Welcomed as Family (Easter 3B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Yallourn Congregation to be presented on Sunday 15th April 2018 at Yallourn North Uniting Church.

Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Today’s reading from Acts puts us straight into action with the first generation of Christians.  We listen in as Peter speaks to the gathering crowd in Solomon’s Porch, a public part of the temple in Jerusalem where the man who had been lame from birth had just been healed by Jesus through the apostles’ prayer.  A man who had asked for alms from Peter and John had received legs from Jesus: the crowds were rushing to see who and what and how.

In the first verse of today’s reading we see Peter grasp the opportunity of the crowd’s amazement at the miraculous healing to point to Jesus in a new and exciting way.   Look at Acts 3:13 and see how Peter refers to God with the names of the Jewish ancestors.  This is the same name by which God introduced Godself to Moses in the burning bush: Peter repeats the phrases of God’s self-identification and connects their ancestral God with Jesus whom the Judeans had had murdered by Pilate.  The one who was lynched by the Judean crowds had been sent to them by God to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  The miracle of the burning-yet-not-consumed-shrub given as a sign to Moses that The LORD was the one whose message was to be proclaimed is mirrored by the miracle of the walking-yet-recently-lame-man.  Once again God is speaking, and once again God chooses and vindicates the choice of the speaker of God’s behalf, the new Moses was Jesus and now in Jesus’ authority Peter and John speak.  Once again “I AM” is speaking to Israel, but this time it is “HE WHOM”; he whom you crucified and is both LORD and prophet whose truth is proclaimed.

So many signs.  In the mystical past God spoke to Moses and proved it was God with a burning bush which doesn’t burn.  In his immediate past God spoke to Peter and proved it was God with a dead man who was not dead.  In his today (today for him) God speaks through Peter to Judea, and proves it is God with a lame man who is not lame.  This is as much a sign for Peter as it is for Jerusalem, Peter who is now understanding that God has a preaching ministry for him, attested to by signs and wonders as had been the preaching ministry of Jesus, has just seen the second sign of his ministry.  First, he and his fellow apostles had spoken in every language needed to proclaim the good news to every adult in the Shavuot crowd in Jerusalem; now he and John see a man born lame begin to walk.  Even as Jesus welcomes Jews of all nationalities into the Kingdom of God, not just the Galileans, Judeans and Idumeans of the Holy Land, so Jesus welcomes Peter and John, and in their model all disciples, into the ministries of the Holy Spirit.

The resurrection is supposed to remind us that God is at work in the world, and that God is at work through us as God had been through Jesus.  What Jesus did, we now do.  What Jesus said, we now say.  How Jesus was given authority to do and say, and was vindicated in the doing and saying, which is the testimony of Godself through the Holy Spirit, so we are authorised and vindicated.

Peter describes Jesus in this sermon as the child of God (Acts 3:13b) which also carries the meaning of very trusted servant: and he reminds the Judeans that they collaborated with the Roman government, against the personal wishes of the governor, to murder this one most dear to God and to secure the release of an assassin and rebel.  “You made Pilate release Barabbas,” says Peter, “a man who you know was a zealot and a killer, and you had Pilate execute Jesus for treason and sedition.  Pause and consider!”  Briefly, we hear Peter go on to describe Jesus as the holy one, (so, God), and the ruler which also carries the meaning of “source” of life, (so, also God).  It is Jesus working through the proclamation of those who believe him who delivered the man from his lameness: short answer, look at the man on his feet here and praise Jesus who is the message of the God of Judaism, the liberator of the Hebrews from Pharaoh.

So that’s all rather spectacular: Jesus is the very trusted servant of God, the child of God, and one who carries the nature of God as holy and sovereign in life.  This is Peter’s introduction to what he goes on to say, first to lambast the Judeans for killing Jesus, and second to announce that with the resurrection the story did not end there.  “New life is available for you,” says Peter, “even you, you murderous scum, just as it is for this man with new life in his long-dead legs.  Believe Jesus, the child of God.”

