Acts 5: 27-32, John 20: 19-31
Good morning! The Second Easter Sunday, and so again to renew and refresh the great proclamation: the work of the Cross and the sign of the Empty Tomb, Jesus risen and exalted high over us all as Lord and Savior. Sins forgiven, the Enemy defeated, the power of death overthrown. We may not have the brass ensemble or the overflowing crowds this morning, but through all the rising and falling of the tides, it remains for us always Easter. Let’s see how well we remember last week’s Greek lesson: Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!
Where I started last Sunday: “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” The third paragraph of the Apostles’ Creed, which is probably the oldest and most universally accepted summary of Christian faith and life. This ancient sentence my framework for an Easter sermon to highlight the Easter Sunday reading from the 10th chapter of Acts--as Peter is announcing the Gospel to the Gentile household of Cornelius the Centurion. “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” Because I want to touch base there again briefly before moving forward this morning I asked Michelle to include that passage from Acts on page 20 of this morning’s service leaflet.
“I believe in the resurrection of the body.” Cornelius a Roman soldier, an officer stationed in Jerusalem, who has been drawn by the Holy Spirit to learn about the customs and beliefs of the people whose land he and his army are occupying. Cornelius has already begun a kind of conversion. An interested student of Holy Scripture, he is a “proselyte.” Which means that he hasn’t gone through the formal rituals of conversion—which probably would have been impossible, maybe illegal, for a Roman soldier—but that he attends synagogue services, perhaps joining in prayer in the Court of the Gentiles at the Temple. So a man of growing faith. And he has heard about Jesus. There is even a tradition that Cornelius may have been the unnamed Centurion who on Good Friday oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus, and who is recorded as saying in Mark 15, as Jesus dies, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” If that were true it would explain his eagerness to talk with the disciples. In any event, proselyte and inquirer Cornelius has called for Peter in the days after Pentecost to come and speak to him and his family and friends.
That’s the background. Peter presents to Cornelius and his assembled household what I called the “executive summary” of the gospel—a little bit more than half way through the passage printed on page 20. “They put Jesus to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” This is the message that will inspire and direct the life of the Christian community from now on. In the pages of Acts, in those first days after Pentecost, and then for two thousand years, and all the way to the Second Easter Sunday of 2016. Christ is risen. Alithos anesti—he is risen indeed. I believe in the resurrection of the body . . . .
Earlier this year I told our vestry I was thinking about reflecting on these Easter season readings from Acts to talk about Christian life, with a focus on the theme of “stewardship.” (But don’t get nervous!) This is a word that has become somewhat distorted in our minds often I think because it is so generally used in the church in fundraising campaigns and in efforts to recruit volunteers for committees. Those aren’t bad things of course—they’re necessary for mission and ministry, and they are certainly rooted “in” Christian stewardship in a broad sense. But stewardship--at least as I want to think about it over the next few weeks--is prior to those kinds of things. I promise: no pledge cards or sign-up sheets . . . . What I’m hoping to do is to explore some background and foundations, where this idea of “stewardship” comes from. And I’m going to begin simply by saying that “stewardship” begins with Easter.
As I said last week, the resurrection of Jesus, if it only has to do with Jesus, is very interesting. But that’s about it. A nice story. Lucky for Jesus that of all the people who have ever died, he didn’t stay dead. The question continues to be, what difference does it make? His resurrection. We understand why this is news. “Dead man comes back to life.” It’s a startling claim. But what we want to be clear about is why it should also be considered good news. Why it should matter to us other than as a curiosity. And what I’m going to explore over these weeks in the context of the appointed series of readings from the Bood of Acts is the thought that the word “stewardship” is where we need to go when we begin to deal as Christians with the Easter Sunday question, “so what?” When we begin to sort out the thought that the affirmation in the Creed, I believe in the resurrection of the body is about Jesus and about us. About our bodies too--and so about how we live, what we live for, our priorities, our goals, our values.
