Sermon - Second Sunday of Easter (4/28/2019)
Acts 5:27-32; Ps. 150; Rev. 1:4-8; Jn. 20:19-31
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that, after Pentecost, Peter and the apostles went daily to the temple and told people about Easter. As you can imagine, this did not go over very well with the temple authorities, who had not been happy about Jesus having taught in the temple during the last week of his life. On several occasions the temple police arrest Peter and the apostles, who are ordered to stop teaching about Jesus, but before long they are back in the temple again.
Finally, Peter and the apostles are arrested and put in jail. On their very first night in prison, the text says, an “angel of the Lord” opened the prison door and let them out. A miraculous deliverance, or perhaps one of the jailers was sympathetic to the gospel? The text does not say, but the next day Peter and the apostles are back in the temple teaching again exactly as they were before, and so the temple police go out and arrest them again.
And as the first reading begins today, Peter and the apostles are brought in before the Sanhedrin, the council of religious authorities in Jerusalem led by the high priest. We have told you again and again, most emphatically: Do not teach in this name. Yet,” the high priest says – and listen closely to what he says: “You are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” You are determined to blame us for the death of Jesus.
Now, on one level, this is a very strange thing to say, because the Sanhedrin is in fact the council before which the high priest had brought Jesus on Good Friday morning. Clearly the high priest and the Council have not forgotten that, in fact, they very much had something to do with the death of Jesus. Peter has not forgotten it either, he even says in his speech that God has raised Jesus, “whom you had killed.”
But I think what the high priest is worried about is that Peter and the apostles are going to turn the crowds against the religious authorities. You can see why they would be concerned. I imagine their thinking was something like this: If the crowds come to believe that Jesus has truly been raised from the dead, and that we were responsible for his death, then the crowd will believe that we have rejected God’s Messiah – and there will be a revolution. And the revolutionaries will come for us first. So we have to prevent this from happening, and the easiest way to do that is for these Galilean hillbillies to close their mouths.
But Peter has seen the risen Lord at Easter. And Peter has received the Holy Spirit and Peter knows that God has made Jesus Ruler and Savior. So Peter is not about to let these human authorities tell him what to do or to say. But Peter is also very clear that he is not blaming the high priest or the Council or anybody else for the death of Jesus.
Listen to what Peter says: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed, by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand, as Ruler and Savior, to give Israel repentance and the forgiveness of sins.” First, Peter starts by talking about the “God of our ancestors.” Our ancestors, yours and mine. There is no us and them for Peter, there is only us: we are witnesses of the deeds of the God of our people, yours and mine, and this story is as much about you as it is about us.
And then Peter goes on to say – This God, our God, has raised up Jesus – whom you had killed, yes, that’s true – but God has now exalted this Jesus at his right hand as Ruler and Savior – and why? To give Israel a gift: repentance and the forgiveness of sins. To give all of us a new start, a new life, a clean slate.
The high priest accused Peter of trying to get the crowd to take the side of Jesus against the religious authorities – Peter responds by saying there are no sides here any more, not after Easter. So if anybody is looking for someone to blame, someone to point the finger at, someone to say – Look, there is the guilty one, over there, not me, let’s blame this one, don’t look at me – if that’s someone’s attitude, then they have not heard the good news of Easter yet.
God is not interested in vindicating Jesus by avenging his death – God has vindicated Jesus by God’s own unimaginable action that only God can do, to create out of nothing, to bring to life what was dead. And God has done this in order to bring new life to everyone – repentance, change of mind, change of life, forgiveness, everything made new. For everybody.
This is what Peter himself experienced on the very day of Easter, according to today’s gospel reading. Not 72 hours after the Last Supper, Peter and the apostles are huddled together in fear in a locked room. If you’ve ever gone through a traumatic experience, you know how disorienting things can be in those first few days. These men have not only lost their teacher, the one on whom they had placed all their hopes and dreams for their lives, but they have betrayed him, abandoned him, broken their promises to him. They have heard reports that the tomb is empty and they don’t know what’s happening.
If the eleven remaining apostles are anything like the human beings I know, I imagine there was no small amount of tension in that room that Sunday evening. Somebody makes a comment that gets taken the wrong way – What do you mean I abandoned him? What about you? Maybe it got so tense that Thomas had to go out and take a walk to clear his head before somebody got hurt. (That’s not in the text, just speculation on my part. But I’m pretty sure they were not having a reasoned philosophical discussion about the meaning of what they had just experienced.)
And in the middle of their “discussion,” despite the locked doors, Jesus suddenly is standing in their midst. And he says: Peace to you. No vengeance, no blame, no demanding apologies for the betrayals and the broken promises. Just: Peace be with you. And then the gift of the Holy Spirit is given with a message: Forgive.
And so Peter is not going to apologize for telling people what he saw. Telling people that God raised Jesus from the dead so that you – yes, even you, who are responsible for his death – so that you can receive a gift from God, the gift of turning around and being forgiven, the gift of forgiving others, the gift of new life, the gift of peace.
The high priest was interested in escaping blame for the death of Jesus. But Jesus was not interested in blaming anybody, and neither was Peter. The Church, unfortunately, lost sight of this part of the Easter message for a long time. For centuries Christians have blamed Jews for being “Christ-killers,” and – we have to say it – Martin Luther was, even by the low standards if his day, pretty terrible on that point. There has been violence against Jewish people for centuries, as recently as yesterday in California. But we need to be honest: sometimes Christians have forgotten the gospel of Easter, and fallen back into the cycle of finger-pointing and finding someone to blame, which means some of the responsibility for the results actually falls on us.
Perhaps this is what Jesus meant on Easter Sunday when he told his disciples: If you forgive people’s sins they are released, if you hold onto the sins of any they are retained. The good news of Easter is now entrusted to us: God has raised Jesus from the dead to give us the gift of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. If we have faith in this good news we will share God’s forgiveness and new life with others. If we forget and start dividing the world into us and them and finding ways to point fingers at “them,” then the power of sin will continue.
As the risen Lord comes to us again this morning, greeting us with words of peace, showing himself in his body broken for us and his blood poured out for us, assuring us of God’s infinite love for each person and God’s power to bring life even out of death, may we be so filled with faith in Jesus our Lord and God that – like Peter – we may resist a world that insists on dividing into us and them, a world that is fearful of owning up to failure and taking responsibility, a world incapable on its own of finding the way that leads to peace. May the Holy Spirit that Jesus breathed on the disciples at Easter help us to have faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead to give God’s people the great gift of repentance and forgiveness of sins, and to be witnesses of the power of God’s grace in our lives.