Sermon for Easter 6 Narrative

Romans 3:28-30; 5:1-11

Last week, we were introduced to Paul’s letter to the Romans and why he was writing to the Christian communities in Rome. And we also talked about how the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. We talked about what salvation looks like today to people who are inside the church and to those outside the church, and how it can look like different things to different people. And we talked about how we have that power of God for salvation to everyone, no matter what salvation looks like; that power that comes from faith in Jesus, or the faithfulness of Jesus, depending on how you translate the Greek.

Today we’re skipping over a few chapters of Romans to get to our main text, but we do need to trace Paul’s argument in the chapters we missed in order to understand more fully what Paul is telling us in today’s reading. And for that, I want to go back to a little section of last week’s reading that I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on. Paul says that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. When we read through the stories about Paul in the book of Acts, and when we read through the rest of Paul’s letters as well as Romans, we find this concern about how this new movement that proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord will relate to those who are not Jewish. Something that we modern Christians tend to forget is that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, and that Christianity started out as a movement within Judaism. And so, the big discussion among first century Christians revolved around Gentiles, who Paul calls “Greeks” in this letter—those people who were not Jewish and who found that Jesus was calling them to follow him. The questions went something like this: Do Gentiles who believe in Jesus need to become Jewish first? If yes, then that means the men have to be circumcised and both men and women need to follow the dietary regulations laid out in the book of Leviticus. If Gentiles do not need to first become Jewish, how can a new Christian community form if Gentiles eat things that Jewish people are not allowed to eat? A lot of community, even today, forms around sharing a meal, so this was a really important question. And finally, what Paul is addressing in his letter to the Romans, is that there was simply prejudice going on: Jewish people in the community looking down their noses at the Gentiles because they were not God’s chosen people, they did not follow the laws laid down by God through Moses, and the Jewish Christians were asking how in the world God’s grace could be poured out on the Gentiles when the Gentiles did not follow God’s laws.

And so, Paul makes the argument, beginning at the end of Romans 1, that everyone, both Jew and Gentile, is equally sinful. He starts out by naming behaviors that Jewish people condemn Gentiles for: specifically, idolatry and actions that result from worshiping idols. And just as the Jewish Christians in the group would be nodding their heads in righteous condemnation of those “wicked Gentiles,” Paul springs the trap: don’t condemn the Gentiles when you do the very same things. His argument here reminds me of when Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Look at your own behavior, Paul says, and see whether or not you, too, violate the law that God has decreed. In the end, Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It doesn’t matter if you are Jew or Gentile: all means all. And this is where the first part of today’s reading comes in: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Now, Paul is not advocating that the Jewish Christians stop being Jewish and no longer follow the dietary laws and the law that the men should be circumcised. Rather, he is saying that you can keep your identity as Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians, but since all have sinned, keeping those laws is not what makes you right with God. Instead, Jesus Christ is who makes you right with God.

In chapter 4, Paul uses Abraham as an example of his proposition that we are made right with God through faith and not through following the law. Finally, then, we come to chapter 5, which is the major part of the reading that we have heard today. Paul says that because we are made right with God through Jesus Christ, we have access to God’s grace, and this is what we can boast about. We don’t boast about who we are, whether we are Jewish Christians who have kept all of the commandments since our youth or whether we are Gentiles who are brand new to this whole Christian thing. Our pedigrees and our family trees don’t matter. Rather, we boast in “our hope of sharing the glory of God”. God’s grace has fallen on each one of us equally through our Lord Jesus Christ. God loves you just as much as God loves me. And this is the love that we as Christians want to share with the world.

Then, Paul says something that many of us want to argue with: “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” I don’t know about you, but when I was suffering from having my wisdom teeth taken out two years ago, I would have greatly preferred not having to suffer—I have enough character and hope already, God, thank you very much. How much more do those who are suffering more serious illnesses or more serious difficulties in their lives protest this idea! We want to believe that all God wants is for us to be happy and wealthy and all we have to do is follow these steps and trust in God to get there. And there are plenty of televangelists and others to tell us that. But as we can see from these verses in Romans, and in other places in the Bible, such thinking is not what the Bible teaches. We are not to seek out suffering, but in this world, suffering happens, whether it’s illness or poverty or persecution or something else. What Paul is saying here is that God is present with us and loves us even through all of that, and God can use that experience for good in our lives and the lives of others.

