Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sermon for Easter Day: Acts 2:22-36

Jesus and the Victory of God

When I’m talking to people about the Gospel I sometimes ask them, ‘What do you think the essential message of Christianity really is?’ Far and away the most common reply is something like this: ‘Love thy neighbour’. On this understanding, a Christian is someone who loves their neighbour, tries to be a good person and so on. People will even say to me, “I don’t go to church, but I try to be a good person, and I think that’s more important’.

There’s a basic problem with this answer, and I’ll tell you what it is. In the New Testament the essential Christian message is called ‘the Gospel’, and the word ‘Gospel’ means ‘Good News’. But ‘love thy neighbour’ is not good news – it’s good advice. Quite excellent advice, in fact; the world would be a much better place if people just learned to love their neighbour as they love themselves. I don’t have a word to say against that idea; I just want to point out that it’s not the first and most important part of the Christian message. The first and most important part is not a bit of advice, but a wonderful announcement of good news.

What is this good news? Again, when I ask people that question, I sometimes get some very confused looks. Not so in the early church; the early Christians were crystal clear about what the good news is. One way of focusing on this is to ask a further question: Which verse from the Old Testament is most frequently quoted in the New Testament? A lot of people think it’s ‘love thy neighbour’, but it isn’t. The most frequently quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament is Psalm 110:1: ‘The LORD says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”’. Over and over again, when the early Christian preachers tell the story of what God has done in Jesus, they quote this verse.

For instance, seven weeks after Jesus’ resurrection and ten days after he had ascended into heaven, a hundred and twenty followers of Jesus were praying together in one place when suddenly they heard a sound like the rushing of the wind. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Holy Spirit gave them that power.

A crowd quickly gathered, curious about what was happening; they became even more curious when some of the languages were recognised. Some of the bystanders scoffed and said that the Christians were drunk, so Peter, the leader of the Christian group, stood up and began to address the crowd to explain what was happening. He reminded them of the Old Testament prophecies about how in the last days God would pour out his Holy Spirit on all people; this, he said, was what they were seeing and hearing. He then went on to talk about the life and ministry of Jesus:
‘Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power’ (Acts 2:22-24).
He then quoted some more Old Testament prophecies and discussed them for a few verses before coming to the punch line of his sermon. This is what he said:
‘This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool’”. Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified’ (Acts 2:32-36).
There’s that verse again: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool’”. Why would the apostles quote such a strange verse? In the original context, Psalm 110 is a song celebrating the victory of God’s anointed king over his enemies. When the early Christians quoted this psalm, they were expressing their joyful faith that although the powers and authorities of this wicked world rejected Jesus and crucified him, God had turned the tables on them. ‘Therefore let all Israel be assured of this’, says Peter; ‘God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah’.

Jesus had spent his entire ministry announcing the coming of the kingdom of God – in other words, the time when God would really become king of his world - and you don’t have to read his parables very far to see that he saw himself as having a central place in all of that: the kingdom was being established through his work. After his death and resurrection, the early Christians went out all over the known world and told people that through these events God had won the great victory over evil. Jesus had been faithful to God’s call on his life and had suffered for it without retaliation: he who called his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who hated them had done exactly that himself, showing to the whole world that the God he came to reveal to us is a God who does not render evil for evil, but loves us until the end. Except that the end was not the end. God had raised him from the dead in great triumph, and it was the conviction of the early Christians that Jesus, not Caesar Augustus, was now the true ruler of the universe. ‘Exalted to the right hand of God’, says Peter, ‘he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear’ (Acts 2:33).

This is the good news – that the true Lord of the universe, the one who will have the last word on the last day, the one to whom eventually everyone will be accountable, is our Master Jesus, who turns out to be not just a carpenter rabbi from Nazareth but the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us. The highest authority in the universe is not the faceless entities that the apostle Paul calls ‘the principalities and powers’ – we might say, the structures of the world as we know it, political and economic and social structures. It isn’t the boards of multinational corporations or the masters of war or the shadowy figures of international terrorism. One day all of these will have to bow to the one who is the true Lord of all, so that, as Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (2:10-11).

