Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sermon for Easter Sunday 2010

Lord of All

In July 1999 a new statue was set up in Trafalgar Square in London. Trafalgar Square dates back to the year 1843, when it was originally opened in honour of Admiral Nelson’s victory over the French Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar nearly forty years earlier. In the centre of course is a great column crowned with a statue of Nelson himself. This column is surrounded by four large stone platforms, one at each corner of the square, and the original plan was to have the platforms hold four statues: King George IV, King William IV, Sir Henry Havelock, and Sir Charles Napier. However, King William never came through with the money to pay for his statue, and so for 156 years his platform stood empty!

As the millennium approached, the celebration of the 2000th anniversary of Jesus’ birth, it was decided that a statue should be installed on this empty platform – a statue of Jesus himself. And so in July 1999 the statue ‘Ecce Homo’, by Mark Wallinger, was installed. It was a life-size statue and so was a mere fraction of the size of the platform itself. Jesus was shown as naked except for a loincloth, with his hands tied behind his back and a barbed wire ‘crown of thorns’ on his head. He looked tiny and inconsequential compared to the grandeur of the rest of the square. Many people objected strongly to the statue. ‘You couldn’t put your faith in someone like that!’ said one man; ‘He’s as weak as a kitten!’ A Christian magazine commented ‘He looks so vulnerable, an anomaly, naked, a statue of weakness. Will it send out all the wrong signals?’

Of course, this always was the scandal of Jesus. He was hailed as the Messiah, but how could God allow the Messiah, the deliverer of Israel, to be defeated and nailed to a cross? He was crucified in public, for all the world to see – a Galilean carpenter, a would-be revolutionary. The empire was saying to its subjects ‘This is what the might of Rome does to rebels, so learn your lesson, you Judean scum!’ But less than a decade later the apostle Peter, a former fisherman, stood before a representative of the military might of Rome and said something breathtaking about this crucified nobody. We read the words of Peter in our reading from Acts this morning; talking about Jesus, he says quite calmly, “He is Lord of all”.

How had Peter come to believe that Jesus is Lord of all? He had come to believe it because of Jesus’ resurrection. Peter and his friends had thought that the mission of Jesus was over on Good Friday. Jesus had obviously been wrong, and Peter had wasted three years of his life following him. But on the third day Jesus triumphed over the greatest enemy any human can face – death itself. If he was Lord over death itself, what could possibly be left outside the scope of his authority? And so Peter and his companions devoted the rest of their lives to spreading the good news that their Jesus, the loving, wise, and sometimes infuriating Master they had followed for three years, was in fact the Lord of the Universe.

Let’s go back to the Friday night after Jesus died. The Sabbath day started at six o’clock in the evening, and all the stores were closed. The women were not able to buy all the supplies they needed to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial. So they promised themselves that they would come back after the Sabbath and finish the job. Jesus was buried hurriedly in a rich man’s tomb, a cave in the hillside with a huge stone rolled over its entrance. Later on that night, a Roman guard was posted to keep it secure.

On the Sunday morning the women went back to the tomb and found the stone rolled away, and no sign of the guards. Inside the tomb the body was gone. Interestingly, though, the grave clothes were not – and the women probably grasped very quickly that this made it very unlikely that it was the work of grave robbers, who would have left the body and taken everything else. Some accounts say that the women saw a vision of angels who told them that Jesus had risen. However, they were understandably terrified and they all ran away.

One of them, Mary Magdalene, ran to the place where the disciples were hiding and told them about the missing body. Peter and John ran to the tomb and found everything as she had said. After they left, Mary stayed weeping by the tomb, and there she had the encounter with the Risen Jesus we heard about this morning in our Gospel reading. Later that afternoon Jesus also appeared to Peter, a meeting we are given no information about beyond the fact that it happened.

That afternoon two of Jesus’ followers were walking to the village of Emmaus when Jesus came and walked with them. At first, mysteriously, they didn’t recognise him. But when he entered their house and broke bread with them their eyes were opened, and they ran back to Jerusalem with the news. The apostles were gathered in the upper room where they had eaten the last supper. There at last Jesus appeared to them as a group.

For a period of forty days these appearances continued. Jesus’ followers never knew for sure when he might show up! And even though they didn’t see him again in the same way after he ascended into heaven, they all believed strongly that he was still with them, in a way that was very real to them. And so they went out and shared this good news with the whole world, as he had told them to do.

What impact did these events have on these early Christians? What impact do they have on us today? Well, one thing we can say for sure that the early Christians believed is this: the Resurrection means that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.

I don’t know how many of you have read any of Ellis Peters’ ‘Brother Cadfael’ mysteries or seen them on A&E. Many of them are set in a time of civil war in twelfth century England, the struggle between the factions of King Stephen and the Empress Maud. It was a dangerous time for ordinary people and even for members of the nobility. First one faction would get the upper hand, then the other. Each time one side rose to power, reprisals would be carried out against supporters of the other side. This was hard for people who were just trying to get on with their lives and save their necks. The trick, of course, was to pick the side that would win in the end. How would you know which side it would be? You would just hope that the final victor would turn out to be a good ruler, not an evil tyrant.

