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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Difference the Resurrection Makes

This sermon was first preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2016.

Acts 5:27-32
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”
But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

The Difference the Resurrection Makes

         Today is the second Sunday of Easter.  We celebrated that high holy day last Sunday with joy, enthusiasm, humility, and gratitude.  We considered what it is to be eighth day disciples.  We gloried in the appearances and words of Jesus to his followers who had felt lonely and hopeless.  In the marvelous gift of Jesus’ resurrection, it begins to dawn on us that somehow, in innumerable ways, everything is different. 

Twenty centuries ago, Mary, Thomas, and their friends, came to realize that their concept of God’s power had been too small.  They searched their memories for words Jesus had spoken, deeds Jesus had done.  They realized how much they had misunderstood what had happened when they were with him.  In those last weeks of his life, those last days, even those last hours, he had pressed hard to explain to them why he had come.  He had corrected and clarified what kind of leader he was.  He had demonstrated and described the kind of community of ministry he wanted them to be.  He had poured himself out in words and acts of love that for them had in many ways seemed like any other day with any special friend. 

But it turned out, against their state of denial, that it was not like all other times.  At this time, on this day, those who plotted against him would not be denied.  The day Jesus’ enemies would arrest and execute him had exploded upon them.  They had kept telling themselves and Jesus that it was not going to happen.  Some had worried, but on the whole, all they could see ahead was a rising tide of Jesus’ triumph over the powerful elites, the wealthy oppressors, the religious snobs, and the Roman invaders.  Jesus was going to sweep it all away.  They had heard the preachers.  They had listened to their moms and dads tell the stories of the Messiah’s coming.  Some had read the prophetic writings.  They remembered how Moses and Miriam had led the people out of Egypt.  This is what they saw coming. 

It was not what came. 

They had misunderstood the message.  They had misunderstood the stories.  They had misunderstood the Messiah.  They had misunderstood their friend.  In a whirlwind of events, Jesus had been arrested.  His followers were confused, disorganized, afraid, unready.  As each hour passed, their disbelief only grew.  How could this be happening?  They saw him verbally attacked.  They saw him beaten and tortured.  They saw the conflicting interests of the powerful battle over what to do with him.  And finally, they saw him exhausted, abandoned, struggling to say a few last words, to show a few more moments of love, until he could bear no more, and he died.  A spectacle of violent power was brought down on this good man, and it did not stop until he was crushed.  Less than a day before, they had talked, eaten together, and shared treasured moments.  Now it was all swept away.

So when Mary and Thomas, a week apart, faced the realization that Jesus was now living, though he had been dead, they were mentally and emotionally overwhelmed.  What could it all mean?  Their friend who had been their hope had been brutally killed by the state, but now now he was present with them, talking to them, touching them.  That just does not happen.  We would call it “mind-blowing.”  It was not something they would get a good handle on in a few minutes.  It was going to take some time.  This resurrection, more intense and amazing than Jairus’s daughter or even Lazarus coming from the tomb, shook the foundations of reality.  And if this was the destiny of their friend Jesus, then he must be far more than they had ever imagined him to be.  Who was this Jesus they had followed?

The New Testament tells us that Jesus appeared to many people over a period of many days—not just on that Sunday morning; not just eight days later.  He appeared to a couple of friends on the road.  He showed up by the shore where people were fishing.  He met them in Galilee.  Jesus, the Word became flesh who dwelt among them, who moved in their neighborhood, was back at it again.  He hung with them and talked things through.  He made sure they understood the time they had spent walking and talking with him was only the prelude.  Now was to be the beginning of a world-changing movement.  Now, they would have to take up the task of doing greater works than he had done.  They would have to reorganize their lives around loving one another.  They would have to be ready for their men and women to rise up and lead, from young to old, toward a better world, a more just social order, a beloved community.

So although we are still in the season of Easter, and not yet at Pentecost, the lectionary has brought us this text from the book of Acts.  It is about the work of Peter and other apostles who were going about in Jerusalem preaching and doing mighty works.  Masses of people were following the way of Jesus.  The priests and rulers who thought they had gotten rid of the Jesus problem were frustrated and angry.  They tried arresting and threatening them, to no avail.  They tried putting the apostles in jail, but the prison could not hold them.  After the conversation in this text, the Council would have them beaten to try to scare some sense into them.  That was not going to work either.