Now that’s a pretty exciting message, but it gets even more exciting for us.  Where Peter speaks of Jesus as the child of God, John, in 1 John 3:1, speaks of every Christian as a child of God, and all of us together as children of God.  Woohoo!  Peter proclaimed in Acts 3:13-15 that Jesus was like God, now John in 1 John 3:2-3,7 tells us that because of Jesus we will become like God.  Woohoo!  And again, I say woohoo!  But I also want to ask what that means.

I think it’s great that when God’s fullness is revealed to us and we perceive it that we will become like God as we see God.  But I wonder what God is like that we shall become like God.  Of course, the full answer to that is a mystery, the mystery which John explains.  We just don’t know, because we don’t know yet, and when we do know then we will know, and it will all have been done by God.  So, does it matter that we don’t know yet?  After all what we do know now is that we will know later, you know?

Two answers.

  1. No, it doesn’t matter. I trust God, I believe God, and that’s enough for now.  It will happen, and when it happens God will do the thing.  As far as I am concerned if God is doing the thing then God can do whatever thing God wants to do when it comes to doing things to me.  You too?  Excellent.
  2. We already know a bit, because we have seen Jesus. Specifically, we have seen the risen Jesus, Jesus at his most like-God-ness, or perhaps Jesus at his most Godlike-ness.  So, we will be like Jesus, like the Jesus of the empty tomb, the vindicated, transformed, child and most trusted servant of God which John says is now our status within creation.  Where Jesus is The Son you and I are each a son or a daughter in the likeness of The Son, who is the image of The Father.  Awesome.

Are you following this? Phew! So, what is The Son like then; that I and some of you as a son, and the remainder of you as a daughter, will be like him?

Well, in Luke 24:36 we pick up one of the stories told about Jesus and his adventures around Judea on the evening of Easter Day.  In his first post-resurrection appearance according to Luke; (there were only angels in the garden to speak with the women and no risen Jesus); Jesus walked the last part of the road with the Cleopases and broke bread with them in Emmaus.  Then Jesus disappeared from their sight, and Cleopas and Mary returned to Jerusalem and told the story of Jesus on the road and at the table.  And then…well and then we get to today’s reading.

Enter Jesus, from nowhere, having only been seen by two people since his death (and even then, he went unrecognised until the final second), suddenly in the middle of the room, declaring “shalom”.

The first thing we can say about Jesus on the night of the day of his resurrection is that he is an embodied life.  And as I am trying to say, this will one day be true of us.  Jesus the risen one is not a spirit in Heaven and a ghost on Earth.  He has a body, he can be touched, and he can eat and breathe do all those things that bodies with a life in them do.  But he can also appear in a locked room without making use of the door.  The presence of Jesus is a presence that belongs in both worlds, the world of Heaven and the world of Earth, without needing change.  There is no border for him, the place where you need to change trains at Albury and get into the NSW carriage with a different set of wheels if you want to go to Sydney.  No, Jesus can pass between Heaven and Earth in a new way, a way he couldn’t have done a week ago (and remember a week ago for Jesus was Palm Sunday).  Even the man heralded as “Hosanna, Son of David” can’t walk into Heaven on human feet – but The Resurrected One can.  That is the Jesus we worship as Lord above all, The Son of God, God’s child, who is also God The Son, Godself.  And we shall be like him, him like that, when we enter eternity.

But for me that it not the best bit.  It’s a pretty good bit, and that would be a great conclusion.  Jesus is Risen, he is risen and returns to show himself in person, in glorious and shining and walking through walls and breaking bread and eating fish with his hands person to his friends and to strengthen their faith and vindicate their hope.  Hallelujah and Amen.  But look also at what Jesus says.  He says “shalom”.  Now, okay, that’s a pretty standard line at first look.  He’s saying “hello”, he’s saying “g’day” in the sense of “good day” or perhaps “good evening” as it is for him.  It’s a greeting, and nothing special in that.  Well okay it’s a bit special because the actual message is also “peace be with you”, so he’s speaking like a Jewish man, like a Christian.  He’s “passing the peace”, well (shrug) good for him, he’s a rabbi and these are his mates, so what?

