Monday, April 16, 2007

Crossing the Lines: Between Who He Is and Who We Are

(A sermon for the second Sunday in Easter based on Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8, & John 20:19-31)

We in the Church tend to build up a lot of momentum as we roll toward Easter Sunday and understandably so. After all, the resurrection of Jesus is the event above all events; it is the inbreaking of the power of God that has made all the difference in the lives of millions of people. Sometimes, though, we experience a post-Easter Sunday letdown. That letdown is symbolized in the name traditionally given to this first Sunday after Easter: “Low Sunday.” We use the term jokingly to refer to the fact that attendance on this Sunday is usually significantly lower than it is on Easter Sunday; the name actually refers to the fact that it is the first Sunday following the “High Sunday” that is Easter Sunday.

On the Christian calendar, the celebration of Easter does not end with Easter Sunday. In fact, there are seven Sundays in the Easter season. The reclaiming of that tradition in the worship of the church would be very valuable. It would be valuable because we need to get hold of the fact that the wonder of Easter only begins with the resurrection of Jesus. The continuing wonder of Easter is found in the changes that his resurrection instigated. The continuing power of Easter is found in what the ongoing presence of the resurrected Christ in the lives of his followers means in our lives and in our ministries.

Therefore, during this season of Easter I will be preaching a sermon series entitled “Crossing the Lines.” The series title reflects the truth that in the resurrection of Jesus some important lines were crossed. The line that was crossed that stands behind all the others about which I will talk is the line between God and us; when Jesus was resurrected, the way between God’s life and our life was thrown wide open. During this series we will look at several particular lines that were and are crossed because of the resurrection of Jesus: the line between who Jesus is and who we are, the line between life and death, the line between earth and heaven, and the line between partial community and perfect community. We begin with the line between who he is and who we are.

Who Jesus Christ is was made clear by his resurrection. The book of Revelation gushes with awe-revealing words in praise of the crucified and resurrected Lord; John offers “grace and peace” to the congregations of Asia Minor
from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood…be glory and dominion forever and ever…. Look! He is coming with the clouds…. (Revelation 1:5, 6b-7a)
Jesus is the “faithful witness” in that he lived a live of utter obedience to his Father even when that obedience led him to the cross. He showed his love for us and he released us from our sins by shedding his blood on that cross. He is the “firstborn of the dead” which means that he is the first one in a new way of life that leads to resurrection for all who will trust in him. And he is coming again to complete the victory that he has won.

The resurrection left no doubt that Jesus was the Savior who came to take away the sin of the world. The resurrection left no doubt that Jesus was endowed with the power of God over life and death. The resurrection left no doubt that Jesus was unique in that he was the Son of God who came in the flesh into this world to live out God’s plan of salvation. The resurrection tells the most important truths about Jesus.

But the resurrection also tells some most important truths about those who follow Jesus. When I was reading those verses from Revelation I left out a phrase. John also said that the crucified and resurrected Jesus “made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father…” (1:6a). In other words, we as the people of God have the privilege and the responsibility of being his ministers in the world. Through his crucifixion and resurrection Jesus has saved us, yes, but a vital aspect of that salvation is our call to service. As Peter and the apostles said to the Sanhedrin,
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…. (Acts 5:30-32a)
Peter and the apostles were witnesses in the sense of having been literal eyewitnesses of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are witnesses, too, because we have experienced the resurrected Christ in our lives and we have seen what he has done in the lives of others. We are witnesses to his presence in our lives and to the effects of his presence in the world.

Again, though, I have left out a phrase. When the apostles said “we are witnesses to these things” they went on to say “and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” The Holy Spirit bears witness to who Jesus is. How does the Holy Spirit do that? He does so in more than one way but one way in which he certainly does it is by working through us, the disciples of Jesus. According to John’s narrative, Jesus had earlier promised his disciples that when he went away the Holy Spirit would be sent to them. When he appeared to them on Easter evening in the locked room in which they were hiding, he said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then, John tells us, “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (20:21-23). It was the privilege and responsibility of the disciples to continue the ministry of Jesus; they were to be the body of Christ in the world. They would not, however, do that in their own power. They would be enabled by the presence of the very Spirit of God in their lives.

As you may have noticed, I have left out yet another phrase. After Jesus said to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he immediately continued, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:23). In other words, having had our sins forgiven by the crucified and resurrected Lord, we are in turn to be involved in the ministry of forgiveness.

Jesus’ attitudes and actions exhibited a radical forgiveness. That is exhibited most clearly when he was being crucified; he said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” We tend to try to excuse ourselves from such actions by saying something like, “Well, that was Jesus.” But you see, we have the Holy Spirit! And because we have the Holy Spirit, we have God’s help in showing forgiveness; it is his love and grace in us that enables us to forgive radically. The evangelist Stephen was able, as he was being stoned to death for his preaching of the gospel, to ask God to forgive those who were killing him not because he was such a special human being but because he was endowed with the Spirit of God.

The Holy Spirit works through us to bear witness to who Jesus is. It is because of the presence of the Spirit that the line between who Jesus is and who we are can be crossed. Don’t hear me wrong; he is Jesus and we are us. Still, we are the Body of Christ in the world. And the Spirit enables us to forgive like he forgave. The message of forgiveness is a message that we deliver with our words but also with our lives.

But make no mistake about: a radical Christian life that exhibits itself in radical forgiveness will not go over well in this world. A radical Christian life that reflects the grace of God will not go over well in this world. A radical Christian life that refuses to play by the world’s rules will not go over well in this world. But--the Holy Spirit will be with us to cause us to endure in this world. The Spirit will empower us to live an obedient life until the very end and that is what we followers of Christ really want to do.

Jesus is who he is and we are who we are. But, through the Holy Spirit, we really can be the Body of Christ in the world, living and proclaiming his message of forgiveness.

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