Peter, we recall, had tried to start a war at Jesus’ arrest, had hung out on the fringes, had denied Jesus, and had run away brokenhearted.  Most of the other disciples had scattered, hidden, disappeared when Jesus was threatened.  Any who saw or heard the events did so from afar, from the shadows, from hiding places of their fear.  So how is it that they were so different in Acts 5?  They had come to realize that the resurrection changes everything. 

In their time with the resurrected Jesus, They had

remembered, recentered,

ruminated, meditated,

reconsidered, reconfigured,

contemplated, explicated,

reassessed, praised and blessed,

retold, grown bold,

understood, gazed upon the Highest Good

—God’s goodness revealed in Jesus Christ, their Messiah, their Savior, the Risen Lord, the Great Physician, the Liberator of the poor, the Ever-loving Friend.  With new focus on the depth of reality and of truth, they were changed.

What a difference the resurrection made!  In chapter 4, when instructed not to be preaching and carrying on about Jesus, they answered, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”  After some more time of living in the glow of resurrection glory, and after a partial night spent in jail, their confession became even more precise.  This time, when chastised for continuing to teach in Jesus’ name, they answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” 

What a powerful witness!  What insight into the truth they now had!  But if we are to understand what their statement means, we have to remind ourselves of some of their previous misunderstandings of Jesus.  Now, it was becoming clear.  But when he was alive, they were just about clueless.  Since the resurrection, the Holy Spirit had drawn them again and again to Jesus’ words and deeds.  New light had dawned upon their eyes, their ears, and their minds.  The resurrection had made all the difference.

Think back to the time Jesus began to tell his disciples that he was expecting his enemies to capture and kill him.  Peter said, “No.  That’s never going to happen.”  He told Jesus not to be giving in to that negativity, not to speak that into the world.  He thought by keeping a positive outlook and making the most of the resources at hand, Jesus could never have to suffer such a terrible end.  But, Jesus, who himself was not fond at all of getting tortured and killed, had to push back on Peter’s tempting proposal.  He told Satan to leave him alone.  He didn’t call Peter, “Satan.” 

He spoke up to the tempter.  Sure it sounds good to maybe plan for weapons to face up to weapons.  Sure the multitudes were on his side and could be persuaded to take up arms.  But Jesus had come to realize that he could not win against the violent powers of the world by taking up violence as his own means.  A victory of love has to come through loving people, no matter how wrong and harsh they might become.  So Jesus rebuked that idea and reaffirmed his faithfulness to God.  He would not settle for a short-sighted human strategy.  He would not take the path of the world.  He would be faithful to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly into the face of his enemy, loving the enemy even to the point of being killed by the enemy.  So he realized he would have to try again later to explain to his buddies and compatriots what the coming days were going to bring.

Peter really was not hearing it.  He did not even for a moment think that Jesus would be the victim of state-sponsored murder.  He was sure, if it came to a fight, they could win it.  So even at the last moment, in the garden, he grabbed his sword and tried to start the revolution.  Jesus had to rebuke him one more time.  That is the world’s way.  The world depends on swords and other weapons of violence.  Violence breeds violence, in an ever-downward spiral of destruction.  Jesus was not going to be one more link in an eternal chain of violence.  He explained again that the way of the sword is the way of destruction.  One who lives by the sword ultimately dies by the sword.  That is the world’s way.  That will not be Jesus’ way.  Jesus will obey God rather than any human authority or power, even the power of violence. 

Let’s take a look at a second way their understanding of Jesus was changed.  Since Jesus had risen, Peter had been mulling those words over.  He had been rehashing the events of those crucial days.  The resurrection made the difference.  He was realizing that what Jesus came to do was so much greater, so much more extensive, so much more revolutionary than he had ever imagined.

Before Peter drew his sword, another conversation had caused a rumble of anger and trouble among the disciples.  James and John, the Sons of Thunder, probably did not get their nickname from being pushovers and passive.  As they walked along, they had pulled Jesus aside.  The events were exciting.  Crowds were proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah.  They, like Peter, believed the war to end all wars was about to break out.  They were sick of the Romans putting their boots on the throats of the Jews.  They were ready to put their feet on some Roman necks.  Since they were so sure Jesus was about to give them that opportunity, they started thinking about who would have what status in the New World Order.  They asked Jesus whether they could be his vice-regents when he became King.  He was always talking about a Kingdom, so there had to be a hierarchy and some people in charge of everything.  They had been tight with him from the beginning, so why shouldn’t they get some recognition, some power, some position to shape the vision of the future? 

