always amazed at the variety in the [flowered] cross -- I think my yard
doesn't look anything like this J.
I don't know where all these flowers come from this time of year, but I
know they didn't come from our house. Thank you for sharing with
us in that beautiful transformation.
The text for this
Easter Sunday is actually a sermon recorded in the 10th chapter of
Acts. A sermon given by the apostle Peter to the household of
Cornelius, who is a Roman Centurion. He has summoned Peter to his
home (keep in mind that a Jew in occupied Palestine would not turn down
a summons of a Roman Centurion). When Peter arrives there,
Cornelius relates to him a vision that he had from God -- so it comes
from even higher authority -- to summon Peter, that he might here what
he has to say.
And he says to
him: 'Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind
enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to
listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.’
It's important to
keep in mind, that at this point in the story of the development of the
early church, the church is still essentially a Sunday-school
class. Or a Sabbath-school class in the synagogue. That is,
all the members are Jewish -- there are not yet any Gentile
members. The Gentile mission, as we call it, begun by the Apostle
Paul, had not yet started. So, Peter then comes to the home of
this Gentile Roman military official and begins to speak to them and
‘I truly understand
that God shows no partiality, 35but in every
nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to
him. 36You know the message he sent to the
people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.
37That message spread throughout Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how
God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power;
how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the
devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses
to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to
death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised
him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not
to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and
who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He
commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one
ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All
the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him
receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
A preacher, wanting to impress upon his
audience the virtue of living a life free of sin, placed 4 jars on the
pulpit. And into each jar he placed a worm. And in the first
jar he poured alcohol. In the second jar, he lit a cigarette and
put it in the jar, sealed it. In the third jar he poured
chocolate. In the 4th jar, he filled with good, clean earth.
And then he began to preach, as I'm accustomed to doing, about an hour
or so (get comfortable J),
with lots of 'Amen', 'praise Jesus', 'thank you God', and at the end of
his sermon, he turned again to the jars and he pulled out the first worm
in the alcohol, and it was dead. He pulled out the second worm in
the smoke and it too was dead. He pulled out the third worm in
chocolate, tempted to eat it but he didn't J,
and it was dead. He pulled out the worm in the earth, and of
course it was alive.
And so he says to the
congregation: "What, brothers and sisters, can you learn from
this illustration?" A little old lady in the choir, I think
her name was Joanne, says (contemplating on what she had learned from
this illustration): "If you drink, smoke, and eat a lot of
chocolate, you won't have worms!" Can I hear an Amen?!
We live in a time when we are
constantly being told of what we should do with what diets we should be
on, or what foods we should avoid, what exercise we should do, the
proper etiquette for cell phone usage (I hope you have yours off), what
we should buy if we care about workers in the third world, what we
should drive if we care about the environment, how we should vote if we
care about most of anything, and today if you care about your pets you
will check the recall list before you buy pet food.
Too often, Christianity has become
something like that -- a list of do's and don'ts. As if the Bible
were merely a rule book. Or as if Jesus rose from the dead to
check on who's naughty and who's nice.
I want to suggest to you this morning
that the good news of Easter is about more than teaching us good habits,
and making us nicer neighbors. Easter is about the wonder of the
amazing grace of God. Easter is about the power of love that
cannot be sealed in a tomb. Easter is about the justice of God
that will not be buried by the power of empire. Easter is about
the transformation of the cross, a grotesque symbol of violence,
oppression and death, transformed into a thing of beauty. Of hope,
and life. Easter is about no less than God's desire, God's passion
for us in our world.
Friday this week, Good Friday, there
appeared a rather remarkable religious column in the mostly secular
editorial page of the Register Guard. Did you notice?
Written by E.J. Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post, who was
commenting on the emergence of a neo-atheism, promoted by writers such
as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who have become the new media
darlings with their very sharp attacks on religion in general and
Christianity in particular.
