Sunday, March 27, 2016

Announcing the Good News - Sermon for Easter

Acts 10:34-43

“I know that my Redeemer liveth.” These words from an old Gospel song define the meaning of Easter. They serve to remind us why we gather here this morning. In fact, this is why we gather every Sunday morning. We come to celebrate the Good News that Christ our Lord is risen from the Dead. So, with joyful hearts we can sing our alleluias! 

This Easter message is not without its challenges. It appears that the idea of resurrection has gone out of style, even among Christians. It doesn’t seem to fit our modern mind set. In fact, the whole idea of the afterlife is under close scrutiny. Nonetheless, the Resurrection continues to stand at the center of the Christian faith.

When Peter went to the home of Cornelius, led by the Holy Spirit, he proclaimed a message rooted in the promise of resurrection. It is good to remember that it is the resurrection that transformed Peter’s own life. 

It was the risen Christ who commissioned Peter to preach, and it was the Spirit of the Risen Christ who sent him to the house of Cornelius to share with this gathering of Gentile seekers the message that God shows no partiality. In fact, God welcomes everyone into the fold who worships God and does what is right. 

Peter’s message to Cornelius and his household is direct and to the point. “We are witnesses,” Peter declared, of all that Jesus did in Judea and in Jerusalem. He was also a witness to the crucifixion and the resurrection, and now he came to preach the message that Jesus is the one whom God ordained to judge the living and the dead. While we might recoil at the idea of judgment, divine or otherwise, there is good news here as well. That is because Jesus is no ordinary judge. I like what Dale Allison has to say about the divine court:
For the judge isn’t the detached enforcer of some inflexible law. The judge is rather the author of the parable of the Prodigal Son; and as shepherd and savior, as advocate and physician, he’s wildly in favor of all the defendants. There’s something theologically right about the old paintings of the Last Judgment in which Michael the archangel furtively pressures the scales of justice, in order to obtain a favorable outcome. [Allison, Night Comes, p. 67]. 
As our judge, Jesus draws attention to the places where we fall short, but even as he metes out divine judgment he offers us a word of forgiveness. Allison also points out that the prophet Amos is filled with words of judgment on the people of Israel, but then ends with the promise of salvation for Israel, whose fortunes will be restored. So Allison writes: “Surely we may hope that human history will turn out to be Amos writ large” (Night Comes, p. 119).    

With this word in mind we can return to Peter’s declaration that God shows no partiality. It seems that where we tend to build walls, God removes them. In declaring that “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him,” I believe that Peter captures the message of the two great commandments: Love God with your entire being and love your neighbor as you love yourself. That is why Peter can say that even though humanity hung Jesus on the tree, God raised him from the dead, so that those who are ready to receive this message might experience the  forgiveness that Jesus offered from the cross (Luke 23:34).   

As we contemplate the resurrection, we also hear the message of God’s messianic peace. It is the peace that the prophet Isaiah spoke of when he envisioned a time when the nations would gather at the mountain of God, so that they might learn to walk in the ways of God. Yes, “for out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Is. 2:3). Then, as God judges the nations and arbitrates their concerns, they will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). This is the peace of God that is offered to us, so that we might move from scarcity, which is so often the root of war, to one of abundance.   

It seems that in every age this vision remains beyond our reach. The so-called “peace dividend” that we long for never seems to emerge into reality. The realist in me isn’t surprised. In my lifetime, there has never really been a real lull in wars and rumors of wars. While I’ve become a realist, I hear Peter inviting us to use our imaginations to envision God’s peace. If we can envision God’s peace, then perhaps we can start to live into it, even if we do so imperfectly.

When we began our Lenten journey, we heard how God called out a people from among the nations. God made a covenant with this people and  promised to bless the nations through them. Peter’s Good News is rooted in this covenant. By inviting Cornelius to embrace the Gospel, he invites this household to share in the blessings that God had poured out on Israel. Peter has begun to understand what God always intended, and that was for the covenant promise to draw in both Jew and Gentile. 

It is clear from both the Gospels and from the book of Acts that Peter was transformed by his encounter with the risen Jesus. He might have been slow to get it, but once he got it he was ready to receive the direction of the Holy Spirit. What he heard through the Spirit is that God is reaching out, welcoming everyone who will respond, into the covenant family.

We hear this message at a time when there is fear in our land, a fear of the other that leads to division and wall-building. We find it difficult to hear each other’s voices. This occurs even within the church. Yes, the covenant bonds that are rooted in the resurrection of Jesus are being strained. Peter speaks to this disease and invites us to love the God who shows no partiality so that we might love our neighbors.  

With this in mind I appreciate these words offered by Lauren Winner in her reflection on Peter’s sermon:
God wants us to be in relationship with all kinds of people. Because God loves all people, we are able – indeed called – to expose ourselves to those people too. Because God is the God of impartiality, we are called to be a people of impartiality. Because God makes peace with us and with all, we are called to make peace with other people. [Feasting on the Word, C. 2:368]. 
While none of us fully lives out this call to embrace the other, God, through the Spirit, offers us grace so that we can continue the journey into God’s peace. This peace emerges, I believe, out of the resurrection. It is this peace that empowers us to engage in interfaith dialogue and ecumenical worship. It enables us to join with others from across the region in dealing with the massive challenges of our day.  

I stand here today because of the resurrection. It is the promise of the resurrection that gives me hope for the present and for the future. As Paul reminds us, our own resurrection is rooted in that of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:12-34). Yes, “I know that my redeemer liveth,” and therefore I will live with joy and with hope. That doesn’t mean that life is without challenges. I remain confounded by the fact that bad things happen to good people. I struggle with  the fact that so many in the world continue to suffer and die. I wish that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, would be made known now and not sometime in the future. And yet, I continue to live in faith that the one whom God raised from the dead will conquer fear and death.    

This morning we come to celebrate the good news that Christ is risen. In celebrating the resurrection we embrace life in all its abundance. That means embracing life here in this reality, even as we embrace life in the next reality, whatever form it happens to take. There is more than one vision of that reality, but whatever form it actually takes, I find a sense of peace in the promise that we’re part something bigger than what we can see and hear and touch.   

To follow Jesus means stepping outside the box of respectability and embracing a journey into the unknown. This is what it means to walk by faith. Therefore, in faith in God’s promise that life overcomes death, we can declare:

Christ is risen! Shout hosanna! 
Celebrate this day of days! (Brian Wren).

Image: He, Qi. The Risen Lord, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved March 26, 2016]. Original source:

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Easter Sunday
March 27, 2016 

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