And then Paul gets to the heart of the matter, in some of his most beautiful verses in Romans: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” And again he says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” And a third time he says, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Think of that: while we were weak; while we were sinners; while we were enemies. We have been all of those things. And God loves us in spite of all of that. God loves us so much, that God goes to the length of sending Jesus, God’s Son, to earth to die for us. And we didn’t have to do anything. God wants a relationship with us so badly and God loves us so much that Jesus Christ died for us when there was nothing good to be found about us. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that worth praising God for? Isn’t that worth getting over our foolish fears and sharing with the people around us?

This is what Paul is implying by using this language: if God loved us while we were weak, sinners, and God’s enemies, then when Jesus commands us to love our enemies, this is not a pious ideal. This is something that we are to work very hard at doing, because this is the same thing that God did for us. This should cause us to examine ourselves and our lives and to ask, “Who are my enemies?” Now, most of us think that we are good, nice people, and that we don’t have enemies at all. But, what about that family member that we see sitting at the dinner table with us at Thanksgiving, the one that we go to great lengths to avoid talking to in order not to get into a big fight and ruin everyone’s holiday? What about that person who spread rumors about us that were untrue and nearly cost us a job? This did happen to me once, many years ago now. And when I told my pastor about it and how angry I was, the first thing that he said to me was, “Let’s pray for that person right now.” That’s what loving your enemies looks like, and no matter how good and nice a person we think we are, we all have enemies. And God’s love for us is so radical that God commands us to love those enemies and to pray for them, no matter how hard it might be. Because that is how God loves us.

As I was studying for this sermon, one podcast commented that this kind of enemy love is God’s “militant NO to the terms of hatred in this world”. I love that. This week, as we go about our daily lives, I want us to be mindful of our emotions. When we watch the news and we are stirred with hatred of someone because of a bad situation going on, let’s stop for a moment, mute the TV or turn off the radio, and pray for that person who we are in the midst of hating. Let’s remind ourselves that God could have hated us for what we had done, too, but that instead God chose to love us so much that God sent Jesus Christ to die for us: while we were weak, while we were sinners, and while we were enemies of God. And if you encounter yourself hating someone during a different activity this week—it doesn’t have to be listening to the news—do the same thing. Stop what you’re doing and pray for that person. It’s a good discipline, and it is very hard to do at first—trust me, it was very hard for me to pray for that person who spread rumors about me all those years ago! But I wonder if it might get easier for us as we practice it more. And just maybe, we might be able to lessen the tide of hatred in this world—just a drop. So, let’s give it a try, and trust that the Holy Spirit is with us, leading us and encouraging us as we go. Amen.

 

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Sermon for Easter 5 Narrative

Romans 1:1-17

After only two stories from the book of Acts, we move into Paul’s letter to the Christian communities in Rome, and we will be spending the next few weeks on this letter. The good thing about exploring one of Paul’s letters is that, rather than hearing stories about Paul from a secondhand source, that is, the author of the book of Acts, we are now hearing from Paul himself: what his concerns are as he writes to the Roman Christians and even a few tantalizing details about who he is and what his life is like. The bad thing about going through one of Paul’s letters is that it is a letter, and it is not written directly to us. It was written to a community of Christians living in the first century of the Common Era, and so there are things that both Paul and this community would have understood that we have to struggle with, because we are not living in that time and in that culture. Furthermore, of all of Paul’s letters, Romans is probably the most densely packed with his theology, and it has been formative for the Christian faith, especially for Martin Luther and the other Reformers. So, during these weeks, we’ll try to move through this slowly and see what Paul still has to teach us about Jesus through this letter.

Let’s then start with the background of this letter. If you were to read the book of Acts from beginning to end, you would find that much of it is concerned with stories about Paul. However, Paul was not the only follower of Christ out there telling people about Jesus. Acts gives us stories of Peter, Stephen, and Philip, along with people like Priscilla and Aquila. And, there were many more Christians out there who traveled around spreading the good news. Some of those Christians ended up in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, and founded Christian communities there. At the time Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he had not yet been to Rome and he wanted to go, not only to visit the Christians there and impart some of his teaching, but also to ask for their financial help so he could make a journey to Spain to continue spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. So, if you were going to visit a community you had never before met and ask for their help, what would you do? Today we might send an email or make a phone call. In Paul’s day, they wrote letters. And this is what Romans is: a letter of introduction, telling the Roman Christians who he, Paul, is, what he is teaching about Jesus, giving them some direction based on what he has heard is going on in their communities, and then, at the end of the letter, making his plea for financial aid to go to Spain.