The world in Jesus’ day was ruled by an evil tyrant: the Roman emperor. Of course, the Romans themselves didn’t think they were evil; they thought they had brought peace, justice and good government to the world. But conquered peoples tend to see this differently, as the British learned in the last century to their cost, and as the Americans are now learning. Two of the titles the Romans gave their emperor were ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’; he had the power to save any who called on him should he decide to do so, and his authority was absolute.

It was in this context that the apostles went out and told everyone that their Master Jesus was the Saviour of the World and the Lord of All – the very titles Romans gave to their emperor! The apostles called this message ‘The Gospel’ – the ‘good news’ – the message that the one who will have the last word in history will not be an evil tyrant, but their loving Lord who gave his life for everyone. The final triumph will be the triumph of good, not evil.

The history of the world is littered with powerful people. Empires and emperors come and go. Napoleon’s empire passed away, and so did the Third Reich and the British Empire. One thing all the tyrants of history have in common is that they all died! Lenin’s body was preserved in Red Square for seventy years after he died, but he never spoke or did anything after his death. In all of human history only one leader has been raised from the dead: the one who lived, not by the love of power, but by the power of love. He alone is Lord of all, and on the last day his authority will be supreme. In the Christian Church, we’ve always believed that this is really good news!

Nonetheless, I suspect that questions arise in your minds about this. After all, there is so much suffering in the world, so much injustice, so much anger and violence, and the question so many people struggle with is, where is God in all this? So if Jesus Christ is Lord, why isn’t he acting like a Lord? Why is he a hidden Lord? Why isn’t he putting down the evil and establishing the good? This is an excellent question and it goes to the heart of the way that Christians believe God works.

In some Christian circles you often hear the phrase ‘the second coming of Jesus’, but in fact this phrase is not often used in the New Testament itself. Rather, the New Testament writers tend to use phrases like ‘the day of his appearing’ or ‘the day he will be revealed’. In other words, he isn’t absent: he’s present, and he is Lord, but at the moment his Lordship is hidden. It isn’t obvious right now as we look at the world around us – but one day it will be plain to all.

It’s a bit like the old story of the prince who fell in love with the peasant girl. If he made himself known to her as the prince, she would have no choice but to accept him; who would turn down the chance to marry a future king? But he wanted her to fall in love with him for who he was, not for his position and power in society. And so he disguised himself as a peasant too, and wooed her in that disguise. Only after she had accepted him did he reveal to her who he really was.

One day our Lord Jesus will be revealed for who he really is, the Lord of the universe, and everyone will have to acknowledge his Lordship. However, the deep longing in the heart of God is for people to acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus of their own free will. We sing a song around here with these lines in it: ‘One day every tongue will confess you are God; one day every knee will bow. Still the greatest treasure remains for those who gladly choose you now’.

And that leads to you and me, and our decision to follow Jesus as our Lord and King, and to what the parents of our baptismal candidates are doing this morning. As they bring their children for baptism, they are ‘gladly choosing Jesus now’ – recognising that Jesus is Lord, and committing themselves to a life of learning to follow him. And then they are bringing their children for baptism, committing themselves to bring them up to follow the same Lord Jesus.

This is a wonderful day for them and we rejoice with them. But what about those of us who have already chosen Jesus as our Lord – what is our response to this Easter Gospel story? I think there are three things that this message evokes in us; three words that I want to leave with you this morning.

The first word is joy. The Easter story tells us that on the last page of the story, the good side wins! Tyranny, evil, and death do not get the final word. Jesus was raised from the dead, we too will be raised from the dead one day, and Jesus’ kingdom of love will finally be seen for what it really is - the ultimate reality of the universe. And because of this, we rejoice.

The second word is apprenticeship. Now I won’t be surprised if you had never thought of that word in connection with Easter before! A more common biblical word is ‘discipleship’, but I believe that the word ‘disciple’ is very close in meaning to our modern word ‘apprentice’. In Matthew chapter 28 Jesus says these words to his disciples:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Because Jesus is Lord – because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him – he summons all people to be his followers and to learn the new way of life of the Kingdom of God through him. This is what our baptism means – that we are apprenticed to Jesus as kingdom people. Our business as baptised Christians is to go back into our daily lives, into our homes, our places of work and leisure times, and learn to live in obedience to him day by day.

The third word is invitation. The song says ‘Still the greatest treasure remains for those who gladly choose (Jesus) now’. If we truly understand what this Easter Gospel is all about, we’ll go from this place today excited about sharing the joy of the resurrection with others. Jesus is alive, and he continues to do wonderful things in the lives of ordinary people. We’re called by God to tell others this good news and to invite them to become Jesus’ followers too, until his loving rule reaches to the ends of the earth, and until all people everywhere gladly acknowledge him as their Lord.

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