If you haven't read Harris' best-seller
"The End of Faith", then at least pick up the current issue of
Newsweek in which he engages in a debate with the Reverend Rick Warren,
the author of "A Purpose Driven Life" (and pastor of the large
Saddleback Church down in California). It's a good debate on the
question of the existence of God. Though I have to tell you that I
was a little frustrated with Warren in that he represented a particular
Christian viewpoint I find quite foreign to my own. For instance,
Harris gives a rational defense of evolution, and Warren simply
dismisses it saying "God in a moment created Man. If you
believe in God, you don't have a problem accepting
And I wanted to say "Wait a
second, stop, time out!" There have been 10,000 clergy in
this country, Christian and Jewish, who have signed a statement,
released last year, saying that there is no conflict, none whatsoever,
between evolution and faith. Zero. No conflict. I
signed it, as did many other clergy here in our area. It's a
project of Michael Zimmerman, you can Google it ("clergy
letter project") and read the full statement and all about
it. By the way, Zimmerman is one of the Deans at Butler University
in Indianapolis, a Disciples of Christ school founded by our church,
supported by the special offering we will receive today. So we can
be proud of that.
I'd much rather read a debate between
Harris and any one of those 10,000 clergy, because I think it would be
more interesting. But be that as it may, the Newsweek article
provides a good summary of this neo-atheism, which I believe if we do
not take seriously, and the issues it raises, then the church will
largely become irrelevant in the decades ahead. And Easter will be
little more than a hunt for colored eggs and chocolate Easter bunnies
(if that isn't what it has already become for many).
Back to Dionne and his critique of the
new religion critics. Yes, he says, much harm has been done in the
name of Christianity. But also much good. To the
neo-atheists claim of a certain arrogance that is inherent in all
religion, to claim that this or that belief is the one truth, Dionne
responds that atheists are just as capable of such arrogance. And
then he concludes the column with a quote from the book we studied last
year during Lent (about 30 of us), a
book I referred to often in my sermons during that season last year,
by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, "The Last Week". And
so Dionne quotes Borg and Crossan, saying:
"Jesus attracted a
following and took his movement to Jerusalem at the season of
Passover. There he challenged the authorities with public acts and
public debates. All this was his passion, what he was passionate
about: God and the Kingdom of God, God and God's passion for justice.
Jesus' passion got him killed."
That is why, writes Dionne in the
conclusion of his column, "despite many questions of my own, I
We all come here for many reasons, for
why we celebrate Easter. But to find such a powerful statement on
the meaning of Easter on the editorial pages of a secular newspaper,
tells me that our culture is not nearly as hostile to Christian faith as
some would claim. But then I'm not always sure our culture
"gets" what the Christian message is about: the passion
of Jesus, that got him killed by the authorities of his culture.
The story of Peter and Cornelius, told
here in Acts, is really the story of the clash of that message with the
culture then, if not now. When we here Peter preaching in the home
of Cornelius, we are not hearing just 1 sermon given on this single
occasion, but decades of preaching in many location in the early church,
boiled down to its most basic, key elements, as summarized here by the
author of Acts and placed on the lips of Peter.
Some portions of this sermon sound
familiar to us. "Everyone who believes in Jesus receives
forgiveness of sin through his name". And we nod our heads --
yeah, that's right. We've heard that sermon before.
And other parts may not be quite as
familiar to us. "God shows no partiality. In every
nation, among every people, anyone who honors God and does what is right
is entirely acceptable to God". And we tilt our heads --
huh? Yeah, I remember something like that, but we forget that many
times, don't we? Have we really thought through what that means in
our multi-cultural, multi-religious society?
And then there are parts of this
sermon, if we stop to consider the full implication, are like a bucket
of cold water in the face. It gets our attention. Did Peter
really say what I think he said? In the home of a Roman
Centurion? Now a centurion is the captain of 100 soldiers.
So this is a high officer in the Roman military system. Not
someone usually well-liked by Jews in that occupied land. And
recall, too, that a Roman Centurion was there at the cross of Jesus,
which means, there were 100 soldiers nearby ready to keep the
peace. Peace they kept with crosses on hillsides. And
further, as an officer in the Roman military, a centurion would be
required to swear allegiance to Caesar, Lord of all, the Son of God, on
the Roman throne. It is precisely here, in this centurion's home,
that Peter summarizes the good news of the gospel:
"You know the message of God, sent
to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he [not
Caesar], is Lord of all."