So what, indeed.  For me it is remarkable that these words are coming from a man whose body, miraculous and glorious as it is, is still in the shape of a body torn apart by nails, flails, sunburn, and a spear.  He is risen, and he has in a sense been healed as he’s no longer dead, he’s no longer bleeding, and he is breathing without difficulty.  The stuff that actually killed him has been fixed, yeah?  But he was killed, and he was betrayed, and it was bloody hard: it was bloody and hard as we heard on Good Friday.  Friday hurt, we heard that on Good Friday too.  What that says to me is that not only was Jesus’ “shape” restored in a glorious new way, this body that can hold bread yet pass through walls, Jesus’ “sense” was restored too.  The man of sorrows, the man who had been broken, abused, mocked, betrayed, abandoned, flayed, crucified, and stabbed walks into a room and says “shalom”.

I think I would have started the conversation, and remember that this is the first conversation Jesus has had with these people since Gethsemane , I would have started with “now listen…about Thursday night…and then Friday…all bloodied day…hmm?”  The new body of Jesus has come with a resurrected spirit.  Jesus does not hold a grudge; indeed, Jesus does not hold anything because he withholds nothing, he gives all he has.  All his love, all his comfort, all his blessing, all his shalom.

When John in 1 John 3 speaks of us as God’s children he is telling us that we have a future in God’s family.  That future looks like the resurrected Jesus, the eternally living one who is also the eternally loving one.  We who live surrounded by sin will sin and live with sin no more, because we will be refashioned for an eternity where we will live with shalom from God and shalom for each other.

This is the story we proclaim.  This Jesus, whose return in Luke’s account seems more interested in comforting his grieving friends than in declaring his own glory and vindication, this Jesus speaks the fullest form of peace and hope to humanity.  The shalom of God which raised Jesus from the dead raised the lame man from the path outside Beautiful Gate, raised Peter from a denier of Christ in a darkened private courtyard to a proclaimer of Christ in the busiest part of the temple at the busiest time of the day, raised two weary travellers who had walked mournfully from Jerusalem to Emmaus to then run all the way back to declare their hope because of who they had seen and what they had heard.

Because he lives, his peace be among you.

Amen.

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Up! Up and (not) Away!

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 28th May 2017.  It follows the readings for Ascension.

Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:36-53.

Ascension is one of those days in the liturgical calendar that many Uniting Church congregations appear to overlook.  It’s there on the calendars, marked on my lectionary and on the two month-per-view calendars I have on my wall at the manse, one each from the Synods of Victoria-Tasmania and South Australia.  Perhaps Evangelicals see this festival as a bit religious, a bit High-Church, more than a bit irrelevant to the cause of global evangelism.  Perhaps it is that, unlike many other Christian festivals which move with the day of the year, Ascension is always on a Thursday and never on a Sunday.  Good Friday, always a Friday is an exception because of what it is, and of course Christmas need not be Sunday to be Christmas, but otherwise if it doesn’t happen on Sunday it doesn’t seem happen at all.

I think that’s a shame:  I like Ascension.  I like what it represents and I like that it goes almost completely ignored by the world.  I mean, if you aren’t a High-Church person now or you didn’t go to an Anglican or Roman Catholic school back in the day, you probably don’t know it exists at all.  So, it’s one of ours, a day that the Church gets to keep for itself.  We can worship God in the way we want, without interruption or compromise, and we get to eat all the lollies on our own and we don’t have to share them with anybody.