Just as our letters today have a certain form, or order, to them, so did letters that were written in the first century. Paul starts out by saying who he is and establishing his credentials: he tells the Romans what he preaches. Then he says who he is writing the letter to: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints,” and then he greets them. The next section of our reading today is what is technically called an exordium, in other words, Paul is thanking God for the Roman Christians and complimenting them, saying that their “faith is proclaimed throughout the world”. As we go through this letter, try and remember that, because not only is Paul complimenting them on their faith, he is also putting them on notice that people are watching them. The behavior that other Christians and the rest of the world see in them will reflect how they live out what it means to be followers of Christ. Later in Paul’s letter, he will address some of the behaviors that he has heard about that are happening there.

Here I want to pause and reflect for a moment on Paul’s statement that the faith of the Christians in Rome is proclaimed throughout the world. The word used in Greek could also be translated as “faithfulness”, which gives the word a little different flavor than faith. Faith is not just a head knowledge. That is, faith does not mean only confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord with your mouth. Rather, faith, or faithfulness, also includes how our behavior is transformed by the good news of the gospel. How do our words and actions reflect the power of the Gospel for salvation to everyone? Can those around us see in both our words and our actions that we are Christians? If the apostle Paul were writing to us today, here at Salem and at St. John’s, would he say that our faith is proclaimed throughout the world? While it may not be necessary for someone to commend us for our faithfulness to the Gospel, I think it’s a good question for us to ask ourselves as we take stock of what we have been doing to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to our neighbors and what we might be able to do better.

St. Paul writes to the Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” The fact is, we should not be ashamed of the gospel, for it is powerful. If you were here during our Lenten midweek series, you will know that I and the other pastors have been encouraging the four congregations to write out our faith statements. I have followed up on that by sharing my faith statement during a sermon several weeks ago and also by asking individual members of the council to share their faith statements in council meetings as a way of practicing it in a safe space. I have heard a few people share theirs now, and they have moved me as I hear in awesome wonder how God works among us. That is the power of God for salvation among us, here and now.

The idea of salvation is another thing that we church folks need to discuss as we share our faith with others. Salvation is one of those church speak words that doesn’t mean a whole lot to people outside of the church. Those of us inside the church will automatically say that salvation means Jesus has saved us from our sins so that we might go to heaven when we die and live with him forever. That is not wrong and that is a big part of our faith. But we also need to remember that some of the early Christians, Luke especially, believed that salvation happened here and now, in this life, just as much as it does in the next. And the Gospel can effect salvation in the real world, too. As I was studying this week in preparation for this sermon, I ran across a story in one of the commentaries about a woman who came into the office of her religion professor mystified about something. At a low point in her life, she determined that she was going to commit suicide, and just as she was about to jump into the river, a verse of Scripture popped into her mind, “My life is not my own. I have been bought with a price.” What was puzzling her was that she said she was not a Christian and had not attended church. When the professor probed a bit, she remembered that her grandmother had taken her to vacation Bible school, where she remembered memorizing some Bible verses. Her professor smiled and said, “You see, God stored that gospel word in your heart, so that one day it would save you.” In this case, the Gospel had literally saved a woman from death.

Last week, I mentioned in the sermon that people may not have the word “sin” in their vocabulary any longer. So, if salvation happens in the here and now as well as for eternity, what does that salvation look like? Luke tells the story of Zacchaeus, that wee little man who climbed up a sycamore tree to see Jesus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and when Jesus went to his house to eat and the people complained, Zacchaeus vowed to give half of his possessions to the poor and to pay back anyone whom he had defrauded. And Jesus said that on that day, salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house. So perhaps salvation today looks like those who have committed a crime working to restore what they have taken instead of languishing in prison, unable any longer to contribute to society. Or, perhaps if you are poor, salvation looks like having someone pay off all of your medical debt, as one church has done, so that you can climb out of poverty that much sooner. These are the kinds of things people in our society today want to be saved from: sentences in prison that don’t allow them to return to society easily; debts that cannot easily be paid off; illnesses that take a toll. And we have the power of God for salvation to everyone in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

That wonderful, powerful gospel sets us free: free from sin and free from the power of death. When we no longer fear death, we can be bold in the actions that God calls us to in Christ. We can look to the example of Arlington Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia, who, faced with declining attendance and an aging building, decided to sell the property to make room for a multiuse building that will include a new space for worship, 173 units of affordable housing, and a nonprofit organization. Making affordable housing available is one way of proclaiming the gospel to those who are poor. Or, we can do things on a smaller scale: by sharing the good news of Jesus with the children who will come to Vacation Bible School, we may be giving these children what they need to withstand dark times in their lives, whether or not those children ever darken the door of our church on a Sunday morning. Even if our congregations eventually die, we still have the power of God—the gospel—for salvation to everyone, and God will use what we say and do to bring that salvation to all.