They must have pressed their point so loudly that everyone overheard their request.  People started fussing and griping.  Jesus must have rolled his eyes and let out a big sigh…  They just did not get it.  No matter how much he had tried to show them what he came to do, they kept thinking it was something completely different.  Seeing, they did not see.  Hearing, they did not understand.  So he set out again to explain.

He told them that in the world, people who are rulers tend to become tyrants.  They want to “lord over” others.  They like to dominate, control, and master people.  The world sees power as something that those on top press down upon everyone else.  Worldly power is power over others.  Then Jesus told them, “It must not be this way among you.”  Don’t accept the ways of the world.  Don’t obey the world’s existing patterns of domination.  God has another way, and I’ve been trying to show it to you.  Whoever wants to be great must become a servant.  Leadership is serving.  Leadership is working for the good of others, not just trying to keep everything good for oneself.  Servant leadership is what I have shown you.  It will be the way you should also live and lead.  Power in Jesus’ kingdom is not power over, but power with one another.  We care for one another.  Loving one another, we aim only to outdo one another in service, not for acclaim, but to see love blossom and expand far and wide.

Maybe a few of the disciples felt embarrassed.  Maybe they listened enough to have their consciences pricked.  Probably some of them kept grumbling about James’s and John’s arrogance.  Probably some were mad at themselves for not asking Jesus first.  Whatever way they reacted to Jesus’ correction of their view of the Kingdom, they clearly did not absorb the lesson.  According to Matthew and Mark, this conversation happened not long before Jesus rode a donkey colt into Jerusalem, surrounded by cheering crowds who believed he would save them by coming to be the heir of David, their greatest king, a mighty warrior.  The disciples probably quickly forgot about the servant leader idea.  They started tasting the defeat of the Romans as they imagined this mass of people from the countryside and the streets forming itself into an army for battle.

So a few days later, Jesus was showing them exactly what he meant at their Passover meal.  He undressed down to the scant clothing of a servant and began to wash their feet.  They were alarmed, shocked, and upset.  He had rank in their cohort, so he should not be doing that.  Peter fussed with him.  They had not understood how to lead through service, and Jesus had to show them.  He washed their feet, one by one.  It did not diminish him.  Rather he grew in their hearts that evening.

Even with that dramatic lesson and explanation, they still struggled to get the point.  Luke tells us a dispute about who was greatest came up after the meal.  Jesus one more time talked over with them about how worldly thinking views power.  The leader, in God’s world, is one who serves.  Rather than greatness coming from size, strength, or any other means of domination, the greatest should appear as a child appears--one who would obviously not be a threat to others.  Even though we think of the one who gets served by others as the greatest, Jesus reminds them that he came among them as one who serves.  The way of the world is not the way of God.  Jesus says that he came to obey God, not human conceptions of greatness and power.  How hard a lesson this was for them to learn!  And no doubt they did not learn it at that time. 

But what a difference the resurrection made!  Now, in the temple and before the ruling priests, Peter and the other apostles were not arguing about who was in charge, who was greater, or who was going to get put down.  They didn’t tell the ones who arrested them, “You can’t do this!  Don’t you know who I am?  Are you trying to get yourself in trouble?”  They went to prison and waited to see what God would do.  If God had brought Jesus from the prison house of death and the grave, then God might very well bring them out of the jail.  On this occasion, that is what happened. 

Rather than being overcome by fear and anxiety, they found themselves changed by the resurrection.  They walked out of the prison with instructions to get back to their public teaching.  God’s messenger told them to get back to delivering the message of following Jesus into a life that goes against the grain of the world.  So they started at daybreak to disobey the ruling authorities.  Leading and serving people, healing the beggars, lifting up the kicked aside and thrown away people, serving them and elevating their lives toward Jesus’ Kingdom—this was to be their way.  They did not rush to the Sanhedrin and command the Sadducees to kneel before them.  They did not gather a crowd with clubs and swords to force the rulers to submit.  They simply ignored the worldly powers and their forms of domination.  They kept telling people that Jesus had shown them a new way to live.  They kept building a contrast society, a beloved community.  The resurrection had made a difference.

One last moment in the final day of Jesus’ life deserves our attention as we think about the difference the resurrection makes.  Jesus went on trial not only before the high priests, but also before Pilate.  Pilate took him into his chambers to interrogate him and consider his judgments.  At one point, he did exactly what Jesus said he would do.  He roared, “Don’t you know who I am and what power I have?  I can crush you if I decide to do so!”  He spoke as a tyrant.  He lorded over Jesus.  Jesus, who came as a servant, was unperturbed.  When asked if he was a king, Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world. 