In Acts 10 Peter told Cornelius a few specific things about Easter and the resurrection of Jesus that would frame the conversation. Looking at that passage on page 20 again. He tells him that everybody didn’t automatically see the risen Jesus, but only those “chosen by God as witnesses.” If we see Jesus, if we know him to be risen from the dead, or even if we simply have a desire in our hearts for him. If we’re looking for him, as Cornelius is. If we want to see. It is God who has already been working in us to make that happen. God who chosen that for us, God who opens our eyes and prepares our minds and hearts to want him, to seek after him and to find him. Then Peter says that the risen Christ has commanded his chosen witnesses to tell the story, and to proclaim in particular that Jesus can be seen and known in the Scriptures, in the words of “all the Prophets,” and that Jesus and Jesus alone “is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” Which tells us that there is something that we are accountable for, and someone we will be accountable to, all because of Easter.
Because of Easter, Peter says, we who see the risen Christ in the words of Scripture and the eyes of faith now have a new job description, a new career, a new calling, a new purpose for our lives, even comprehensively a new identity—and there is now for us a new “boss” to report to. A new leader, guide, and judge. Seated at the right hand of the Father. And this is where we begin when we would use the term, “Christian stewardship.” The words don’t have any real meaning without that foundation. “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”
So we go finally to this morning’s reading from Acts 5 (back on page 8). Peter and the other disciples in their defense before the Temple authorities after they have caused a huge commotion: crowds have begun to seek them out for prayer and healing, and they have been preaching and teaching even in the precincts of the Temple itself. Very dramatically, they are arrested by the Temple guards and incarcerated, but in the middle of the night, miraculously, they are freed from prison and go right back to the activities that got them in trouble in the first place. Finally the authorities gather them up and bring them to a kind of hearing—to figure out from the authorities’ point of view how to put a lid on what is becoming a real problem. The high priest reminds Peter that he has already been ordered to stop this public activity, but Peter says that in this case he is now answering to a higher authority. He is going to be obedient, indeed, but in a new context that goes beyond his relationship to the civil and religious authorities. Drives the point home. Because of Easter. I believe in the resurrection of the body. And therefore, Peter and his companions declare, verse 29, again on page 8--we now have no choice: “we must obey God rather than any human authority.”
The old obedience to human authorities is now subject to a new reality. God is real, God has won the victory, and so now we have no choice really but to think and act in a new way. God is in charge. Absolutely. God’s triumph in the Good Friday battle is now the compelling truth and reality of the universe. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” We must. No wiggle room. “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus . . .” the one all the holy history of God’s people has pointed to. A story that now includes us. God “exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior.” For us. Not simply to save us, but to lead us and to change us--and then to save us. Led by the Holy Spirit—the gift, Peter says, that “God has given to those who obey him.” Again, that’s stewardship. Living the new reality of Easter.
I will invite you to think through this with me over the next few weeks—what to make of this “new obedience.” It feels challenging—even confusing. We read the Bible, but we don’t hear a voice giving us clear and straightforward directions. We don’t live in heaven with the angels. We get up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to work or school. We have particular bodies, relationships, families. Romance and heartbreak and chronic illness. We jog or go to the gym or we lie on the sofa and watch soap operas. We eat too much or drink too much. We have anger management problems. We get jealous. We find ourselves longing for things we know deep down aren’t good for us. We make promises and we break promises. We go to church. Help with good projects. We do our best. We’re busy, distracted: things to do, books to read, television shows and movies to watch. We have careers we love and jobs we hate. Then there’s retirement planning. Bank accounts and investments, mortgages and student loans and credit cards. Doctor visits. Operations. Birthdays and funerals. Joys and sorrows. Political opinions, passions, prejudices. Things that keep us awake at night.
That’s all of us. An over it all: Easter, and a new obedience. We know it’s there, and we search the Word and we search our hearts to figure out where it leads us. That we meet a deep reality, that in all this, in all this, we’re working for somebody else now. Accountability. Stewardship. Thinking about these things, about what’s different. About what we’re really saying when we say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”