And so, I would like to close today with a short prayer written by Rose Tonkin for our evangelism efforts in Steelton, Oberlin, and Highspire. Let us pray:

 

He is Risen!! He is Risen Indeed!!!!

May the Power given to us by the Holy Spirit at our baptism, give us the courage to go into our neighborhoods proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen, Let it be so!

 

Sermon for Easter 4 Narrative

Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

Last week, we heard the story about how Peter recognized, through his vision of the clean and unclean animals and his visit with Cornelius, that God poured out the Holy Spirit not only on Jewish people, but also on Gentiles. In chapter 11, Peter got called up on the carpet by the Jewish Christian believers in Jerusalem for eating with the Gentiles, and so he had to explain his actions to them. He described his vision and how the Holy Spirit had fallen upon the Gentiles, and when the believers in Jerusalem heard his story, they were silenced. And then they praised God in wonder and awe, because God had decided to save Gentiles as well as Jews. With this, a wall began to break, and people began telling both Jewish people and Gentile people about Jesus, and more and more people became believers. One city, called Antioch, located in Syria, soon became a center for the early Christians, and the church there grew enough so that, when there was a famine back in Judea, this new congregation sent goods to the believers in Jerusalem to help them out. But things were still not safe for the early Christians. King Herod began to persecute them, and he had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. Next, Luke tells us, Herod imprisoned Peter, but, in one of the funnier stories in Acts, God sends an angel to break him out of jail. When the guards couldn’t find him the next morning, Herod had them put to death. But Herod got his in the end: read the end of Acts 12 to find out about the gruesome death that he suffered.

And with that, Luke brings us back to Paul in chapter 13, who is with the believers in Jesus in the Antioch congregation. One day when the group was worshiping, the Holy Spirit told the congregation to set aside Barnabas and Saul—by the way, Saul is the same man as Paul; Saul is the Hebrew name and Paul is the Greek name—for the work that God had called them to. Thus begins Paul’s first missionary journey. Our reading today skips over the first stops on Paul’s journey. He and Barnabas first go to Seleucia, which was the port city closest to Antioch, and they set sail for Cyprus, which is the island south of what is today known as Turkey that is still fought over by Greece and Turkey. They have some adventures on Cyprus as they speak the word of God, including blinding a magician who tried to turn a Roman official aside from believing in Jesus. Then they sail from Cyprus and land in the southern part of Asia Minor, which is today known as Turkey. They continue preaching Jesus, first in the synagogues and then to the Gentiles. Luke includes a sample of their preaching in another Antioch, this one in the region of Pisidia. But they get run off from Antioch by people who don’t believe what they are preaching, and they travel next to Iconium, where the same thing happens. And so, they come to the town of Lystra, where today’s story takes place.

And this is where the story gets really funny. Paul, seeing a man who had been crippled from birth, and seeing that he had faith to be healed, tells the man to stand up on his feet. And the Holy Spirit works through Paul and heals the man. But the crowds in Lystra are largely non-Jewish, and so they have a different response to the healing than Jewish crowds would. Steeped in a culture that worshiped many gods, and that had many stories of those gods coming down to earth to visit human beings, the crowds interpret this healing to mean that the gods had once more come down to earth. They thought that Paul was Hermes, the god of communication—yes, even the crowds back then thought Paul talked a lot!!—and they thought that Barnabas was Zeus. Well, this is a huge problem for Paul and Barnabas—as good Jews, they know better than to claim that they are gods. And so, they tear their clothes as a sign of mourning for the blasphemy of the crowds, and they frantically tell the crowds that they are not gods, but that they bring good news of the living God, the one God who created them all. But even then, they barely keep the crowds from offering sacrifices to them.

The question now is, what are the things that we can learn from this story? It seems as though Paul and Barnabas failed in their missionary work here, as the crowds did not have the proper framework for interpreting what happened to the man who had been crippled from birth. There are two things that I see that we can learn, and these things are tied together in the way that we are called to witness to others about Jesus Christ. One thing is this: we need to learn to communicate to people in ways that they can understand. The other thing is this: we need to be brave and to use words to tell people about Jesus, and not just depend on the nice things that we do.