Be careful here, or you will miss his point as pitifully as the disciples did.  You might already be thinking that Jesus means his kingdom is in heaven, not on the earth.  You might think he means it is invisible and spiritual, not visible and material.  You might think that, but it would not be what he said.  Rather than take Jesus’ phrase “not of this world” to mean “not of the earth,” we do better to hear him say that his kingdom is not a worldly kingdom.  It is not a domination system like the kingdoms of the world.  It is not a structure that depends on violence to gain power.  That’s why he goes on to say that his followers are not fighting to keep him from being arrested.  That’s not the way he fights.  That’s not the way he wins.  Jesus wins because love wins.  Jesus wins because peace defeats war.  Jesus wins because enemies must be turned into friends.  That is why his kingdom is not a worldly kingdom.

Now although Jesus had been taken into the governor’s courts for this conversation, someone must have reported what they said, because it ended up in the Bible.  Maybe there were some of his followers nearby who were able to listen.  Maybe Pilate enjoyed bragging and telling the story, and it got around to Jesus’ followers.  Maybe they had to wait and hear about it after they could quiz the resurrected Jesus about what had happened on that day.  But someone told the story, and it was considered an important story to report in the gospels.  It was a clarifying story.  Placed alongside so many other things Jesus had said, it helped to put the puzzle together.  God has a way for us to live.  The power of love is a very different kind of power than the world.  Human authorities will prefer force and violence as means of domination.  But Jesus shows humans a better way to live.  It is not Pilate’s way.  It’s not the world’s way.  It is God’s way. 

What a difference the resurrection made!  There, fresh out of prison and living in the Jesus way, not the worldly way, Peter and the apostles were again brought before the ruling authorities.  They were asked why they did not obey the previous admonition to cease and desist from all their Jesus rabble rousing.  They were accused of slandering the rulers.  But Peter and the apostles could see that this domination must not be the way they must live.  Peter and the Apostles had been changed.  There were united to Christ in the resurrection.  They answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”  Not a question this time, but a bold affirmation came from their mouths. 

“We must” began their statement.  Out of the chaotic mass of human social existence, Jesus has called together a new community.   We are united in him to be a body, a living organism.  We are a community with a mandate to follow Jesus. 

“We must obey God.”  It is not up to us to figure out how to gain power through domination.  Jesus, who came to us from God, showed us a better way, and that is the way we have to go.  

“Rather than any human authority.”  We know that you all are religious and political leaders.  We know you have put yourselves in charge and the Romans have let you do that.  But we don’t need to live in a world where people put themselves in charge over others.  We live in a different reality. 

It is the reality constituted when “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus.”  The resurrection has changed everything.  We now see that everything is different.  So we don’t live by human self-serving politics.  Our politics is the politics of Jesus, of serving, of loving our neighbor, of loving even our enemies.  We will keep on living that way, even if you use your domination power to try to stop us.

In this new confidence they began to preach a sermon to the chief priests.  They announced the resurrection.  They told about Jesus’ execution, hanging on a tree.  They proclaimed that the Resurrected One has been exalted as the Leader, a serving leader who saves the endangered and lost.  They tell them that the reason they can say all this is because they remember what Jesus did and said.  “We are witnesses.”  We have been thinking all this through.  Now we understand what a difference the resurrection makes.  God’s Spirit testifies with us that the resurrection has changed everything.  It’s not your world any longer.  It’s a different world from where you come from.  It’s the world reborn in the resurrection.

The apostle Paul would later write to the Corinthians that because of the resurrection, we no longer look at people from a human point of view.  He says that we used to look at Jesus that way—a crackpot, a con artist, a troublemaker, a pain in the neck, an impediment to our ambitions.  But we don’t see Jesus that way any more.  We see the world through the eyes of a loving God.  We look upon the world from the perspective of the bent knee of a serving Savior.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.  The old has passed away.  Behold, all has become new.  It is because of the life, the teaching, the servant way, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus that all has been made new.

The resurrection makes the difference.  Whatever ways that you have found yourself captive to powers of this world, the resurrection has made the difference.  We no longer have to try to gain power over others.  We may join with others to build power with one another for our mutual good, for the common good.  The resurrection makes the difference.  We can unite around the good that God has planned for the human race and for all creation.  We don’t have to give in to being divided, sorted, ranked, stacked, appraised, or crunched.  The resurrection changes everything.  We can unite in beloved community.  We can live this life God has called us to live because of the difference the resurrection makes.  Amen.

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