Sunday, April 15, 2018

What Does the Resurrection Mean? (a sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter on Acts 2:36-41)

We have an embarressing largesse of materials to help us piece together the movements of the apostle Peter from the Thursday evening of the Last Supper to the day of Pentecost seven weeks later. He’s mentioned in all four of the gospels and the Book of Acts, and even though these eyewitness accounts don’t agree in all the details, the general outline is pretty clear. I want to start this morning by just reminding you of the gist of that story, because it bears on our reading from Acts today and the things I want to say about it.

First, we need to remember the extravagent vow that Peter made on Thursday evening. At the last supper Jesus shocked all his disciples by foretelling that one of them would betray him. But he didn’t stop there; he said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’…Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not”. Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times”. But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you”’ (Mark 14:27, 29-31).

We all know what came of that vow. Let’s give credit where credit is due: Peter did better than all the rest of the male disciples. In the garden of Gethsemane, after Jesus was arrested, everyone else ran away in fear. But Peter followed at a distance; he followed all the way to the courtyard of the high priest’s house, where the hearings were taking place. There his courage failed him. He was recognized by some of the people there, and challenged three times: “You’re also one of this man’s disciples!” And each time he denied it: “I am not!” And then he realized what he had done, and he went out and wept.

That’s the last we hear of Peter until Easter Sunday morning, but it’s not hard for me to fill in the blanks. Peter had made his promise before all the other disciples; they had all heard him. I’m guessing that after his failure, it took a long time for him to work up the courage to rejoin the others. Maybe he hoped they hadn’t heard what had happened in the high priest’s house, but he couldn’t be sure. Likely it was only the fact that they had failed just as spectacularly as he had, that made it possible for him to show his face among them.

And so comes Sunday morning. They’re all together in the upper room when a knock comes on the door. I can imagine their fear; is is the police, come to arrest them? But no, it’s Mary Magdalene, and maybe also some of the other women; they’ve been to the tomb and found it empty, and a young man or an angel has told them that he has risen. Peter and John look at each other, and they’re off. John’s younger and he runs a little faster; Mary Magdalene follows behind. John gets to the tomb, looks in and sees that the body is gone, although the linen cloths it was wrapped in are still there. Peter arrives and goes boldly into the tomb. They see, and they remember what Jesus said, but they go back to the upper room. Mary stays, and so she’s the first one to see the risen Lord alive. Back she goes to the upper room again, and we can imagine the glow on her face as she says, “I’ve seen the Lord!”

Later that afternoon, Jesus appears to Peter by himelf. We have absolutely no idea what happened at that meeting, because it isn’t described for us in the gospels; it’s only mentioned briefly in Luke, when the couple who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus come back with the news that he is alive. But the others aren’t surprised, because they’re saying to each other, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34).

I would love to know what happened at that meeting! Did Peter apologize and ask Jesus’ forgiveness? Did Jesus speak individual words of forgiveness to him, “Peace be with you?” We don’t know. But we do know that after the two from Emmaus came in, suddenly Jesus was standing among them, as we heard in our gospel reasing for today. He gave his greeting of peace; he showed them his hands and side. And just in case they thought they were seeing a ghost or spirit, he ate a piece of fish in their presence.

And so the resurrection stories continue. There’s another one mentioned in John’s gospel; it takes place back in Galilee, at the lake. The disciples have gone fishing and caught nothing, even though they’ve worked all night. In the dim light of morning they see a figure by the lakeside; “Any fish, boys? Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some”. So they do, and immediately their nets fill up. No doubt Peter and Andrew remember the same thing happening right back at the beginning of the gospel story when Jesus first called them; John was there too, and he realizes who it is by the lakeshore: “It’s the Lord!” Peter is so excited that he jumps into the lake and swims to shore, and sure enough, it isthe Lord!

After breakfast Jesus does some personal mnistry with Peter. Peter had denied three times that he even knew Jesus; now Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” And when Peter affirms his love, Jesus gives him a new commission – “feed my sheep” – as well as warning him that one day he will pay the ultimate price for his commitment to Jesus. ‘After this he said to him, “Follow me”’ (John 21:19).

And so Peter is again the leader of the little apostolic band. After Jesus ascends into heaven, Peter is the one who presides when the goup chooses another person to take the place of Judas. The disciples heard Jesus’ command to wait in Jerusalem until they receive the Holy Spirit, and so they do. And on the Day of Pentecost Peter and his friends receive the Holy Spirit in an extraordinary way. They hear a sound from heaven like a hurricane. They see a vision of little tongues of fire resting on the head of each believer. And then their mouths are opened and they begin to speak about the mighty acts of God in languages they haven’t learned!

A crowd gathers – some say “They’ve been drinking, that’s for sure!” And so Peter is the one to step forward. He points out an old prophecy in the book of Joel; in the last days God will pour out his Spirit on everyone – not just leaders and prophets, but young and old, men and women, slave and free. That’s what’s happening here, Peter says; these are the days Joel was talking about.

Then he reminds them of the story of Jesus, and especially how ‘you’ - that is, the leaders and the crowd) - crucified him, but God then vindicated him by raising him up. Now he’s been exalted to the throne of heaven and he’s poured out the Holy Spirit on ordinary people – not just prophets and priests, but fishermen and tax collectors, men and women, slaves and free.

I find it helpful to remember that this event takes place only seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus. In other words, it’s still news! Peter’s still waking up in the morning and pinching himself to see if he’s dreaming! And so when he talks to people about the gospel, he goes straight to the resurrection! It’s only in the light of the resurrection that everything else makes sense to him!