Let’s talk about communicating with people in ways that they can understand first. When the people of Lystra saw what Paul did in healing the crippled man and interpreted it to mean that Paul and Barnabas were gods, and when Paul and Barnabas saw that the people were about to offer sacrifices to them, Paul talked to them in general terms about the one, living God. He knew that these were not Jewish people, and he knew that he could not refer back to Moses and the prophets to tell them about Jesus, because they would not have heard of Moses and the prophets. All the people knew were those Greek gods that even we, today, had to learn about in school. So Paul says this: “We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things (that is, the pagan gods) to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” In other words, Paul chooses the most basic thing that he, a Jew, and this group of Gentiles have in common: God created them both, and not the pagan gods.

When we are witnessing to people outside the church, we need to find the most basic thing that we have in common with them so that we have the best chance of understanding one another. Many people in our society today have not grown up going to church. They are not going to understand what is sometimes called church-y language, or church speak. The word “sin” may not be in their vocabulary, let alone justification by grace through faith. Their question is not going to be, “How do I get to heaven when I die?” but rather it is going to be something along the lines of, “How do I live a good life?” Or, “What is it that makes life worth living?” Therefore, we need to be thinking of answers to those questions that start at the most basic thing we have in common, but that move towards speaking of Jesus and why Jesus is important to us. For example, it could be something like this: “You know, I’ve asked those questions in my life, too. And I find meaning by helping other people, especially when I have things that I can share, like food and clothes. But I do this not because I think I am a good person, but because I believe in Jesus and his love for me. Jesus loved me so much that he died on the cross for me, and so I share his love for me through helping others however I can.” This starts at something basic that I have in common with the other person—I’ve asked those same questions—moves to something that the other person can probably understand—sharing things with those in need—and finally moves on to why I do this—because of Jesus.

And this brings me to the second lesson that we learn from Paul and Barnabas today. There is a quote that is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that says, “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” First, St. Francis never said it. I don’t know how or why it was attributed to him, but it isn’t in any of his writings. And second, it’s a bad saying. Don’t ever say it again. Your actions, no matter how good they may be, can always be misinterpreted. Paul did a good thing by healing the crippled man, but it turns out, his actions were misinterpreted, and the people decided they wanted to worship him and Barnabas as gods. And I think the philosophy behind this saying is why our congregations are in the situation that we’re in. Too often, we have worked in our social ministries and helped others, hoping that our actions would prompt people to ask us about Jesus. Well, that didn’t happen. And so now we need to get bold and talk to people about why we are doing the good works we are doing. When people come into our buildings for food and clothes, we can strike up a conversation with them and ask them if we can pray for them. And don’t just say, “I’ll pray for you,” stop and pray with the person, right there, if they are okay with it. Let’s invite people to our worship service, and not just a “Come to church on Sunday,” but rather a specific, “Come and worship with me this Sunday. Do you need a ride? I’ll come and get you. And, I’ll sit with you and help you through the service if you’re confused about what’s going on.” This is how we build relationships with people.

Our reading from Acts today ends with what seems like failure on the part of Paul and Barnabas. But the Holy Spirit never fails. Paul and Barnabas were driven out of the city, and Paul was stoned, but he did not die. He and Barnabas continued on to Derbe and made many disciples there. They then returned to Lystra, and there they found believers in Christ. Some people were obviously affected by the words that Paul spoke, even though he was driven out of the town. Today there are ruins near where Lystra was, and a large part of the site remains unexcavated. But, in the ruins that can be seen, there is a church building. The Holy Spirit works, but often does not work on our timetable. So, keep witnessing to others about Jesus and build relationships. You may not see any results, but you never know if you will be planting a seed that will grow long after your initial encounter with the other person. Do not be discouraged, for the Holy Spirit is with you and is working in you. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 3 Narrative

Acts 10:1-17, 34-48

This week, we move from the Gospel of Matthew into the book of Acts. And that’s a little odd, because the Book of Acts was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, as a sequel to that Gospel to show the beginnings of the early church. So even though Acts could still be looked at as a sequel to the Gospel, this author is going to have some different concerns as he tells the story than what Matthew’s Gospel had. And, we’re starting in the middle of the story of Acts, so I’m going to try to fill you in on what’s happened in the book so far.

