Sermon - Easter Sunday (4/21/2019)
Is. 65:17-25; Ps. 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; Lk. 24:1-12
“Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
The original twelve apostles – supposedly the closest followers of Jesus, the ones who had heard and seen everything that Jesus said and did, including several predictions that he would die by crucifixion and then rise again on the third day – their first reaction to the news of the resurrection was not to believe it. “It seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe” the women’s story.
And to be fair, you can hardly blame them. At least in my experience, and probably in yours, people who are well and truly dead, more than 36 hours in the grave, do not just get up and walk away. In my experience, and probably in yours, sane people do not see visions of angels telling them of miraculous events. I’m not surprised that the first reaction of even the closest disciples of Jesus to the news that he had been raised from the dead, was: I don’t believe it. Wishful thinking. Not possible.
But then, something changed. And even as those disciples went out and told people themselves that Jesus is risen, they could honestly say: Look, I know this sounds crazy, and I didn’t believe it at first either. But I have come to believe that there is nothing more true, nothing more certain, nothing more reliable to base your life on, than the reality that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.
How did they get there? How did that happen? How did they become convinced? How did they come to see this event not just as a one-off miracle but as the central event in human history, the one thing that most tells us what God is like and what human life really means? How did that happen?
Some of this process is recorded in Scripture, in the sequel Luke wrote to his gospel, a book called the Acts of the Apostles, where we can see the first disciples of Jesus figuring out, in real time, what Easter means. And our tradition marks off an entire season of Easter, fifty days, to seek a deeper understanding of what it even means to say that Jesus is risen and is even now the living Lord of all. So during this season, beginning today, a reading from the Acts of the Apostles is assigned as one of our Scripture readings for the Sunday liturgy. This year, my hope is to build a sermon each week of the Easter season on the reading from Acts, so that as we see the first disciples of Jesus struggling to understand what really happened on Easter morning and what it meant for their lives, we might come to a deeper understanding ouselves of what this strange story might mean us as well.
In today’s reading from Acts, we hear Peter telling the story of Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. He is telling the story to people gathered in the house of a Roman soldier named Cornelius. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that this simple fact, that Peter was speaking in the house of Cornelius, would have utterly shocking for both Cornelius and Peter. Let me explain.
Cornelius is a Roman centurion, a professional soldier. In a modern army his responsibilities would be that of a captain or maybe a major. He is on occupation duty in a remote and restive province of the Empire, where insurgency and insurrection is everywhere. And he has invited one of the locals to his home to say: God is announcing peace through Jesus Christ, and Jesus – not the Emperor – is the Lord of all. Jesus, who went about doing good and healing the oppressed, and who was crucified by a detail led by a Roman centurion just like you, on orders from your superior officer, the Roman military governor. But, Peter says, God didn’t accept the verdict of Pontius Pilate, but raised this man from the dead and made him the Lord and Emperor of all. Cornelius should not have had this man speaking in his house.
And Peter, the story tells us, was fighting every instinct in his body, to enter the home of a pagan and break bread there with the heathen. Everything he had believed, everything he had ever been taught, was that to be a member of God’s faithful people meant avoiding people who were not members of God’s people, and certainly not ever entering their unclean houses, and under no circumstances whatsoever eating their unclean foods around their unclean tables. And yet Peter feels compelled by the Spirit to go to this place and to tell them what he has seen and what he has heard and what he has experienced of Jesus. And Peter begins his speech by saying, I am starting to see that this message, this reality of which I am a witness that Jesus is truly the living Lord of all – this message means that God must not play favorites. If Jesus was raised from the dead, if Jesus really is the Lord of all, if God’s forgiveness and grace are truly being poured out on everyone who accepts this faith, then I suppose people of every nation can be God’s people and can be acceptable to God. And if they’re acceptable to God, how can they not be acceptable to me?
So Peter is not just relaying an eyewitness account of what he saw Jesus do, just the facts, take it or leave it. For Peter, being a witness to Easter changes him, just as hearing the message of Easter changes Cornelius and his household. Sharing the message of Easter, working through the implications of what it means that Jesus rose from the dead and is now the living Lord of all, is not a static thing, but something that opens Peter to new understandings of just how broad are the love and mercy of God, that opens Peter to new experiences and the new actions of the Holy Spirit bringing the life of Jesus to new and unlikely people.
Peter says something else in his speech at Cornelius’s house that I have to confess I never really understood before this year. Peter says that after God raised Jesus from the dead, he allowed Jesus to appear “not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses.” I never liked that line, because it struck me as a power play – You didn’t see it, because God chose me to see it and not you, so it’s God’s will that you’re just going to have to listen to me and take my word for it. As some of you know, I’ve had my, shall we say, issues with people in the church who think they know what God wants other people to do. There’s a reason they haven’t let me preach an Eastern sermon the last twenty years. So when Peter says, God chose only some people to be witnesses, my instinct is to be disappointed in Peter.
But here’s what I realized this year – Peter never claims that he knows that Jesus is risen because he has a direct hotline to God. Remember the gospel story today: before Peter and the other apostles saw the risen Jesus, they heard the news of the resurrection from others, from the women who had been at the tomb. And Peter and his friends didn’t believe them. I can almost hear the apostles mansplaining to the women, You know, Mary Magdalene, actually, the resurrection of the dead doesn’t come until the end of the world.
So I don’t think Peter is trying to pull rank on Cornelius. Peter is saying, Look, I get it, this story sounds crazy. The first time I heard it I didn’t believe it either. But then I realized, this is how resurrection works: some people experience it, and then those people tell other people what they have experienced. Or, as Martin Luther would eventually explain it, faith is a gift from God that comes from the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit only acts through embodied things, specifically, through the words of one person speaking the good news of the gospel to another person. Peter testifies to the people gathered in the house of Cornelius that Jesus is risen, not just because it was something he personally happened to see years before, but because it was an event that had changed him and was still changing him right at the very moment in walked into the door of Cornelius’s house. And while Peter was still speaking, Acts tells us, the Holy Spirit came down on Cornelius and everyone present there. This is how the good news of the resurrection works: one person experiences its truth and tells someone else about it, and then the other person experiences that truth as well.
So how do we know that this most improbable story that Jesus is risen is actually true? Because people have witnessed to us about how this truth has changed their lives. We have all known people who have faced adversity and hatred and illness and death itself with serenity and peace, knowing that Jesus faced it all too and now lives as Lord of all. Maybe a parent, maybe a spouse, maybe a friend or a pastor. People whose words and, more importantly, whose lives bear witness that Jesus lives, that God is good, that all things are being made new.
It’s because I have known such people, some of them here in this congregation, that I can say with confidence: Jesus is risen. The Lord truly is risen and is making all things new. Praise God. Alleluia.