April 3, 2016 Sermon for II Easter 2016, By Loren Crow Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29; Rev 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
Hallelujah! The Lord is risen! (He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!) We glory in your cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy resurrection. For by virtue of your cross joy has come to the whole world. Amen.
What must it have been like for those early followers of Jesus? Imagine. You had followed Him from Galilee on the week-long pilgrimage by foot to Jerusalem for Passover, and last week you had probably the worst Passover celebration imaginable, culminating in Jesus’ crucifixion. Then, after people had started leaving the city to return to their homes, you began to hear rumors that He was alive and had appeared to some of His followers. You even heard that, last Sunday, Jesus had come in person and presented Himself to them. Now this all sounds like mere enthusiasm to you: Maybe He was a ghost, you thought (almost no one questions the reality of ghosts), or maybe this was just some people’s way of asserting the deathlessness of the soul, like so many people do. You yourself are more skeptical: maybe He’s a ghost, but ghosts are a dime a dozen and you don’t think such a thing would be all that important. But you ask around and discover that there’s to be another meeting later this evening. You find out where and make your way there. When you arrive, everyone is talking excitedly about how Mary and Peter and some of the others claimed to have seem the actual Jesus, not a ghost or a spirit, but the Man himself, eating and drinking as usual.
Now if that was true, if this Jesus was the actual Man raised again from the dead, and not just some ghost or spirit, then it would follow that the time of the Resurrection of the Dead had come and the world as we know it had ended. If Jesus was indeed raised from the dead, then nothing would ever be the same. The last enemy to be defeated was death, and if that was done then all that remained was victory. So you’re skeptical, and understandably so. But, like any honest skeptic, you’re willing to be convinced by actual evidence. So you tell the guy standing next to you, maybe with a little bravado, that you’ll have to touch Jesus’ actual scars to believe. But you still go to church, you still take yourself back to that room where Jesus appeared to His disciples last week, just in case He should do so again this week.
And He does. He comes, singles you out, invites you, personally, to touch His scars and to lose all those doubts through confrontation with Reality. So you do, and you find a very human, physical Jesus, whose wounds are beginning to scar over, and who (just as usual) gently chides you for your skepticism while at the same time allowing you joyfully to touch him. And that story becomes part of the Apostolic Witness which we have received two thousand years later, a witness that shows the shortcomings of the Apostles in their reaction to Jesus’ resurrection while also showing Jesus as He dances into their midst and waltzes with each of them.
He really is risen. The world can’t go on as before.
There are really two aspects of the resurrection of Jesus: the first aspect is the resurrection of the historical man of first-century Palestine who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. But when we look at the very same resurrection from another angle, we find that Christ is the “first-fruits from the dead,” that His resurrection is the beginning point for the resurrection of all those who have been baptized with him into his death. Because of his resurrection, the final reality of our world is no longer death but life. Death, to use St. Paul’s evocative language, has been swallowed up in victory.
Our victory, because, as we all know but need periodically to be reminded about, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t just save us from the wrath of God, as if all we needed were a “Get out of jail free” card; it begins the process of our transformation, our re-creation in His likeness. Frankly, nobody would have any difficulty dying if only the literal act were meant. But it isn’t. The death we die is a death to self and a death to sin, it’s developing a habit of putting ourselves last. Maybe that’s an easy thing for you; it isn’t for me. I could die a selfish old man without any help from Jesus; to live selflessly, that I need help with. But by prayer and practice, over the course of a lifetime, I gradually see for myself that God is saving me. “The death he died he died to sin; the life he lives he lives to God.” Therefore we’re also to die to self and sin and alienation from God, and live the true life for which we were made.
Because that is ultimately what we need and what the world needs. We need it because the only life that’s worth living is an unselfish one. The world also needs us to die to self because our selfishness is killing the planet and killing our neighbors. The good news is that, whenever we die to ourselves as we so deeply need to do, we don’t lose ourselves, but find ourselves. Our little acts of dying to self become part of the larger story of Christ’s death and resurrection, and we find the act of dying to be the very act through which God makes us live.
He really is risen, and His resurrection makes our death the source of our life.
Salvation is a process, which is why we have to keep praying for it, have to keep trying (and failing, and confessing, and trying some more). As St. Paul says, we have to “die daily.” It’s not that we have to be good enough for God to accept us; God already accepts us because of our connection to Jesus. Or, to say that another way, God accepts the crucified and resurrected Christ that is our true self and into which God promises to make us.
But, like St. Thomas in the story, some of us have to be convinced about the reality of the transformation that’s being worked in us. It’s not that we’re too stupid to recognize what ought to be obvious, nor is it necessarily a moral failing to need some convincing. But we can be convinced. If we keep submitting ourselves to the transformative power of God, keep dying to sin, keep praying for the resurrection of Jesus to work itself out in us, then after a while we can look back, put our fingers on our scars and see for ourselves what the mighty power of God is doing. To rejoice with the Psalmist: the same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is what the LORD is doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. Death, which means dying to self, dying to alienation, being baptized in to Christ’s death — the very stone which we rejected because it seemed so opposite to life — turns out to be the very cornerstone of God’s life-giving project. What a marvel!
He really is risen, and His resurrection ensures our resurrection.
Let us pray: We thank you, heavenly Father, that you have delivered us from the dominion of sin and death and brought us into the kingdom of your Son; and we pray that, as by his death he has recalled us to life, so by his love he may raise us to eternal joys; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.