The Gospel of Luke ends with a brief description of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and Acts, its sequel, begins with a more detailed story of Jesus’ ascension. Jesus promises that the disciples will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Pay attention to that, because that is how Luke structures his book of Acts: by telling stories of how the disciples witness to others first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, and then all the way to Rome. Jesus then ascends into heaven, and an angel comes and tells the disciples to stop standing around and get to work. The disciples first take care of some “administrative business” by choosing Matthias to take the place of Judas, who betrayed Jesus and died. Then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples; we will come back to that story on June 9, which is when we celebrate Pentecost this year. In the next few chapters, Luke recounts stories of Peter and the other disciples preaching to the crowds and healing those who are ill, with many people converting and the Christian community sharing their goods with one another and caring for one another. Luke also tells about how the disciples get brought before the authorities to explain what they’re doing. In chapters 6 and 7 we get the story of Stephen, who is, according to tradition, the first Christian martyr. In chapter 8 the disciples are scattered out from Jerusalem because of persecution, and we get stories of Philip witnessing to others and the Holy Spirit converting people to belief in Jesus through him. Chapter 9 tells us the story of how Paul, who was the great persecutor of the church, came to believe in Jesus and began preaching to others powerfully about Jesus. And then we return to Peter, who has landed in the town of Joppa, and is ministering to the Christian community there.

So now I want to take a look at a couple of things that we might otherwise miss in today’s story of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius was a centurion, a member of the Roman force that was occupying Judea and ruling over them. But, Luke tells us, Cornelius was a “devout” man. This means that, instead of worshiping the Roman gods like his fellow soldiers most likely did, he instead followed the Jewish God. That means that, as again Luke tells us, he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. There were people like this among the Romans: those who found the Jewish faith appealing, but who would not convert because of the requirement for men to be circumcised. So, here’s this Roman centurion, doing his best to follow what he knows of the God that the Jewish people worshiped and performing his duties as a soldier, when suddenly he sees a vision of an angel telling him to send for a man named Simon Peter. And so Cornelius sends his men on the 33-mile trip from Caesarea to Joppa.

In the meantime, in Joppa, Peter is also having a vision, but his vision is of a sheet full of animals, both clean and unclean. Peter is an observant Jewish man, and God has laid out in the Torah a list of animals that can be eaten and a list of animals that cannot be eaten. Among those considered unclean are, for example, pigs: so no bacon, ham, or pork products of any kind. Also not acceptable for eating are animals like the eagle, vulture, weasel, mouse, crocodile, gecko, and various other birds, rodents, and reptiles. Peter has had these rules drilled into him since he was a little boy, and so when he sees this sheet full of animals that are both clean and unclean, and hears the voice telling him to kill and eat, he is naturally horrified. Lord, he says, I have followed your law all my life; I will not eat anything unclean. And then God says that what God has made clean, Peter should not call unclean. This happens three times, and then the vision ends. Of course, Peter is puzzled. What does God mean to tell him? That it’s now okay to eat anything? That doesn’t seem right.

It is at this point that the messengers that Cornelius sent to get Peter arrive. Now, we who live so far removed from this time and place don’t always get how frightening this would be. For Jewish people, especially Jewish Christians who knew that they could be persecuted for their faith, this might be the equivalent of having a state trooper arrive at your doorstep. Even if the trooper has come for some reason other than to deliver bad news or to arrest you or someone in your house, your immediate reaction is going to be one of extreme fear. But, when the messengers tell Peter why they’ve arrived, Peter begins to think that God might be revealing what that vision he had was really about, and on the next day, he goes with the messengers to see Cornelius.

And here is where the really important part of the story comes. Peter states that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, that is, a non-Jewish person. This is an overstatement of the matter: Jewish people did interact with Gentiles on a regular basis, but they did so with care, so that they would not be seen to be worshiping idols or eating prohibited foods. But up to this point, the Christian movement had largely been a Jewish sect, and non-Jewish people had not been included. But as Peter preaches Jesus to Cornelius and the other Romans there, the Holy Spirit falls upon them, and Peter realizes that this is what the vision of the animals was about: God gives the Holy Spirit to everyone, Jewish or not, and Peter realizes that he cannot withhold water for baptizing these new believers in Jesus Christ.