So, what is Ascension?  Well in simple terms, and there is no need to be any more complicated than this, Ascension marks the day when Jesus returned to Heaven after the resurrection.  Pretty much all of Christianity believes that after Jesus rose from the dead on that third day, the day now called Easter Day or Easter Sunday, Jesus wandered around with the disciples for seven weeks or so, popping up here or there, before finally giving the Great Commission to the readers of Matthew, and the assurance of the Holy Spirit to the readers of Luke, and then was taken bodily into Heaven.  That’s one long sentence, because it’s one complete idea.  The risen Jesus is the one who ascends; the one who walked out of the grave is a different sort if being from the one who was carried into it.  More of that later.

Luke suggests in Acts 1:3-8 that Jesus ascends and descends many times in the forty days between the day of his resurrection and this final ascension ten days before Pentecost.  I find this idea fascinating, and somewhat under-reported.  If you’ve heard anything about the ascension before you know that it happened once, on the sixth Thursday after Easter.  Jesus rose from the dead, hung about for forty days, and then was beamed up Star Trek style from a rock just outside Jerusalem.  But Luke, and therefore the Bible, says something different.  Luke says that Jesus came and went many times in those seven weeks, and that raises a question for me.  Why did Jesus stop coming back after those forty days?

In the way that Luke reports it Jesus’ final ascension is an apocalyptic event with the cloud of presence and the angelic figures.  So, does Acts 1:11 predict an apocalyptic second coming?  He will return, just as you have seen him depart say the messengers.  I don’t doubt that Jesus will return to the earth in glory, but I don’t think this is a proof text for it.  Remember that Jesus has been up and down from Heaven on a frequent basis for the past six weeks; what I think this text says is that this will continue, even if less publicly.  In other words, Jesus did not stop coming after the forty days, he just did it differently.  Think of how Jesus appears to Saul in Acts 9.  Think, if you believe them, of the millions of accounts of Jesus appearing to people right up to our own day, many of them not Christian when he came. “Aha, but”, you might say, “Jesus appeared in person to the apostles; his appearances to Saul and the people in our day were only visions.”  So, were Jesus’ resurrection appearances on the road to Emmaus, and back in Jerusalem when Cleopas and friend returned, appearances in person or in vision?  After all, in Luke 24:13-49 Jesus eats a piece of fish and breaks apart a loaf of bread in his hands, but he also appears and disappears suddenly and at will.

I’m not trying to tell you that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, I believe he did, but I am asking the question whether what we read in Acts 1:10 and Luke 24:50-53 really is the end of the story of the Christ in the world, or whether he indeed continues to come and go by the grace and will of God.  Again, I say, the Jesus who walked out of the tomb is different in substance from the Jesus who was carried into it.  The real, present, resurrected Jesus was not limited to one place at one time in the same way that the pre-crucifixion Jesus was; this is true of him today but I believe it might have been true of him in that six weeks too.

Forty is a number with Biblical significance: in Jewish philosophy, it tends to signify completion.  Forty days and forty nights of flooding rain is sufficient to destroy all life on earth except the lives God personally saved.  Forty years in the desert is sufficient to effect generational change in the Hebrews who left Egypt.  Forty days in the wilderness takes Jesus to the brink of giving in to temptation, he has reached the very limit of human forbearance.  Where in the Lord’s prayer we say, “save us from the time of trial” we mean “don’t push us beyond our limits, our ability to say no to evil.”  For Jesus that limit was forty days or turmoil and starvation: his emptiness was complete.  So, forty days between the opened tomb and the opened sky brings about the completion of the teaching and coaching ministry of Jesus the disciple-maker.  Jesus returned to Heaven when the work was completed.  And what was that work?  Preparation of the 120 to receive the Holy Spirit.

That is why it does not surprise me at all to hear or read of Jesus returning to earth in our day.  He comes for the same purpose, here time and again to continue to complete the work of preparing new generations of disciples to receive the Holy Spirit for the work of mission.  I mean, look at Jesus’ last works in Luke (24:48-49) and Acts (1:4-5, 8): wait here in the place to which I have brought you until the Spirit takes you on to the next step with the Spirit’s power.

