Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Jesus' Resurrection Makes All the Difference

We are at the end of our Lenten and Holy Week journey of faith. Easter has arrived and the alleluias have returned. This is the Easter Sunday sermon that I shared with the people of Bethel Lutheran Church in Portville, NY. The scripture text is Acts 10:34-43.

Christ is risen, alleluia! Many of us have probably experienced significant losses in our lives—whether we have lost a job, a home or someone we love. We wonder how we will be able to go on and to function. After the 3 years the disciples had spent traveling with Jesus their teacher, friend and Lord, how do we think they felt after the crucifixion. It must have been the end of all their dreams. How were they to live their lives without Jesus?

The Book of Acts tells us that the crucifixion was not the end or that all there was for followers of Jesus. Jesus did not stay in the grave because God raised him from the dead. In the book of Acts, we read the continuing adventures of those early Christians in the post-crucifixion, post-resurrection era. The resurrection makes all the difference.

The Acts version of the life and ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus is like a Reader’s Digest Condensed book compared with the gospel accounts. All the important elements are there, but just not in such detail. Nothing seems too out of the ordinary until you get to the verse that begins today’s reading from Acts, regarding God showing no partiality. 

You see, up until this point in the book of Acts neither Jesus nor his followers have set foot in such a pagan city as Caesarea. Caesarea was the capital of the Roman province of Judea and was completely Roman in its character and structures. Jews do not visit the homes of Gentiles. And yet, here is Peter staying in the home of an Italian officer in the Roman army. Peter was in a city and house where God’s people were not supposed to be. The only reason Peter was there was because God commanded him to go to the Gentiles.

What is new here are the implications of divine impartiality, ultimately the implications of the resurrection.  If God is an impartial God, then the character of God’s community is impartial. God’s grace is no longer limited to the Jewish people of Israel, but it also reaches out to the outsider, in this case a Gentile named Cornelius. The basis for membership in the family of God is radically redefined. God’s acceptance of people does not depend upon their ethnicity. 

God’s impartiality was not only good news for Cornelius and other Gentiles of the era, but it is good news for us today. God embraces us as outsiders and makes us his own children. God is with us even when we do not realize it, when we feel forgotten and forsaken. The new life that was unleashed in this world by Jesus’ resurrection is still working to transform our hearts and lives. “Jesus’ resurrection violates the natural order of life and death, contradicts expectations that the Messiah would bring a swift end to the political powers, and continually challenges us to examine our faith anew” (Eric Barreto). 

God embraces us with his grace and includes us in the household of faith.  We whose ancestry is Gentile, outsiders of the promises to God’s ancient people, are escorted by Jesus into relationship with our heavenly Father. No longer at odds with God, we are God’s children, even if we don’t act much like it. 

God’s challenge to Peter to reach out to Gentiles went against everything he was raised to believe as a good Jew. God was asking him to do such a radical thing, that he had to use a vision to get through to Peter. We are sometimes like Peter and are reluctant to spend time with those we may consider as unclean, as outsiders—the homeless, the hungry, the working poor, the elderly and disabled and the list goes on. We need to ask ourselves where God is extending his salvation today within our world. Where do we see God’s resurrection power already at work? How might our answers to that question lead us as a congregation to discover new meaning in the Easter story?

Hearing today’s text from Acts may mean that we open ourselves to a gospel in which God does not play favorites. I think we all have people in our lives we think of as “they” and not “us.” As long as we think of anyone as “they,” we make them outsiders. Can we open our hearts to the “theys” around us and let God transform us until we see them as “us?” Only then can we truly embrace everyone with the all-inclusive loving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Eric Barreto, Working Preacher
Alan Brehm, First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX
Richard Carlson, Working Preacher
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through  the Christian Year A.

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