Now don't you wish that the author of
Acts had told us more of what happened that day? I mean, can you
imagine that after the service this Roman Centurion, loyal to Caesar,
simply shook the hand of this Jewish disciple loyal to Christ, and said
"Nice sermon, preacher"? I mean, wouldn't he have said
something like "Well, I know was Pax Romana is, because that's my
job -- to keep the peace, without violence if possible, but with brutal
violence, overwhelming violence, if necessary. So what is this Pax
Christi about?" The peace by Jesus. What does it mean
for me as a Roman soldier? What does it mean for us as
occupiers? Do I crucify insurrectionists and messiahs when
instructed to do so? How do I practice this peace by Jesus?
And we do not know Peter's response to
such a question. So let me fill in what he might have said
in the mid-first century by what another hero of the church did
say in the mid-twentieth century.
Thirty nine years ago, on Maundy
Thursday, in 1968, an assassins bullet brutally took the life of Martin
Luther King Jr. That means we have now been as long without Dr.
King in the world as he lived on it. History remembers him as the
great civil rights leader, but we often forget that the last three years
of his life were devoted as much to opposing the war in Vietnam as they
were to ending racism. The Reverend King was criticized for
speaking out against the war. It would detract from the movement,
they said. But what the critics forgot, or did not realize, was
that that movement, led by Dr. King, wasn't really about racial
equality. It was about God's justice for all people. And it
got him killed.
King said that the Nobel Peace Prize
which he received in 1964 was "a calling that takes me beyond
national allegiances. That even if it were not present, I would
yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of
Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the
making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask
why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not
know that the good news was meant for all people? For Communists
and Capitalists? For their children and ours? For black and
for white? For revolutionary and conservative? Have they
forgotten that my ministry is an obedience to the one who loved his
enemies so fully that he died for them?".
I can imagine Peter saying something
like that, can't you?
In his 1967 Christmas sermon on peace,
King preached on the inter-relatedness, the sacredness of life.
"Every person is somebody because he or she is a child of
God. When we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality,
we won't exploit people. We won't trample over people with the
iron feet of oppression. And we won't kill anybody".
Now, maybe Peter was not as direct as
that when speaking to Cornelius. Perhaps he was more
philosophical, talking to Cornelius about how to combine his power as a
Roman officer with the power of love of Jesus Christ. If so, we
can imagine something like this, again from the words of Martin Luther
King in his last address to the Southern Christian Leadership Council:
"What is needed is a realization
that power without love is reckless and abusive. And love without
power is sentimental and anemic. Power, at its best, is love
implementing the demands of justice. And justice, at its best, is
power correcting everything that stands against love".
Maybe Peter simply quoted Jesus, and
said: "Cornelius, Jesus taught us not only to love God and
neighbor, but to love our enemies. You'll have to figure out what
that means for yourself".
Whatever Peter said on that afternoon,
it's hard to imagine that this first Gentile convert to Christian faith
continued life as before. For if he had, then the transformation
of the cross means nothing. And Easter is as empty as the
tomb. So how do we know that is not the case? That we, not
the neo-atheists are right about the good news of Easter?
The wonderful Jewish biblical scholar,
Abraham Heschel, provides perhaps the best answer for Christians and
Jews and people of all faiths alike:
"The facts that deny the divine
are mighty", said Heschel, "indeed, the arguments of
agnosticism are eloquent. The events that defy God are
spectacular. Our faith is fragile, never immune to error,
distortion or deception. There are no final proofs for the
existence of God, father and creator of all. There are only
Witnesses, like Mary and the women at
the tomb. Like Peter and that other disciple. We have no
proof that Jesus rose from the dead, only witnesses that he lives in you
and me. Amen? Amen.
We have no proof that peace by Jesus is
better than Pax Romana or Pax Americana, only witnesses like Martin
Luther King, who said either we learn to live together as brothers or
sisters or we are all going to perish together as fools.
We have no proof that the justice of
God will bring an end to violence, only witnesses to the non-violence of
Christ exposing the injustices of the world.
We have no proof that love is stronger
than hate. We have no proof that hope is greater than
despair. We have no proof that life can triumph over death.
Only witnesses, called by God to testify that Christ has made such
possible for all of us.
Never, never underestimate the power of
witness, the life in Christ, and peace by Jesus.
We have no proof of the good news of
Easter. Only witnesses. Will you be one?