Secure in God’s Goodness

Acts 2

“But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’

The alleluias have faded, the lilies have wilted, the congregation has dwindled and here we are, the Sunday after Easter, wondering with the Pentecost crowd that stood before Peter in Jerusalem, now “what should we do.”

It is the same question I asked myself as I faced college graduation…What should I do next? I had always had a hunger to know God and to understand God (as though any of us really could.) In college I had become involved in an evangelical organization that spent its time and energy challenging college students to accept Jesus as their personal savior and then teaching them to share that message with others. The organization’s motivation was the belief that without accepting Jesus in this way people would spend eternity in hell. Their black and white approach to faith appealed to my need for security at a time of upheaval in my life. So I signed on to work for them after college, which I did for almost 2 years. I learned two things about myself during that time. One was that I wasn’t an evangelist and didn’t like trying to “sell” something to people I didn’t know were interested. The second thing was that I couldn’t quite believe the message that the “good news” of the Bible was that God would condemn people to an eternity in hell because they hadn’t heard the message of Jesus. As Rob Bell, who was featured last week on the cover of Time, writes in his latest book, Love Wins, what if a missionary in Africa gets a flat tire on his way to a village to preach to those who had never heard about Jesus? If he never gets there, Bell wonders, is everyone in the village condemned to an eternity without God?

That is the message that is being preached this morning throughout the world in church after church. People are hearing that Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for their sins and that those who accept this message will be saved from eternal damnation. For them the message of Easter is all about getting saved or being born again or being converted and that it is the job of every Christian to spread that message. Was that why Jesus came? Was his hope to get people to hear and accept his message so they could get into heaven? Is that the message that forms the basis of how we are supposed to live and what we are supposed to do?

In the Tribune last Sunday the main front page feature was called Radical Forgiveness. It featured Jeanne Bishop, member of Fourth Presbyterian Church and daughter of our member Joyce Bishop and sister of Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, as well as three other people who have been inspired by their Christian faith to forgive their relative’s killers. One of the four was Hannah Yoo whose father was murdered in May of 2005. She has been able to forgive her father’s killer but has not been able to forgive God for letting her father die before accepting Christ as his Savior. “‘I don’t know where his soul will be,’ [she] said. ‘My last conversation with him about his salvation didn’t give me any assurance.’” Yoo no longer is sure she believes in God.

Unfortunately this is what many people think resurrection life – the life that Jesus preached about as life in the kingdom of God is all about, making sure that they, and the ones they love, will be part of the “in” group that gets to spend eternity in heaven while millions and billions of others will be condemned to eternity in hell. Reverend Bell, who has a 7,000 member church and has been a star among evangelical preachers, has taken a big step away from this simple and what he believes is an incorrect interpretation of Jesus’ message. As a result he has received, hate-mail, and been the focus of internet-clustered heretic-hunting. In his book Bell comments, “Some Christians believe and often repeat that all that matters is whether or not a person is going to heaven. Is that the message? Is that what life is about? Going somewhere else?” Is that all that matters? Is that all we are supposed to do… challenge others to accept Jesus as their personal savior and then teach them to share that message with others. The Bible gives us an Easter message that is much deeper, more complex and demanding. If the resurrection isn’t about going somewhere else, what is it about? What is that message?

Take Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, for instance. There is nothing in it about going to heaven, nothing about hell, nothing about accepting Jesus in order to get into heaven. Peter cites Psalm 16 in order to give us an interpretive framework for any who would doubt that God raised Jesus from death and a vision of resurrection life. In Psalm 16 Peter links the story of Jesus with the confidence of David, the author of the Psalm, that there will be resurrection. Psalm 16 is a psalm of confidence that assures us, says Thomas McCreesh, that “[t]he meaning of life is to belong to the Lord, to remain in the divine presence. The gift of that presence is realized and celebrated in the resurrection.” Peter Gomes, the chaplain at Harvard who recently died put it this way, “We know that the essence of the gospel is confidence in the future, because we know who holds the future.” Because God has overcome death and holds the future, we are offered a new way to look at life and to live our lives in the present moment.

Here is what Bell says:

“resurrection announces that God has not given up on the world/because this world matters/this world that we call home/dirt and blood and sweat and skin and light and water/the world that God is redeeming and restoring and renewing/greed and violence and abuse they are not right/and they cannot last/they belong to death and death does not belong/resurrection says that what we do with our lives matters/in this body/the one that we inhabit right now/every act of compassion matters/every work of art that celebrates the good and the true matters/every fair and honest act of business and trade/every kind word/they all belong and they will all go on in God’s good world/nothing will be forgotten/nothing will be wasted/it all has its place.”

