Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sermon: 4 Easter (13 April 2008)

4 Easter: 20 April 2008
(1 Peter 1:1 – 2:3)
A Walgreen’s Easter

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Alleluia!

(Note: This sermon is not based upon the Revised Common Lectionary texts for 4 Easter, but focuses instead on selections from 1 Peter 1-2, the epistle appointed for the Easter season.)

A few days after Easter – Tuesday or Wednesday of Easter week I think it was – I went to Walgreen’s[1] to get a few odds-and-ends or to fill a prescription. A sign on the door announced Easter 75% Off. Now there’s good news! Alleluia! Christ is risen and I can get discounted baskets and bunnies. The Lord is risen indeed and I can get cheap candy eggs and marshmallow Peeps. Alleluia! The Gospel of Christ meets the gospel of Walgreen’s, the Kingdom of God meets the kingdoms of the world, God meets Mammon – and all right there at the five-and-dime. Who would have figured?

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against chocolate bunnies or peanut-butter eggs, especially on sale. I’m not a Peeps fan myself, but I know people who are, so I guess that’s OK, too. But there’s something about Walgreen’s dismissive attitude toward Easter that bothers me. I understand their business model: Easter is over and they need to move its specialty merchandise. The only way to do that is to discount the products. Easter is over and it’s time for business as usual, or time to move on toward the next holiday. I get all that. But, we’re part of this strange group of people called Christians that don’t – or, please God, shouldn’t – see things like that at all. For us, Easter isn’t just a day; it’s too big for that. Liturgically it’s a season – 7 weeks of celebration. Even more than that, Easter is a life, a new way of being in God’s new creation – all our days, all our hours, all our lives, and unto the ages of ages. A single day for Easter? That’s not nearly enough.

We really can’t forget this without doing violence to the Easter event. To celebrate Easter for just one Sunday is to make it only about a historical event that happened on one day to one dead, Jewish rabbi, in one garden outside Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. Let’s remember. Let’s celebrate. Let’s have a sale. And let’s move on, get back to business as usual. That’s to put Easter on par with Independence Day or Veterans’ Day or Presidents’ Day. But, we’re part of this strange group of people called Christians that don’t – or, please God, shouldn’t – see things like that at all. Certainly, what happened to Jesus on that one day in Jerusalem is important; in fact, it’s far too important to confine its celebration to just one day.

Walgreen’s notwithstanding, we’re part of this strange group of people called Christians who really believe that there is no getting back to business as usual. A stranger once asked my grandfather for directions to some place or another. My grandfather thought for some time and then said, “You really can’t get there from here.” That’s exactly the way this strange group of people called Christians think about Easter. Stop us to ask, How do we get back to business as usual – you know, like it was before Easter? and we’ll say, You really can’t get there from here. We really believe that Easter was the climax of all history – not just of human history, but of creation’s history. We really believe that everything past points toward Easter and that everything present and future radiates outward from Easter. In geography we talk about the continental divide. It’s the mountain range in North America that separates watersheds: to the west all rivers flow toward the Pacific Ocean and to the east toward the Atlantic. In theology we could just as reasonably talk about the covenantal divide. It’s the Easter event that separates salvation history: before Easter everything flows toward law and sin and death, after Easter toward grace and holiness and life.

On Easter – and by this I mean the whole Easter event of death, burial, resurrection, and ascension – on Easter God invaded his fallen and rebellious creation decisively and once for all in the person of Jesus. The Lamb of God took away the sin of the world, bearing our sins in his body upon the cross – the righteous one dying for the unrighteous many. The Suffering Servant conquered death by giving himself up to it, by commending his spirit into the Father’s hands. The New Adam restored the cracked icons of God – made it possible for men and women to once again bear God’s image – and inaugurated a new creation by bursting the bonds of the tomb and emerging into a garden on the first day of re-creation. The King of kings assumed his sovereign reign by ascending to the right hand of his God and Father and by taking his rightful seat on the throne. And after all that we think we can return to business as usual?

Everything has changed as the result of Easter and there is no going back to the way things were before. That’s what Peter writes

to the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood (1 Pe 1:1).[2]

Easter – and especially the resurrection – is not just about what happened to Jesus, but about what happens to us because of what happened to Jesus. Cosmic change ripples outward from Easter and becomes a tidal wave sweeping us all up in a flood of new creation with the sound of the mighty waters of grace thundering praise to the God who chose us and sanctified us.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Pe 1:3-5).

