Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Sermon: Peter's Easter Sermon

Acts 10:34-43

I have been a pastor for 24 years now. Which means I have been through 24 Easters. One of the challenges of that is trying to continue to tell the story of Christ’s resurrection in a way that is meaningful and fresh. Not that this amazing and incredible event needs to be freshened up, or changed, because it is a powerful story from the very first. But the reality is, to keep myself spiritually growing (and probably for you to keep spiritually growing) we need to keep listening for what God is telling us anew even in the old stories. And that can be quite hard.

So this year, rather than focus on Mary meeting Jesus in the garden, which is an amazing story, as we saw in the video, I want to focus on the passage that was just read where Peter is speaking in the book of Acts.

Here Peter tells us how he interprets the events of Easter. He was one of the first witnesses to the resurrection, and we have been given the gift of hearing what he thinks it means. What does he feel is important, what does he want us to learn from this event?

He starts with a brief retelling of Jesus’ life. How first there was John who prepared the way by preaching about baptism, and then Jesus came doing good and healing. Then they killed him, but God raised him up, and we saw him. Not everyone saw him, but there were those of us who ate and drank with him after he had been raised from the dead.

Now, what I notice in this retelling is that Peter is a very matter of fact, short and sweet, and not a lot of emotion, kind of guy. His story is plain and to the point. He doesn’t get into how he felt when Jesus died, he doesn’t tell you that Mary was all teary-eyed at the tomb. Jesus simply died and was alive again. That’s all there is to it. Partly that is his personality, but I think it is also because Peter doesn’t think that Easter is about the emotional reunion with Jesus. He doesn’t think that Easter is even about the suffering of Jesus. The miracle itself isn’t even all that important, other than it happened.

Instead, Peter tells us that the resurrection of Christ is an event that teaches us that through Christ’s death and resurrection he has been appointed as judge of the living and the dead, and that anyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

In many ways, it isn’t how we normally approach Easter. Normally we think of Easter as the victory over death, the surprising reality that the power of God can bring life from beyond the grave. But Peter isn’t really surprised by that. I think as a devout Jew he already believed in life after death – that wasn’t what shocked him – he already expected to meet God after he died. What Peter emphasizes is that in that meeting, through Jesus we have a judge who bases his decisions on forgiveness.

What has changed is not that there is life beyond this one, he has always believed that. But what has changed is how he sees God. God is no longer a harsh judge, or a judge who favors one group of people over another. No longer is God the one who is eager to sentence us. Rather, God has shown us something quite different through Jesus. Sinners could be forgiven. The unloved could be loved.

“A large prosperous downtown church had three mission churches under its care that it had started.

On the first Sunday of the New Year all the members of the mission churches came to the city church for a combined Communion service. In those mission churches, which were located in the slums of the city, were some outstanding cases of conversions thieves, burglars, and so on but all knelt side-by-side at the Communion rail.’

“On one such occasion the pastor saw a former burglar kneeling beside a judge of the Supreme Court of England it was the judge who had sent him to jail where he had served seven years. After his release this burglar had been converted and became a Christian worker. Yet, as they knelt there, the judge and the former convict neither one seemed to be aware of the other.’

“After the service, the judge was walking home with the pastor and said to the pastor, "Did you notice who was kneeling beside me at the Communion rail this morning?"

“The pastor replied, "Yes, but I didn't know that you noticed." The two walked along in silence for a few more moments, and then the judge said, "What a miracle of grace."

The pastor nodded in agreement. "Yes, what marvelous miracle of grace."

Then the judge said "But to whom do you refer?" And the pastor said, "Why, to the conversion of that convict." The judge said, "But I was not referring to him. I was thinking of myself." The pastor, surprised, replied: "You were thinking of yourself? I don't understand."

"Yes," the judge replied, "it did not cost that burglar much to get converted when he came out of jail. He had nothing but a history of crime behind him, and when he saw Jesus as his Savior he knew there was salvation and hope and joy for him. And he knew how much he needed that help. But look at me. I was taught from earliest infancy to live as a gentleman; that my word was to be my bond; that I was to say my prayers, go to church, take Communion and so on. I went through Oxford, took my degrees, was called to the bar and eventually became a judge. Pastor, nothing but the grace of God could have caused me to admit that I was a sinner on level with that burglar. It took much more grace to forgive me for all my pride and self deception, to get me to admit that I was no better in the eyes of God than that convict that I sent to prison."[1]

What Peter learns through this the death and resurrection of Christ is that Jesus forgave him even when he turned his back on him.

This coming from a man who just prior to Jesus’ death denies him three times before the rooster crowed. When he denied knowing Jesus, Jesus loved him anyway. He has learned that God, rather than wanting to condemn us, wants to forgive us. That is what God would prefer. And God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another in offering that. God has set up Jesus as our judge and he has shown that he is willing to welcome all people, even those who would turn their backs on their best friends in times of trial. That’s what Peter has learned.

As people who claim and follow the resurrected Christ we far too often want to put limitations of the reaches of God’s forgiveness, we far too often want to suggest that God does play favorites, we far too often act like God judges different types of people using different criteria.

Peter at one time fell into that error himself. He thought God favored the Jews. He thought that forgiveness was limited to those of his own religion. But through life experience, dreams, and the Holy Spirit he realizes that that is not what Easter teaches. Easter is about God’s love for all who believe. No matter what color their skin, no matter what nation they come from, whether they are immigrants or native peoples. No matter their gender, their criminal record, the size of their feet, or what they had for breakfast this morning. Not even their favorite sin matters, or the struggles they have in life. Christ died and rose to forgive you and you and you and them and them and them.

Easter is more than just a story about a man who was dead who suddenly wasn’t dead. It is about the power of God to bring life in all things, especially to things that seem to have no chance at life.

In his nearly incredible report out of South Africa, No Future without Forgiveness (New York: Image Doubleday, 1999), Archbishop Desmond Tutu's seems to see Jesus in a very similar way to Peter – although he is a man of much more flowery language, he says much the same thing.

Listen: "There is a movement, not easily discernible, at the heart of things to reverse the awful centrifugal force of alienation, brokenness, division, hostility, and disharmony. God has set in motion a centripetal process, a moving toward the center, toward unity, harmony, goodness, peace and justice, a process that removes barriers. Jesus says, 'And when I am lifted up from the earth I shall draw everyone to myself' as he hangs from His cross with outflung arms, thrown out to clasp all, everyone, and everything, in a cosmic embrace, so that all, everyone, everything, belongs" (p. 265).[2]

For Peter that is the miracle. No longer are we subject to sin, to death, to shame, or to evil. Because we are drawn into the embrace of God through Christ. Now we can live, fully and completely in Christ’s name. And all of this is Christ’s gift offered to us without price.

[1] Tyndale, Illustrations Unlimited, by James Hewett
[2] ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., ChristianGlobe Illustrations, by John Gibbs

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