But he’s had seven weeks to think about it, and he’s begun to realize what it means and why it’s so important. Look at today’s passage from Acts, which comes from the end of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. After describing the resurrection of Jesus and quoting the Old Testament scriptures, Peter says, “Therefore let the whole house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

This is the first thing the resurrection means: it means that Jesus’ claims are true.The Messiah is the king God is sending to set his peope free and usher in the reign of God on earth. Many people in the first century A.D. came claiming to be the Messiah; they raised armies, rebelled against the Romans, and all of them were wiped out and forgotten. And for forty-eight hours, it looked like Jesus was going to be just another like them. Certainly when the disciples saw him die, they must have begun to doubt. The Messiah’s supposed to win victories over God’s enemies! He’s not supposed to be killed by them!

But the resurrection changed all this. God had vindicated Jesus! Jesus had loved his enemies, prayed for those who hated him, given himself over to death and trusted that his Father would not abandon him – and God had come through for him in an extraordinary way.

‘God has made him both Lord and Messiah’ (2:36). As I’ve said many times before, ‘Lord’ was one of the official titles of the Roman emperor. If one of Jesus’ apostles stood up today and said, “God has made him leader of the free world, this Jesus whom you crucified”, everyone would know which particular political leader they were talking about! Caesar was the most powerful leader in the world at that time, but Jesus is above him. He’s above every rival authority, every president, every tyrant, every business leader, every celebrity. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel he says to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).

So today, two thousand years later, the resurrection means that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. We Christians believe that God is gathering together a new people, a people who acknowledge and confess that Jesus is Lord, and commit to being his citizens and living by the laws of his Kingdom. We refuse to let any other Lord usurp his position. He comes first. We believe that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. And so we believe that our response to him matters. Following him isn’t just a matter of adding a few Sunday mornings a year to our busy social schedule. It’s about totally reshaping our lives around his leadership. That’s the first difference the resurrection makes.

Here’s the second thing. In verse 38 Peter says, “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”. The resurrection means that our sins can be forgiven. Why? Because before he died, Jesus prayed for those who executed him: “Father, forgive them”. That might just have been a nice inspirational quote if death had been the end for Jesus. But death was not the end; God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead.

Think of those words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). We can imagine the disciples shaking their heads; “Is he comparing himself with an animal sacrifice? How weird is that?” But after the resurrection it was no longer weird. We’re told in several places that Jesus explained to them all the Old Testament scriptures concerning himself. No, this death was not an accident; it was the ultimate example of how God treats his enemies: loving and forgiving them. The resurrection validates all this.

If I was Peter, I’d have been particularly interested in this. After all, he had failed Jesus spectacularly! He must have thought that any hope he might have of further ministry for Jesus was over, dead and gone, buried in the tomb with Jesus. But now Jesus is raised, and his words are not “You really blew it, didn’t you?” but “Peace be with you”. 

What about you and me? We’re ordinary, fallible human beings. We’ve all got things we’re ashamed of – words we’ve said or left unsaid, actions we’ve done and left undone. But the resurrection tells us that love wins over hate, mercy triumphs over judgement. You can come – I can come – all who are willing to repent and believe can come and ask for forgiveness, and receive it. And then, of course, we’re commanded to pass it on to others too.

One more thing. The resurrection not only means that Jesus’ claims are true and that our sins can be forgiven; it means we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “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 2:38).

This is a big deal. Nowadays people tend to believe that priests and ministers get a special dose of the Holy Spirit that’s not available to everyone else. In Old Testament times the Spirit was given to special people – prophets, kings, priests – but not to everyone. That’s why the prophecy Peter quoted from Joel on the Day of Petnecost was so important: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those  days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy’ (Acts 2:17-18).

Please don’t miss how radical this was. Women were not usually seen as spiritual leaders; slaves would not have been allowed to speak in the assembly; old people were venerated but young people would not generally be respected in the same way. But now all these groups are included in this radical new vision. Every single believer will receive the gift of God’s Spirit. All of you here – every one of us – no matter what gender we are, no matter how rich or poor we are, no matter how old or young we are – every one of us is offered the joy of having God live in us by his Holy Spirit, and so we will be able to speak in his name.

That’s what was happening on the Day of Pentecost. Please don’t think of Pentecost as being the day when twelve venerable old bishops received the Holy Spirit! These are uneducated Galilean fishermen, people who would never have gotten a look in when the priests were discussing the scriptures. And let’s not forget the women! Acts chapter one says that there were about a hundred and twenty disciples of Jesus in the gathering, and in thst group were ‘certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus’ (Acts 1:14). I’m guessing Mary Magdalene - the first witness of the resurrection – would have been there, and Mary and Martha of Bethany too.

Peter explained the coming of the Holy Spirit in his sermon: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, (Jesus) has poured out this that you both see and hear” (Acts 2:33). Jesus is risen, he has the place of authority in heaven, and as the King of all Kings he can give kingly gifts to his people. Chief among those gifts is the gift of the Hoy Spirit.

So let me announce to you again the good news that we have received. We humans rejected Jesus and crucified him – surely the most heinous act we’ve ever committed. But God rejected our rejection; God forgave us our sins and raised Jesus from the dead. God has made him Lord of all, high above any other power and authority; Jesus is the true Lord of heaven and earth. And this is good news for us, because his character hasn’t changed: the Lord of heaven and earth is still loving and merciful, loving and forgiving his enemies and his weak and fallible friends. So whatever you’ve done that troubles your conscience, don’t let it keep you away. Come and ask for forgiveness, and receive it with joy. And then come and pray again to be filled with the Holy Spirit. “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39).

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