Because of Jesus’s resurrection, we too – those who have been sprinkled with his blood through baptism – have been given a new birth; we’ve been born again, born from above. Everyone born of flesh and blood is born into something, like it or nor: a family, a community, a culture, and perhaps even an inheritance. And all this is gift; there are no truly self-made men or women. Likewise, all those of us born anew, born of water and the Spirit, are born into something: a living hope and an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. This, too, is all gift – all grace. I did nothing to earn it or merit it and neither did you. We were born into it, into hope and inheritance.

It’s easy to forget that and to lose hope. Read the newspaper. Watch the evening news. We’re headed into recession – we’re probably already there – and those nest eggs we’ve put our hopes in are dwindling as we watch helplessly, dwindling along with our hopes of early retirement or even financially secure late retirement. The war in Iraq drags on with no signs of resolution and those who put their hopes for quick, successful resolution in a new presidential administration will likely be disappointed – no matter which candidate is elected. Genocide continues in Darfur and oppression in Tibet. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are persecuted around the world while the “free” church squanders its time and opportunities debating homosexuality, biblical inerrancy, and the role of women in churches that are declining and becoming irrelevant to a culture that has simply moved on without us. It’s easy to lose hope. But that is to dismiss Easter, to put it on sale 75% off, and that won’t do. When Leslie Newbigin – missionary and scholar and prophet – was asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic, he replied, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist; Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” And that makes all the difference. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and we have been born again to a living hope – a hope based not on wishful, optimistic thinking, but on the very power and purpose of God. God will restore all creation to himself – is presently restoring all creation to himself. And if we don’t see that, well, maybe it’s because we are trying to live as if Easter never happened, or because we are contenting ourselves with discount chocolate bunnies and stale Peeps. But Easter has happened – not just to Jesus, but to us and to all creation – and there is no going back to the way things were before.

Peter calls this Easter hope a living hope. It is so because it comes from God, the Creator of life, and from Jesus Christ, the author of new life. But it’s also a living hope precisely because it is a hope to be lived among those of us who call ourselves Christians and lived by us in the presence of the watching world. Peter moves seamlessly from living hope to hope lived.

Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pe 1:13-16).

A living hope is a call to action, to discipline, to holiness, to a refusal to be squeezed into this world’s mold (Eugene Peterson). A hope lived is our response to that call, a response that recognizes that “the artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without the work.”[3]

Peter intends to drive this home to all us resident aliens dispersed throughout the world, so again he moves us through this Easter cycle of Christ’s resurrection, our new birth, living hope, and hope lived.

Through him [Christ] you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.

Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. For

“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

That word is the good news that was announced to you.

Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good (1 Pe 1:21-2:3).

Peter was a braggart and a coward and a traitor. James and John were “sons of thunder” who wanted nothing more than to call down God’s curse and destruction on a Samaritan village. Paul was a radical, extremist Pharisee who endorsed violence and persecuted the church. All until Easter or their experience of it. Everything changed for them as the result of Easter and there was no going back to the way things were before, no going back to the way they were before. They were each born again into a living hope through the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The mark of their new birth, the sign of their change is still the mark of one who has witnessed the resurrection of Christ, is still the sign of one who has been born anew into a living hope through that resurrection: genuine mutual love, love that springs from deep within the heart, love that is itself a gift of God.

I’m not talking about mere sentiment or emotionalism – these are chocolate bunny and marshmallow Peep imitations of real, Easter love. I’m echoing Peter in talking about an Easter love which has put to death all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. I’m echoing Paul in talking about an Easter love which is patient and kind and never envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude – an Easter love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor 13, selections). I’m talking about an Easter love that sacrifices and bleeds and dies for the beloved, in living hope that it will yet rise again on Easter morning. May God grant us to love each other like that, to love all those He loves – which is to say everyone – like that. Then the world will be unable to dismiss Easter, unable to get back to business as usual. Then Easter will never be put on sale because it will be priceless yet given away freely.

A couple of weeks ago, while Walgreen’s was still trying to put Easter behind them and get back to business as usual, my family drove about 600 miles to watch a perfectly normal young boy – intelligent, athletic, compassionate – walk down the steps into a swimming pool with both water and air temperature hovering around 50 degrees to be baptized into the risen Christ. How do you account for that? Well, something happened on one day to one dead, Jewish rabbi, in one garden outside Jerusalem some two thousand years ago and that something is still happening to us now because it happened to him then. Somebody loved this boy enough to tell him about it, to tell him about a living hope. Somebody – some community of ordinary somebodies called the church – loved this boy enough to live out that living hope before him. And this boy, through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, became part of this strange group of people called Christians who have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Christ from the dead. And now, for this boy, there’s no going back to business as usual. Thanks be to God!


[1] A pharmacy and variety store chain.
[2] Unless otherwise noted all scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
[3] Emile Zola

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