Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lord of All (a sermon for Easter Sunday on Acts 10:36)

On Good Friday we were talking about the incredible scene in John’s Gospel where Jesus is on trial before Pontius Pilate. Jesus has been brought to Pilate as a potential rebel against the Roman Empire, one who claimed to be ‘King of the Jews’. Of course, he doesn’t look very much like a king – this carpenter rabbi from Nazareth with his ragtag band of followers doesn’t look like much of a threat to the mighty legions of the Roman Empire. But Pilate has to be careful; unlikely-looking figures have started revolutions before, and if the crowds get behind them, things can get messy.

So Pilate questions Jesus, and at one point he gets frustrated because Jesus won’t answer his questions. He says, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” And then Jesus looks at him and says, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:10-11).

Here are the kingdoms of this world going head to head with the kingdom of God. Pilate is the representative of the Roman Empire; he commands the legions and he has the power to kill anyone who gets in his way. And he’s quite prepared to assert that power over Jesus. Jesus, on the other hand, has walked all over Galilee and Judea proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand: that God, not Caesar, is the true ruler here. Even now, when he’s on trial for his life, Jesus still maintains that God is in control. Pilate thinks Jesus is on trial in his court, but Jesus thinks Pilate and the whole world are on trial in the court of God. Pilate thinks there are enormous consequences for Jesus if he gives the wrong answers to his questions. Jesus thinks there are enormous consequences for Pilate, and the whole world, if we reject the one God has sent as his anointed King.

Less than a decade after this scene in Jerusalem, another Galilean preacher stood in front of another representative of the Roman Empire, albeit a much more friendly one than Pilate. The Galilean preacher was Simon Peter, and the representative of Rome was the centurion Cornelius, a godly man who had been told by an angel to send for Peter and listen to what he had to say. We read the words Peter spoke to Cornelius and his household in our reading from Acts this morning; let me remind you of a couple of verses:
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation everyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all” (Acts 10:34-36).
Jesus Christ is Lord of all – what a breathtaking claim for Peter to make. How had he come to believe it?

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 one who God had anointed as Lord of everything and everyone.

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.

It’s a little difficult to be sure of all the details of what happened on Sunday morning. Not surprisingly, when they started writing down the events years later the eyewitnesses didn’t always remember everything right. What order did things happen in? How many women went to the tomb? Who exactly said what? Did Mary Magdalene see Jesus first by herself, or was she with someone else at the time? This shouldn’t surprise us, of course; eyewitness accounts are often like that, and when the early church was deciding which books should be included in the New Testament, they very wisely chose not to try to harmonize the four accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.

But we can be sure of the main events of that Sunday. Early in the 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. Some accounts say they saw Jesus at that time; others say it wasn’t until a little later.

When Peter and John heard about this, they ran to the tomb and found everything as the women had said. After they left, John’s gospel tells us that Mary stayed weeping by the tomb, and there she had an encounter with the Risen Jesus. Later that afternoon Jesus also appeared to Peter, but we aren’t told anything about that meeting.

That same 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.

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. 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.

But now 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.

We all know that the history of the world is littered with the graves of formerly 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, questions naturally arise in our minds about this. 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 hear a lot about ‘the second coming of Jesus’, but in fact this phrase is not often used in the New Testament. 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. How do we respond 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, love 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’re full of joy this morning.

The second word is discipleship. 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. We’re called to be ‘contagious Christians’: people whose love and joy is truly infectious, people who change the world around them by the kind of people they are, and who invite others to do the same.

Joyful disciples of Jesus who spread his love to others: that’s what the Easter story calls us to be. May it be so, for you and me, with the help of our risen Lord Jesus! Amen.

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