So, what does this mean for us today? Well, I’d like to approach that by telling a story. Last week, when I was visiting friends in upstate New York, I went to church on Sunday with my friend in Utica. We went to Grace Episcopal Church, and this is what I experienced there: Utica has been very open to having refugees resettle in their city, and at Grace Church, I saw many people worshiping there who were Karen. The Karen people are a minority group who originate from Burma and who have been persecuted by the Burmese government. In the church, the Karen people were fully accepted and appreciated in the congregation. They sang a song in their native language during the service, and they participated in the large choir. Grace Church is also very welcoming of LGBTQ people, of whom my friend is one, and at the lunch afterwards I observed people welcoming him, conversing with him, and laughing with him. The fact that he is gay was not an issue for these people who loved him as a fellow Christian, just as there was love and acceptance shown to all the different ethnicities who were present on that day. And, as a guest, I was also welcomed and fully included in the conversation around the table at the luncheon.

This is the kind of community that we should aspire to be. Now, my friend did tell me that, like any congregation, Grace is not perfect, and they still have some work to do. But from what I saw last Sunday, they have done a wonderful job welcoming everyone who comes to worship with them and supporting those in Utica who are not with them on Sundays without regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. In our communities of Steelton and Oberlin, however, we have a longer road to walk. Right before I left on vacation, it was brought to my attention that there is a refugee family from Syria, living in Steelton, who has been experiencing harassment from people in Steelton. Despite intervention from the school district and the police, and despite a supportive presence to walk alongside the family from volunteers in the community, the harassment has continued, and the family has decided to relocate. Funds are being raised to help the family as the father looks for work and the family decides where they can safely relocate; I will have the information available after worship if you would like to donate to this cause.  We as Christians need to do more to witness to God’s love and to act to show God’s love in our communities, so this kind of thing does not happen again.

On that long ago day in Joppa, Peter and the Jewish believers who had gone with him were very surprised at who God welcomed into the kingdom. I bet that God will surprise us, too, on who God welcomes into the kingdom. We will be astounded when God seats us at the banquet table next to someone who we did not treat well in our lifetime. Our call from God is to love everyone, not just our Christian sisters and brothers who think like we do, but also our Christian brothers and sisters who believe differently from us, and not just our white neighbors, but also our black neighbors, our Karen neighbors, our refugee neighbors, our LGBTQ neighbors, our Jewish neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, and so on and so forth. In short, EVERYONE. Any time we draw a boundary between us, Jesus is there behind us tearing down that boundary. Therefore, let us love our neighbors and welcome them regardless of who they are or where they come from. Amen.

To donate to help the family mentioned in this sermon, please follow these instructions:

Online at the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence webpage (NRCDV is the fiscal sponsor for the Community Responders Network)
  • Go to www.nrcdv.org, Click the Donate Button on the top left
  • Choose either the Donate with PayPal or the Donate with a Debit or Credit Card option
  • Enter the amount of your donation
  • In the “Special Instructions to the seller” section, type in “For the Syrian family”
  • Complete the rest of the section
Checks can also be written to CRN, with “Syrian Family” in the memo line and sent to
CRN
c/o NRCDV
6041 Linglestown Rd.
Harrisburg, PA 17112

 

 

Sermon for Easter 2019

Matthew 28:1-10

Earthquakes don’t scare me. I lived in Taiwan for 2 ½ years, which is an island formed by tectonic plates rubbing up against one another. In other words, earthquakes there were very frequent. Most of the time they consisted of everything shaking and the feeling of being very unsteady on your feet, but they were over before I had time to be afraid. Some of the bigger ones did scare me a little bit, especially the time I was up on the 13th floor of a building tutoring some students in English, and the building started swaying and I ended up with a monstrous headache. The last earthquake I felt was in 2011, when I was at seminary working on my approval essay before my senior year began and there was one with its epicenter in Virginia that was felt up the Appalachians. I looked around as the shaking started and said, “Wow. I think that’s an earthquake.” But again, it was over before I really had time to be afraid. And I don’t feel anything that’s below a 4.0 on the Richter scale anymore.