The power that Jesus promised to give the apostles is not the power to restore Israel to superpower status, but the power (boldness, authority security) to go with the good news of the Reign of God to neighbours, strangers, and aliens (Acts 1:8).  Jesus does not intend to restore the kingdom to Israel (1:6), he will restore Israel (and the world 1:8b) to the kingdom, by the word of the apostles’ witness.  This is indeed what happens.

And this is where we see more of what Jesus has become in his resurrection.  The new kingdom which the Church is heralding is characterised by embodied existence; Jesus is no ghost but neither is he a resuscitated corpse (Luke 24:39).  And he has been raised by God, the great, complete, and unargued vindication of every word of his message.  As I have heard it said, when a man walks out of his own grave to tell you something you want to pay attention to whatever he says.  And as if more proof were required, the resurrected Christ then ascends publicly to the Father where he sits right beside God Godself.  There is no higher proof that the message of Jesus is the whole truth of God, and therefore worthy of human worship (Luke 24:52).  There is no higher proof that the promises he made will be fulfilled, the promise that he will be with us always, the promise that if we act according to his will he will complete the work because of us, the promise that we are loved, forgiven, and will ultimately be reunited with God in the new kingdom.

Paul gives thanks for the reputation of the love of the Ephesians for all the Church.  This to me is evidence that the gospel has struck and stuck.  The kingdom’s values are being lived out publicly, the disciples of Jesus are known for their character and they are unique.  The Holy Spirit’s power is effective, the promises of Jesus are being fulfilled, and the news of the reign of God is going onward and outward.  From Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria the gospel has reached and is filling Roman Asia with the news of God, the message is not too far from hitting the Ends of the Earth.

Paul prays for the Ephesian believers for wisdom and revelation as they come to know the Father so that they might see and understand the hope in the message of Jesus.  That hope includes the story that the Church is empowered to continue the work of God, empowered with the same power that raised Christ from the dead and exalted him to the highest place in Heaven.  From being in the grave of an executed blasphemer and traitor Jesus is now enthroned beside God the King, and rightly so, because Christ is the head of all things.  The ascension of Christ is the next state of his resurrection, a continuation of the process of vindication that not only is Jesus revealed as Christ the true messenger of God, but that he is Godself, the king and lord who was in flesh but is now in the fullest of glory.  All that which was laid aside prior to the manger is now restored completely.  This is the news that was proclaimed on Pentecost day and this is the news which is being proclaimed a generation later in Roman Asia.

Paul prays that the Ephesians, and I pray that the East Gippslanders know this.  In Greek, this whole passage is one long sentence: one connected train of thought which we are supposed to hold together in our minds.  We have been chosen by God, because of the work of Jesus who blesses us, to receive the free gift of redemption through grace, and the power to tell others where to get it for themselves, so that every member of creation might live a life full of hope, joy, and utter security.

I do believe in a second coming of Jesus.  I’m not sure about the “Left Behind” model and I’m not a pre-Millennial, post-Millennial, ante-Millennial or any other sort of thousand-years person.  Whether one day I will vanish in the blink of an eye, or bodily ascend like Jesus, or whether Jesus does what Jesus will do another way I am not bothered.  Maybe I’ll not live to see the ultimate return of Christ at all and I’ll watch it all unfold from the old Heaven as the new one descends upon those of you who remain.  But what I believe even more than the glorious apocalypse, the great and undoubted revelation of God as both Lord and King, is that Jesus has never stopped coming to earth to be with his own.  Jesus does not walk with me like he walked with Peter, James and John, but neither is he watching us from a distance.

Ascension carries one strong and hope filled meaning for me.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, he is still with us.  Elvis may have left the building, but Jesus hasn’t gone away, and he never intended to.

Amen.