Here are some other ways of understanding resurrection. The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology states, “That Jesus was raised means basically that the final things, including the future general resurrection of [men and women], have begun to take place in advance in a single person” – in Jesus. “The core of resurrection faith is the understanding that within the context of our daily lives a “new beginning of life from God, and living a life under God, [are possible and anticipate] that human life has it in it to be as divine creation.” Gomes describes resurrection as “a chance at a new life. Our resurrection is not an old life that is brought back; it’s a new life, a new chance, a new opportunity. It is not more of the same.” Psalm 16 describes resurrection life as one where “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup,” where “ I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” and where God “shows us the path of life” and in whose “presence there is fullness of joy.” N. T. Wright says, “When Jesus emerged from the tomb, justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty rose with him. Something has happened in and through Jesus as a result of which the world is a different place, a place where heaven and earth have been joined forever. God’s future has arrived in the present. Instead of mere echoes, we hear the voice itself: a voice which speaks of rescue from evil and death, and hence of new creation.” According to another writer resurrection is, “returning to life.”

Being set on the path of life is the beginning of our post-Easter journey – set on the path God wants for us to take in the here and now, a journey where heaven and earth are joined together.

Years ago Barbara Brown Taylor led a worship service at a nursing home. She asked the residents, “What story from the Bible do you want to hear today?” Things got quiet for a moment. Then an old woman’s broken voice said, “Tell us a resurrection story.” Sometimes a story makes a point much better than attempted explanations, so I offer here a resurrection story.

In March 1994, the children’s choir at Goshen UMC in Piedmont, Alabama, was singing for the Palm Sunday service. As they sang, a massive tornado hit the church, killing nineteen people and injuring eighty-six others. Among the dead was Pastor Kelly Clem’s four-year-old daughter, Hannah. Over the next few days, Kelly performed one funeral after another, including one for her daughter. Toward the end of that awful week, Kelly began receiving phone calls from members of the congregation. Given the death of the pastor’s daughter and the destruction of their sanctuary, they asked, “Reverend Clem, are we having Easter this year?”

The day after the tornado, a reporter asked Reverend Clem if the disaster had shattered her faith. She replied: “It has not shattered my faith. I’m holding on to my faith. It’s holding me. All of the people of Goshen are holding on to one another, along with the hope that they will be able to rebuild.” Then Kelly said to the reporter, “Easter is coming.”

That Sunday morning at the Easter sunrise service, two hundred people gathered in the front yard of the destroyed facilities at Goshen UMC. With a bandage on her head, her shoulder in a brace, and her heart breaking with grief, Rev. Kelly made her way to the makeshift pulpit. She opened her Bible, looked into the faces of her traumatized congregation, and then read these words from Romans 8, “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“In life and death we belong to God” starts The Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church USA. Resurrection life is one that starts here and now when we say with the Psalmist, “You are my Lord.” Resurrection life is ours when we step onto the path of life, into the stream of God’s dream for us and for the world – the way the world was originally meant to be. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Much too often Christians jump to the misunderstanding of resurrection as a future existence and “not as the possibility of life right here, right now,” writes Karoline Lewis in The Christian Century…it is not just the death of Jesus but also the life of Jesus that brings salvation. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, through which ‘we have all received grace upon grace.’ Jesus….was not sent into the world for eternal life alone. The Word become flesh means life right here and right now. Resurrection life is new life with Jesus, lived now in the power that raised him from the dead.” Bell says it this way. “Eternal life,” what I am calling here resurrection life, “is less about a kind of time that starts when we die and more abut a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection with God. Eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts now. It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.

Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopalian preacher, wondered aloud in one of her Eastertide sermons why so many people come to church on Easter and don’t come back the Sunday after: “It occurred to me that the reason is they don’t really believe anything unusual has taken place,” [on Easter], she said. Could that be because we don’t believe the resurrection has anything to do with our lives here and now? But Jesus talked about a reality, called the kingdom of God, writes Bell, as “an all-pervasive dimension of being, a bit like oxygen for us or water for a fish, that he insisted was here, at hand, now, among us and upon us.”

We can breathe in God’s spirit and swim in the stream of eternal life here and now when we work to bring about the vision God carries for the world that began at creation in the garden. The garden hasn’t been destroyed but is hidden within the very world we live in, and it is our job to work to discover and resurrect it by the way we love one another and all of life. That is it. As Christians we are not called to sit back with a sigh of relief that heaven awaits us. Our job here and now is to live as though the resurrected Christ walks beside us, seeing the world as he sees it, leading us and encouraging us into an exciting an unknown future. That is what we are to do now in light of Easter. Amen