Somehow, though, I think I might have been afraid of the earthquake that Matthew describes in his account of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary—we’re not sure which Mary Matthew means, here, as there were many women in the New Testament who were named Mary—go to the tomb where Jesus had been buried at the dawn of the first day of the week. And suddenly there was an earthquake, caused, it seemed, by the angel of the Lord descending from heaven as he came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. I kind of imagine the angel sitting there with his arms crossed and one leg over the other and saying, “What you looking at, punk?” And the guards that had been stationed there were so afraid that they passed out. Big, scary, guards from the Roman occupation—passing out from fear at the sight of an angel. But you know who didn’t pass out? The women. These women had been with Jesus when he was crucified. They had seen how the Roman soldiers had tortured him to death. They had watched when Joseph of Arimathea had taken Jesus’ body and placed it in the tomb. And they had returned to the tomb that morning, in spite of the presence of the Roman soldiers, because they were determined to give Jesus the rites of mourning demanded for a dead relative. And nothing, not even Roman soldiers or an angel from heaven, was going to stop them.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the women were not afraid. In fact, the angel tells them not to be afraid, which is usually the first words out of an angel’s mouth when he encounters human beings. The difference between the women’s fear and that of the men was this: the women were simply not going to let their fear get the better of them. If they could watch their beloved teacher be tortured to death, then an earthquake and an angel would be nothing to them. And because they did not let their fear rule them, these women received the best news, the most incredible news, that anyone could ever receive: Jesus is not here, for he has been raised. You need proof? Come, see the place where he lay—he’s not there anymore. Go quickly and tell his disciples, who, by the way, are letting their fear get the better of them and are hiding out somewhere. The women, those brave women who were not going to give up, did as the angel told them to do. And as they ran with fear, joy, and a budding, trembling, hope within them, Jesus himself met them on the road. I can’t even imagine the joy they must have felt when they saw Jesus. Now, they really have proof: more than an empty tomb, more than the angel’s word, powerful as that angel might be—it is Jesus himself who meets them. And they can do nothing better than to fall at his feet and worship him. And Jesus tells them not to be afraid—it’s a natural reaction when someone you have seen die a horrible death comes to life and stands before you—but he tells the women to tell his brothers—his disciples are now called his brothers—to go to Galilee, for there Jesus will meet them.

Every year, when we celebrate Easter, we hear the majestic music announcing this, Jesus’ victory over death, and we celebrate with great joy. We shout out that Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! We sing those Alleluias that we were forbidden to say for six long weeks with vigor. But by the time Easter is over—and the season lasts for seven Sundays, one week longer than Lent does—we start to get tired of this. Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, is repetitious, and we want nothing more than to move on to the next season of the church year so we don’t have to say it anymore. Life returns to normal. The worries of everyday life take over again. We become fearful for the future of the church once more. Our loved ones still get sick, and they may die. So how do we keep Jesus’ resurrection in our lives when the celebration fades?

I think the Apostle Paul can help us out here with the section that we have today from his first letter to the Corinthians. There were some in the Corinthian church who were saying that there was no resurrection of the dead. I’m not quite sure why they were saying that—the Corinthian church was what in today’s slang is called a hot mess—they had lots of issues that Paul wrote to them about. Paul argues that if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. And, he says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . .. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” We can’t explain the resurrection of Jesus. People have tried over the years, and there is simply no satisfactory explanation. Therefore, we proclaim that it happened, that God has power over death and Jesus has proclaimed victory. And while we do follow Jesus’ teachings in this life, we know that because Jesus has been raised, we, too, have that promise of victory over death and of eternal life. Remembering this promise is how we keep that resurrection joy in front of us always as we live our lives here on earth.

And because we have that promise of resurrection from Jesus himself, it makes a difference in how we live our lives today. We do not need to fear death, because we know that death is not the end: we have been promised eternal life because Jesus has conquered death for us. So, we can be bold in showing God’s love for others in sacrificial ways. We can start by getting out of our comfort zones and talking to other people about Jesus and about his great love for us. With such an amazing God, who loved us so much that God sent Jesus to die on the cross for us, and not only to die, but to live again so that we, too, might live again, how can we not share this news with everyone in our lives? Of course, it doesn’t stop with telling people about Jesus. We also need to walk the talk by living as Jesus has taught us to live: caring for those in need, caring for this earth which God has given us, and serving one another in love. And with this promise of resurrection, we know that, no matter what troubles we face from day to day, this is not the end. God’s love wins. Every day.

So, live with that courage that Mary Magdalene and the other women showed, as they stood by Jesus through his crucifixion and showed up at his tomb on that first day of the week. Have that courage strengthened because you know that death cannot harm you, for you have the promise of resurrection and eternal life through Jesus Christ. Live with joy and joyfully share the good news of Jesus with everyone you encounter from day to day. Live with the love that Christ has given each and every one of us, and serve one another with love for the sake of the love that God has shown us through Jesus Christ, who lives eternally and has promised us that resurrection life. Show everyone through your words and your actions that Christ is risen, and because he lives, you too will live a full and abundant life. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.