of masters among whom and which she lives. No, “God” (el) is her Master. For her there is no other Lord. All other “lords” are sources of not joy, but “sorrows” (4).
Yet the poet’s trust in God as Lord isn’t, as Craig Satterlee notes, “a right belief, a warm feeling, or an impulse in times of trouble.” “Trust,” he continues, “is a way of acting and living that opens the self to God as the most important reality in life.” The kind of trust about which the poet writes in Psalm 16 is, in other words, a way of behaving as much as it is a way of thinking. In fact, as Satterlee adds, “We do not take drastic action because we necessarily feel trust; our actions are a way of maintaining or cultivating our trust in God.”
How, then, does that trust in God manifest in the life of the psalmist? She refuses to “run after other gods” (4), opting, instead, to seek her protection in God’s faithful care. The poet praises God (7) and sets the Lord “before” her (8). She also “rejoices” in God’s promises to remain with her even when she goes down to the grave.
In response to the poet’s trust in God, God has graciously poured out a variety of “good things” on his life. God, he professes, has assigned him, in language Joshua uses to describe the land of promise, his “portion” and “cup” (5), his “lot” (5), as well as his “boundary lines” and “delightful inheritance” (6). The good things the poet has are gifts from God.
Such a profession is deeply counter-cultural. After all, citizens of the 21st century assume that we get what we earn through our hard work and good character. Vulnerable people sometimes turn to human agencies to provide for their needs. In other words, people assume that their “portion and cup,” their “lot,” “boundary lines” and “inheritance” come from other people.
The psalmist invites God’s people to see all those good things as coming from God’s gracious hand, even when God channels those good things through people. This requires a fundamental reorientation of the way God’s people think about nearly every good thing. It requires the kind of trust that recognizes that even the good things we assume we “earn,” our daily bread, our health, our strength, are somehow gifts from God’s parental hand.
God will share those good things with her, insists the psalmist, even beyond the grave. “You will not abandon me to the grave,” she professes in verse 10, “Nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” Her Lord will not abandon the poet to Sheol and the Pit, the realm of death. While her contemporaries thought of death as including the loss of God, the poet professes that not even death can separate her from the love of her Lord.
Of course, Christians can scarcely hear these words without thinking of God’s raising of Jesus Christ from the dead. In fact the gospel reading the Lectionary appoints for this particular Sunday is John 20’s account of the risen Jesus’ appearance to his terrified disciples. God the Father did not abandon God the Son Jesus to the grave or let him “see decay.”
Peter also affirms God’s refusal to abandon Jesus to the grave in his famous Pentecost sermon that the Lectionary also appoints for the second Sunday of Easter. Peter, in fact, quotes Psalm 116 quite faithfully. Now the path to life, the apostle insists, is found through the risen Christ.
The kind of trust the psalmist professes is more than an intellectual assent. It’s a way of life. The poet seems to understand that one of the ways to build trust is to put himself in places where God can prove God’s trustworthiness.
It’s the concept at the heart of what we sometimes call “trust games” that are particularly popular with adolescents. Trust games include games like “Mine Field” in which one person verbally guides a blindfolded partner through a minefield that’s been created by various objects that have been scattered around the room. Another is called “Trust Lean.” In it one person falls backwards into the arms of a similar sized partner.
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….”
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.”