Sermon: A Brand New Life
April 23rd, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passages: 1 Peter 1:1-12, John 20:19-31
I read a story about the Easter morning worship service in a church in East Texas that I just have to share with you all:
The Call to Worship had just been pronounced and the choir, in their robes, started its processional marching in perfect step down the center aisle to the front of the church, singing “Up from the Grave He Arose”. The last lady in the choir line-up was wearing shoes with very slender heels. Without a thought for her fancy heels, she marched toward the grating in the middle of the aisle that covered a hot air register. Suddenly the heel of one shoe sank into the hole in the register grate. In a flash she realized her predicament. Not wishing to hold up the whole processional, without missing a step, she slipped her foot out of her shoe and continued marching down the aisle without a hitch. The processional continued with clock-like precision. The first man after her spotted the situation and without losing a step, reached down and pulled up her shoe, but the entire grate came with it! Surprised, but still singing, the man kept on going down the aisle, holding in his hand the shoe with the grate attached. Everything still moved like clockwork. Still in tune and still in step, the next man in line stepped into the open register and disappeared from sight. The service took on a special meaning when, just as the choir ended with “Alleluia! Christ arose!” a voice was heard under the church shouting…”I hope all of you are out of the way ’cause I’m coming out now!” A little girl closest to the register opening jumped into the aisle shouted down, “Come on up, Jesus! We’ll stay out of the way.” (adapted from sermons.com)
The next 6 weeks in the liturgical calendar, from now until Pentecost, is called the Season of Easter. The assigned lectionary readings for each Sunday include a series of readings from the book of 1 Peter, in addition to the regular gospel and OT readings. I have decided to take advantage of that to do a series of sermons based on that letter from Peter, written to a group of churches in Asia Minor (the area which today is within the country of Turkey).
The person writing and sending this letter was Peter, Simon Peter the disciple of Jesus. Simon, along with his brother Andrew, were among the fishermen that Jesus called to follow him. He was probably a follower of John the Baptist first, before meeting Jesus. Jesus later gave Simon a new name. Names and their meanings were important for defining a person. After Simon affirmed his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Jesus said to him, “I tell you that you are now Peter/Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.” At the end of the letter, as he is signing off, Peter says he is writing with the help of Silas, who may have also been the one to deliver the letter to the churches. They include a greeting from Mark, another missionary companion of Peter’s, as well as greetings from the church which Peter is attending. He says it is the church in Babylon. It is unknown if Peter was actually in a town named Babylon, or if he is using that name as a code for the city of Rome, as it is in the book of Revelation. In Revelation, Babylon symbolized the center of the unbelieving and worldly powers. Using the name Babylon, may also have been a way that Peter made a connection between himself and the people to whom he is writing, identifying himself with them.
Strangers in this world
The letter is addressed to “God’s chosen strangers, scattered in Asia.” That word ‘strangers’ could also be translated as ‘exiles’, or ‘foreigners’, or ‘refugees’. If you remember, Babylon was one of the places where the Jews had been taken into exile from the land of Israel, so Peter may be saying to them that he, too, like them, is a person away from his home, a stranger in exile. The members of the churches Peter is writing to were a mix of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Some may have originally been from Israel, others may actually be from those towns in Asia, but because they have chosen to put their faith in Jesus, they may no longer be accepted in their communities. Most of them, as Christians, would not be considered citizens due to their faith and as a result were vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. They would have been culturally and religiously different, a minority people. They would have had to pay taxes and contributed to the local economy, but they did not have the right to own or inherit property or have any right to legal protections.
In our world today, these people would be the refugees out of Syria who are trying to make a life for themselves in lands that are not their own, who find themselves unwelcome and vulnerable. In this country, they would be like immigrants, both the ones with visas and green cards as well as the undocumented, including those who may have lived here all their lives and know no other home, yet who still do not belong. People whose skin color or accent set them apart, regardless of how many generations their families may have been American, who are subject to prejudice, to unkind remarks, to social and physical abuse – these people could relate to those first recipients of this letter.
One particular person that I met this week comes to mind – his name is Edwardo. He was our guest in the homeless shelter. Edwardo is Hispanic. A year ago he was accosted by a group of men in Walworth and he was beaten with baseball bats, and kicked and punched till he was unconscious and left for dead. He was found and given medical care, so that he has recovered now with some residual disabilities. This past week he was unable to work as he needed to spend hours and hours in court to testify against his attackers despite the fact that due to the severity of his injuries he is unable to remember much of what happened. Edwardo lives as a stranger in this world.
Very few of us sitting here today can truly identify with Edwardo, or with the sense of being a foreigner, a stranger, an exile or refugee. But I pray that, in the course of this letter from Peter, we may find a greater understanding and compassion. I also pray that we might come to a deeper recognition that as followers of Jesus Christ, we are now citizens of heaven and only temporary residents and transient stewards of this earth. Even if you have lived in the same place for your entire life, as a Christian you are still called to live as a stranger in this world. We are to hear this letter from Peter, as addressing us, too.
