Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Easter Sunday Sermon - St. James 2016

Below is a copy of my Easter Sunday sermon this year. It's here not because it is good - it was attempt number three or four - but in case someone missed it who came to our service, or in case someone who came may have misunderstood or misheard what I was saying

In 1997 a book was published by Rodney Stark, who is a Professor of Sociology and Comparative Religion at Washington University. It was called "The Rise of Christianity." The subtitle of the book explains the main thrust of the book:

"How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement, became the dominant religious force in the Western world in a few centuries.”

Given its beginnings as a cult arising out of Judaism in one of the smallest countries of the world. Headed by a failed Jewish Messiah who died unrecognised by the very people who were waiting for him. Abandoned by his followers. Nailed to a cross like a common criminal. He became a picture of ridicule and failure. None of these things shout out success do they? So Stark's question is a good one. How did Christianity rise up to engulf the Roman Empire within just 3 centuries?

It’s an interesting book looking at the role of women, the conditions of the Roman Empire which helped the spread of Christianity, martyrdom and the example of the early Christians. But the weakness of the book is that it overlooks one important thing. And that is the message that was preached and proclaimed everywhere first by the Apostles and then by the growing number of disciples who began to move across the known world.

It was this message that under the power of the Holy Spirit changed individual lives, transformed personalities and re-vitalised human society. It’s that message that I want to look at this morning as given by Peter in Acts 10. But first a bit of background:

Peter, a Jew, has been summoned by God through a dream to go to the house of a Gentile, a God-fearing Centurion named Cornelius. When he arrives he discovers that Cornelius’ house is full of Cornelius' family and friends. Once there Peter shares with them the message God gave him to speak. In this message he paints a picture of God in five aspects. He tells them of:

A God who includes, a Lord who reconciles, a Messiah who heals, a
deliverer who dies, and a judge who forgives.

First of all a faith that includes (verse 24-35). 
There is an old John West advertisement from the sixties that advertises salmon with the following line:

'It’s the fish that John West reject that makes John West the best.’ 

And there is a certain understanding of God that He is like that. He only takes the good ones. There is a line that comes up in the occasional funeral where someone says to me of someone who has died:

“Oh Vicar its very sad, but he only takes the best.” 

I think they are confusing God with John West. Because here in Acts 10:34-35 Peter lays that myth to rest. Bear in mind that he, as a Jew, previously had little if anything to do with Gentiles because they were outside of God’s concerns. They were unclean, defiled and lost. But something has happened to disabuse him of such thinking, for he starts his message with this:

“Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

So right from the start Peter makes it plain that Gentiles too can be included in God’s kingdom if they fear God and do what is right.

Second, it is about a God who reconciles (verse 36).
In verse 36 Peter talks about “good news of peace through Jesus Christ” who is “Lord of all”.

One of the great themes of the Bible is the need for us to be reconciled with God. From the Garden of Eden forward human beings, we are told, are estranged from God. And this causes a disconnect between each other and also within ourselves. We can see it in the world today between nations, within families, in society and in the rise of depression and mental illness. And so in the coming of Jesus there is the wonderful offer of peace. Writing to the Colossians Pauls says:

“For in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:19-20)”

Commenting on that passage Billy Graham in his book Peace with God  writes this:

"The world will never know peace until it finds it in the cross of Jesus Christ. You will never know the peace with God, peace of conscience, peace of mind, and peace of soul, until you stand at the foot of the cross and identify yourself with Christ by faith. There is the secret of peace. This is peace with God.”

Thirdly, a Messiah who heals  (verse 38)
In verse 38 Peter, talking about the earthly ministry of Jesus points towards the works of power he performed following his baptism by John. Baptism is seen here as God anointing Jesus for his work as Messiah. The word ‘Messiah’ in Greek is Christos which means “anointed one”.

And it is under this anointing that Jesus was able to go “about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.”

Just as peace flows from God so does goodness, healing and deliverance from evil. And so we read of Jesus healing lepers and blind people, and setting free those oppressed by demons.

What chance have we against the oppression of evil in our world today? What resources do we have that can heal us and set us free?

In today’s Easter message Pope Francis preached an Easter message of hope after what has been a grim week in Europe where evil in all its ugliness and violence has claimed so many lives. He called on Christians not to let fear and pessimism "imprison" them.  He said:

"Let us not allow darkness and fear to distract us and control our hearts."

Perfect love, the Bible says, casts out fear. Light expels darkness. God and goodness, overcomes evil and the power of sin.

John says of Jesus at the beginning of his gospel:

“In him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)

Jesus is the Messiah who heals and sets free. Sets us free form evil and the power of sin within us which, unchecked, leads to such evil.

Fourthly, a deliverer that dies (verse 39). 
I deliberately chose a different translation this morning for our first reading for one reason. In verse 39 Peter talks about how he and his fellow disciples were witnesses to what happened to Jesus:

“And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and Jerusalem. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and caused him to appear, not to all people but to us…”

The word I was concerned about is the word ‘tree’. In the NIV they have translated it 'cross', but the actual word is tree. Why is that difference important? Because the Old Testament specifically states Deuteronomy 21:33:

"If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God).” 

Peter is deliberately pointing us to the fact that Jesus was seen, by the Jews—Pharisees and scribes—to be under God’s curse. He who is completely innocent, has therefore become a curse for us.  Anyone hung on a tree—whether by rope or in this case nails—was seen to be the very worst of sinners. Why else would they die in such a way. By hanging on a cross Jesus is identifying with the very worst of us and by dying and taking the sins of the world into the grave with him and rising again and leaving them behind, shows that forgiveness is now available to everyone, even the very worst of us, if we believe in him, repent, turn away from sin and live for him. (Why baptisms at Easter)

13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”
Galatians 3:13-14

Finally, the judge who forgives (42-43)
Peter tells us that it is this Jesus—who became a curse for us—who is the one appointed by God to be the judge of the living and the dead. And it is through this Jesus that we are able to receive not sentence but forgiveness if we believe in him.

The story is told of a Roman Catholic bishop who was upset because a woman in his diocese claimed to have daily conversations with Jesus. A little cult has grow up around her, and every day people surrounded her house, got on their knees, prayed, sang hymns, and said the rosary. The bishop thought that all of this was getting out of hand, so he went to visit the woman. He told her that while he knew she THOUGHT she was having conversations with Jesus, he was pretty much convinced it was all part of her imagination. To prove the point he said, "Okay, if Jesus is right here in this room with you now, and you can talk to Him, then ask Him to name the three sins I confessed this morning when I went to the confessional. After having what YOU believe to be a conversation with Jesus, if you can accurately name those sins, I might believe in what you say."  The woman sat for a long while. Then she smiled and turned to the bishop and said, "I asked Him, but Jesus said, 'I forgot."

We have a God who not only forgives, He forgets. He takes sin away from us and forgets it was ever ours in the first place. On Good Friday he took them on the Cross with him - he bore our sins (Isaiah 53) (he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world John said) and bearing them he died with them and was laid in the tomb. When he rose again from the dead he didn't just leave behind the grave-clothes, he left behind all our sins. He carries them no more.

Here then is the message that won over human hearts and won over the Roman Empire: A God who includes, a Lord who reconciles, a Messiah who heals, a deliverer who dies, and a judge who forgives.

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