This good news, you see, is why the early Christians could face death without fear. They had seen their Lord put to death by the principalities and powers of this world, and they had tasted the bitterness of despair. No doubt they had the same questions that people always have in these situations: why do the righteous always get trampled on like this? Why do the good always die young?

I want you to notice what Peter did not say in his sermon in answer to those questions. He did not say, ‘You crucified Jesus, but that’s okay because we know that he’s gone to heaven to be with God, and in a sense he’s still with us, just gone into the next room, you know’. Some of us heard Bishop Tom Wright describe this view this past week in a parody of the words of an old familiar song: ‘Jesus’ body lies a moldering in the grace, but his soul is marching on’!

That is emphatically not what changed the lives of these disciples. These first Christians had just had the stuffing knocked out of them; they had believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed king who God had sent to lead Israel to freedom, but it was not part of the script that the Messiah would be killed by his enemies – it was supposed to be the other way around! If Jesus was killed by his enemies, that meant that God had abandoned him, and that could only mean that he had not been the Messiah after all; he was a pretender who had been misleading the people. In that situation, it was no consolation to say, ‘But he was still a good man, and we know he’s gone to heaven, and his teaching can still guide us’. If Jesus had been wrong about the central point of his message – the idea that the kingdom of God was being established through his work – then how could they trust the rest of his teaching?

No – what changed those early Christians so dramatically was not that they gradually realised that Jesus had gone to heaven after he died. What happened was that they saw him alive again, alive in a physical sense, after his death. At first they just couldn’t believe it; they couldn’t take in such a shocking reality. But when they could no longer deny it, they realised that even death, the most fearsome enemy, the final end for all humanity, is not the end. This is why they could continue to love their enemies and submit to persecution and death joyfully at their hands: because they knew that death is not the end. Jesus is the risen Lord, and he has started a resurrection movement. I may go down to the grave, but I’m not staying long! So what is there to be afraid of?

So the Gospel comes back to this shining conviction: God has made his Son Jesus Christ the Lord of all. And as Lord of all, Jesus is gathering together a people for himself, a people coming from every tribe and language and people and nation. He is making them citizens of the kingdom of God and teaching them the way of life of that kingdom. This is where ‘Love thy neighbour’ fits in, you see; it’s not the centre of the good news, it’s a consequence of it. And we aren’t left to love our neighbours by our own resources; that wouldn’t be very good news, because quite frankly, some of our neighbours are very hard to love! But Jesus is still pouring out the Holy Spirit on his followers, the Spirit of God himself, the Spirit who can change our lives and give us the power to be the people God dreamed for us to be when he created us. The God who could raise his Son from the dead is quite strong enough to set us free from old destructive habits and help us live lives of love for God and for one another.

And that’s what these baptisms this morning are all about. Going on a little further in the book of Acts, we read that the crowd who had been listening to Peter’s sermon asked, ‘“Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:37-38).

I became a Canadian citizen in the summer of 1984 after living here as a landed immigrant for over eight years. I was living in rural Saskatchewan at the time; I decided that I wanted to become a Canadian citizen, and so I first went through a preparation process of learning about Canada’s history and laws. Then on the day in question I traveled down to Saskatoon, took my citizenship oath before a judge, and was given a certificate to prove that I was now a Canadian citizen.

What we are doing this morning is a kind of citizenship ceremony. Our baptismal candidates today are not adults like those early Christian converts; they are children whose parents consider themselves to be followers of Jesus and citizens of his kingdom, and want their children to be included in this citizenship with them. These parents have been through some baptismal preparation, and are now ready to stand up and profess their faith that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and have their children baptized into that faith.

That is the faith we profess as a church on this Easter Sunday. We believe that through the resurrection God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah, and that he will one day come again to judge the living and the dead. The last word will not go to the forces of evil who seem to be strong in the world around us; the last world will go to the one who loved us and gave himself for us, the Son of God himself, Jesus Christ our Lord. So let us, his baptized followers, go from this church this morning full of joy and hope, to take part in his work of renewing the whole world and truly making it the kingdom of God.


paul said...

Bless you, Tim. What a fantastic sermon for Resurrection Day!


Malcolm+ said...

I quite like your distinction between "good news" and "good advice."

As such, I'd like to point out that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.