Living in the light of the resurrection
After his greeting, in verses 1-2, Peter dives right into what he wants to say, and the next 7 verses, vs.3-9, are one Greek sentence! In our English translations, that one sentence has been broken down into 2-3 paragraphs of sentences to help us better understand what Peter is saying. But what we miss is the breathlessness of his message, the sense of urgency as he gushes out his thoughts without a pause. He is focused on the purpose of his letter, which he says in chapter 5 is to give them much needed encouragement and to testify to the true grace of God (5:12). He is impatient to convey to them the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for their lives and their struggles.
On the back of the bulletin I have included the portion of Peter’s letter that we are looking at this morning in the Message translation by Eugene Peterson. Listen to verses 3-5, put into the language Peter might have used if he was writing today: What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have Him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven – and the future starts right now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you’ll have it all – life healed and whole.
On Easter, Jesus was resurrected; he had been dead, but was given a brand new life. As a result, we too can have that brand new life. Do you see that brand new life in one another? Do you feel it in this room? Can our guests catch a glimpse of it in us? Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we are born anew into a living hope.
What is a “living hope”? I’ll tell you what it is not: it is not a keep-your-fingers-crossed kind of hope. It is not an as-long-as-you-don’t-mess-up kind of hope. It is not a hope-you-make-it kind of hope. Our hope in a healed and whole life, a bright future filled with a deep joy, is absolutely sure! It is a confident hope, a certain hope. It cannot be taken away by authorities that might doubt it. It cannot be denied by those who may want to draw the boundaries to exclude. It is a gift of pure love and mercy, from a God who extends grace and more grace. It is a hope that is not used up by a few; we do not need to conserve it or hoard it. Rather, the more it is shared the more there is, it is multiplied and overflows, it starts now and continues into eternity.
What difference does it make?
So what is the difference between living on this side of Easter, living into the brand new life of confident hope, versus living on the other side of Easter as if the resurrection had never happened? The fact is that even as Christians, we can choose to live in the light of the resurrection, or we can choose to live as if Jesus was still in the grave. Whole churches can get bogged down on the wrong side of Easter, in a pre-Easter mindset, rather than living out of the post-Easter mindset. Bill Wilson, of the Center for Healthy Churches, writes about some of the key differences between the two.
The biggest difference is that a pre-Easter church believes only in what they can see. A post-Easter church believes in what they cannot see. Thomas refused to believe that Jesus was alive again because he had not been there when Jesus came to the other disciples. When they did meet, Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you now believe; even better blessings are in store for those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Peter has a similar message for the churches he is sending his letter to: “Although you’ve never seen Him, you love him,” he writes, “Even though you don’t see him now, you trust him and so rejoice with a glorious joy that is beyond words.”
A church that only believes what they can see, lives in fear and dread like the huddled disciples behind locked doors. They erect barriers against those who are different, they are defensive and feel threatened. A pre-Easter church is fixated on the past, the glory days, the way it used to be, the way they have seen it work before. A pre-Easter church is convinced that the kingdom will only come if they sacrifice and struggle and personally do all the work to bring it to fruition. Life is about effort, duty and obligation; it is about guilt and resentment and frustration.
The brand new life of living hope
On the other hand, a post-Easter church that believes in what they cannot see, knows that the Spirit is responsible for supplying the power of the church, not them. They are free to appreciate and honor the past, but are convinced that God is out ahead of them, calling them to a dynamic and hopeful future – that the best is yet to come. These churches are able to innovate and create. They are enthusiastic and know that God is at work in the larger life of their community and wants them to join in. They know that the Good News of Jesus Christ and of his resurrection is exactly what the world needs now and they know that there has never been a better day to be God’s people on a mission into the world. They have nothing to lose because they are strangers here anyway and on their way home. Peter writes to these post-Easter churches, “Because you kept on believing, you’ll get what you’re looking forward to: total salvation.”
Is Peter a blind optimist? Does he not see the problems that still exist in the world, the senseless violence, the antagonism to Christian faith, the arrogance against outsiders, the sexism, the racism, the oppression and corruption? Not at all. Peter acknowledges in verse 6 that in the meantime, while we await the coming Day of Christ, we will still have to put up with every kind of aggravation. He’s going to address that in more detail later on in his letter. But first things first: we have been given a brand new life, let’s put it on! Let us live in the light of Jesus’ resurrection! Let us not sing the Easter hymns and then go out to live as if Easter never happened. Let us be a post-Easter church, that is full of brand new life, marching to the tune of a living hope, opening our doors and letting the Spirit move us and use us and carry us along!
We have got to stand and sing the closing song with all our hearts and all our voices, Because! He! Lives!
Closing song: #238 Because He Lives
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow; because He lives, all fear is gone; because I know He hold the future, and life is worth the living just because He lives!
Jesus stood among them and said to them “Peace be with you!” As our benediction, would you please turn to the people on either side of you, and in front and behind you, and say that to them? “Peace be with you!” …. Amen!